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Who the heck was Ilse Fredrichsdorff?
Who the heck was Ilse Fredrichsdorff?
Several years ago, I came across a story about her while reading through Robert Yarbrough’s excellent book, The Salvation-Historical Fallacy, where he refers to a quote that mentions her in the preface of a book by M. Albertz on Die Botschaft des Neuen Testament (The Message of the New Testament) written in Germany just after the second world war.[i] The citation reads:
This book is dedicated to the young brethren of the Confessing Church. I was united with them in my office as leader of the Office of Theological Examination of the Confessing Church in Berlin-Brandenburg. I was all the closer to these brethren, whose status was illegal from the start, in that performance of my ministry resulted in the loss of my freedom as well as my ordination, withdrawn by a bogus ecclesiastical authority. The book’s dedication bears two names [one is Erich Klapproth, the other is Ilse Fredrichsdorff] … When the church began she [Ilse Fredrichsdorff] was a young girl belonging to the Confessing Church congregation Nicolai-Melanchthon in Spandau. Through our congregation she came to take up theological study. She studied in our theological college and in Basel with Karl Barth. She became curate of the only truly evangelical confessional school that could be established under the Third Reich, the school for non-Aryan Christian children who were no longer permitted to attend the public school. During the war she remained in congregations northeast of Berlin, in that region where the last battle prior to Berlin was waged. She was so much in demand for her pastoral skills that the major of the troop emplacements behind which lay the villages she served repeatedly requested her aid among the troops. Later she led the displaced congregations with the word of God, went back to the hunger zone as much as possible, and, after she had buried hundreds of the thousands who perished, succumbed herself to starvation.
That’s an amazing story of really taking up your cross and serving Christ. What do you say to that kind of story?[ii]
Well, if you are a strong complementarian, then you would probably be forced to say that Ilse Fredrichsdorff, despite her earnest faith, was the prime example of everything that a woman should not be, a pastor who engaged in a ministry of word and sacrament. She may have done some good given the extreme circumstances of her time, but ultimately her pastoral work did not bring glory to God because she undertook Christian ministry in direct disobedience to God’s command that it be restricted to men.
Or, in a more generous version, one might reply that Ilse Fredrichsdorff was one of those strange exceptions, like the Old Testament prophet Huldah, so you just shrug your shoulders and say, “Wonderful woman, but I don’t know how that lines up with 1 Tim 2.12.”
Yet I would retort that women like Ilse Fredrichsdorff are not exceptions that prove the rule, rather, they stand in a long line of Christian women from the apostolic age across church history who have served God in areas such as leading communities and teaching God’s word to others.
The history of the church is filled with women like Ilse Fredrichsdorff. The tragedy is that we have not told their stories.
[i] Robert W. Yarbrough, The Salvation Historical Fallacy: Reassessing the History of New Testament Theology (Leiden: Deo, 2004), 342 n. 9. [ii] On the internet, I did locate a reference to a thesis (in German) written about Ilse Fredrichsdorff written by Renate Schatz-Hurschmann called Ein Frau ist immer im Dienst: Das Leben der Isle Fredrichsdorff (A Women is in the Ministry: The Life of Ilse Fredrichsdorff).