Affirming the Ministry of Women in the Lutheran Church of Australia

The Abuse and Use of the Distinction Between Law and Gospel in the Debate on the Ordination of Women

John G. Strelan, Port MacQuarie, NSW

Our starting point is the opening sentence of the article on law and gospel in the Formula of Concord:

The distinction between law and gospel is an especially brilliant light which serves the purpose that the word of God may be rightly divided and the writings of the holy prophets and apostles may be explained and understood correctly.

At first blush it seems that the confessors are concerned here with distinguishing between law and gospel for the sake of orthodoxy, of explaining the Scriptures ‘correctly’, of getting it right. It seems cold, head-oriented, theoretical.

But listen to the next sentence: ‘We must therefore observe this distinction with particular diligence lest we confuse the two doctrines and change the gospel into law’. ‘And change the gospel into law’. That is what’s at stake in the failure to distinguish between the two words of God: the gospel might be changed into law. And what’s so bad about that? ‘This would darken the merit of Christ and rob disturbed consciences of the comfort which they would otherwise have in the holy gospel when it is preached purely and without admixture.’

With that sentence we come to the heart of the matter: we must learn and practise the art of distinguishing law and gospel, not for its own sake, not just for the sake of ortho-doxy (right teaching), but for the sake of Christ and his people. Whenever law and gospel are mixed together, the gospel always suffers. And that means the hearers suffer, for they are robbed of the comfort and consolation which is rightfully theirs in the gospel. And Christ is not magnified, for the hearers are not pointed to him and his merits, but to themselves and their own supposed merits.

So the concern to properly distinguish law and gospel is driven by deep Christological and pastoral imperatives. Christological: it wants to honour Christ by proclaiming Christ and his righteousness alone, that is, without any human righteousness (‘law’) mixed in. Pastoral: it seeks to give true comfort and consolation to the troubled sinner. It would be a great shame and disgrace if, in all our debate on what Scripture means and doesn’t mean, we were to lose sight of these twin concerns, and turn the law/gospel distinction into a political football, to be claimed now by this side, now by the other, when in reality it is not ours but God’s, God’s way of addressing us in God’s word.

Before we go any further we should define what we mean by ‘law’ and ‘gospel’. The Formula of Concord operates with these definitions:

Everything which preaches about our sin and the wrath of God, no matter how or when it happens, is the proclamation of the law. . .Everything which comforts and which offers the mercy and grace of God to transgressors of the law strictly speaking is, and is called the gospel, a good and joyful message that God wills not to punish sins but to forgive them for Christ’s sake. (FC SD V. 12,21)

That seems clear enough: when preaching the word of God, that which speaks of sin and wrath and punishment is proclamation of the law. That which speaks of God’s grace and mercy to sinners is proclamation of the gospel.

Note that the definition does not operate with a concept of the gospel or the law; these are not two ideas or not even two static, formalised principles. They are, rather, two ways in which the word of God functions, operates, works. We are talking here about the preached, proclaimed, and heard word. Over and again in Article V of the Formula of Concord the confessors use the words ‘preached’, ‘proclaimed’, ‘the proclamation of’ law and gospel.

According to this understanding, whether the proclamation is law or gospel is determined by what is actually being said at any given time, by the purpose which the preacher has in mind, and by how it is heard. ‘All purely formal distinctions are swept aside, like that between the Old Testament and the New. Sentences of the Scripture are no longer to be classified as either Law or Gospel. It is what is actually, practically, existentially done with them that determines the difference’ (Hamann: 182).

