NOTE: This article first appeared online December 12, 2011 on First Person Life – a previous blog site that featured some of my writings. Over time, other articles from that site will be migrated here.
In a 2007 survey of youth in The LC–MS, only 43.7% of poll participants agree with the synod’s position that women are not to be ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry.i
The topic has been debated among us for well over thirty years, most often centering around the Scriptural prohibitions against women speaking in churchii and the concept of “orders of creation”. Advocates of women’s ordination have dismissed these arguments claiming that the commands from St. Paul were historically conditioned and that men and women have been made equal in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Opponents have been unable to clearly articulate their position in a way that does not suffer from the charge of “legalism.” Coming closer to the heart of the issue are the questions regarding the validity of churchly acts performed by women.iii But this too operates from a legalistic framework of “validity” and “invalidity” and therefore lacks the persuasiveness necessary to advance the discussion.
With many congregational members and many on our clergy roster unconvinced that the current position is tenable, it might seem reasonable to wonder if The LC–MS has too long maintained the position that women are not to hold the Office of the Holy Ministry.
The reason for the lack of persuasive force of the arguments of the opponents to women’s ordination should be obvious. Certainly, historical-criticism or any method of interpretation that would make clear statements of Scripture “historically conditioned” is dangerous. But just as dangerous is a fundamentalist methodology that seeks legalistic prescriptions and proscriptions as the basis on which to resolve the controversy. While the law sets before us the immutable will of God,iv it is laid down for the ungodly who already oppose God and His Gospelv and the sinful flesh that still inheres in believers.vi Furthermore, the law gives no power or ability to do those things commanded by God or avoid doing those things prohibited by Him.vii These realities apply to the current debate as much as they apply to the Ten Commandments.
Are we, then, at an impasse on this issue? Should those who favor the ordination of women become the majority decision-makers within The LC–MS, it is likely that the current “policy” will be overturned. But what is at stake is not “merely” the violation of the commands of God. What is at stake is nothing less than faith and the hope of the Gospel itself.
We believe, teach and confess that, “All Scripture should be divided into these two chief doctrines, the law and the promises.”viii It is only through God’s Word and promise that we have any hope, any security, and any comfort that we are forgiven for the sake of Christ.
The greatest of these promises was the promise of the Messiah who would come and redeem mankind from sin.ix But in service to this promise, God has given many other promises in order that we may comfort ourselves in the certain knowledge of our salvation for the sake of Christ’s work. To act in any way other than in accordance with these promises is to act contrary to faith and to reject God’s Word. It is to build upon the sand of self-determined piety and not the rock of God’s revealed gracious activity. The consequences are nothing short of catastrophic.
To His Old Testament people, God gave clear commands regarding the animals to be sacrificed and their condition. In doing so, God was promising to work through those means which He had established. It was not that an unblemished lamb was inherently better than one that was outwardly imperfect. It was not even that a lamb was better than a camel. Their throats can be cut. Their blood can poured upon the altar and the meat can be consumed. Since they could perform the same function, was it permissible then to bring a blemished lamb or a camel to the altar? No! The difference between the lamb and the camel or the unblemished and the spotless lamb, was God’s promise. A faithful child of Israel trusted that God would forgive his sins. He, therefore, brought the sacrifice that God commanded. Faith hears the promises of God and trusts God to act according to His promises. Then, faith obeys God’s commands.
This is why we use water in Baptism and bread and wine in Holy Communion. God promised to work through water, bread and wine. Would we be acting in faith if we replaced the bread and wine with pizza and coke or sprayed perfume on the candidate instead of sprinkling water? God has not promised to work through these. Our Lord “Took bread…took the cup…and said: This do…”.x He said, “Unless he is born again of water and the Spirit…”xi
What is true for the sacraments is no less true in regard to any other promise made by God. Faith in the promises of God, no matter how insignificant they seem, causes the one who believes the promise to seek God’s activity where He has promised to act.
