The reasons I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod were complex. Whether it was the science I was taught as a child not aligning with reality or the misogynistic and racist actions of pastors and those training to be the same, or any of a number of other issues I had, these all were contributing factors. Now, I am going to spend some time on perhaps the biggest reason I am no longer part of the LCMS, which is their views on women in the church and home. This is a deeply personal subject for me, and I have numerous personal stories related to it. Names and other details may be modified for privacy.
Points of Fracture: Women in the Church, Part 1
My dad was an LCMS pastor, which meant that I’d only had a male pastor–him–my whole life. I don’t recall ever hearing anything about whether women could or could not be pastors as a young child. I met several other pastors and families, of course. My parents formed lasting friendships at seminary and many of their friends and circles they were in were LCMS pastors as well. I never really thought about the fact that all the pastors I met were men.
The first time I remember encountering anything about whether women could be pastors was in middle school, at an LCMS school. We were in small groups talking about future careers and in my group there was a girl who said she wanted to be a pastor when she grew up. Again, I’d never really thought about it one way or another that I can recall. I mentioned it to a few LCMS people in the school and was told that no, women couldn’t be pastors. It was against the Bible. Nothing could be a higher authority than that. There wasn’t an in-depth discussion of why women couldn’t be pastors, or what verses allegedly made that the case. It was just that: because the Bible says so. Carelessly, I then went back to that girl and told her she couldn’t be a pastor. Why not? Because the Bible says so. I felt a kind of righteous vindication, because I was telling her what God had said about what she could or couldn’t do. I’m sorry.
It wasn’t until college that I would have any further reflection on women pastors. After a deeply religious experience, I decided to become a pastor. Knowing the LCMS well, I knew that involved a kind of commitment to doctrinal purity. Whether it was biblical inerrancy, ordaining only men, or something else, I knew I had to be ready to fight the ways of the world when it came to these things. After the summer, I was in student leadership as a spiritual life representative–think of them kind of like Resident Assistants, but for spiritual life. We did devotions in the dorms, were there for talking, that kind of thing. I helped move the freshman in on their first day, and I met one young woman. We hit it off and decided to hang out later.
Later that week, I was at breakfast for pre-seminary students, those who were planning to go on to be pastors, and she showed up at the breakfast. I was stunned. Why… was she here? It turned out she was there because she was planning to study to become a pastor–something she was manifestly Not Supposed To Do. The series of events after that is difficult to piece together, but I know that the theological question of whether women could be pastors went from something I couldn’t be bothered to learn more about to something that I needed to be able to prove to others. I needed to be able to show that women should not be pastors.
Like some of my favorite literary characters, when confronted with a challenge to something I thought, I hit the books. And, like most people do, I hit the books on my own side to see how I could refute this belief. The first book I dove into was Women Pastors? The Ordination of Women in Biblical Lutheran Perspective edited by Matthew C. Harrison and John T. Pless. The book was published by Concordia Publishing House, the publishing arm of the LCMS. It had, in other words, a doctrinal seal of approval that meant I could trust implicitly anything that it had to say therein. I knew that this book would have the answers I was seeking. However, as I cracked the cover and skimmed through the chapters, I found some things of deep concern. While passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 were cited and used to silence women in the church, other exegesis did not align with what I was being taught about how to read the Bible.
For example, in a chapter about the Trinity in the book, I read, “Even though [God the Son] is in all ways equal to the Father and in no way inferior to the Father, he is nevertheless utterly subordinate to the Father… Christ’s relation as Son to his Father is therefore characterized by his subordination to the headship of the Father” (222-223, first edition only, the chapter by John Kleinig). This was not what I’d learned about Trinitarian orthodoxy. Indeed, it seemed to be skirting the lines of Arianism. I was strongly put off. Much later, I’d learn that this chapter was either removed or heavily edited in a subsequent edition. At the time, I was shaken. If this was the kind of thing that got past official doctrinal review, what would it mean for other doctrinal issues?
Of course, this hardly caused a collapse of my position. Other chapters seemed more solid in their approach, and I felt like I was armed to show people, especially this young woman, why women shouldn’t be pastors after all. I don’t recall exactly how our discussion played out, but I do know it didn’t escalate into an outright argument. She decided to switch from the pre-seminary program to a different one, and I thought that’d be the end of it.
