Administer the Lord’s Supper to Other Women?
In conservative Lutheran circles where women “pastors” in the usual sense are not allowed, it has recently been proposed by more than one individual that it would be proper for a woman to be called by the church to administer the Lord’s Supper to other women. While recognizing that such an arrangement might in some cases be a stumbling block to the weak, those who are making this proposal maintain that the Bible does, in principle, permit it. More specifically, it has been suggested that the Bible never says that women cannot be pastors, and therefore that a woman could serve as the pastor of a congregation as long as the congregation is comprised only of women (or only of women and children); it has been suggested that a female deaconess could be called by a congregation to visit and commune its female shut-ins; and it has been suggested that a woman could officiate at a Communion Service that would be held in conjunction with a women’s retreat or some similar gathering. In this paper we will offer a Biblical and Confessional response to this proposal in general, and to these concrete suggestions in particular. (All Scripture citations are from the New King James Version of the Bible.)
A WOMAN PASTOR?
The Bible does not mandate a specific external configuration of the ministry of pastoral oversight in the church that is binding on all Christians of all times and places. For example, God has not mandated the “parish pastor” arrangement that is most familiar to us in comparison to, say, the arrangement of having a college of local presbyters or bishops exercising spiritual oversight in a congregation (which seems to have been the predominant pattern for pastoral ministry in the New Testament era). But the Bible does describe and define the ministry of pastoral oversight in its essential features as something that, in one form or another, is an indispensable necessity for the church of all times and places, and as something that is restricted to qualified men. Martin Luther makes the following observations in his exegesis of Titus 1:5-7:
Paul says to his disciple Titus: “This is why I left you in Candia, that you might complete what I left unfinished, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you, men who are blameless, the husband of one wife, whose children are believers and not open to the charge of being profligate. For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless,” etc. Whoever believes that here in Paul the Spirit of Christ is speaking and commanding will be sure to recognize this as a divine institution and ordinance, that in each city there should be several bishops, or at least one. It is also evident that Paul considers elders and bishops to be one and the same thing, for he says: Elders are to be appointed and installed in all cities, and that a bishop shall be blameless. (“The Misuse of the Mass,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 36 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959], p. 155)
These points are also well summarized in Thesis B8 of the “Theses concerning the Doctrine of Church and Office,” adopted in 2001 by the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church in Germany:
The pastor’s office is the most comprehensive and fundamental form of the public ministry of proclamation. Full spiritual oversight over the flock of Christ is conferred on pastors in their local congregations (Proclamation of the Word, administration of the Sacraments, church discipline, care of souls, 1 Peter 5:2f). – Where there are, in addition to the pastoral office, other offices of the public ministry of proclamation in the congregation, the pastor bears the total responsibility. Because Christ wills to have responsible shepherds for His flock, such an office is indispensable (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 20:28-31; Titus 1:6-9; 1 Peter 5:1-3; Hebrews 13:17). In the ministry of the pastoral office only suitable males may be called (1 Timothy 3:1-7; 1 Corinthians 14:34f; 1 Timothy 2:12). Cf. Apol. 14,1
In Acts 20:28 St. Paul tells the Ephesian elders: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Note that these “overseers” are the ones who have been divinely called “to shepherd the church of God.” St. Peter speaks in a similar way in his First Epistle, where he exhorts the elders of the church to “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers…” (1 Peter 5:2). And in Titus 1:6 and 1 Timothy 3:2 Paul says that a bishop or “overseer” must be “the husband of one wife.” So, the Bible equates “overseers” and those who “shepherd” the church (i.e. pastors), and it describes the qualifications for such overseers in exclusively male terms.
The significance of this is especially highlighted in St. Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, where his description of a male-only episcopate appears side-by-side with his description of a diaconate that is comprised of both men and women. As Henry Eyster Jacobs observes,
In 1 Tim. 3:8-10, there is a statement concerning the qualifications in general for “deacons.” Then, in v. 11, it is the female deacons, who are meant by the designation “women”; after which v. 12 refers to the male deacons. It would be a strange break to understand v. 11 as meaning women in general, or the wives of deacons. (A Summary of the Christian Faith [Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publication House, 1905], p. 445)
St. Paul’s Epistle to Titus does describe a situation in which the “older women” of the church are directed to be “teachers of good things” to the “young women” of the church (Titus 2:3-4). This apostolic arrangement may very well be a seminal example of the early church’s office of deaconess, to which we have just made reference (cf. Rom. 16:1-2). But this type of limited ministry of women among women is not the same as the ministry of a pastor or overseer.
