Summary and analysis of the debate regarding women’s ordination in the Lutheran Church of Australia

Dr Michael Lockwood, May 2013

Over the past two decades, as people in the LCA[1] have debated women’s ordination, the supporters of the church’s teaching regarding the male-only pastorate have consistently pointed to two passages in the New Testament that forbid the ordination of women. On the basis of this explicit word from God they have concluded that if the church were to ordain women this would be an act of disobedience against Christ and his word. They have sometimes brought in other supporting arguments, such as the precedent Christ set when he chose only men to be his Apostles.[2] Yet their case stands and falls with these two passages.

Those who have opposed the church’s teaching on the other hand have rarely agreed with each other on how to approach this question. Instead of presenting the church with a consistent rationale for why the church’s teaching should be overturned, they have instead resorted to a great variety of different arguments in an attempt to get around 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2. What unites the proponents of women’s ordination is simply the conviction that women must be ordained, not any consistent theological case for this conviction. It is as if the world has told them that sexual discrimination of any kind is unacceptable, and therefore women must be ordained, and they have then gone looking for a theological justification for what they are already convinced is true. Although each of the arguments they have presented is weak from a biblical perspective, when they are all lumped together it gives the impression of strength. This impression is misleading. A score of fallacious arguments do not add up to one legitimate case. I therefore intend to summarise the variety of arguments that have been used to oppose the church’s teaching, and briefly indicate why each of these arguments fails—at least, if one holds to the LCA’s position on sola scriptura and scriptural inerrancy. First, I will briefly look at the scriptural basis for the male-only pastorate. After this I will look at the multitude of attempts people have made to get around what Scripture says on this matter.

The Case For the Male-Only Pastorate

The case for the male-only pastorate stands and falls with the following texts:

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.[3]

11 Let a woman learn quietly with all subordination. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing[4]—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.[5]

Both of these texts are set in the context of a discussion of what takes place within public worship. Therefore the natural conclusion is that this prohibition on women speaking/teaching applies to this context, and does not apply to other contexts where Scripture assumes that women will take a more active role. What is prohibited here is women getting up and doing the authoritative speaking/teaching/preaching within the divine service. While neither text specifically mentions ordination, if women can’t do this then they can’t be ordained.

What is particularly important for our current debate is that the New Testament not only gives us this prohibition, but it gives us reasons for it. It tells us that this prohibition is grounded in the headship God gave to men at creation, the consequences of the fall for women, and a command of the Lord. Furthermore, it tells us that this prohibition applies not only in one local context, but “in all the churches of the saints.” If Paul had given different reasons for this prohibition the case would be different. If he had said that he gave this prohibition so as not to offend cultural sensitivities, then it would be possible to argue that this prohibition no longer applies today now that culture has changed. But he didn’t. Instead, the Holy Spirit, speaking through the Apostle Paul, pointed to creation and the fall and a command of the Lord as the reasons for this prohibition. These reasons may be right, or they may be wrong, but they are not time bound or culturally relative. If they are right, then they apply just us much in our day as they did in Paul’s day, and we should attempt to understand and appreciate them, not dismiss them. If they are wrong, then they were just as wrong in Paul’s day, and the Holy Spirit should not have inspired him to use them. One cannot argue that this prohibition does not apply to us today unless one also argues that the reasons Paul gave for this prohibition are invalid. Yet that means arguing that Scripture is in error at this point. To do this is inconsistent with a confession of scriptural inerrancy, and inappropriate for those who claim that Scripture is their ultimate guide.

The Case Against the Male-Only Pastorate

As I mentioned above, opponents of the male-only pastorate are not united in their case, but espouse many different arguments to justify their position. These include the following:

1. The Schwärmerei[6] argument: Many women feel in their hearts that God has called them to be ordained, and therefore they should be.

Response: What a person thinks God is saying directly to his or her heart does not trump what God has said to us all through his written word. Since God does not contradict himself, these women must be mistaken about what God is saying to them.

2. The image of God argument: Since both women and men are made in God’s image, therefore women can be ordained.

Response: My three-year-old son is made in the image of God. So are my unbelieving neighbours. So is my practicing homosexual friend. None of them are eligible to be ordained. Why not? Because Scripture gives other requirements for being eligible for the office of the ministry,[7] and simply being made in the image of God is not sufficient.

