How the Reformation’s discovery of justification by faith also empowered women
Change is often unexpected. Five centuries ago, when Augustinian friar Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses against the practice of selling indulgences, he hardly saw the changes to come in his own life and career. He surely would not have expected that discovery to lead to a reevaluation of marriage and family, of leadership in the church, and of the potential contributions of women in general. But so it happened: Protestants’ central theological doctrine of justification by faith proved to be a seedbed for a host of changes in the 16th century that affected the lives of women in particular, from then until now.
Luther’s most fundamental challenge was actually to the authority of the late medieval Roman Catholic Church as it had evolved to his day. That did not necessarily mean he wanted to eliminate the papacy, but he was immensely disturbed by all the ecclesiastical rules and practices—“human traditions”—for which he could find no warrant in the Bible. There was much to lament: requirements such as Lenten fasting that were binding on all Christians; practices such as priestly ordination and monastic vows that elevated clergy above the laity and the celibate above married Christians; and a theology of penance that risked substituting human works for God’s forgiving grace. Worst, Luther found no warrant for these practices in the words of Christ or anywhere else in Scripture. Consequently, one of Luther’s first moves was to restore the Bible to its proper place as the preeminent authority for Christian faith and practice—a move that, looking back, we often describe with the catchphrase sola scriptura (“the Bible alone”). This move was undeniably risky for Luther. Yet it also precipitated a remarkable series of unexpected consequences.
Women pastors, preachers, trustees, faculty, and students share stories from their long road to equality. Listen to them in their own words at our inaugural Story Table.
A new picture of marriage and family life
One such consequence was a dramatic change in how Protestants thought about marriage. Ever since the blossoming of ascetic Christianity in the fourth century, many Christians had come to think of marriage as a second-best form of discipleship—better than promiscuity, but not nearly as meritorious in God’s eyes as lifelong celibacy as a monk or nun. Luther’s exegesis radically undermined the notion that human merit plays any role in our acceptance with God. Rather, our salvation is a gracious gift that brings us to see our own brokenness and to trust in the God who, to our surprise, wants to save real sinners.
Luther thus discarded all theology of human merit. He also taught that one effect of this saving gift is to free Christians to love their neighbors without thinking of it as a way to earn God’s love. Also, it wasn’t just priests or nuns called into service and ministry; no, everyone has a divine calling. Our vocations—whether as preacher or magistrate or soldier or mother—are significant to God because they are ways that God’s love and order are shown in human societies. Through our vocations we serve our neighbors and minister to them. And all are called to perform the priestly function of prayer for one another.
All of these insights leveled the playing field between men and women. Traditionally barred from the Roman Catholic priesthood, Protestant women were now regarded as possessed of the same dignity as all Christians, equally called to prayer and ministry through their vocations, and they were by no means despised if that vocation included a call to be a wife and mother. So it may surprise some today to discover that, despite their increased respect for the dignity of marriage, Protestant Reformers generally denied that the church should control marriage—because they knew from Genesis 2 that marriage was instituted for all humans, not just for Christians; and because the medieval church had grievously overstepped its bounds in making marriage indissoluble, despite the fact that at least some grounds for divorce are offered by both Jesus and Paul. (It’s worth noting that many contemporaries, including Erasmus, were well aware that Catholicism’s insistence on indissolubility could have cruel effects on an innocent spouse.) So in addition to extolling marriage as a divine institution and even the cornerstone of society, the Reformers often urged civil authorities to revise marriage laws to allow marriages to be dissolved in at least a few limited cases, such as adultery, desertion, and fraud. Many Reformers also boldly declaimed the double standard in marriage law, which often saw women more easily accused of adultery—and more severely punished. John Calvin and many others worked to change these discriminatory laws. Peter Martyr Vermigli, who worked for reform in Strasbourg, Oxford, and Zurich, memorably dismissed such laws as just the sort of thing to expect when laws are written by men.
In Non-Essentials, Liberty
“[The EPC] believes that the question of whether Scripture affirms women in ordained ministry is one of those ‘non-essentials’ of our faith. We recognize that Christians come to different conclusions on this. We have agreed together that these various views do not need to impede mission and fellowship. . .”
Read more from Nancy A. Duff, associate pastor at Centerpoint Community Church and moderator of the Presbytery of the Pacific of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
Protestants also sought to protect marriage by paying close attention to the behavior of spouses. The Geneva “consistory,” a panel of pastors in the city, frequently functioned like a modern-day family court, calling belligerent or negligent spouses to account for themselves and demanding reconciliation where possible. Often this meant intervening in cases of spousal abuse. Really? Yes: some men went on record as resenting that wife-beating was illegal, and at least one observer described Geneva in the later 16th century as “the women’s Paradise.”