In his description of the qualifications for bishops or overseers in his Epistle to Titus, Paul says that a bishop, as “a steward of God,” must be someone who is “holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict” (Titus 1:7,9; cf. 1 Tim. 3:2). The pastoral “stewardship” idea can be found also in St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. Here, in reference to himself, Apollos, and Cephas (i.e. Peter), the Apostle writes: “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1; cf. 3:22).1 Paul had mentioned the same three people – himself, Apollos, and Cephas – when referring to the men from whom the Corinthians had received Christian Baptism (1 Cor. 1:12-16), and he once again speaks of having been “entrusted with a stewardship” when describing his own divine commission to “preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16-17). The serious warnings and careful instructions that St. Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 concerning the celebration and reception of the Lord’s Supper indicate that the person who officiates at this sacrament, whenever and wherever it is administered, is likewise exercising an important aspect of the ministry of pastoral stewardship and oversight.2
The Lutheran Confessions acknowledge and reiterate what the Bible teaches about pastors and bishops, and about the important duties that these men carry out in and for the church. In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession we read that
the one minister who consecrates gives the body and blood of the Lord to the rest of the people, just as a minister who preaches sets forth the gospel to the people, as Paul says [1 Cor. 4:1], “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries,” that is, of the gospel and the sacraments. And 2 Corinthians 5:20, “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (Ap XXIV:80, The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], p. 272)
Luther, speaking in his capacity as a called minister of Word and Sacrament, is quoted in the Formula of Concord as follows: “So it is not our work or speaking but the command and ordinance of Christ that make the bread the body and the wine the blood, beginning with the first Lord’s Supper and continuing to the end of the world, as it is administered daily through our ministry or office” (FC SD VII:77, Kolb/Wengert p. 607; emphasis added). And in the words of the Treatise,
The Gospel bestows upon those who preside over the churches the commission to proclaim the gospel, forgive sins, and administer the sacraments. In addition, it bestows legal authority, that is, the charge to excommunicate those whose crimes are public knowledge and to absolve those who repent. It is universally acknowledged, even by our opponents, that this power is shared by divine right by all who preside in the churches, whether they are called pastors, presbyters, or bishops. For that reason Jerome plainly teaches that in the apostolic letters all who preside over churches are both bishops and presbyters. He quotes Titus [1:5-6]: “I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should…appoint presbyters in every town,” which then continues, “It is necessary for the bishop to be the husband of one wife” [v. 6]. (Tr 60-62, Kolb/Wengert p. 340)
According to the needs and circumstances of the church, qualified women may be called or authorized to offer limited or specialized instruction from God’s Word to other women. Luther himself acknowledges that
A woman can do this. Not preach in public, but console people and teach. … There are certainly women and girls who are able to comfort others and teach true words, that is, who can explain Scripture and teach or console other people so that they will be well. (“Sermon on Joel 2:28,” quoted in Luther on Women [edited by Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks] [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003], p. 61)
But the Bible does not endorse any arrangement according to which a woman would be called (in a non-emergency situation) to serve as a pastor or bishop in the church (or in a part of the church), or as a “steward of the mysteries of God” in the sense in which this phrase is used by St. Paul and the Lutheran Reformers.3 In a document entitled “Women in the Public Ministry,” prepared in 2001 by the Evangelical Lutheran Synod Doctrine Committee, it is noted that
Women participated in the work of the New Testament church (Romans 16). Some form of the deaconess office seems to be present already in the lifetime of St. Paul. Phoebe is called a diakonos in Romans 16:1. Concerning the “older women” who were probably teaching deaconesses, St. Paul writes, “The older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to wine, teachers of good things” (Titus 2:3). I Timothy 3:11 may also speak of the qualifications of such teaching deaconesses. (emphasis in original)
It is also noted, however, that women
are not to be in the pastoral office, because here they would be in a teaching position in which they would have authority over men. Also, when St. Paul refers to the one who officiates at the Word and Sacrament liturgy, he speaks in male terms. He is to be the husband of one wife (I Timothy 3:2). Women will not read the lessons in the liturgy, preach the sermon in worship services, or distribute Communion, either publicly or privately, for these things are intimately related to the pastoral office (I Corinthians 14:34-35; I Timothy 2:11-15; I Timothy 3:1-2; LW 30:55; LW 40:390-391).
A DEACONESS COMMUNING SHUT-INS?
Officiating at the administration of the Lord’s Supper, whether in the public worship service or in a private setting, involves a lot more than simply the performance of the outward mechanics of the rite. Officiating at the sacrament, and admitting (or declining to admit) communicants thereto, is a quintessential pastoral duty, and a chief example of the exercise of spiritual oversight among God’s people (cf. SC Preface:11, Kolb/Wengert pp. 348-49; LC V:2, Kolb/Wengert p. 467). It is a very serious responsibility, not to be taken lightly, and not to be taken on by those who lack the necessary competence in distinguishing and applying law and gospel and in providing pastoral care to an individual conscience. In 1994 Thomas P. Nass wrote that the “general practice” of the church is (or ought to be) that
the administration of the sacraments in our congregations is entrusted to those in the pastoral ministry. Certainly others may be asked to help distribute the Lord’s Supper. But pastors are asked to oversee and preside. I know of no one advocating that this responsibility be given to others. This work fits well with the role of the pastor as the spiritual overseer. The administration of the Lord’s Supper, for example, often involves spiritual judgment. Decisions commonly need to be made by the administrant about who is properly prepared to receive the sacrament, both in the public worship services and in the visitation of shut-ins. This requires a knowledge of the sheep and is definitely the work of spiritual oversight. (“The Pastoral Ministry as a Distinct Form of the Public Ministry,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 4 [Fall 1994], p. 262)
Sadly, if Nass were to comment on this subject today, he would no longer be able to say that he knows “of no one advocating that this responsibility be given to others.”
