Spener and the Role of Women in the Church

From Denise D. Kettering Lane’s article, “Philipp Spener and the Role of Women in the Church: The Spiritual Priesthood of All Believers in German Pietism”:

[Spener] aimed his criticism [in Pia Desideria] at all Christians, regardless of gender, occupation, or education. He lamented that the laity did not perceive drunkenness as a sin, treated each other miserably, failed to live Christian lives, and harmed the Lutheran witness to misguided religious groups, such as the papists. According to Spener, this unchristian behavior appeared predominantly in the preponderance of lawsuits and dishonest trade relationships. His discussion of occupations further highlights his emphasis on social sins: “If we look at trade, the crafts, and other occupations through which people seek to earn their living, we shall find that everything is not arranged according to the precepts of Christ, but rather that not a few public regulations and traditional usages in these occupations are diametrically opposed to them.” By locating these problems in the bar, courtroom, and shop, Spener largely omits women’s activities in his castigations.
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Denise Kettering-Lane

Nowhere in the first section of Pia Desideria did Spener identify specifically female behavior as a symptom of corruption in the church. While the spiritual equality of men and women meant that women were included in Spener’s general discussion of corrupt characteristics, he did not raise the issues of vanity, prostitution, or gossip—all sins traditionally associated with women at this time.

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Nowhere does Pia Desideria propose a particular role for women or mention women explicitly.Spener apparently did not foresee some of the attacks that would occur because of women’s involvement in independent Bible reading or the conventicles. In fact, one scholar has commented that the resulting participation of women caused Spener to moderate his position in hindsight to conform more fully to societal conventions.
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Even as he wrote tracts that minimized the activity of women in the Pietist movement and asserted views that corresponded to traditional views of women, largely to fend off accusers, he engaged in regular correspondence with women, providing advice about leading family devotion time and reading the Bible—even discussing theological matters. Also, if anything, Spener’s correspondence to women substantially increased over the course of his life. Thus throughout his life he consistently adhered to the notion that developing a more involved laity would result in an improved church, and he recognized that women were part of that laity. While publicly conforming to many social conventions, privately Spener regularly encouraged women’s activities in his correspondence.
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His emphasis on practice reinforced the available, though limited, role of women in his vision of a collected pious group that could reform the church and the world. Nevertheless, all of these tasks performed by women remained firmly within the private realm. Women were not engaged in public teaching or sacramental roles. All of this took place within a patriarchal system ruled over by the man of the house or the minister. Spener did not suggest a change in the church structure but instead reinforced the existing patriarchy by advising extensive ministerial oversight, even in the homes of parishioners for small group meetings. It was a spiritual priesthood, but a priesthood that always operated under the careful oversight of a watchful clergyman.
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Spener affirmed women’s spiritual equality, citing Galatians 3:28. He additionally acknowledged that women are recipients of spiritual gifts and refers to women in Scripture who worked with—not under—the apostles. Spener appears to support a cooperative vision in which the majority of men and women share gifts and work to support ministry. However, the subsequent question restricted the extent of women’s ministry, asking, “But are women not forbidden to teach?” Here the division between public and private spheres governed. It is true, Spener said, that women are forbidden to teach “in the public congregation,” marshaling 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11–12 as scriptural support. Thus Spener’s view of the spiritual priesthood—and spiritual equality of men and women—ultimately reaffirmed existing constructions of women’s roles within the church, limiting women to private activity.
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In his effort to ensure that the spiritual priesthood did not upset contemporary notions of social order, Spener clearly outlined the roles of women in a way that reflected and reinforced patriarchal norms that focused on the spiritual rather than practical equality of women. While a generous reading certainly reveals places where the possibility for expanded activity for women in the church is mentioned, the overriding need to reinforce order ultimately won the day.
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Denise D. Kettering-Lane