Proposed Solutions

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

As TOSC continued, the North American Division of the Adventist Church produced a remarkable document in favor of ordaining women (an even larger document was produced by the Trans-European Division). By way of contrast, divisions of the church opposed to women’s ordination seem to have done little fresh study. The one exception to this is the minority report of the North American Division, which broke some new ground. It suggested that male “headship” was a core element of biblical theology that limited ordination only to men. This was a new theological approach that had never been seen in Adventism before the mid-1980s (Sam Bacchiocchi) or even in Christianity generally before the 1970s. That doesn’t make it wrong by itself, but Adventism historically is rightly skeptical of such radical theological departures. I find it interesting that headship arguments were used against the ministry of Ellen White in the 19th Century. With that in mind, the faculty of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary has concluded that headship theology takes a dangerous turn away from the Adventist understanding of the Bible, and I think they are right.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. Instead of one “solution” to the division in the church on women’s ordination, TOSC came up with three. In short, the first proposal denies ordination of women to the gospel ministry and rescinds the ordination of women to positions of local elder. If accepted, this proposal would return the church to the position it was in before 1970. The second proposal affirms that the Bible supports the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, but that it should not be imposed in regions where it would be detrimental to the church’s mission. The third proposal affirms that the Bible exhibits a pattern of male leadership, but that such biblical patterns can be adapted to changing circumstances. Entities of the church that feel mission requires the ordination of women could apply to do so. The second and third proposals allow circumstances to alter cases. But I don’t think any of these three “solutions” would lead the church to unity. We have got to do better than these.
Two possible approaches favored by some seem almost guaranteed to destroy the unity of the church. 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. I remember the 1950s. In the 1950s nearly everyone assumed that some roles should be filled only by men: physician, soldier, lawyer, police officer, truck driver, President of the United States, and airplane pilot, to name only a few. Today women fill virtually all roles in the work place except ministry in some churches. For the Adventist Church to step back to the 1950s after all that would be devastating to the mission of the church in the western world and a few other places. Not only that, in my travels to parts of the world opposed to women’s ordination, I find the younger generation largely open to full inclusion as well, although the leaders of the church in those regions are still reluctant.
A second approach that would destroy the unity of the church would be to mandate the ordination of women worldwide. This would be devastating in many cultures where full inclusion of women is not yet the norm in society. For the church to move ahead in those areas would unnecessarily complicate its ability to share the gospel at this time. The Middle East, Africa and parts of 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. I am glad, therefore, that church leadership is not promoting either of these approaches at the upcoming General Conference.
The problem with all three “solutions” is that they presume the Bible is reasonably clear on the subject, one way or the other. Option One finds the Bible so clearly against women’s ordination that it not only takes the field but pillages the opposition. 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. Not likely to be accepted in many parts of the world. Option Three presumes that the Bible models male “leadership,” but those who want to ordain women can apply for permission to do so. What all these positions presume is that the Bible speaks to the issue with clarity, and that in the end it agrees with those who read it that way.
Whenever you have dueling positions on a topic, all claiming to be from the Bible, there are only two ways to make sense of the situation. 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 and many former students 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. But if the Bible, in fact, does not address the question, that fact should be the foundation of the church’s position, rather than according victory to one side or the other.

To be continued. . .

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