Dr. John Kleinig on Women’s Ordination


I think it is safe to say that the Rev’d Dr. John Kleinig is one of the premier orthodox Lutheran theologians alive today. That he commands the respect of thousands of pastors and laymen in the global fellowship of the churches of the Augsburg Confession is indisputable. The present generation of Lutheranism and those to come should render hearty thanks to God for the work He has done through this pastor, teacher, and churchman.

It is probably not much of an overstatement to say that Kleinig’s commentary on Leviticus has galvanized a small renascence in Lutheran liturgical piety, born from an ever more firm conviction that a real continuity exists between the liturgies of the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, so magisterial is this commentary that I have heard more than a few pastors say, almost verbatim, “Before I read Dr. Kleinig’s commentary, Leviticus was a closed book to me.” (I’ve only thumbed through a few sections, and even this has been enlightening; I look forward to reading the whole thing someday soon.) Readers will also likely be aware of Dr. Kleinig’s manual on “receptive spirituality,” Grace Upon Grace, which is a theological and devotional treasure in its own right.


Dr. Kleinig and the author.

Dr. Kleinig knows stuff. He is not given to rhetorical overstatement or empty speculation. What can I say? When he chooses to hold forth on a hot-button contemporary theological topic, we’d best step to it and lend him our ears— or, barring that, our smartphone-fatigued eyes and scrolling digits. And he has done this very thing— hold forth, that is— recently over at LOGIA Online in a provocatively-titled piece “Why I Changed My Mind.” It’s about women’s ordination.

Whoa, whoa! Slow down! The change he speaks of is a change from “no strong opinion on women’s ordination” at one point in his life to “firm and convicted opposition of women’s ordination”, the position that he holds today and— as you will surely concur after reading his piece— that he will hold until he departs this mortal coil. Sadly, the 2015 General Synod of the Lutheran Church of Australia almost approved women’s ordination, and was only stopped by the resolution’s failure to obtain a supermajority of votes (67%). So, to be clear, most of the delegates at the LCA Synod want to see women ordained. So, one can only hope that Kleinig’s coreligionists in the LCA see the light, and soon.

But we in the LCMS shouldn’t throw stones. We’ve got some work to do in our own house, as the Matthew Becker fiasco should have reminded us.1 In a very real sense, Dr. Kleinig’s prophetic words are for the orthodox remnant and the wavering (cf. Albert Jay Nock, “Isaiah’s Job”), not so much for those who have already put themselves under judgment (although the hope remains that they would repent). Without further ado, then, here is an excerpt from his recent piece, “Why I Changed My Mind”:

It was a long and somewhat arduous personal theological journey, an exercise first in listening to what people on both sides of the debate had to say for and against the ordination of women, and then to what Christ Himself and the apostle Paul have to say about it. I will not recount all the various steps on that journey but will only focus on the turning point for me in my reflection, the reason why I cannot go along with the ordination of women, the reason why that is now a matter of conscience for me.


I reached my firm position from a close study of 1 Corinthians 14:33b–38 and the weight of Paul’s conclusive pronouncement in 14:38. I would therefore like to explain why this verse is so significant for me and others like me who uphold the teaching of the LCA on the ordination of women.


In connection with his discussion on prophecy and speaking in tongues in Corinth, Paul argues that women are “not permitted to speak in the church,” the assembly of the congregation for the divine service (1 Corinthians 14:34). That does not just apply to the church in Corinth but to “all the churches of the saints” (14:33b). That speaking has to do with “God’s word” (14:36), the word that was used to assess prophesies and to determine their relevance to the congregation, the word that came to the church in Corinth from Christ through his apostles, the word that calls for repentance and brings the forgiveness of sins (cf. Luke 24:47). Paul goes on to explain that the prohibition of speaking by women is “a command of the Lord” (14:37). Then finally in 14:38 Paul declares: “If anyone does not recognize (this), he is not recognized.”


This final declaration is closely linked with the previous verse by the repetition of the conjunction “if” and by the contrast between “recognizing” the Lord’s command in verse 37 and “not recognizing” that command in verse 38. The close connection between these two verses explains why Paul does not add an object in the clause: “If anyone does not recognize.” That is implied from the previous verse. Thus the refusal of those who claim to be prophets and spiritual persons to “recognize” the Lord’s command means that they are “not recognized.” They have no authority to say what they say and do what they do. They act in their own capacity without his authorization.


