Roundup of divisional reports on female ordination

About a year prior to the first meeting of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC), each of the biblical research committees of the Seventh-day Adventist Church's 13 divisions were tasked with producing its own report. Some of the divisions did not have a biblical research committee, and so some committees were formed for this specific project. At this January's meeting of the full TOSC committee, which was held in Columbia, Maryland, on January 21st through the 25th, each of the divisional BRCs were given an hour to present its conclusions. Most did not need the full hour (although the North American Division did, and the Trans-European Division needed almost 90 minutes). The following is a summary of their reports.

1. The East Central-Africa Division (ECD)

This rapidly growing division is baptizing some 600 souls a day, and has a membership of over 2.7 million. Their report stated that Scripture is silent on female ordination, that Scripture presents headship/leadership as a male domain (1 Cor. 11:3; 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:12; Eph. 5:22-24; 1 Peter 3), that the work of advancing the redemptive mission is gender inclusive, and that there is no clear prophetic guidance from Ellen White. The ECD noted and rejected an argument that Adam and Eve were priests in the Garden of Eden. The ECD believes that until there is complete clarity about the authentic intent of Scripture, particularly those passages that seem to indicate male headship in the church, women should not be ordained. Speaking extemporaneously, Zacchaeus Mathema stated that female ordination should not be undertaken pursuant to demands for “fairness, justice, or human rights,” nor should it be done when there is “confusion about gender roles” as there is currently. 

2. The Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division (SID)

The Southern Africa-Indian Ocean BRC report was delivered by Joel Musosi, president of Solusi University. The division president, Paul Ratsara, also answered questions about the report.  Both male and female are created in the image of God, ontologically equal. Even though there is equality, there is also role differentiation that began before the Fall and continues even after sin. (Gen. 2:7; 1 Cor. 11:7-8; Eph. 5:22-31) Adam was given the leadership role, as is indicated by his primacy in the order of creation (Gen. 2:7, 22; 1 Cor. 11:12; 1 Tim. 2:13) and his prerogative in naming the animals and Eve (Gen. 2:19-23; PP 48). Male Spiritual leadership is indicated by the fact that ordained priests were always male (Ex. 28:41), that Jesus ordained no female disciples (Mark 3:13-19), and that there were no female elders in the apostolic church. The SID recommends against the ordination of female pastors, and also recommends that women no longer serve as local elders.

3. The South Pacific Division (SPD)

The South Pacific BRC report was delivered by Barry Oliver, president of the South Pacific Division. The SDA Church should employ “sanctified wisdom” to come to a conclusion on female ordination, argued Oliver, because Scripture is silent. The summary document cites no scripture, but cites six scholarly papers, by Ross Cole, Kyle de Waal, Darius Jankiewicz, Wendy Jackson, John Skrzypascek, and David Thiele. The BRC of the SPD “does not see any scriptural principle which would be an impediment to women being ordained.” 

4. The Inter-American Division (IAD)

The IAD was too closely divided on the issue to fairly issue a majority report. They issued instead a one paragraph summary of items that they did agree on. The bottom line is that the IAD is “willing to accept the ecclesiastical decision taken by the SDA Church in plenary session.”

5. The Northern Asia-Pacific Division (NSD)

The NSD believes that both Scripture and Ellen White “support women in ministry and leadership.” The NSD report includes no scriptural references, but cites 8 papers, by Richard Sabuin, Lee Jong-Keun, Kuk Hun Lee, B.H. Jang, Hong Pal Ha, William Lin, Samuel Chiu, and Sung-Ik Kim. The NSD recommends “that both men and women should be encouraged and recognized by the church through ordination to the pastoral ministry,” but that the implementation of this decision “be determined by each division, taking into consideration its impact on mission and unity within its territories.”

6. The North American Division (NAD)

Gordon Bietz delivers NAD report

Gordon Bietz delivers NAD report

The NAD BRC's report  was delivered by Gordon Bietz, president of Southern Adventist University and chair of the committee. (A different presentation, with video elements can be found at the NAD website, and the minority report can be found here ) The NAD BRC asserts that hermeneutics (methods of Bible study) are at the core of the issue; it unanimously acknowledged that the 1986 “Methods of Bible Study” paper, otherwise known as the “Rio Document,” provides parameters for Adventist Bible study. But whereas most Adventists had heretofore believed that the Rio Document limited our hermeneutic to the historical-grammatical method, the NAD believes that the Rio Document is flexible enough to include a second hermeneutic, which it calls the “the principle-based historical cultural” method.

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The NAD BRC argues that an overly literal approach to Scripture will lead to handling poisonous snakes, drinking poison, and speaking gibberish, and denies that there is a headship principle in Scripture. They argue that there was no sex role differentiation before the Fall, and that our church embraces a theology of restoration, and hence should not practice sex role differentiation now. They make much of anticipated practical difficulties of implementing a doctrine of male headship in the church. They argue that such texts as Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17, and Galatians 3:28 create a “trajectory of restoration” that creates “an openness for the twenty-first century Church” to ordain women.

