Ordaining Women Goes to the Heart of the Gospel

Following is a script from a presentation given by Dr. Karen Bloomquist for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cameroon in 2009. The statistics cited are from that time period.

[1] Since 1984 the clear official position of the Lutheran World Federation has been in favor of the ordination of women. Now, approximately 63 million, out of a total of 68 million members, belong to LWF member churches that do ordain women. Some Lutheran churches have been doing so for as far back as 80, 50 or 40 years, but many have only begun doing so in the past 20 years.

[2] Now there are several thousand Lutheran women who are ordained pastors (the estimated total in just Germany and the USA is over 10,000), including about 30 who serve as bishops or church presidents. In many Lutheran-related theological institutions today, about half of the students are women. The increasing number of women in the ordained ministry is one of the most dramatic shifts globally in Lutheran churches in the past few decades. It no longer is an abstract issue but a living reality throughout the Lutheran communion, which is the starting point for the communiqué affirmed earlier this year by the LWF Council: “The Ongoing Reformation of the Church: The Witness of Ordained Women Today.”

[3] Where there is hesitation or opposition to ordaining women, four factors typically are involved:

1. HISTORICAL LEGACIES from churches and mission societies that first established and continue to support churches here in Africa. This especially includes interpretations of the Bible and ways of being church that they have passed on, sometimes in opposition to positions of their own churches. Such interpretations deeply affect how we read Scripture to legitimize positions that may have been arrived on other grounds. As Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro has written:

Whether or not to ordain woman has depended largely on the practices, visions and wish of the ‘mother church,’ as well as the local perception of leadership in society, access to theological education, and interpretation of received traditions.

2. TRADITION – what is customary in a society or a church, which of course for much of church history has not included women as pastors. Theological or biblical arguments against the ordination of women typically are lodged here. However, in the New Testament, there are many accounts in which Jesus over-turned traditions and practices of his time, especially in how he an observant Jew related to women. Similarly, Martin Luther freed people from being bound to tradition, as represented by the Catholic Church of the time, especially when tradition hindered being faithful to God’s freeing Word of the gospel. Since the Reformation, basing something on “tradition” has been theologically suspect for Lutherans.

3. CULTURE is often set forth as a reason for not ordaining women. Certainly it is important that the gospel be inculturated or contextualized in a given culture. A culture sustains a people and therefore is good, but it also can protect or legitimize sinful practices, such as excluding or abusing those who are female. Those who are abused by cultural assumptions and practices usually are not those who defend the factor of “culture.” For Christian, culture can never be the last word, but is continually being transformed in light of the gospel.

3. GENDER refers to expected roles for women and men that are constructed and reinforced through culture. This is also reflected in many passages of Scripture, in which male-dominant gender understandings prevailed in patriarchal cultures that were the context when these passages were written. The problem is that these assumptions about the relationships and appropriate roles between males and females — which are human constructions — often are mistaken as being the will of God for all time.

[4] POWER is a central theme running through each of the above factors, often in covert rather than in obvious ways. Matters of power are perhaps the most pervasive reason why those who hold power in churches have excluded women from the ordained ministry. Here the reference is to understandings of power as control or domination over others, a fixed quantity, something that “I” will have less of if someone has more. There are of course other understandings of power that is shared with others, and thus empowering. According to the New Testament, Jesus himself lived out and referred to much different ways of understanding and living out power. The inclusive power of the Spirit of the Risen Christ empowers the church and its ministry at its best. Yet, as we are painfully aware, conflicts over power, who has it and how it is used, are all too painfully present in the church, as expressions not of God’s will but of human sin.

[5] Instead of discussing these factors further here, I propose that the key factor against which all the other factors need to be assessed is what it means to be the church, and especially what is central for Lutherans: the GOSPEL. My main contention is that the church betrays the heart of the gospel if it prohibits women from being ordained to the public ministry.

[6] The main basis for this claim is that according to all four of the Gospels, the first to witness and proclaim the good news of Christ’s resurrection were women. According to a Lutheran understanding, proclaiming the gospel and presiding over the Lord’s Supper the central tasks for which some are ordained for the church’s public ministry. Then why, for so many centuries of church history, were women not being ordained to the public ministry of the church?

[7] For much of the history, women simply didn’t seem to matter. They have been uneducated, and excluded from public roles. The ministries women were carrying out, although extraordinarily important to those affected, were often overlooked by the official church authorities or leaders. Women in monastic communities were carrying out pastoral and ministerial functions in many quiet ways, and sometimes more openly, including through table fellowships similar to the Lord’s Supper.

[8] Even in Roman Catholic communities of women today, many are carrying out roles and responsibilities associated with clergy — pastoral care, administering parishes, theological reflection, spiritual life, etc. Male priests are brought in only to celebrate the Eucharist, – as if this is the only “holy” act that matters in the life of the community! If the Eucharist is central to what it means to be the church, why do some churches still prohibit women from celebrating it, other than for reasons of keeping a monopoly on such life-bestowing power? This is not just a problem of Catholics. In 2004, I was a part of a meeting in Abuja Nigeria of Lutheran women pastors and leaders, many of whom were ordained, but because it was in the midst of a large women’s fellowship of a church that does not ordain women, a male pastor was brought it to celebrate Holy Communion!

