Back in June, Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, had a Q&A session at the Northwest district convention. One of the questions (starting at 34:50) was how he would explain the LCMS’ refusal to ordain women as pastors to a daughter and whether we would one-day see women’s ordination in the LCMS. His response centered around three main points. 1) He wishes women could be ordained, 2) but an honest reading of scripture prohibits it, and 3) in order to address the broader call to ordain women, we should work hard to put as many women as possible in non-pastoral offices (which he has personally done).
Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a particularly good answer. I mean this with all due respect to President Harrison; though I do not know him, he is very well-respected by a great many people I respect. Nevertheless, the answer he gave was, in my opinion, a poor answer I’ve heard elsewhere, and I think it needs to be discouraged. As such, my purpose in writing is not to call into question President Harrison himself or even his views, but simply his response as it was delivered.
There’s a big problem with simply saying “I would very much prefer that we did have women’s ordination… but I can’t get away from the text” and then “the response to women pastors is… to open up [women’s service in the church] to give women every possible opportunity to serve.” It reminds me of a husband saying “I really wish I could have a few mistresses on the side, but the Bible doesn’t let me, so I just want to surround myself with attractive women and come as close to having an affair as possible without taking my clothes off. I’ll “harmlessly” flirt with women, have a roving eye, and view whatever extent of pornography I can rationalize with my look-but-don’t-touch attitude (from Victoria’s Secret catalog to Playboy to strip clubs, etc), but I won’t actually have an affair because the Bible says that’s wrong.
Now President Harrison’s response does have good points and could indicate other unspoken good points behind the statement. For one thing, “I want women’s ordination but God’s word forbids it” is much better than “I want women’s ordination, so I’ll twist God’s word until it agrees with what I know is right.” That it is against God’s word is the reason to oppose it. It’s also important to remember the human tendency to fall into error by overreacting against another error. Because of that, I believe it is indeed possible to encourage the women’s ordination crowd by treating women badly. They then overreact to the problem and think the only way they can “save” women from the Church is by rebelling against God and ordaining them. Inasmuch as President Harrison sought to communicate that in his comments, I’m completely on board. Likewise, we must remember that our sinful desires are legitimate desires that have been corrupted. When a husband lusts after other women, the problem isn’t that he shouldn’t desire sex, it is that his desire has been twisted by sin. In the same way, it’s entirely legitimate for women to desire to serve God’s people or to want them well-pastored, and that desire should be encouraged. The problem is when sin twists that desire towards what God has not given us.
Nevertheless, with all that said, attempting to half-satisfy sinful cravings does not make the cravings go away–it only whets our appetite. It’s not as though a man who wants an affair is going to be completely satisfied with flirting, or being near attractive women, or making a habit of glancing down blouses. None of these things are the sexual fulfillment he’s seeking. As a result, the more he gets into the habit of trying to satisfy his desires in small ways, the more he is going to look for additional small ways. The satisfaction will never be met, and the quest will continue. Even small dalliances add up to affairs after awhile. Trying to look but not touch just sets him up for a procession of failures that will tempt him to look harder until his eyes are at their limit and he will need to use other members to start getting closer still. There’s a reason Bill Clinton found himself publicly making what everyone else recognized as a ludicrous claim that oral sex doesn’t really count as adultery. This doesn’t just happen overnight. In the same way, trying to get women as close as possible to the pastoral office by putting them in as many offices as possible without actually ordaining them is never going to satisfy those who want women to be ordained. No matter how appealing those offices might be, it is not ordination. Worse yet, after years of such practice, we will all be in the habit of working to get them ever closer–the next step will always be easier. All we’ll end up with is pulpits ever more frequently occupied by laity until the only distinction left is a job title–and even that distinction will pass away as people realize that job titles make no real difference anyway.
But there is a better way: God is good. He loves us enough to have died for us. We can therefore be sure that when God tells us that he does not call women to be pastors and does not allow His Church to help women pretend otherwise, we can be confident that he is not doing women (or anybody) an injustice. When we find ourselves thinking and saying “I wish we could have women’s ordination, but the text doesn’t allow it” that highlights a sinfulness of our own which needs to be repented. Publicly wishing we could have something God has explicitly forbidden in any context other than a confession is not a good apologetic because it is fundamentally sinful. Furthermore, it harms our neighbors because it reinforces others who have confidence in those same sinful desires. Just as a man commits adultery in his heart when he looks at a woman lustfully, we commit heresy in our hearts when we desire women’s ordination. Like lust, this desire is something to be repented of rather than indulged in a piecemeal fashion.
Rather than whetting our sinful appetites in a misguided attempt to hold them at bay, I believe a better solution is to explore and discover how God is being loving towards us by forbidding women from becoming pastors–to teach our people why we should be glad that God does not call women in such a way. It’s easy to complain, but it’s time for us to take on the more challenging task of finding the good in what God has gifted to us.