The NAD BRC argues that an Adventist, “in thorough commitment to the full authority of Scripture, may build a defensible case in favor of or opposed to the ordination of women to the gospel ministry,” and hence the church should tolerate either view. They recommend that each division be authorized to formulate and implement “its most appropriate approach to the ordination of women to gospel ministry.”

7. The South American Division (SAD)

The SAD states that according to Genesis 1 and 2, man and woman were created in God's image, ontologically equal, but with different roles. This is indicated by the fact that the responsibility to tend and care for the Garden of Eden, and the prohibition on eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, were given to Adam prior to the creation of Eve. (Gen. 2:15-17) Adam was the head and leader of humankind, a position later occupied by Jesus as the Second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 4:15; 5:23; Col 1:13-20; 2:9-10).

Male spiritual leadership is evident in the Old and New Testaments, both in the family and in the congregation. The father is the head and priest of the family (Gen. 8:20; 12:8; 35:1-7; Job 1:5), a role handed down to firstborn sons (Gen. 25:31-34; 27:37; 48:13-20) and further typified in the Levitical priesthood (Ex. 28:1-29; Lev. 8:1-9). In the New Testament, the preeminence of male spiritual leadership is seen in the role of the husband at home (Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Cor. 11:3), in the leadership of the apostles, elders and deacons in the Church (Acts 6:1-6; 14:23; 15:6, 22; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 2:20; 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).

Male preeminence never meant the exclusion of women from ministry, however, and all are called to exercise spiritual gifts for the edifying of the body of Christ and the fulfillment of its mission. The SAD recommends that women should not be ordained to pastoral ministry, but that the church should investigate the possibility of ordaining women to other ministries. 

8. The Euro-Asia Division (ESD)

The ESD BRC reports that man and woman were created equal (Gen. 1:27) but different (Gen. 2:18). The sexual differences did not imply superiority of one sex over the other, but enabled them to complement each other. The Fall disturbed the original harmony, resulting in the husband becoming dominant and the wife subordinate. (Gen. 3:16) Nevertheless, there are several examples of women in leadership roles, including Miriam (Ex. 15:20-21), Deborah (Judges 4-5), Huldah (2 Kings 22:13-14; 2 Chron. 34:22-28), and others (Ex. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22, 2 Sam. 14:2-20, 20:14-22). But although we have these examples of women in leadership roles, Scripture gives no evidence that women were ordained, in contrast to such men as the Levites (Num. 8:10) or Joshua (Num. 27:18, 23; Deut. 34:9).

The New Testament repeatedly affirms the headship of the husband and the need for the wife to be submissive to her husband (1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11-12; Eph. 5:22; 1 Peter 3:1). Even so, we find women who served as teachers (Priscilla--Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:3) deaconesses (Phoebe--Rom. 16:1), and perhaps even apostles (Junia--Rom. 16:7). However, as in the Old Testament, there is mention of the ordination of men (the 7 deacons [Acts 6:6], Paul and Barnabas [Acts 13:3], Timothy [1 Tim. 4:14], the presbyters [Acts 14:23]), but never any mention of ordaining women.

In addition to the fact that Scripture provides no example of the ordination of a woman, female ordination would be problematic in the culture of the ESD. The people in this division are opposed to it, and its approval by the world church would strain church unity, contrary to the counsel of Eph. 4:1-3. Thus, the ESD discourages the practice of ordination of women to pastoral ministry. 

9. The Inter-European Division (EUD)

The EUD's report seems to be based largely on SDA Church practice. The Adventist Church has ordained deacons, deaconesses, male and female elders, and male pastors. Historically, the SDA Church has not understood biblical texts as prohibiting women to speak, preach, and teach in public. The responsibilities of an ordained pastor have been defined based upon practical needs, not solely on biblical prescriptions. Since there are no texts directly on point, the question of whether women should now be ordained as pastors may be answered by reference to texts which indirectly apply, such as that men and women were created equal, and in the beginning had equal worth, dignity, and stewardship responsibilities.

There is no direct line from the OT priesthood to the role of pastor in the Church. There is a contradiction between texts that support the public speaking and teaching of women and those that seem to prohibit it. There is no biblical distinction between authoritative and non-authoritative teaching, and hence that distinction will not solve the issue of female ordination. In the Bible there is no public induction ceremony that involved females, and yet women functioned as teachers, deaconesses, prophetesses, and leaders. Ordination should be considered an administrative issue, not a doctrinal or biblical one. We think there is room for the church to ordain women for pastoral ministry.

