Women in the Church
A little history of women’s ministry
Leoba was born in Wessex in the early part of the 8th century. She was taught by an Abbess and entered Wimborne Minster as a teenager. She gained an international reputation for virtue, scholarship and wisdom. She was invited to Germany as a missionary, where she established three convents and was active in evangelism across a wide region. Her reputation was such that she was consulted by bishops and kings, including Charlemagne himself.
Her biographer, Rudolf of Fulda, said this of her:
'[Leoba] had no interests other than the monastery and the pursuit of sacred knowledge. She took no pleasure in aimless jests and wasted no time on girlish romances, but, fired by the love of Christ, fixed her mind always on reading or hearing the Word of God. Whatever she heard or read she committed to memory, and put all that she learned into practice... She prayed continually, knowing that in the epistles the faithful are counseled to pray without ceasing. When she was not praying she worked with her hands at whatever was commanded her, for she had learned that he who will not work should not eat. However, she spent more time in reading and listening to sacred Scripture than she gave to manual labour.'
Obviously she was a paragon. Even allowing for the overstated nature of her biography, Leoba was clearly a woman with great gifts of learning, of wisdom, of leadership, and evangelism, and the church of her day provided opportunities for her to use those gifts.
If a woman like Leoba turned up in your congregation, how would she be encouraged to exercise her gifts, I wonder?
Katharina was born at the very end of the 15th century. Her family and place of birth aren't known. At the age of 5, she was sent to a monastery to be educated, and a few years later moved to a different monastery where her aunt was already a nun.
The status of female monasteries by this time was very different to that of Leoba's. The increasing power and prestige of the priesthood in the later mediaeval period had elevated male ministry far above that of women. Further, the centres of scholarship were now the universities, not the monasteries, and they were entirely forbidden to women.
But the dramatic events of the Lutheran reformation were heard about by nuns like Katharina and the truth of the gospel began to do its work amongst them too. In 1523, a group of nuns including Katharina escaped their convent, hiding amongst a wagonload of barrels of fish, and ending up in Wittenburg.
Husbands were found, or alternative places to live with family members, for everyone except Katharina. She had already decided who she wanted to marry and eventually Luther agreed, famously concluding that "his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep."
Katharina von Bora became Katie Luther, and as she did, she established a new model of women's ministry: that of clergy wife. For Luther, the support and help of his wife became inestimably valuable in his ministry.
Katie was encouraged by her husband to read and study the Scriptures. Indeed, he promised her the sum of 50 Gulden if she would read the whole Bible in a year. She was also given responsibility for running the household which eventually included six children of their own and four whom they adopted.
Katie's story begins in a similar way to Leoba's – both entered the convent life at a young age. But where Leoba went on to exercise her life's ministry in that context, Katie's work was in the domestic sphere. Both continued their studies of the Scriptures; both were consulted by men for their wisdom; both had responsibilities and exercised leadership; both were highly valued in the church.
If a Katharina von Bora arrived in your church – whether she smells of fish or not – how would she be encouraged to use her gifts?
What of the women in your church?
An unintended consequence of the Reformation was its impact on women’s ministry. For women whose gifts were well-suited to domestic life, like Katie Luther, the opportunity to serve as the wife of a minister opened up. Notice, though, that this role still included being involved in Bible study, instructing the children, and being valued and consulted by church leaders.
But for women like Leoba, whose gifts were in leadership, biblical studies, theology, evangelism and teaching, doors were closing. Those women are still in our churches. The Holy Spirit is still giving gifts to his people for the good of the whole church:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)
What gifts has the Spirit given to the women in your church, for the common good? How are you identifying those gifts, encouraging and equipping them to use them? How are you finding opportunities for those gifts to be used, for the benefit of others? Because, if you are not encouraging, equipping and enabling women as well as men in your church to use their gifts, everyone is missing out, not just the women.