Friday, November 5, 2010

Christian Mission, Japan, and the Ordination of Women to the Pastoral Office

Christian mission work in Japan began with St. Francis Xavier (1506-52) in 1549. The first Lutheran missionaries arrived there in the 1890s, a few decades after other Protestant missionaries entered the scene. The first Missouri Synod Lutheran missionary came to that country in 1948. That person was Pr. William Danker, known affectionately by students and colleagues as "Black Bill," to distinguish him from his red-headed brother, "Red Fred," the great New Testament scholar and main editor/author of recent editions of the standard Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.

In his informative history of LCMS missions, Mission in the Making (Concordia, 1964), F. Dean Lueking recounts those initial years of LCMS missionary activity in Japan. Just a few months after Dr. Danker's arrival, three new missionary families were sent over from the states. A year later six more missionary couples began work there. In 1951 ten vicars were sent over for two-year stints in evangelistic activities. Then-seminarian Lueking himself served as such a vicar.

The major foci of this early LCMS missionary activity centered on three areas: Tokyo-Yokohoma, Niigata, and Hokkaido, places where other Lutherans were not active. A few years later a seminary was begun. Through Dr. Danker's leadership, the Missouri Synod mission cooperated with other Lutherans in Japan to form the Lutheran Literature Society and to support the Japan Lutheran Hour radio ministry. For Dr. Danker's own account of these years in Japan, see William Danker, Two Worlds or None (Concordia, 1964), a truly uplifting narrative.

Unfortunately in later years this early cooperation with other Lutherans gave way to "an arid period of inter-Lutheran relations" (Lueking, 299). And then with the take-over of the synod by the forces who elected and supported Jacob Preus in 1969, LCMS foreign missions were negatively affected by the hard-line actions of the synod's right-wing. Many on the synod's mission staff were fired, as was the faculty majority at the synod's flagship seminary, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, where both Danker brothers were then serving.  Some LCMS members summarized the foreign mission situation in 1974 this way:

"The current synodical administration combines dogmatic rigidity with legalistic political leadership. Our church has lost the respect of much of the Christian world and is a source of embarrassment, suffering, and distress to her members, who are now set over against each other. Today the growth has ended. The international missionary staff, reflecting also the discontent of the large majority of our missionaries, unanimously dissents against the new policies encouraged and established by the administration" (The Board of Evangelical Lutherans in Mission, as quoted in No Room in the Brotherhood, by Frederick Danker [Clayton, 1977], 191).

Jump forward to today's LCMS and one is really jumping back to 1969, at least with respect to how the synod administration is relating to some of its foreign missionary partners. I'm not talking about the restructuring of the synod's missions, both foreign and domestic, that is the result of the synod's need to restructure itself. I'm talking about the letter that the newly-elected president of the LCMS, Rev. Matthew Harrison, sent in August to the president of the synod's partner church in Japan, the Japan Lutheran Church (JLC). This letter essentially shamed that church body for moving in the direction of voting next year to ordain women to the pastoral ministry. For several years now, the JLC has been discussing this theological and practical issue and now appears to be poised to take an affirmative action on the question. Rev. Harrison has informed the JLC that if it approves the ordination of women, a matter that is also being seriously discussed in the synod's partner churches in Germany and Australia, the synod will cut off all ties with the JLC and will bring home the synod's missionaries who are currently working in Japan.

So many questions arise upon receiving this news. Here are a few that come to my mind tonight:

(1) Is the practical matter of women pastors an absolute obstacle to Christian missionary activity? If so, on what basis? How is the gospel being harmed by this practical matter? Is maintaining a male-only pastorate an essential consequence of the gospel itself? How so? I'd like to read that argument. Or, if one wants to move outward from the gospel, what dogma of the church is being harmed by female pastors? The Trinity? The person of Christ? The church? The Scriptures? Many theologians, including myself, have pointed out that there is no supportable, biblical, dogmatic, theological rationale for prohibiting women from serving as pastors. Many others in the LCMS, including a former LCMS synod president (whose own daughter is now serving as a pastor!), whose mothers, aunts, daughters, granddaughters, nieces, etc. have had to leave the LCMS to fulfill the divine call to the pastoral ministry, are convinced that there is no sufficient scriptural basis to prohibit such a practice. Even many (most?) Roman Catholic scholars who are members of a church body that does not ordain women to the priesthood acknowledge that there is an insufficient scriptural basis to prohibit women from serving as priests and must therefore appeal to an extra-biblical argument within catholic tradition that maintains that women cannot represent in their bodies the person of the male Jesus. The fact of the matter is, the New Testament does not describe a single pattern of ministry which might serve as a blueprint or abiding norm for all future ministry in the church, to paraphrase a section from the WCC document on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. For my own argument in favor of women pastors, see my essay in the Daystar Reader. See also the other essays in that volume that support this same position.

