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

See Part I of this article by Maria E. Erling

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] In part one of this presentation, Dr. Maria Erling has discussed the emergence of the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A. (LCUSA) in the 1960s as a cooperative agency uniting the work of The American Lutheran Church (ALC), the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (SELC). Asked to examine the issue of women’s ordination on behalf of all the member churches, LCUSA’s Division for Theological Studies assigned the task to a special sub-committee, who asserted from the beginning that “while the Gospel is determinative for the church’s ministry, not contemporary developments, and that Gospel does not change from age to age, nonetheless it is necessary to ask from time to time whether areas of the church’s life … do properly reflect that Gospel and the will of the church’s Lord in the world amid the new situations.” Because failure to ask such questions could lead the church to “miss the ongoing work of God and promptings of his Spirit,” the sub-committee wrote, “we are called to consider anew what we have readily assumed.”1

[2] The theologians of LCUSA produced several academic papers for internal study. They affirmed the work of much of contemporary biblical scholarship in their examination of familiar texts such as I Corinthians 11:2–16 and 14:33b–36, 1 Timothy 2:11–14 and 3:1–5 and Ephesians 5:22, often traditionally used to deny women a public role in the church, finding that “exegetical obscurities” and difficulties made literalistic interpretations of such passages problematic.2 Indeed, they noted, a “strict and literal enforcement” of these passages had never existed in Lutheran churches.3 Much more determinative, they believed, were affirmations of the new creation found in Christ and summations of the Gospel found in passages such as Galatians 3:27–28: “For 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 neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”4

[3] Nor did the theologians find in the Confessions much direct guidance on the issue of women’s ordination. Examining the Confessions turned up little, for, as they put it, women’s ordination simply “wasn’t an issue in the sixteenth century.”5 Even the ecumenical argument, which they noted “deserves serious weighing,” could not provide them a definitive guideline. Some churches stood clearly against women’s ordination, others stood in favor, and “some churches assumed to be most opposed to the practice are or seem to be open to discussion of it.”6

[4] In the end, “no one argument or set of arguments settles the matter clearly one way or another at this point for us,” concluded the LCUSA theologians, and “if there are no conclusive grounds for forbidding the ordination of women and no definitive ones for demanding it, it follows that a variety of practices at any given time remains possible amid common confession”(emphasis added).7

[5] For the purposes of this Convocation, the interesting point lies in the rationale found behind the final LCUSA conclusion. John Reumann later stated that the sub-committee’s recommendations took the form they did for specific reasons. The report, in effect, elevated “blandness” to a principle. The scholars could have taken a more “radical, critical approach” to the biblical exegesis of Paul. They could have suggested, for example, that certain passages might have been later additions to the original Pauline core, or they could have “denigrated” the Pastoral Epistles by questioning their Pauline authorship. While all of these points indeed appeared in detail in the in-house study papers,8 the sub-committee explicitly rejected such a “scissors” approach in their final report. Instead, they chose to deal “with the content issues” rather than on a “critical excision of certain passages in the texts.” This they did, asserted Reumann, out of “pastoral concern,” not only for members of the Missouri Synod, but “in deference also to some people within the ALC and the LCA.”9

[6] As Reumann described it, this approach grew out of the committee’s self-understanding of their role as LCUSA theologians: “We regard ourselves rather as the servant of the churches to carry out tasks assigned.” The writers of the LCUSA report “realized that theology in the world in which we live doesn’t work any more like a thunderclap from on high, but has to be persuasive, and it has to be persuasive with people in a number of different situations.” One has to utilize “the persuasive approach rather than the authoritarian one,” continued Reumann, because “this is just a fact of life.”10

[7] These assertions — “that a variety of practices at any given time remains possible amid common confession,” and that “persuasion” should be the goal of the theologians’ task — proved determinative for the LCUSA sub-committee. The “blandness” of the conclusions had been chosen for strategic reasons. The LCUSA study did not come down conclusively in favor of women’s ordination: although the ALC and LCA theologians would have done so had they been working alone, the Missouri Synod theologians would not have allowed that to happen. But after much study, debate, and urging, all of the theologians agreed that since Scripture neither commanded nor denied it, churches stood free to decide the matter for themselves. Should one or two churches decide to ordain women, it should not alienate and cause a break in Lutheran fellowship with those who did not.

[8] LCUSA concluded its advisory work in February 1970. It transmitted its results to the individual church bodies to aid in their further individual study and decision-making, and each church now began the process of sharing the findings more broadly with the member churches. A “redaction” of LCUSA’s scholarly work for non-scholars became a published booklet, The Ordination of Women, which was mailed to each pastor of the individual church bodies in May of 1970.11

Other Voices
[9] While the church bodies had delayed unilateral action on the issue until the publishing of the LCUSA findings, however, they had also been working on their own. Each church body now continued their study with the LCUSA results added into their respective deliberations.

