A house divided: why regional ordination is the wrong answer

If you are bothering to read this article, you are probably already well familiar with the several decades of controversy over whether women should be ordained as ministers in the Seventh-day Adventist church. The fire of contention has burned steadily, sometimes smoldering and sometimes raging, for my entire Adventist experience of twenty-five years. Now, again, this year, the General Conference in session will take a vote on the issue. How to get past this without causing cataclysmic division? That is the burning question. Good friends of mine, people I love and respect, have suggested that the best way to end the strife is to let the various sectors of the church follow their own convictions on the issue. Based on Scripture and history, I believe this is the wrong approach. But before I tell you why, let me first share two things that are not motivating me.

First, I am not looking for a fight. Sadly, there are some among us who just enjoy being contentious and seize occasions like this to point out what they think is wrong with the church or to try to win an argument with someone else because that’s what makes them feel important. Please don’t try put me in that box. My desire is to “live peaceably with all men" (Romans 12:18 KJV). I have no personal gripes with the people advocating or opposing ordination for women.

Second, I am not merely seeking to air my view on this issue. Many have already argued in favor of women’s ordination and many others have argued against it. I am not so naive or arrogant to think that I could settle the controversy by either commending or condemning women’s ordination in this article. Don’t get me wrong; I am by no means ambivalent! I have studied it out for myself and have settled on a position, based on my understanding of the Scripture evidence. But the purpose of this article is not to convince anyone regarding the view I believe to be correct. Rather, my purpose is to demonstrate that regional ordination of women is the wrong move for the Seventh-day Adventist church regardless of whether it is right or wrong to ordain women. I will submit two lines of evidence to support this assertion. The first line of evidence comes from the words of Jesus Himself; the second comes from American history.

Jesus spoke clearly against the idea of encouraging division in the church in His response to the murmuring of the Pharisees following His casting out of a demon. Matthew 12:24 records that He was accused of performing this act of deliverance by means of satanic power. Jesus’ reply to the accusers is fascinating : “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand" (Matthew 12:25 ESV). We should note this reply is an assumption, not an argument. We should also note that everyone in the narrative appears to accept this assumption as being valid. This is seen in the fact that in the ensuing discourse, Jesus does not bother to defend His assertion; neither do His hearers question Him on it. Further, it is significant to note the argument Jesus presents in the following verse is clearly based on this assertion, “And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:26). Not one of those Pharisees bothered to take issue with Jesus on either His assumption or His argument. Based on Jesus’ own logic then, it is unthinkable to intentionally foster division, since it weakens the influence of any organization in which it is allowed to flourish. This fact is what makes Jesus’ argument so powerful. Why, He says, would Satan do something so unreasonable and self-destructive as to intentionally engender strife among his own demons by working at cross purposes with them? Even the devil, with his finite intelligence, is too wise to do this. To offer this as an explanation of the power behind Christ’s ministry was utter nonsense. No group, loyal or rebellious, with any sort of mission in mind, would expect to be successful while encouraging division in its ranks. Since Jesus clearly points out the fallacy of encouraging division and strife within an organization with a mission, and if even the devil would not choose to do something to weaken his forces and dilute his mission, why, on such a divisive issue as women’s ordination, would we want to do something that would only deepen the division in God’s church?

American history also presents us with a highly relevant illustration of the consequences of relying on compromise solutions to deal with a divisive issue. In the decades following the American Revolution, slavery became a major social and political hot button in the newly formed United States. Westward expansion added new territory to the fledgling nation, but introduced new controversy over slavery in these territories. American leadership struggled to maintain a balance between the political and economic interests of free states and slave states. During this period, the battle raged over whether new states admitted to the union would be free or slave states and over the larger question of who had the right to decide. Many leading politicians feared that the newly formed nation would be quickly torn apart. Men like Kentucky Senator Henry Clay and others sought compromise solutions that would keep the nation together while protecting the interests of two opposing forces on the American continent. An example of such efforts was the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which allowed Missouri to come in as a slave state under the condition that Maine would be admitted as a free state. This legislation also limited where slavery could exist within the new territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Three decades later, however, contention arose again over new territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War (1846-48) leading to the Compromise of 1850 (drafted by Clay) which admitted California into the union as a free state but introduced the idea of popular sovereignty to decide the slavery question in the territories of Utah and New Mexico. In other words, the issue would be decided by a majority vote of the settlers in these territories.

