Perhaps the most significant development of the fourth and final meeting of the General Conference Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) was the development, by a recently-formed group within the Committee, of a “third way” or “moderate option” in addressing the ordination controversy in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The paper they presented was entitled, “Seeking a Biblical and Workable Solution to the Women in Ministry Dilemma.” Its authors seem sincerely desirous of fostering both Biblical faithfulness and unity of purpose within the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist body. Yet their proposed solution, however well-meaning, is egregiously flawed and would court disaster if adopted.
The paper begins with a false premise that, “Despite using similar hermeneutical methods, and appealing to Scripture rather than human cultural norms, members of the Committee have reached widely divergent conclusions.” In fact, the two camps approach the Bible very differently. One views Scripture as self-interpreting and transcendent over culture and human experience, while the other openly declares Scripture to contain “contamination” and “human baggage,”1 and to have been “culturally and historically conditioned.”2 Indeed, when one considers the widely varied theological leanings and public pronouncements of those on the committee, it is presumptuous to assume that there is anything close to a consensus, not only on Bible study methods but on any number of moral and doctrinal issues in contemporary Adventism.
The paper acknowledges that male leadership in both the home and the church is God’s ideal (pp. 3-4) but balks at using the term “headship,” claiming that “it would go against our Protestant, biblical heritage . . . to identify any merely human figure as playing a headship role in the church.” Yet Scripture declares of the family that, “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is also head of the church” (Eph. 5:23), and in the context of the family of faith, the church, “I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.” (I Cor. 11:3) Headship language is scriptural, and should not be abandoned out of timorousness or deference to those who revile not only the language but the concept itself.
The Core Argument
The paper's core device is the distinction it draws between “divine moral commands” and “divine ideals” (p. 4). Divine moral commands—the Ten Commandments, the pillar doctrines of Christianity and the pillar doctrines of Adventism—are never negotiable (pp. 4,17). But because divine ideals are not always attainable, due to human obstinacy and cultural variations, God is constrained at times, so the argument goes, to allow His people to veer from these ideals under certain circumstances. The authors are persuaded that Adventism's current circumstances occasion a permissible variation from the ideal of male leadership in the church.
The authors point to a number of incidents in sacred history where, they claim, a variation from the divine ideal was permitted. One of the examples cited—the acceptance of Ruth the Moabitess into the Israelite community despite the Levitical prohibition of such acceptance for ten generations (Deut. 23:3) (pp. 10-11)—is invalidated by the fact that the time period from Moses to Ruth encompasses precisely the number of generations stated in the aforementioned Levitical statute.3 If we follow the chronology of First Kings 6:1 from the Exodus to the building of Solomon’s Temple, together with the lineage of David through Boaz and Ruth (Ruth 4:17-22), the generational time frame noted above becomes clear. Ruth’s acceptance into the covenant community did not, therefore, contradict even the letter of the Mosaic requirement, so no variation from the ideal was necessary in this instance.
A number of other exceptions to God’s rules in various lines are listed:
God’s acceptance of Israel’s demand for a king;
the change in the inheritance laws involving the daughters of Zelophehad;
David’s eating of the sacred showbread;
the Jerusalem Council and the removal of the circumcision requirement for Gentiles; and
Ellen White’s flexibility on the best age for children to start school.
Adaptations such as the above, it is argued, are permitted when: 1) God Himself endorses the adaptation, and 2) A biblical prophet confirms it, or 3) The community of believers—the church—agrees upon this variation from the ideal (p. 4). In none of the cases cited, however, does the community of believers grant itself a variance without direct, prophetic, supernatural revelation from God. In each of the above situations, inspired messengers and direct divine intervention were involved in affirming what God did and did not allow. No such direct divine intervention or inspiration is presently instructing Seventh-day Adventists that the ideal of male leadership in the church may be waived on a local or regional basis.
Israel's Demand for a King
Regarding the analogy between the gender role controversy in Adventism and Israel’s demand for a king, two points deserve consideration. First, the paper argues that Israel's desire for a king was the key to God's decision to allow them to have one, and, indeed, Scripture tells us that “all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together and came to Samuel” (I Sam. 8:4) to ask that a king be appointed. There was not only a clear consensus, but apparent unanimity among the elders of Israel in wanting a king. This raises the question: Is there a consensus among God’s present-day people in favor of gender-neutral ordination in the church? The Seventh-day Adventist Church in General Conference session has twice answered this question in the negative, and overwhelmingly so. To the extent there is consensus, it is that women should not be ordained. And when two Union Conferences recently took it upon themselves to ordain women anyway, in defiance of General Conference policy,4 lay reaction was mixed and often hostile, showing that female ordination is not the burden of the average Adventist layperson, but rather the passion of a small, albeit influential and very vocal, group within the church.
Second, who can deny the disastrous results of Israel's demand for an earthly monarchy? Within three generations, the kingdom had split, leading to the introduction of unscriptural ritual practices in the Northern Kingdom—although, perhaps Jeroboam believed he was entitled to “a careful and limited modification of God's organizational, ritual, or ecclesiastical ideals” (p. 17)? The ritual apostasy led eventually to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the disappearance of the ten tribes from Bible history. Even Judah's faithfulness was tied to a monarch's inclinations, and these men often led the nation astray. Why would God’s end-time people consider, even for a moment, following a precedent that wrought such devastation in Israel? The very idea of comparing the acceptance of women’s ordination to such a ruinous past decision by God’s people calls into question the basic seriousness of this “third way” proposal.