[10] The faculties of Luther and Wartburg seminaries had already weighed in. Independent of and even prior to LCUSA’s work, both faculties had studied the issue, come to similar conclusions, and had transmitted their findings to the ALC Church Council.12

[11] The Luther Seminary statement in particular stood as a model of clarity and brevity. “Four sets of objections are urged against the ordination of women to the ministry,” they wrote, “biblical, theological, practical, and ecumenical.” The Luther faculty addressed them all in approximately two hundred words. In language echoed later in the LCUSA study, the Luther faculty concluded they could find “no valid reason … why women candidates for ordination who meet the standards normally required for admission to the ministry should not be recommended for ordination.”13

[12] In the LCA, the “Commission on the Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of the Ministry” had been working since 1964, and continued to wrestle with issues large and small. Originally formed to consider specific issues related to church standards for the clergy roll of the then-newly-created LCA, its mandate had consistently expanded.14 Just as the New Testament church had wrestled with “and was willing to adapt old forms to new situations … and indeed to create new forms of ministry to meet the emerging needs of the church,” so the LCA Commission sought to address the “emerging needs of the church” in the rapidly changing mid-twentieth century.15 In 1966, the LCA Church Convention added consideration of the issue of women’s ordination to its charge.16

[13] In early 1968, Edmund Steimle, chair of the LCA’s Commission, solicited “information and judgments” from the thirty-one LCA synodical presidents who, Steimle noted, were “intimately involved with this problem,” as an aid to the commission’s work on the role of women in the church.17

[14] The presidents’ responses are telling, and while they were obviously not “ordinary lay people,” they do clearly give voice to the spectrum found within their synods. They also confirm that easy stereotypes of the LCA as the “liberal” church among the big three are overly simplistic.

[15] The request solicited strong opinions, both positive and negative, and as the compilers noted, “the spectre, threat, or promise of the consequences of ordination for women pervaded the documents returned by these officials.”18 Of those surveyed, twelve supported ordination for women, thirteen did not, three were uncertain, and nine would “refer” the question to the churchwide body as they waited for the results of the LCUSA and LCA Ministry studies. Ten presidents based their opinion (for or against) on “theological grounds,” five on legal/ constitutional grounds, nine on “practicality and expediency,” and one on “psychological-biological grounds.”19

[16] The range expressed in the responses was wide. Indeed, examples of each of the four “objections” identified by the Luther Seminary faculty — biblical, theological, practical, and ecumenical — all found vivid expression in the responses of the LCA presidents. “God forbid!” declared the Slovak Zion president, arguing, “Jesus had many women helping him, but only men were sent out to preach and teach.”20 The Caribbean president stated flatly, “I will not ordain a woman.” He declared that women should not be ordained because, among other reasons, they “cannot keep secrets” (although he acknowledged that “many men … act likewise”) and the ordination of women would create congregational vacancies “because of nervous breakdowns they would have.”21 Others, such as the president of the Western Pennsylvania-West Virginia synod listed “practical” problems associated with “work loads, kinds of duties, problems of leadership and the like.” Women, he noted, “don’t lack courage or creativity,” but, he continued, “physiology and psychology still seems to indicate that they are in some ways ‘weaker vessels’.”22 Others, such as the New Jersey president wondered “whether the men of the church would go to a woman for counseling as readily as they would to a man,”23 and the President of the Pacific Southwest worried about the “emotional quirks that would be somewhat different in handling the feeling-response of women as over against that of men.”24 The Wisconsin-Upper Michigan president believed women could not fulfill all of the requirements of ministry because “I would hate to see my wife be called out to some lonely outpost at 3:00 in the morning.”25 The Southeastern Synod president, which comprised the states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, wrote that he would discourage a female applicant, for the simple reason that “I doubt seriously if I could place a woman in a vacant congregation. I believe some of our congregations would accept a negro pastor (male) sooner.” As he continued in gross understatement, “that may be a strong statement coming from the South.”26

[17] On the other hand, many presidents stood strongly in favor of the move. Red River Valley’s president stated that women’s ordination would be “completely acceptable … I see no reason why ordination should be withheld.”27 Michigan’s president did not distinguish between “a man fully qualified for ordination and a woman fully qualified for ordination,” and indeed, the present turmoil in contemporary society “will call on greater activity on the part of women to be involved in the issues of our day, both within the church and outside the church. I do not believe that they should be deprived of this opportunity and privilege.”28 Texas-Louisiana’s president saw “no scriptural warrant to prohibit ordination of women,” and in fact, “we men have been making the decisions and writing the rules in the church long enough. I think that it’s time that we actualize Paul’s saying, that in Christ ‘there is neither male nor female,’ but that all are equally called to and eligible for service in the Church.”29

[18] Others, perhaps many, fell in a more broad, moderate middle. The North Carolina president held doubts, but admitted his concerns were more “psychological … than theological” and “probably the only way to find … out [if women’s ordination would work] would be to give them a chance.”30 South Carolina’s president also confessed, “I am not certain as to my convictions for a number of reasons … [but] I have an open mind yet … I still am a bit inclined against it but want to study it more.”31

[19] Interestingly, by and large, the LCA presidents seemed to have been less concerned with the ecumenical implications of such a move, or even with intra-Lutheran unity, than did the LCUSA theologians.32 The prevailing opinion seemed to be that of the President of the Central Canada Synod who wrote,” I suspect it is somewhat hazardous to the progress of ecumenism to consider the ordination of women, but I do not believe that the decision should be made on the basis of what is good for ecumenism.33 The Central Penn president agreed: the ordination of women might present “some hazards” to the ecumenical movement, “but one wonders if the bases on which we deny ordination to people who are fully qualified may not present even more fundamental hazards to the development of true ecumenism.”34 Or, as the President of the Maryland Synod put it more bluntly: “My own personal opinion is that if it is right to ordain women, which I believe it is, that ecumenism can go hang.”35

[20] Given the variety of responses, it is perhaps no wonder that by October 1969, when the study Commission could report consensus among themselves in favor of women’s ordination, they also had to report a belief that “fifty percent of our own pastors will not go along with it.”36

[21] When asked to respond to the findings of LCUSA in 1970, responses in the ALC fell across a similar spectrum to that of the LCA presidents.37 An Ohio church, for example, wrote “the Lord has always used men when men were willing & capable. If not, then women…. This indicates clearly that the Lord prefers men in the ordained ministry.38 Referring to a suggestion that counseling should be supplied for the first generation of women students entering seminary, the president of the ALC’s Rocky Mountain district wrote, “the girls should be counseled to seek a husband who will be willing to go downstairs to do the ironing when a parishioner comes to the door wanting to see the reverend.”39

