Is the Administration of Holy Communion by an Ordained Woman Valid?

We need to distinguish between the efficacy of an act and its validity. An act is efficacious if it achieves what is meant to achieve. An act is valid if it is done as it is meant to be done. Let me give a simple example. Even though the exchange of vows by a couple may be efficacious in cementing their union, that commitment is not legally valid because it has not been enacted in a publicly recognised way. So if they wish to end their relationship they do not need to be divorced.

All Lutherans agree that the efficacy of a sermon and the celebration of Holy Communion does not depend on the character of a pastor but on God’s word which institutes the ministry of word and sacrament, the word that is also meant to be proclaimed in the sermon and enacted in the sacraments. That is also so for the ministry of an ordained woman. The issue in the controversy over the ordination of women is not whether their ministry is efficacious, but valid. And if it is invalid what are the consequences for them and the people whom they serve.

For us Lutherans validity is not basically a legal but a liturgical category. A valid ministry has to do with the faithful preaching of God’s word and the right administration of the sacraments, so that God’s people can serve Him with a good conscience. It has to do with whether the divine service is conducted as Christ has instructed or not. The validity of a pastor’s ministry depends on Christ’s authorization and the pastor’s faithfulness to what Christ has authorized. It is therefore a matter of obedience. If pastors do what Christ has commanded, they can be sure that he is pleased with them and certain that he will bless the congregation through them. But if they do not do what he has commanded they will not receive his approval for what they do but will come under his judgment. The devil will be free to attack them and their ministry.

The administration of Holy Communion is invalid if it is conducted by an unauthorised person, in unauthorised circumstances, in an unauthorised manner, to or for unauthorised recipients. It would be therefore be invalid in the following cases:

  1. If it were performed by an unauthorised person, such as a child at play, or a lay person, or an actor on a stage, or a self-appointed pastor, or an ordained women.
  2. If it were performed in an unauthorised way, such as with chips and coke rather than bread and wine, or with a personal paraphrase of the words of institution, or without the distribution.
  3. If it were performed in unauthorised circumstances, such as by a pastor at a public banquet in a hotel, or by a pastor as part of his family evening meal.
  4. If it were performed for the wrong recipients, such for unbaptised people, or for an audience in a theatre.

Even though the sacrament could perhaps still be efficacious in these cases, it would be invalid and would have the following detrimental effects. It would provide no sure foundation for the faith of its recipients and therefore be unable to assure their consciences that they were receiving forgiveness of sins, life and salvation through the body and blood of Christ (see the Augsburg Confession XXIV.30). Their consciences could not be certain whether they were receiving the sacrament beneficially. They would have no assurance that their participation in the communion service was pleasing to God. Their consciences could not help but wonder whether they had thereby involved themselves in disobedience to Christ and the possible abuse of his sacrament. So then, the question of validity has to do with the provision of a good conscience, for ‘God is only pleased with services instituted by his Word and done in faith’ (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XXVII, 70; see also XV, 14, 17).

Those who oppose the ordination of women believe that it is contrary to Christ’s command. They hold that the proclamation of the sermon and administration of the Lord’s Supper would be invalid if it were performed by a woman. They could not therefore in good conscience attend a service conducted by a woman pastor and receive the sacrament from her, for that would implicate them in an act of disobedience to Christ and the possible abuse of the sacrament.


Dr John W. Kleinig