Affirming the Ministry of Women in the Lutheran Church of Australia

A QUESTION OF UNITY

The question of whether the LCA should ordain women as well as men has generated debate and intense feeling, almost without precedent in the 30-odd year history of the LCA. Although this has been a painful experience for many people, and a somewhat threatening issue for some, in many ways it has also brought some important benefits to the church. We have engaged passionately in theological debate (I guess it takes a theologian to highlight that!); we have had to think through our approach to many matters connected with church and ministry as well as the role and status of women in the church; we have perhaps realized how little we understood some of the things we simply take for granted; many people have taken steps to become better informed.

In the process, some people have no doubt been overwhelmed by the complexity of what they thought was a pretty simple matter, including many pastors. Most people have had to rethink long-held positions, and some have changed their minds as a result of listening to talks and studying the material produced by the church. Others have not changed their views, but have become even more convinced than before that what they thought was right. This has happened on both sides of the present debate, and is all quite healthy and normal.

How important is unity?

At the same time, some have become concerned that airing our differences like this has highlighted how disunited the LCA has become. We used to agree, and now we seem to be polarizing – going one way and others another. Some on both sides of the issue have even said that they will leave the LCA if the synodical vote goes the other way. They claim that the gospel itself is compromised if we allow/don’t allow the ordination of women. These views have been expressed to me in very forceful terms by people on both sides of the issue, and I believe that all these people were completely sincere in their beliefs.

Unity in the church is a matter of great importance. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit, the desire of our Lord, part of the essence of what the church is – we confess that in the Nicene Creed, and in the Lutheran Confessions – ‘one holy, catholic and apostolic church’ because there is ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all’ (Eph 4:1-6Eph 4:1-6
English: World English Bible - WEB

4 1 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to walk worthily of the calling with which you were called, 2 with all lowliness and humility, with patience, bearing with one another in love; 3 being eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you also were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all.

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). Living in unity is leading a life worthy of our calling, according to St Paul in that passage.

What kind of unity?

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone has to think the same on every matter – that would be impossible. In the Lutheran Church, we are very careful to distinguish between what does and doesn’t divide in the church. Matters of personal taste and style obviously are not properly regarded as divisive – choice of architectural style, music, vestments, meeting schedules or the way we schedule debt repayments are all of some importance, but we would regard anyone who left the church because of one of these as being a bit careless of the unity of the church. On the other hand, if a pastor preaches that Christ didn’t rise from the grave, or if a local church council rules that the Lord’s Supper will no longer be celebrated in their church, then the gospel itself is at stake, and we would support anyone who couldn’t stay. Even in these extreme cases, leaving, or dividing the church would be done reluctantly, and only after every effort had been made to sort out the problem. And the Lutheran Confessions clearly state that the gospel is the key issue – ‘it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it, and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word.’ (AC VII:2) We can and do tolerate a wide variety of private opinion, even in theological matters, as long as the gospel is preached and enacted in the sacraments.

Of course nearly everything we do and say in the church has some connection with the gospel (hopefully!), and it is easy to come to the conclusion that the things we care deeply about are the central issues on which the church stands or falls. But frankly, we are fairly easily deceived in this, because we care so deeply about our own ideas and feelings. It may not seem right if the pastor doesn’t robe for a service, but the gospel is still effective in the congregation even if some can’t think of anything but the absence of those robes. It may not seem right to think of a woman where only men have stood before, but that also doesn’t make it wrong. We have to even be careful of the way we use Bible passages to show we were right all along! It’s just that most of us are so easy to convince!

Cause for division?

Is the ordination of women a cause for division, a cause for leaving the LCA? Only if ordaining women prevents the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. This does not seem to me to be the case. There can be arguments on both sides as to whether this is the best way of providing for the work of the gospel among us – and I would expect the synodical debate to take that up before making a decision. But ‘the best way’ is not a matter for division. Will the saving gospel still be heard if a woman preaches it? Assuredly, since it is the gospel itself which is effective in bringing people to faith, as a means of grace, as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, not the person who proclaims it. The church has formally recognized this for nearly 2000 years, and that basic principle is reaffirmed in the Lutheran Confessions.

Will the body and blood of Christ be distributed to the people of God for the forgiveness of sins if a woman administers it? Yes, for the same reasons. Does the person of the pastor alter the validity or the effectiveness of the gospel in either preaching or sacraments? No, those means of grace were established by Christ as an avenue which the Holy Spirit would use for the creation and maintaining of saying faith, and no human factor can prevent God from achieving his purposes – the Word never returns empty.

The gospel unites us – only the gospel can divide us – not human traditions, rituals, customs, what we have become used to, or even what we always thought was true.

Don’t be afraid – and please don’t leave!

The church is a precious gift of God to the world, and it thrives on unity. Fracturing the voice of the church through denominational division has not made the gospel more credible to the rest of the world. We have worked hard under the Holy Spirit to bring Lutherans in this land into unity and to maintain it, and I have the impression that the vast majority of our members like it that way. If you are considering leaving the LCA over this issue, please reconsider. This sort of thing has happened too often in the past. Men (mostly) who were utterly convinced they were doing the right thing divided the church and led many with them. In most cases, later historians have pointed to the personalities of the leaders as important factors in those splits. They were sincere enough, but had they thought through the issues properly, with the hindsight of history, they might have had regrets. The church has certainly regretted their actions.

That doesn’t mean we should strive for uniformity – unity allows an enormous degree of variety and diversity. No congregation would ever be forced, for instance, to have a woman as their pastor – some would welcome that, others would not. Most congregations would not even have the opportunity to do so in the near future because of a lack of availability.

People on both sides of this issue are brothers and sisters in Christ, not just members of a sports club. Unity is not just an option for us, but part of the essence of what it means to be Christian, to be a member of Christ’s body. We all need one another, not the least because our different views on non- divisive matters like the ordination of women help to enrich us and challenge us to deepen our understanding, our theology and our capacity to listen to the voice of Christ though others.

Graham Harms

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