3. The majority rules argument: A majority of people on CTICR[8] in 2000 voted that Scripture permits us to overturn the church’s teaching on the male-only pastorate. The majority of Lutherans around the world belong to churches that have already done so. Therefore it is OK for us to do so.

Response: People who push this argument are selective about which majority they choose. The vast majority of Christians in the world today belong to churches that teach that Scripture does not permit the ordination of women. Then, if we look back through history, we find an even greater majority that affirms the male-only pastorate. Yet even if this were not the case, we do not have the right to overturn God’s word by vote. If the majority votes against God’s word, then the majority is in error and needs to repent.

4. The cultural argument: The culture in the past was patriarchal, and therefore people readily accepted the male-only pastorate. The culture today grants an equal status to women and finds the male-only pastorate offensive. Therefore women should be ordained.

Response: As Christians we are called to heed God’s word, which is always out-of-step with the culture in one way or another. We do not have the right to overturn God’s word to suit what the world tells us we should do.

5. The active women in the Bible argument: The Bible records how God used women to do many great things. Most importantly, Scripture gives us examples of women whom God called to evangelise, to teach (in contexts other than the public worship service), and to prophesy.[9] Therefore women should be ordained.

Response: This argument implies a devaluation of all lay people. Surely God can use laypeople to do great things, and not just pastors? So yes, laywomen are called by God to evangelise and to teach in certain contexts, just as laymen are, and both laymen and laywomen can be given the gift of prophesy. It does not follow from this that women should be ordained.

6. The gospel reductionism argument: It is the gospel that counts, not the law. Since we are saved by grace and not by works, and live in the freedom of the gospel, we don’t need to heed the commands of God. Therefore we can ignore God’s command not to ordain women.

Response: The Scriptures consistently teach the opposite, that as people who have been saved by grace through faith we should now strive to do the will of God and keep his commandments.[10] Both Luther and the Lutheran Confessions echo the Scriptures in this matter.[11]

7. The Christ alone argument: As a church we should stand on Christ alone, not on a bunch of rules given by the Apostle Paul. Therefore women can be ordained.

Response: This is just another version of the gospel reductionism argument. By separating Christ from his word, it actually proclaims a false Christ instead of the true Christ. It is a Christ people have dreamed up to suit themselves, not the Christ presented to us in Holy Scripture. The Christ of Scripture says, “If you remain in my word, you are truly my disciples,”[12] and “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”[13] Likewise, Luther writes, “we do not separate, or differentiate between, God and His Word or ministry, given to us through Christ; … By no means should we become so foolish as to sever and separate God, Christ, and His Word from one another.”[14]

8. The gospel of inclusivity argument: The gospel is a message of acceptance and inclusion for all people. Therefore we can include women in the office of the ministry.

Response: This is still another version of the gospel reductionism argument. Yes, the gospel is a message that goes out to all the world, inviting all people to come into God’s kingdom through repentance and faith in Christ. Yet the gospel is a message of acceptance for sinners, not acceptance of sin. It does not invite anyone to deliberately sin by setting aside God’s word.

9. The power of the word argument: It is the power of God’s word that is effective for salvation, not the person who speaks it. Therefore it doesn’t matter if this person is male or female, and we can ordain women.

Response: This argument boils down to saying that because it is the power of the word that ultimately matters, therefore we can overturn what the word has to say about the male-only pastorate. It should be evident to all that we can’t take our stand on the power of the word while at the same time ignoring what it has to say.

10. The efficacy = validity argument: Since the word of God spoken by a woman can be effective in bringing about repentance and faith and other good things, it is valid for us to ordain women.

Response: This argument is another version of the previous one, and confuses two things: validity and efficacy. Just because something is effective doesn’t necessarily mean that it is valid. To give an extreme example: just because the rape of a woman by a man can be effective in producing the wonderful gift of a child does not make this act legally, morally, or theologically valid. An act can be effective, yet still contrary to God’s good order.

11. The Galatians 3:28 argument: Galatians 3:28 states that “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Since there is “no male and female,” therefore women can be ordained.

Response: This argument fails to observe the context of the passage. The passage is talking about our status before God, and asserting that we are all equally heirs of salvation. It is not addressing the question of what callings God might give us here in the world. Therefore it does not overturn what Scripture says in other places about these various callings. To use this passage to say that women can be ordained, despite what Scripture says when it talks specifically about the public ministry, is an abuse of this passage. It is logically equivalent to saying that since “there is no male and female” two men or two women could get married, despite what Scripture says when it specifically addresses the question of marriage.