It wasn’t. The question was opened in my mind. It was even more open because I realized there were people who appeared to be faithful Christians who nevertheless believed women should be ordained and, shockingly, there were even ordained women pastors who weren’t clearly working to undermine Christianity at every step. I know this reads dramatically, but this is truly the way I thought, and certainly the way many pastors and others I interacted with thought about women pastors. The Bible, it is assumed, is simply so clear on whether women can be pastors that anyone who disagrees and even engages in the opposite practice absolutely must be some kind of heretical person or someone actively working to try to discredit Christianity. But because the question had been opened, I couldn’t just drop it. I kept investigating, despite the fact that the woman I was dating had changed course. This wasn’t the kind of thing I could just drop and leave aside. The very question of whether God was calling women into the ministry was at stake. If I really believed that God wanted to keep one half of the human population from even being possibly called by the Holy Spirit, I wanted to be sure that I was supremely confident that I was right.
I kept reading the Women Pastors? book, but became more and more disillusioned with the LCMS arguments against women pastors. Contradictory arguments abounded, and the exegetical principles used to conclude women couldn’t be pastors were simplistic even by the standards I was being taught in LCMS pre-seminary classes. It was like the pastors and theologians who’d written the book had abandoned things like the historical grammatical method when it came to this one issue. I began to start asking questions, mostly in private, about the LCMS teaching on women pastors, but was met with either horror or a blanket statement about how clearly the Bible taught against it.
It’s worth a brief aside here at how often people–including more than one pastor–would try to silence the questions I was asking about women pastors or other issues by quoting Satan in the Garden of Eden: “Did God really say?” [Genesis 3:1]. This was used time and again as an answer to any questioning of the LCMS’s supposedly clear and exclusively biblical teachings. So, when it came to Genesis 1-3 and I pointed out that it seemed to be based upon ANE myths while turning them on their heads to refute aspects of them, not a literal, blow-by-blow account creation, I was told that I was like Satan in saying “Did God really say” that creation happened a certain way. When I asked about whether a verse truly taught what I was told it did, I was again questioning not the interpretation, but the word of God itself: Did God really say what the LCMS said it did–oops–what the Bible says God did? This clobber passage in context, of course, isn’t intended the way these pastors and others were using it at all. Indeed, the phrase itself is ripped from the middle of a sentence from the serpent’s mouth in which he was asking specifically about whether God had told them not to eat from any tree in the garden. The way the passage was being used against me was abusive and did cause trauma. Imagine being told that you’re just like Satan, tempting others with your nefarious questions just because you genuinely care about and want to know what the Bible says. It’s terrible.
My questioning would continue as I kept reading more about the topic, but while I was no longer convinced the Bible taught women shouldn’t be pastors with certainty, I was also unconvinced by arguments that women should or could be pastors. I was stuck in a kind of confused middling view. It was deeply uncomfortable, and not just because the woman I was dating had agreed to change her life based upon my discomfort. No, the very way God worked to call people to the ministry was at question, and I struggled to find any reason why God wouldn’t call women apart from a trite “The Bible says God doesn’t do that” type of answer. But did the Bible say that, or did it only read that way if one adopted the overly-simplistic hermeneutic I saw time and again in LCMS works on the topic–a hermeneutic that was different from the one I was being taught in LCMS classrooms? It was a question that would loom larger soon.
Next Time: Women in the Church, Part 2
There had to be some kind of reason why women weren’t called to the ministry. Only in some older LCMS works or references to earlier Christian teaching on the topic would I find any kind of answer.
 I wrote more about this same phenomenon when it came to young earth creationism. Time and again, despite being told to read the Bible contextually and take care to try to find the original meaning, the historical sense, etc., I did not find that reading reflected in LCMS teaching or reading of various texts. And, when I challenged those readings, I was told that I was challenging the text itself.
 I have been critically reviewing the Women Pastors? book chapter-by-chapter. Not all of the issues I raise with it in my reviews were ones I realized at the time I’m writing about now, but the more one reads the book, the more one realizes the poorly argued nature of it. See also note 1 above and the link therein about how I found on other issues the hermeneutical method I was being taught and the one actually being used did not align.