Is God's model of church organization optional?

The final meeting of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee saw the emergence of a “third way” caucus. This group acknowledges that Scripture sets forth a “model,” “pattern” or “ideal” of male leadership in the church, but feels that because male leadership relates to organization, it can be waived or altered by local constituencies of the church. Male leadership in the church, they argue, is among those ideals that: 

“deal with ritual, ceremonial, organizational, or legal practices and precepts, whose intention is to bring order to the community of believers, safeguard the identity of God’s people, and enhance the Church’s mission. Such ideals are important, but because they have an ecclesiological function and a missional purpose, the Bible indicates that they can in certain circumstances be modified and adapted.”

Is this true? Are God's ritual, ceremonial, organizational, or legal practices and precepts less binding than “God’s absolute moral commands and eternal truths”? A brief tour through the Scriptures will show that God makes no distinction between ritual, ceremonial, and organizational practices and precepts, on the one hand, and moral commands and eternal truths, on the other.

I.    Cain and Abel

Although God had specified the sacrifice of a lamb, Cain reasoned that because he was gardener, he should be allowed to offer something from his garden, just as Abel could offer something from his flock. Despite the apparent reasonableness of his substituted offering, God rejected it. Cain took out his anger at the Lord's rejection of his offering on his brother Abel, committing the first murder (Gen. 4:1-10). The issue was correct ritual, ceremony, and worship: Abel brought the offering that God had specified, but Cain thought a reasonable substitution should be allowed. Cain's decision to “modify or adapt” God's command to his circumstances did not end well.

II.    Judah and Tamar

Genesis 38 relates a story involving the rule that if a young man died leaving a young widow, his brother was to marry the woman and father a child who would be counted as his brother's, thus perpetuating his brother's line. This was known as the rule of Levirate marriage, certainly a “ritual, ceremonial, organizational or legal practice.” Judah had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah, the oldest of whom married Tamar. But Er “was a wicked man in the sight of the Lord”--the narrative does not describe the nature of his wickedness-- “and the Lord took his life.” Judah's second son, Onan, then married Tamar, but Onan refused to father a child with her, instead spilling his seed on the ground (which is why coitus interruptus and masturbation are sometimes referred to as “Onanism”). For his refusal to honor the rule of Levirate marriage, the Lord killed Onan. 

Upon Onan's death, Judah's third son, Shelah, was too young to do his duty by Tamar, so she was told to wait until he grew up. But Judah had already lost two sons who had been married to Tamar, and he was not about to risk the life of his remaining son. (And, frankly, I sympathize with him.) Years later, Tamar realized that Judah had no intention of marrying her to Shelah, who was by then a full grown man. So in desperation she played the prostitute and transacted business with Judah himself. In that culture, just as the libretto of an opera buffa would have it, prostitutes wore veils, so even as he knew Tamar, Judah did not recognize her. She became pregnant and was on the verge of being put to death when she proved that Judah had fathered her child (which turned out to be twins). “She is more righteous than I,” acknowledged Judah (Gen. 38:26).

Judah chose to “modify or adapt” the ceremonial rule of Levirate marriage so as to substitute only one brother instead of as many brothers, seriatim, as were both extant and necessary, which is what the rule called for (See, Mat. 22:23-28). Tamar's temporary resort to prostitution transgressed, even subverted, the rule of sex only within marriage, but Scripture says she was more righteous than he. Judah's failure to adhere to the exact letter of a ceremonial provision was more serious than Tamar's subversion of a moral law of general applicability.

III.    Ceremonial Infractions Punished Severely

At the first Passover, correctly slaughtering the sacrifice and placing the blood on the lintel and doorposts—correct ritual—was the difference between life and death for the firstborn sons (Ex. 12). In the laws given to Israel, laws relating to religion and proper ritual are mixed in with laws relating to property, sexual morality, and social responsibility, without distinction (Ex. 22:18, 20, 28, 31; 23:10-19).

For offering unauthorized fire in their incense censers—seemingly a very minor ritual violation—the death sentence was executed on Nadab and Abihu. For going into the tabernacle after drinking alcohol, the sentence was death (Lev. 10:9). Moses was denied entrance to the Promised Land for having struck the rock to obtain water, rather than speaking to it (Num. 20:1-13), even though on a previous comparable occasion he had been commanded to strike the rock (Ex. 17:6). This seemingly minor deviation from the specified ritual was sufficient to keep Moses, the greatest of all prophets (Deut. 34:10), out of the long-sought promised land.

IV.    The Rebellion of Korah

Perhaps the most relevant Old Testament history, as Stephen Bohr has pointed out, is the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. They and 250 of the leading men of Israel argued that “the whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them,” (Num. 16:3) hence the priesthood should not be restricted to just Aaron and his sons (Num. 16:10). Clearly, who may serve as a priest is the essence of ceremonial or ritual law—not a moral or Ten Commandment issue—and it would certainly seem that God's restriction of the priesthood to Aaron and his descendants was arbitrary, exclusive, non-diverse, and generally retrograde and undemocratic.

