“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” These words from the Declaration of Independence have no legal authority, since they are not part of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Yet, every American knows how their spirit fills our culture and country. The editors of this book readily acknowledge that our culture’s propensity for egalitarianism will only increase the pressure to bring “equality” into the pastoral ministry, namely to ordain women (viii). Already more than 3,000 women fill the clergy roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and thus “it is becoming increasingly important for faithful Lutherans to be able to articulate why authentic, genuine, historical Lutheranism, because of the teachings of Holy Scripture, does not ordain women to serve as pastors” (viii). But while this book intends to confess God’s truth, it still has its limitations. Hermann Sasse notes, “Not every question can be settled by means of a friendly discussion. It is necessary to remember this in an age which has a superstitious belief in dialog as the infallible means of settling everything” (341).
This volume is the third edition of a collection of essays which seeks to give a definitive “Thou Shalt Not” to the question of women’s ordination. It has been a hot seller—thus the third edition. The 30 essays were written by Lutheran men and women from around the globe. The authors represent some of the chief Lutheran voices of the last century (e.g. Bo Giertz, Peter Brunner, Hermann Sasse). Their essays are divided into four categories: exegetical studies (1ff), historical studies (169ff), systematic studies (247ff), and theology of ministry, for which “practical studies” would be a better title (431ff). Some essays were written specifically for this volume, such as the three essays written by women who offer a fresh female voice on this issue. Other essays were written decades ago and address specific church conventions or issues within various Lutheran churches.
Overall, there were several positives to the book. The essays build the case that the ordination of women is prohibited primarily because of the sola Scriptura position of the Lutheran confession. Authors point out that the Scriptures themselves prohibit women from serving in the office of pastor. The sedes doctrinae of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14 are examined repeatedly (3, 17, 63, 75, 264, 281 etc.). These passages form the basis for our understanding of women’s roles within the Church today because “…they both teach the same thing, that a ruling, authoritative role in the church is not for women, [and] is unbecoming to them, in fact” (9).
The writers also highlighted the distinctiveness of each gender and the wonderful ways Christ has called men and women to serve God. The distinctions in gender and roles established by God in creation are not set aside by Christ in redemption (105). Bo Giertz also summarized a thought echoed by many other writers, “If we loyally hold to the Scriptures, then on the one hand we must say NO to the question of women pastors, on the other hand we must say YES to the utilization of women’s abilities in the church in a more intensive way than has been the practice up to now” (259 emphasis in original). There are various suggestions for women to serve within the church today. The LCMS diaconate, which was revived in the 19th century (263), is put forth as one office in which women can serve in meaningful ways (506).
But another essay points out how the LCMS Lutheran Deaconess Association has at times been a platform for pushing women’s ordination via its publications (326). And here stands a major positive with this book: it thoroughly addresses the “classic” arguments put forth in favor of ordaining women. It examines them in detail and exposes their falsehood. For example, the authors discuss false notions of feminist theology (204), historical criticism’s distrust of the biblical text (75, 450), the logical connection to homosexual ordination (244), and the danger of seeing Scripture as merely a “culturally conditioned” text (86). Some classic essays, especially ones by Sasse, Brunner, Giertz, Weinrich, and Lockwood, address the rise of the women’s ordination movement in Lutheran churches worldwide. The movement’s growth in the 20th century was astounding. Following World War II a groundswell for women pastors began in war-torn Germany and bubbled over to other European nations before finally washing ashore in America and Australia. Many of the state churches in Europe were “living for centuries on compromise” (343) and women’s ordination was no different.
The less praiseworthy aspects of this book, however, strike at the heart. Brunner notes, “This attempt to solve the problem of the ordination of women to the ministry through our theological deliberations will involve great difficulties, because the question with which we are concerned involves many other problems about which there is no general consensus of opinion in the Lutheran churches today. Take, for instance, the question, What is the doctrine of the ministry that the church must teach today? … Furthermore, there is the “hermeneutic” problem, which today includes the question of the authority of the Scriptures” (271). This reviewer could not agree more. The basic questions (What is the ministry? and What does sola Scriptura really mean?) seem to have drastically different answers from what Scripture and WELS teaches.
In an exegetical essay on Phoebe, the author states, “The Office of the Holy Ministry was established by Christ Himself and, in the same way that Jesus’ maleness is basic to His role as our incarnate Savior the pastor’s maleness is essential to his office” (47). This quotation represents two errors many writers repeated: Office of the Holy Ministry is synonymous with the Office of pastor (59, 258, etc), and our historical grammatical understanding of Scripture means that pastors have to be males because Jesus was male (149, 494, 503, etc). Still another author states that there are two forms of ministry: pastor and missionary (274).
These errors show the root problem: there is a lack of understanding Scripture’s clarity, sufficiency, and authority. One author correctly states, “These teachings must be drawn from the relevant Scripture passages that talk about these subjects” (73). Yet, another author strikes the exact opposite cord in the exegetical section (!) by quoting Clement I and falsely stating that Jesus had given a secret set of binding instructions (aka “tradition”) following his Resurrection but before his Ascension. That author says, “It would be difficult to imagine that this office had been dreamed up in its entirety” (20). Other authors emphasize reading the Scriptures according to the “analogy of faith,” whereby they reject the idea of “proof texts” (104) and favor reading the Scriptures “in the context of Christian doctrine” (18). Robert Schaibley takes this appeal to the analogy of faith to its logical conclusion when he writes, “It is not the case that to be binding on the church, any doctrinal position in the church must be supported by at least one clear, distinct, and unambiguous passage” (452). Schaibley even denies that the filioque (“of the Son,” namely that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son) has clear Scriptural support (453).
It is shocking to hear such things from the pens of Lutheran theologians. Martin Luther once said, “No clearer book has been written on earth than Holy Scripture. Among all other books it is like the sun among all lights.” Johann Quenstedt, one of the greatest dogmaticians, wrote, “It is to be observed that every article of faith has its proper and native seat, from which it is determined.” The true Lutheran gathers all the pertinent passages of Scripture which address a specific topic, and he allows the passages (in their context) to shape thoughts, attitudes, understanding, and doctrine. “Speak for your servant is listening” remains the only way to correctly handle the word of truth. This reviewer sees only chaos and spiritual peril resulting from un-Lutheran exegesis and study. Given that this is also the third edition, one wonders how such glaring errors have passed through the fray without even a footnote.
Not all essays are created equal. This volume is not a quick-read with over 500 pages, and at times grew tedious with 30 different authors who often cover similar points. But if someone desires to dig into the history and some classic responses in the debate, this book would give some interesting voices. Realistically, though, the pastor’s best option for growth personally and professionally on the topic of women’s ordination remains Professor John Brug’s book The Ministry of the Word.
Matthew Harrison is president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. John Pless is Assistant Professor, Pastoral Ministry and Missions, and Director of Field Education at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Women Pastors? The Ordination of Women in Biblical Lutheran Perspective, Edited by Matthew C. Harrison and John T. Pless. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012. 523 pages.