While the new picture of marriage retained a good deal of traditional Christian patriarchy—a husband was still seen as head of the household—Protestant preachers were increasingly likely to stress mutuality. It is a mark of how closely Luther’s teachings about justification and biblical authority were tied to their pastoral implications that Luther felt constrained to publish a lengthy treatise on marriage in 1522—only a year after his condemnation at the Diet of Worms. Though the tract begins by considering legal technicalities such as prohibited degrees and impediments to marriage, Luther also argues against celibacy and vows, explains the grounds for divorce, then builds to a defense of marriage and childrearing against the contempt and cynicism of “pagan” writers. Throughout, he underscores how it is faith, not sight, that will disclose the unlikely but real goodness of the drudgery of home and hearth: “When a father goes ahead and washes diapers
. . . and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool—though that father is acting . . . in Christian faith—God, . . . with all his angels and creatures, is smiling.” Luther’s choice of examples is especially significant, because “diaper washer” was the 16th century’s equivalent for “henpecked,” a crude insult to a husband’s masculinity. For Luther, washing diapers was a husband’s badge of faith.
Not as surprising, perhaps, is the connection between the Reformation’s stress on Scripture and a growing interest in girls’ literacy and education. Admittedly, Protestant cities did not aspire to give girls as much education as boys, but one way or another it was expected that women would obtain a basic knowledge of what the Bible says. To this end, Protestants all over Europe prepared often long and sophisticated catechisms for children. If summoned before Geneva’s consistory, a woman had as much cause as a man to expect to be quizzed on the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, or the Apostles’ Creed. Indeed, one of the subversive (and risky) acts undertaken by Protestant women in France was to protest Roman Catholic feast days by sitting at a window, spinning or reading Scripture.
“For me, particularly as a Latina, I feel like I was called to be at Fuller for ‘such a time as this.’ Esther’s words really stick with me because of the change in demographics in the United States and how the Latino community needs more role models—particularly of women who are in positions of leadership. The immigrant community needs to see powerful women who have a voice, who have healthy marriages, who have healthy, thriving kids. It’s extremely important. I see Fuller similarly—I need to say to our students who come from different ethnic backgrounds, ‘Yes we can be here, yes we can lead.’ I want to tell them, ‘You can do it, come on. Wrestle with your ghosts, wrestle with your minority complex, because you have so much to offer. Transcend that.’”
+ [Above] When Fuller leaders determined that a course in Christian education was needed to complete curriculum offerings, Rebecca Price was invited to join the faculty—the first female faculty member in Fuller’s then-five-year history. After much soul-searching, Price joined Fuller’s faculty in 1952. Twenty years later, faculty member Roberta Hestenes changed the title of the degree program to Christian Formation and Discipleship.
A new picture of women outside the home
Some Protestant women did even more. One of the most intriguing puzzles of the Reformation in Geneva stems from the fact that there were at least two women in that city before Calvin arrived who were known to have shared or proclaimed the gospel in
quasi-public settings. One of them, Marie Dentière, loudly harangued the nuns of a local convent and went on to write an open letter to Marguerite of Navarre, sister of the king of France, urging the right of women to speak out on behalf of the gospel. The puzzle, as we will see, is what Calvin thought of Dentière.
In any case, Marie Dentière was by no means the first woman moved by the new Protestant gospel to speak up. Another remarkable instance dates from 1523, when Argula von Grumbach, a Bavarian noblewoman, wrote the first of eight pamphlets attacking the forced recantation of a young Lutheran student and eventually defending the biblical grounds for her own public speaking. An ally of Luther’s, she used her position and erudition to defend the Lutheran Reformation and advance it wherever she could.
Another remarkable and outspoken woman of the Protestant Reformation was Katherina Schütz Zell, whose own “public” career was precipitated in the early 1520s when she married local Catholic priest Matthew Zell, who had converted to the Lutheran cause. Incensed at slander directed at her husband, she published an extensive defense of him—at the end of which she, like Argula, felt constrained to justify her right to speak publicly.
All three of these women were well versed in Scripture and took special comfort from texts commonly cited by evangelical feminists today, such as the promise of the Spirit poured out on daughters as well as sons in Joel 2, fulfilled in Acts 2. Galatians 3:28, that “in Christ there is neither male nor female,” is cited by two of the three. But they invoke other biblical themes as well, including the Pauline motif of how the gospel is especially addressed to the weak—a concession that Dentière thinks favors women—as well as Matthew 10:32–33, where confessing Jesus before others is a prerequisite to Jesus confessing us before his heavenly father. All three are clearly aware of biblical women depicted as speaking in public and exerting leadership. Yet it is just as important, if not more so, to recall that for each of these three, defending her gender was utterly secondary, even at the risk of scandalizing male contemporaries. The real issues for them were threats to the doctrines and practices of the Reformation that enshrined the salvation they believed they had received by faith and by the grace of the Lord whom they served and proclaimed.