[22] Many congregations recorded split votes in their congregations on the issue,40 while some found the recommendation simply beyond words: in “shocking indignation,” one irate layperson wrote to President Schiotz that the “false and hypocritical teaching” of the ALC and LCA “are slowly ruining Lutheranism in the United States.” Under such circumstances, he could only respond as “the Fathers said at the Council of Trent”: he considered the ALC “anathema” to him.41

[23] Other congregations, however, came to a positive decision on the ordination of women. A congregation in Cromwell, Minnesota actually reported that studying the LCUSA booklet had led to their conviction that women could and should be ordained.42

[24] One less-than-theological apprehension regarding the ordination of women stood out among many others. As early as 1966, George Forell noted in response to a preliminary report of the LCA’s Commission on the Study of the Ministry that it did not go far enough to address the “current situation,” which in his opinion was “sort of a loss of a sense of identity in the clergy … a loss of identity and a loss of status.”43 Indeed, as the Commission approached its final meetings in 1969, it noted that its original charge had been two-fold: first, “to firm up morale” and only secondly to think creatively about ministry.44 The Commission noted the neuralgic issues pastors faced in the modern age: “How essential is he in a society where others can communicate more effectively, counsel more expertly, and raise money more efficiently? Who needs him and for what? In short, what is his ‘identity'”?45

[25] While individuals identified a number of factors as contributors to that “loss of identity,” the issue of ordination of women clearly added to a general sense of uneasiness among at least some clergy over the feminization of the church — an apprehension articulated at least since the nineteenth century. “I hope members of your committee have more insight into this concern than I have,” wrote one synod president honestly. “I can’t conceive of any valid reason that absolutely prevents ordination for women. Yet I can’t convince myself that it would be good for the church. I churn at the increasing number of church councils with women members — not at the women but at the associated explanation, “We couldn’t get men to take the job.”46 At the extreme, such uneasiness found expression in statements such as, “Will [women’s ordination] reinforce the stereotypical picture of the church as a place for women and kids…. Does that mean then that that’s the kind of church we’re going to have?… Have we failed for good now, because we’ve said, ‘this ordination is also available to women?'”47

Almost Forgotten Voices
[26] By this point in the discussion, one has surely noticed the obvious. Throughout the entire theological consideration of the study of women’s ordination, one glaring component has largely been missing: the contributions of women themselves. Of the four church bodies of LCUSA, only one, the LCA, had any representation of women at all on its theological studies, and it had appointed three to its Commission from the start.

[27] The difference such a presence made became clear when a subcommittee of the LCA’s Commission presented a position paper written by Margaret Ermarth entitled, “Role of Women in the Life of the Church,” a work eventually published by Fortress Press in a modified form under the title, Adam’s Fractured Rib.48

[28] The message was pointed. “It is already too late for the church to exercise its genius for the role of pioneer,” wrote Ermarth, “but not too late for the church to provide creative responses to a volatile situation it inadvertently helped to create, does not fully comprehend, and is now rather frantically trying to investigate.”49 Reviewing some of the same biblical, theological and historical ground of the LCUSA study, the position paper built on the “abiding teaching” of Paul in his “continuous reiteration of the wholeness of the body of Christ” found in Galatians 3:28. “Under this interpretation there need be no special pleading for women in the name of equality and justice.”50

[29] The report concluded, “There is nothing in the exercise of the ‘ordained ministry’ as a functional office … which would exclude a woman because of her sex. The decisive thing is the possession of the necessary gifts and education and the ‘call’ from the church.”51

[30] Apparently, however, it was not until 1970 that this omission rather stunningly hit President Schiotz of The ALC. When Schiotz appeared before a meeting of the American Lutheran Church Women to discuss the LCUSA recommendation that would be going to the ALC within a matter of months, ALCW officers asked how the report would be “transmitted to the [ALC’s] general convention.” Schiotz replied that it would come in the usual way, through the Executive Committee of Church Council. At this point, Evelyn Streng of the ALCW leaned across the table and “pointedly inquired”: “‘Dr. Schiotz, are there any women on this committee that’s dealing with the ordination of women?'” Streng later reported that Dr. Schiotz “looked as if he had been thunderstruck. He paused, and just hesitated, and, why, he said, ‘Well, why, no.'”52

[31] Schiotz recovered quickly. He immediately saw to the appointment of an Ad Hoc Committee on the Ordination of Women composed of three men, two women (including Evelyn Streng) and one female staff member to review the LCUSA report and make a recommendation to the Church Council. Not surprisingly, after study, the review committee concurred with the LCUSA findings and recommended approval in June 1970.53 It was only at this late point that ALC women largely had any direct input into the process.

[32] Women’s responses in all of the church bodies to the recommendation for ordination obviously spread across as wide a range as those of men. For some women, the idea of women’s ordination could prove uncomfortable on a number of levels. Doris Spong, who headed the LCA’s women’s auxiliary, Lutheran Church Women, observed that “our greatest negative feelings” seemed to emerge when the LCW considered the changing roles of women in the church, noting that women “seem to be their worst enemy. They’re the ones that are the last ones to accept a women preacher.”54 Many felt that women had a more “traditional” role to play in the church, and for them, the idea of women’s ordination proved unsettling in an unsettling era. Some of these women expressed the thought “that woman’s temperament, voice, physical abilities, etc. would be against it.”55

[33] At the same time, however, strong and early support for the recommendation for the ordination of women came both from individual women and from the highest levels of the churchwomen’s auxiliaries. A “Mrs. Drach” from New Jersey rose to address the 1966 LCA convention to “speak for the future.” She urged the church to set a plan “in motion so that the women too will be part of all the people, and not have this limitation, this one on preaching. I do not speak for my generation,” she continued, “but for the one that is coming, and surely, there will be those who are compelled to be, to preach and to have all the offices of the church conferred upon them.”56 Indeed, in contrast to the passionately organized conservative resistance of many “church women” of the Church of Sweden to the ordination of women in the 1950s and early 1960s, the American response proved quite the opposite.57 The women’s auxiliaries in both The ALC and LCA took strong stances in support of women’s ordination.

