The Americanization of American Lutheranism: Democratization of Authority and the Ordination of Women, Part I

See Part II of this article by Susan Wilds McArver

Copyright 2011 Lutheran University Press. This essay will be published by Lutheran University Press in a book entitled Sources of Authority in the Church.

[1] The decision by American Lutheran churches to ordain women, made in stages through joint study and church convention, used modern denominational structures and inter-Lutheran councils to study an issue and through convention action, act on the results of the study. Though traditional authorities for deciding ecclesial polity were consulted, primarily scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, the witness from these sources was, as the study commission determined, inconclusive. Therefore the theologians and biblical scholars advised the churches that nothing in these traditional sources determined the issue. The churches could and would have to make this decision based on other factors. Claiming that any decision in either direction should not be a basis for separation between Lutherans, two of the Lutheran churches decided to ordain women. This case study will argue that as American Lutherans examined the argument for ordaining women, they recognized a new moment of freedom to decide how to adapt the Lutheran tradition to new circumstances. There were three stages we will examine: deciding to do it, creating a process for study, and reception by the churches.

[2] It is important to note that American Lutherans were not alone in making the decision to ordain women, but this case study will argue that American Lutherans made the decision for their own, American reasons. This is part of the meaning of the title: The Americanization of American Lutheranism. The title is meant to be provocative. American Lutherans have been American from the start of Lutheranism on this continent, and have not been transplanted, hothouse European traditions. Tests of American identity were often applied to immigrant groups during the 19th century, and especially in the xenophobic decades at the beginning of the 20th century. Lutheran churches that had been founded in the 18th century accused 19th and 20th century immigrants of being too tied to their European customs, while the resentful immigrant groups accused older American Lutherans of not being Lutheran enough. The Americanization thesis here being argued is not based on these older cultural debates, but instead proposes that we look at the 1970 decision and the modern study process that led to it as a kind of declaration of freedom, where the American Lutheran Churches studying this issue, the ordination of women, assess tradition, the models of European churches, the bible, and social factors unique to their setting, and recognize: we have to make this decision on our own. So they do.

[3] American Lutheran denominations as ecclesial structures vested final authority for decision making, even relating to items of theological innovation, in conventions rather than with theological faculties. This was true for all three churches engaged in the study. The LCA and The ALC decided by convention vote to ordain women while the LCMS, because of a conservative takeover, did not bring the subject of women’s ordination up for a vote or even study it seriously. As their convention ordered purges of the theological faculties at Concordia, St. Louis also made clear, church executives, through their democratically elected conventions put their theological faculties on notice. Democratic structures are of course subject to cultural and regional preferences, and can be influenced by politically connected theological voices. The point that is important for us to understand is that in American Lutheranism the forum for decision making, whether it be formally or informally recognized external authority, is finally one in which a majority, however achieved, makes the decision.

Deciding to do it.
[5] Where were the models for this decision, and what kinds of pressures within American Lutheranism led to the decision to ordain women?

The context within the Ecumenical world
[6] American Lutherans were not the first to ordain women. By the time the Americans acted, Scandinavian and German Lutherans had already taken this step, or would soon move ahead. Decisions to ordain women, however, created reactions good and bad. There were casualties for inter-Lutheran relationships, and possibilities for new institutional and theological trajectories within churches when women gained ministerial status.

[7] Two issues seem important for us to focus on as an Association of Teaching Theologians. The first is the role of theologians within the context of a modern denomination making decisions, and the second is the development of the Lutheran understanding of the ministry within the context of the ecumenical movement. The first issue relates to concepts of authority in the church, and the second to the role of ministry itself — does a change in the workings of authority also have implications for ecumenical relationships? Does the view of ministry built on equality, and focused on service and proclamation play well with churches that rely on asymmetrical relationships as a portrayal of the essence of the Christian tradition?

[8] This case study on the decision to ordain women does not explicitly address these broader questions, but we can see shifts in the orientation of the churches that happened during the tumultuous post-war generation, and especially in the 1960s as the social protest movements among the youth filtered into the consciousness of American Lutheran denominations.

