Faithful and Reforming, National Lutheran News

A woman’s vocation

Recognition that every Christian is called to act as a little Christ in every life circumstance is a powerful implication of Luther’s preaching about divine grace. However, full implementation for women’s ministry was long delayed by social conventions.

Lutheran Reformers taught that no occupation or relationship has more spiritual value than another, all people share in the priesthood of all believers. Baking bread is as honorable as consecrating bread as Christ’s body; teaching children to read is as honorable as preaching from the Bible.

This expansion of religious vocation beyond the pastor and rejection of monastic life supported a spiritualized view of the home. A Christian woman’s work as wife and mother was not second best; as a mode of faithful service to her “neighbors,” it had religious meaning. Girls were offered basic education for understanding Christian teaching and as preparation for adult work.

The revival of deaconess work in the 1830s gave women opportunities for more public service, particularly in works of love. In Pietist circles some women were lay preachers.

However, most women were expected to answer their calling in the privacy of their household. That daughters, as well as sons, might be called to preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments did not occur to the Reformers. The priesthood of all believers did not automatically open ordination to women. That reform came to some streams of the Lutheran community more than four centuries later.

As evangelical preaching was carried to North America and spread around the globe, women answered their callings, usually within domestic boundaries. The revival of deaconess work in the 1830s gave women opportunities for more public service, particularly in works of love. In Pietist circles some women were lay preachers.

By the mid-20th century, many American Lutheran women assumed new roles: serving on their church councils, assisting in worship, and staffing church agencies, as well as teaching Sunday school, singing in choirs, and participating in women’s organizations. Women’s work was expanding, both inside and outside of the church, but more quickly and more dramatically outside.

The second wave of American feminism eroded assumptions about gender roles, broke down cultural boundaries, and questioned restrictions on women’s religious activities. In the late 1960s, a few women enrolled in Lutheran seminaries of the American Lutheran Church (ALC) and the Lutheran Church of America (LCA). Their presence suggested the possibility that women with the requisite gifts and training might be called to ministry, not only as lay workers in congregations and on campuses, but as ordained pastors.

L. DeAne Lagerquist

Scandinavian and German Lutherans already ordained women, starting with Danish Lutherans in 1948. Other American Protestant churches did so earlier. The time had come for American Lutherans to explore the full practical implications of Luther’s expanded theology of vocation, to investigate qualifications for the pastoral office, and to consider opportunities for women to answer callings within and on behalf of the church.

Simultaneously, American Lutherans were exploring possibilities for closer relations and increased cooperation. Although the major church bodies — ALC, the LCA, and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) — each considered the matter internally and would make independent decisions, scholars carried out a joint study for the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A.

Addressing the barriers

Biblical, theological, ecumenical, and practical issues were considered. A summary of the joint study was widely distributed. Seminary faculty addressed the questions. Church leaders were surveyed. Church members responded. Individual opinions, variously grounded, ranged from support to opposition.

Women’s opinions about the legitimacy and advisability of women’s ordination varied. The leaders of national women’s organizations were supportive, but some women resisted or strongly opposed it. Few women were included in official deliberations.

Three women took part in the LCA’s Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of the Ministry. Wittenberg University historian Margaret Sittler Ermath contributed “Adam’s Fractured Rib,” a position paper on women in the life of the church. Texas Lutheran geologist Evelyn Streng and American Lutheran Church Women officer Margaret Barth Wold were hastily appointed to the ALC’s committee when the absence of women was noticed.

Most LCA and ALC scholars agreed that neither the Bible nor the Lutheran Confessions provide a definitive answer; the question required use of “sanctified common sense.” (The phrase is attributed to ALC President Fredrik A. Schiotz.) In contrast, LCMS leaders contended that the Bible prohibits women exercising this public office. Their position highlighted fundamental disagreements about methods of biblical interpretation and foreshadowed controversies to come.

Finally, delegates to the churches’ conventions authorized women’s ordination. The question was not brought before the LCMS. In June 1970 the LCA convention passed the change; the ALC followed in October. Fifty years after American women gained suffrage and two years before Title IX guaranteed girls greater access to sports, the door to the pastoral office was opened to American Lutheran women.

Elizabeth Platz and Barbara Andrews, the first to enter that door, did so before Christmas 1970. In the decades since, hundreds of women have responded to God’s call, using their talents and training to proclaim the gospel and serve their neighbors as ordained pastors in American Lutheran churches.

L. DeAne Lagerquist joined the St. Olaf College faculty in 1988. Currently she serves as chair of the religion department. Her teaching includes “Reading the Bible Around the World,” “Jesus on the India Road,” and “Lutheran Heritage.” She is the author of From Our Mothers’ Arms: A History of Women in the American Lutheran Church and The Lutherans.

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