10. The Southern Asia-Pacific Division (SSD)

The BRC of the Southern Asia Pacific Division studied a number of papers presented to the July TOSC, including 5 in favor of female ordination and 5 opposed. Then the committee took a vote on a series of questions, e.g., Does the Biblical Concept of Gender Relations support Women's Ordination? Does the role of Women in the New Testament support Women's Ordination into the Gospel Ministry? Etc. According to its report all of these questions were answered in the negative by a substantial majority, meaning that a majority felt that the Bible does not support women being ordained to gospel ministry. Yet the SSD offered no strong conclusions. The SSD committee stated that it would “follow the voice of the Spirit and the world church upon its voted decision in July 2015 at the GC session.”

11. The Trans-European Division (TED)

With 84,000 members, the TED is by far the smallest division in the church. The TED BRC report was delivered by divisional president Bertil Wiklander. There is no biblical passage that teaches an intrinsic gender-based male headship and female submission applicable to leadership roles at all times—the few passages that have been adduced to the contrary concern the ancient human customs of honor/shame related to husband and wife in marriage or specific issues of unity and order in the context of early Christian congregations, primarily being based on the widely accepted practice of patriarchy. Patriarchy is a human custom, not a divine order, but it needed to be respected in the social setting of early Christianity, in order to fulfill the common expectations of decency so that the gospel would be accepted by outsiders. Today, as we apply the same principle in contemporary egalitarian societies, the trustworthiness of the gospel is lost if the ministry fails to be gender-inclusive.

The TED engages in a radical debunking of the concept of ordination, arguing that it is a pagan Roman custom adopted by the Catholic Church, that made its way—through the Anglican and Methodist churches and even the Christian Connexion—into Seventh-day Adventism. The TED recommends: 1) focusing on mission, 2) removing distance between clergy and laity, and all layers of ordination, 3) adopting a gender-inclusive ministry, 4) allowing female ordination to be decided at the union level, 5) carefully consider, and perhaps jettison, the use of the terms “ordain” and “ordination,” and 6) remove the ritualistic and consecrational flavor of ordination, jettisoning the ritual of laying on of hands.

12. The Southern Asia Division (SUD)

The SUD BRC's report was delivered by Gordon Christo, divisional president. The committee was about equally weighted with scholars and administrators. Generally speaking, the majority of the scholars saw no problem with ordaining women, but the administrators on the committee saw serious problems with ordaining women and felt it would be poorly received in their division. The administrators felt that Indian culture was not ready for women to serve as ministers, although some Christian denominations in India have ordained women, and there have been female political leaders such as Indira Ghandi and others.

The SUD felt that 1) there was no clear command in Scripture or in the Spirit of Prophecy to ordain or to not ordain women, 2) In the absence of such clear instruction, the Church has authority, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, to make a decision about it, 3) The SUD does not object to women being ordained in other divisions of the SDA Church, and 4) the membership of the SUD is not ready to accept the ordination of women into the gospel ministry. The executive committee of the SUD refused to “endorse” these conclusions of its BRC, but stated that it would accept the decision of the General Conference in session.

13. The West-Central Africa Division (WAD)

This rapidly growing division has recently established four new unions. In their summary report they affirm the role of women and lay people, which has been crucial to the explosive growth of the Division, but affirm the headship principles.

In Gen. 1-3, man and woman were created equal in the image of God, with some common and some dissimilar functions. There is clear indication of headship of man over woman. In 1 Tim. 2 and 1 Cor 11 and 14, Paul affirms the headship principle and roots it in the creation narrative. The WAD accepts the priesthood of the believer and believes that spiritual gifts are given to all believers, irrespective of gender or class. Ellen White taught that women should be involved in full time ministry, but never approved of the ordination of women to pastoral ministry. We should be mindful of the possible adverse consequences of ordaining women to gospel ministry, in light of the history of the denominations that have done so. In addition to the summary report, the WAD includes a nine page paper that examines some of the relevant passages; it generally reaches conclusions indicating that women should not be ordained.

Some Concluding Thoughts

The faction promoting female ordination wants the issue decided on a division by division, or even union by union, basis. They argue that when a division states that it will honor the world church's decision, it amounts to tacit acceptance of this local approach. On the other hand, there is an implicit threat that a decision to deny female ordination world-wide will lead to a schism in the church. The path to unity, they argue, is to have a fractured, non-uniform position on the issue.

But this must not be approached as a political issue, with the goal of achieving compromise. Scripture must be the rule of faith and practice. Questions of hermeneutics must be answered by accepted practice and inspired counsel; this is no time for result-oriented hermeneutical innovation. There is enough biblical light on this topic that the SDA Church should be able to reach a conclusion based upon Scripture as to whether to ordain women to gospel ministry. It will not suffice to demur that this is an administrative issue. It is a doctrinal issue and should be understood as such.

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