Even apart from any other considerations, neither “deacons” nor “deaconesses” have been given the kind of pastoral training that is generally recognized among Confessional Lutherans as necessary to prepare someone, in ordinary circumstances, to be called to serve as an officiant at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The officiant reserves the right to examine the confession and life of would-be communicants and to refuse to give the sacrament to those who are not fit to receive it. A communicant also has the right to seek personal pastoral care from the officiant, and to ask for private confession and absolution, as a part of his preparation for receiving the sacrament. When a minister admits someone to Holy Communion he thereby takes upon himself a pastoral responsibility for that person’s soul (cf. Heb. 13:17). It is unfair to deacons or deaconesses to put them into situations in which they are asked to do things that they have not been prepared to do, and to take upon themselves such weighty responsibilities as are properly to be borne by the theologically-trained pastors of the church (cf. James 3:1).4
There are also some gender-specific reasons why a woman should not be called to administer the Lord’s Supper, whether to shut-ins or to anyone else. These reasons will be discussed in the section that follows.
A WOMAN CELEBRANT AT A WOMEN’S RETREAT?
A situation that involves an ecclesiastical gathering of women without men, or of men without women, is not as such a natural result of the Word of God having free course among human beings. Such gatherings are either the result of an intentional man-made segregation on the basis of gender (such as a women’s Bible class or a men’s Bible class in a congregation), or the result of unusual external restraints that have the effect of inhibiting or restricting the Spirit of God in his ordinary church-creating work (such as a women’s prison or a men’s prison). According to St. Paul the principle of male headship, established in creation, still applies within the fellowship of the church (1 Cor. 11:3). But the apostle also has this to say about man and woman in the church:
Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God. (1 Cor. 11:11-12)
In his resurrection Christ has become the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), the founder and head of a new humanity. When the gospel of Christ calls his elect into the fellowship of this new humanity, the natural outward shape that this fellowship will take – and the shape that it ordinarily does take in the liturgical assemblies of the church – will be a reflection of the redeemed male-female complementarity of which St. Paul speaks.
Paul’s comments in the First Epistle to the Corinthians about the unity and interdependence of man and woman in the Lord are sandwiched between his teaching in chapter 10 about the Lord’s Supper being a sacrament of the unity of Christ’s body (vv. 16-17), and his teaching later in chapter 11 about the sacrament being something that is properly celebrated where God’s people “come together as a church” (vv. 17-20). This is not a coincidence. Apart from any secondary questions about who is or is not physically present when any particular celebration takes place, what the Lord’s Supper itself actually is, according to Christ’s institution and order, is a sacrament of and for his “one body.” It is a church-creating and church-sustaining sacrament. St. Paul writes: “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). All worthy communicants – regardless of race, social standing, or gender (cf. Gal. 3:26-28) – are in principle welcome at every celebration of this Supper.
This is not to say that in the larger life of a congregation, segregated gatherings of women without men, or of men without women, are wrong. As a supplement to the ordinary liturgical assembly of the whole people of God around Word and Sacrament, a women’s Bible class, a men’s Bible class, or some other specialized grouping, may serve an important purpose in the fulfilment of the overall mission that Christ has entrusted to the church. But the point to be made here is that such a gathering, as it is in itself, is not a complete image or manifestation of the church of Jesus Christ in its full neo-human catholicity. It is a picture of a separated part of the body of Christ, and not really a picture of the body of Christ itself. Therefore an artificially-contrived gathering of women, with all men intentionally segregated out, is not a fitting setting for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Such a scenario, with a woman “pastor” serving as the celebrant, would actually represent a significant distortion of an important aspect of this sacrament. The sacrament that Christ has given to us is a sacrament that is always a sacrament of and for the whole church. When the celebrant by dominical mandate speaks the Words of Institution aloud, these words are, among other things, Christ’s invitation to any and all worthy communicants to receive the body and blood of their Savior for the forgiveness of their sins (cf. FC SD VII:79-82, Kolb/Wengert p. 607). The only Supper that Jesus has instituted is a Supper to which all communicants in good standing are always welcome. But when a woman serves as the celebrant, the invitation to commune that is issued through her lips is a self-contradiction. On the one hand, through her lips Jesus is inviting all worthy communicants – both men and women – to approach the Lord’s Table. But on the other hand, the fact that she is a woman, and not a man, means that it would be wrong and disorderly for a man to receive the Lord’s body and blood from her hand, since a woman is not permitted by God’s Word “to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12; cf. 1 Cor. 14:34-35). Again, we are not speaking at this point about the secondary question of whether men and women are actually both present in the room when this is taking place. Rather, we are speaking of the ecclesial character of the sacrament itself, and of the ecclesial character of the words of Christ which were spoken by him in the original institution and which are repeated at his command today by the “stewards of the mysteries of God.”5
A sacrament that Jesus instituted to be a sacrament of his “one body” does not become something other than that just because of a variation in the external circumstances of its administration. There is a sense in which we can say that whenever the Lord’s Supper is administered, it is administered to and for the whole church – even on those occasions when only one communicant happens to be physically present. There is a sense in which we can say that whenever someone officiates at the administration of the Lord’s Supper, he is thereby exercising spiritual authority over and within the whole church – even on those occasions when communicants of only one gender happen to be physically present. Whenever the sacrament of Christ’s “one body” is present, then in a mystical yet real sense the whole Christian church is present. As we confess in the Large Catechism, “the whole gospel and the article of the Creed, ‘I believe in one holy Christian church…the forgiveness of sins,’ are embodied in this sacrament and offered to us through the Word” by which Christ has instituted it (LC V:32, Kolb/Wengert p. 470).
