Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Women's Ordination and LCMS Partner Churches

More than a decade ago the Selbstaendige evangelisch-lutherische Kirche, the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK), formally decided to discuss openly the question of the ordination of women to the pastoral office. This decision was a milestone, since it allowed individuals in that church body to discuss the matter openly without fear of reprisal. This decision and the subsequent years of theological discussions about the matter in the SELK stand in stark contrast to what has happened about the issue in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LCMS), heretofore a partner church body of the SELK. Missourians who have attempted to bring the matter to the forefront in the synod have been marginalized, shunned, silenced, labeled "false teachers," publicly denounced at synod conventions, brought up on charges of "heresy," removed from the clergy roster of the synod. Despite these actions and threats of further action, earlier this year the Daystar group within the LCMS published several essays on the ordination of women, including one by yours truly. These appear in The Daystar Reader (see side bar). The essays there share much in common with the SELK essays that are favorable toward the practice of women pastors. All of these essays are similar, too, to those that have been publicly presented and discussed in another of the LCMS's partner churches, the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA), which has also been publicly engaging the issue for many years. (For documents on the ordination of women in the LCA, visit its website, http://www.lca.org.au/index.php)

For the past decade the SELK has been carefully and civilly discussing the issue of women pastors. For a helpful 72-page document that recounts the process and summarizes the important essays, see http://www.selk-deutschland.de/download/Ordination-Frauen_2009.pdf  Just a few weeks ago a special synod of the SELK in Hessen-Nord met for an entire Saturday to discuss the "complicated" issue in a systematic-theological manner. At the end of the day, 20 of the delegates indicated their support for the introduction of women pastors in the SELK, seven were opposed, and two abstained. At the SELK's seminary in Oberursel there is not unanimity on this question. Several professors publicly favor the ordination of women, as do many of the seminarians, several of whom have also studied theology at the larger German universities. From what I can tell, it is only a matter of time before the SELK formally approves the ordination of women. Clear majorities in the SELK favor that decision, although 2/3 of voting delegates at a SELK convention would be required to enact that change.

What strikes me about the SELK deliberative process is how cordial, civil, evangelical, fraternal, and serious it has been. Papers on several sides of the issue have been treated with respect and given a fair and open hearing. Last year, at the SELK's general pastors conference, all of the pastors agreed on a common statement that included the following:

"Advocates and opponents of women's ordination proceed… from the general commitment to the Holy Scripture… They therefore take seriously first of all the different replies to the question regarding the admissibility of the ordination of women to the office of the church, because they take into consideration--perceived as indeed binding--the insights of the other side in the differing interpretation of the Holy Scripture. The existence of both positions regarding this question will not be considered as church-dividing at present."
The statement went on to note that the meetings that have occurred in the SELK during the past decade have contributed strongly toward building confidence, improving the state of affairs, and deepening theological understanding. Mutual respect has grown with opponents as well as advocates of women's ordination, even when no side could be convinced theologically by the other side.

Despite the intensive deliberations in the SELK there is at present no unanimity about the question of the admissibility of the ordination of women, although a clear majority of SELK pastors favor the practice. In view of the present situation, the general pastors' conference admits its perplexity about how to attain unanimity in this question. However, it trusts the "leading of the Holy Spirit, who according to the promise of the Lord of the Church will lead us into all truth" (John 16:13). In this confidence, further patient work is required to attain such an understanding. The SELK will meet in convention in the coming New Year when the matter will again receive attention and perhaps a vote.

All of this brings to mind the recent actions of the Synod's president, Rev. Matthew Harrison, who has threatened to end completely Missouri's partnership with the Japan Lutheran Church (NRK), if that latter should vote to approve the ordination of women at its convention next May.  It should be noted that since 1974 the NRK has officially held that the ordination of women to the pastoral office is a matter that is "neither commanded nor forbidden" in Scripture, that is, it is an "adiophoron" (a matter of "indifference"). At the present time the NRK is leaning toward the ordination of women for the sake of its mission in Japan.