[34] It was Doris Spong of the LCA’s Lutheran Church Women, for example, who recognized that the decision to ordain women was just a beginning, not an end, and therefore spearheaded a motion on the LCA Convention floor that asked for support, “spiritually and socially, and so forth” for women seminarians and first call women pastors.[58] It was the Auxiliary women who used political savvy to insure that the motions related to the women’s ordination issue would be presented by various people, including men, “so it wouldn’t be just women”.59

[35] If they clearly did not speak for all women in the auxiliaries, their leadership just as clearly provided a timely and critical voice as the study and reports made their way through the churches.

The Decision
[36] Such leadership, by the women’s auxiliary officers, by the theologians, and by the church presidents, ultimately began to make a difference. The matter finally came to a vote in the summer and fall of 1970, first in the LCA in June and then in October for The ALC.

[37] In June, the LCA Convention met in Minneapolis to hear the long-awaited final report of the Commission for the Comprehensive Study on the Doctrine of the Ministry. On the matter of women’s ordination, the Commission recommended one simple, but elegant, change in the LCA’s constitutional documents:

‘That Section II, Item 1 of the LCA Bylaws be amended by striking the word ‘man’ and inserting the word ‘person’.” The revised Bylaw read: “A minister of this church shall be a man person whose soundness in the faith, aptness to teach, and educational qualifications have been examined and approved in the manner prescribed in the constitution, and who has been properly ordained….” After years of study, debate, and wrestling, previously skeptical synod presidents and convention delegates of the LCA seemed convinced that women’s ordination was consistent with the Gospel. The measure was adopted — somewhat anticlimactically — on a simple voice vote.60 A follow-up motion by Frederick K. Wentz urged the LCA’s “members, its congregations, commissions, its synods, its auxiliary, its relevant boards and commissions, and all its leaders” to “encourage qualified women to seek and to fulfill calls into the ordained ministry,” and to “vigorously and creatively” provide a “facilitating climate and supportive structures” for these new prospective candidates.61

[38] At the ALC General Convention in October, the Church Council submitted a motion that “women be eligible for call and ordination in The American Lutheran Church.”62 The vote was more contentious than it had been in the LCA, but the measure passed: 560 to 414, with one abstention.63 As a follow up, the ALC Church Council, like the LCA, acknowledged that women clergy would face “especially during the transitional period … many practical issues.” They recommended “that the seminaries give special counseling to women who may seek to matriculate at the seminaries.” For whatever reason, however, following on the heels of the original affirmative vote, this motion failed.64

[39] The LCUSA study, coupled with the support of the Luther and Wartburg faculties, supportive synodical and district presidents, and the women’s auxiliaries, clearly made an impact at the churchwide level, particularly for The ALC. Some believed that the LCA would have voted to affirm the ordination of women, even without the LCUSA study, but its statement “simply made the decision easier and more positive.”65 In The ALC, the study proved “a great help” and the united, pan-Lutheran nature of the findings carried weight. Even an ALC member who opposed the motion, when asked why it had passed the ALC convention the first time it ever came before the body, noted that rank and file members paid attention to the work of the seminaries and had found that work persuasive.66

[40] Clearly, not all received the decision easily or willingly. Some even predicted a mass exodus from The ALC or LCA over this issue, but that did not happen. In the decade following the 1970 decision, 1971–1981, a total of only twelve churches left The ALC and nine left the LCA, but whether women’s ordination was the precipitating factor in the departure of even this small number of congregations is unknown.67

Missouri’s Reaction
[41] And what of Missouri…?

[42] Missouri, of course, never took such a vote. By 1969, the delicate unity so carefully crafted by the LCUSA theologians between The ALC, LCA, and Missouri, and which had been pointed to as a strength of the statement, had already begun to unravel.

[43] For a brief moment in time in the mid-twentieth century, Missouri had begun a movement in a moderate direction. “The Statement of the Forty-Four” in 1945 had urged Missouri theologians to temper their polemics with Christian charity, and the “Mission Affirmations” of 1965 pointed the church toward a new openness beyond Missouri’s traditional boundaries. Missouri’s participation in LCUSA itself proved a milestone in inter-Lutheran cooperation, and at the end of the Dubuque conference on the LCUSA findings, one Missouri member even suggested, not entirely facetiously, a proposal to test the idea of the ordination of women: “Designate (by lots? an old Biblical method), one Lutheran group to put some practicable public ordered ministry of women into practice as an experiment for all. And then see if Kephale [“headship”] structures do get violated.”68

[44] While few believed that Missouri itself would seek to ordain women anytime in the near future, all efforts in LCUSA had been poured into insuring an understanding that Scripture left open the question of women’s ordination. If so, then churches could “agree to disagree” on the issue without causing a rift in fellowship. At various points in the process, Missouri participants had expressed caution and some concern that the direction in which the LCUSA report was moving might give “ammunition” to those who opposed Missouri participation in LCUSA at all or who wanted to break fellowship with The ALC. But great pains had been taken to write conclusions the Missouri delegates felt they could sign, and the committee as a whole considered it a sign of great hopefulness for the future when they accomplished this task.69

