They are for war: ordination and unnecessary conflict

My old (and current) friend Kevin Paulson has written a critique of the moderate position proposed at the recent Theology of Ordination Study Committee meetings in Baltimore, Maryland.  As one of the co-authors of that position, I would like to respond to certain misconceptions regarding this third position.

In a nutshell, the moderate position accepts that the Bible reveals an organizational ideal for male leadership in the church.  It also recognizes, however, that the Bible indicates that this kind of organizational ideal is one that can be modified and adapted in certain circumstances, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to further the salvational mission and purpose of the Church. (1)

Rather than a mere compromise position to save the unity of the church, as Kevin suggests, we are convicted that the moderate position is founded on important and central scriptural principles.  This point has been obscured by a number of incorrect points made in Kevin’s piece and, while not intentionally misleading in my view, they do require a response.

The Spirit of the Discussion

The moderate group has formed in part because of what it believes to be an overwrought and antagonistic spirit demonstrated at times by some of those on the more extreme conservative side of this discussion.  To illustrate, Kevin ends his article with a stirring quote from The Great Controversy that insists rather than compromise the truth, “let there be difference, and even war.”

But the context of this quote is all important.  The disagreement and schism that Ellen White approves in that quote is that based on opposition to the rise of priestly intercession, the outright denial of Scripture, and the terming of religious liberty as a heresy, all teachings that go to the heart of the gospel. (2)  To brandish this quote in the current context is to equate the pro-ordination group with the extremes of papal sacerdotalism, scriptural denial, and persecution as found in the worst excesses of the medieval church.

Kevin later outdoes even this hyperbolic comparison when he compares the moderate leaders to the “gray-haired, goodhearted” British statesman returning from Munich, a clear reference to the efforts of British Prime-Minister Neville Chamberlain to appease Hitler prior to World War II.  I have had worse insults than being compared to an ineffective British Prime Minister.  The analogy becomes truly troubling, however, when one asks whom the moderate group is seeking to compromise with?  Who are represented by Hitler and the Nazis in this comparison?  Again, the pro-ordination group would seem to be the obvious application.

We have differences of biblical interpretation with the pro-ordination group, but I bristle against equating them with the false teachings and persecutions of the medieval papacy and the evils of the 20th century Nazis.  Surely this is going far too far.  This kind of demonizing of our opposition can only end badly—in disaffection, disunion, and even schism.  I have grown to appreciate in a very personal way the Psalm of David, where he complains not about his enemies, but his friends and associates who are too quick to seek adversity and war:

Woe is me, for I sojourn in Meschech,
For I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long has my soul had its dwelling
With those who hate peace.
I am for peace, but when I speak,
They are for war . . . .”  Ps. 120 (NASS)

Warring over Non-Essentials

While it is a mistake to compromise on essential truth, it is equally a mistake to go to war over non-essentials or secondary truths.  A more appropriate Spirit of Prophecy quote for the current discussion, in my view, would be the following: 

The special, deceptive work of Satan has been to provoke controversies, that there might be strivings about words to no profit. He well knows that this will occupy the mind and the time. It raises the combativeness and quenches the spirit of conviction in the minds of many, drawing them into diversity of opinions, accusation, and prejudice, which closes the door to the truth. (3)

The reference to “strivings about words to no profit” takes on special meaning when you consider that the difference between “ordained” and “commissioned” ministers in North America is truly a distinction without a meaningful difference, at least at the pastoral level. (4)  So the diversity that the conservatives are so fiercely fighting against actually already actually exists in our midst.  Their predictions of disunity, disaster, and ruin “for God’s end-time remnant” simply have not occurred. (5)

But should such schism occur, it will be the anti-camp that must live with much of the blame.  The two other groups in this discussion are willing to live and fellowship, within certain guidelines, with differences on this issue.  The question that the anti group faces is whether the issue of gender and leadership is critical enough to justify war and even schism.  There are three misconceptions in Kevin’s piece that, once clarified, should lead most biblically conservative thinkers to see wisdom in the moderate position.

