Back in the spring of 2011 an LCMS pastor forwarded to me an email that he had sent to his district president (English) and the President of the Synod (Pr. Matthew Harrison), but not to my district president (Northwest). In this email the pastor accused me of publicly teaching false doctrine. This individual, who is a 1996 graduate of the Fort Wayne Seminary, holds that anyone who publicly offers reasons for the ordination of women to the pastoral office is guilty of committing a public sin and needs to repent of it. At the time, I was surprised that this brother, whom I did not know and with whom I subsequently had one brief meeting, did not write to me privately or seek to meet with me face-to-face but chose instead to send his email to the people he did. He later told me that because he thinks I am guilty of committing a public sin, our Lord’s teaching in Mt. 18 does not apply.
The NW District President, Rev. Paul Linnemann, who has the sole responsibility for my ecclesiastical supervision, investigated this matter carefully and engaged me in extended discussion. We also met with members of the Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations. Eventually, President Linnemann formed a referral panel to investigate and act upon the accusation against me, something he can do according to LCMS bylaw. The purpose of this Panel was to examine the accusation, my public writings on the ordination of women, and written statements from both my accuser and me. The three members of the Referral Panel, each a circuit visitor in the NW District, were chosen by blind draw. To this day, I do not know who they are. I learned later that they met in the fall of 2014 and, for whatever reason, determined not to initiate formal proceedings to expel me from the Synod. According to the Synod’s bylaws, the decision of the Referral Panel was final. It terminated the matter. I was informed of this decision on the day before Thanksgiving 2014. Also informed were the pastor who had brought the charge, the President of the Synod, and the English District President.
But President Harrison did not and does not accept the decision of the Referral Panel or the relevant actions of the NW District President in this matter. Instead President Harrison chose to criticize the decision of the Panel publicly at the convention of the North Dakota District Convention earlier this year. He further publicized his criticism of me and the Referral Panel on his personal Facebook page.
Aside: In his Facebook post President Harrison refers to my participation in the installation of one of our campus pastors several years ago. I had served on the search committee that recommended this individual to be called as pastor, and I knew that I would be working closely with her during her time of service at our university. For example, we both were going to be working together as co-chaplains in one of our university’s dorms. I wanted her to know that I fully supported her pastoral ministry and did not want to suggest anything different from that, which I believed would have been the case had I refrained from officially praying for her at her installation. So, after she was installed, I was invited to join several other clergy—including at least one other vested LCMS pastor and several other pastors whose roots are in the LCMS—to offer public prayers on her behalf, something I was glad to do. A picture of this time of prayer was later made public. I stand by what I did that day. I do not think God was displeased with those prayers for this servant of God or by my participation in them.
To show support for the actions of the Referral Panel and the NW District President, a group of individuals published an open letter to the latter, which you can read here..
In the wake of President Harrison’s Facebook remarks, his supporters in two districts (the Southern Illinois District [SID] and the Northern Illinois District [NID]) prepared convention overtures that called upon me to repent of my “false teaching.” (Preceding the vote on the resolution at the NID Convention, an LCMS pastor publicly compared me to a knife-wielding murderer.)
At its last meeting, the Council of LCMS District Presidents apparently spent considerable time discussing President Harrison’s public comments about me, the Referral Panel’s decision, the NW District President’s ecclesiastical supervision of me, and my teaching. A summary of that discussion has now been published in this month’s The Reporter (the official newspaper of the LCMS).
That same issue of The Reporter also contains an account of the proceedings of the SID Convention. The online version of The Reporter includes an article on the NID convention. Prior to these two district conventions no one from either the SID or NID ever communicated with me about their concerns regarding my teaching. While an NID pastor, whom I do not know, did send me an email message a week or two before the NID Convention—which merely invited me to speak with him about unspecified theological issues—there was nothing official about that message, certainly nothing about a proposed convention overture against me and my teaching. This same pastor had also left a garbled voice message on my office answering machine, but I did not receive that message until a couple of days after the NID Convention (I was away from my office during our spring break.) Neither message made much sense to me until I saw the NID resolution and learned that this pastor had been on the district floor committee that brought the resolution to the convention delegates.
