As I understand things, traditionally the opposition to women’s ordination within the Seventh-day Adventist Church came on two grounds, using simple terms. 1) The Bible doesn’t mandate the ordination of women. 2) We never did it that way before. These two arguments were sufficient to carry the day during the decades when the issue was not front row and center. But in recent years it became evident that these two arguments were no longer sufficient. Since Adventists have always been leery of “tradition,” an argument from current and historical practice will only take you so far. And the first argument also has its limits. The Bible doesn’t mandate the use of cars, cell phones, computers, Facebook or the internet. Yet people who take the Bible literally do all of the above in today’s world.
So with the traditional arguments against women’s ordination disintegrating, my old friend Sam Bacchiocchi vowed to take six months off and study the issue of ordination in order to write a book showing that the Bible is against it. Now however you may feel about his methodology (knowing before his study began what the outcome would be), Bacchiocchi was a very determined and capable scholar. If there was a biblical argument out there against women’s ordination, he would find it. And he did. It was called “headship theology” and he found it in the “neo-Calvinist” movement, which starting gaining steam among some evangelicals in the 1970s. Some key names promoting this theology were Wayne Grudem and Bill Gothard (I personally heard Gothard on more than one occasion in the 70s).
Headship theology is based essentially on two NT texts, 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5. While these texts had been noticed by Adventists and other Protestants before 1970, they were never used to teach what the neo-Calvinists now use them to teach, namely that there was a hierarchy within the Trinity from eternity (Christ in submission to the Father), that Eve was in submission to Adam before the Fall, that Eve’s sin was trying to escape her role in creation, and that Adam’s sin was not exercising his authority over Eve. Some Neo-Calvinists even think slavery was appropriate in light of such Scriptures. While these ideas were attractive to Bacchiocchi as a way to prevent the ordination of women in the Adventist Church, they were not known in Adventism before Bacchiocchi (1987), so their introduction into Adventism does seem to me like a desperate measure that we may one day regret. Can one pick a single apple from a tree that includes other apples like predestination, everlasting burning hell and Sunday sacredness? For a thorough study of how the new headship theology entered the Adventist Church see http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/433232.
A few years ago, before I ever thought of applying headship theology to the issue of women’s ordination in the Adventist Church, I wrote a paper on the NT language related to leadership and authority. I think it has implications for the theory of headship. One can draw implications from a text or two that are contrary to the whole trend of Scripture. Whatever doctrine we teach needs to be based on the whole Bible, not a couple of convenient texts. Here is what I had to say about the Greek word for headship (kephalē), for example:
“The root meaning of kephalē is with reference to a person’s physical head, the part of the body that contains the brain. By extension it is used metaphorically as a reference to the person of high status or superior rank in a hierarchy. In the Hebrew Old Testament, “head” (rosh) is frequently applied to human leaders, such as the patriarch of a family (Exod 6:14, 25), the leader of a tribe (Num 7:2; 2 Chr 52), or simply leaders in general (Exod 18:25; Num 25:4; Judg 11:11). These “heads” in the Old Testament were parts of a hierarchical leadership system (Exod 18:21) in which each “head” played a specific role under or above other heads.
“In the New Testament, kephalē is also used in the basic sense. But in the epistles of Paul, head and body are usually used as metaphors of Christ and the church and occasionally kephalē is applied to the husband’s role in the home (Eph 5:25-27). The church, however, chose not to apply this word to apostles, overseers, elders or deacons, it was applied solely to Jesus Christ. The church is more than an institution, it is a living organism and living organisms can successfully have only one head. Leadership functions in the church, therefore, are substantively different from other kinds of organizations. Kephalē does not point to a hierarchy, so much as a relationship. As “head” Christ is the one who sustains the body and provides for its growth.”
Notice how the New Testament uses headship language in a completely different way than the Old Testament. In the OT there is the language of hierarchy and status, because that is the way the ancient world was. But in light of the cross, the NT introduces a new form of leadership, leading through service and self-sacrifice. Thus Greek words that imply hierarchy and dominance are never used for offices in the church. Neither is headship language so used. Jesus did not come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). And if you have seen Jesus, you have seen what God is like (John 14:9). This is the larger context in which texts like 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 need to be read.
When you “take the Bible as it reads” without any sense of the ancient setting or the larger biblical context, it is not hard to imagine that 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 suggest some sort of hierarchy between men and women. And one could even suggest that such hierarchy is taught in the texts and intended to be an absolute principle for all time. But when you pay attention to the meaning of these texts in the larger ancient and biblical setting, you can see that Paul was using the language of the culture, but pointing people to the cross of Christ as the principle that would, in the end, undermine that culture. While the Bible does not mandate the ordination of women, it is not unbiblical to suggest the abolition of human rankings and distinctions in the service of a greater mission.