Last weekend was spent at the Calimesa SDA Church Retreat at Pine Springs Ranch in the San Jacinto Mountains of southern California. During the Sabbath School time the teacher was addressing the weekend’s theme of “When Things Don’t Turn Out. . .” He was addressing how we should respond when things don’t turn out the way we expect, personally, in local communities, and worldwide. He invited me to be prepared to say something about the General Conference Session and the big thing that didn’t “turn out” there, the vote to give official endorsement to divisions of the church to consider mission as a key factor in decisions regarding women’s ordination. Time ran out before I was able to speak, but I thought my notes there might be useful or encouraging to someone here. My apologies if this blog is annoying to those who might disagree with my conclusions.
Let me begin with the history of ordination. While the word “ordination” appears in the King James Bible, that English word comes from the Latin, it is not found in the New Testament. Ordination as we know it developed gradually over the early centuries and became fixed in the Middle Ages. Ordination of women did not occur then on two grounds: 1) the Bible nowhere required it, and 2) no one had ordained women before, so tradition supported the Bible’s silence on the question. These two reasons also sufficed for the Adventist pioneers, who adopted male ordination from their previous churches. This was not a theological act but a practical one, providing credentials to those who spoke for the church. When I entered ministry in the early 1970s, the traditional situation remained in place and the lack of biblical clarity meant I was neutral to negative on the question when calls to ordain women began in the 1970s.
In the years since, society in many parts of the world has completely changed on the role of women. In the 1950s nearly everyone assumed that some roles should be filled only by men: physician, soldier, lawyer, fireman, police officer, truck driver, President of the United States, and airplane pilot, to name only a few. In more and more places today, women fill virtually all roles in the work place except for ministry in churches like ours. Absent a clear “thus saith the Lord” on the matter, a tradition was threatening to present the church as completely irrelevant to society in many parts of the world.
So I took a fresh look at the Bible in light of the new situation. Acts 15 provides encouragement to do that. The earliest church believed that the Bible (the Old Testament at the time) taught circumcision as an unchanging requirement for salvation. But God’s providence in their experience led them to re-read the Bible and open the way for uncircumcized Gentiles to participate in the church. Things that once seemed obvious from their study of the Bible were no longer so in light of the Spirit’s leading. In my own fresh look at the Bible it dawned on me that the Bible nowhere asks the question “Should women be ordained?” It doesn’t address the issue directly. That means that the “answers” people were finding on both sides of the issue lacked the clarity of direct speech from God. Why doesn’t the Bible address the issue directly? What does that tell us about God? Evidently God never addressed the question in Scripture because He could live with the situation as He found it (male ordination). It was not the most important thing to challenge people with in those days. God addressed people on issues when they were ready to hear it (John 16:12) or when the mission required it (Acts 10-15).
This was the conclusion of the majority of members of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee. For many it was a change of mind. They learned that the Bible does not settle the matter in an absolute sense. Where mission requires it, women can be ordained. Where mission suggests that ordaining women would harm the church in a particular society, it should probably not be done. There were holdouts on both sides who believed the Bible clearly forbade or required universal women’s ordination, but the clearest trend of Bible study was in the direction of mission being the determining factor in any part of the world. That meant the world church allowing local jurisdictions to decide what was the best approach for their areas. This was not a pro-women’s ordination conclusion, it was a pro-mission conclusion. And it seemed to me that this was the only reasonable outcome at the General Conference session in San Antonio (July, 2015). I realize that there are many on both sides who still disagree with me on this. And I affirm them as brothers and sisters who have the same right I do to study and seek the mind of God on this question. Where God has left room for differing opinions, we dare not cut each other off.
Having said this, the denial of the TOSC conclusion and process in San Antonio was heart-breaking for many of us. I was heartbroken for the many women who felt the action showed disrespect to their perception of a call from God to do ministry. I was disappointed for those parts of the world who felt distrusted when their local judgment on the matter was rejected. I felt distrusted and disrespected when my earnest attempts to bring reason into the discussion were summarily dismissed with assertions and condemnation, rather than collegial debate.
But I realize that in the ultimate scheme of things my disappointment and that of others does not matter all that much. If I am right about Scripture and about God, God has been waiting a long, long time to see His people come to their senses on many issues. He has been waiting a long, long time to see healing of the divisions in the universe. He has been waiting a long, long time to see the ministry of women being affirmed by us in the same way He affirms it. If that is true, things in San Antonio didn’t turn out for God either. . .