Affirming the Ministry of Women in the Lutheran Church of Australia

The Development of Doctrine and the Ordination of Women

Dr Mark Worthing, Luther Seminary

Some time ago I was reading an article advocating the ordination of women which left me somewhat troubled. It was not the idea of women serving in a ministry of Word and Sacrament that concerned me – that is, I believe an open question at present and one that needs to be addressed. What concerned me, rather, was what appeared to be an incidental remark concerning the historic position of the church on this question. Conceding that the Church does not appear to have ordained women in the past, it was suggested that the church had been in error and upholding a sinful practice for the last two millennia by restricting the office of Word and Sacrament to men.

It may well be that the LCA, after much prayer and deliberation, is led to open the office of Word and Sacrament to women also. To do so, however, at the cost of rejecting and condemning nearly twenty centuries of Christian history as holding to an errant doctrine, is unacceptable.

If the LCA follows the example of the majority of our Lutheran sister churches throughout the world and opens its ordained ministry to women as well as men, then this major change in church practice and teaching must, I believe, be viewed as a development of doctrine.

There are essentially two advantages to introducing the idea of the development of doctrine to the current discussions about the ordination of women. The first is that, properly understood, the recognition of the fact of doctrinal development and its application to the question of the ordination of women allows our church, should we proceed in this direction, to make this major change from our past and current practice and teaching without rejecting or disparaging the authority or integrity of those who have preceded us in the faith. That is to say, it overcomes the problem of how to incorporate change without condemning the former stance of the church – which is a very real dilemma for advocates of women’s ordination. The concept of doctrinal development seeks to emphasise continuity rather than a radical break. It seeks to minimise disruption to the entire theological programme.

The second advantage to introducing this concept into our present discussions is that a number of criteria have been established through an examination of actual doctrinal developments in the history of the church and through more recent reflections on the nature and limits of doctrinal development for the determination of what constitutes a legitimate development of doctrine. These criteria, when applied to the question of the ordination of women, raise some new issues and put some old issues in a somewhat different light. I do not believe the criteria, which we shall examine in due course, inherently favour any particular side in the present debate. I do believe that they provide us with an opportunity to approach the question from some fresh vantage points.

So what exactly is ‘doctrinal development’?

The concept of doctrinal development, I am aware, is not all that familiar among Lutherans. The term, therefore, requires some explanation. Although the development of doctrine has been with the Christian Church since its inception, the formal recognition of this phenomenon is more recent. There are significant hints toward recognising that doctrines are not static but do develop legitimately in the Church already in Gregory Nazianzus, Thomas Aquinas, and Vincent Lerins.1 It was, however, John Henry Newman, in his landmark 1845 book, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, written just prior to his conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, who first clearly identified this phenomenon and sought to delineate the principles that guide it. Other leading theologians of the day such as James Orr and Adolf von Harnack also came to recognise the historical fact of doctrinal development and to propose their own theories as to how this development occurs.

Opposition to the idea of doctrinal development was initially wide spread. Even though Newman used the idea to defend the current form of the Roman Catholic Church and its teachings, many Roman Catholics were uncomfortable with the idea that doctrines could develop. This seemed too close to suggesting that the church could change its beliefs, thereby admitting that at some point it had not possessed the full truth. These theologians preferred to say that some doctrines were only stated in more detail at later stages. Many also rightly saw what Newman himself seems to have overlooked, namely, that the idea of doctrinal development presented even better possibilities for a defence of Protestantism than it did of the Roman Church. Among Protestants there was, of course, reaction to Newman’s defence of the Church of Rome. His theory was tainted as Roman Catholic propaganda. Others simply could not accept that Christian doctrines were not static. Many felt it was simply a matter of looking at the New Testament writings and the writings of the early church and recovering what was always the teaching of the church.

The examples of doctrinal development put forward by Newman and others, however, were compelling. The classic case studies in doctrinal development that were put forward for discussion included the doctrine of original sin, which did not find full form until Augustine’s encounter with the Pelagians, the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, which was not finally formulated in the way in which we now take to be the orthodox confession until the Council of Chalcedon in 431, and the doctrine of the Trinity, which only with Tertullian, Hilary of Poiters and, some would say, the development of the dual procession represented by the Filioque, took the form of what we now consider the orthodox teaching of the church. Many other examples could be given, including from the Lutheran Reformation.

