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Karl Barth on Gender Roles in the Church

March 8, 2012

Recently I had the opportunity to read the results of a research project that looked into the recorded minutes from the ‘Secretary of the Church Administration’ in Karl Barth’s pastorate in Safenwil, Switzerland (which just so happened to have been Barth himself!). The researcher, Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt, wrote up a highly intriguing account of it, and as far as I know this is the first English translation available (?). Having shared an interesting snippet from it elsewhere, today I want to share another one, this time from an episode mid-way through Barth’s ministry which had to do with a decision whether or not to allow a woman to preach in their church.

Karl Barth and his house in Safenwil, with the church in the background

As a student of Karl Barth who is also interested in gender studies and who is heavily embroiled in denominational controversy over the issue of gender roles in the church, I have been cautiously curious about what Barth had to say on the matter. I remain curious because my own research has not necessitated that I yet read his discussion of women and men in volume three. I am cautious because, well, I’m honestly still kind of enamoured with Barth and from what I have can tell his treatment of this issue is going to bring that down a notch. ; ) So I’ve earmarked it and plan to look into it further. However, this account from Barth’s early pastorate might add some (to my mind promising) complexity to our understanding of him on this matter. Let me know what you think. The excerpt is pretty short, so I’ll set it up and follow it up via some explanatory cliff-notes based on an essay by Paul Fiddes on “The Status of Woman in the Thought of Karl Barth”.

According to Paul Fiddes, when Barth looks at 1 Cor. 11:3 he says that it is  “not [about] a hierarchy at all, but a comparison of sets of relationships – God with Christ, Christ with humankind and man with woman.” However, Fiddes explains, “Barth dares to say that the personal relationship between male and female is an image of the relations between the Persons of the Trinity” (see CD III/2, 311; III/1, 195-196). This is a rather debatable point, but we’ll move on. Fiddes continues by posing Barth’s preliminary conclusion about “headship” in 1 Cor. 11:3, which is “that there is an area in which man and woman are not equal; they are not equal in the order of function which God has allotted to them. It is the place of woman to be subordinate and submissive to man, and this is made clear by the analogy of covenants.”

On its own this is a pretty classic complementarian argument, reflecting on Genesis 2 and saying that the beautiful equality of the genders expresses itself in a functional (but not unequal) order, with the man as “inspirer, leader and initiator” and the woman following his initiative into a relation of reciprocal self-giving (see CD III/4, 170-1). But when it works out in practice it might still come close to what I’d call “mutual submission egalitarianism” if the lead concept is nonetheless for men and women to be “subject to one another out of reverence to Christ” (see Eph. 5.21 and CD III/2, 313). Indeed this is where Barth seems to end up with it, in a roundabout way. After all, says Fiddes, “Barth perceives not a ‘ladder’ of subordination, but a parallel series of I-Thou relationships” which are filled in for their mutuality by verse 11: “in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman.”

Fiddes also notes that if Barth is what we’d call a complementarian it is not because of the perception of “different gender characteristics” that “bind men and women to certain vocations.” In fact: “Barth rejects a typology of the sexes, such as the view that man is the natural leader because of his hunting and aggressive instincts, and that the woman is the natural follower because of her guarding and tending instincts…. In Barth’s view, the woman is submissive because God has called her to this vocation, not because she has certain natural qualities which suit her for it. Indeed, Barth has such a high view of the freedom of God’s word that he believes the call to men and women to be true to their sex may take new and surprising forms, ‘right outside the systems in which we like to think'” [see CD III/4, 151-152].

This should make us wonder whether Barth might have looked favourably on women preaching and leading in church. Which brings us to Marquardt’s story about the woman who being considered for the pulpit at Barth’s church in Safenwil. This occurred years before Barth wrote volume three of his Church Dogmatics, of course, but the relevance is pretty clear. Marquardt concludes with his own assessment of the episode, and here’s my slightly paraphrased summary of his account:

Having begun to offer lecture series in their church from time to time, in 1917 a woman was proposed by Barth as the guest speaker. The minutes explain that Ms. R. Gutknecht was a “theological student in Zürich” and would “shortly be taking her theological examination,”  and sum up the discussion as follows: “In response to the question from Mr. Shärer the secretary [Barth] declared that he had basically no reservations against the admission of women to pastoral functions, and that here, as in every case, the judgment must be made on the basis of the inherent merit of what is said.”

