On Re-thinking Ordination of Women:
In October 2013, Mission Province Secretary Bengt Birgersson and I met with Bishop John Bradosky of the North American Lutheran Church and his assistant for church relations, Dr. David Wendel. Our interest in talking with NALC was based in large part on the fact that so many of the Scandinavian-American Heritage Lutheran Congregations that have broken with ELCA over same-sex marriage are now in NALC.
Our discussion included the question of the ordination of women. The NALC leaders indicated that this issue had not really been studied during the formation of NALC. Dr. Birgersson explained what a critical question this had been in Sweden, in that the Confessional believers viewed it as directly contrary to Scripture. Thus, although the issue was presented in the media as involving women’s rights, for the Confessionals it was a question of obedience to God’s Word. This was the first time that the Church of Sweden directly rejected the authority of Scripture. Dr. Birgersson explained his view that this first disobedience has led directly to the spiritual devastation in Sweden today.
As an outcome of our discussion, NALC invited Dr. Birgersson and Mission Province Bishop Roland Gustafsson to attend and address their July 2014 convention in Charleston, SC.
Dr. Birgersson gave a greeting and exhortation to the NALC Convention in which he frankly, but gently, addressed the issue of women’s ordination and its significance as a matter of obedience to God’s Word as we understand it. The text of his address (in English) is posted on the Mission Province website.
Bishop Gustafsson had been invited and had agreed to preach at a Friday morning worship service. Upon arriving in Charleston, he learned that this would be a Communion service and that female pastors would participate as assisting ministers. This had not been mentioned in the invitation. I suppose it seemed obvious to the Swedes that NALC was certainly aware of the importance of this question to them; but evidently this was not obvious to the convention planners – who probably considered the female pastors’ participation perfectly normal. This had evidently escaped the notice of the top NALC leadership until too late. I do not believe it was done intentionally. Of course this put the Mission Province representatives in a most difficult position.
Bishop Gustafsson handled this in a most Swedish manner. Swedish culture is, putting it delicately, not German. Perhaps it is a lingering after-effect of those many centuries of surviving as small bands in long, cold winters, or as small crews on a storm-tossed longship in which the entire group would literally sink or swim together. The result seems to be a much greater inclination toward teamwork and avoiding open conflict where possible. A corollary is a great appreciation of hospitality. A confrontation with one’s host, or breaking a promise at the last minute, would be quite un-Swedish. But violating one’s Confessional integrity is not an option.
Our dear German brothers would likely have responded with a classic “Hier stehe Ich” and a bold confrontation. Thank God for this response in appropriate circumstances, particularly when testifying before an Imperial Diet. But suppose your objective is to persuade your family to reconsider an error. Might a more gentle response be appropriate? Is it possible to be both firm and gentle? To maintain one’s Confessional stance without being more confrontational than necessary?
The resolution agreed to quietly with the NALC leadership was to minimize the damage all around. Bishop Gustafsson delivered a powerful sermon on The Cross, which can be viewed on NALC’s website starting at about 28 minutes. He did not, however, process into the service with the other clergy. He simply waited by the pulpit, preached his sermon and then very quietly left the chancel before the Service of the Sacrament. Neither he nor Dr. Birgersson received Communion.
Dr. Birgersson has published a report to Mission Province members about this. It has been translated and is available at this link.
Could the Mission Province representatives have maintained their Confessional position in a more dramatic, confrontational, ‘in your face’ manner? Sure. But NALC has already made one great step in breaking with ELCA on what is at root an issue of Scriptural authority. How can we presume that they will never see the logical next step in obedience to God’s Word? Although it seems unlikely, from a human perspective, that the entire NALC church body will rethink women’s ordination, can we presume that at least some of them will not do so?
Handling this “Swedish style” opened the door to many very good discussions of the underlying issues with delegates during the week. The discussion remained focused on the authority of Scripture, where it belongs. The Mission Province maintained its Confessional integrity in a firm but gentle manner, motivated by love for their ‘separated brethren’ with whom they share so much ancestral heritage. The door remains open for further discussion.
Christopher C. Barnekov, PhD
Scandinavia House Fort Wayne