The point, however, is this. In each case there was a time when the orthodox teachers of the church did not confess significant doctrines of the church in the form which later was recognised as essential to orthodox belief. What then do we make of this? Were the earlier thinkers in error? Did later thinkers simply change their minds about the content of Christian doctrine? Obviously these conclusions are not workable. Newman’s solution, and the solution hinted at already as early as Gregory Nazianzus, is that church doctrines, like other ideas, are capable of a kind of natural development which implies neither that those thinkers who lived before the development were in error, nor that those who played a role in realising the development changed their minds or corrupted the doctrine of the church.

My own explanation and theory of doctrinal development can best be explained with the image of unfinished syllogisms. Imagine the biblical teaching as containing a number of major and minor premises, but that not all the conclusions have been drawn from them. There are premises (or doctrines) that exist in tension with one another. Sometimes this tension is not immediately recognised. Other times the process involved in reaching a conclusion that overcomes the tension is a lengthy one. In either case the conclusion is already implicit in the premises, it simply remains to be asserted and finally drawn, that is, to be developed.

The doctrine of the Trinity is a classic example. The major premise, or core confession is that the Lord our God is one God, in other words, monotheism. The minor premise, which is just as non-negotiable, is the confession that Jesus is Lord, that is, the doctrine of the deity of Christ. All early Christians confessed both these essential doctrines. Just how Christ could be God, and how one could still speak of God the Father, as well as the divinity of the Holy Spirit, without having either two or three gods, was not at all clear. Tertullian’s expression of three persons who are one God contained no doctrinal premise that Christians did not already confess. It was neither a departure from the earlier teachings nor was it a suggestion that the church previously had been in error. He simply drew the inevitable, valid, and, as we now confess, orthodox conclusion.

The orthodox confession of the two natures of Christ contained within the one person developed in a similar manner. Whether for the sake of our exercise we make the deity of Christ or his full humanity the major premise is an open question. Both are clearly of equal import. For the sake of argument we begin with the deity of Christ. We confess that Christ is fully divine (major premise) and that he is fully human (minor premise). This apparent contradiction is only resolved by the conclusion that if both are true then the one person, Jesus Christ, is both fully divine and fully human. It sounds simple enough to us today but it took the early church more than 400 years to arrive at this precise conclusion!

The doctrine of original sin is another example of development. That Adam and Eve ‘fell’ when they sinned was held by all. So also that we were and are all in Adam. Yet the conclusion that we are all born with the guilt of original sin and in need of God’s grace by nature from birth was not clearly expressed until Augustine found it necessary to reject Pelagius’ view that we are not born sinful but simply chose to sin.

Even as late as the Protestant Reformation we see clear examples of development. While it is true that much of what Luther and the other Reformers did was to recover earlier teachings that had been forgotten or corrupted, many important Reformation teachings simply have no precise historical antecedent in the history of Christian thought. They are developments that we recognise in our Lutheran family of churches as legitimate. The doctrine of two kingdoms is a case in point. It stands in continuity with Augustine’s concept of the two cities but is also something very distinct from it. One will also struggle to find clear formulations of Luther’s simul justus et peccator in the earlier literature, yet today it is a core doctrine confessed by Lutheran Christians.

Is it then conceivable that the ordination of women could be such a legitimate development? One might describe such a development in the following manner. The foundational doctrine or major premise that we take as starting point is the doctrine of the ministry of word and sacrament. As minor premise there are a number of possibilities. The implications of the priesthood of all believers, the radical impact of the gospel in which there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, or the anthropological perspective that humanity exists as male and female. There are certainly other possibilities. In truth, there would seem to be multiple doctrinal concerns that have finally brought this issue to the fore. It is not impossible that they could lead us to draw the conclusion that women as well as men can be ordained to proclaim the Word of God and to administer the sacraments. And this could occur without rejecting those who have preceded us as having been in error, or seeing ourselves as introducing something radically new that has no continuity with the tradition. The real question our church now faces is not whether such a development would be theoretically possible, but rather, whether it would be a legitimate development. Indeed, the model and precedents for such developments are already in place. Yet not all so-called developments are really that – some are actually corruptions of doctrine. So how do we distinguish? This is where Newman is particularly helpful.