Appointing a woman to be the officiant at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper would be akin to the Roman practice of withholding the cup from the laity. According to that practice the cup was withheld from lay communicants even though clergy communicants were permitted to receive the cup. The message was basically this: Sometimes the blood of Christ is for a communicant (when the communicant is a priest), but sometimes it is not (when the communicant is a layman). The Lutherans of the sixteenth century rightly rejected this distortion of Christ’s Supper. But a similar distortion would be imposed onto Christ’s Supper if women are, under some circumstances, authorized to administer it. Then the message would basically be this: Sometimes the body and blood of Christ are for male communicants (when the celebrant is a man), but sometimes they are not (when the celebrant is a woman). The Lutherans of today should reject this distortion as well. Neither of these basic messages is in harmony with the institution of Jesus Christ. The body of Christ and the blood of Christ are always for both clergy and laity, and they are always for both men and women.6
And besides, we cannot be so sure that a planned-out situation in which men are not supposed to be present will actually turn out that way. It is, for example, easy to envision a circumstance in which a female shut-in’s grown son, who is also a member of the church, is visiting his mother at the time when a deaconess arrives to commune her. Is the visiting son to be told to depart? Is he to be forbidden to receive the sacrament that Christ has actually instituted for him as well as for his mother? Is he to be asked to leave the room, so that he will not be able to hear the words of forgiveness and invitation that Jesus speaks in the Words of Institution? And in a women’s prison, can we be certain that a male guard or prison employee, who may also belong to the church, will not be on hand, wishing to receive the sacrament along with the female inmates? At a women’s retreat, would it not be possible for a husband of one of the participants to be present, perhaps having arrived a bit early to pick up his wife, at the time when the Lord’s Supper is being celebrated? These scenarios are not far-fetched, and they would create a horrific and profoundly offensive pastoral situation if the minister who is officiating at the Lord’s Supper on such occasions is a woman.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
In response to a question about the appropriateness of a father giving communion to the members of his household, Luther issues some fundamental pastoral and theological warnings that would also seem to be applicable in some respects to what we have been talking about here. He writes:
The first Christians, mentioned in Acts, did not administer the Sacrament individually in the houses, but they came together. …the Sacrament is a public confession and should be administered by public ministers, because, as Christ says, we should do it in remembrance of Him; that is, as St. Paul explains it, we should show forth or preach the Lord’s death till He comes. And here he [Paul] also says that we should come together, and he severely rebukes those who, each in his own way, use the Lord’s Supper individually. … Since there is neither any necessity nor a call here, we must do nothing out of our own devotion without God’s definite command, for no good will come from it. (“Concerning House Communion,” St. Louis edition, 10:2225; quoted in C. F. W. Walther, Church and Ministry [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1987], pp. 173-74; emphasis added)
When a properly-trained and regularly-called male pastor officiates at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, whether it is in the normal worship service of a congregation or in a special circumstance, the sacrament is and remains a sacrament of and for the church, as Christ instituted it. The sacrament is thereby being administered by someone who is qualified and called to be a steward of the mysteries of God for the sake of the body of Christ, and not only for the sake of a segregated part of the body of Christ. When the regular male pastor visits a shut-in, and celebrates the sacrament for that person, he is, in a mystical yet real sense, bringing the whole church and its fellowship to that person. Accordingly, any member of the congregation who happens to be present – male or female – would be invited to commune along with the shut-in. When the regular male pastor attends at least a part of a women’s retreat, so that he can administer the sacrament to the participants, he is thereby rightly exercising the ministry of spiritual oversight that has been entrusted to him. And any male communicants who happen to be there can receive the sacrament as well. By the same token, when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated at a circuit pastors’ conference, any women from the host congregation who are in the building would be welcome to receive Christ’s body and blood along with the men. In all of these cases everything regarding the proper administration and reception of the Lord’s Supper would be done decently and in good order. In all of these cases Christ would be glorified, his holy sacrament would be honored, and the ministry of his called servants would be respected.