Conservative Hermeneutics on All Sides

Probably my biggest disagreement with Kevin is over his claim that one side views Scripture as “transcendent over culture and human experience,” and the other side views it as contaminated with “human baggage” and “culturally and historically conditioned.”  In support of the claim that the pro camp is biblically compromised, he cites two documents.  One is by a European theologian whose cited paper was not actually presented at the TOSC meetings, but was given at a separate theological conference in another forum. 

The other is the Study Report of the North American Division, which while given in summary form to TOSC, was not prepared by or on behalf of the TOSC members.  The one quote Kevin takes from this latter paper was that the Bible is “culturally and historically conditioned,” a statement that is impossible to deny for anyone who has thought meaningfully about the issue.  To ignore this point would cause us to embrace any number of outdated institutions, including slavery, polygamy, and perhaps a little less worryingly, holy kisses and hats for women in church.  Neither Kevin nor his allies on TOSC insist on these things. The real question is whether the cultural and historical influences found in the Bible obscure or negate the central divine message. 

Almost all members of the TOSC group, in my opinion, would resoundingly reject the view that the divine message of the Bible is in any way obscured by its cultural packaging. Now, I am not a Pollyanna on the state of hermeneutics in our Western church.  I do know that there is a vocal minority in certain urban and educational centers that desire to push the church leftward into the swamps of biblical higher criticism.  They would seek to do away with all gender roles in church and society, and would go as far as to embrace gay marriage and behavior.  

I have personally engaged with, critiqued, and opposed, these liberal positions in many published and unpublished writings, and continue to do so.  I am frequently pilloried on the Spectrum website for my efforts in defending traditional Adventist teaching. So I think I have earned the right to say this: those in the pro-camp who represent this extreme, culture-embracing, Scripture-relativizing hermeneutic were conspicuous by their absence from our TOSC meetings.  One could count on the fingers of one hand those at our meetings that would support a troubling or liberal approach to Scripture. 

Almost all the papers, presentations, or major speeches, given by the pro-camp were by those whose conservative hermeneutical approaches to Scripture cannot be meaningfully questioned.  These include many who have provided leadership in the conservative Adventist Theological Society, such as Richard Davidson, (Seminary Professor of Old Testament) Jiri Moskala (who is also currently Dean at the Seminary), and Stephen Bauer (Professor of Theology from Southern), or those that have served at the Biblical Research Institute, including Deputy Director Ekkerhardt Mueller, and former director Angel Rodriguez. 

Other prominent voices from the pro-camp included stalwart Adventist conservatives also known for their defense of creationism, biblical sexual standards, and the Spirit of Prophecy, including Dwight Nelson (pastor at Pioneer Memorial Church), Cindy Tutsch (Former Associate Director at the White Estate), and Esther Knott (former PMC pastor and current NAD Associate Ministerial Director).

Now, I am not suggesting we should choose our understanding of truth based on the credentials and reputation of those taking a side in a particular dispute.  But we must not make broad-based claims about the biblical views of those holding to a certain position without finding out who actually holds the position, and what their underlying biblical views really are.  I can tell you from personal experience and knowledge that those names I have listed above, and many others like them, have profound commitments to the authority of Scripture and accept its teachings as transcending time, space, and culture. 

I may differ with this group in my understanding of a particular text or two.  But our disagreements are simply not sufficient to break fellowship, or to allow me to dismiss the valuable leadership this group gives to our church. Ellen White’s comment is particularly appropriate here, where she says:  “One man blunders in his interpretation of some portion of the Scripture, but shall this cause diversity and disunion? God forbid. We cannot then take a position that the unity of the church consists in viewing every text of Scripture in the very same shade of light.” (6)

And who is to say that it is not I, or Kevin, that are blundering in our understanding of some of the key texts?  We will only know the other side of eternity.  Whatever the case may be, it is worth considering that in my view a number of persons in the pro-camp have a more conservative hermeneutical approach than either Kevin Paulson or I hold!  It is simply unsustainable as a factual, historical matter to insist that the ordination debate divides neatly along the lines of those that hold to the authority of Scripture and those that do not.