Paul’s pronouncement in 1 Corinthians 14:38 applies to those who refuse to recognize that what Paul has just written in this letter is “the Lord’s command.” To what does this refer? The nearest “command” that Paul has given is to be found in 14:34, where he states that “it is not permitted for them (the women) to speak.” His use of the passive form here is rather surprising, for in 1 Timothy 2:12 he uses the active form: “I do not permit a woman to teach.” The passive indicates that he is not speaking by his own authority but about what someone else has commanded. The Lord Jesus does not allow women to be speakers in any of the churches; instead they are to be “silent” and “subordinate.” The sense of that is clear from the parallel passage in I Timothy 2:11–12 where Paul refers to quiet attentiveness instead of “silence” and teaching and exercising authority rather than “speaking.” The context of 14:38 backs up this interpretation since Paul connects this instruction with the origin and reception of God’s word in 14:36 and the recognition of the Lord’s command in 14:37.


While some commentators claim that it is hard to make sense of 14:37–38 in its immediate context, most of them agree that “he is not recognized” is a divine passive, for the passive voice is often used in the New Testament to refer to what God does. Any person who does not recognize Christ’s command that women are not permitted to speak in church, is, Paul declares, not recognized by God. Anyone who rejects that command does not have God’s backing, his approval for what they do. This, of course, also implies that the churches do not, and should not, recognize those who reject this command of the Lord. The question is when, why, and how are they unrecognized.


In his study on this passage the New Testament scholar Käsemann argues that this is a case of sacral law, a sentence of divine judgment. Paul does not just threaten divine retribution but actually pronounces God’s judgment on those who violate the Lord’s command. This sentence of judgment is couched by St. Paul in terms of the law of equivalent retribution. The rejection of the Lord’s command results in his rejection of those who reject it. We find another similar pronouncement of divine judgment in 1 Corinthians 3:17. There Paul says, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.”


In both these passages Paul exercises his apostolic authority as an ambassador of Christ to pronounce God’s judgment on certain people who are damaging the church in Corinth. Yet here in 1 Corinthians 14:38, he does not warn them about what could happen to them at the Last Judgment, for then he would have used the future tense. Instead, he uses the present tense to anticipate that sentence by announcing that they are already judged by God for what they are doing. This pronouncement is a speech act, a performative utterance which enacts what it says; it is an act of judgment, Paul’s exercise of the keys. It is obvious that Paul would not pronounce such a judgment for some trivial matter, like disruptive chatter or disorderly behavior, but only for a severe violation of God’s holy word.


What is meant by Paul’s pronouncement that those who do not recognize the Lord’s command are “not recognized”? This, ultimately, refers to the lack of divine recognition for their teaching and practice. Paul here is addressing those who “claim” to speak as “prophets” or to act as “spiritual persons.” Since they use their spiritual giftedness to reject the Lord’s command by claiming the right for women to speak God’s word in the divine service, their teaching on this issue is not recognized by the Lord. So too the ministry of women who claim the right to be teachers and preachers because they are prophets. Christ does not recognize them. They cannot be sure that their words and deeds are the words and deeds of the Holy Spirit. After all, the Spirit that speaks and acts through them cannot contradict the Spirit that inspired Christ and his apostles. So the risen Lord Jesus does not recognize and approve what they say on this issue and do in this capacity, either now or on the last day.


This understanding is consistent with Paul’s distinction between the judgment of a person and the judgment of a person’s work in 1 Corinthians 3:10–15. If those who work for Christ in the church use what is rejected by him as useless, their work will be undone, burnt like wood or hay or straw on the Day of Judgment, even though they themselves may still be saved as through fire. The fire of divine judgment will destroy everything that is contrary to Christ and rejected by him, everything that goes beyond what is written in the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 4:6). What’s more, if they, by their persistent disobedience to Christ and God’s word, destroy the congregation, which is God’s holy temple, they too will be destroyed (1 Corinthians 3:16–17). That, surely, is something that we should avoid at all costs!


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Pan-Lutheran, I guess.

In statu confessionis.



  1. It’s a great misfortune that Becker’s endorsements of homosexuality and women’s ordination were not the bases for his ouster from Synod; that’s a separate topic, though, and one which I don’t purpose to get into today.