Moses and Aaron were denied entrance to the land of Canaan because they did not act in accordance with God’s promise. After striking the rock instead of speaking to it, God said to them, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring the assembly into the land that I have given them.”xii
Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, were placed into the priesthood. They were the ones who were to make sacrifices to God on behalf of the children of Israel. But when they “offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them,” they were consumed by fire and they died. Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'”xiii
These examples should cause anyone who aspires to the Office of the Holy Ministry to pause. It is also of concern to the church at large. God has not simply given the Office to the church. He has also given the very men who are to fill that office.xiv Just as God created certain animals that He would later accept as sacrifices; just as He brings forth grain to be made into bread and grapes to be made into wine, He also raises up certain individuals to occupy the Office which He established.
To be clear, there is nothing in the individual which makes him worthy, it is God who raises him up to be His gift to the church. By His Spirit working through the Word He gives them the desire to serve. He trains them. And He identifies them to the church. In the letters to Timothy and Titus, God gives the criteria by which the church may recognize those whom God has chosen to carry out the Office which He has established.xv
This is not to be understood in a sacerdotal manner. We are not speaking of some permanent state from which it is impossible to fall. Furthermore, no claim is being made as to whether or not God does or does not work in any other manner. St. Paul is clear, for the Christian, “Everything is permissible,” but we cannot diminish the phrase which follows immediately, “but not everything is beneficial.” And it certainly is not beneficial to set aside God’s Word and seek God’s activity where He has not promised to work.
Just as He gave water to the Israelites when Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it, He may work apart from those means which He has revealed to us. But, we have no assurance that God will act in such circumstances. And where Scripture is silent, we must not presume to know. The warnings, however, are clear. God has shown the severest consequences to those who ignore or act otherwise than He commands.
What is certain is that He has promised to work through the Office of the Holy Ministry. He has promised to raise up those who are to fill that Office and He has given to us the marks by which we are able to identify those whom He has raised up.
It is only when one has rejected these promises and begins to impose his or her own thoughts and feelings upon God, insisting that He must act apart from where He has clearly revealed His activity do the questions arise: Can a woman hold the Office of Pastor? Are the churchly acts performed by women valid?
When such questions are asked, it is a clear that faith is no longer active. It is like Nadab and Abihu asking one another: Can we offer “strange fire” that the Lord has not commanded? It is like Moses asking Aaron: Will it be valid if I strike the rock instead of speaking to it? We do well to remember the words our Lord spoke to Satan in the wilderness, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”xvi
In the case of women’s ordination, God gives those who ask such irrelevant questions clear answers. But such prohibitions are necessary only when doubt and unbelief have already begun to triumph over faith. Faith has no need for such questions. Faith clings to the promises of God, diligently seeking God’s gracious works where He has promised to bestow them.
The doubt and unbelief which causes us to ask questions in these seemingly small matters is this same doubt and unbelief which, as it grows, asks: Is Christ’s merit truly sufficient to cover my sins? The doubt and unbelief that asks: Did God really say that only men can fill the Office? is the very same doubt and unbelief that ate the forbidden fruit and will question Christ’s words, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”xvii It’s leaven that leavens the whole loaf.
Through doubt and unbelief Satan works to turn God’s children away from Christ and God’s gracious promise of forgiveness, life and salvation for His sake. The question of women’s ordination is not simply a “practical matter,”xviii it is a threat to faith and therefore a threat to the hope of the Gospel itself.
i Isenhower, Joe Jr., LCMSNews, no. 2, January 7, 2008, http://www.lcms.org/ca/www/enews/forward.asp?m=5969, accessed 3/9/2008
ii 1 Cor. 14:33-34,37; 1 Tim. 2:11-12
iii Scaer, CTQ, vol. 53, no. 1-2, January-April 1989
iv SD VI.15
v 1 Tim. 1:9
vi FC VI
vii SD VI.11
viii AP IV.5, Tappert
ix Gen. 3:1
x I Cor. 11:23-25
xi Jn. 3:5
xii Num. 20:1-12, ESV
xiii Lev. 10:1-3, ESV
xiv Eph. 4:11
xv I Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-11
xvi Matt. 4:7, Luke 4:12
xvii Jn. 14:6, ESV, emphasis added
xviii Schroeder, Edward H., “The Orders of Creation – Some Reflections on the History and Place of the Term in Systematic Theology”, Concordia Theological Monthly vol. 43 no. 3, Sept 1972. pp. 165-178.