[9] Protestant Churches began to ordain women as their societies became more emancipated. After women gained the vote, other public roles gradually opened up to them. For many interpreters who supported women’s ordination, the fact of emancipation for women was the key decision. Any of the biblical or traditional arguments against women’s ordination were actually arguments that at the root — Paul’s “I permit no woman to speak” or “Wives obey their husbands” — would forbid women from voting, at all, and certainly not in the congregations. So once churches had decided that women could vote, or speak in public, they had already moved out of Paul’s framework for society. This was the situation that American Lutherans had already assumed in the late 1960s when they embarked on the official study on the role of the women in the churches, with the task of deciding whether Lutheran churches in the United States could ordain women to the ministry.

[10] An important precedent for American Lutherans was the experience of the Church of Sweden [COS] when it decided in 1958 after almost decade of stammering, to ordain women. The COS was pressed by a 1945 law that gave the same legal status to both men and women in the public life of Sweden. At first the church was excluded from compliance, but the parliament in 1946 directed the government to study how this law should apply to the church. Some floated a proposal for a new ministerial office just for women, but in the end, after a 1957 vote against it, the Church Assembly in 1958 voted to open ordination to women, largely on the strength of the lay votes. [The Church Assembly had 57 lay and 43 ordained members.] One report in 1957 found that 87% of the clergy were opposed. In 1960 the first three women were ordained.1 The commission appointed to study the issue then issued reports to inform the Swedish people of the basis for their recommendation. One especially became important to the American debate. This was Krister Stendahl’s The Bible and the Role of Women, translated and issued as a Fortress facet book in 1966. The messy process that occurred in Sweden was covered comprehensively in the Lutheran World Federation’s journal Lutheran World, in 1958.2 Two other Scandinavian churches had already taken this step, Denmark and Norway, while Finland held back until the early 1980s. A factor for the Church of Sweden, and for the Church of Finland, was their more ecumenically portentous retention of apostolic succession for bishops, which had evolved in these churches in a Protestant direction, but which sustained the development of a high church traditionalist and catholic wing within the ministry. There were also internal diversities within the theological faculties of Lund and Uppsala that make the study of modern Swedish Church history a very interesting topic. The Church of Sweden has also been a pioneer in opening ministry to openly gay people. When the archbishop of the Church of Sweden spoke to a gathering of the Augustana Heritage Association in 2010, he remarked that after the 2009 ELCA decision his church was no longer so alone within the LWF.3

[11] Gunnar Hillerdal, a Swedish theologian who had spent some time as a guest lecturer and teacher in two American seminaries, Augustana and Luther, reported the decision to Karl Mattson, who was the president of Augustana Seminary in Rock Island in a personal letter. Hillerdal noted his surprise that even Anders Nygren, recently retired bishop in Lund, had been drawn into the of group conservative theologians and bishops in Sweden opposed to the decision.4 Nygren, had been on the cutting edge of the progressive new interpretation of Luther for a new age, so his role in opposing the ordination of women was unexpected. Women’s advancement within the church revealed fractures and tensions that had been hidden from view. Opponents raised arguments based on biblical grounds, asserted that traditional understandings of the priesthood were absolute, and held that women’s ordination would damage ecumenical relationships. Nygren argued that women should not take men’s jobs, an idea from the Enlightenment, not Christianity, and he hoped technology would improve conditions so that women could return to their homes where they belonged. In order to process this decision in the church, a ‘Conscience Clause’ was created. Bishops, and priests, and parishes who for conscience sake could not accept a woman as a priest, would be protected by provisions in the law from having to ordain, work alongside, or receive the ministries of a woman. The traditionalists created a very powerful tool in a document called “The 17 Points,” which gave point-by-point instructions to lay people and priests on how to boycott any service or activity that would conceivably recognize the ministerial status of a woman. For instance, a church organist could refuse to play a service when a woman priest was present. This conscience clause was overturned by a Church Assembly in 1982, removing remaining barriers to the service of women in a few conservative diocese and parishes.