[45] At the LCUSA annual meeting of February 1970, all members of the Council, including the Missouri members, unanimously approved the work of the Division for Theological Studies and voted to send the results to the churches. However, after the vote, newly elected LCMS President JAO Preus stood up and said, “You understand that if any of the churches do vote to ordain women it will be divisive of fellowship.” Preus’ statement, coming after the completion of the entire process, startled and alarmed many.70

[46] Ultra conservative Preus had been elected Missouri’s president only a few months before in an upset win over moderate incumbent Oliver Harms, and he moved quickly to impose a new standard of fidelity to the Bible. In July of 1969, shortly after his election, he wrote: “the inerrancy of scripture pertains to all of scripture, not only those portions which deal with theological matters but also those portions which touch upon history or the things of nature.” He included in such a listing a literal seven-day creation, a historical Adam and Eve, and an actual Jonah and the whale. In his zeal to uproot any disagreement with this position, Preus particularly targeted John Tietjen, president of Missouri’s flagship seminary, Concordia in St. Louis — who also served as LCUSA’s communications director.71

[47] The appearance of unity quickly began to unravel. Preus attacked the work of LCUSA on the women’s ordination issue, finding a handy target in the popularized Tiemeyer booklet, The Ordination of Women. Its too-popular tone (which had concerned even the LCA and ALC theologians) merely confirmed for Preus that the study had not been a serious effort to wrestle with Scripture, and he used it as a weapon in his fight to prevent the LCMS from ever voting on the issue.72

[48] In such a climate, Preus could easily characterize the votes in 1970 by The ALC and the LCA to ordain women as evidence of apostasy. In 1977, the LCMS “declared ‘fellowship in protest’ with the ALC” before eventually breaking it entirely, and it withdrew more and more from any participation in LCUSA.73

[49] Instead of the Lutheran unity they had so hoped for, Lutheran theologians found the opposite: broken fellowship, an eviscerated LCUSA, and the realization that ordination for women in the Missouri Synod would probably come to Missouri — as historian Mary Todd noted in the title of her doctoral dissertation — “not in God’s lifetime”.74

[50] A study of the history of women’s ordination in the American Lutheran church bodies in the mid-twentieth century suggests several conclusions.

[51] Theologians were important. When the issue of women’s ordination arose in earnest, the first response of the churches was to turn the question over to the theologians for study and reflection. Each church body relied on the work of LCUSA and then utilized their findings as they continued in their own theological work. Seminary faculties contributed to the broad discussion, and both church leaders and rank-and-file congregational members could and did point to the studies and find “authority” within them. For supporters of women’s ordination, the findings of the joint LCUSA report thus provided theological justification for their position: a commission of recognized theologians from each of the three major churches and the fourth smaller one had examined the evidence, worked and wrestled together, and come to agreement that women’s ordination could be appropriate and right in the rapidly changing twentieth century context.

[52] But John Reumann’s point is crucial: the theologians recognized that ultimately, “authority” had passed to church councils and church conventions. While other arguments for the ordination of women could have been made and the committee could have been “ruthless in pressing critical biblical scholarship,” as he put it, in the end the theologians saw their primary contribution to the discussion as one of “persuasion”. Some seven years after the report appeared, Reumann noted: In the “LCA we have not had a situation for many years where statements of theology faculties can settle an issue, and I am not sure that [even the] Missouri Synod has any more.”75
[53] The conclusion of the theologians — that Scripture is not clear on this matter, so churches may vote as they wish — ultimately accomplished two things:
First, it marked a recognition of the long-standing community-based nature of “authority” in the American church. From the time of Henry Muhlenberg in the colonial period, who lamented in his Journals that American Lutherans were not prone to grant authority to the clergy simply because they were the clergy, North American Lutherans had acknowledged the value of building theological consensus among the body, rather than having it imposed upon them. North American church bodies started with the theologians, whether in LCUSA or in their own seminary faculty or their own studies, but they did not end there. Church councils and church conventions served as final arbiters.

Second, in so doing, the theologians gave tacit permission for the church bodies to find their own way. As long as Scripture (a) did not speak to the issue directly and (b) did not forbid it directly, then (c) church bodies were free to order their ministry as was most helpful and appropriate for their contexts. This “permission” freed church bodies to honor unchanging Scripture in a changing world.
[54] The theologians of LCUSA expected that their work would also accomplish another goal. Working through such a difficult issue carefully, they hoped, could become a foundation for a new era of Lutheran harmony, rather than a cause for division and fracture. The work of LCUSA, in other words, could function as a helpful model not only for deciding a thorny theological issue, but as an actual aid in the creation of longed for Lutheran unity throughout North America. For those who opposed women’s ordination, on the other hand, the carefully crafted LCUSA conclusion — that the issue could be decided differently in different churches without dissolving Lutheran unity — did not fly.

[55] The “ecumenical argument” could cut both ways. On the one hand, it provided justification for supporters of the ordination of women to say that approval would be in concert with other Lutheran bodies throughout the world and hopefully, could lead to greater intra-Lutheran unity in North America. Indeed, by October of 1970, a World Council of Churches Consultation reported that “seventy churches around the world” now permitted the ordination of women.76 On the other hand, opponents of the ordination of women just as quickly pointed to the possibility that such a move would break up any prospect of Lutheran unity within North America itself. Despite the presence of LCMS theologians on the LCUSA study, once JAO Preus assumed the office of President of the Missouri Synod, the ordination of women in the LCMS was dead on arrival, and with it, any hope of a broader Lutheran union.