In this connection the Confessions point out that even the message of the cross can be proclaimed and heard as law:

Where is there a more earnest and terrible revelation and preaching of God’s wrath over sin than the passion and death of Christ, his own Son? But as long as all this proclaims the wrath of God and terrifies people, it is not yet the gospel nor Christ’s own proclamation, but it is Moses and the law pronounced upon the unconverted. (SD V 12)

What this means for our discussions is that in terms of the law/gospel distinction as it functions in proclamation, a text such as Galatians 3:28Galatians 3:28
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28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

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is not a priori law or gospel: it depends on how it is proclaimed and heard and how the Holy Spirit uses it in the hearts of hearers. I hear the words, ‘you are all one in Christ Jesus’, and my life situation might be such that I hear it as a condemning word: I have just separated from my Christian partner; I certainly don’t feel one with her — in fact the very opposite — and rightly or wrongly the words hit me as an accusation. Or perhaps you have not worked through the matter of Aboriginal reconciliation; you are struggling with it. You hear the words: ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek…’, and you feel that God is pointing an accusing and condemning finger at you. So Galatians 3:28Galatians 3:28
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28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

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, the so-called charter of liberty and new life in Christ, is for you, at this point in time as it is proclaimed to you, a word of law, of accusation. It troubles your conscience instead of comforting it.

That’s the way the word of God functions; that’s the way the Spirit uses the word: as law or as gospel, as appropriate. For the word of God is not a dead, static thing which lies there on the page and you can mark it ‘law’ or ‘gospel’. It is alive and active, it cuts to the bone and marrow; it wounds and it heals; it kills and it makes alive.

Up to this point I have focused on the distinction between law and gospel in the proper understanding of the word of God. Distinction should not be confused with separation. We should never separate law from gospel or gospel from law. So I want to say something about the union of law and gospel in God’s plans and purposes.

Our starting point is again a statement from the Formula of Concord:

Thus both doctrines are always together, and both of them have to be urged side by side, but in proper order and with the correct distinction. (SD V 15)

‘Both doctrines are always together and both of them have to be urged side by side.’ It is necessary to underline those words because there currently exists an approach to Scripture which wants to separate law from gospel, and set up the gospel by itself as an overarching hermeneutical principle or norm. So instead of the ‘hierarchy’ to which Lutherans are accustomed:

Scripture (the norm)
Confessions (normed by Scripture)

We get:

Gospel (the norm)
Scripture (normed by the gospel)
Confessions (normed by the Scriptures)

But the gospel is not ‘above’ Scripture; it is Scripture which determines what the gospel is, otherwise gospel becomes a wax nose which you can make to be anything you want it to be: a political statement, a moral platform, a value-system, whatever. The gospel cannot be divorced from Scripture, nor can the gospel be divorced from law. Both are needed if the word of God is to have its proper effect and do its work in our hearts. Both law and gospel are truly word of God; both are authoritative. The difference between them lies in what they do, effect, accomplish.

Sometimes appeal is made to Melanchthon’s work in Apology IV to support the new ‘hierarchy’ described above. The key words are:

In this controversy the main doctrine of Christianity is involved; when it is properly understood, it illumines and magnifies the honor of Christ and brings pious consciences the abundant consolation that they need. (IV 2)

The paraphrasing commentary of Justus Jonas’ German version unpacks this pregnant sentence for us:

This dispute has to do with the highest and chief article of all Christian doctrine, so that much indeed depends on this article, which also serves preeminently to give a clear, correct understanding of the whole Sacred Scripture and alone points the way to the unutterable treasure and the true knowledge of Christ, and also alone opens the door to the whole Bible, without which article no poor conscience can have a constant, certain consolation or know the riches of the grace of Christ. (AP IV 2-4; translation in Franzmann:237)

Melanchthon begins his presentation of the ‘chief article’, the doctrine of justification, by speaking of the proper use of law and gospel in understanding the Scriptures. This is hardly surprising, for the language of justification of the sinner points to the same phenomenon as the distinction between law and gospel (cf LW 26:4-12W 26:4-12
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Izbrana zbirka WEB ne vsebuje vpisane knjigeMesto:

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). Indeed, the distinction between law and gospel ‘functions to guarantee the proper proclamation of the good news of the forgiveness of sins’, that is, of justification (Russell: 72).

