When the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia came together in 1966 to form the Lutheran Church of Australia, they did so on the theological basis set out in the Theses of Agreement, adopted by each church body in the preceding years. In Section VI “Theses on the Office of the Ministry”, the final Thesis (11) simply stated: “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 1 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.”
Not long after the LCA’s Commission on Theology and Inter-Church Relations began to study and discuss the issue of whether Scripture in fact allowed women to be ordained as pastors. There were two main reasons for this. Firstly, the issue was not debated in the process of drawing up the Theses of Agreement because it was not in dispute between the two church bodies. Secondly, many other Protestant church bodies, including major Lutheran churches, had already agreed to allow women to be ordained. So a closer study of this matter seemed appropriate.
After many years of study of the two central biblical texts plus related biblical texts and other theological arguments for and against the ordination of women, and after much lively discussion and debate, a majority of the CTICR members supported the view that on balance the Bible did not prohibit the ordination of women. This nuanced decision was saying that the biblical evidence against the ordination of women was not as strong as the biblical case for allowing women to be ordained.
After a time of discussion at the congregational level, the issue was debated and voted on at the 2000 General Convention and again in 2006. Each time the Synod delegates voted in favour of a resolution to allow the ordination of women, but each time the voting majority did not reach the 66% level required by the LCA Constitution for a change of doctrine. The Convention voted a third time in 2015, resulting in 64% voting yes and 36% voting no. Therefore the LCA holds a doctrinal position that is not supported by well over half the delegates registered at Convention. For a church that resolves doctrinal issues through a delegate vote it is an awkward position to be in.
Even though the vote for the ordination of women was not passed by the 2015 Convention, it did pass, by a large majority, these two resolutions:
20150216 RESOLVED: That Synod requests the CTICR to build on its earlier work regarding the ordination of women and men to develop a draft doctrinal statement for GPC and the 19th Convention of Synod that presents:
20150217 RESOLVED that in the light of its teaching that only men be ordained, the church enter a period of careful theological reflection and pastoral work for the next synodical term to assist in maintaining its unity and harmony.
From this it is evident that it is the will of Synod that the matter be discussed again in 2018. The work required is substantial. The Convention gave the tasks of writing and resourcing to the Commission on Theology and Inter-Church Relations and the General Church Council, but the work will also need to involve the pastors and wider membership of the LCA.
Despite the votes in 2000 and 2016 the discussion had never really ended. A strong push led to a renewed debate of the issue at the 2013 General Pastors Conference and Convention. This resulted in church wide dialogue, in which the Ordination We’re Listening website played a part.
The dialogue was conducted in the same spirit as that of the negotiations leading up to union in 1966. The Theses of Agreement, which were adopted by both former churches, state: “In case of differences in exegesis that affect doctrine, agreement on the basis of God’s Word must be sought by combined, prayerful examination of the passage or passages in question.” (Theses I, 4 (e)) In other words, we have no choice but to continue our study and discussion of this issue.
In 2013-15 we also sought to engage with the considerable number of women in the LCA who genuinely believe that God is calling them to the ordained ministry. Many of these have completed intensive theological study. Some have left the LCA to seek that calling in Anglican or Uniting churches. The rest, probably held back by their commitment to Lutheranism, are in limbo. They need clarity on this issue, so that they can make decisions about what they will do with their perceived call from God.
After the 2015 Convention many of us were exhausted by the discussion, debate, and the issue itself. We set time aside to celebrate Christmas and New Year, be quiet for a while, and reflect.
If we are to reach the goal given to us by Convention, however, we do need to begin again. That’s why we are re-opening OWL and providing a place, once more, for points of view, engagement and discussion.
As with last time we should continue to hope and pray that, as we continue to listen to God’s Word, the Holy Spirit might lead us to a settled consensus on this question. What happens with the proposed doctrinal statement at the 2018 Pastors Conference and Convention will be up to delegates and the Holy Spirit. My prayer is that we can go forward as a church united in Christ to share God’s love in the world and fulfil the mission to which he calls every believer (Matt 28:18-20).
Our unity in Christ is a firm foundation to continue our study of God’s Word and understanding of his ministry, gaining a richer knowledge of Scripture and the reasons that motivate both positions. We can also engage each other in respectful and deliberate dialogue. Together we can prepare ourselves for wise and Spirit-filled decision making when yet once more the issue comes before General Pastors Conference and Convention in 2018.
Rev John Henderson
Originally prepared in September 2013
Revised in March 2016 following the 18th General Convention of Synod