The question of the objective validity of the Lord’s Supper in any given circumstance is, of course, a different question. Lutherans have always affirmed with St. Augustine that “When the Word is joined to the external element, it becomes a sacrament” (LC V:10, Kolb/Wengert p. 468). This remains so even if the person through whom the Words of Institution are spoken is an uncalled layman or a woman (cf. Luther, “The Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 38 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971], pp. 200-01). God is very patient with us, and throughout the history of the church he has endured a lot of human ignorance, presumptuousness, and wickedness in order to remain faithful to his promise that wherever his Word is present and active, he too is present and active (cf. Isaiah 55:11).
The question of emergencies is also a different question. In keeping with the Thomist maxim that “necessity knows no law,” and in keeping with the Lutheran principle that in an emergency “the order yields to the need” (John Gerhard; quoted in C. F. W. Walther, Church and Ministry [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1987], p. 285), it is perhaps possible to envision a situation in which there is no pastor or Christian man present, and a believer who is near death or who is afflicted with a troubled conscience might ask to receive the sacrament from the hand of a woman. But we have not been talking about emergencies, and we have not been considering what circumstances may or may not properly constitute such an emergency.7 What we have been evaluating is a proposal that it would be permissible for a woman to be deliberately sent out in the name of Christ and the church to celebrate Holy Communion at the home of a female shut-in or at a women’s retreat, according to an arrangement that is planned out in advance. Is it proper for a woman to be called in this fashion to administer the Lord’s Supper to other women? In the considered judgment of the present writer it is not proper. It is, in fact, highly improper. We agree with Luther when he writes – in reference to the Word of God, Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, and the Keys – that
There must be bishops, pastors, or preachers, who publicly and privately give, administer, and use the aforementioned four things or holy possessions in behalf of and in the name of the church, or rather by reason of their institution by Christ, as St. Paul states in Ephesians 4[:8], “He received gifts among men…” – his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some teachers and governors, etc. The people as a whole cannot do these things, but must entrust or have them entrusted to one person. Otherwise, what would happen if everyone wanted to speak or administer, and no one wanted to give way to the other? It must be entrusted to one person, and he alone should be allowed to preach, to baptize, to absolve, and to administer the sacraments. The others should be content with this arrangement and agree to it. Wherever you see this done, be assured that God’s people, the holy Christian people, are present. It is, however, true that the Holy Spirit has excepted women, children, and incompetent people from this function, but chooses (except in emergencies) only competent males to fill this office, as one reads here and there in the epistles of St. Paul [I Tim. 3:2, Tit. 1:6] that a bishop must be pious, able to teach, and the husband of one wife – and in I Corinthians 14[:34] he says, “The women should keep silence in the churches.” In summary, it must be a competent and chosen man. Children, women, and other persons are not qualified for this office, even though they are able to hear God’s Word, to receive Baptism, the Sacrament [of the Altar], absolution, and are also true, holy Christians, as St. Peter says [I Pet. 3:7]. (“On the Councils and the Church,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 41 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966], pp. 154-55; emphases added)
Those who have said that it would be proper for a woman to be called to administer the Lord’s Supper to other women do acknowledge that the implementation of this proposal would need to be preceded by a careful church-wide study of the pertinent Biblical principles, so that all concerned could be assured that God’s Word does allow it. They also acknowledge that the idea of having women pastors – even if it is only in all-female settings – may be troubling to the consciences of those who have not been convinced by their study of Scripture that such a thing is permissible. We would wholeheartedly agree that such a mammoth change in the traditional norms for pastoral care in the Lutheran Church would need to be preceded by a very thorough analysis of all the pertinent Biblical principles. We are not convinced, however, that this has actually been done by those who are putting forth this proposal. The consciences of many Confessional Lutherans would be greatly troubled by the idea of women being called to administer the Lord’s Supper precisely because these Lutherans have studied the pertinent Biblical principles, and remain persuaded in their consciences that God’s Word does not allow it. We are also quite certain that such an innovation in pastoral practice would have an extremely disruptive impact on the ecclesial relations of any Lutheran synod that might decide to introduce it. The kind of theological study that would be necessary before a major change like this could be made would need to take place within the larger fellowship of worldwide Confessional Lutheranism, and not only within the confines of one church body’s internal deliberative processes. The consequences of one synod pressing ahead with such an innovation without that kind of inter-synodical deliberation and fraternal dialogue would be disastrous.
