Paper delivered at 2006 LCA General Pastor’s conference by Pastor Fraser Pearce
I’ll start with a scriptural example of commitment, and the warning it gives to me about thinking or speaking in terms of binding myself to, or committing myself to, the teaching of the church.
The Lord, on the night of his betrayal, spoke of the way that his own disciples would desert him. He taught plainly; his meaning was clear enough to evoke a response from the disciples. St Peter, who had already made a God-given confession of faith in the Lord, was bold: ‘Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you’. Even after the Lord then assured St Peter ‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times’ St Peter remained committed. He said: ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you’. And so said all the disciples (Matthew 26:31-36).
To me this is one of the clearest examples of human commitment to the Lord in Scripture. I don’t get the sense that St Peter and the other disciples were speaking insincerely, or that they had the slightest doubt regarding their commitment to Christ. Yet we all know how the night unfolded. The Shepherd was struck, the sheep did flee; St Peter denied his Lord when challenged by a mere serving-girl.
The disciples’ own behaviour suggests to me that even the most heartfelt human commitment is a faltering thing. St Peter and the other disciples needed to be restored to a right relationship with Christ, based not primarily on their fidelity to him, but on his fidelity to them. They had to learn to order their commitment in relation to his. On this basis I want to make clear that my commitment to the LCA’s teaching, although real and heartfelt, is not of great significance to me. I want to walk the path of discipleship with the Apostles, and this seems to me to involve a frank acknowledgement of the ultimate weakness of my commitment to the Lord, and so also of the ultimate weakness of my commitment to my understanding of his teaching concerning ordination.
I’ll now use an analogy that will hopefully clarify how in practice I experience God’s word binding me in conscience in a way that involves my commitment, but transcends it.
To the best of my knowledge I am deeply committed to my wife, and to my marriage. I would like to think that I love my wife above all other people, and that nothing could lead me to forsake her or be unfaithful to her. Likewise I would like to believe that my commitment to my marriage is rock solid, and has the strength to withstand the temptations that come my way. I think this experience of commitment is important and significant, and that without it my married life would be in trouble.
Nevertheless, when it comes to trusting that my marriage has a future I ultimately look not to my own strength of commitment, but to the words of the Lord. He says, ‘What God has joined together, let no one separate’. Not what human love or commitment has joined together, but what God has joined together. And this is a joy to me. When I hold on to my wife in love and faithfulness I know in conscience that this is what Jesus wants me to do. When I am tempted to covet other women, I know in conscience that this is forbidden to me. My wife, and no other, is God’s gift to me as a marriage partner, even when my love and commitment falter. This gives me great sense of liberation and lightness: God can hold my marriage together in a way that I can not. The Lord Jesus, by binding my conscience through his word, brings his life and power to me and to my marriage.
Why the words of Jesus of Nazareth should have such power in my life is, ultimately, a mystery to me. I experience it as a reality, as something that is consistent with the workings of my reason, but as a reality that I receive by faith.
In employing this analogy I’m not saying that faithful marriage represents the LCA’s current teaching on ordination, and that its opposite represents the move to change this teaching. I’m saying that just as I experience that God’s word prohibits me from infidelity to my wife even when my commitment to my wife is weak or non existent, so I experience that God’s word prohibits me from sanctioning the ordination of women to the public ministry, even when my commitment to this word is weak or non-existent. The analogy is in the way that I experience being bound in conscience even when my personal commitment is in question.
Let me press this analogy a little further. If someone could persuade me that I was mistaken in thinking that the words of the Lord regarding marriage apply to my marriage, or if they could persuade me that I had misunderstood the Lord’s words in a fundamental way, then, of course, my conscience would no longer be bound as it is now. I would be free to adopt a different attitude to my wife and my marriage. Likewise if someone could persuade me that the apostolic prohibitions do not apply to the church here and now, or that I had misunderstood them in a fundamental way, then my conscience would no longer be bound to oppose the ordination of women as it is now. In both examples I could change my commitment in good conscience, although, of course, having good conscience in itself would not make me right before God.
Up to this point in my presentation I think that I’m describing an experience of God’s Word and the place of conscience under God’s Word that I hope is understandable to some extent to most or all of us here. It seems to me that three facts arise from this that are worth noting. 1. There are people in the LCA who experience being conscience bound by their understanding of God’s Word to work for change in the teaching on ordination. 2. There are people who experience being conscience bound by their understanding of God’s Word to oppose such change. And 3. There are also perhaps many people who do not experience being conscience bound one way or the other. This third point seems to be significant in thinking through how a proposal should be put to this conference and the general convention.
Very well, after all this, let me come back to the question that has been put to me : why I am committed to upholding the current public teaching of the LCA? Why do I experience that in conscience I am bound to uphold this teaching?