Finally, I can't help but recommend the latest book of my friend, Dean Lueking. This would make an excellent Christmas present for the pastor or teacher or mission-minded friend in your circle. The title is Through Their Eyes: A People's View of the Global Church (River Forest: Tyra Books, 2010). The foreword to the 472-page book is by Dean's close friend and one of my mentors, Martin E. Marty.

I plan to write a complete review in the coming weeks, but for now I'll simply point out that Dean has a wonderful chapter on the Lutheran Church in Japan. To get a feel for the challenges to Christian ministry and mission there, one can do no better than to read that chapter and learn about Toshifumi Uemura, Takako Ohashi, Yoshiro Ishida, Kazuteru Matsukawa, and others.

I know from private conversation that Dean, too, is troubled by the recent actions of the current synod president toward the synod's partner church there. I can't help but wonder if Rev. Harrison is also going to threaten the SELK and the LCA in light of their decade-long deliberative process on women's ordination, a process that also seems to be leaning them toward accepting this practice. Why pick on the NRK and not the SELK and LCA, especially when the latter seem to be moving in the same direction as the NRK?

Of course this issue involves more than just the theological question about women's pastors. Equally significant, perhaps more significant, these actions raise before us the question: How do we deal with those in our own church body and those in our partner churches whose serious commitment to Scripture and its teaching leads them to very different theological and practical conclusions? Can we not agree with our SELK brothers and sisters when they publicly state that holding such different conclusions about the matter of women pastors need not be church-divisive? I would hope so.

By the way, to obtain your copy of Pastor Lueking's excellent book, contact him through TyraBooksChicago.com or DeanLueking.com


  1. For a different take:

  2. hmmm ... you sound like Charles Curran. Toleration of error so quickly becomes approval which so quickly becomes advocacy. Stop before it's too late.

  3. Japan Lutheran Church(JLC) doesn't approve women pastors now. However, JLC approves women deaconess. A woman deaconess is ordained by the LORD and JLC, and she makes a sermon on the Sunday worship and leads the liturgy of Holy Communion every Sunday at the local church. JLC approves women pastors as our theological understanding.

    The convention of JLC in this May will be discussed about which women pastors are approved or not at JLC. There are people who worry about the relation to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) about this matter.

    However, JLC and LCMS are partner churches. JLC is an independent church body from LCMS. LCMS is LCMS, and JLC is JLC. JLC is not in a subordinate position of LCMS. JLC and LCMS are same position.

    And JLC has a joint theological seminary with Japan Evangelical Luther church. So JLC has difference understanding from LCMS theology.

    Therefore, JLC can do an original decision as JLC. JLC is unnecessary to be same opinion as LCMS. Because JLC is JLC, JLC and LCMS are each independent, same position, and partner churches.

  4. Um...anonymous, I don't think you understand what fellowship means. YES, JLC is an independent church body, but if they ordain women, we must break from them due to their doctrinal error. The same would apply to SELK.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. As member of the SELK I do not agree to several statements made in this article. (a) People who are in favour of women's ordination have never been "marginalized" (as the author manipulatively suggests). (b) There is not a vast majority, but some who proactively support this issue, a bigger group which is indifferent, and group that is opposed to womenÄs ordination. The poll made by the Hessen-Nord district is not an official decision but an agreement to enquire at the general convention. (c) There is no relation between studying abroad from seminary and being open-minded towards women's ordination. All seminarians are requested to study at other universities, recent polls show that the number of those who support women's ordination is decreasing.

  7. Benjamin Mueller,

    What do you know about the marginalizing, shunning, and attacks against individuals within the LCMS for wanting to discuss openly the issue of women's ordination to the pastoral office? I can give you a list of the LCMS individuals, current and former, who have experienced these negative behaviors within the LCMS.

    I wrote that "Missourians" have been "marginalized" and shunned and attacked within their church body when they have attempted to discuss this issue. As far as I can tell, such behaviors have not occurred within the SELK.