The passages of Holy Scripture that pertain to the question of who should or should not administer the Lord’s Supper certainly include the various Biblical statements regarding the order of creation, and especially the Pauline prohibition of a woman exercising authority over a man – which carries with it the idea that a woman may exercise authority over another woman. But it would be necessary also to examine what the Scriptures teach concerning the nature and character of the Lord’s Supper itself, apart from the “genderal” context of its administration. While it is true that the Lord’s Supper conveys the same forgiveness that is conveyed in Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the preaching of the Gospel, this does not mean that we may think, speak, and act in regard to the Lord’s Supper in exactly the same way as we think, speak, and act in regard to the other means of grace. For example, a Confessional Lutheran pastor would be willing to proclaim God’s Word to anyone under almost any circumstances, but he would not be willing to offer the Lord’s Supper to anyone under almost any circumstances. The Word of God in general is very “fluid,” and permeates every aspect of a believer’s life. It applies itself in one way or another to Christians in every office, calling, and relationship in which they may find themselves, in the church, in the family, and in society. The Sacrament of the Altar, however, is a very specific “concretization” of the Word of God, which applies itself precisely to the church as church. There are certain things that the Bible says about the Lord’s Supper, as such, that it does not say about the Word of God in general. And these things would need to be taken into account in a careful and thorough consideration of the question we have been discussing.
While most sections of the New Testament are addressed to all Christians without differentiation, some sections of it are explicitly addressed only to certain groups within the larger church (e.g. Eph. 5:22-6:9; 1 Peter 2:18-3:7). Since God has chosen to speak a special message specifically to women in passages like Ephesians 5:22-24 and 1 Peter 3:1-6, we would not object in principle if a deaconess, under her pastor’s supervision and according to the needs of the church, would teach a special Bible class exclusively for other women. It is ordinarily permissible for a woman in this way to speak God’s Word authoritatively to another woman. But it does not follow from this that it is therefore also ordinarily permissible for a woman to commune another woman. Sometimes the focus of God’s Word can be very specific and exclusive in terms of the gender of those to whom it is addressed. But the speaking of Christ’s Words of Institution in the celebration of his Holy Supper is never one of those times. We do not have a special Lord’s Supper for Jews and another one for Greeks; we do not have a special Lord’s Supper for slaves and another one for those who are free; we do not have a special Lord’s Supper for males and another one for females. We have only one Lord’s Supper, and it is always for the “one body” of Christ.
The conscience of the present writer remains persuaded of the following: By virtue of what the Lord’s Supper is, as a sacrament of the “one body” of Christ, it should always be celebrated in such a way that it is offered to, and could be received by, everyone for whom it is intended. Christ did not give his body into death only for women, and he did not shed his blood on the cross only for women. We therefore have no right, according to our own rationalizations, to transform his sacred institution into a sacrament that is sometimes only for women. Jesus did not leave us such a malleable sacrament, and that is not the kind of sacrament that the church has been authorized by its Lord to celebrate.8 If there would ever be a situation in which it would be wrong for a man to receive the Lord’s Supper simply because he is a man, and for no other reason, then there would be something terribly wrong about that situation. The Lord of the church has given us the right (and the duty) to exclude men from a particular celebration of the sacrament if they are uncatechized, if they are heterodox, or if they lead scandalous lives. The Lord of the church has not given us the right to exclude men from a particular celebration of the sacrament simply because they are men. But when the Lord’s Supper is faithfully administered by the church’s regularly-called pastors – its male pastors – then such an unnatural exclusion will never be forced onto any of God’s people, whether male or female. When the Lord’s Supper is faithfully administered by the church’s regularly-called pastors – its male pastors – then the institution of Christ in all of its fullness, together with everything that is organically connected with that institution, will by God’s grace be preserved among us.
David Jay Webber
July 25, 2005
1. Luther explains that in this passage “The word ‘steward’ here signifies one who has charge of his lord’s domestics… For ‘oekonomus’ is Greek and signifies in [German] a steward, or one capable of providing for a house and ruling the domestics. … Now, God’s household is the Christian Church – ourselves. It includes pastors and bishops, overseers and stewards, whose office is to have charge of the household, to provide nourishment for it and to direct its members, but in a spiritual sense. Paul puts a distinction between the stewards of God and temporal stewards. The latter provide material nourishment, and exercise control of the physical person; but the former provide spiritual food and exercise control over souls. Paul calls the spiritual food ‘mysteries’” (“Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent,” Complete Sermons of Martin Luther [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000], Vol. 3.2, pp. 69-70).
2. Irwin J. Habeck asks and answers an important question in this regard: “Need the right to officiate at the Lord’s Supper be restricted to the theologically trained clergyman? As far as the proclamation of the Word is concerned, there can be little question that in our day the aptitude to teach which the Lord sets down as a qualification for the office of a bishop does require theological training. I am not thinking only of the formal sermon in the worship service, but also of the varied areas of teaching, the devotional addresses at organization meetings, and the devotions with the sick and shut-ins. I believe, too, that this training is requisite for the capable performance of the vast variety of pastoral duties. This applies also to the stewardship of the Lord’s Supper, which involves not only granting it to those who are entitled to receive it, but also withholding it from those who are not entitled to receive it” (“Who May Officiate at the Lord’s Supper?”, Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 3 [July 1968], p. 201).
