Gender and Theology series: Implications for Women’s Ordained Ministry

Kirschbaum and Barth

Table of contents for the series:

1. Introduction

2. Serene Jones and Feminist Theory

3. Karl Barth on Man and Woman

4. Implications for the Homosexuality Debate

5. Implications for Women’s Ordained Ministry (Charlotte von Kirschbaum)


Charlotte von Kirschbaum assisted Karl Barth for decades in the production of his Church Dogmatics. She provided much of the research necessary for the frequent excursus on historical and exegetical matters. Perhaps most importantly, she provided a deep friendship and encouragement for Barth in this massive task of writing the Church Dogmatics. Kirschbaum devoted her life to this project, remaining unmarried and living in the Barth household. She was fully committed to its importance in the life of the church.

Her own writings that have been translated into English deal with, as given in the title, The Question of Woman.  It would be fascinating to know how much she influenced Barth’s writing of “Man and Woman” in Church Dogmatics III.4. Based upon her own writings, they were in profound agreement, and the reader will notice several emphases from CD III. 4 repeated in The Question of Woman:

  • Man is not solitary but essentially male and female.[1]
  • The validity of “earthly patterns of order” insofar as they are understood as “permission” (grace) and not as law abstracted from grace.[2]
  • The exegesis of Paul’s use of “headship.”[3]
  • Woman is not “passive” but freely acting.[4]
  • There is no “neutrality” beyond male and female, for the single person is also shaped by this encounter with the “partner,” and indeed the single person experiences it more.[5]
  • Love is defined as seeing the other as “a condition of one’s own existence.”[6]

I am particularly interested by her thoughts on the ministry of women, where she creatively applies this understanding of gender to the question of women’s ministry. Kirschbaum will argue in favor of women’s ordained ministry, but not on any grounds that would erase the differentiation of male and female or their particular ordering. She begins with a look at the priesthood of all believers:

In the New Testament we do not find any concept of office [as in Roman Catholicism and some Lutheran teaching]….There is no priestly “profession” in the primitive church: the official priesthood of the old covenant, with its monopoly of access to the holy, has been abolished through the unique sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Now everyone who belongs to the church enjoys the same access to the Lord. They are all of them “taught by God” (1 Thess 4:9), they have all “received the Spirit” (Gal 6:1).[7]

This, by the way, would be a proper interpretation of Gal 3:28. Yet, how is this reception of the Holy Spirit to be manifest in the church, given the headship of the male and the subordination of the female? Before this can be answered, we must understand Kirschbaum’s understanding of subordination. It is to be determined by Christ, just as the headship of the male is to be determined by Christ. Christ in relation to the Father “is the very essence of subjection,” but as “the Lord to whom everything is subject” he “exists in unqualified superiority” as the head. Christ is therefore the model for both super-ordination and sub-ordination. For the woman, this means:

Within the framework of earthly order woman stands over against man in obedience, that is, within this framework she is the subordinate partner, determined by the other. In the apostle’s eyes this position is certainly no less valuable and no more disadvantaged a position: it is Christ’s position in relation to the Father; it is his, the apostle’s — and the church’s — place in relation to the Lord. …On the one hand, Christ is the model of all obedience and subjection bears witness to the obedience of women and their position of subjection; on the other hand, as exalted Lord and the head of all power and dominion, he determines the higher position of men. It is true: man is the head of the woman; but it is true within this crucially important set of brackets that transforms everything. Christians should know this.[8]

Kirschbaum reads this (in 1 Cor 11) as a necessary corrective by Paul to a misunderstanding in Corinth — a misunderstanding arising from the Spirit’s bestowal equally upon all, male and female. The Corinthians had spiritualized marriage and wanted to dissolve the earthly distinctions between man and woman. In the strongest terms, Paul re-asserts the significance of the body and of the created order, while giving it a thoroughly christological interpretation.

The “subjection” of the woman, Kirschbaum rightly complains, has been “loaded with preconceptions that do not correspond with the apostle’s intentions,” and these can take either a progressive or a reactionary determination:

In both cases one “knows” from the outset who the men and the women are, and the framework of order in which both have been placed. In both cases one has one’s agenda, whether an aggressive or a passive one. It is therefore understandable if some experience the exhortation to subjection as an outrageous unreasonable demand, while others claim it as confirmation of their clueless, and to a considerable extent, ripely bourgeois, indolence.[9]

By contrast, the natural order (in the duality of male and female) only “reveals its true meaning and ultimate justification” as a “parable” of grace and, therefore, receives its determination — its command — in the one Lord, Jesus Christ.[10] Thus, the command to women to be subject to men is a command that they receive, not from men, but directly from Christ. Likewise, the command to men to have the “priority” in this ordering is not a command that they receive from women (or from themselves!), but directly from Christ.  Therefore, the form or model in which each, in their distinct commands, discern their activity as male and female is Christ alone — not any other model of “masculinity” or “femininity” (not even “Marian woman”).[11]