12. The mission argument: Since the male only pastorate is an offence to many people in our society, if we ordain women it will help the mission of the church.

Response: This has not been borne out in the experience of those churches that have ordained women. In most cases in the western world the ordination of women has been followed by a swift and steady decline in numbers. In fact, leading sociologists of religion have observed throughout the world that churches which refuse to compromise their message to bring it into line with the thinking of the modern secular world fare significantly better in terms of retaining and gaining members than churches which are happy to accommodate their message to the spirit of the age.[15] Two reasons why the ordination of women could hasten a decline in numbers are obvious. First, churches that ordain women always end up alienating and marginalising those who object, and lose both numbers and strength in this way. Second, the great commission is “To make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to keep everything I have commanded you.”[16] By setting aside one of Christ’s commands and ordaining women the church sends the message that the commands of Christ can be ignored. It therefore directly undermines its mission.

13. The shortage of pastors argument: Our church is currently experiencing a shortage of pastors. If we ordain women we will have twice as many people to choose from and this will help to fix the pastor shortage.

Response: Churches that have ordained women have not found this to be the case. For instance, the Uniting Church of Australia, despite the fact that it ordains women, has a greater pastor shortage than we do. Evidently when a church ordains women it ends up with less men to choose from. One can only speculate as to all the reasons for this. Yet one reason is obvious: when a church ordains women, men who object to this stance will gradually be forced out of the ministry. No church can tolerate for long a situation in which one group of its pastors refuses to acknowledge that another group of its pastors is validly ordained.

14. The spiritual gifts argument: Women are just as spiritually gifted as men, and therefore they can be ordained.

Response: It is not us and our spiritual giftedness that is of ultimate importance, but the word of God and its power, and our spiritual giftedness cannot be used as a reason to overturn this word. Spiritually gifted women have many avenues for using their gifts without being ordained, and if they are truly led by the Holy Spirit they will not oppose what the Spirit has spoken in his word.[17]

15. The lack of clarity argument: The key texts that have been used to support the male-only pastorate are unclear, and therefore we do not have to heed what they say.

Response: There is nothing difficult about the grammar or the vocabulary or the context of these passages. The reason why there is disagreement over their interpretation is because they are offensive to modern sensibilities, not because they are unclear. When theologians say that Scripture permits the ordination of women, what they mean is that they think they can find a way to get around these passages. The main way they do this is by taking an historical-critical approach to them. That is, they speculate about the history behind the text, and use this to critique the text and its relevance for today. So for instance, they say things like, “Paul was still blinkered by the cultural assumptions of his day,” or “Paul was trying not to cause offense in his patriarchal culture,” or “Paul was only trying to deal with a local situation where the women were disrupting the service.” They then use these speculations to trump the actual arguments that Paul uses in the text, namely, that the prohibition on women teaching in the public worship service is not merely a matter of the culture of the day but is grounded in God’s plan in creation, the consequences of the fall, and a command of the Lord that applies to all churches and not merely to one local situation. When our historical speculations can be used in this way to trump what the text of Scripture actually says, then we are not abiding by our public confession that Scripture “as a whole and in all its parts” is the “divinely inspired, written and inerrant word of God.”[18]

16. The whole of Scripture argument: Instead of just looking at two passages to determine our stance on women’s ordination, we should look at the whole of Scripture. In the rest of Scripture we see a God who values and welcomes women. The general thrust of Scripture is one of inclusion. Therefore women should be ordained.

Response: I call this the Dennis Denuto argument, “It’s the vibe of the thing, your Honour.”[19] You can only determine what a book “as a whole” says by citing specific passages, not by vaguely appealing to the vibe. Furthermore, the best way to find out what it says on a specific topic is to look at those places where it specifically addresses that topic. If my car has a problem with its muffler, I don’t go and read those parts of the manual that talk about the fuel injection or transmission. Or I don’t say, “the general purpose of a car is to go, not stop,” and on this basis ignore what the manual says about the brakes. Likewise, if we want to know what Scripture says about the office of the ministry, we go to those passages that talk about the office of the ministry.

17. The fear argument: Proponents of the male only pastorate are fearful of change, and if they were only more courageous they would embrace women’s ordination.

