As soon as I read this story about the Baraboo congregation that wouldn’t allow its female members to speak or vote on a personnel matter, I knew the congregation in question was a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Women barred from speaking at a church meeting and not being allowed to exercise their opinion on church decisions has been a sticking point within the WELS for years. How do I know? I know because I’m a woman who is a member of the WELS.
Almost everyone who knows me and those who have read my blog knows that I am a woman of many opinions. I am not known for sitting in the corner and being quiet. “Motor-mouth” and “highly opinionated” are adjectives that are often used before my name.
So when people hear of this practice in some WELS congregations they immediately ask me, “How can you belong to a church that doesn’t respect women, that marginalizes women, that considers you a second class citizen?”
For one, I belong to a church that respects women, our opinions and considers us first-class citizens in the church, equal in God’s forgiveness.
For those unfamiliar, the Wisconsin Synod is a very conservative Lutheran church. We believe in the complete inerrancy of the Bible, believe that Christ died for our sins and faith in him alone will bring us to heaven. Then there are matters of adiaphora, teachings that are not spoken to in the Bible or vaguely mentioned, that have been open to interpretation by men (men in the mankind sense, even when it has typically been men making the interpretation).
This is one of those occasions. St. John’s in Baraboo, WI decided to remove their school principal for distributing a paper authored by a synod pastor which questioned the church’s long-held practice of not allowing women to have “authority” over men. The congregation’s pastor said church leaders had worked with the principal for over two years to resolve the issue. This is completely within the WELS’ guidelines for dealing with questions within the church, following Matthew 18 on discipline. The matter eventually came down to a church meeting, where women are typically allowed to take part in the discussion. However, on this matter the congregational president decided not to allow the women of the church to participate in the debate. Eventually, the voters of the church, who typically are all male members over 21, chose to remove the principal.
The practice of women not being allowed to participate in discussions or vote on decisions within many Christian churches is based on the passage 1 Timothy 2:1–12 (NIV), which says, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” The church (and this includes many denominations of the Christian faith) has interpreted this to mean women cannot be pastors or teachers of men and that they can have no role in the business of the church, since that also constitutes authority over men.
Voting on church business has been one of the areas women have been traditionally barred from. The reasoning is that the man is the head of the household and in church matters he is the final word for a family. Women are encouraged to discuss church issues with their husbands, brothers or other male leaders in the congregation to express their opinions and influence decisions. Is it a perfect method to filter my opinion through my husband’s? No, but there are some benefits to it. It fosters discussion of spiritual and business matters between members, leading to consensus on issues that affect everyone. I am okay with the current system and am pleased to say it has been slowly changing.
25 years ago I wanted to major in theology at Wisconsin Lutheran College. The academic dean at the time inquired as to why I wanted to do that, what my career aspirations were. I confidently said I wanted to teach religion classes at my high school or possibly at the college someday. He strongly declared “No. A woman will never be allowed to teach religion to men over the age of 10 in this church.” He told me if I wanted to teach religion, I could become an elementary school teacher, specifically teaching students in fourth grade or lower. With my hopes dashed, I continued on a path for my business degree.
Now, many of the WELS schools, due to low enrollments and lack of teachers have women as principals and middle school grade religion teachers. We have women who do counseling of men where spiritual matters are explored and discussed. We even have a deaconess who ministers to women in prison, but often works with boys and men in her ministry.
Individual congregations have made changes also. Some smaller congregations, where the number of men has dwindled, have women in leadership roles, serving as treasurers, elders, and education coordinators. I’ve held the position of Sunday School Superintendent in one of the congregations I belonged to. Many allow women to participate in the discussions at church meetings. Some are even allowing women to vote.
This is an unfortunate piece of public relations for this congregation and for the entire synod. It makes for a great sound bite and jumping off point for the talking heads. But it is not something that will remain the norm in my church, with many papers, conventions and conferences held to discuss and reform the practices within the church. And I am also confidence in the coming change since there are many women who are working silently, behind the scenes to change the WELS while still remaining faithful to our beliefs and God.