Thus, the ordained ministry of woman is likewise to retain the significance of this duality, of this analogue, to the covenant of grace. Woman is not to think of herself as taking the place of a man, as if their identities as male and female could be dissolved or interchanged in ministry; rather, she is to minister as woman (though not necessarily as “feminine” understood as “an enhanced contribution of a psychological nature!”).[12] Yet, it is precisely this ministry of women that has been absent in the church (especially keeping in mind the time of Kirschbaum’s writing: 1940’s and 1950’s). Kirschbaum looks at how “the richness of earlier voices has disappeared,” as the polyphony of gifts that flowed freely in the earliest apostolic congregations, in both male and female, has now been replaced by the lone voice of the ordained (male) minister. Whereas it once made sense for woman to witness to her subordination through “keeping silent,” in response to the spiritualizing of sexuality; her voice, as once given in prophecy and tongues and hymns, has been significantly lost. As she asks, “Can silence still be a form of witness among people who do nothing but remain silent?”[13]

If the place of woman in the church is to serve the church and edify the church, as with all members of the church, then the call to ministry by a woman must follow this test:

The test of this calling will be that her participation is seen as being necessary for the sake of building up the church, as was woman’s willingness to remain silent in the time of the early church.[14]

The particular form this will take, for the woman, is her “divinely appointed” position as corresponding to that of the church and, therefore, “less liable to usurp authority” or “to cast their ministry in an authoritarian mold, meaning, moreover, that they will be less inclined than men to be tempted to allow the authority of the Word to be overshadowed by the authority of their person.”[15] For Kirschbaum, what this ordained ministry of woman will look like is still to be charted, but it is clear that grasping for authority or seeking “anxiously to safeguard a ‘monopoly’ of the proclamation of the Word” is not the form it should take.[16] She looks to the widows of 1 Tim 5:10 as a model of working in charity, expanding our conception of ministry of the Word beyond merely preaching, thereby “bridging the gap that has opened up between church and clergy.”[17] Kirschbaum offers other ideas but is careful to note that these are “suggestions” and not a strictly delineated “program of action.”

In closing, I think it is instructive to consider how women’s ordination was actually approved in the mainline churches from the 1950’s to 1970’s. It is safe to say that for many proponents of women’s ordination, a model of liberation and equal rights was dominant. Given this model, it is not surprising that this same model has now served the arguments for gay marriage in our churches. With Kirschbaum, we have a different model for understanding gender and the grounds upon which women’s ordination could be affirmed, and these are in opposition to any of the current “rights” models (or “apocalyptic” models for that matter). A failure to make this distinction — between the good (Kirschbaum) and the bad (Jones) grounds for affirming women’s ordained ministry — has left the “traditionalists” in the mainline churches without a sufficient gender model that would allow for women’s ordination yet oppose gay marriage. As such, we are left picking-apart Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Cor 6:9, while practically ignoring Eph 5 and 1 Cor 11, where we actually have the christological and covenant model for gender identity and gender relations that underwrite the traditional view of marriage.

[1] Charlotte von Kirschbaum, The Question of Woman: The Collected Writings of Charlotte von Kirschbaum (trans. John Shepherd, ed. Eleanor Jackson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 56.

[2] Ibid., 63.

[3] Ibid., 64-65.

[4] Ibid., 66.

[5] Ibid., 67-68.

[6] Ibid., 69.

[7] Ibid., 95-96. See also pp. 175-183.

[8] Ibid., 101.

[9] Ibid., 193.

[10] Ibid., 193-194.

[11] Ibid., 196.

[12] Ibid., 198.

[13] Ibid., 197.

[14] Ibid., 198.

[15] Ibid., 199.

[16] Ibid., 200.

[17] Ibid., 201.


Image: Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth (source)


  1. How would you interpret 1 Timothy 2?

    My starting point for women in ministry would probably be the named women in the NT who seem to serve rather prominent roles in the early church. I guess that shows my more “biblical studies” perspective. 😉

    • Like 1 Cor 14:34-35, I agree with Kirschbaum’s understanding that this arose in reaction to a misuse of the freedom gained by women prophesying, and I do not see it as an absolute, timeless ban against women proclaiming the Word in the church (and certainly not outside the church!). There is a fairly long commentary tradition that has given due attention to these texts. Yet, I also agree with Kirschbaum (and Paul) that the ministry of women is not interchangeable with the ministry of men, as if the gender distinctions have no bearing. Thus, I am a complementarian (a term that Kirschbaum uses as well) in regards to the form that ministry should take between men and women, yet I am an “egalitarian” insofar as I think women can be ordained. Thus, I don’t really like either the “complementarian” or the “egalitarian” label, since my position is an amalgamation of the two!

      To give you a concrete example, my ideal church would have a senior pastor who is male and an associate pastor who is female, both modeling the male-female ordering as Barth presents in CD III.4. This, by the way, is what my church does.

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