Heads and Headship

A second misstatement regarding the moderate group is that it does not accept male headship as existing in the home.  This is simply not true.   We prefer to use the biblical word “head,” rather than “headship,” but we do not see a difference between the two. When there is controversy around a phrase, it can often be wise to recur to actual scriptural language.  In a number of places, the Bible refers to the man as being the “head” or “lord” of his family relationships.  (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23; 1 Pet. 3:5-6.)  We refer to the loving, self-sacrificing, service leadership husbands should play as spiritual “heads” in their own homes in both our main paper and the single-page way forward statement.

What we do dispute is that the Bible teaches that this male headship extends to the church.  Rather, we believe that male leadership is preferred, at least in the office of ordained minister.  While the distinction between male leadership and male headship may seem a subtle point, it is an important one that we believe Christ Himself made.  Christ is the only person ever identified by the Bible as head of or in the church. (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18).  Human leadership in the church is provided for, in the offices of apostle, elder, and deacon.  But these positions are never described as “headship” or “head” positions in a similar manner to either the role of Christ in the church or the role of the husband in the family.

To the contrary, Christ insisted in the context of spiritual matters that we should “call no man father” (Matt. 23:9).  We believe that this was intended to prevent a human, paternal headship in the church.  The father’s role of general and paternal oversight for the members of the family, requiring people to come to worship, invoking discipline for civil, moral, and spiritual matters, is not to be copied by church leaders, who are to operate on a more limited, representative, consensus-building model. 

This is a crucially important point for Protestants.  It was the failure to make this distinction between leadership and headship that led in good part to the rise of a hierarchical, over-weaning paternal church authority that resulted in the ultimate earthly spiritual father—the papa, or Pope.  Indeed, it is this point that as much as any other that led to the formation of the third way group, as we felt the con-camp was flirting with a theological precipice in not making clear the vitally important distinction between leadership and headship.

David the Moabite

The third point that Kevin does not get right is the claim that there was no controversy over David’s Moabite ancestry.  There are a number of assumptions in Kevin’s argument, including that the prohibition in Deuteronomy was limited to simply ten generations, rather than the more expansive “ten generations . . . forever” as the text says.  (Deut. 23:3)  This could mean that the ten generations was merely meant as a synonym for “forever.”  Or it could mean that any intermarriage with a Moabite must be diluted with ten generations of pure marriages, whenever that first marriage started.  Even under Kevin’s more narrow reading of the ten generations running from the time of the Exodus, the wedding of Ruth and Boaz occurs only six generations after the time of the Exodus.  David was only three generations removed from the marriage with a Moabite.  (Compare Ruth 4:17-20 with Luke 3:31-33 and Num. 26:19-22.)

Whatever the answer to this genealogical puzzle, we know as a historical fact that questions were raised in the Israelite community about David’s fitness for the throne because of his Moabite ancestry.  Most commentaries on Ruth recognize the significance of the book in dealing with questions about the legitimacy of David’s ancestry.  Commentaries also reveal that both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jewish Midrash record arguments raised against the Davidic kingship based on his Moabite ancestry and the prohibition in Deuteronomy. (7)

But that we are even having this discussion about David’s Moabite ancestry shows that all sides agree that God does allow the alteration of his organizational ideals.  This happens both in response to various circumstances, including the cultural circumstances and even desires of his people.  The argument over David’s genealogy only matters because God allowed the variation from his ideal to accept the kingship in the first place.  The story of a king in Israel is a somewhat negative example of variation from an organizational ideal, as it resulted in many difficult experiences for Israel.  But even here, the king became the template and type of the Messiah king, whose reign will know no end.  

Modifying Divine Organizational Ideals – Biblical Precedents

But there are other examples of variation of the ideal that God implicitly or even explicitly approved of.  These would include Deborah’s leadership in Israel as a prophet and judge, the changing of the laws of inheritance at the request of the daughters of Zelophahad, and the eating of the priest’s showbread by David on the run from Saul.  Christ himself acknowledged that this latter departure from the law was an appropriate act, and He used it himself to justify his disciples eating grain on the Sabbath.  (Mat. 12:3-4; Mk. 2:25-26; Lk. 6:3-4)

We believe that the Biblical examples we discuss in our main paper collectively show that any decision to adapt the divine organizational or ecclesiastical norms ought not to be taken individually, unilaterally or rashly. Rather, the church should engage in such application and adaptation collectively, carefully and deliberately, guided by those who have been duly appointed to exercise servant-leadership of God’s people. While none of the stories we discuss would on their own justify a modification of the qualifications for elder, we believe that the collective principles embodied in them support such an outcome.

