Women and the LCMS Church
First off, I wish to preface this article by stating that this is not a diatribe against the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. I have the utmost respect for the LCMS Church; while I do not agree with them on all issues, such as evolution, my husband, mother, and sister are all members of the LCMS Church, and I spent thirteen spiritually-enriching years in the LCMS Church before becoming Catholic. The focal point of this article, rather, is the examination of some of the issues that led to the ousting of Dr. Rev. Matthew Becker, a theology professor at the Lutheran Valparaiso University.
The LCMS President Matthew Harrison ordered the ousting of Dr. Becker this past week, after investigations on charges that Dr. Becker taught and supported beliefs contrary to LCMS doctrine, primarily the ordination of women and theistic evolution.
As a note, I took Dr. Becker’s online class on Creation in 2011. This class taught nothing contrary to the Gospel, and rather promulgated ideas similar to the Catholic Church’s stance on theistic evolution, the Bible, and science. I’ve written previously for Conciliar Post, in both my own articles and for round table discussions, on theistic evolution, so for this article I will focus on the other charge against Dr. Becker, the ordination of women.
I am a woman, and yet I am not a proponent of female ordination. The Catholic Church does not ordain women. Yet for both myself personally and for my Church, the stance on women’s ordination is much different than that officially held by LCMS Church (although not by many of its members). For Catholics, the Church is simultaneously Marian and Petrine. The Petrine role is the clergy, a role which is held by a man. Women, while they cannot be ordained, are by no means limited in their roles. Without the Marian or Petrine elements, without the complementary roles of men and women, the Church would struggle to fully represent the faith.
If anything demonstrates this, it is the communion of saints, especially the Doctors of the Church. The Doctors of the Church is a designation given to saints whom significantly influenced Catholic theology. Four of the Doctors of the Church are women: Saints Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, and Hildegard of Bingen. Women occupy a wide range of roles in the Church: theologians (Saint Catherine of Siena), mothers (the Blessed Virgin and Saint Monica), social activists (Dorothy Day), scholars (Saint Edith Stein), queens and princesses (Saint Adelaide and Elizabeth of Hungary), evangelists (Saint Mary Magdalene), and soldiers (Saint Joan of Arc). For women in the Catholic Church, there is an endless list of examples of how to live out your Christian faith without a role in the priesthood.
Remove this communion of saints and the role of women in the Church becomes much tricker. If you follow sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), you find that women are banned from speaking in the Church and must be subordinate to the authority of men. These passages can be difficult to interpret in our modern context, which is vastly different than the Second Temple Judaism/Roman Empire context in which Saint Paul wrote these epistles. With tradition and the communion of saints, we learn that these prohibitions should not limit the role of women in the life of the Church. Saint Catherine of Siena certainly did not subordinate and silence herself when she showed up in Avignon and fiercely (and effectively) urged the pope to return to Rome.
Without this tradition, and with a strict adherence to the most literal interpretation of Scripture, the role of women in the Church can become limited. Take, for example, how the Wisconsin Synod of the Lutheran Church has denied suffrage to their female members. Only men may vote in church councils. While the LCMS Church permits women to vote, this right was only bestowed upon them in 1969.
It extends beyond that: according to the “Women in the Church: Scriptural Principles and Ecclesial Practice” on the LCMS website, women should be discouraged from assisting in the service of communion. “The commission strongly recommends that, to avoid giving confusion regarding the office of public ministry and to avoid giving offense to the church, such assistance be limited to men.” While many Lutheran churches permit this, there are others that even prevent women from reading Scripture during a worship service, based on the teaching of St. Paul that women must be silent in church.
So what should the role of women be in the LCMS Church? That is not for me, as a woman who left the LCMS Church, to answer. But, as I write this on the Feast Day of Saint Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, a woman who did not remain silent or subordinate when it came to preaching the Gospel, I urge all of us, regardless of denomination, to look backward as well as forward when we discuss the role of women in the church.