Women Preachers: An Apocalyptic Image of the Kingdom of God

[1] Perhaps it is easy to imagine that providing a theological and scriptural rationale for women in ministry is no longer necessary.  Perhaps it is easy to imagine that in 2020, fifty years after the Rev. Elizabeth Platz was ordained, the first female pastor in a Lutheran body in the United States and one year after the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton was overwhelmingly re-elected on the first ballot for a second term as Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, the resistance to women in ministry in our church has disappeared.  Or, at the very least, that it has gone underground.  This would be easy to imagine, but it would not be true. “We deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)

[2] In the five years leading up to the fiftieth anniversary of women’s ordination in the ELCA’s predecessor bodies I interviewed eighty-five ELCA female pastors serving in congregations across the Southeast.  It was an honor to receive their stories – stories of amazing grace and devastating heartbreak.  By the end of that project I could see that there are concrete ways that we, as church, are called to respond to the stories of our female rostered leaders.[1]  One of these is that we be much more intentional regarding catechesis and hermeneutics.[2]   Lutheran Christians have tremendous theological gifts that the church and the world need us to share.  We cannot share them if we allow ourselves to be sucked into the inertia of the communal, cultural status quo.  In this article, I am not going to rehash the rationale in favor of women’s ordination as this has been done extensively and quite well in other places.[3] I am, instead, going to suggest that by not faithfully teaching and living into our own theology, we enable – and perhaps even indirectly encourage – communities and individuals to continue living as less than that to which they are called. And, that we are – instead – called to be unapologetic and active witnesses for the fullness of the vision of ministry we have been given, for the sake of the world God so loves.


Eyes to See 

[3] Jonas is the twelve-year-old protagonist in Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel, The Giver.[4]  Jonas lives in a community that has learned to exercise rigorous control over all aspects of life – complete climate control, the suppression of hormones and emotions, immediate pain relief.  It is a flat world with no unexpected ups and downs.  It is also a world of gray.  The citizens of Jonas’ community have lost both the ability to see color and the memory of its existence.  In what I think is the pivotal scene in the story, Jonas is having a conversation with a childhood friend.  The friend is nonchalantly tossing an apple in the air and catching it.  And something happens.  Jonas sees something.  He does not know what it is that he sees, he has no word for it, but the reader shortly learns that what Jonas saw is the color red.  And once Jonas has seen red, he can never again not see it.  His world is utterly transformed in that moment.

[4] The Giver is, in a real sense, an apocalyptic story.  The apocalypse begins the moment the color red is revealed to Jonas.  It was always there, but had been hidden and is now seen.  Analogously, I think that the 50th anniversary of women’s ordination in the predecessor bodies of the ELCA is an apocalyptic opportunity for the church.  It is not something new.  It was not new fifty years ago.  Women proclaiming the Gospel of Christ began on the first Easter.  And women’s ordination in the church has a long, complicated, and often ignored history.[5]  What we are celebrating is not new.  But it may be a new way of seeing. A way of seeing what was there all along, that having now been revealed can never again be unseen.  Precisely because such apocalyptic moments are revelatory of the kingdom of God, this is good news.

[5] Iris Murdoch makes the claim that we can only act in the world we can see.[6] On the one hand, this seems a bit obvious.  On the other hand, this makes clear how important right vision really is.  Think, for example, of the ways in which we view the late toddler stage of child development–the stage of differentiation and self-assertion.  If we see (and describe) this as the “terrible twos” and if we “see” the child as someone whose will needs to be broken, we will act in certain, predictable ways towards the small children in our world.[7]  If, on the other hand, we “see” the same child as someone exploring the world, full of awe and wonder absorbing all that is around them, we will act in completely different, though equally predictable, ways towards the small children in our world.[8] How we see and describe the world is what gives shape to and makes sense of our behavior in the world.  And though our own experiences with small children play some role in how we define the child’s attitude, ours is largely a definition we receive – through the teachings – by and from those around us.  And thus this definition will shape our experiences far more than the other way around.

[6] So, the words we say matter.  The way we describe the world, in a very literal sense, creates that world. Our theology is the way the church describes and thus sees the world.  Lutherans have done the serious and faith-filled theological work that has led us to see the world as one in which God calls both woman and men into public ministry.  And, Lutherans have already decided that women in ministry is a theological claim that rightly describes the world God so loves.  We – as the ELCA – are of one mind regarding this claim.  To be an ELCA Lutheran is to proclaim that calls to ministry come from God, through the church, and are in no way dependent upon gender.  Period.[9]

[7] As I was interviewing bishops (all were male at the time within the area of my research) for my work on the 50th anniversary, several of them told me that they do, regularly in fact, have congregations refuse to interview female pastors.  And most of the bishops acknowledged that, though they struggled with this, they have allowed congregations who so choose to elect not to interview women.  In part, this allowance was made to avoid setting anyone, especially first call candidates, up for failure.  As one bishop said, “Why would I subject anyone to what I know will be a confrontational relationship?” But that our church continues – by practice and by polity – to allow congregations to refuse to even consider qualified candidates on the basis of gender and gender alone, “because we just aren’t ready” is theologically misguided and morally bankrupt.[10]

[8] We – the church in all of its expressions –  are not called to enable a congregation’s limited view of the world, not to live into the limitedness of the view they already have, but to help them imagine and see the world the way it really is – one in which God calls men and women into service in God’s church. Once we have had the eyes to see the color red, we cannot, in good conscious, pretend we still live in a monochromatic world of shades of gray, for the sake of those who choose not to see the color red.   Now that we have seen God’s calling of women into the work of ministry in God’s church, we can never again see a world in which we allow exclusion, even implicitly, on the basis of gender. As such we bear witness to God’s calling of women into fulltime public ministry – as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – to the entire world, including to our Lutheran brothers and sisters who have not yet accepted the ordination of women.