[56] The debate crystallized and clarified two positions struggling against each other within North American Lutheranism. While the LCUSA theologians maintained that Scripture did not speak for or against women’s ordination, Missouri ultimately disagreed and indeed, found this the very crux of the matter: they argued that scripture expressly did prohibit women’s ordination. The debate thus confirmed and hastened Missouri’s fundamentalist turn. “The Statement of the Forty-Four” in 1945 and the “Mission Affirmations” of 1965 had both given a momentary glimpse of the possibilities of a more moderate Missouri. But the election of Preus and the resulting turn toward biblical fundamentalism doomed this grand vision of one North American Lutheranism; it could not survive this development.

[57] In the final analysis, Missouri ultimately came to reject any substantive use of historical-critical methodology for the interpretation of biblical texts, a position LCA and The ALC could not support. For Missouri, “authority” rested in the uncritical imposition of Scripture on a modern context. For the LCA and The ALC, using the tools of critical reading was not an abandonment of scriptural truth to a rising tide of secularization, but was, in fact, precisely faithful to the biblical example found in the New Testament itself. In the words of Margaret Ermath’s final report on the “Role of Women,” “No one need argue that the church must act in agreement with the [changing] secular world, but to respond to the need of that world is part of the mission of the church, and it is the duty and privilege of her people to assist her in meeting that need.”77

[58] It is also clear, however, that such a difference in interpretation existed not only between the LCA, The ALC and Missouri, but could be found within each of the three church bodies themselves. Presidents, clergy and lay people of the LCA and The ALC often sounded as “Missouri-like” as Missouri itself. And of course, the opposite proved true as well — Missouri contained many moderates who expressed dismay at the election and subsequent actions of Preus, leading many of them ultimately out of the LCMS entirely and into the AELC. Thus, while a grain of truth exists in the usual stereotypes of the three major church bodies — that the LCA was “liberal,” the LCMS “fundamentalist” and The ALC somewhere “inbetween” — such characterizations are not always helpful or historically accurate.

[59] And finally, as much as it no doubt pains theologians to have to admit it — it’s not always about theology…. Any church historian worth his or her salt who spends ten minutes studying any church disagreement quickly recognizes the variety of issues involved in “theological” controversy. Issues of identity, status, economics, cultural upbringing, long-treasured assumptions, and the simple fear of change often works more powerfully on people’s emotions than the most carefully-articulated tomes of systematic theology. This is a truth theologians ignore to their peril.
Dr. Susan Wilds McArver is Professor of Church History and Educational Ministry and the Director of the Center on Religion in the South at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.


1. Raymond Tiemeyer, The Ordination of Women: A Report Distributed by Authorization of the Church Body Presidents as a Contribution to Further Study, Based on Materials Produced Through the Division of Theological Studies of the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970), 51–52.

2. Tiemeyer, 52.

3. Not only had Lutheran women consistently attended church without veils, they had exercised a “public voice” in many arenas of church life and increasingly served in positions of leadership, up to an including in some unusual cases, being “ordained to a ministry which is partial or total.” Teimeyer , 51.

4. Cited in Tiemeyer, page 22. While the 1989 New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA) translates verse 28 as “no longer male and female,” the LCUSA theologians utilized the text of the Revised Standard Version, copyrighted 1946 and 1952 by the Division of Christian Education, National Council of Churches. Passages cited on the importance of new creation included 1 Corinthians 15:29, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:15, 39 ff., and Ephesians 4:24. The scholars also cited in their work the example of women who served in various capacities of ministry in the New Testament (Luke 8:3, Mark 15:41, 1 Corinthians 11, Acts 21:9, Romans 16, and 1 Timothy 3:8 ff., 3:11, 5:3 ff., etc.). See Tiemeyer, 21–24.

5. John H.P. Reumann, “Interview with John H. P. Reumann by William G. Rusch,” 1977, Archives of Cooperative Lutheranism, Lutheran Council in the USA, ELCA Archives, Chicago, 56.

6. Tiemeyer, 52–53.

7. Ibid, 53. The Standing Committee of the Division of Theological Studies adopted the recommendations of the special sub-committee “as the standing committee’s own findings” in March 1969. As Dr. Erling has noted, the Division “tested” the results at a conference at Wartburg Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, the following September, attended by officially appointed representatives of all the church bodies. Reumann, 48–52. A summary of the Dubuque conference, including reactions of each member attending, are found in Exhibit D–1, Report on a Consultation “The Ordination of Women in Light of Church and Ministry, Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, September 20–22, 1969” in the Agenda of the Executive Committee of LCUSA, November 13–19, 1969.

8. John H. P. Reumann, “What in Scripture Speaks on the Ordination of Women?” January 1969, included in Agenda of Executive Committee of Lutheran Council in the U.S.A., November 13–14, 1969, as Appendix C–1 of the Sub-Committee on the Ordination of Women, Division of Theological Studies, Lutheran Council in the U.S.A.

9. Reumann, “Interview,” 53–54.

10. Ibid., 59–60.

11. The American Lutheran Church, “Reports and Actions,” 1970, 327 and Fredrik A. Schiotz, “Interview with Fredrik A. Schiotz by Lester F. Heins,” 1976–1977, Archive of Cooperative Lutheranism, Lutheran Council in the USA, ELCA Archives, Chicago, 300–303.

12. Members of the Wartburg Faculty had prepared “Preliminary Theses on the Ministry and Ordination” in 1968 and shared them both with the ALC Church Council (Minutes of the Church Council of The American Lutheran Church, June 23–25, 1969, 51), and with those attending the Dubuque convocation (Exhibit D–1).