Of specific interest to us are Newman’s seven notae or marks of a genuine doctrinal development that distinguish it from a doctrinal corruption. I believe each of these can be applied profitably, with some adaptation, to the question of the ordination of women.

First, according to Newman, a legitimate development will preserve the basic idea or type. For every intellectual proposition there is a basic idea or type that undergirds it. The same applies in the case of Christian doctrine. Newman argued, for instance, that even though the institutional church of his own day, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, had changed greatly in its self-understanding and external manifestation, it preserved the basic type found in the early church and was therefore a legitimate development.2 As Lutherans we may quarrel with Newman’s specific application but I believe his point to be valid. In the case of the ordination of women we must ask what the core idea or type is that lays behind this question. I would suggest that it is the doctrine of the ministry. In light of Newman’s criterion of preservation of the type or idea, the question to ask with respect to the ordination of women is not whether an all male pastorate is preserved, for this is not the basic doctrine at issue, but rather, whether the doctrine and office of the ministry is preserved.

Secondly, a legitimate doctrinal development must stand in continuity with the tradition.3 Newman specifically had in mind the foundational teachings of the Christian faith, embodied in its tradition. Taken to an extreme, this principle would rule out any possibility of development since we would always have to seek an exact precedent; in which case we would no longer be speaking of a genuine development, since such could have no exact precedent. Yet on the other hand a legitimate development, to paraphrase Newman, cannot simply be a deduction or diversion made at random, according to accident or the whim of an individual, but must stand in continuity with the principles of the Christian tradition.4 In many respects the issues raised by this second criterion, as Newman envisaged it, cover much of the same territory as his first criterion. Certainly the two are very closely related.

For our purposes I would like to shift the focus of Newman’s second characteristic and suggest that we apply it directly to the question of the biblical tradition. I believe we can then ask two key questions concerning the ordination of women and the biblical tradition. First, would this development be able to occur without contradicting the biblical tradition? This is the lowest possible stand, or minimalist criterion for us to consider the ordination of women as a legitimate development. While an argument could be mounted to proceed with the ordination of women on this basis alone, I would suggest that the LCA owes it to itself to ask an additional question before it proceeds with the possible ordination of women. Namely, does the ordination of women also find anticipation in the biblical tradition. This is the highest possible stand.

Thirdly, a legitimate development of doctrine demonstrates the ability to assimilate not only new concepts but also the legitimate concerns of opposing positions. With regard to the question of the ordination of women we might ask: Can it take up or assimilate the legitimate concerns of those who oppose it? That is, can it assimilate concern for the legitimacy and integrity of the ordained ministry and its scriptural basis? Can it incorporate and take into account the concern that the doctrine of ministry not be based upon sociological concerns, no matter how compelling, and that it not be based upon, or altered by, philosophical perspectives that have their basis in something other than the Christian Scriptures and tradition? A development that is unable or unwilling to do this, to summarise Newman, is most likely not a development but rather a corruption of doctrine.

Fourthly, a legitimate development of doctrine must at least be anticipated in earlier developments. The earlier and more clear cut such anticipations are, the more compelling the argument for the legitimacy of the development under consideration. For Lutherans the confessional writings of our church must certainly figure prominently at this point. Also intriguing are arguments that the overcoming of the divisions between Jew and Gentile, and later slave and free, and their respective implications for the Christian ministry, are anticipations of an overcoming of the division between male and female and its implications for the ordering of Christian ministry. (Cf. for example the 8 June 1998 issue of The Lutheran, p. 122)

Fifthly, a legitimate development of doctrine will evolve logically from relevant foundational doctrines, that is to say, it will be a faithful unfolding of an idea. One might also argue here that a faithful unfolding of foundational doctrines will also indicate an inevitable development.

