Here is a short summary of where I am on the issue of women’s ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For decades I have read multiple studies on the subject on both sides. Many studies on both sides seem very convincing until you read the arguments from the other side. It finally dawned on me that the one thing we seemed to agree on was that the Bible itself never asks the question we are asking, “Should women be ordained to the gospel ministry?” While there are people who disagree with that assertion, no one has been able to point me to a text that actually asks the question, so I continue to hold that position. And there is a good reason for that. Ordination as we know it largely developed in the Middle Ages, so the Bible could not and would not address the question, except perhaps in a prophecy of the future.
In light of that, I observe that in my part of the world NOT ordaining women exacts significant costs on the church’s mission and credibility in the wider community. No one from another part of the world could truly understand or assess those costs. Are those costs worth bearing? Only if the Bible is clear. But the assertions that the Bible is clear are mostly coming from parts of the world that have never studied the question as deeply as I have been forced to study it. I find it interesting that the only substantive studies against women’s ordination in the SDA Church are coming out of North America, the very place that doesn’t generally find those same studies convincing or helpful. And the best arguments against women’s ordination originated with a segment of non-SDAs who have historically been hostile to both Adventism and Ellen White.
I also note that the SDA Church did not adopt ordination as currently practiced from study of the Bible. It was adopted for practical reasons, to validate who spoke for the church and who did not. Today women around the world are hired and trusted to speak for the church in various capacities, even in parts of the world that don’t want to ordain them. But making a distinction between women and men in terms of ordination puts meaning into the act that it never had for the SDA pioneers.
In light of the above I have slowly come to the conclusion that this is one of those issues (like food offered to idols in the NT) that is best handled at the local level. I do not want women’s ordination to be forced on those who would pay a heavy price in their culture for doing so. Similarly, those paying a heavy price for NOT ordaining women should be allowed to assess those costs and act as the Spirit leads. The world will not end and the church will not fall as a result.
To me it seems so simple. Then why is it so hard?
The easy answers provided by selective proof-texting sound pious and “clear” but often don’t stand up to careful investigation. So the weight of evidence causes me to withhold judgment on women’s ordination in the Bible and similar issues. A proof-text reading of the Bible tends toward opposing women’s ordination because there is no explicit proof-text telling us to ordain women (or even giving us the concept of ordination, which was a later development). But there is a trend in the Bible toward justice, fairness and equality that leads me to believe God might have worked with the patriarchy of ancient times (God meets people where they are) without approving of it as the ideal. Today the world is trending toward justice and equality and that reality opens the way to see things in the Bible we hadn’t seen before.
Something similar happened in Acts 10-15. As a result of Peter’s experience with Cornelius, the whole church read the Old Testament differently (see Acts 15:13-18). Very few of those who oppose women’s ordination take a comprehensive view of the Bible. The few that do are forging a new path and I don’t find them very convincing at this point. While I don’t think the Bible settles the issue one way or the other, the trend of God’s working with humanity from Abraham to John the Revelator suggests that ordaining women will not bring about the end of civilization or the work of God on this earth. It actually might be just what the church needs in some places.
Human beings like quick fixes. The perfect proof text, the simple answer that settles everything. But I don’t think that approach does justice to the Word of God. When someone says “the Bible is clear” on a subject like women’s ordination, all I have learned from that is that the Bible is “clear” to that person. It is a fact of human nature that the less we know about any subject the more confident we tend to be in our opinions and conclusions. The confidence so many have in their conclusions on ordination is evidence to me that they haven’t looked seriously at the arguments against their point of view.
This scholarly tentativeness can be frustrating to people of faith, who are used to hearing quick and easy answers to difficult questions. But I think that frustration arises, in part, from a misunderstanding of what true scholarship really is. A true scholar is not someone who knows many things, rather, a true scholar is someone who knows how little he or she knows. It is just as important to know when you are ignorant as to know where you are an expert. Being a scholar is like a farmer standing at the edge of a field. As long as his or her knowledge is limited to the surface of the field, the farmer might seem to know everything there is to know about that field. But scholarship is like the same farmer digging a post-hole at the edge of a field (an analogy for the dissertation). The farmer now knows all (s)he needs to know about the contents of that post-hole. But digging the post-hole teaches the farmer something else. The farmer now knows how deep the entire field goes. By digging that post-hole the farmer’s awareness of ignorance has grown faster than his knowledge.
This is why biblical scholars rarely approach issues with the confidence and clarity that evangelists (like Bohr, Batchelor and Nelson) have. Evangelists have been able to narrow their biblical focus to the things that help them persuade people. This is a very important gift and a very important task. But the church would be unwise to draw its conclusions about the Bible from the limited perspective of the evangelist. While certainty is attractive, it can lead one to a false confidence. As the Apostle Paul said, “We know in part, we prophecy in part, . . . we see through a glass darkly.” Both methods of Bible study (see previous blog for details) are valuable. Both Bible scholars and evangelists have their place. A certain level of confidence is commendable. But the greatness of God suggests we submit our confidence to a reasonable humility.
Coming up: A concise and clear summary of where I stand on the question of women’s ordination and the Bible.