(2) While Rev. Harrison and those like him see this issue as cut and dry, how can they account for faithful members of their own synod who publicly question the synod's decisions on this matter (again, see the Daystar Reader and the hundreds of LCMSers who support its arguments for women pastors), as well as the significant majorities in the synod's own sister churches, e.g., the Lutheran Church of Australia and the Independent Lutheran Church in Germany? The issue is not going to go away. So far no one in the synod has given a convincing theological response to the serious arguments set forth within the LCMS itself for the ordination of women. Apparently, the only public arguments on this issue that are allowed in the synod are those that support the synod's practice of a male-only pastorate.

(3) How does the action of Rev. Harrison accord with the blessings that have arisen from female pastoral ministry? Those churches that ordain women to the pastoral ministry do so because of their understanding of the gospel, because of their recognition of the creaturely and spiritual gifts that God gives to both men and women, and because they are convinced that the ordained ministry of the church lacks fullness when it is limited to one sex. My conviction about women pastors has been strengthened time and time again as I have been blessed to receive ministry from female pastors, many of them former LCMSers, and as I have heard them proclaim the gospel, administer Christ's sacraments, and care for individuals. I, for one, am grateful for the pastoral care that our campus community is receiving this year from our interim campus pastor, Pr. Phyllis Kersten, who is herself someone who grew up within the Missouri Synod but who had to leave that church body to fulfill the divine calling that was given to her by Christ. Her ministry is proof positive that women's gifts are as wide and as varied as men's and that their ministry is as fully blessed by the Holy Spirit as the ministry of male pastors. Show me one church that has approved the ordination of women to the pastoral office that has then later reconsidered its decision. There isn't one.

(4) Why insist on cutting off all ties with the JLC, if it should approve the ordination of women to the pastoral office, while continuing to work closely with other sister churches that are in fellowship with churches that do ordain women to the pastoral ministry? Why pick on the JLC? Why shame them, an action that is about the worst thing one can do to a Japanese person?

Count me as an LCMS supporter of those in the JLC and in the LCMS sister churches in Australia and Germany that are moving toward approval of the ordination of women to the pastoral ministry.

There are many more questions that one could raise. I'll stop here. What think ye about these matters?


  1. Matt,

    I must say that in my many years at Concordia I wondered when this whole issue would be addressed. There were many professors that - in secret - urged me towards seminary and I would have gone if I hadn't run out of money! Thanks for taking a stance, and moving forward... so good to know! I hope that many other women who felt drawn or moved toward seminary will be able to do so without having to leave the church in which they may have grown.

    Kari (Savage) Strandjord

  2. Matt

    We just heard a report from a DP that Matt H. is not yet being aggressive...looks like that observation will have to be modified. This is very disheartening.

    Mark Hoelter

  3. Rev. Dr. Becker, Don't you READ and BELIEVE Holy Scripture? For crying out loud, Christ, through the apostle Paul, writes "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to TEACH, nor to USURP AUTHORITY OVER THE MAN, bu to be in SILENCE. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in transgression." (I Timothy 2. 11-14) Scripture SAYS women are not to teach men or to have spiritual authority over them. That's why the ordination of women CONTRADICTS Holy Scripture. And you, in "1)" (above) question Scripture??

    1. David Haas,
      The verses you cite are easily distorted in a literalistic and legalistic manner to conclude as you do. However, do you not read and believe those Scriptures that speak against your legalism? Even in the first century Christian women were not silent in the churches in all places (cf. 1 Cor. 11.5; 12.4ff.; 14.1-33a; 14.37-39 [vv. 33b-36 is a non-Pauline interpolation that contradicts the spirit and letter of the vv. preceding and following it]; the example of Priscilla expounding doctrine in the synagogue in Acts 18.26, and the examples of other women among Paul's co-workers "in the gospel," e.g., those listed in Rom. 16, mentioned in Phil. 4.2-3, etc. Moreover, Paul's teaching in Rom. 5 about the advent of sin through Adam (no mention of Eve!) directly contradicts the teaching about Eve and women in First Tim. 2.11ff. Whoever wrote these latter words was reflecting Jewish customs and standards of that time, standards that no longer apply to our time, when we understand the creaturely condition of women differently (e.g., many intellectually-gifted, university-educated, seminary-trained, and pastorally-formed women are fully gifted by the Spirit today to carry out the ministry of word and sacrament). For freedom Christ has set you free! Do no be yoked again to outmoded injunctions that no longer serve the gospel, ones that undermine the power and authority of Holy Baptism, and that frustrate the work of the Spirit to call qualified women into pastoral ministry, women who are intelligent, articulate, gifted with pastoral charisms. The counsels in First Tim. 2 regarding the silence of women, women being saved through childbearing, etc. were applications for that time and place, not necessarily universal standards for the churches of all time and all places.

      The pastor who proclaimed the gospel of Christ in our congregation this morning did so authoritatively because she is baptized, called by the Spirit through the gospel, enlightened with the Spirit's gifts, called and ordained by the church--all in order to proclaim that same gospel and to administer the sacraments in accord with that gospel (as she did this morning when she baptized an infant girl). That she happens to be a woman is irrelevant, at least with respect to her being called and authorized to serve as a pastor. The authorization and authority of her ministry are grounded in the Spirit's own working, the vocatus and ordinatio this person has rightly received through her church, and the power and authority of the gospel itself.