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Egalitarianism, theology

“Women in the History of the Church” by William Weinrich in in “Women Pastors?” edited by Matthew C. Harrison and John T. Pless -a critical review

I grew up as a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a church body which rejects the ordination of women to the role of pastor. The publishing branch of that denomination, Concordia Publishing House, put out a book entitled Women Pastors? The Ordination of Women in Biblical Lutheran Perspective edited by Matthew C. Harrison (who is the current President of the LCMS) and John T. Pless. I have decided to take the book on, chapter-by-chapter, for two reasons. 1) I am frequently asked why I support women pastors by friends, family, and people online who do not share my position, and I hope to show that the best arguments my former denomination can bring forward against women pastors fail. 2) I believe the position of the LCMS and other groups like it is deeply mistaken on this, and so it warrants interaction to show that they are wrong. I will, as I said, be tackling this book chapter-by-chapter, sometimes dividing chapters into multiple posts. Finally, I should note I am reviewing the first edition published in 2008. I have been informed that at least some changes were made shortly thereafter, including in particular the section on the Trinity which is, in the edition I own, disturbingly mistaken. I will continue with the edition I have at hand because, frankly, I don’t have a lot of money to use to get another edition. Yes, I’m aware the picture I used is for the third edition.

“Women in the History of the Church: Learned and Holy, But Not Pastors” by William Weinrich

First, the subtitle of this chapter leads us to some expectations. Minimally, I expect Weinrich to offer a definition of “pastor” that can be established from the Bible. Second, I expect Weinrich to firmly establish that the many, many, many women in church history and the Bible who occupied several roles in leadership did not occupy that office that he ought to define: the pastor. This means we need a very clear definition of what it is to be a pastor so that we can say person A is a pastor, and person B is clearly not. So, for example, if “pastor” means “someone who preaches sermons in worship,” I expect the author to establish that definition in the Bible, and show that women did not do that and that men did. I want to reiterate the section introduction for this and following chapters made a number of far-reaching claims about women, pastors, and church history. I have written on those claims here, so we can evaluate whether this and other chapters establish them.

After a very brief survey of a few books about women in church history, Weinrich starts the chapter off by going through different things women did do in the church. He offers a brief look at the ministry of deaconess which developed over time, especially in the east (110-112). The deaconess was “an ordained member of the clergy” (112). A few individuals are surveyed as well. In more modern times, he notes that Deaconesses operated in a number of functions, especially in the Anglican church (113-114). Then, Weinrich offers a short look at women’s contributions to the intellectual and literary heritage of the church. This section includes a look at the hymnody of the church and how women have written much of them. “Christian women have exercised spiritual power in many ways,” notes Weinrich in the next section, noting women as martyrs and their prayerful power in church history. He notes prophetic figures in the early church (121-122) and through the Middle Ages. Here is one of the few parts in these sections where Weinrich makes an effort to show that though these women did all these wonderful things, they weren’t fully included in leadership. He writes, “…it is doubtful whether one can speak meaningfully of the ‘egalitarianism of the double monasteries’…” apparently because “the abbesses had no espicopal power and no power to excommunicate or to administer the sacraments” (123). Protestantism has a rich history of women of faith as well, including women preaching and being involved in outreach, making colleges for the training of pastors, and the like (see esp. his discussion of the Wesleyan tradition on 125).

It is not until the next section of the chapter that Weinrich turns his argument around. Having noted that women were involved in services of prayer, charity, pastoral roles such as helping the widows or even having the “office” of widow, that women have deeply influenced and shaped the theology of the church through their writings of both theological treatises and their hymns that continue to teach the laity and guide worship, that women were involved in religious orders in extraordinary ways and that their spiritual power and administration is to be lauded, he now decides that women, though, ought not to be pastors. Why the turnabout? Well, Weinrich puts it: “until the very recent past, the ‘office’ of teaching and of the sacramental ministry, with the jurisdictional powers this implies, has been reserved for men.” The snarky side of me here would like to quote Rev Tevye “Fiddler on the Roof” and say we have now found the reason: “Tradition!” Indeed, Weinrich even notes “anomalies” throughout church history in which women did occupy these roles, but they’re relegated to “anomalies” apparently because they don’t match the tradition Weinrich prefers to enforce.

Weinrich goes on, quoting people in church history who used 1 Timothy 2:12 to restrict women from teaching. He also once again allows the ugly head of Gnosticism to take over, arguing that it is because of the Gnostics (here, as in the chapter on Gnosticism, apparently categorized as a single, holistic unit despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that women were originally allowed to be teachers or ministers. Weinrich then surveys a number of other instances throughout church history in which women did serve in sacramental ministry or teach with an eye for showing how often it was decried by others in the church. Once again, the echoing cry of “Tradition!” appears to be the response to whether women may be allowed in this function. He ends with a note that “It has been only in the last half of the twentieth century that the major Protestant church bodies have begun to accept women as regular preachers and pastors” (134-135). Again, apparently because this does not match with the traditions in the church, we are to accept on face value that women ought not to occupy these roles.

At the beginning, we asked whether Weinrich would define the role of pastor. The closest he gets is to say that it is the “office” of teaching and of the sacramental ministry. The definition is vague enough so as to be effectively useless, particularly when he has already noted that women served in prophetic roles, as teachers through hymns and theological treatises, occasionally as serving the sacraments (though this was denounced–tradition must get its say), caring for the poor, founding colleges that trained pastors, becoming martyrs, and many, many more active duties related to the church.

Finally, going back to the questions this section must answer to satisfy the claims of the editors, let’s evaluate this chapter.
Claim 1: “The practice of ordaining women to the pastoral office is a novelty in the history of the church.” (107)

This claim is actually directly falsified because Weinrich notes how very early on women were engaged in this practice, even if he does relegate them to “Gnostics” or other “anomalous” groups.

Claim 2: “Fueled by theological movements that set the charismatic distribution of the Spirit in opposition to an established office, the emerging equalitarianism of the feminist movement, historical criticism’s distrust of the biblical text, and in some cases a pragmatism that saw the ordination of women as a way to alleviate the clergy shortage… many Protestant denominations took steps to ordain women.” (ibid)

This claim may be true, though Weinrich doesn’t do much to support it. For example, he doesn’t blame historical criticism for women pastors and acknowledges that some groups did this practice long before “historical criticism” was a category of thought.

Claim 3: The women who are noted in the history of the church “were holy and learned but never pastors” (referencing an upcoming chapter’s claims).

Falsified by Weinrich’s “anomalies” in the history of the church. “Never” is a universal negative.

Claim 4: “Ordination of women is a monumental turn in the history of the Church.” (107)

It has existed since very early on in the history of the church, as Weinrich notes, though he relegates them to anomalies.

Claim 5: “[Ordination of women] puts those church bodies that practice it on dangerous ground, for it indicates that they are out of step not only with two thousand years of Christian history but with the will of the Lord of the Church.” (Ibid)

It is difficult to see what relevance this chapter even has in regards to this claim.

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Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

Interpretations and Applications of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35– Those wondering about egalitarian interpretations of this passage can check out this post for brief looks at some of the major interpretations of the passage from an Egalitarian viewpoint.

SDG.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

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