Naturally, one would like to know more about how the activities of these women were received—for which one might fruitfully consult some of the recent works that have translated and chronicled their writings. But some suggestive correlates can be drawn from the evolving exegesis of a few key texts that emerges during the early Reformation. Of particular interest are the texts that either endorse or restrict women’s speech in a Christian assembly—texts that are usually interpreted by male Reformers in ways that limit women’s speaking to private or domestic gatherings. Calvin mostly follows this pattern. But Calvin also gives voice to a distinctive minority view: that there are exceptions where a woman may or even must speak a word of gospel proclamation. He is maddeningly terse on this point, and it is hard not to wonder if he is giving belated recognition to Marie Dentière. Either way, Dentière’s sporadic efforts to share the gospel in Geneva look a lot like what Calvin was describing: an emergent situation where there was no male minister on hand to proclaim the gospel.
Calvin was not the first to voice this opinion. More famous, probably, was Luther’s earlier rejoinder to some Roman Catholic contemporaries who disputed how he extended the office of preaching to all Christians. The complaint was that women would then be in violation of 1 Corinthians 14:34. Luther’s response was to rattle off a host of passages where women have prophesied. To be sure, Luther insisted that normally the task of preaching should be filled by someone who is skilled in speaking, and that (for Luther) usually meant a man. “But if no man were to preach, then it would be necessary for the women to preach.”
Luther and Calvin thus stand with only a few other Protestant Reformers of the day, including Peter Martyr Vermigli and François Lambert. These men did not advocate any wholesale opening of the pulpit to women, but they nonetheless ventured at least to open the topic for consideration. By recognizing the validity of the exception, they changed the way their contemporaries thought about the rule.
Other exegetical shifts were underway as well. One that could easily be overlooked is a passing remark from Wolfgang Musculus, reformer of Berne. In his comments on 1 Timothy 2:14, seemingly another exhortation to women’s silence, he urges readers not to overgeneralize what is said about how Eve led Adam astray:
Care is to be taken that we do not extend this example of Adam and Eve further than the Apostle’s proposition requires, that is, lest we make what is specific into something general and perpetual. Indeed, while Adam was not misled by the serpent’s lie, the same cannot be said of every man. And what happened to Eve does not automatically happen to all women, many of whom strongly resist the lies and temptations of Satan.
Musculus protests against the “essentializing” tendencies of careless exegesis: not all women are like the stereotyped Eve in every way and on every occasion, just as men have no reason for complacency or smugness merely because they are related to Adam by gender. They may well be more like Eve! His patriarchy notwithstanding, Musculus voices an important insight: that gender is often a poor predictor of character, aptitude, or calling.
Looking back to look forward
This survey of some of the effects of the Protestant Reformation on the lives of women then and now has only scratched the surface of a complicated and unexpected history. As women’s history developed as a discipline in the 1970s and 1980s, some historians debated whether the Reformation really helped women that much, whether Protestantism also brought losses by abolishing female saints as intercessors, and whether it was Protestantism or Roman Catholicism that was ultimately better or worse—debates that ended in standoffs. But it is just as likely that the Reformation’s “new” view of women was ultimately of benefit to Protestants and Catholics alike, as each group came to see the importance of lay discipleship among both men and women. What’s important for us as we move forward today, then, is that we see the continuity we share with our Protestant forebears in attempting to extend the fullness of the gospel’s ministry to women and men—that we recognize ourselves in our predecessors—and that we look back in gratitude.
For Further Reading
Argula von Grumbach: A Woman’s Voice in the Reformation. Edited by Peter Matheson. T. & T. Clark, 1995.
Katharina Schütz Zell, Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Edited by Elsie Anne McKee. University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Marie Dentière, Epistle to Marguerite de Navarre and Preface to a Sermon by John Calvin. Edited by Mary B. McKinley. University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Davis, Natalie Zemon. “City Women and Religious Change,” pp. 65-95 in Society and Culture in Early Modern France.Stanford University Press, 1975.
Ozment, Steven E. When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe. Harvard University Press, 1983.
Thompson, John L. “The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent: Myths, Realities, and Ambiguities in Calvin’s Teachings about Women,” pp. 37–52 in John Calvin, Myth and Reality: Images and Impact of Geneva’s Reformer, edited by Amy Nelson Burnett. Cascade Books, 2011.
Thompson, John L. “Rules Proved by Exceptions: The Exegesis of Paul and Women in the Sixteenth Century,” pp. 501–40 in A Companion to Paul in the Reformation, edited by Ward Holder. E. J. Brill, 2009.