Response: Scripture talks about two kinds of fear: fear of the Lord, which it advocates, and fear of human beings or anything else apart from the Lord, which it warns us against.[20] As a proponent of the male-only pastorate I experience both kinds of fear. I have no fear of change per se, but I do have a fear of people. I know that my stand is unpopular in our church and our society, and I am fearful that people won’t like me and will discriminate against me for taking such an unpopular stand. Yet I have a greater fear of the Lord that casts out this fear and compels me to stand on his word.

18. The equality argument: Since women and men are equal, therefore women should be ordained.

Response: Both sides in this debate agree that women and men are equal. The Bible clearly teaches that both men and women were created in the image of God. Furthermore, they are both born sinful, and are equally heirs of salvation through Christ. The question at stake is, “What follows from this?” Can people only be equal when they are the same? Or is it possible for God to assign different callings and different gifts to different people in such a way that they all complement each other within the body of Christ, without compromising their equal share of his favour and his kingdom?[21] My son is an equal member of the body of Christ with me, yet God says to him, “Obey your Father.” I was created in the image of God just as much as Julia Gillard, yet God says to me, “Obey the governing authorities.” Does a layman have to be ordained before he is equal to an ordained man? I hope we would all say “no,” since the office of the ministry is not about lording it over the flock,[22] but is simply one avenue of service within the body of Christ. So why must a woman be ordained before she can be equal to a man?

19. We break other rules argument: The Bible contains many commands that we no longer obey. Therefore we do not have to obey the commands in 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 either, and women can be ordained.

Response: This argument fails to acknowledge the Old Testament/New Testament distinction. As Christians we are people of the new covenant, not the old covenant. The New Testament tells us that the Law of Moses, which stands at the heart of the Old Testament, is now obsolete, since it has been fulfilled by Christ and superseded by God’s new covenant with us through Christ.[23] Therefore we are no longer bound to keep the Law of Moses, except to the extent that portions of it are reiterated in the New Testament. The same is not true for the commands in 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2. These are both New Testament texts, and therefore part of the new covenant.

It is true that in addition to the Old Testament law there are also some New Testament commands that we no longer keep. Yet this is never done willy-nilly, but only when the New Testament itself gives us an indication that these commands were only intended for a specific context.[24] The key passages in 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 give us the opposite indication. They tell us that the prohibition against women teaching/preaching in the divine service applies “to all the churches of the saints.” Furthermore, it is grounded in God’s purposes in creation and the consequences of the fall, not merely in certain local or temporal circumstances.

20. We can’t read the Bible literally argument: The Bible is full of non-literal elements like poetry, metaphors, hyperbole, and symbolism, which cannot be read literally. Therefore we should not take the passages in 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 literally, and women can be ordained.

Response: 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 are straightforward prose. The natural way to read any text is to read poetry as poetry, metaphors as metaphors, hyperbole as hyperbole, parables as parables, and prose as prose. Since these passages are prose, and contain no obvious figures of speech, the natural way to read them is literally.[25]


The church’s teaching on the male-only pastorate is based on a clear word from God recorded in two places in the New Testament. Those who oppose this teaching have amassed a great number of different arguments as they try to attack this position from every angle. At first glance this great multitude of arguments may give the impression of strength. Yet appearances are deceptive, since all of these arguments fail—unless we want to abandon our confession of scriptural inerrancy and say that the New Testament is in error.

[1] Lutheran Church of Australia.

[2] Some have argued that the New Testament gives us an example of a female Apostle, “Junia,” in Romans 16:6. However, the evidence for this is weak. First, we don’t know for sure that this person was a woman, since the particular Greek form of the name that is given in this verse makes it impossible to tell whether the name should be “Junia” (feminine) or “Junias” (masculine). Furthermore, it is unlikely that this person was even an Apostle, given that we know of no other Apostles apart from Paul and the twelve, and the phrase that is sometimes rendered “well known among the Apostles” can just as easily be translated “well known to the Apostles.”

[3] 1 Cor 14:33b-38.

[4] Or, “through the birth of the Child.” Cf. Gal 4:4.

[5] 1 Tim 2:11-15.

[6] Schwärmerei means “enthusiasm” in German. This is an expression Luther used for those who claim to have a direct hotline to God in their hearts, and use their own religious feelings to override God’s written word.

[7] Titus 1:5-9; 1 Cor 14:33b-38; 1 Tim 2:11 – 3:7.

[8] The Commission on Theology and Inter-Church Relations of the Lutheran Church of Australia.

[9] 2 Kings 22:14-20; John 4:39; 20:11-18; Acts 18:26; 21:8-9; Titus 2:3-5.

