One of Martin Luther’s contributions to how we view church today was his rediscovery of the concept of the “priesthood of all believers”. International Women’s Day [March 8] is a good time to reflect on the application of this doctrine. How many female leaders of the Reformation do you know? Probably none. Of the Reformation groups, perhaps the Anabaptists practiced this doctrine better than any other, although 500 years later even among them there are still groups who do not yet allow women in all leadership roles.
There is disagreement among scholars as to the role of women among sixteenth century Anabaptists. It was the medieval era after all and women were not accepted as persons or leaders in the larger society or church at the time. Yet, the strong belief in believer’s baptism, freedom of conscience, the calling of the Spirit, and communal living birthed an inclusivity that was radical for its time.
“The concept of the priesthood of believers among the Anabaptists elevated women to a role of partnership in the congregation of believers. In the state churches, Catholic and Protestant, the attitude toward women was as yet quite medieval and remained so for many years. However, in Anabaptist circles women were referred to as sisters, and were held in the highest respect.” [Myron Augsburger]
“The calling of the Spirit which provided the foundation for the Anabaptist movement was radically egalitarian and personal, even though it led individuals into a commitment to a community.” [Linda H. Hecht]
Anabaptists believed that women received the same call to salvation, baptism and discipleship that men did. Therefore, some Anabaptist women also had leadership roles in the church and many were imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith.
The nature of Anabaptist communities involved economic sharing and recognized the prophetic gifts of all people, not just ordained leaders. All people, including women, were involved in Bible study and spiritual discernment. In fact because the women lived and associated so freely with the men in the work of the church, the Anabaptists were often slanderously accused by their opponents for having their women in common!
With this background we should ask ourselves today: How are we practicing the priesthood of ALL believers in our churches today? Are we leaving anyone out of the privilege of priesthood?