[9] In general we can say that the more institutionalized and hierarchical the church became, especially after the second century, the more women became marginalized, excluded, prohibited. This is reflected, for example, in some of the later New Testament letters. The gospel soon became confused with patriarchy, with issues of power, patriarchy, social control and order, even in the some passages of St. Paul, who at best insisted that in Jesus Christ the distinctions between male and female no longer are what matter (Gal. 3:28).

[10] Need to have honest discussion about how these are often what is at stake as part of our consideration of the ordination of women.

– In other words, the reasons women were excluded from ordination were not for biblical or theological reasons, but for the kinds of reasons that can and must be questioned if not challenged on theological grounds – as if hierarchical power is what the ordained ministry is about! Societal notions of power are applied to the church, rather than the church challenging how power operates in societies and culture. Such a challenge is grounded not in secular reasons, but in what Jesus said and how he related to the people and cultural norms of his day. He called for the first being last, for not being ruled over. As a church of the Reformation, we especially should be focused on the ongoing reformation of the church when it falls into patterns of control and use of power that go against this. As said by Anna Mghwira, a Tanzanian woman theologian who never was able to become a pastor, “In Africa today, we need believers to become pastors more than we need to guard special positions for pastors.”


[11] A quote from the LWF HIV AIDS handbook (p. 36): “Instead of identifying with those considered respectable or “holy” Jesus reached out to people who were weak, sick, lowly, and socially outcast. This included those who were…looked down upon because of their gender or class. He often challenged people’s cultural and religious assumptions with words such as “You have heard it said, but I say to you….”

– Consider how he related to the Samaritan woman (John 4)….she is the first to proclaim him to be the Messiah!

– He went against the powerful force of TRADITION, countering what is appropriate for women to do. Were Mary and Martha only in the kitchen, or were they also engaging in a theological discussion with Jesus? Women dared to approach Jesus, one of whom even argued with him. Again and again, she refused to give in to traditions that prescribed how religious Jews should relate to women outside their family.

– Jesus called people to follow him…..and although it was 12 male disciples who are referred to in Scripture, it also is evident that a number of women also were among his followers. In Luke 8, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna are others are mentioned. And it was Mary who stayed with him in his death, after all the men had left.

– Who counts? Who is counted? Five thousand were fed, not counting the women and children. We need to be suspicious about those who were not publically accounted for, but probably were there, carrying out the work of ministry in unsung, unnoted ways, as continues to be the case today.

Thus, who authorizes the ordination of women? Jesus himself! Admittedly, he didn’t actual ordain or authorize the ordination of any men either. This was a further development in the early church when there was felt to be the need for to order the ministry – so that not everyone could stand up and claim to lead the congregation (as in some churches today). When certain kinds of order were adapted by the early church, they drew upon rules and orders (especially men over women) that were drawn from cultural understandings, but not from the gospel itself. Many of these rules contradicted what Jesus had taught, as reflected in the Gospels. Jesus went beyond the social expectation of gender and tradition in his day (“you have heard it said, but I say to you”). Women as well as men were moved by the Spirit to discern a call to proclaim and embody the gospel (through word and deed). – And because this is at the heart of what the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ is about – it violates this gospel if women are barred from the public ministry of the church. And what could be central than that, especially for Lutherans?


[11] Gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, of God’s unmerited grace, for us, not just then but now. According to Douglas John Hall: “gospel” is not a fixed, unchanging formula of truth, but “news” expressed in a way that we have not quite heard before and that is addressed to our situation in such a way that it becomes “good news.” It comes from outside of us, is addressed to us and our situation today. It speaks to what is occurring in a given context and alters what was oppressive and predictable, bringing in a sense of surprise, wonder and gratitude. It is evocative, as any proclamation of gospel should be, rather than the “the gospel” being turned into something predictable, formulaic, rote and devoid of tension between the present and the future. It is not just repeating familiar words. It breaks into our present at those very points where we are overwhelmed with a sense of what is wrong with the world and ourselves (the Law). It displaces the bad news. “‘Gospel” so engages us, offering us an alternative reality (forgiveness, liberation, transformation), so that we cannot remain with the bad news, but must respond, act, move on. This is powerfully exemplified in the post-Resurrection accounts in Luke’s Gospel–the women at the empty tomb, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and in Acts, the subsequent early gatherings of the church.

[12] Gospel is not a permanent body of truth – yes, it is grounded in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — but it must be discovered in relation to each time and place, there to enter deeply enough into the trials and suffering in order to hear gospel which is discovered, not possessed. This discovery happens as communities begin to comprehend what is going on, to name this honestly, without pious platitudes, without trying to keep control over the way things have been, and with openness to receiving what God promises. The gospel transforms our assumptions, attitudes, and prejudices. Christ’s unconditional love is often too radical for us to accept, much less for us to live out in relation to others. It cannot be confused with what is discriminatory, abusive, or oppressive.