[10] E.g. John 14:15, 21; Rom 12:1ff; 1 Cor 7:19; Eph 4:1ff; Col 3:1ff; 1 Thess 4:1ff; 1 Pet 1:13 – 5:11; 1 John 2:3-4; 3:24.

[11] FC VI; LW 14:295-98, 300; 22:141-46; 35:366-67, 375-76; Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Complete Commentary on the First Twenty-Two Psalms, trans. Henry Cole (2 vols.; London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1826), 2.407-410 [sic]; 2.416-19 [sic].

[12] John 8:31; cf. 2 John 7-9.

[13] John 14:15; cf. John 14:23-24.

[14] Sermons on John (1537), LW 24:67 = WA 45:522.3–5, 20–21; cf. Matt 24:23–24; 1 John 4:1–6.

[15] Peter L. Berger, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” in The Desecularization of the Word, ed. Peter L. Berger (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), 4, 6.

[16] Matt 28:19-20.

[17] 1 Cor 14:37.

[18] This confession is contained in the LCA constitution and in the constitution of every LCA congregation. Every pastor makes this confession when he is ordained, and every synodical delegate affirms this confession at every synodical convention. Synod therefore cannot abandon this confession with integrity.

[19] In the Australian movie The Castle an incompetent lawyer by the name of Dennis Denuto tries to save his friend’s house from compulsory acquisition by appealing in court to the Australian Constitution. When the judge asks him, “Which part of the Constitution,” he is unable to cite any specific part, but merely answers, “It’s the vibe.” Understandably, the judge is not impressed by his argument.

[20] Matt 10:28: Isa 66:2b; Prov 1:7.

[21] Cf. 1 Cor 12:12-31.

[22] 1 Pet 5:3; Mark 10:42-45

[23] The passage that says this most clearly is Heb 8:6-13, though it is also mentioned in Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 7:22; 9:1 – 10:18; 12:24. In addition, see the way the New Testament treats things like circumcision, the Sabbath, the temple, dietary laws, and cleanliness rituals, which were all key elements of the old covenant.

[24] For instance, in Acts 15 the Jerusalem council issued a command to abstain from meat that had previously been sacrificed to idols (as most meat sold in the meat market in the Greco-Roman world had been) and meat that contains blood. Yet the rest of the New Testament makes it clear that the consumption of such meat is not a problem in and of itself, but only when it offends someone’s weak conscience (Mark 7:14-19; Rom 14; 1 Cor 8; 1 Cor 10:23-33). When German Lutherans today eat Blutwurst, this is not an example of arbitrarily setting aside a command of God. Instead, the New Testament itself gives us permission to set aside this command, provided that we do not offend anyone’s conscience or cause them to stumble.

[25] This argument also fails to acknowledge the history of debate within the church regarding the “literal sense” of Scripture. Down through the ages there has been a long running debate regarding “literal” readings of Scripture versus “spiritual” or “allegorical” readings of it. In this debate, the assumption is that everyone knows how to read and understands how language works, and therefore has an understanding of such things as poetry, figures of speech, parables, and symbolic genres like the apocalyptic literature in Daniel and Revelation. Therefore a “literal” reading of Scripture—or as the Lutheran reformers were more likely to say, a “plain, natural” reading of it—is not opposed to such things, but instead contains them. The Lutheran Confessions, the ecumenical creeds, and orthodox theology in general are all based on a literal reading of Scripture, when “literal” is understood in this way. In addition to this “literal sense” many biblical commentators throughout history have contended that the Bible also contains various “spiritual” or “allegorical” senses. That is, they contend that it is replete with multiple layers of meaning, and contains extended metaphors and parables and symbols that go beyond what the words say at face value. Luther, as well as later reformers like Martin Chemnitz, did not entirely discount allegory. Yet they argued that the literal sense was the most important sense of Scripture and must take priority over allegorical interpretations, which cannot by themselves establish doctrine, and can never contradict the literal sense. Therefore they focused almost exclusively on the literal sense in their work. In contrast, theologians in the early and medieval church were often given to extensive allegorizing. Nevertheless, they still agreed in principal that allegorical interpretations must not trump the literal sense, but must be in harmony with it, and ideally should be based on it. It is only modern critical scholars, who reject the truth of the plain, obvious meaning of Scripture, who have advocated “spiritual” readings as a replacement for literal readings rather than a complement to them.