Reflections from 45 Years of Ordaining Women


[1] When, during my tenure with JLE, some internet blogger referred to me as the “editrix” of JLE, I was baffled and uneasy. Given the context I was pretty sure it was not intended to be a compliment, and I found the vaguely sexual overtones kind of creepy. A few years later Nadia Bolz-Weber named her first book “Pastrix,” and from the definition given on the book jacket I concluded that my intuition was correct. I stand in awe of Pastor Bolz-Weber’s literary acuity, calling women-despisers (misogynists) out and owning their puerile insult all in one bold stroke. ​

[2] We live in an era where the frontrunner presidential candidate is free to insult in public a woman who challenges him by insinuating that she is menstruating. And people continue to support him. In large numbers. Not only is misogyny part of private discourse, it can apparently be part of successful public invective and public persona. As we move to commemorate the 45 years the church has allowed women to be ordained to public ministry in the ELCA, and celebrate the fact that this church is led by a female presiding bishop, our nation’s political discourse reminds us of just how far we are from gender parity in our country. And let’s recall that in many LWF member churches, women are still not ordained to public ministry.

[3] This Journal marks the 45th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA by re-publishing three essays from past issues. Kirsi Stjerna studies women’s theologies of the Reformation. It happens to be the 46th anniversary of John Stumme’s writing for the Lutheran Church in Argentina on the topic of women’s ordination from a confessional perspective. Karen Bloomquist addresses the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cameroon with the broadest scope of the three essays.

[4] The Reformation was a mixed blessing to women, advocating for their basic education in order to allow them to pass on the faith.  At the same time it directed them back exclusively to the private sphere of the household while the Roman church had allowed at least some women the educated and public status of nun. Kirsi Stjerna finds that women who attained any degree of advanced education were considered “disruptive,” and if a woman found herself able to publish, her writing would be by definition less valuable than that of a man.

[5] Out of such an environment where women are excluded from the public sphere come our confessional documents. John Stumme begins his 46-years-young-essay by pointing out that the Confessions were written “in a men’s world,” and though they presuppose ordination of men exclusively, they do not defend it. He points out that there is nothing prohibiting the ordination of women in the Confessions, and that we should not read the Confessions in hopes of finding “concrete directives for every situation.” He shifts our focus away from the person of the minister and onto the function of the minister:

(I ask why does one focus on his masculinity and not on the fact that he was a Jew or that he had brown eyes or long hair. Could it be an argument to maintain the privilege of men?) The Confessions do not demonstrate interest in underscoring Jesus’ masculinity in this way and in fact block this line of thinking with their functional understanding of the ministry.

Ultimately, Stumme decides that “limiting the special ministry to men seems to be more for cultural reasons than doctrinal ones.” Stumme’s argument paves the way for Karen Bloomquist to make her argument decades later.

[6] Karen Bloomquist begins where Stumme concludes, naming culture, historical legacies, gender, and power as the primary reasons women are excluded from ordination. The reason they should be ordained, she says, is because of the role women played in witnessing and proclaiming the resurrection of Christ in all four Gospels. At last, decades after the discussion begins, arguments can be constructed that center around why women should be ordained. It’s not just for the sake of our gender that women should be ordained. It’s for the sake of the gospel. It’s for all that women bring to the church, and all that is lost when prohibiting them from entering into the public sphere.

[7] To move from John Stumme’s essay from 1980, where he must carefully craft a case that women’s ordination is not precluded by the Confessions, to Karen Bloomquist’s essay, where she is free to put aside cultural claims in favor of a gospel directive, is to witness an enormous shift from being allowed to defend the ordination of women to demanding that it be celebrated. Now, if only the ordination of women in public ministry were celebrated in every sphere of the church. 

[8] There is still so much work to be done on this topic for our sisters and brothers in LWF member churches, and for ELCA members. As a white, educated woman from an upper middle class background, I have far, far less to contend with than my sisters in the ministry who are people of color. I can only imagine the degree to which other women have been called disruptive merely for taking their places in the public sphere, or relegated to less than, because of their race, gender, or class. Forty-five years and an inspiring and accomplished female presiding bishop later, and sometimes it feels like we have barely made a dent. Come, Holy Spirit…

Kaari Reierson is the founding editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and is the Chair of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics Advisory Council.

 ​© March 2016
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 16, Issue 3