In one sense it is a mystery. That the words of the Lord Jesus have a living and liberating power over my life is something that I cannot explain, only describe. And, of course I must also openly acknowledge that subconscious factors may contribute to my outlook on this issue. For all I know my upholding of the LCA’s teaching on the apostolic prohibition stems from a repressed hostility to my mother, who is a public proponent of women’s ordination. Well, why not? The Scriptures themselves speak of the inscrutability of the human will. I hardly feel qualified to exempt myself from this inscrutability.
Even so, I am persuaded that the Apostolic prohibitions that are used in our public teaching is the teaching of the Lord Jesus, and that this teaching is not just for certain congregations in the early church, but also for the church in our own time and place. I acknowledge that the way these words apply in our context is a matter to be settled by prudent, evangelical application in our congregations. Nevertheless, I experience my being bound in conscience to this word as a mystery in my life, akin to my being bound in conscience to the Lord’s word to me in baptism, or the absolution, or the Lord’s Supper, or, indeed, my marriage.
I don’t feel ashamed to stand here and say that my commitment to the teaching of the LCA is ultimately a mystery to me. Reality is, after all, a mystery. For me, one of the deepest mysteries of life is the fact that God created us human beings as male and female (Genesis 1:26-27). Although I can rejoice in the way that we human beings, as male and female, are together made in God’s image, I can’t ultimately explain why this should be the case. I simply receive the fact of it in joy and thanks, and meditate about what it means for us in the church to live as men and women with faith in Christ.
I also don’t feel ashamed of the mystery of what seems to me to be the prohibition of woman from the public ministry. It is clear to me the teaching of the LCA regarding the exclusion of women from the ministry can be difficult to explain, particularly in our society where women are welcomed into roles formerly filled only by men, and men take up work in roles formerly assigned to women. In that sense I can understand that our public teaching may constitute a scandal for some, and that for some it may be a cause of shame as we proclaim the gospel in our communities. But I have a confidence, if you like a commitment, that this scandal is part of the scandal of the cross, and something in which we may actually glory. I understand that when we pastors of the Lutheran Church of Australia are called to promise publicly to teach this perhaps unpopular doctrine, it is because the church understands that it is the gracious will of Christ for His people. In other words, my take is that the LCA has understood that this teaching goes back to the Lord, and that He gives it to bless us rather than curse us.
In our history as the LCA we have seen two parts of the Bible as particularly significant in determining what the right teaching and practice is regarding this matter: 1 Corinthians 14:33b-38 (‘As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak…’), and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (‘I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man…’). Of course the interpretation of these two passages constitutes the basis of much of the debate that we have been having. But I keep coming back to the words in 1 Corinthians: ‘What I write is a command of the Lord’. I’m still persuaded that we are called to recognize the command in Corinthians as a command not of St Paul only, but of the Lord. And, although I continue to be persuaded that the public office of the ministry as it is exercised in the LCA does conform to the teaching of the Scriptures and the Confessions, I welcome debate on this issue as helpful to our church in distinguishing but not separating the priesthood of all believers and the public office of the ministry.
I am still persuaded that the exclusion of women from the public ministry is consistent with the whole sweep of Scripture, and with the teaching and practice of the Lord. When it comes to both men and women being of equal dignity the witness of Jesus in the Gospels is in no way unclear. Jesus, in His example and word, understood that men and women together are made in God’s image. Jesus broke with many expectations and sexist human customs of the day, without fear for what people might have thought or said (e.g. Luke 11:38-42 – teaching a woman; Matthew 9:20-26 – dealing graciously with a ceremonially unclean woman; Luke 8:1-3 – having women travel with Him and His disciples). In this he gave a definitive revelation of the law of love. On the other hand, as far as I can tell, this did not mean that Jesus thought the distinction between the sexes unimportant when it comes to proclaiming publicly the gospel. As God in the flesh, the Lord freely chose only men to serve as public ministers of His Word and Sacraments. The Lord chose only Jewish men, but evidently the Apostles didn’t see this distinguishing ethnic mark as a necessary characteristic for those publicly proclaiming the Gospel (for example, we think of Apollos and Timothy, and the witness of the Apostolic Fathers).
In my understanding it was on the basis of the Lord’s own teaching and action that the church, since the earliest days, has constantly taught that only men (but not only Jewish men) were eligible to serve in the public ministry (eg Acts 1:15-26 – the calling of Matthias ‘one of these men’ to replace Judas). In fact until the 20th century the Lutheran churches around the world ordained only men to the public ministry. Even today the vast majority of Christians belong to churches that ordain only men. The single largest group of Christians (the Roman Catholic Church), clearly and publicly teach that on the basis of God’s Word they have no authority to ordain women. This is of particular significance to me in relation to the fact that we Lutherans, after centuries of controversy, recently reached remarkable theological agreement with the Roman Catholics on Justification.
