Katharina Schütz Zell: Holding her own with reformers

You remind me that the Apostle Paul told women to be silent in the church. I would remind you of the word of this same apostle that in Christ there is no longer male nor female and of the prophecy of Joel: “I will pour my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters will prophesy.” I do not pretend to be John the Baptist rebuking the Pharisees. I do not claim to be Nathan upbraiding David. I aspire only to be Balaam’s ass, castigating his master. 

When I read this quote in Katharina Zell’s entry in Ruth Tucker’s Extraordinary Women of Christian History, I knew I had to include her in my Write 31 Days series this year. A writer and theologian who could hold her own against the great reformers of the day, and often did at debates around her dinner table, Katharina also took in refugees, cared for the sick and visited those in prison.

It all began with a sense of divine discontent. Born in 1497 to a middle class family, Katharina was well-educated, but unsettled in her faith. She was uncertain of her salvation, fearing that her works were not enough.

Into this uncertainty came Matthew Zell in 1518. The preacher came to her hometown of Strasbourg proclaiming Biblical truth, and turning the city to Protestantism. Katharina was among them, finding the certainty her soul craved.

In 1525, Katharina and Matthew touched off no small amount of controversy when they were married. It broke canon law, defied the pope, caused an uproar in town, and ended in excommunication. The controversy led to Katharine writing her first published work – a defense of clerical marriage.

Katharina’s work with refugees brought diverse people to her home. When 3,000 people were displaced from their homes in The Peasant’s War of 1525, she organized her community to provide food and shelter. When 150 men were driven from Kentzingen, Katharina welcomed them to her home, and contacted their wives to encourage them. And when John Calvin was forced out of France, he found sanctuary at Katharina’s house.

Following her husband’s death, Katharina continued to serve. She fought for religious liberty as she defended Anabaptists, continued her writing, preached, and even edited a hymnal. Her last published work as a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer as well as Psalms 51 and 130.

Her life as a widow was not without further conflict. A former intern who had lived with the Zells, Ludwig Rabus, used Matthew’s pulpit to attack Reformed values. Katharina would have none of it, and wrote what became her most notable works as she refuted his teaching.

The date of her death is uncertain, but she had written a letter early in 1562 describing a long illness to which it is believed she succumbed later that year.

Katharina was ahead of her time in many ways. She studied Scriptures and wrote about commentaries. She was one of the earliest advocates for women in ministry. She called for freedom to practice religion without the threat of government reprisals.

But, her work was perfectly timed in God’s eyes, coming as it did after a crisis of faith that was based on the question of whether works were enough. Through the preaching of the man who would be her husband, she came to understand that faith comes through grace alone.

Like Katharina, you may be working through a time of doubt or uncertainty, but remember that God already knows how you will serve him. Pray for direction. Seek answers to your questions.

And, when it is time, prepare to serve.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork,created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10)


This is the 11th post in my Write 31 Days series for 2017 in which I am taking a devotional look at key women in Christian history. For more information, or to start the series from the beginning, visit the introductory post.

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