3. In a broader sense of the term, a deaconess who has been called to carry out certain ministerial duties among other women may be understood to be functioning as a “steward” of the Word of God among those with whom she is working (cf. 1 Peter 4:10-11; Luther, “A Sermon on Keeping Children in School,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 46 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967], pp. 219-21), but she is not a “steward of the mysteries of God” in the narrow and distinctly pastoral sense in which the Apology relates this concept to those who publicly preach in the congregation and administer the sacraments.
4. In the ancient church there was a practice according to which consecrated elements were taken from the liturgical assembly by deacons or deaconesses (and sometimes by others) to be distributed to those members who had not been able to be present in the worship service. The deacons distributed the sacrament in this way to men who had been absent, and the deaconesses distributed it to women. The bread and wine that had been taken from the public liturgy for this purpose were not consecrated anew by the deacon or deaconess in the presence of the communicant. Since this practice might be thought of as a precedent for the kind of proposal that is being discussed in this paper, we will include here some excerpts from Martin Chemnitz’s evaluation of it. He writes: “With respect to custom, no matter how ancient, Gratian furnishes us an answer from the sayings of the fathers, dist. 8: ‘Cyprian says that custom without truth is the antiquity of error.’ And Gregory quotes from Cyprian: ‘The Lord says in the Gospel, “I am the truth.” He does not say, “I am the custom.” Therefore all custom, no matter how universal, must always be esteemed less than the truth. And any custom which is contrary to the truth must be abolished.’ … According to Justin the deacons give the bread and wine which have been consecrated by means of thanksgiving to all who are present, and the same elements are given to deacons to be carried to those who are absent. …from the assembly of the church they carry it to those who are absent in order that they may commune. …in the ancient church…it was given to boys to be carried away; according to Dionysius of Alexandria, to women… …it is simplest, most correct, and safest that this whole matter should be examined according to the norm of the institution of Christ and that we should consider what comes closest to what is prescribed in the institution, agrees best with it, and serves for edification of the church. … The matter is not obscure if we set before ourselves as norm and rule the description of the institution. For Christ first of all used His words, which He wanted to have come to the element in order that it might become a sacrament; He used them in the place and at the time where and when He was about to distribute Communion, and in the presence of those to whom He wanted to communicate His body and blood. Therefore it agrees better with the description of the institution and the example of Christ to recite the words of institution and by means of them to bless the Eucharist at the place and time of Communion, in the presence of those who are to be communed… For these reasons our men, in the Communion of the sick, recite the words of the Supper, which are in fact the consecration, in the presence of the sick person. Neither has anyone the right to reprove or to condemn us on account of this custom; for we are following both the prescription and the example of Christ, concerning whom the Father called out from heaven: ‘Hear Him.’ It is manifest that this custom agrees with the institution of Christ. And, according to Augustine, what decides in matters of faith is not: ‘This I say; that you say; that he says,’ but: ‘Thus says the Lord.’ And, speaking of the Supper, Cyprian says: ‘We ought not to give heed to what someone before us thought should be done, but to what He, who is before all, did first.’ … Yes, in a rural house where there was no special prayer chapel a presbyter celebrates the Eucharist, as reported by Augustine, De civitate Dei, Bk. 22, ch. 8” (Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978], pp. 293-94, 301, 303, 311-13).
5. As an aside, we would note that Holy Baptism likewise does not pertain only to the male part of the church or only to the female part of the church, but is in its own way also a sacrament of and for the “one body” of Christ: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” [1 Cor. 12:13]. Baptism is, of course, administered to individuals, but it is always administered with reference to, and in the context of, the whole church, which in its essence is comprised of both men and women. In a non-emergency situation it would therefore also be out of harmony with God’s order for a woman to baptize. (Cf. Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part III [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986], pp. 151-52.)
6. Chemnitz’s description of the intent of the Lord’s institution, written in the context of a discussion concerning communion under both kinds, can serve as an illustration of how similar these two issues are to each other. He writes: “Paul says that he had received of the Lord that he was to give the ordinance and command regarding the use of both kinds not only to priests but to the whole church of God, men and women alike, 1 Co 11:23. What is more, he wrote that epistle not only to the Corinthians, but to all that in every place call upon the name of the Lord, 1 Co 1:2. This is the true and sound explanation which Christ wants understood when He says: ‘All of you eat [and] drink of this’” (Ministry, Word, and Sacraments [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1981], p. 122; emphasis added).