Sixthly, a legitimate development of doctrine will illustrate and not obscure, corroborate and not correct, that which preceded it and that from which it proceeds. According to Newman, a development illustrates and corroborates, whereas a corruption obscures and ‘corrects’.

Seventhly, a legitimate development of doctrine has ‘staying power.” It is not a fad. Heresies are of a transitory character. They are vibrant but eventually fade away. We must ask, especially with regard to the question of the ordination of women; ‘Can it be undone’? A development that can be easily undone or revoked is not a legitimate development.

With this seventh characteristic of a legitimate doctrinal development we come to an end of Newman’s criteria. Other criteria, however, should also be taken into account. I would suggest that with regard to the question of the ordination of women our church needs to take into account four additional criteria. These are as follows.

First, a legitimate development will be adopted by consensus, in whatever manner this is logistically possible and appropriate to the individual tradition, and not simply by a majority vote. The Holy Spirit plays an important role in the decision-making process that must be recognised. If the Spirit is leading us to take this step, then the Spirit can lead us to a consensus. While a consensus does not mean a unanimous decision – this is an impossibility – it does suggest an overwhelming majority as well as a clear perception of a general movement of conviction within the church in a certain direction.

Secondly, a legitimate development of doctrine will not be the direct cause or genuine cause of schism, to be distinguished from the threat of schism, the splintering of a small minority, or a genuine schism that ultimately is grounded in some other area and only superficially relates to the development. It should also not be the genuine basis for any on-going schism within the church. In other words, a doctrinal development may appear to put greater distance between separated Christian communities. This is only to be expected since not all traditions could come to similar conclusions at the same time. Yet a legitimate development of doctrine will not be a fundamental cause for on-going schism.

Thirdly, is the development being accepted in the wider church? In fragmented situations this is by no means an easy question to address. In our present situation those churches closest to us in theology and history (and perhaps even geography) will be most significant. Christian unity must be built first within confessional families. We must also ask, does allowing the development add to or detract from the unity of the church? Does not allowing the development add or detract from this unity?

Lastly, is the gospel, that is, the essence of the Christian faith at stake? A legitimate development will not put the gospel at stake either by its allowance or its disallowance. If a development of doctrine would put the gospel at stake if it did not occur then that from which it is developing cannot itself have been a faithful and legitimate teaching of the church. In such a case it is not a development which we must speak of, but an over-turning of error. This is an important point. In the case of some early doctrinal developments the gospel clearly was at stake, for instance the doctrine of the two natures of Christ and of the Trinity. These are what are sometimes called first order doctrines. In such cases this last criterion would clearly not apply. I believe we are dealing with a second order and not first order doctrine, however, at this point. If we insist that the gospel is at stake if we either do or do not ordain women in our church, then we are elevating either the major premise, or core doctrine, that is, the doctrine of the ministry, or one of the minor premises or additional doctrinal concerns mentioned previously to the status of a first order doctrine.

With regard to the ordination of women I believe that the gospel is not at stake. If we believe otherwise then we would be forced to break ties with those churches, including Lutheran, that ordain women or who continue to chose not to ordain women – including partner churches in so-called developing countries. My contention, therefore, is that if in ordaining women the LCA were to adopt an illegitimate development it would not be heretical, for the gospel is not at stake. And if the LCA decides not to ordain women and fails to adopt what is a legitimate development it would still not be an heretical position for the gospel is still not at stake. Indeed, no other church should condemn us or break fellowship with us. We cannot say the church is in error in such a case since in this present model we have sought to recognise from the outset that the church was previously not in error in this matter.

There are, however, those in our church who support both a male only pastorate and the ordination of women who believe the gospel is at stake in this issue. I in no way wish to belittle their concerns. Neither do I wish to suggest that there are not very significant issues at stake. Hence, to say that the gospel is not at stake is not to say that there is nothing of consequence at stake with regard to the ordination of women. If we ordain women without proper cause and foundation we risk obscuring the ministry of Word and Sacrament in our churches, creating unnecessary divisions among us, and corrupting our doctrines of church and ministry. If on the other hand, we fail to allow a legitimate and compelling development to occur, we risk theological stagnation, corruption of our understanding of church and ministry, and an unnecessary hindrance to our proclamation of the gospel in the modern world.

