The Women Behind the Pulpit: Identifying Female Leadership Throughout Christian History

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Female Ordination, Women in the Reformation, Women in the Church in Antiquity, Lutheran Church, Female Pastors, Women in Christianity


Biblical Studies | Christian Denominations and Sects | Christianity | History of Christianity | Women's Studies


It is clear that at various points in Christian history women have held prominent positions of leadership and had influential voices. However, those voices have been episodic, leaving men the power to dominate. Feminist research shows that women have a strong heritage and history of being apostles, teachers, prophets, presbyters (an elder or minister), widows, deacons, and bishops.[1] This truth, however, remains hidden and those strong women are not given voices. Scholars see this particularly in stories like those of Mary Magdalene and Thecla. We can hypothesize that these women had important influence based not only by how well preserved their stories are, but also by the fact that their biographies have been altered and now many versions exist.

After the First Council of Nicæa, stories of significant women were excluded from the final stages of the canon as the patriarchy claimed the dominant narrative of the church. The ramifications of this exclusion have lasted for over a millennium. For many women, from the time of the First Council of Nicæa until the Reformation, the convent was where they found autonomy and education. Women lost even this authority when, in 1522, Martin Luther wrote The Estate of Marriageand argued that the practice of taking monastic vows destroyed the freedom of the Christian. Elizabeth Clark observes that: “In the shift from nun to wife, however, many women actually lost personal status, for women in the convent often had considerably more power than they were allowed in the secular world as wives and mothers.”[2]

It is not until within the last 100 years that women have begun receiving official recognition as leaders in the church. Taking the model of the Lutheran Church as an example, it is easy to follow the progression of ordaining women in some branches while other branches have stayed extremely patriarchal. It has been a slow and arduous movement. The Church of Norway first asked the question about female ordination in 1938, but it was not until 1958 that the Lutheran Church of Sweden ordained its first female priest.[3]The Church of Norway ordained their first female Lutheran minister, Ingrid Bjerkås, in 1961. Now, as of 2013, Sweden has its first female archbishop, Antje Jackelén. She is joined by Elizabeth Eaton, the first female bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who was also ordained that year.

The present study links this contemporary story with the history of women in early Christianity and the Reformation. Against a backdrop of the spectrum of roles historically accorded Christian women, the essay offers a brief history and overview of three branches of the Lutheran Church and women’s experiences in these congregations. The Lutheran Church– Missouri Synod, trains women to work as deaconesses although they do not believe in or support female ordination.[4]The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod believes that women were created to be submissive to men.[5]The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ordains women and believes they are equal to men.[6]

In tracing the long path to ordination using the Lutheran Church as a case study, the goal is threefold: 1) To recapture the early voices of women that have been silenced and to give them an audience. 2) To explore the muting of women’s voices during the Reformation, namely the movement from the convents to the household. 3) To examine the range of contemporary women’s experience in the Lutheran Church. By researching the muted voices of women in the church in antiquity and analyzing the reasons that certain contemporary churches have embraced the ordination of women, the goal is to gain a better understanding of how women’s roles have shifted throughout history rather than been created from scratch in the last 60 years that women have claimed a voice in the Lutheran Church.

[1]Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders In Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Collegeville, MN: A Michael Glazier Book published by The Liturgical Press, 2000), 223.

[2]Elizabeth A. Clark and Herbert Richardson, Women and Religion: The Original Sourcebook of Women in Christian Thought(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 146.

[3]Katherine Tunheim, “The Professional Journeys and Experiences in Leadership of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Women Bishops,” Sage Journals18 (2016), 207.

[4]“Deaconess Ministry.” Lutheran Church Missouri Synod,https://www.lcms.org/how-we-serve/mercy/deaconess-ministry(accessed November 5, 2017).

[5]“Man and Woman Roles.” Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, https://wels.net/about-wels/what-we-believe/doctrinal-statements/man-and-woman-roles/(accessed November 5, 2017).

[6]“ELCA Facts.” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. https://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/ELCA-Facts(accessed November 5, 2017).

Department 1 Awarding Honors Status

Religious Studies

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