7. It is generally acknowledged in the Lutheran Church that in an emergency or extraordinary situation, a male layman – or if no man is available, a female laywoman – may preach, baptize, and absolve; for “in an emergency even a layperson grants absolution and becomes the minister or pastor of another” (Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, 67, Kolb/Wengert p. 341; cf. Luther, “Sermons on the First Epistle of St. Peter,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 30 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967], p. 55; Luther, “Sermon for Pentecost Tuesday,” Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 2.1, p. 375; Luther, “Concerning the Ministry,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 40 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958], pp. 23,25; Luther, “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 32 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958], p. 51). In regard to the possibility of an emergency administration of the Sacrament of the Altar, however, Nass makes the historical observation that “Lutheran teachers have debated throughout the years whether or not a lay person should ever consecrate and administer the Lord’s Supper. The orthodox dogmaticians generally said that even in the case of emergency it should not be done. [Johann Wilhelm] Baier wrote: ‘When there is a lack of ordinary ministers, and a faithful man anxiously desires this sacrament, it is better for him to be persuaded that spiritual eating is sufficient and to show the danger of other temptations which could arise if the sacrament were administered by another without a legitimate call and therefore with a dubious mind and result’” (“The Pastoral Ministry as a Distinct Form of the Public Ministry,” p. 261). C. F. W. Walther also states in his Pastoral Theology that “The great majority of our theologians, Luther in the forefront, believe that the holy Supper should never be administered privately by one who is not in the public preaching office, by a layman. That is partly because no such necessity can occur with the holy Supper, as with Baptism and Absolution, that would justify a departure from God’s ordinance (1 Cor. 4:1; Rom. 10:15; Heb. 5:4); partly because the holy Supper ‘is a public confession and so should have a public minister’; partly because schisms can easily be brought about by such private Communion” (American Lutheran Pastoral Theology [New Haven, Missouri: Lutheran News, Inc., 1995], p. 134). Walther nevertheless does make use of a quotation from the sixteenth-century Lutheran theologian Tilemann Heshusius, who taught that “In a case of necessity, since one cannot have regularly called servants of the church, there is no doubt that every Christian has the authority from God’s Word and is authorized according to Christian love to carry out the service of the church with the proclamation of God’s Word and the administration of the Sacraments. … But here we are speaking of that case of necessity when one cannot have true Christian and upright servants of the church and what is then up to a Christian. As if some Christians are at a place where there are no called pastors [Seelsorger]; if some Christians were in prison for the sake of the truth or were in danger on the sea; or if some Christians were under the Turks or the Papacy where there were no correct pastors; if some Christians were under the Calvinists or Schwenkfeldians or Adiaphorists or Majorists, from whom, as from false teachers, they must separate according to God’s command; or if some Christians were under such pastors or such church servants who practiced public tyranny and horribly persecuted the correct confessors of the truth so that they [the former] would then also sufficiently reveal that they were not members of the true church, and that godly Christians were then obligated to withdraw from their fellowship in order not to strengthen their tyranny and help condemn the innocent Christians: in such and similar cases of necessity, which happen quite often, that one cannot have true servants of the church, whose doctrine and confession is upright and agrees with God’s Word, it is permitted also for an individual private person and believing Christian to absolve the penitent sinner of sins, to comfort the weak with God’s Word, to baptize babies, and to administer Christ’s Supper” (quoted on pp. 137-38). Walther also includes this statement from the “strict champion of Lutheran orthodoxy” Johannes Fecht, who takes a somewhat more conservative approach: “If it happened that, in a case when a pastor could absolutely not be had, someone in the greatest danger of death, with the good intention of strengthening his faith, appealing to the fact that the Sacrament [of the Altar] was instituted to be added to the Word for confirmation in a case of weakness, would constantly ask for it from someone who was familiar with the administration of the Sacrament, and [the one in danger of death] would not be calmed by his exhortation, then I would not accuse such of disturbing good order. Since the Sacraments are fundamentally given to the church; and it is agreed that it [the church] in a case of necessity baptizes, teaches, and absolves through a layman; and although very rarely – more often with respect to other actions – a case of necessity arises; then I confess that I cannot judge otherwise than that it should be done, if the case is as just described” (quoted on p. 138).
8. Luther writes: “God’s people, or the Christian holy people, are recognized by the holy sacrament of the altar, wherever it is rightly administered, believed, and received, according to Christ’s institution. This too is a public sign and a precious, holy possession left behind by Christ by which his people are sanctified so that they also exercise themselves in faith and openly confess that they are Christian, just as they do with the word and with baptism. And here too you need not be disturbed if the pope does not say mass for you, does not consecrate, anoint, or vest you with a chasuble. Indeed, you may, like a patient in bed, receive this sacrament without wearing any garb, except that outward decency obliges you to be properly covered. Moreover, you need not ask whether you have a tonsure or are anointed. In addition, the question of whether you are male or female, young or old, need not be argued – just as little as it matters in baptism and the preached word. It is enough that you are consecrated and anointed with the sublime and holy chrism of God, with the word of God, with baptism, and also with this sacrament; then you are highly and gloriously enough and sufficiently vested with priestly garments. Moreover, don’t be led astray by the question of whether the man who administers the sacrament is holy…” (“On the Councils and the Church,” p. 152; emphasis added). If, however, the sacrament would sometimes be administered by a woman, then potential communicants on such occasions would indeed need to be concerned about the question of whether they are “male or female.”
This essay was delivered (in absentia) at the Ukrainian Lutheran Church General Pastoral Conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on November 11, 2005. This essay was also delivered (by the author) at the Evangelical Lutheran Synod West Coast Pastors’ Conference in Grants Pass, Oregon, on May 3, 2006.