A Slow but Sure American reaction
[12] Mattson could look on the Swedish troubles over women’s ordination with some detachment. It was unlikely that American Lutherans would soon consider such a step, and he said so in his reply. Still he was troubled about the splits occurring between Swedish theologians. This would set back the prospects for a stronger Swedish influence within American Lutheranism, something Mattson and others had cultivated as a means to advance the standing of Lutheranism within the modern Protestant theological sphere, and more particularly the possible contributions of Augustana within American Lutheranism.5 American Lutherans had a conservative reputation in the Lutheran World Federation due in part to their continuing desire to keep the door open to Missouri.6 By the late 1950’s American Lutherans hoped that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod might finally emerge out of its isolation and join with other American Lutherans in the Lutheran World Federation. The many approaches and strategies used by Lutheran theologians on the Continent, in Scandinavia, and in the United States to draft a confessional platform to which the Missouri Synod might subscribe, or to design a Lutheran Federation so loose that it did not even require a confessional subscription, is described by E. Clifford Nelson in The Rise of World Lutheranism. At the LWF assemblies in Minneapolis in 1957, and Helsinki in 1963 the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod still contemplated membership, but with the election of Jacob A O Preus on a conservative platform in 1969, any momentum in this direction was halted. Ironically, in 1969 the LCMS also voted to allow women to vote in congregations and to be delegates to conventions. The progressive voices within Missouri also urged consideration of women’s ordination, but these voices were sidelined.

[13] Missouri hesitancy to join the LWF affected the structural relationships among American Lutherans stateside, too. American Lutherans related to the Lutheran World Federation through a national committee, the National Lutheran Council, where interchurch aid, missionary placements, and some home mission efforts were coordinated. After the mergers of The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America, however, only two churches remained in the old council. By shutting down the old, and to Missouri, suspect National Lutheran Council, a new opportunity emerged that opened the door to Missouri participation in a brand new, untainted cooperative council. Purists in the old Synodical Conference [Missouri’s official umbrella group] objected — the Wisconsin and Evangelical Lutheran Synods broke fellowship with Missouri over this — but the Missouri Synod did go ahead in 1966 and vote to join the LCA and The ALC in the Lutheran Council in the USA. LCUSA’s cooperative scope was however limited by Missouri’s condition that any joint work among these Lutheran churches would have to be based on firm theological agreement. A key department was therefore created to pursue this hard-to-find theological consensus: the Department of Theological Studies.

[14] The mandate of the LCUSA Department of Theological Studies was to study matters sent to it by the churches. Just such a matter arrived in a letter sent by President Fredrick Schiotz, of The ALC in July 4, 1967 to the first General Secretary of the council, Thomas Spitz Jr. The letter noted that “one of our theological seminaries has two women in residence.” Soon they would be out on internship and enter their senior year in the fall of 1968. Schiotz noted that “one of them has strong convictions about ordination.” He recognized that this issue would also be faced by other Lutheran churches, and so The ALC Church Council voted “To request the LCUSA division of Theological Studies, to study the question of ordination of women.” Pressure had been building in The ALC for some time. A convention action from 1964 had already declared that “Since the ministry office is not precisely defined in the New Testament, and since the duties of early officers were varied and interchangeable and since the needs of the church down through the centuries are subject to variation, we are led to Luther’s conclusion, namely, that God has left the details of the ministerial office to the discretion of the church, to be developed according to its needs and according to the leading of the Holy Spirit.”7 Action on this declaration, however, had been delayed, first because there were no women ready for ordination, and also because such a step might interfere with President Frederick Schiotz’s primary goal to achieve pulpit and altar fellowship with the Missouri Synod, also in the works. Schiotz kept a cool head as he moderated the dynamic currents within the new and ambitious The ALC. He apologized to Spitz when he noted in his correspondence that his church council was referring a lot of items to the new council, including something called a study of “an inclusive theological consultation as requested by the presidents of Lutheran Theological seminaries.” The general secretary Thomas Spitz and the standing committee of the Department of Theological Studies officially responded, and agreed that a study on women’s ordination was needed, and should be done jointly, because “it is a potentially divisive issue for American Lutheranism.”8 For our purposes it is important to note that at the beginning of the study key leaders understood and articulated the divisive nature of the question.

[15] Throughout the study process by LCUSA’s Department of Theological Studies, there were repeated statements that differing decisions by the churches should not be grounds for separation. There are many signs in the caution and hesitancy of the church leaders, however, that indicate their assumption that the decision would in fact be divisive. A lot hinged on which parties within the Missouri Synod were in the lead.

