The Authority of Scripture, Women’s Ordination and the Lutheran Church of Australia

[1] The Lutheran Church of Australia came into being in 1966 as the result of the union of two Synods, the ELCA and the UELCA.[1] In 1951, as part of the long walk to union, the Joint Intersynodical Committees agreed upon a ten point document on Scripture and Inspiration which formed Section VIII of The Theses of Agreement, the document of union.[2]

[2] The document on Scripture and Inspiration included these statements:

We … accept the Scriptures, i.e., the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments as the only source and ultimate judge, rule and standard of all doctrine of the Church, also in the doctrines on the Holy Scriptures and on Inspiration.
We believe that only the sola fide (by faith alone) leads to the right understanding of the sola Scriptura (the Scripture alone), that justification by grace through faith in Christ … is of special service for the clear, correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures…
We teach the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. … It is God … who gave the command to write … and inspired the holy writers. But they retained their individuality and were not exempt from the labour, methods and responsibility of human authorship.

[3] In its statement on Ministry, the same document included the paragraph:

Though women prophets were used by the Spirit of God in the Old as well as in the New Testament. 1 Cor. 14:34,35 and I Tim. 2:11-14 prohibit a woman from being called into the office of the public ministry for the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. This apostolic rule is binding on all Christendom; hereby her rights as a member of the spiritual priesthood are in no wise impaired.[3]

[4] The Pastors’ Conference of the newly formed church was preoccupied with the issue of the authority of Scripture for the first eighteen years of its existence. This focus seemed to end in exhaustion when in 1984 a paper entitled “Consensus Statement on the Authority of Scripture” was approved without real examination by a General Pastors’ Conference. The protracted discussion regarding men-only ordination or the ordination of women-and-men is evidence that there is still lack of agreement within the LCA on what constitutes the authority of Scripture.

[5] In the late 1980s a special committee was established by the Commission on Theology and Inter-church Relations (CTICR) to study intensively the issue of the ordination of women. Its final report (1991) was intended as a balanced document; however, many believed it leaned towards a position favouring the ordination of women. Congregations were invited to discuss the issue and a study booklet was written which attempted to present both the men-only case and the case for the ordination of women, in alternating paragraphs.

[6] The study booklet, and to a large degree the discussion since that time, worked with the assumption that the LCA’s official stance of opposition to women’s ministry was based on a fully developed theology of ministry. In various documents of the LCA there are clear statements that the office of public ministry is one that was established by Christ, “not the church.”[4] The Rite of Ordination differs from that used in the ELCA, with the formulaic “According to apostolic practice, you are now to be ordained …” being preceded by “According to the mandate of our Lord…”

[7] Those that argue that Christ established the office of ordained ministry do so on the basis of passages such as Matthew 28:18-20 and John 20:21-23. There appears to be no acknowledgement that these “establishment” verses may be being used to justify existing practice based in tradition rather than providing a clear mandate for ordained ministry. Those that would argue for the office of ministry having been developed in the early church would look to, for example, Acts 15, Acts 20:28 and Ephesians 4:11 for evidence of an emerging (and diverse) ministry structure. This discussion seems not to have been part of the ordination debate.

[8] The study of the ordination issue has focussed on the two verses used as the basis for the prohibition paragraph in The Theses of Agreement rather than using as the starting place the witness of Scripture regarding ordained ministry. I surmise the reason for this is the assumption of consensus regarding the office of ministry. It is apparent from looking at the published material that this consensus does not exist. In the papers published on the website of “Confessional Lutherans Australia,” for example, both functional and ontological understandings of ordained ministry can be found.

[9] The CTICR continued to study the ordination issue,[5] and in March 2000 the CTICR resolved that “The Bible and the theology of the church permit the ordination of both men and women in the LCA.” The General Church Council forwarded this statement for debate to the General Pastors’ Conference and General Convention of the LCA which were held that year.

[10] All those seriously engaged in the discussion on whether Scripture permits the ordination of women have maintained that Scripture is the basis of their viewpoint. Each of the major documents has included a section on hermeneutics, and additional papers have been written regarding the interpretation of Scripture.[6] However, there have been persistent hermeneutical differences between those engaged in the discussion, and it could be argued that these have been shaped by the ideological positions held prior to any Scriptural study.[7] A summary of the identified exegetical, hermeneutical and theological differences appears in “Controverted matters in the LCA Debate on the ordination of women.”[8]

[11] Significant voices in the debate have argued from what they maintain to be a literal (but not Biblicist) understanding of Scripture. [9] The subordination of women is an implicit assumption for many. Other significant voices uphold a viewpoint that the Gospel is central to all interpretation and that allowing the text to speak implies a contextual reading.[10] Many of the same people would suggest the Holy Spirit remains active in the development of the church and its theology. Regardless of the position taken, each of those writing and debating understands themselves to be subject to the authority of Scripture.