13. The statement submitted to the Church Council October 30, 1968 in response to the “four sets of objections” read in its entirety:

The New Testament does not confront the question of ordination of women and therefore does not speak directly to it. On the other hand, nothing in the New Testament speaks decisively against it.

Although the ordination of women raises new and difficult questions, there is no decisive theological argument against the ordination of women.

The practical objections, however serious, do not by themselves settle the question for Lutherans. As long as no decisive biblical or theological objections are raised, the ordination of women remains a possibility.

The most serious objections is the ecumenical, that Lutherans ought not unilaterally in the present divided state of Christendom make decisions which affect all Christian churches. But inasmuch as other churches already have ordained women to the ministry, and some churches not presently ordaining women are open to discussion of its possibility, the exact weight of this objection is difficult to assess.
In view of the considerations above, we can see no valid reason why women candidates for ordination who meet the standards normally required for admission to the ministry should not be recommended for ordination. “Reports and Actions,” 1970, 326–327.

14. See “Transcript: Discussions on the Report of the Commission on the Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of the Ministry,” 1966 LCA Convention, Kansas City, Missouri, 5. Over its life, the Commission considered questions ranging from fundamental definitions of ministry and ordination to specific questions dealing with qualifications and educational standards, specialized ministries, “experimental missions,” and “tent-making ministries.” See “Report of the Commission on the Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of the Ministry,” in “Minutes of the Lutheran Church in America,” June 25–July 2, 1970, 428.

15. Transcript, 1966, 3.

16. Ibid.,61–66.

17. Steimle to “President,” [1968] in files of the Commission for the Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of the Ministry, Synod Presidents Questionnaire, ELCA Archives, Chicago.

18. Lutheran Church in America. “Reactions of Synod Presidents on Role of Women: Commission on the Ministry/LCA, Subcommittee on Role of Women.” October 21–22, 1969. ELCA Archives, Chicago, 1.

19. Ibid., 2.

20. John Zornan to Edmund Steimle, July 30, 1968, Commission on Study of the Doctrine of the Ministry, Synod President Questionnaires, ELCA Archives, Chicago. All of the following letters come from the same file.

21. Victor Rodriquz to Edgar S. Brown, October 3, 1968.

22. William Hankey to Edmund Steimle, October 3, 1968.

23. Edwin Knudten to Edmund Steimle, October 1, 1968.

24. Carl W. Segerhammar to Edmund Steimle, August 6, 1968.

25. Theodore E. Matson to Edmund Steimle, August 2, 1968.

26. Harvey Huntley, Sr. to Edmund Steimle, July 30, 1968.

27. Carl W. Larson to Edmund Steimle, September 3, 1968.

28. Frank P. Madsen to Edmund Steimle, August 1, 1968. The President of the Iowa Synod went even further: “It would appear to me that the turmoil in our churches today is calling for the strongest witness possible to be borne by all members men, women and even children. Raynold J. Lingwall to Edmund Steimle, August 6, 1968.

29. Philip L. Wahlberg to Edmund Steimle, August 16, 1968.

30. George Whittecar to Edmund Steimle, October 1, 1968.

31. Karl Kinard to Edmund Steimle, handwritten notes on Steimle’s letter of July 22, 1968.

32. The New Jersey president was one of the few to express concern that it would have “a bad effect with LCMS” and thus make “inter-Lutheran cooperation and possible union” more difficult. Edwin Knudten to Edmund Steimle, October 1, 1968.

33. At the time, the Canadian synods were part of the LCA. Otto A. Olson to Edmund Steimle, October 8, 1968. The president of Metropolitan New York also wrote: “Perhaps Lutheran unity in the USA would be retarded (if that is possible) were qualified women in the LCA to be ordained, but this ought to be a secondary reason for decision. The primary basis should be scriptural. Alfred Beck to Edmund Steimle, August 2, 1968.

34. Howard J. McCarney to Edmund Steimle, October 2, 1968.

35. J. Frank Fife to Edmund Steimle, August 30, 1968. Ohio’s president agreed: “If the ordination of women were the rock on which ecumenism foundered I would say, so be it, [but] I do not think it would seriously impede ecumenical relationships.” John W. Rilling to Edmund Steimle, August 1, 1968. The Upper New York Synod added, “Clearly, if our sights are set at an eventual merger of all Lutheran bodies in the United States, then LCA action favorable to ordination of women would damage such progress. However, there is pretty clear evidence available (seemingly ignored by most of the LCA leadership) that the pastors and people of the Lutheran Church in America are far more similar in their attitudes, behavior, and church life to Presbyterians than they are to Missouri Synod Lutherans.” Edward K. Perry to Edmund Steimle, October 21, 1969.

36. Lutheran Church in America. “Minutes of the Commission on the Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of the Ministry.” October 20–21, 1969. ELCA Archives, Chicago, 3.

37. A congregation in Mitchell, South Dakota reported that they did not oppose the ordination of women on scriptural grounds but on pragmatic ones, reasons “great enough to oppose change in the present practice. Trinity Lutheran Church Council to President Schiotz, September 16, 1970, in files of President F. A. Schiotz Correspondence, “Ordination of Women,” ECLA Archives, Chicago.

38. Andrew W. Wilch, Jr., Grace Lutheran, East Palestine, Ohio, to Dr. F. A. Schiotz, October 1, 1970, in Schiotz Correspondence.

39. Dr. R. A. Daehlin, Great Falls, Montana, cited in an official ALC press release, “ALC Church Council Votes to Favor Women Ordination,” in Schiotz Correspondence.

40. See the votes of Zion, Waterville, Ohio, and St. Peter and Our Savior, Delmont, South Dakota in Schiotz Correspondence.

