Luther on Women in the Ministry

In his fine book The Church in the Theology of the Reformers, P.D.L. Avis includes an interesting discussion of Luther’s view on women’s ordination. For Luther, this is based on the cornerstone Protestant doctrine of the universal priesthood, or the “priesthood of all believers.”  Says Avis,

“There is no need to point out that women share equally with men in the universal priesthood; they too partake of the royal priesthood that Christ imparts to his people.  Luther supports this from the common practice of women administering baptism: ‘When women baptise, they exercise the function of priesthood legitimately and do it not as a private act but as a part of the public ministry of the Church which belongs only to the universal priesthood.’  ‘A woman can baptise and administer the word of life by which sin is taken away, eternal death abolished, the prince of this world cast out, heaven bestowed; in short, by which the divine majesty pours itself forth through all the soul.’  When Luther grants women the power to administer baptism, he recognises that this carries with it all other priestly functions for, according to Luther, the sacrament of baptism includes the ministry of the word and is, moreover, superior to other priestly offices….There is then no suggestion in Luther’s thought that women are somehow incapable of bearing the priestly ‘character.'”

Luther did, however, still exclude women from the regular ministry, but this apparent inconsistency would seem to make sense in light of his “two regiments” doctrine–for the regular ordained ministry of the Church was understood as a matter of good order and expedience for the Church, an outward and, one could say, a “political” matter.  Still important, but not of the essence of the Church, in which all were equally priests to one another.  

Naturally, Luther thought that good order would not be served by “unqualified persons” such as women filling such a role in the Church.  But Avis observes that this means that women’s ordination is ruled out not on theological grounds, but pragmatic grounds.  “The logic of Luther’s overall position in fact dictates that the question of whether women should be ordained to the ministry should be answered purely in terms of social expediency.  They could not be denied the essential priesthood, but in the light of the sixteenth-century social structure they would inevitably have been regarded as ‘unqualified persons’ to exercise any public office, not only in the Church but in society at large.”


Of course, it is worth noting that few of the other Reformers followed Luther in his particularly radical version of the priesthood of all believers, and sought to articulate a more conservative position on the spiritual significance of ordained ministry, meaning a stronger stance on the issue of women’s ordination.  Calvin and the Puritans, for example, were to forcefully deny the right of women to baptize–one of the many hot-button issues in the protracted prayer book wars in the young Church of England.  (How this passing remark by Avis fits with this odd statement by Calvin that I blogged a couple months ago, I’m not yet sure.)

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