    On more than one occasion I have been told by knowledgeable sources that a majority of SELK pastors is not opposed to the ordination of women as pastors. The poll at the Hessen-Nord meeting and the positions of the SELK seminary faculty on women's ordination are further evidence for the accuracy of this statement.

    Surely the hermeneutical and theological issues that relate to the issue of women's ordination, as these have been studied and discussed in German theological faculties, where both women and men are students and professors, have had an impact on the SELK. How else do you account for the support for women's ordination within the SELK by the majority of the SELK's seminary faculty, most all of whom were educated at German universities? Are you suggesting that none of these professors (and no other SELK pastors) were influenced in this matter through their study of theology at non-SELK universities? That seems very improbable.

  8. Dr Becker,
    please excuse this delayed response, I just today (Jan 10, 2012) figured out that you answered my comment. Please also excuse the multitude of my grammatical shortcomings, since English is not my first language, but German. To answer your questions:

    (a) “What do you know about the marginalizing, shunning, and attacks etc.”
    Answer: What I originally concluded from your sentence "This decision was a milestone, since it allowed individuals in that church body to discuss the matter openly without fear of reprisal" was that you assume both, that there was reprisal in the SELK and that those who are about “to discuss” WO today are generally encountered in an inappropriate way, that is repressed. I again think that this wording is inappropriate, in as much as you did not prove how this reprisal actually took or takes place. To contradict somebody who errs or tries to introduce new habits foreign to the Christian church is not reprisal, but admonition. Accordingly, those who were in favour of women’s ordination were admonished in the SELK but not discriminated or repressed. In the LCMS, to be sure, things may be different. But instead of claiming that there is “marginalizing, shunning, and attacks” you should rather prove it, so that people can tell whether it is reprisal or admonition. Until this evidence is not supplied, I have to judge in dubio pro reo.

    (b) “On more than one occasion I have been told etc.”
    This statement is certainly true. But “not being opposed” to the ordination of women does not automatically mean mean being in favour of it. This weird situation is because of different understandings of the ministry. Accordingly there are many, - and it is probably the majority- who hypothetically are not opposed to the idea that women could be pastors. This, however, does not mean that they actually support women’s ordination, because they are not entirely sure about this.
    This may also be due to the fact, that numerous lay(wo)men are opposed to women’s ordination for several reasons. Since decisions in the SELK are eventually made by the General Convention which is almost equally made up by ordained and non-ordained; particular conventions and boards thus are not as crucial in the SELK as you may conclude from the LCMS. Accordingly, what happened in Hessen-Nord or at Oberursel is basically hardly more than a reflection of how highly densely supporters of WO are located at these both places. You will have quite different results elsewhere.

    (c) “Surely the hermeneutical and theological issues that relate to the issue etc.”
    Quite frankly I think you should do more research on this. Historically there was little discussion about the women’s ordination. After WW II most protestant church bodies introduced WO in accordance with a predominating mind set of the Germans that time. Ironically, right the opposite of what you claimed before was true in the state churches: When pastors argued against WO for theological reasons they initially were granted “freedom of consciousness“ but later on encounter reprisal in form of salary shortage or even legal discipline. I personally can tell you several stories.

    (d) “How else do you account for the support etc.”
    Here you are most probably mistaking of what our pastors’ training looks like. ALL professors and students are ALSO educated for at least a shorter period outside of LTHH since this little seminary is hardly able to offer all classes required for our course of studies. Whether somebody is in favour or against WO hardly depends on this short period, but is in most cases already obvious by the time when students enter seminary right after highschool. What basically happens during their studies is that they are looking for one way or another to prove what they already believed before.
    There are several reasons why SELK pastors are in favour of WO, and I surely could account for it by numerating several issues. But stating clearly what I think these are, has more than once brought me into difficulties recently.

  9. Benjamin Mueller,

    There have not been reprisals in the SELK for discussing the ordination of women openly.