Implementing Variations Today

Again, the moderate group emphasizes that the above reasoning does not apply to universal moral commands or eternal gospel truths. None of the examples set out above, whether the king in Israel, or inheritance laws, or Deborah and Barak, or David and the showbread, or the Jerusalem Council, involved adapting God’s universal moral laws, whether it be the ten commandments or prohibitions against sexual immorality, such as adultery or homosexuality. Careful and limited modifications of God’s organizational, ritual, or ecclesiastical ideals create no precedent for any attempt to adapt God’s moral absolutes. 

But God’s organizational ideals are somewhat different. They should not be lightly or cavalierly disregarded. But neither should they be allowed to hinder the mission of God’s Church.  Who are we to decide for our brothers and sisters throughout the world church what their leadership needs and circumstances are, and how best they might apply the biblical model of church order and leadership to their communities?  We should safeguard the church’s understanding of the scriptural ideal, but then we should allow liberty for that ideal to applied and adapted locally, trusting our brothers and sisters to do so in good faith. 

We may not always agree as to how they apply or adapt the ideal.  But Paul describes the appropriate attitude of believers as “submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.”  (Ephs. 5:21).  Submission only has meaning when parties disagree on something; full agreement means submission is not necessary.  On this side of eternity, where full agreement is impossible, submission and forebearance of the differing views of our brothers and sisters is essential.  “The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and thus root out disagreement.  These resolutions may conceal the discord but they cannot quench it . . .   Nothing can perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christlike forebearance.” (8)

Christlike forebearance—a theme for profound contemplation.  In addition, it is also the basis of religious liberty within the church.  That is, this forebearance is the foundation for allowing differences on those matters that are disputable and that relate to secondary matters of church order and organization.  Let us put aside the combativeness found in the tents of Kedar—among the aggressive sons of Ishmael, who are “constantly for war.”  Rather, let the old Protestant watchword be our guide to maintaining fellowship in diversity:  “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things—charity.”

Nicholas Miller is a tenured professor of church history at the Adventist Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.  Dr. Miller has degrees in theology, law, and Church History, and served as a delegate to the General Conference Theology of Ordination Committee, where he was commissioned to present two papers on the history and theology of ordination.  He blogs at, where his lectures on ordination and other topics of church history can also be obtained.


  1. We invite you to judge the biblical basis of our position for yourselves by reading our position paper submitted to the TOSC, found here  Also, for deeper background, you can read the broader theology underlying the moderate position set out in the Seminary Minority Report on Women’s Ordination, found here.
  2. Great Controversy, 44-45.
  3. RH, Sept 11, 1888. (Ev 155).  {2MCP 498.1}
  4. The commissioned minister is not supposed to organize churches or lead out in ordination ceremonies, though it is apparent that at least the latter is already happening.  The real distinction at this point is that only ordained ministers can hold the position of President, at least at the conference level, and by implication also at Union, Division, and General Conference levels.
  5. Paulson, “Halting Between Two Opinions,” Advindicate, June 12, 2014.
  6. Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, M.: Ellen G. White, 1993)m vol. 15, p. 149.
  7. That the purpose of the book of Ruth is to “promote the interests of David and his dynasty” is the position of a “large consensus” of modern interpreters: Robert Hubbard, The Book of Ruth in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1988), 37. Further, a number of these have seen the central focus of the book as dealing with and making acceptable the identity of Ruth as a Moabite: see ibid., 40-42; Murray Gow, The Book of Ruth: Its Structure, Theme, and Purpose (Leicester, UK: Appollos, 1992), 132-36 (Gow notes that both the Babylonian Talmud and the Midrash on Ruth reference ancient arguments made against David’s legitimacy based on his Moabite ancestry); Kirsten Nielsen, Ruth: A Commentary (London, UK: SCM Press Ltd, 1997), 23-28.
  8. Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, M.: Ellen G. White, 1993)m vol. 15, p. 150.

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