Several concerned LCMS church workers and laity have now signed an “open letter” to the District President of the NID. You can read that letter here. I believe the content of this letter also speaks to the SID resolution.
It is clear to me that the pastor who leveled the original accusation, President Harrison, and others who think as they do, cannot envision that individuals who share the same corporate confessional commitment, as given in Article II of the Synod’s Constitution, could come to different conclusions about how the explicit teaching of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions ought to be applied to practical matters about which the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions are silent, ambiguous, or outdated.
In my view, the purpose of the Synod itself is defeated when individuals, even a majority of them, as at a synodical or district convention (hardly a useful venue for serious theological discussion and resolution), insist on exegetical and theological opinions that go well beyond the explicit teaching of the gospel and all its articles, as these are exhibited in the Lutheran Confessions. The danger here is that some want to add convention resolutions and statements to our “corporate confession,” which are neither necessary nor fitting to our evangelical pattern of doctrine (“the gospel and all its articles”).
Hence, the importance of Article VIII of the Synod’s Constitution:
“All matters of doctrine and of conscience shall be decided only by the Word of God. All other matters shall be decided by a majority vote. In case of a tie vote the President may cast the deciding vote.”
The individuals who are accusing me of false teaching on the ordination of women have simply assumed that because a Synod convention has approved, even repeatedly so, doctrinal resolutions that prohibit the ordination of women to the pastoral office (by majority vote, it needs to be stressed, which is the only way for a convention to approve anything), they have confessional standing. Why? Because such resolutions must be de facto in conformity with the Word of God. Why else would the Synod approve them? Yet no real discussion is allowed as to whether or not the Word of God actually supports these resolutions, because such a discussion or debate would be predicated on the assumption that the Synod’s earlier convention decisions might not have been correct or clear or binding for all time. But according to the mindset displayed by President Harrison, the recent COP statement on ecclesiastical supervision (see the March issue of The Reporter), and the majority of delegates at the SID and NID conventions, the Synod’s resolutions have to be correct and infallible, since the Synod has found them to be so.
The practical outcome of this mindset is that there can be no theological disagreements within the Synod. Everyone must agree on every theological and exegetical point in every resolution that the Synod has ever set forth or will set forth in the future.
For example, any attempt at convincing synodical members to rethink the theological and exegetical issues involved in the practice of ordaining women to the pastoral office (that is, any attempt to follow the dissent process, as the Synod allows, at least in principle—a process on which the Synod places no time restrictions), is now to be interpreted and judged to be a violation of the Synod’s confessional basis and an attack on Article II. And an attack on the Synod’s resolutions is now to be understood as an attack on Scripture itself. Thus, such an “attacker”—who is publicly compared to a knife-wielding murderer—must be expelled from the Synod.
I object to this mindset. As a theologian who serves within an independent Lutheran university, my vocation is to serve the church, including the tiny section that is known as the LCMS. Part of that service involves raising questions to the church (and to others) and offering solutions to problems. Theologians who serve the church have the responsibility to criticize the church, its traditions and practices, when these necessarily conflict with the truth and freedom of the gospel and the clear articles of faith. In other words, on occasion it might be necessary for the theologian to put the church, its beliefs and practices, into a position of being questioned and examined and even criticized, out of a concern for the truth, the truth of the gospel, Christian freedom, and the mission of the church. “Discernment begins within the household of faith” (1 Pet. 4.17).
The essays I have written on the issue of the ordination of women and the comments I have posted online about this matter have been published on the basis of this concern.
It’s difficult for me not to draw attention to how earlier Christians defended the institution of slavery and the subordination of people of color to whites in the United States, a practice that parallels the subordination of women to men in many conservative churches, including the LCMS. The practice of slavery in the US, at least until its official abolition after the Civil War, was premised on a theological position that was widely held in the South, i.e., the cornerstone of slavery were biblical passages that were understood to support “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition” (to quote Alexander Stephens, the Confederate Vice-President).