God is Not a Boy’s Name

[9] A friend of mine, a female Presbyterian (USA) pastor recently gave me a small framed picture for my office that says “God is not a boy’s name.”  This picture sits on the shelf directly behind my desk, inviting discussion with students and with colleagues, many of whom find it off-putting.  But, Christian theology teaches – and has always taught – that God is beyond gender, neither male nor female.  Moreover, studies show that the exclusive use of masculine imagery for God and for the divine stunts the theological development and limits the theological imagination of religious communities and individuals.

[10] Studies suggest that the experience of women in ministry, in positions of authority within the church, have a significant formational influence on the implicit theology of congregants.[11]   Having female role models in positions of religious authority positively shapes an individual’s sense of self (this is especially, but not exclusively, true for women) and seeing women engaged in active public ministry shapes the way we understand the character of – and thus relate to – God.  In fact, having a single female religious authority – just one – changes a congregation’s image of God.  One.  That is all it takes to help us see that God is beyond male and female.  And seeing a God that is beyond male and female is critical for a cultural that has – both explicitly and, more importantly, implicitly – assigned particular characteristics to masculinity and femininity such that the masculine is associated with the authoritative, powerful, and dominating, whereas the feminine is associated with that which is nurturing, supportive, and submissive.  Using exclusively masculine language and imagery for God given our cultural (truncated and toxic) notions of masculinity renders us an authoritarian, “Don’t make me come down there” God. Female role models in positions of religious authority help us – and our congregations – develop a theological sense of a less authoritarian God, a God of and in community, a God of gentle compassion – a God who reflects back to us traits we have associated with both the masculine and the feminine. This more nuanced understanding of the nature of God then reflects back on humanity as those created in God’s image and challenges these often toxic notions we have of gender/sexuality allowing us to see that we are all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, called to reflect the love and compassion we witness and experience in the triune God who is beyond gender.

[11] This is particularly important when we think about long-range catechesis.  Studies suggest that our image of God is more-or-less set in early childhood.  Most adults today, despite 50 years now of women’s ordination, had exclusively male religious authority figures well into adulthood.  But, for today’s children this is not the case.  Several female pastors in my study – including Presiding Bishop Eaton – shared stories of having children in a congregation they had served express surprise when seeing a male pastor for the first time: “I didn’t know boys could be pastors!”

[12] While we are not in danger of throwing out male clergy and masculine images of God, these children’s words show how quickly human minds create a normative view.   Thus, this means that holding up both men and women in congregational settings as equally gifted and called into the ministry will have a long-term impact not only on the health and vitality of the church as an institution but also on the spiritual well-being of the next generation of the body of Christ (which is my primary concern).  Having masculine and feminine images of God helps us grow into a both/and relationship with the God who is beyond any notions of gender we may have, and help us develop into our full selves in God’s image as well.


Justice and Peace in All the Earth

[13] Another way of getting at this is to see that having women in ministry is great pastoral care.  Both women and men benefit from having female as well as male pastoral care givers.  But the reason it is good pastoral care is not because it is an emotive good, it is not because female pastors are more nurturing, but because it is a theological good.  And good theology is the best form of pastoral care.  Good theology helps us grow into our baptismal callings.  Embracing – as opposed to accepting – an equal place for women in ministry is an integral part of us, as church, striving for justice and peace in all the earth.[12]

[14] No one has a “right” to ordination.  Ordination – whether to Word and Sacrament or Word and Service – is a calling from God, mediated by and through the church.  It is a privilege and a responsibility; it is never a given.  However, the reality is that the church has historically (and in many cases continues today) ruled out the very possibility that God might be calling a person into ordained ministry by virtue of socially-prescribed notions of worthiness (gender, race, sexual orientation).  When this happens, whether as an imbedded institutional practice or as something we merely tolerate, suggesting, “that’s just the way it is,” we actively and intentionally perpetuate injustice.  We are called – by God, through our baptisms – and we have affirmed, in our Affirmation of Baptism liturgy – that we are to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

[15] “In all the earth” is an admittedly tall order.  One very concrete way we can begin to strive for justice in all the earth is to insist on justice in our own congregations.  This means being willing to set standards for call committees and congregational councils that honor both our Lutheran theology and our polity.  It means shaping a polity that reflects our theology, which requires more intentional theological education for all.  And, it means being willing to call out injustice, misogyny and bigotry every single time it occurs – not for the sake of laying blame but as a means of mutual accountability and an invitation to live into the grace-filled Gospel we proclaim.