During this period, the route for the transcontinental railroad was another issue for debate. A key to resolving the issue was to establish law and order in the territories through which the railroad would pass. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act early in 1854 in an effort to settle Nebraska territory quickly and persuade congress to choose the central route for the railway in hopes that Chicago would become its eastern end point. However, Douglas ran into stiff opposition from Southern senators since Nebraska would come in as a free state under the provisions of the Missouri Compromise. To secure the support of these influential politicians, Douglas proposed another compromise. Nebraska territory would be divided into two territories (Kansas and Nebraska) and popular sovereignty would apply in both. It was promised that allowing the people to decide for themselves would put an end to the agitation over slavery.

Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, the result of the passage of this legislation was the very opposite of what Douglas and his supporters intended. Peaceful discussion and decision over slavery proved a sheer fantasy, and the territory of Kansas was soon awash in internal civil strife, referred to as “Bleeding Kansas" (Horace Greeley, New York Tribune). These events were pivotal in the buildup to Abraham Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech of June 16, 1858. In this address, Lincoln set forth the utter failure of the Kansas-Nebraska Act to solve the conflict over slavery, and stated his conviction that the agitation would “not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.” Lincoln was convinced that the United States would not survive “permanently half slave and half free.” He believed it must “become all one or all the other.” This speech, though it probably lost Lincoln the Illinois senate race, propelled him to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. As a result, he was elected President of the United States two years later. By that time, however, the Civil War, the bloodiest of any in American history, was inevitable.

Regarding the issue of women’s ordination, few would argue the point that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is presently a house divided. From the evidence I’ve presented, I believe we can learn three significant lessons.

Lesson 1

Compromise solutions just don’t work for protracted, emotional conflicts. Just as the pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces could not peacefully co-exist indefinitely, likewise, the debate over women’s ordination is now, unfortunately, decades old, philosophical, and emotional, and cannot continue indefinitely without resolution. If adopted, regional ordination (a form of popular sovereignty) will only intensify the controversy. The politicking will simply move to a different level and increase fragmentation in lower levels of church organization. In addition, it is unclear who would really be satisfied with regional ordination. How likely is it that opponents of women’s ordination would simply sit back and accept women pastors if their region voted to ordain them? Conversely, would we really expect women pastors ordained in one part of the world to be satisfied with credentials that would not be valid in other parts of the world church, simply because of their gender? This is just wishful thinking on both counts, in my opinion.

Lesson 2

In times of crisis, leaders who opt for compromise solutions are set aside in favor of leaders who are willing to make the hard decisions and pay the price for unity. Lincoln’s successful run for president in 1860 demonstrates that when given the opportunity, people opt for leaders who are willing to take a firm stand in times of crisis. Up to 1860, Lincoln’s political track record was anything but promising. Yet, he went on to become, in the estimation of many historians, one of America’s greatest presidents. By contrast, Henry Clay, revered among his fellow politicians for the ability to articulate compromises, lost all three times he ran for president. Seventh-day Adventist leaders should take note of this. Those who propose compromises when decisive action is needed will eventually lose the respect of those they are supposed to be leading. In times of crisis, leaders need to lead, not kick the difficult decisions to others.

Lesson 3

Protracted, philosophical, emotionally charged conflicts don’t end without a significant struggle. Lincoln was right. The slavery controversy in the United States would not end apart from reaching and passing a crisis. As horrible as the Civil War was, its ultimate resolution restored unity to a nation which could easily have completely disintegrated. Likewise, it seems that the controversy over women’s ordination will not be resolved apart from a significant crisis. We can solve this issue now, one way or the other, and deal squarely with the fallout, or we can opt for a political compromise which will propel us toward a more catastrophic “civil war” of our own, the outcome of which will likely be significant fragmentation.

Indeed, no matter how we decide to approach women’s ordination, peace will cost us a battle. But we don’t necessarily have to fight with each other. We can decide to have a personal crisis, one in which we war against self, embrace the cross, renounce our own agendas, submit to the teaching of Christ, and consider others better than ourselves. Or, we can decide to forego the personal struggle and go for a church battle, crucify others, lobby for what we want, mold Jesus’ teachings to suit ourselves, and see our brethren as inferior. If all were to opt for wrestling with God, we could avoid a battle with one another. However, if only some do this, while others refuse to participate, we will undoubtedly encounter significant difficulties, and perhaps even division in our ranks. Each of us has the opportunity to decide where we want the crisis to happen. A personal crisis will cost us everything, but the result will be true unity, souls won, a work finished. A church crisis will be costly in a different sense. Yes, it will bring unity, but in its wake will be people absent from heaven, work undone, opportunities lost. Ultimately, the whole question for Seventh-day Adventists is not whether we want unity, but rather if we are willing to pay the price for it. If history teaches us anything, it teaches that the price for unity is high. Are we willing to pay it on a personal level? That is the real question.