    There have been reprisals in the LCMS for doing so during the past thirty years or so. In our church body "admonishment" on this topic goes together with "reprisal." "If you don't change your view, you will be removed from the clergy roster." It is this difference in how "admonishment" is used in the SELK and LCMS that I was highlighting.

    Several LCMS pastors (Karl Wyneken, Jim Hallerberg, myself) have had official charges leveled against them for discussing the ordination of women to the pastoral office. These charges always come with a threat of removal.

  10. Dr Becker,

    it seems to me we are clear about certain mistakable lines in your initial post now.

    To judge the admonition/reprisal you just mentioned, more context is required, I think. As a matter of course I assume that all of you have well researched reasons for your ideas, and that these are anchored in Scripture and correspond the teaching as exposed in the confessions. If so, no individual has the power to dismiss you from the ministry of the LCMS and you do not need to fear.

    If, on the other hand, your position is based on hermeneutics that do not correspond to those confessed in FC V, church discipline may be legally and by divine mandate appropriate, in one way or the other.

    What I could discover in Germany is that those who advocate for WO do not fully embrace the teaching of Law and Gospel as hermeneutic principle in their consideration, though it is an integral component of our confessions. Luther himself denies WO in course of the discussion of the proper distinction. As his sermon on Gal 3, dated Jan 2, 1532 seems to suggest, a confusion of "offices" (Berufe, Stände, Ämter), e.g. that of father and son, mother and daugther etc. is a mingling of Law and Gospel itself and thus an inappropriate way to read scripture. Accordingly he also concludes that women are not eligible for ministry just as he himself is not to eligible to act as mayor, for his office is that of the public ministry (WA 36,29.23-26). Since I recently learned that you are an admirer of D. Werner Elert, I would recommend you to study his writings on natural orders again. He provides profund information that may clarify certain questions you might have on the issue of WO.
    Gott befohlen!

  11. Benjamin Mueller,

    I'm sorry to point out to you again that the error was on your part. You thought I was referring to repression in the SELK, when I was referring to repression in the LCMS and using the SELK's approach to the public discussion of women's ordination as a positive example. I am pointing out that it is acceptable for people in the SELK to discuss openly the ordination of women to the pastoral office, but that it is not acceptable to do so in the LCMS without facing recriminations.

    You misunderstood my initial post which is quite clear in what it asserts about the difference between the SELK and the LCMS on this matter.

    If you read my online essays in favor of the ordination of women to the pastoral office, you will see that the entire line of argumentation is grounded in the proper distinction between law and gospel.

    I am quite familiar with Elert's understanding of the "orders," which are dynamic precisely because they occur within the natural order of things. What Dr. Luther understood by "orders" in his 16th-c. context had already changed by the time Elert himself discussed this theological issue. Luther knew nothing about modern democratic structures/"orderings" and modern human rights.

    Despite the influence of Elert's understanding of "orders" on my thinking, I think Bonhoeffer's "orders of preservation" is more helpful theologically, as I have argued in several essays.

  12. Dr Becker,

    as matter of course I will study the essays you just mentioned. By now I can tell you that Elert does not at all consider these orders being dynamic, but as irreversible (cf. BBB, 25). The same applies for Luther on this question, in particular because these orders are ordained by God and not by human reason (cf. the writing in WA 36 mentioned above). Human reason is how people conduct their offices, but the offices themselves are commandment of God.

    If you say Luther did not know about democracies and human rights, I wonder why he repeatedly refutes the idea of the swiss people to introduce a democracy- To be sure, he did not know about the particular presidential system of the USA etc, but he explicitly accuses the Swiss people of introducing a tyranny. And even if you're argument were true it contributes in no way to the question of WO, since orders are divinely instituted and not by human reason, rights or notions. If else, how could we possible know that God’s promises still apply for (wo)man made offices?

    Though I generally doubt that God revealed anything new to individuals exclusively, I will learn about Bonhoeffer’s notion of “orders of preservation” by reading your essays.