[16] One of my favorite moments from my interviews with female clergy was when one of the pastors was telling me a story about the men in her home congregation who had told her she could not possibly be called into full time ministry interrupted her own story; she looked squarely at me and said, “I. Call. Bullshit.”[13]  In the moment I found this really funny, but upon later reflection I realized this was perhaps the most Lutheran of responses.  Martin Luther said that we are called to be theologians of the cross and that theologians of the cross call a thing what it is.

[17] Thanks be to God, we have, for nearly fifty years now, seen the gift that women in ministry offer to the church and to the world that God so loves.  We cannot unsee this gift.  The gift of these women in stoles and clerics bear witness to all of the world this bigger, more grace-filled image of the kingdom of God now.  This is not only true within dominations like the ELCA that work to honor women in ministry, but just as importantly for those that do not.  Close to one quarter of the women I interviewed did not grow up in church bodies that ordained women.  Each of these women shared the moment they described the moment they first saw a women in the pulpit as both an “a-ha” and serious cognitive dissonance.  They recall the moment that the world became brighter and more colorful, because they now had a name, a conceptual framework, for this call they had been hearing but could not previously see. As we move beyond the fiftieth anniversary, towards the sixtieth, we are being called – invited – to live into the fullness of this vision, sharing it with those around us through faithful, thoughtful catechesis.





[1] Women are not a homogenous group and I cannot refer to the “experiences of women” in a monolithic way.  However, with eighty-five interviews, there is enough data to suggest some significant commonalities for most women in public ministry. And, though my research included women of color – both black and Latina – as well as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, because these communities are so under-represented in the ELCA, I was unable to speak to the issue of intersectionality and maintain confidentiality at the same time.  Anecdotally I can say that, unsurprisingly, women in ministry who are members of additional marginalized communities carry an even greater burden than do white women in ministry.


[2] The other two concrete steps the church– primarily via the Conference of Bishops – can take involve assuring equitable candidacy processes and a significantly more meaningful and robust candidacy process.  The bishops of Region 9 (with significant work done by a group of female Assistants to the Bishop, Dr. Mary Streufert from the Office of the Presiding Bishop, and myself) have drafted and signed a Relational Agreement that addresses Candidacy, Call Process and Boundary Training that strives to create a permanent change in our ecclesial landscape in this regard.


[3] See, for example: Richard By. Hays, New Testament Ethics: The Story Retold. J.J. Thiessen Lecture Series.  (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018, reprint); John R. Summe, “Historical Document: Some Thoughts on the Ordination of Women and the Lutheran Confessions,” (Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 12/01/2009); Karen Bloomquist, “Ordaining Women Goes to the Heart of the Gospel” (Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 03/01/2016).


[4] Lowry, Lois.  The Giver. (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).


[5] Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West.  (NY: Oxford University Press, 2008) and Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin.  She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2018).


[6] Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (NY: Rutledge and Kegan Paul, 1970).


[7] For example, recently – just within the past few years – there have been a number of reported cases of parents using a “biblical” child-training book who have, in fact, beaten their children to death with plumbing supply tools – essentially with flexible pvc pipes. The book promises that most children can be “brought into complete and joyous subjection after just 3 days.”  The principles in the book are, according to the author, guidelines for physical discipline of children beginning as young at 6 months old and – in the author’s words  – are based on principles the Amish use for training stubborn mules. All concerns about what constitutes appropriate training for animals – even the most stubborn of mules – aside, that children are presumed, from early infancy, to be, well, mule-headed and therefore in need of severe physical punishment in order to be “brought into complete and joyous subjection” suggests that the assumption that children are, first and foremost, willfully sinful from the get-go is alive and well today. The book is To Train Up a Child, by Michael and Debbi Perle.  Self-published by No Greater Joy Ministries in 1994.


[8] For example, Maria Montessori taught that children possess absorbent minds and tender spirits and that the primary role of adults vis-à-vis children was to provide a rich environment for the child to flourish and to follow the child’s natural (by which she meant God-given) interests and capacities.  See, Marie Montessori, The Absorbent Mind. (Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2007, reprint).


[9] Unlike our “four options” stance regarding same sex relationships which states that the church is not of one mind on this issue.  See “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” https://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Human-Sexuality.


[10] The interesting mixture of congregational and episcopal polity that is the ELCA leaves the decision of whether or not to extend a call to any given rostered leader to the congregations.  The church, represented by the synodical bishop’s office, however has a responsibility to train congregational call committees and can, in fact, insist on equitable practices.  The Region 9 Bishops’ Relational Agreement, mentioned above in note 2, does precisely this.


[11] See Knoll and Bolin, She Preached the Word, chapter 7.


[12] See the promises made in the “Affirmation of Baptism” liturgy in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006) 236.


[13] Mindy Makant, Holy Mischief: In Honor and Celebration of Women in Ministry. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2019) 116.


Mindy Makant

Mindy Makant is an ELCA Deacon, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University, and Director of the Living Well Center for Vocation and Purpose.