[16] The LCA had also embarked on studies on the ministry in the mid 1960s that became for them the context in which the ordination of women was considered. A proposal to create a tiered ministry, with a special status for professional lay ministry, was hotly debated in 1966. The LCA convention clearly voted not to create a special class of lay ministry because any specialization of this sort would create hierarchies within the laity. Studies on the ministry dogged the Commission on the New Lutheran Church, became the first issue in the new Lutheran church [ELCA] to receive concentrated attention, and resulted in divisions because the adoption of the three fold ministry of bishop, presbyter, deacon, was seen as the introduction of an asymmetrical model for ministry. For our purposes it is important to note that teaching authority as conceived in this threefold model has been traditionally vested within the office of the bishop. Thus teaching theologians as a group have, for the most part, lobbied against the introduction of the threefold understanding.

LCUSA’s optimistic start
[17] In this dynamic context of considering a new way for ministry to serve the church, and serve the world, Lutherans inched even closer to unity. LCUSA’s early years were full of optimism about the prospects for Lutheran unity. Jerald Brauer, noted Church Historian from the University of Chicago, addressed the founding banquet with the stirring idea that perhaps Lutherans would emerge beyond denominationalism. What this would mean was unclear from his talk, but the momentous idea that Lutherans in the United States could actually cooperate in an official capacity seemed to make even such a seasoned historian as Jerald Brauer quite heady.

[18] LCUSA’s best-funded entity, the Department of Theological Studies, would conceivably make all this possible. It had as its primary purpose to “seek theological consensus in a systematic way on the basis of the scriptures and the witness of the Lutheran Confessions.”9

[19] Members of the subcommittee on the Study on the Ordination of Women by the Lutheran Council in the USA commission represented the four churches in the council.10 They were John Reumann, chair, Robert Bertram, Stephen Mazak, Fred Meuser, and Paul Opsahl [staff]. Note the absence of women on the small study group. Evidently this subcommittee was not producing its results quickly enough to satisfy The ALC, because president Fred Schiotz sent a second letter to Thomas Spitz on, June 24, 1968, after a Church Council meeting where there was evidently pressure to move ahead unilaterally on the issue. Schiotz noted, “You may remember that we referred to the LCUSA a question for study by the DTS concerning the ordination of women. Today the Church Council, in discussing this issue, gave some consideration to the possibility of the ALC’s adopting a statement of its own. However, they paused short of doing this, feeling it is highly desirable that Lutherans act together on this. They then inquired whether it might be possible for the LCUSA to have its report available for the annual meeting of the Lutheran Council so it might be available to our Church council in June 1969.”11

[20] Pressure was building in the LCA also to act on the issue ahead of the joint study with Missouri. LCUSA acted as a brake on these plans by instructing their representative to speak forcefully to the delegates at the 1968 LCA Convention to make the argument that it would be better to act together as Lutherans than for the churches to do this unilaterally, and the LCA also waited. When the report was presented to LCUSA in the spring of 1969, however, an additional step was proposed before a final recommendation was given to the churches. This additional step would provide for a wider participation on the part of the churches. LCUSA’s study process will be further described in Part II of this case study, but it is important to note the sequence of events as the study completed its task and was ready to report in the beginning of 1969, while the conservative takeover of Missouri was taking place. At this point one additional step in the study process was added: a consultation at Wartburg Seminary in September of 1969 that would expand the discussion to include more representatives from theological faculties and from the churches. Wartburg Seminary was an interesting choice for this consultation. It was the seminary of the old Iowa Synod, where the theological faculty had pioneered the thesis that in the application of the Lutheran Confessions and Scripture to modern, American, problems there were ‘open questions’ — things not mentioned or determined in these traditional sources — that gave American Lutherans freedom to make their own decisions.