The Jerusalem Council
The authors rightly acknowledge that circumcision and ordination are very different issues, that circumcision was an “ethnic marker” which came after the entrance of sin, while “leadership and gender roles go back to Eden” (pp. 14-15). They fail to recognize, however, that this very difference disallows the comparison they draw. The now-obsolete ceremonial law, of which circumcision was a part, cannot be compared to the universal Biblical principle of male headship, with its origin in a sinless world. (I Tim. 2:12-13) From the ancient patriarchs to the Levitical priests, on to the New Testament apostles, headship roles in the worship and governance of the faith community have been consistently reserved for men. No woman ever offered a sacrifice or was ever anointed by God for an administrative post, in either the Old or the New Testament.
The paper insists that the Jerusalem Council decision “did not require uniformity of action on the part of Jew and Gentile” (p. 15). This may be true regarding the individual decision whether or not to be circumcised. But that was not the issue at the Jerusalem Council. Rather, the issue was whether to REQUIRE Gentiles to be circumcised. That decision was most certainly not regional or local but universal in its application: no Gentiles anywhere could be required to be circumcised. By contrast, what is being proposed would make the decision regarding gender role distinctions in ministry a local and regional one, not a universal one. Such a decision would not bring about the unity which the Jerusalem Council decision brought, or which the authors of this "third way" seek. It would bring chaos and divisiveness, because the two perspectives regarding ordination of this arise from two very different perspectives regarding Biblical authority and interpretation. To allow each Union or world Division to decide on pastoral ordination would codify the co-existence of contending, conflicting approaches to the inspired writings, which would lead to increased confusion and disunity regarding an ever-widening cluster of issues among us.
The authors of this “third way” insist their approach “would leave our theology uncompromised” (p. 19), and that theirs is “not a call to compromise biblical beliefs” (p. 20). We do not doubt their good intentions, any more than the world could doubt the sincere intentions of the gray-haired, goodhearted statesman who returned from Munich to London waving a piece of paper over his head and announcing “peace in our time.” But the fruitage and toxic logic of the present campaign for identical gender roles in ministry is plain for all to observe, if they will but consider the evidence. The subjection of the Bible in a growing number of minds to cultural norms of “inclusion” and “acceptance” is already eroding in dramatic ways the imperatives of Scripture and its moral commands. The current crusade for women’s ordination has already included in its arguments a perspective on Biblical authority which subordinates it to cultural and human mediation. Little will be required to take this culturally-driven hermeneutic further afield to new vistas of intellectual and moral experimentation. It is happening already. Recent statements by the Netherlands Union offer a glimpse into the perverse course others will follow in the not-so-distant future, unless church leaders demand accountability. Especially would such deviance be likely if each Union or Division were granted the right to adjudicate the ordination question.
The authors of the paper indulge a dangerous illusion when they imagine that under the principle they propose for adoption by the church, “no organizational unit or employee should be required either to support or to promote ordained female pastoral leadership should they conscientiously object to it” (p. 19). Anyone who has witnessed the behavior and intolerance of the pro-women’s ordination forces in those settings where they wield power, can attest to the foolishness of believing any such liberty would ever be allowed under the circumstances described. Even in current circumstances, with the world church having voted twice against the practice, academics and pastors and administrations favoring women’s ordination commonly portray those differing from their perspective as backward and bigoted, promoting an injustice akin to slavery.
Should local territories be granted supreme power to decide this matter, we can be sure this drumbeat will grow louder, and any notion of tolerance for those believing in distinct gender roles in ministry will rapidly be lost. In this connection, I will disclose that I was recently denied permission to address a student audience on one of our prominent University campuses because it was said that my stand on women’s ordination made me “unfit” to occupy any platform on the campus in question. It is hard to imagine that denials of similar invitations would not quickly become general policy in certain regions if this issue were localized in the fashion envisioned by this paper.
Departing from the Ideal
The notion that we can excuse departure from God’s ideal in anything raises disturbing questions. What has happened in modern and postmodern Adventism that has made ideals optional? Could it be a salvation theology that has falsely depicted these Biblical ideals as unattainable, teaching the pernicious doctrine that total victory over sin is impossible—even through God’s power—this side of heaven? At a time when our General Conference President is urging revival and reformation in the church, what spirit could possibly be at work in seeking to lower the sights of God’s people on such an important issue as gender roles, now fiercely under attack in our society? This is no way to hasten the return of Jesus, or to be found “without spot and blameless” (II Peter 3:14) when He appears in the clouds of glory.
In sharp contrast to the summons of the ancient prophet, this “third way” position is a call for God’s people to continue “halting between two opinions.” (I Kings 8:21) Theological proposals cannot be crafted on the basis of what we think will please as many and offend as few as possible. It is too late in the saga of history for such vacillation. Such a course would be nothing short of ruinous for God’s end-time remnant. We had best revert to Elijah’s clarion call: “If the Lord be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
In closing, let us consider again the following words from the pen of the modern prophet:
“We cannot purchase peace and unity by sacrificing the truth. The conflict may be long and painful, but at any cost we must hold fast to the Word of God.”5 Speaking of the early Christians who refused to compromise with the great apostasy, she writes:
To secure peace and unity they were ready to make any concession consistent with fidelity to God; but they felt that even peace would be too dearly purchased at the sacrifice of principle. If unity could be secured only by the compromise of truth and righteousness, then let there be difference, and even war.6
- Jan Barna, “Ordination of Women and the Two Ways to Unity: Ecclesiastical and Biblical,” (presented to the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, Nov. 21, 2013, p. 4).
- Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report (Seventh-day Adventist Church: North American Division, 2013), p. 28.
- Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Receiving the Word: How New Approaches to the Bible Affect Our Biblical Faith and Lifestyle (Berrien Springs, MI: Berean Books, 1996), p. 285.
- See General Conference Working Policy, 2013-2014 edition, p. 113.
- Ellen G. White, Historical Sketches, p. 197.
- Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 45.