‘All Scripture’, says Melanchthon, ‘should be divided into these two chief doctrines, the law and the promises’ (Ap IV 5). The trouble is, he says, that when it comes to interpreting and proclaiming Scripture, ‘of these two doctrines, our opponents select the law, and by it seek forgiveness of sins and justification’ (Ap IV 7). So the distinctive hermeneutic of the opponents of the confessors is the law.

Now, whenever the law is preferred to the gospel, the gospel does not just play second fiddle; the gospel disappears – or as Melanchthon says, ‘we insult Christ and abrogate the gospel’ (Ap XII 77), or Christ is ‘buried’ (Ap IV 18, 81IV 18, 81
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). And if Christ is buried, then the poor troubled conscience has no comfort. That in the end is what makes the law hermeneutic so disastrous.

By way of contrast, when the gospel or the promise is given its rightful place as the means of comforting troubled consciences (and so honouring Christ), the law is not buried. On the contrary, the law is brought to full flower, as Paul notes in Romans 3:21Romans 3:21
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21 But now apart from the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed, being testified by the law and the prophets;

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and 3:31. Ed Schroeder summarises well the situation when the gospel is given its proper place in proclamation:

After I have encountered the Promise [=gospel] it then becomes possible for me to begin to keep the Law, not only in its second table but also in its first and prior table of ‘fearing, loving, trusting God’. So a Promise-centred hermeneutic opens up both the legal and the promissive material in Scripture. A Law-centred hermeneutic actually destroys both. (93)

Such a destruction of both the law and the gospel is fatal for saint-sinner Christians, for they need both law and gospel active in their lives. The law is needed to expose those areas where idolatry is still thriving; the promise is needed ‘to have Christ take over those areas and have them function as sectors of redeemed creation and not of the condemned old creation. Christians must be told … how faith comes into being, how the Holy Spirit is given, how regeneration takes place, how good works can be done’ (Schroeder: 96).

Melanchthon’s presentation of the doctrine of justification of the sinner as the key to the proper understanding of the Scriptures is simply another way of saying what the confessors said more explicitly fifty years later — that the distinction between law and gospel is an especially brilliant light for properly understanding the Scriptures. Thus both the Formula of Concord on the law/gospel distinction, and Apology IV on justification, have identical concerns: as Melanchthon put it, ‘we are debating about an important issue, the honour of Christ and the source of sure and firm consolation for pious minds — whether we should put our trust in Christ or in our own works’ (Ap IV 156; cf FC SD V,1).

So when it’s a question of whose works: Christ’s (the gospel) or ours (the law), law and gospel stand over against each other, and we must choose the gospel. But Apology IV does not support an approach to Scripture which isolates the gospel from the law and sets the gospel above Scripture and thus effectively buries the law.

What this means for our debate is that no passage in Scripture (eg 1 Corinthians 14 or 1 Timothy 2) can automatically be discounted in favour of a so-called ‘gospel’ passage which, since it is ‘gospel’, is by definition superior to anything else the Scriptures say. This is an abuse of the law/gospel distinction; it is elevating the gospel to a position above Scripture—something which Melanchthon would reject — as is demonstrated by his persistence in establishing the doctrine of justification ‘on the basis of Scriptures and arguments derived from the Scriptures’ (Ap IV 117).

Until now we have been speaking of the tension or polarity between the law and the gospel. The law is directed at the human heart, at the conscience. It makes demands. It says: Thou shalt, and Thou shalt not. It generates fear in the heart of the sinner who realises that he/she cannot keep the law. And it brings wrath: not only the wrath of God on the sinner, but also wrath on the part of the sinner, wrath against the God and the law which makes impossible demands on the sinner.

We saw that the gospel, too, is directed to the human heart and it too addresses the conscience. The purpose of the gospel is to comfort the consciences which the law has troubled; to create life where the law has killed; to bring peace where the law has brought only Angst and anger.