As an aside, I find it noteworthy that the Catholic Church has consistently upheld the exclusion of women from the public ministry while maintaining, what appears from my admittedly limited study, a consistent magisterial teaching against slavery. So when I read that the Western church was slow to speak out against slavery, I have questions. Maybe English speaking Christians were slow to speak out, but for me the Western church means primarily the Roman Catholic Church. And Catholic magisterial teaching against slavery seems to go back to before the Middle Ages. Certainly in the Middle Ages the great and representative Catholic theologian St Thomas Aquinas placed slavery in opposition to natural law, and found no natural basis for the enslavement of people from any religion or race. In the Reformation Pope Paul III, who presided from 1534-1549, publicly and authoritatively taught that Satan was the cause of slavery, and imposed the penalty of excommunication on those who were engaging in the slave trade in the New World. Of course those who were the target of such teaching did not listen; but what’s new? It’s the public and authoritative teaching that interests me.
The fact that women were excluded from authoritative public proclamation of the Gospel by Jesus, by the Apostles, by the Church throughout its history, by the Lutheran churches around the world until relatively recently, and by the clear majority of Christians until this day is particularly significant to me when I consider the fact that women have always played a vital role in the life of the church. From the Virgin Mary onward women have been instrumental in bringing Jesus to the church and the world (e.g. Mark 16:1-8 – the women called to announce the resurrection; John 4:1-42 – the Samaritan woman’s testimony concerning Jesus to her fellow townspeople; 1 Corinthians 16:19 – the church meeting at the house of Prisca and her husband Aquila; 2 Timothy 1:3-7 – the heritage of faith from Lois to Eunice to Timothy). In more recent times, the witness of Bo Giertz on this issue is also significant for me. In his The Hammer of God this famous opponent of the ordination of women was able to portray in a powerful way a picture of men and women, ordained and lay, proclaiming the gospel in their different historical, cultural and vocational contexts.
There’s one more thing. I find it a noteworthy fact that many churches that have ordained women to the ministry have also gone on to ordain practicing homosexual men and women into the ministry, or are currently debating the issue in their synods and church gatherings. Given the fact of the correlation of these two issues in the history of the church, and the given the fact of similar theological argumentation on the basis of Scripture for both issues, I think that in our LCA debate on the ordination of women we would be aided by having an agreed statement on how the two issues are in no way related.
I expect that over the next days we will hear many of the arguments for and against our church’s teaching concerning the application of the apostolic prohibitions in Scripture regarding the ordination of women to the public office of the ministry. I expect that many, probably most, perhaps all of the arguments that we will hear are arguments with which we are already familiar. It would be difficult for me to say of any single argument: here is the reason that I interpret the prohibitions to be binding on me in conscience.
OK. Let’s say the LCA in convention decides in synod to change its public teaching on the ordination of women. Where does that leave someone like me?
First of all a few comments. What gives us our unity is not our synodical organization, but our acceptance of a common body of teaching. Our unity is based not on a common cultural heritage, or on a commitment to the LCA as an institution, or on a common political outlook or even on the fact that this the church in which God has happened to place us and nurture us in faith in Christ. Rather, as is evident in our rites of baptism, first communion, confirmation, and particularly in our rite of ordination, our unity is in a common, publicly accessible, and clearly articulated teaching, as set down in the Lutheran Confessions and the Theses of Agreement. This teaching includes our current position on the prohibition of ordination of women to the public ministry.
Therefore, if the LCA changes this clearly articulated teaching on ordination, it disrupts the current foundation of our unity, unless there is consensus, indeed unanimity, for the change.
Personally speaking, such a change would leave me in formal, outward fellowship with people and congregations who, as far as I can tell in conscience, would be directly disobeying the word of God. Could I stay in fellowship with Christians and congregations who settled into this disobedience, and let it shape the church’s practice of ordination and ministry? I can’t answer this question with any clarity or certainty, and in principle I have not given my thoughts over to what I would do if such a decision were taken. But I can imagine someone saying something like this to me:
“Fraser, that you have qualms of conscience is perhaps understandable, but you are not interpreting Scripture correctly. You need to submit your conscience to the teaching of the church. Think about it: You didn’t make yourself a pastor, did you? You were called by God through the church, and ordained by the church. Now the same church has decided that women, too, may serve with you as pastors in the church. Be guided by the wisdom of the church; don’t be proud and hold on stubbornly to your own interpretation. Let the Spirit lead you in humility to accept the decision of your brothers and sisters, and take up your ministry with joy, knowing that now you are free to proclaim the gospel in a more inclusive way.”
Frankly this sort of talk could win me over. But for it to give me true peace in conscience I would have to believe that the doctrinal decisions of the LCA gathered in General Convention have authority to bind my conscience along with the conscience-binding words of the Lord. I would have to believe that I could stand before God and say: “Lord, it seems to me that your Word prohibits women from serving as pastors, but the LCA, speaking in your name, has declared that my interpretation is not correct. So I let the word of the LCA guide me, and I stand before you confident that I have your approval.” But at the moment I am not convinced that such a confidence would be well founded.