[21] At the Wartburg meeting in the fall of 1969 women also became involved as representatives in the discussion. The Inter-Lutheran Consultation on the Ordination of Women held at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa also provided an opportunity for the churches to begin to form their own study commissions to bring the question before their own conventions. The American Lutheran Church sent Roy A Harrisville, William Larsen, and Stanley Schneider, representing the Norwegian, Danish, and German elements in that church. The LCA sent Margaret Ermarth [Joseph Sittler’s sister and a professor from Wittenberg, Ohio], Martin Heinecken from Philadelphia, and Ralph Peterson [Augustana background]. The Missouri Synod sent Fred Kramer, Martin Scharlemann, and Edward Schroeder, while the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, Slovak, was represented by Kenneth Ballas. The representation of women was very slim at the Inter Lutheran consultation at Wartburg. It was not until the churches themselves took up the study that we see women on the LCA and The ALC commissions. Missouri, of course, did not establish a study commission and did not have any process related to women’s ordination that involved consultation with women.

Studying Ministry in order to better respond to the world’s challenges
[22] In order to understand more fully the pressure that leaders in The ALC and the LCA experienced as they embarked on this study, this final section of Part I will explore some of the social currents at work in these churches. The intensive study of ministry being conducted during the 1960s in both The ALC and the LCA related of course to resolution of issues in these mergers, but the social factors in American society certainly played an important role. Several features of the postwar cultural and religious scene pushed American Lutheran churches toward this decision.

[23] First, American Lutherans had become self consciously American churches, and not primarily ethnic or devotional enclaves. Lutherans had formed modern denominations, where democratic processes informed representative assemblies. Capable of great feats of procedural sophistication, national conventions in the newly formed American Lutheran Church [1960] and the Lutheran Church in America [1962] were not hesitant to request studies, expect quick responses from experts, and use the most recent research to make their decisions. The process of decision-making itself was a source of pride. In characterizing the approach of the authors of the joint study on the topic of women’s ordination, Jack Reumann noted that the writers aimed for blandness, in order to persuade through the force of their argument alone. Authority in these churches, Reumann said, had passed from the theological faculties to the national conventions and denominational executives. No one could dictate from above. Blandness does not inspire us today, but we can appreciate the term better if we recognize the modernist aesthetic that motivated the study commission in LCUSA. The modern denomination was like an efficient, rational, machine. Not moved by passion or impulse, it proceeded methodically towards its airtight conclusion

[24] Second, American Lutherans believed that their churches would thrive in proportion to their relevance to a modern, educated, American public. They viewed the civil rights struggle and the emancipation of women as the pressing issues of their time and recognized that their churches should at least keep pace with social changes.

[25] Third, American Churches, with enthusiastic Lutheran participation, had recently hosted both the World Council of Churches [Evanston, 1954 and Toronto, 1963] and the Lutheran World Federation [Minneapolis, 1957] which, together with the ecumenical advances that were now possible after the historic sessions of Vatican II, gave leaders in the churches a heady sense of possibility and an openness to changing long held attitudes. Even in the conservative Missouri Synod, there were signs of thaw, since they agreed to join the LCUSA, and adopted altar and pulpit fellowship with The ALC in 1969.

[26] Fourth, rapid suburbanization and the baby boom contributed to an expansive, optimistic mood in the national churches. New congregations emerged in expanding suburbs, and while older rural and small town churches lost vitality, these communities maintained sufficient membership to continue their traditionally strong support for their denomination. The optimism at the national level belied local problems: inner city neighborhoods suffered from white flight and the devaluing of properties. Perhaps the abandonment of older congregations created a sense of obligation, in the abstract at least, towards solving social problems.

[27] Fifth, women were entering the professions and had demonstrated their aptness for work as doctors and lawyers, so why not the ministry? Even more broadly, women were part of the increased numbers at college campuses across the nation. As the GI Bill brought older male students to college campuses, women also began extending their education beyond the first two years in college and the traditional female occupations. Was there a correlation, here? Women who graduated from college could enter professional schools and universities, preparing for new careers in the traditionally male professions of law, medicine, business and politics. They also began to register as students in denominational seminaries. In America, this entry into the professions was a kind of emancipation from time-honored and homebound roles.

