Historical Document: Some Thoughts on the Ordination of Women and the Lutheran Confessions

In October 1981 the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (la Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida, IELU) in Argentina voted to permit the ordination of women. IELU took up the issue because there were for the first time women in the seminary preparing to be pastors. While there was opposition to allowing women into the church’s ordained ministry, the assembly’s vote in favor was overwhelming.

At the time I was a missionary of the Lutheran Church in America called to teach theology and ethics at the ecumenical seminary in Buenos Aires supported by IELU. I was also serving then as Vice-President of IELU and formed part of the commission that was mandated to prepare a report on women’s ordination for the church. Below is a translation of a discussion paper I wrote in March 1980 for the commission that was later included in its report to the church’s assembly. Journal of Lutheran Ethics requested to publish this paper as an historical document of Lutheran deliberation on women’s ordination.

Originally written and translated by John R. Stumme

1. Reading the Confessions in relation to women’s ordination

1.1. The Confessions do not face the question of women’s ordination. They do not say anything explicitly about the issue. It was not their concern. Therefore, help from the Confessions is going to be indirect.

1.2. The Confessions were written in a men’s world. They presupposed that ordination was only for the masculine sex. They do not defend this position.

1.3. We should not count on the Confessions giving us concrete directives for every situation. To read them in that manner would paralyze our responsibility to confess the Gospel now. It is crucial to appeal to the center of the Confessions, the Gospel.

2. Our focus is “the ordination of women to the ministry of Word and sacraments.” In relation to the Confessions, the questions are:

2.1. Is there something in the Confessions that prohibits for ever the ordination of women? Is there something that says that the Word is not valid if a woman preaches it? Is there something that blocks the possibility that an ordained woman administers the sacraments? Is sex a relevant criterion to determine the validity of Word and sacraments?

2.2. Said positively, the question (which is both directed to the Confessions and arises from them) is: Can women be ordained instruments for the encounter of humans with the liberating grace of God in Jesus Christ?

3. The doctrine of ministry in the Confessions

3.1. Article V of the Augsburg Confession is especially important. Among other things one notes:

a) Its place in the Augsburg Confession, immediately after the article on justification and before speaking of the church (Articles VII and VIII)

b) The ministry has a functional character, “to obtain such faith.”

c) It is the ministry of the Gospel and sacraments.

d) God has instituted this ministry.

e) Nothing is said about the form of this ministry or about the requirements for it, only of its necessity.

3.2. Other important places in the Confessions are: Augsburg, XIV, XXVIII; The Apology, XIII, 7-13, 14-23; Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, especially 69; Smalcald Articles, II, 3-4, III, 7-11,14.

3.3. Two recent writings on the theme are: Guenther Gassmann, “The Ordained Ministry and Church Order,” in The Lutheran Church Past and Present, pages 163-184, and capital 8, “Ministry-Serving the Gospel, in Lutheranism by Eric W. Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson, pages 110-123.

3.4. There is a tension between the common ministry of all believers and the special ministry of the ordained. There are two tendencies in Lutheranism in understanding the special ministry:

a) The theory of delegation, that is, the church transfers to the minister this function for reasons of good order. This is the official position of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (la Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida, 35 of the Norms).

b) The theory of the institution, that is, the ministry is instituted by Christ (the position of the Augsburg Confession).

c) It is necessary to see the special ministry as part of the ministry of the whole church yet set apart to serve the Gospel, in and for the community of faith.

4. The place to discuss the ordination of women according to the Confessions

4.1. The forms, structures, and qualifications of the special ministry no not belong to the heart of the Gospel, to the essence of the Church. They are not divine but human. They can be different, they can change. They are adiaphora, that is, objects of human responsibility, formed in relation to the mission of the church.

4.2. The non-ordination of women is not a position that constitutes the essence of the church. It is necessary to place this question among the adiaphora, in the place of human responsibility, a responsibility informed by the Gospel. A parallel case at the time of the Reformation is the marriage of priests.

4.3. Carl Braaten’s comment is appropriate: “In pressing on to the permanent features of the ordained ministry, we deliberately skip over non-essential—we could say ‘adiaphoristic’—and variable aspects, which all too often ignite and consume our major interests and energies. Lately, one variant issue has been the ordination of women. Is there a charism of leadership in the church from which women should be excluded by the mere fact that they are women? Many of our churches have said ‘no’ but other groups are still elevating this variant into the status of an essential mark of the ordained ministry.” (Eschatology and Ethics, page 90)

5. Women’s ordination and ecumenical relations

5.1. Women’s ordination is not the crucial issue in relation with the Roman Catholic Church. What is crucial is the place for this discussion. We ought not to accept the notion that the non-ordination of women is a requirement for the unity of the church (Augsburg Confession, VII).

5.2. It is important to use our freedom in this issue to welcome ordained women from other Lutheran churches into our church as full members of the special ministry. (I think, for example, of visitors to our church.)

6. The minister as representative of Christ

6.1. One may think of the minister as a representative of Christ in the sense that the minister acts in the name of Christ and that Christ acts through the minister’s acts and words. “Who hears you, hears me” (Luke 10:16).

6.2. The focus here is on the minister’s function not on his or her personal quality. According to Luther, “Even though a scoundrel receives or administers the sacrament, it is the true sacrament (that is, Christ’s body and blood), just as truly as when one uses it most worthily. For it is not founded on human holiness but on the Word of God” (Large Catechism, V, 16).

6.3. The idea that the minister has to be masculine because Jesus was masculine has no basis in the Confessions (or in the New Testament). (I ask why does one focus on his masculinity and not on the fact that he was a Jew or that he had brown eyes or long hair. Could it be an argument to maintain the privilege of men?) The Confessions do not demonstrate interest in underscoring Jesus’ masculinity in this way and in fact block this line of thinking with their functional understanding of the ministry.

7. The understanding of humans

7.1. The Confessions see humans as a unity in relation to God. Although they recognize differences between men and women, they presuppose one human nature and not two natures. All are created by God, all are sinners, all are objects of God’s love in Jesus Christ. They do not ask: Can women be baptized? Salvation in Christ is for all, masculine and feminine.

7.2 Therefore limiting the special ministry to men seems to be more for cultural reasons than doctrinal ones. In fact, their understanding of humans gives us guidance that extend beyond their context. The anthropology of the Confessions gives us reasons for ordaining women.

8. The Confessions give us freedom to seek new forms of ministry for the church in our faithfulness to the mission of the Gospel.

9. The Confessions direct us to the Gospel. For our concern, let us begin with Paul’s words: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

March 16, 1980
Dr. John Stumme

John R. Stumme

Dr. John R. Stumme is a retired ELCA Pastor. When he wrote this piece, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos in Buenos Aires and Vice-President of the Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida in Argentina. After ten years in Argentina, he worked for almost two decades with the ELCA's Church in Society unit as Associate Director and Director for its Department for Studies.