41. Mr. Rodney Bluhn to “To Whom it may concern,” October 31, 1970. President’s Schiotz’s reply on November 6, 1970 to Mr. Bluhn represented a model of pastoral care. In Schiotz Correspondence.

42. Bethany Lutheran Church, Cromwell, Minnesota to Dr. Frederick A. Schiotz, September 21, 1970, in Schiotz Correspondence.

43. Transcript 1966, 9.

44. Lutheran Church in America. “Report of the Steering Committee, Minutes of the Commission on the Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of the Ministry.” October 20–21, 1969. ELCA Archives, Chicago, 4.

45. Lutheran Church in America. “Report of the Commission on the Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of the Ministry, Minutes: Fifth Biennial Convention of the Lutheran Church in America.” June 25 – July 2, 1970. ELCA Archives, Chicago, 429. RR Van Loon of the LCA expressed disappointment in the final Study of Ministry report, believing that it “weakens the ordained ministry — one more challenge to the pastor’s sense of identity — one more suggestion that an ordained ministry is without much relevance … I don’t see how this report will help the guy with the collar as he awaits a theology that identifies his ministry in the family of God and that gives him a sense of vocational awareness. ” R.R. Van Loon to Edgar S. Brown, Jr., [1970], Commission on Study of the Doctrine of the Ministry, Report and Correspondence re: Women, [1970], ELCA Archives, Chicago.

46. Hankey, October 3, 1968.

47. George H. Muedeking, “Interview with George H. Muedeking by Herb W. David,” November 15, 1984, Archives of Cooperative Lutheranism, Lutheran Council in the USA, ELCA Archives, Chicago, 87.

48. Philadelphia: 1970.

49. Margaret Ermath, “The Role of Women in the Life of the Church,” in “Report of the Commission on the Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of the Ministry,” Minutes, 1970, 441.

50. Ibid., 442.

51. Ibid., 443.

52. Evelyn Streng, “Interview with Evelyn Streng by Paul D. Opsahl,” January 10, 1985, Archives of Cooperative Lutheranism, Lutheran Council in the USA, ELCA Archives, Chicago, 44 and Schiotz, “Interview,” 302–03. Both Streng and Schiotz recall the incident.

53. Schiotz, “Interview,” 303. After their appointment to the Ad Hoc Committee, Streng and Marge Wold “came to the first meeting armed with all kinds of things … we were ready to speak our piece, and found out that the men on the committee were already ‘there,’ so we felt very comfortable in the situation.” Streng, 44.

54. Doris Spong, “Interview with Doris L. Spong by Glenn C. Stone, July 9, 1984, Archives of Cooperative Lutheranism, Lutheran Council in the USA, ELCA Archives, Chicago, 93.

55.Comments of “a number of women” as reported by Karl Kinard, President of the South Carolina Synod, in Kinard to Edmund Steimle, handwritten notes on Steimle’s letter of July 22, 1968.

56. Transcript, 1966, 10.

57. Sten Rodhe: “Ordination of Women in Sweden,” Lutheran World, 4 (1957–58): 395–6. I am indebted to Professor Erling for this information.

58. Spong, 63.

59. Ibid.

60. “Report of the Commission on the Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of the Ministry, Minutes, 1970, 433. Adoption recorded, 539.

61. Ibid., 539–540.

62. “Reports and Actions of The American Lutheran Church, 1970, 327.

63. Ibid., 328.

64. Ibid.

65. Reumann, 53, 44–45 and Schiotz, 304.

66. Muedeking, 93.

67. “Number of Congregations That Withdrew Per Year, 1960–1987,” ELCA Archives, Chicago.

68. “Responses to Questionnaire Re. Ordination of Women,” Distributed at Consultation in Dubuque, Iowa, September 20–22, 1969, included in Agenda of Executive Committee, Lutheran Council in the U.S.A., November 13–14, 1969 as Appendix D–2.

69. Reumann, 47–49, 52, 67–69. See also Arnold Mickelson, “Interview with Arnold Mickelson,” January 1977, Archive of Cooperative Lutheranism, Lutheran Council in the USA, ELCA Archives, Chicago, 14. LCUSA theologians pointed to the example of the Lutheran World Federation as an example of a body where such an understanding had worked: “there were many countries in the Third World not ordaining women, and others in Europe that were, and no one considered that divisive of church fellowship.” Reumann, 48.

70. Arnold Mickelson, 1986, Archive of Cooperative Lutheranism, Lutheran Council in the USA, ELCA Archives, Chicago,34. Preus later maintained that he made his statement before the vote to transmit the study to the churches, but Mickelson and others clearly remember that his statement came afterwards, a recollection that Mickelson records in two different oral histories. See also Mickelson, 1977, 12–15.

71. Naomi Frost, Golden Visions, Broken Dreams: A Short History of the Lutheran Council in the USA (New York: Lutheran Council in the USA, 1987), 5.

72. Reumann, 55–56.

73. Eventually, the votes of The ALC and LCA to ordain women served as the wedge for those who later led the LCMS to rescind pulpit and altar fellowship with the LCMS. See Mickelson, 1986, 34–35, Reumann, 62 and Frost, 5–7.

74. Todd’s dissertation, later published as Authority Vested: A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1999), provides a close and careful examination of the entire debate over women’s suffrage and ordination in the LCMS.

75. Reumann, 55 and 59.

76. “More Churches Ordain Women, WCC Consultation Finds” No. 28 — 1st October, 1970, Schiotz Correspondence.

77. Ermarth, 447.

Susan Wilds McArver

Dr. Susan Wilds McArver is Professor of Church History and Educational Ministry and the Director of the Center on Religion in the South at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.