I have proposed that law and gospel as so understood do not address the hermeneutical problem we have in the women’s ordination debate. In order to make proper use of law and gospel in this debate we have to shift ground somewhat, and view law and gospel from a different perspective.

The Scriptures and the Confessions recognise that the law has, besides its judging and killing function, another — a positive — function in the life of the regenerated person, namely, to serve as a guide to the good works which God wants done. When Luther and the Confessions want to speak of the law as the positive, normative will of God for the believer, they tend to avoid the word ‘law’ (with its accusing, condemnatory connotations) and speak rather, of ‘God’s word and command’ or simply ‘God’s [or the Lord’s] command’. In Latin: mandatum Dei (mandatum Domini). They use it to speak of a word of Scripture which includes a command of God (cf Wingren: 199-212; Fagerberg: 20-24; 281-282).

The Confessions are especially interested in distinguishing between the commands, precepts, and mandates of God which lead to works pleasing to God, and human laws and customs which lead to false works. They are also interested in distinguishing, in the matter of church order and worship, between false piety imposed and encouraged by human ordinances, and true piety which obeys the commands of the Lord in matters such as confession and absolution, the Lord’s Supper, the office of the ministry, and so forth (Fagerberg: 22,23).

We will leave the matter of mandatum sit for a moment and go back to speak again of the gospel. The gospel, we said, is promise, it is forgiveness of sins. ‘It has its source in the Bible, and in a Word which is repeated orally in preaching, in the administration of the sacraments and in absolution. When it succeeds in doing what it was designed to do, it liberates the guilt-burdened conscience’ (Fagerberg: 99). We might call this the forgiving function of the gospel.

But the gospel has another, a related function. For the forgiven sinner the gospel has a teaching function, aimed at life in the Spirit. The Bible speaks of it in this way:

The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14Titus 2:11-14
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11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12 instructing us to the intent that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we would live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world; 13 looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ; 14 who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify for himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good works.

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So the gospel which brings redemption (freedom) also calls us to obedience. We remind ourselves, as does Luther repeatedly in his great De Servo Arbitrio, that there is no contradiction between freedom and obedience. We know that in God’s service is perfect freedom. So we should not be surprised to discover that the same gospel which sets us free also teaches us what life in freedom consists of.

It seems, then, that when we speak of the law as mandate, as expressing the word and command of God, and when we speak of the teaching function of the gospel, these two — command and gospel — are not in tension or at opposite poles, but are actually complementary: both are concerned with life in the Spirit, the life of the regenerate person. The question is: how are these two, command and gospel, related? How we answer that question has important consequences for the debate on women’s ordination.

The proposition I want to put before you, and explore briefly, is this: The gospel in its teaching function describes and provides the new context: the new status we have before God, the new set of relationships, and the new mind with and within which we are to carry out the commands. The command tells us something of the will of God for us in specific situations within that new context, for example, the ordering of worship or how to live in our vocations.

The new context is the new creation. The place of new creation is baptism. The baptismal life is one of daily repentance and renewal: the old self, the old allegiances and enmities, the old ways of viewing reality and relationships are renounced. The renewed life is characterised by willing obedience, the hidden discipline, and discipleship: following the Lord in service to God and the neighbour. The gospel speaks of a certain attitude, one which moves the Christian to seek to serve others, rather than to be served. This mindset, which is the mind of Christ, does ‘nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility’ considers others better than itself. It thinks of itself soberly, in keeping with the God-given gift of faith. In this way it seeks to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. In short, it is ‘patient and kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking’. To live like this is to live ‘worthy of the gospel’.

The basic framework which the gospel provides for such living is freedom, not absolute freedom — only God has absolute freedom — but freedom before God, responsible freedom, freedom even to give up one’s freedom for the sake of the Body or for the sake of the neighbour.

