Can the unity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church be maintained in the face of so much division over women’s ordination? Two possible approaches seem almost guaranteed to destroy unity at this point. One would be mandating that ordination to the positions of both pastor and elder be restricted to males only once again. Since the church first moved away from that position in the 1970s, the western world has shifted enormously in favor of full equality and inclusion for women. To step back at this time would be devastating to the mission of the church in the western world and also the Far East (China in particular). In my travels around the world I find the younger generation in areas opposed to ordaining women much more open to full inclusion as well, although the leaders of the church are still reluctant. Similarly, a position mandating the ordination of women worldwide would be devastating in many cultures where full inclusion of women is not appreciated at this time. The Middle East, Africa and parts of Southern and Central Asia and South America likely fall into this category. It would hurt the mission of the church to force a global vote on women’s ordination either way.
Clearly the flexibility of options two and three that TOSC has put forward offer some encouragement that unity could be preserved. In option two (see summary and links in previous blog) the church would affirm that ordaining women is the right application of Scripture for today, but it should not be forced on entities of the church that are not ready. Option three affirms the biblical pattern of male headship, but allows for new forms to leadership in places where that pattern no longer makes sense. In both options the biblical understanding is not taken as absolute and unbending for all cultures and places. It is the biblical summary that makes up the primary difference between the two options. My guess is that neither would garner a majority of votes in any meeting of top church leadership. Many would be uncomfortable with the assertion that the Bible affirms the ordination of women and many others would be equally uncomfortable with the assertion that the Bible affirms male leadership as the norm. Is there some other way that might point us forward?
The problem with all three options is that they presume the Bible is reasonably clear, one way or the other. Option One is so clear that it not only takes the field but pillages the opposition’s kingdom. Not a formula for unity. Option Two presumes that the Bible, rightly understood, teaches women’s ordination but that those who disagree can get permission to continue their traditional practices. Option Three presumes that the Bible teaches male “leadership,” but those who want to ordain women can apply for permission to do so. But all these positions presume that the Bible speaks to the issue with reasonable clarity.
When you have dueling positions on a topic (in this case women’s ordination), both claiming to be from the Bible, there are only two options that I can see. Either one side is perverse (deliberately twisting Scripture to get their way) or the Bible is, in fact, unclear on the subject. I have good friends on both sides of the women’s ordination debate. I cannot look either side in the eye and say, “You are perverse, you are deliberately manipulating the Bible to get your way.” To do so would be to pass a terrible judgment on people I have enjoyed as colleagues for many years. And it is a judgment that puts me in great peril (Matt 7:1-2; Rom 2:1-3). But if the Bible is, in fact, unclear, then that should be the foundation of the church’s position, rather than according victory to one side or the other.
That leaves two options for attaining unity. One is being proposed by David Newman. If ordination itself as generally practiced is a tradition inherited from the Middle Ages (the word “ordination” is Latin term, not found in the NT), then let’s not ordain anyone and solve the problem in that way. I could live with such a position, but since the Adventist pioneers adopted ordination as a practical necessity (rather than a biblical mandate), something like “ordination” is probably needed. I suggest, therefore, one other option. The simplest approach to honor the Bible and yet preserve unity is to affirm that the Bible does not directly address the question of women’s ordination and that, therefore, it does not mandate either the ordination of women to the gospel ministry nor the denial of the same. Neither party would have to give approval to a theology they disagree with. Let’s just agree that the Bible doesn’t directly address the question and that, therefore, differences of opinion on how to apply the Bible to ordination today are to be expected. When differences are the norm, unity requires that ordination be driven by the mission of the church rather than the direct teachings of Scripture. Divisions and unions should be allowed to ordain women or not ordain them, based on the leading of the Spirit and the demands of mission in those territories.
Won’t that in itself destroy the unity of the church? What will happen if an ordained woman is called to a union that doesn’t ordain women? The same thing that happens now with female church elders. If an ordained female elder moves to a church that doesn’t ordain females as elders, she should not expect to be an elder in that church (for better or for worse). If an ordained female pastor receives an invitation to pastor in a union or division that doesn’t ordain women, she should understand that her ordination will not be recognized there, and respond to the invitation with that in mind. If an unordained female pastor is invited to a region that ordains women, she should not be compelled to accept ordination. While there will be relational challenges in the process, the overall unity of the church need not be destroyed on the basis of such an arrangement. It has certainly not happened over the last forty years since women have been ordained as elders in parts of the world. Practical arrangements in one local church need not affect arrangements in another.
A possible wording for the above “unity option” could be as follows: “We acknowledge that the Bible does not mandate the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. Therefore, any union or division that considers ordination of women to be a detriment to the mission of the church in that region will not be considered out of harmony with Scripture. Likewise, we acknowledge that the Bible does not forbid the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. Therefore, any union or division that considers ordination of women to be useful to the mission of the church in that region will not be considered out of harmony with Scripture. To maintain the unity of the church, we continue the practice of the Adventist pioneers, who adopted ordination, not primarily on biblical grounds, but as a practical necessity to enhance the mission of the church.” I’m not thrilled with that specific wording, but hopefully it helps point the way forward.