Taking these characteristics or marks of a legitimate development of doctrine as indicators, I believe 12 key questions must be asked of the validity of the ordination of women. These cover a spectrum of concerns including the biblical (2,3), doctrinal (1,6,12), historical (5,8), ecumenical (10,11), and ultimately the pastoral (4,7,9).

  1. Would the ordination of women preserve the basic doctrine and concept of the office of the ministry?
  2. Does the ordination of women not contradict the biblical tradition?
  3. Does the ordination of women find anticipation in the biblical tradition?
  4. Would the theological foundations for the ordination of women be able to adequately take into account the fundamental concerns raised by those who oppose it? (What are these concerns?)
  5. Is the ordination of women anticipated in previous developments/explications of the doctrine of the ministry, including the Lutheran confessional writings?
  6. Is the ordination of women a faithful unfolding of the Christian doctrine of the ministry?
  7. Would the ordination of women illustrate and corroborate the Lutheran understanding of the ministry of Word and Sacrament or would it obscure and correct it?
  8. Does the ordination of women have ‘staying power’? Can it be overturned or undone? (Serious examinations of what actually did and did not take place among the Presbyterian Church in Australia and the Lutheran Church of Latvia need to take place in the course of attempting to answer this question.)
  9. Can the LCA reach a consensus to ordain women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament?
  10. Would the ordination of women cause a genuine schism among Australian Lutherans? In other words, would the ordination of women be genuinely and necessarily church divisive?
  11. Is the ordination of women being accepted, or at least favourably considered by those churches closest to us in theology, history and geography?
  12. Would the ordination women not put the gospel at stake?

We have now identified several criteria for the possible introduction of the ordination of women as a practical outgrowth of a development of the doctrine of the ministry. We must recognise, however, that the hardest task lies still ahead of us, namely, the application of these criteria. The Roman Catholic theologian R.P.C. Hanson was certainly correct when he observed that when we turn from ‘establishing the inevitability of development to attempting to determine the criteria for development, we find that it is easy to draw up a list of criteria but very difficult to see how they apply.’5 Yet that is precisely what our church must do. We must with open minds and prayerful spirits ask honestly how each of these criteria apply and whether the ordination of women meets these criteria.

If, after careful consideration, it is our firm conviction that the answer to any of these questions is a decisive ‘no’, then the LCA has no business proceeding with the ordination of women as a legitimate development and faithful unfolding of our doctrine of the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

And if we reach the considered conclusion that the answers to the above questions are all affirmative, do we then have the duty to proceed with the ordination of women? Not necessarily. Simply the fact that a development would seem to be a legitimate and allowable one does not make it necessary. At this point such issues as cultural context, expediency, church political considerations, etc. come legitimately into play. There must be significant and compelling reasons for the development to occur. We do not change for the sake of change, nor simply because it is permissible. The doctrine and practice of the church are by nature and by definition conservative. The burden of proof always rests with the advocates of doctrinal development. This is not a penalty, but a safeguard. A development, however, that is both legitimate and compelling will ultimately win the day.

Presentation at the Symposium
“Ordination of women in the LCA – Yes or No?”
held at Luther Seminary, Adelaide, South Australia
July 24 and 25, 1998
  1. See J. Pelikan, Development of Christian Doctrine, 2. []
  2. Cf Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Longmans, Green and Co, London, 1914, 208ff, esp 321f (section 23). []
  3. Tradition should be understood in a broad context. As J. Pelikan wrote: ‘To qualify as a dogma . . . a doctrine had to conform not only to the apostolic tradition, as set down in Scripture and in such magisterial witnesses as the decrees of the Council of Nicea, but also to the worship and devotion of the Church Catholic’; Development of Doctrine, 112. []
  4. See Newmann, 323f. []
  5. R.P.C. Hanson, The Continuity of Christian Doctrine, Seabury Press, New York; 1981, 72. []

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