[12] Likewise those from both polar positions refer to the Lutheran Confessions to support their case. Those who argue for a male-only pastorate conclude that the Confessions “recognise qualifications for the pastoral office beyond being a Christian, [and] that the assurance which accompanies the pastoral ministry of men does not necessarily accompany the pastoral ministry of women.”[11] Those who argue for the ordination of both women and men refer, for example, to the marks of the church: that the church can be recognised where “the pure teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments in harmony with the gospel of Christ.”[12] They see it as inappropriate to add a third mark, the traditional ordering of the ministry, regarding the gender of the minister as an adiaphoron.

[13] While the official line has been maintained that all discussion in the church on the matter of the ordination of women has been on the basis of Scripture,[13] the reality is that it has been a discussion nested in political strategem. Many decisions about process have been less than transparent. Those nominated by the church to provide leadership in matters of theology voted by a two-thirds majority – after a long process of study and discussion – that Scripture permits the ordination of women. However, when the General Synods of 2000 and 2006 were asked to discuss and vote on the issue there was silence about the work of the CTICR and the impression continues to be given that they did not reach a decision. A task force was established by the General Church Council following a resolution of the 2006 Synod, “to determine and implement strategies for promoting greater consensus on the matter of the ordination of women” but the report of the task force to the 2009 Synod seems to suggest that the previous study and discussions were ignored.

[14] Those addressing the two General Synods were advised by the chair to address only Scriptural considerations, but there was no direction from the chair when emotive arguments on other considerations were raised. Nor was there censure from the chair when a guest from another Lutheran Church commented in his address to the 2006 Synod that a vote to ordain women would call into question the relationship between the two churches.

[15] At each of the General Pastors’ Conferences where a vote on the issue was cast prior to the meetings of the General Synod, a significant conservative block attended the Conference for that short period of time only. In 2006 one of the conservative theological spokespersons commended the commitment of these pastors in a letter which was subsequently published on the web.

[16] There has been consistent insistence on framing the debate in terms of 1 Cor. 14:34,35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-14. As part of the 2006 Synodical agenda, two Pastors were asked to address the gathering at length regarding the interpretation of those two verses, one from the position opposing the ordination of women, and one from the position supporting the ordination of both men and women. At no time has there been opportunity to frame the debate according to a broader study of the Office of Ministry in Scripture and its implications for the ministry of women.[14]

[17] For those who support the ordination of women it can appear as if the political manoeuvring stems from misogyny. However, it can also be surmised that the internal pressure to preserve the hard-won union that formed the LCA is the motivation. It may well be that the authority of Scripture is the elephant in the room that we don’t wish to deal with, for fear of the consequences.

[18] Those of us who have contributed to this article believe that all involved in the discussion do so seeking to be faithful to Scripture and for the good of the church. We look for renewed transparency in the process and a spirit of collegiality as we continue to walk towards a resolution. We also believe that the authority of Scripture is best respected where the interpretation of Scripture is based on clear and consistent principles, interpretation is Christ-centred, and there is a willingness to learn from modern scholarship. As we cannot be free of biases and choices we believe to know and state the assumptions we bring to the interpretive task is the position of greatest integrity.

Sincere thanks to those who provided assistance in the preparation of this summary.

[1] The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia) had historical links with the Missouri Synod dating back to the 1880s and maintained this connection, particularly through pastors receiving training in the various Missouri theological seminaries and through the products on the Concordia publishing house. The UELCA (United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Australia) was a member church of LWF, had historical connections with Neuendettelsau and Hermannsburg Mission Societies, Germany, and Wartburg Theological Seminary, IO, and accessed the Augsburg Publishing House resources.


[3] Theses of Agreement, Section VII, “On the Office of Ministry”

[4] Eg “Authority and Power in the Church” # 8

[5] A selection of papers written as part of this exercise may be found at and the final report of the CTICR at (html attached to email).

[6] For example, CTICR 2002 “The Gospel and the Interpretation of Scripture”

[7] See for example, section 3 of John Kleinig’s paper “The Ordination of Women and the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity


[9] Eg Greg Lockwood’s paper “An Open Response to the Initial Report of the Commission on Theology and Interchurch Relations “
[10] Eg Vic Pfitzner’s paper “Paul, the Mission to Jews, and Women in the Churches”

[11] Andrew Pfeiffer, “A Contribution from the Lutheran Confessions in the Discussion on the Ordination of Women”

[12] Ap VIII, 5.

[13] In 1998 there was a central symposium held at Luther Seminary (now called Australian Lutheran College) on the Ordination of Women in the LCA. This symposium invited considerations of the Lutheran Confessions, historical precedent and ecumenical relations alongside those of Scriptural interpretation. Those involved in most other public discussions have been directed to confine their contribution to Scriptural considerations.

[14] One additional piece confirming this framing is the “Controverted matters …” paper released by the CTICR, which recommended eight points not be included in the discussion “because they either obscure our discussion or are basically irrelevant to it.” These included considerations of “culture and cultural conditioning,” and “the appeal to servanthood … [and] “the appeal to giftedness as the foundation for ministry.”