Yet God responded to this plea for fairness and equality by causing the ground below Korah, Dathan and Abiram to swallow them and their families. Then fire came out from God and consumed the 250 men who were offering incense with censers. And then a plague broke out and killed 14,700 people who had sympathized with the rebellion. (Num. 16) When God has established qualifications for religious leadership, however arbitrary we think them, He does not appreciate our efforts to change them.

V.    Israel Not to Worship God “in Their Way”

God warned the Israelites that they were not to copy the modes of worship of the Canaanites: “You must not worship the Lord your God in their way.” (Deut. 12:4, emphasis added) It was not enough to worship the right God; God must be worshiped in the way He specifies, not in the way others worship their gods. As I noted before, Israel often failed in this regard, worshiping Yahweh, but worshiping Him at the high places the Canaanites had previously dedicated to their idolatrous cults (1 Kings 15:9-15; 22:41-43; 2 Kings 12:1-3; 14:1-4; 15:1-4, 32-35).

VI.    Do Not Touch the Ark

Sometimes, a religious transgression is more serious than a moral one. As Eli told his sons, who misused their priestly office and were killed for it, God's order of worship is not to be trifled with: “If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him, but if a man sins against the Lord, who will intercede for him?” (1 Sam. 2:25). In the battle with the Philistines in which Eli's sons were killed, Israel lost the Ark of the Covenant. (1 Sam. 4:17) When it was returned to Israel, God killed 70 men of Beth Shemesh for the irreverent and forbidden act of looking at the Ark (1 Sam. 6:19; Num. 4:20).

Years later, when the Ark was being brought from Kiriath-jearim/Baalah to Jerusalem in an ox cart, the oxen stumbled and Uzzah reached out and took hold of it to steady it. For his irreverence, God struck him dead (2 Sam. 6:1-8). Now, the Ark should never have been transported in an ox cart; that is how the Philistines, who did not know any better, returned it to Israel (1 Sam. 6:7-12). The Israelites should have known that the Levites were to carry the Ark on their shoulders, by poles inserted through loops on the Ark (Ex. 25:12-14; Num. 7:9). God did not punish Uzzah for this irregularity (which may have been arranged by King David [2 Sam. 6:1-5]), but Uzzah went too far when he touched the Ark. He knew or should have known that this was strictly forbidden, on pain of death (Num. 4:15).

Now, surely Uzzah had only the best intentions: he wanted to steady the Ark and spare it the ignominy of falling into the dirt. Yet Uzzah's good intentions did not license him to “modify or adapt” the “ritual, ceremonial, organizational, or legal practices and precepts” that God has specified, specifically, that no one was to touch the Ark.

VII.     Going Forward

Space constraints dictate that our tour through Scripture stop at 2 Samuel; had we gone further, we doubtless could have found more illustrations and examples. Suffice it to say that there is no scriptural principle that allows us to change or dispense with the “ritual, ceremonial, organizational, or legal practices and precepts” that God has given us. God's directives regarding sacred order and ritual are not optional. To the contrary, God often punished deviation from his ceremonial and ritual requirements more severely than he punished the transgression of moral principles or the Ten Commandments. God is particular about the way He is worshiped, and, as the “third way” caucus acknowledges, Scripture specifies an ideal, pattern, and model of male leadership in the church.

The Adventist Review recently published a story on the final report of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, and the need for prayer as the church moves forward on this issue. The next step is for the Annual Council, which meets in October, to decide what to submit to the delegates for a vote at next year's General Conference Session in San Antonio. It is my firm conviction that the Annual Council should not even consider submitting the “third way” option to the delegates in San Antonio.

As a worldwide church, led by the Holy Spirit, we must (1) decide what Scripture is telling us about sex roles in the church, (2) briefly articulate the biblical doctrine, and (3) vote to adopt it as our universal rule of faith and practice, local culture notwithstanding. If Scripture shows us male leadership in the church, as the “third way” caucus acknowledges it does, we dare not set that rule aside at any time or place.

Like Uzzah, the “third way” caucus has nothing but the best of intentions. They want to steady the Ark and spare the church the bitterness and disappointment those in the developed world—who have already gone forward with female ordination and even a female conference presidency—will feel if the larger church repudiates their actions. They want to steady the Ark and spare the church the pain and dislocation of a potential schism should female ordination be rejected and rolled back. They want to steady the Ark and spare the church the embarrassment of being considered unfair, retrograde, and out of step with the developed world's concept of justice.

But like Uzzah's good intentions, their good intentions do not excuse their presumption, and will not deflect God's judgment. They are not at liberty to license portions of the church to depart from the precepts God has ordained. They are not, and we are not.

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