    PS: As you Americans say, "watch your language". From sentences like that your initial post "is quite clear in what it asserts" though it is grammatically ambiguous; and claims like "the entire line of argumentation is grounded in the proper distinction between law and gospel" though nobody perfectly masters this high art, people might eventually assume that you're arrogating the truth for yourself. - I basically assume that this is not the case, therefore let us speak as brothers and not as publisher perfect and reader ridiculous.

  13. Benjamin Mueller,

    My essay is found at:


    You are mistaken about Elert's understanding of the natural orders and order within the church. Please read Das christliche Ethos, 2d ed., chapter three (Die natuerlichen Ordnungen), p. 112ff. The key sentences begin: "Ordnung als Sollgefuege, als Inbegriff von Vorschriften, kann nur Gegenstand der goettlichen Legislature im engeren Sinne sein, wie wir sie im Dekalog eroerterten. Verstehen wir dagegen unter der Schoepfung die durch Gottes kreatorisches und gubernatorisches Tun gewirkte Gesamtwirklichkeit, so ist sie KEIN Sollgefuege. Was Gott schafft, erhaelt und regiert, SOLL nicht so sein, sondern IST so. Die Schoepfungsordnung ist keine Vorschrift, sondern als Produkt des kreatorischen Wirkens Gottes ein Tatbestand, also ein Seinsgefuege; als Produkt seines gubernatorischen Wirkens eine Abfolge, also ein Zeitgefuege. Vielleicht auch ein Ranggefuege, aber das kann jetzt beiseite gelassen werden. Das Seinsgefuege und das Zeitgefuege sind hier allerdings nur begrifflich, nicht sachlich zu scheiden. Denn das von Gott hervorgerufene Sein ist zeitliches Sein, die geschaffenen Tatbestaende sind zeitliche Tatbestaende, die dem Gesetz des Werdens und Vergehens, das heisst auch der Abfolgeordnung unterliegen. Sprechen wir von Schoepfungsordnungen, von kreatuerlichen oder natuerlichen Ordnungen in der Mehrzahl, so kann es sich nur um Sektoren dieser Seins- und Abfolgeordnung der Gesamtschoepfung handeln."

    Please note that Elert does not discuss the ordering of the church under "the natural orders." These latter only involve the family, marriage, a nation as a whole, the state and law, citizenship, economic interdependence (where he discusses slavery as the "demonization" of the creaturely order of labor), vocation, truth between people.

    For Elert, the church is an additional "order," an "order of grace," not of law. This is a new order in which Christ has come between God and humankind as the friend of sinners. This order is created by the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. Christ has thus entrusted to the church as a totality the preaching of the gospel, baptism, the office of the keys, the administration of his Supper, and works of mercy. Elert stresses that the church was not originally a legal entity and that it need not be. Only toward the end of the first century does something like canon law emerge "in the stipulations for qualifications of deacons and bishops," but he again stresses that this was necessary so that all the "vital functions" of the church as a totality could be carried out in that temporal context.

    Please read carefully sub-section 4 of main section 56, starting with the paragraph that begins "Allein eine Rechtsordnung dieser Art vermag die Gesamtheit und Unverletzlichkeit des Leibes Christi nicht zu sichern..." What counts is the execution of the tasks that Christ has given the church so that the church is the "order of love and forgiveness," not a legal order. Canon law, including the criteria for filling the office of preaching, are subject to historical change and theological reformation, as Dr. Luther's own reforms of that office make clear.

    I agree that nobody perfects the art of distinguishing the gospel from the law, but the intent of my essay is to ground my argument in that distinction.

  14. Dr Becker,

    thank you for this response. To me the references given above are not as unanimous as they are to our ears at first listening, in particular since "zeitlich" for Elert does not mean temporarily within our time, but temporarily compared to the eternity to God. He does also distinguish between the Church, the Ministry, officies within the church & ministry, whichof some are natural, others made "e ratione" in order to exercise an office. Yet, to respond your post in an appropriate and fraternal way, it will take me some time to elaborate on that. By then I will let you know.