The kind of language the gospel uses is this: ‘All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own good, but the good of others.’ Again: ‘Though I am free and belong to no person, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible . . .I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings’ (1 Cor 10:23,24; 9:22,231 Cor 10:23,24; 9:22,23
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23 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are profitable. “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own, but each one his neighbor’s good. 22 To the weak I became as weak, that I might gain the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23 Now I do this for the Gospel’s sake, that I may be a joint partaker of it.

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The language of the gospel is spoken brilliantly by Paul in Romans 14, where he counsels Christians who don’t have scruples about this day or that, about eating this food or that. He counsels them as to how to exercise their freedom in Christ when dealing with fellow Christians who have real hang-ups about observing days and seasons and eating or not eating certain foods. The gospel attitude, the gospel spirit, Paul says, is this:

If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died … Let us therefore make every effort to do that which leads to peace and mutual edification … Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God’. (Rom 14:15,19,20; 15:7Rom 14:15,19,20; 15:7
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15 Yet if because of food your brother is grieved, you walk no longer in love. Don’t destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. 19 So then, let us follow after things which make for peace, and things by which we may build one another up. 20 Don’t overthrow God’s work for food’s sake. All things indeed are clean, however it is evil for that man who creates a stumbling block by eating. 7 Therefore receive one another, even as Christ also received you, TR reads “us” instead of “you” to the glory of God.

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In short, the gospel framework is freedom; the gospel spirit is exercise of that freedom for the sake of the neighbour, in the interest of the brother or sister, for the preservation of the unity of the Body, and the promotion of the mission of God – and all to the glory of God.

The way in which the Apostolic Council handled the Jewish Christian/Gentile Christian question in Acts 15 is instructive. The gospel teaching on the matter is clear, and clearly stated by Peter in vv 7–11. James, the key figure besides Peter in the Council, agrees fully with Peter, but then proposes — and they were convinced that the Holy Spirit was guiding them to this conclusion (v 28) — that the Council should require (epanangkes) Gentile Christians to ‘abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, and from the meat of strangled animals . . .’ (v 29). And the reason given is that ‘Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath’ (v 21).

Evidently, neither these first Christian leaders, nor the Holy Spirit, saw any contradiction between what the gospel taught on the matter (vv 7-11) and the requirement which the Council laid down (v 29). They simply acknowledged another gospel teaching: that in freedom you sometimes have to give up your freedom for the sake of love and unity.

One of the facts of life we all have to face in the hermeneutical debate is that the same Holy Spirit and the same Paul who said: ‘In Christ there is neither slave nor free’, also said to slaves: ‘Continue in your calling as slave’. The same divine author and human author who said, ‘In Christ there is not male and female’ also said, ‘Wives, be silent in the church’. It seems that neither the divine author (the Holy Spirit) nor the human author (Paul) saw a contradiction.

The gospel requires of us a modicum of humility. The best interpreter of how Galatians 3:28Galatians 3:28
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28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

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or Colossians 3:11Colossians 3:11
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11 where there can’t be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondservant, freeman; but Christ is all, and in all.

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works out in the church is the Holy Spirit. We are not called to second-guess the Holy Spirit, but to obey the Spirit and live in the Spirit. And when it comes to the human author, we can be quite patronizing. We say Paul was struggling to work out his theology and the implications of the gospel. The real Paul is in Galatians 3:28Galatians 3:28
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28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

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; his words in 1 Corinthians 14 are an aberration. We who are mature have to help Paul along, and draw the conclusions he would have drawn if only. . .

Paul was not stupid. The way to handle the apparent contradictions is not to patronise him but to go the way he went: to recognise that the exercise of freedom in the gospel must serve the gospel; that sometimes it is necessary to call for an act, a hard act of obedience as a proper response to the gospel in the life of the community. In short, the way forward is to think through the relationship between a command of God, which articulates the will of God for God’s people, and the gospel which creates God’s people and defines the parameters of their existence and determines the mindset which controls their lives in the Spirit. Of one thing I am certain: God would not make perpetually binding on God’s people anything which is at variance with the fundamental article of justification by faith, that is, with what Martin Franzmann calls ‘the radical gospel’.