[28] Frequently noted by those who conducted the studies was Krister Stendahl’s observation in the Church of Sweden study that the decision to ordain women was not in essence different from the decision to give women the vote in church matters.12 All the biblical passages concerning women were the same ones used to study whether women also should vote in congregations. Since the churches had already decided to give women the vote, in spite of biblical texts that spoke against women’s speaking or teaching in public, then they could not then turn around and use the same texts to argue against ordaining women. Deciding that women should vote, that women should be emancipated from the private realm, was the fundamental question.

[29] As they studied the issue together, the Lutheran churches in their study of the biblical passages concerning women stumbled into significant disagreement over the biblical passages in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and in the letter to the Ephesians, that told women to be silent, to obey, to refrain from any teaching role. But in conducting the study, and in commending the matter to the churches, Reumann and his committee determined that differences among Lutherans were hermeneutical and not exegetical. But there were and are differences that still affect the churches. The problem of historical criticism of scripture dogged the deliberations of the council through its life. Because of this fundamental theological disagreement LCMS funding for cooperative work in the council — refugee resettlement, social services — was reduced and then eliminated. Continued funding from them was finally given only to theological study. This put enormous strain on the work of LCUSA in social service, and in chaplaincy. Finally in 1981–86 this core issue — historical criticism — became the subject of the last study conducted by the Department of Theological Studies. The study was referred to the council by the LCMS. In outlining agreements and disagreements, one formulation that Missouri scholars favored made a distinction between the ministerial and magisterial approach to historical criticism. Missouri accepted the ministerial historical criticism, a level of analysis that determined what the early texts said and meant. The magisterial form of historical criticism, however, they felt went beyond any allowable criticism by deciding also what a text means today. This approach according to Missouri used human reason to govern the meaning of texts, and should be rejected by the church, which should never allow human reason to judge God’s word. In response to this, the LCA and The ALC representatives said they couldn’t make such a distinction, because as they said: “reason is involved in all that we do.”13


1. A detailed case study of the Church of Sweden’s decision has been written by Brita Stendahl, The Force of Tradition: A Case Study of Women Priests in Sweden, Fortress Press, 1985. The book contains a valuable appendix by Constance Parvey that surveys women’s ordination on the wider ecumenical landscape in the World Council of Churches.

2. Sten Rodhe, “The Controversy over the Ordination of Women in Sweden”, Lutheran World vol. 4, 1957–58, pp 392–404.

3. Comments after talk given by Archibishop Anders Wejryd to the Augustana Heritage Association gathering in Rock Island, Illinois, June 2010.

4. Gunnar Hillerdal to Karl Mattson, … 1959, Mattson to Hillerdal 1960? The Mattson papers are in a private collection. The author has made copies of this and other correspondence related to Swedish American theological relationships up to 1963, when Karl Mattson died.

5. I explore this ambition in more detail in “Augustana’s Theological”… Lutheran Quarterly, Spring 2010, pp.

6. In the formation of the LWF and WCC, Americans pressed for confessional subscription as the means for constituting membership. This excluded some German Lutherans from the LWF because of the unique territorial Union church polity that combined churches with differing confessional orientations. Conservative Lutherans in Germany holding the same confessional position would not subscribe to the Barmen Declaration. American Lutherans, with their conservative position on the confessions were thus entangled with many difficult moral and ethical as well as theological questions. A path forward for European Lutherans and Protestants had been to set aside these confessional tests in the favor of a more cosmopolitan and international identity.

7. The ALC, Reports and Actions, 1964, p 140.

8. The items quoted come from the compiled and bound report on the study for the ordination of women in the LCUSA archives, now located at the ELCA archives. LCUSA volume at archives in LCUSA 14/4 box 29.

9. Quoted in Naomi Frost, Golden Visions, Broken Dreams: A Short History of the Lutheran Council in the USA, LCUSA, 1987, pg 17.

10. The much smaller fourth church, the Evangelical Slovak Lutheran Synod, later joined the Missouri Synod.

11. LCUSA archives, 14/4 box 29.

12. Krister Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women, Fortress, 1966, cited in Reumann’s report to the subcommittee, and Ray Tiemeyer’s condensation of the reports published by LCUSA in 1970.

13. Golden Visions Broken Dreams, pg 21.

Maria E. Erling

The Rev. Dr. Maria E. Erling is Professor of Modern Church History and Global Missions and Director of Teaching Parish at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.