[13] The gospel is surprising. In my first pastorate in California, in a very secular culture where typically had quite a fixed and negative image of clergy, my very presence brought in a moment of surprise. I was not what people expected to see. Gospel was being in people’s joys and sorrows, being with the women cooking the food in the church kitchen, who in the past never expected that the male pastor would be there with them (other than to eat the food). I was one of them, who they were and what they did mattered. The ordinariness of life that is sanctified, set apart, becomes a means, like water, bread and wine, through which gospel is proclaimed, experiences.

[14] Gospel is a sense of God’s grace and presence being in the midst of the ordinariness of life – this especially comes through in Luther (who spoke of his changing his child’s diapers when talking about the Incarnation). It’s in what women as well as men do, not as a hierarchical authority figure, but as one who accompanies them, unfolds the meaning of the faith in their midst — as did Jesus — rather than speaking down to them from a pedestal (recall how often Jesus critiqued the Pharisees).


[15] The holy is often thought of as what is set apart, the boundaries between what is sacred and profane. This is not consistent with Luther, who refused to think of any arena of life as devoid of God’s presence. Nevertheless this sense of certain things or activities as being unholy or taboo still persists. Many of these boundaries related to the body, especially women’s bodies, sexuality and procreative functions.

[16] One of the members of the first congregation I pastored was an elderly woman from a Russian Orthodox background. The Orthodox have a strong sense of what is holy and what is not; the front of the church is only for the priests, but also strict prohibitions against women “polluting” this holiest part of the church during their menstrual period. Yet because she could not get to her Orthodox church, she faithfully attending the Lutheran church every Sunday, regularly receiving the sacrament from me, a young woman, whom (unknown to me) she suspected might be “polluting” the space and elements that she, a deeply pious Orthodox women, considered “holy.” After two years, as she was about to go into the hospital for surgery, she came to me in a deeply penitential mood: “Pastor, I have been coming to worship, and receiving Communion for all this time, but with resistance to accepting you as my “priest” — but now that I have come to know you, and to experience you being a pastor to me, those boundaries are disappearing. I beg for your forgiveness.” I don’t think I personally have ever been as deeply touched by the power of God’s Spirit to transform age-old taboos.

[17] Taboos are strong in many cultures. They provide a sense of order, directions on how to function and what to expect. But they can also perpetuate injustices and abuses, e.g., toward those living with HIV and AIDS. In the LWF HIV/AIDS handbook we can read: Any interpretation and representation of biblical texts that encourage stigma and discrimination must be challenged and reinterpreted. What did Jesus do? He reached out and touched those treated as outcasts, he asked the despised Samaritan woman at the well to give him a drink, to those considered to be public sinners, he said “follow me.,” to the woman considered ritually impure he declared, “your faith has made you well. (Mt 9:22)”

[18] Taboos often are gender-related, particularly with relation to women’s bodies (as if men are not also bodies). Taboos become a basis for moral judgment, in distinct contrast to how Jesus related to people. They lead us to try to separate the righteous from the unrighteous.

Taboos operate at deeply emotional levels that cannot be countered through rational arguments. Those who have often been stigmatized because of taboos, or discriminated against in society, may in reality be those through whom the message of God’s free grace and transformative love especially breaks through. In this sense, because of the many taboos associated with women in most cultures, they may be those especially qualified to be public proclaimers of the transforming gospel, as ordained pastors.

[19] The Sacraments – Baptism and Holy Communion – are especially where ordinary things become extraordinary or “holy.” Bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, transforming us into his presence in the world of our ordinary daily life. Pastoral ministry involves entering into the intimate arenas of life where people are most vulnerable, and doing so as public spokespersons for God, whose ultimate vulnerability was revealed on the cross. On the one hand, women have long been doing this – being with people in their weaknesses and unvarnished vulnerability – but this needs to become a public ministry, which is what ordination is about. Making public how God is transforming our lives and world. Women as well as bearers and proclaimers of this grace of God.

[20] If gender equality is part of what it means to be created in the image of God, and we value the skills, gifts and abilities of all, regardless of their gender, then it is an offense to God and to many people in church and society to restrict women who feel so called to serve in the ordained ministry of the church.

[21] As one Australian woman wrote in 1994, “Discrimination on the basis of gender does not enhance the gospel or comment on it as good news. It does not honor Jesus Christ, but rather, is a stumbling block, a scandal made by human decisions, not God’s.”

Karen L. Bloomquist

Karen Bloomquist, ordained in 1974, has served as pastor of Lutheran congregations in CA, NYC, WA, and after completing her PhD at Union in NY, has been on faculties in Chicago, Dubuque and Berkeley, as well as director of departments in the ELCA and the LWF.  She also has taught at seminaries throughout the world, and has authored or edited many publications. She currently is a theologian-at-large, and lives in  both WA and CA.