While my accusers in the LCMS will give lip service to a theoretical equality between men and women—to that extent, at least, they have been influenced by modern interpretations of Gen. 1:26 and Gal. 3:28 and by a post-Enlightenment political philosophy that stems from the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) and its interpretation by feminists and others since the eighteenth century (“men” = “all people”)—their understanding of certain biblical passages leads them to conclude that in actual practice “the roles” of women in the church (and society) are different from those of men. These accusers defend the notion that there is a practical inequality between men and women, that women are beneath men, that they come after men and ought to follow men submissively. In the view of my accusers, God has designed the subordination of women right into creation itself—and the gospel and its announcement of reconciliation in Christ, which issues forth in the new creation in him, has absolutely no impact on this essential subordination within creation. In my view, female subordination to men as an “order of creation” is an ideological invention by men “to keep women in their place.” As such, that construct parallels the subordination of the negro to the white man as a “natural and moral condition.” Women are literally “inferior” (Latin: “ranked and positioned under”), and thus their “natural and moral condition” is to be “under” the “headship” of men, who are to “rule over” them. According to this view, the creation of woman was an afterthought of God; she is subordinate to the man. She is the first to be tempted by Satan, the first to fall into sin. She is “the weaker sex.” Moreover, women sin when they speak publicly in the church (“it is shameful for a woman to speak in church”). They are perhaps more inclined toward pride than men (“What! Did the word of God originate with you?”). They lack the intellectual gifts of men, a view that has been consistently defended by numerous Christian theologians up until modern times. They are to be silently submissive to their husbands/older men and have no authority over them. They will be saved, however, if they bear children.
While it might have been viewed as “natural” in the first century that a bishop or elder in the church would be a male (“the husband of one wife”)—given the patriarchal assumptions of that time—there is nothing in the text that indicates this specific command is binding for all time or needs to be applied today in the same exact way it was applied in the first century. In this sense it fits into the category of NT commands or admonitions that no longer apply today in the same way that they did in the first century or in subsequent ones, at least until recently, e.g., admonitions to slaves/masters, the admonition to “honor the emperor,” admonitions to refrain from food offered to idols, from eating blood, admonitions about hair length, female head coverings, etc. The assumption of female subordination to men, which is reflected in some NT commands and admonitions, is in tension with other biblical texts that set forth the evangelical pattern of doctrine (the key point, in my view). Moreover, the admonitions to women “to be silent” and to be subordinate to men make about as much sense in our day as do the exhortations to slaves and masters and the command to honor the dictator. Those who would insist on such legalistic obedience to the literal teaching of these admonitions today come across as defending a form of structural sexism within a church body like the LCMS. Such a defense not only places an unnecessary obstacle and stumbling block in evangelical outreach to people in our society (who generally accept the widespread modern notion that men and women are fully equal in the eyes of the Creator), but it also insists that female subordination is a truly essential element in the body of Christian teaching.
Let’s be clear: Some of the most vocal of my critics want to turn back the clock to the year 1900 or 1800. They not only want women to be silent in the church and no longer eligible to vote or exercise authority in congregations, a practice that has been officially allowed in the LCMS since 1969, but they want women to be subordinate to men in all aspects of human life and society. These accusers seem to want to do away with the 19th Amendment of the US Constitution. They think it is a sin for a woman to exercise any authority over men (e.g., in business, in politics, in government, in civic law, etc.). For these accusers, it is shameful for a woman to be a governmental leader, since a woman who “exercises authority over men” places herself in opposition to God’s creational ordering. These accusers also stress, in a way contrary to mainstream Christian theology, that God is in fact essentially “male.” Some of these accusers even appeal to the Roman Catholic idea, developed long after the formation of the New Testament, that since Jesus was male and had only male apostles, only men can represent him and the apostles in the church, as if women are ontologically incapable of serving as Christ’s ambassadors, of speaking and administering on his behalf, and of embodying his pastoral care for those he loves. These critics would rather flirt with a Donatistic understanding of the word and sacraments rather than concede that they might need to rethink their theological understanding of the subordination of women to men, which is the underlying reason for the admonitions for women to be “silent” and to refrain from “exercising authority over men.”