All dominical commands or mandates exist to serve the gospel, that is, to promote peace and good order in the community, nurture the faithful, and undergird the mission of God. This is most obviously true in the dominical commands to baptise the nations and to celebrate the Supper. It is also surely patent in the commands to pray for and on behalf of the world or to love the neighbour.

The mandate serves the gospel. This rubric must be applied also in those cases where the command seems to contradict the gospel. I don’t see much point in endlessly arguing over the meaning of this or that word or phrase in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. It seems to me that the overall message is clear: Paul wanted certain female persons to be silent in the public worship. Genuine debate centres on just who are these ‘female persons’, and what kind of ‘silence’ is called for. My view is that Paul wanted married women, whose husbands were fellow-worshippers, to refrain from proclaiming or teaching the word in worship.

If we ask why Paul required wives to be silent, we should look for answers in Paul’s concern for the gospel: for peace and good order; the nurture of the faithful; the free movement of the mission of God — so that the Name of God and the teaching is not blasphemed by those outside the church (1 Tim 6:11 Tim 6:1
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6 1 Let as many as are bondservants under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and the doctrine not be blasphemed.

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). Paul didn’t want the gospel brought into disrepute by wives who scandalised the community by lording it over their husbands by presuming to instruct them in public, and all in the name of freedom in the gospel. So Paul instructed the wives to properly exercise their freedom by refraining from these offensive activities in the public assembly. Today, in our climate of individualism and personal ‘rights’ we might say it’s a bit rich that wives weren’t left to make their own decision. But we have to think in terms of corporate solidarity, of the individual being thought of as quite secondary to the needs of the community.

So then to the question for today:
Does the command to be silent in the church assembly still apply to wives? The answer is ‘Yes’, provided that one of two conditions is met:

  1. It can be demonstrated that the mandate or command regarding wives is binding in perpetuity upon the church. If this can be demonstrated, then we have no choice but to obey.
  2. It can be demonstrated that today it is still in the best interests of the gospel (that is, peace and good order; the maintenance of unity; the nurturing of the faithful; and the promotion of the mission of God) for wives to be silent in the worship assembly. If that can be demonstrated, then the church might well continue to ask wives to give up their freedom in the gospel and to be ‘silent’ in the churches.

In my judgment, neither condition is met today. But vindication of that judgment does not belong to this paper. For now my task has been to help you to see how the Lutheran understanding of law and gospel impinges on the debate on women’s ordination. I have tried to show how the law/gospel distinction is misused and how it can be properly used to help us to understand what God is saying to us on this vital subject at this time in our history.


  • Fagerberg, Holsten
    1972 A New Look at the Lutheran Confessions 1529-1537, Concordia, St Louis.
  • Franzmann, Martin H
    1969 ‘Seven Theses on Reformation Hermeneutics’, Concordia Theological Monthly XL, 4, 235–246.
  • Hamann, Henry P.
    1978  ‘Law and Gospel’, in A Contemporary Look at the Formula of Concord, ed by Robert Preus and Wilbert Rosin, Concordia , St Louis, 171–186.
  • Luther, Martin.1963  Luther’s Works, Volume 26. Concordia, St Louis.
  • Russell, William R.
    1995 Luther’s Theological Testament: The Schmalkald Articles, Augsburg, Minneapolis.
  • Schroeder, Edward H.
    1966  ‘Is There a Lutheran Hermeneutics?’, in The Lively Function of the Gospel, Concordia, St Louis.
  • Wingren, Gustav
    1957  Luther on Vocation, tr by Carl C. Rasmussen, Muhlenberg, Philadelphia.
Presentation at the Symposium
“Ordination of women in the LCA – Yes or No?”
held at Luther Seminary, Adelaide, South Australia
July 24 and 25, 1998

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