However, we learn from the minutes that the church administration preferred she come preach on Sunday rather than lecture, and so it would seem the they felt it safer to cross this boundary in the privacy of their congregation than in a widely publicized public lecture. So she was invited to preach, “but nothing more.” And the lecture did not happen at all that year.

Whether Fiddes knew about this episode or not, in lines up with his treatment of Barth, which pinpoints an openness to women in leadership which is articulated, interestingly enough, within an account that places women in an intrinsic place of submission.

So how did Barth get there? You’ll have to see Fiddes’ essay yourself, but basically it goes like this: “In the comparison of husband and wife on the one hand [and] Christ and his Church on the other, it is supposedly the wife who is to be submissive, representing the community. But … there is no submission as utter and complete as that of Christ himself…. [So the] distinction between the submitting of the wife and the loving leadership of the man thus seems to have evaporated. It has been swallowed up in the glory and the humility of the cross.” In other words, Jesus turns our understanding of “majesty” on its head (by re-defining it for us in terms of humble service) and thus informs our understanding of leadership in such a way that opens it up for female participation.

This is interesting to me because, even if we agree with Fiddes that “no list of male and female functions can be simply read off from the analogy of the Trinity,” and even if we add that the sequential order of creation does not necessitate a hierarchy of relationships, we might still be able to argue with someone of Barth’s persuasion for the legitimacy of female pastors and preachers in the trajectory of Christ’s redemption of a community. As Fiddes puts it, “Barth himself believes that this principle of reciprocity takes ‘absolute precedence’ over any difference in order between male and female” (see CD III/4, 164), and can alter significantly the way we work within human structures of authority.

[See Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt, ‘The Secretary of the Church Administration: From Barth’s Pastorate,’ Theological Audacities: Selected Essays, edited by Andreas Pangritz and Paul S. Chung (2010), p. 145.]

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2012 3:48 pm

    Fascinating post, Jon. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to perusing Fiddes’ essay when I can find some free time.

    In the meantime, however, I find myself unpersuaded that the distinction “evaporates” before the glory and humility of the cross… I wonder if it is not instead, in some sense, amplified. My initial thought on reading this blog post was that, while it is true that there is no submission as utter and complete as that of Christ Himself, does Christ actually submit to the Church? I suppose if you interpret “submission” as “humble service” then yes, He does, but can hupostasso mean that?

  2. March 10, 2012 3:52 pm

    Er, I meant hupotasso. It seems to typically entail commanding, subjecting, ordering.

  3. March 10, 2012 8:33 pm

    Well, in what we said about Barth here it never spoke about hypotasso in particular, but I get where you are going. You are right, the New Testament never says Christ hypotasso (submits to) the Church, and when it has the opportunity to say so (in Ephesians 5:25 for instance) it does not use that word but it says that Christ agapaō (loves) and paradidōmi heautou (gives himself up) for the church. However, before this it has framed the whole wife/husband relationship, which will parallel and then give way to the church/Christ relationship, in terms of mutual hypotassō, so it would seem possible that this submission can mean both the submissions that occur according to social structures and customs, but also the free humble service of self-giving love that befits those in the Christian community. It does appear to be within the range of meaning for hypotassō that it can refer to both obligatory and free subjection. On my reading of this passage and the others where it comes up, I’d suggest that with male/female relations as with master/slave relations Paul is pretty heart-set on seeing the Christians who are in structures of submission now submit for a different reason, i.e. “as to the Lord” and “out of reverence for Christ”. Structures can and will change, but they will change by means of self-giving, and not self-asserting.

    That would be my take on what you are (I think) getting at. As for Barth, however, I think at least in this summary of Fiddes’ summary of him he is more generally speaking about Christ’s humble service (culminating on the cross) as an “evaporation” not of distinctions but of the definitiveness of our systems of power and esteem. It doesn’t diminish the place of leadership and authority in the Church, but it fundamentally changes its nature so that even if women are second in the back and forth of initiation and response, in the Christian community there foreseeably arises the eventuality that they are entrusted with those leadership roles by their communities. Leadership roles are based on gifting and are defined by servanthood, not by encultured givens and hierarchical or power-based notions of authority.

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