Today, we look with disdain upon the sentiments of Alexander Stephens about “the natural and moral condition” of “negroes,” which he supported by selective use of biblical quotations. How will future generations of Christians look upon those Lutheran Christians who today, in 2015, selectively use biblical quotations to support the “natural condition” of women as subordinate to men? Our church body has come a long way when it comes to racism; it still has a long way to go when it comes to sexism.
A few further comments:
1. Those who have officially acted against me have never engaged me in extended face-to-face theological discussion about the specific exegetical and theological conclusions I have drawn in my public essays on female theologians and pastors.
2. I fail to see how holding to the opinion that the Scriptures do not clearly prohibit qualified women from serving in the pastoral office constitutes a basic error in church doctrine or a “sin” of which one needs “to repent.”
3. Theological disagreements among brothers and sisters in the Synod on matters that are not explicitly addressed in the articles of faith, as these are set forth clearly in the Lutheran Confessions, ought to be resolved by means of theological persuasion among peers. Before there is a sufficient theological reason for expelling a member of the Synod—at least in the matter of the ordination of women to the pastoral office—there has to be significant theological discussion at the level of face-to-face dialogue and peer discussion in the Synod, and yet this has not occurred.
4. Those who seek to expel me from the Synod appear to me to be engaged in schismatic behavior, since their actions imply that we are not “united in the same mind” of Christ and “in the same confession” of him. They seem to ignore the fact that I do in fact teach and preach in accord with the essentials of the faith, as these are explicitly exhibited in the Lutheran Confessions, that I seek to conserve and promote this true faith in accord with the evangelical pattern of doctrine (and not add extraneous or foreign elements to it). Not every theological disagreement among brothers and sisters is church divisive (cf. FC Art. X), nor ought all such disagreements lead necessarily to the expulsion of brothers and sisters from the same communion.
5. I am a baptized doctor of theology, rostered in the LCMS through the Northwest District (per that District President’s 2004 arrangement with the Indiana District President, which was not of my doing, but which I nevertheless accepted). I’m grateful for the vocation that has been given to me to serve the church as a professor of theology at Valparaiso University. As such, I am committed to the theological task, i.e., faith seeking understanding. The basis for such a task is Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions (which provide a correct exposition of evangelical, biblical doctrine). The vocation of making responsible inquiry into the Scriptures and the Confessions is part of the responsibility and freedom of a Lutheran theologian who is committed to the confessional basis of the LCMS. Such inquiry should over time only help to strengthen our Synod, its confession of the gospel, its theological understanding and practical decisions, and its mission in the world today.
6. I am a theologian in an independent Lutheran university that has historic ties to the LCMS. Founded by LCMS laity, Valparaiso University continues to be a community of learning that is “dedicated to excellence” and grounded in “the Lutheran tradition of scholarship, freedom, and faith.” I am grateful to have the freedom to pursue theological matters at Valpo. The Lutheran tradition celebrates the fact that universities exist in part to provide the space to ask hard questions, to explore complex issues, and to criticize beliefs and practices that may need to be criticized. I see my vocation similar to the householder “who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt. 13.52). Notice: the “new” is mentioned first by Jesus! While I seek to transmit what is worthwhile from the Christian tradition (“the living faith of the dead,” to quote Pelikan), there is also a sense in which a theologian is called to “pull out of his treasure what is new.” Perhaps “the new” is the result of new scientific research or new historical developments (e.g., the end of slavery in the US, social-political equality between men and women, more and more women who have a university education, etc.), or the outcome of deeper reflection on what is truly essential in the Christian faith and what is peripheral and perhaps even ephemeral. Please remember: the Protestant Reformation began in a university, precisely because a certain professor began to ask hard questions about long-standing church practices and the church’s teachings that accompanied those practices. And for that, he, too, was accused of advocating heresy.
7. Over the course of twenty years of teaching the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions in Lutheran universities, I have become convinced that there is no sufficient biblical or dogmatic reason today for excluding women as women from the pastoral office. In fact, to put the matter positively, there are many good, evangelical reasons for why qualified women should be encouraged to prepare for ordination into the holy ministry and other vocations of service in the church. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them! (Num. 11.29). Look what Peter preached at Pentecost, when he interpreted Joel 2.28-32! By such gifting, the whole Body grows (Eph. 4.11-16). By such gifting, the powerful word of the Lord grows. I have tried to set forth in my essays the biblical and theological reasons that have led me to this conclusion about women theologians and pastors. I realize that this is merely my opinion, although I think it is shared by many throughout the LCMS. I have welcomed theological conversation and discussion about this opinion with my peers, but unfortunately some of my peers have seemed to me to be more inclined to seek my expulsion from the Synod than to engage me theologically as a brother in Christ and a member of the same household of faith. Too often, it seems, compassion and decency have been absent in the Synod, where chauvinism has frequently been confused for synodical loyalty and meanness of spirit has been mistaken for contending for the faith.
8. Does everyone in the LCMS have to agree exactly upon this question of the ordination of women to the pastoral office? Must we be in complete agreement on all matters of church practice for there to be true unity in the church? (For a negative answer to that question, see AC VII.) Perhaps we really do need to set up a magisterium, maybe a pope, and to establish a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition) to make sure that such uniformity on this particular church practice is strictly maintained. That would not be a helpful development for the long-term mission of the LCMS. There must be room within the Synod for theological dialogue and even disagreement on matters that do not touch directly upon the central articles of our faith (“the true faith” that we are enjoined to conserve and promote). Our oneness is not in our agreement about every jot and tittle of humanly-devised traditions of men; our oneness is in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, through the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies and keeps us with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. Our unity is a gift of the Spirit (Eph. 4.3-6). Despite our theological disagreements, the church is one. And in this church we forgive those who sin against us as Christ has forgiven us, we put up with the imperfections of others, we bear in love the hurts and burdens of others, and we find our righteousness not in ourselves, not in our “purity of doctrine” or “perfect theology,” but in Christ alone who loves us and gave himself for us.
9. While “tradition” is an important and eminent dialogue partner, it does not and cannot have the last word in Christian-Lutheran theology. The appeal to “tradition” seems particularly weak in arguments for restricting the office of pastor to men only. If one explores the dominant rationale in the theological tradition for why women cannot be pastors, for why women must be “silent” in the church, for why they cannot exercise Christ-like authority in the church (an authority grounded in agape love and self-giving service), one repeatedly uncovers sexist arguments: Women must be subordinate and silently submissive to men in “the order of creation” because they are ontologically inferior to men, they are more prone to temptation and false teaching than men, they lack certain necessary intellectual gifts for pastoral ministry, they are the weaker sex. Their “natural and moral condition” is to be “under” the “headship” of men who are to “rule over” them. Frankly, if one starts with the legal “prohibitions” against women in the NT and the underlying subordinationist assumptions about women that are reflected in these admonitions, then one will indeed end up “baptizing” sexism.
I’d rather “baptize sexism” in a more radical way, by having it really put to death in the waters of baptism (Gal. 3.28). Why not begin with an examination of the nature of God within a social-egalitarian-perichoretic model of the Holy Trinity and the implications that such a model could have for our understanding of men and women in creation and in the church? Why not proceed to flesh out the implications of the gospel, baptism, the new creation in Christ, the nature of our Lord’s ministry, and the Spirit’s charismata for our understanding of both church and ministry? Why not acknowledge the creaturely and spiritual charismata (given in baptism) that God gives to both men and women in order to preach, teach, administer the sacraments, and provide pastoral care? Why insist on a sexist model of God and the holy ministry, when the Scriptures themselves open us up to an alternative social-egalitarian model (one which still fits within the dogmatic parameters articulated at Nicaea, Constantinople, and the other ecumenical councils)? Why insist that baptism really doesn’t make any significant difference for the service of men and women in the church?
10. Finally, I remain open to dialogue with those who disagree with me. If I have erred in my exegesis and dogmatic reasoning, I would appreciate being shown specifically where I have committed error. I willingly and joyfully submit myself to the Lord’s own correction. The initial assertions that Luther set forth in his 95 Theses are ones I believe and try to put into practice every day. The Lord knows my heart, my sins, failures, weaknesses. I thus begin every day with the sign of the cross and the words, “Preserve me, O Lord, for in thee I take refuge. You are my Lord; I have no good apart from thee.”
Feast of St. Patrick 2015