Why Women's Ordination Matters

This is a review of Clinton and Gina Wahlen's book "Women's Ordination: Does It Matter?"

As the TOSC meetings wore on, and it became clear who stood where on the issue, I was struck by the fact that many among those opposed to women's ordination, particularly the leaders of the opposition, were adult converts to the Adventist faith. Raymond Holmes, Gerard Damsteegt, Clinton Wahlen, Ingo Sorke, John Peters, and Doug Batchelor read and studied their way into our faith. Adult converts to Adventism seem to be more often opposed to female ordination than those born into the church. Those of us fortunate enough to have been raised as Adventists identify more with the subculture (particularly the health habits), the parochial education, and the social network than with the method of Bible study by which our doctrines were arrived at. By contrast, those converted to Adventism by Bible study are more conscious of the damage that erasing gender roles in the church will do to our Adventist hermeneutic.

Clinton Wahlen grew up an atheist. He excelled in science and mathematics, and, as a high school senior, was accepted into the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Clinton planned to work for NASA as a rocket scientist, but God had other plans. After graduating from high school and before heading off to MIT, Clinton spent a summer in Willits, California; there, someone gave him a copy of The Great Controversy and told him to pick a chapter that looked interesting and start reading. Clinton accepted the challenge and began reading the chapter, “The Origin of Evil.” As he read, objections would come to his mind, but those objections were always answered within a few paragraphs. He kept reading. After finishing The Great Controversy, he began reading Daniel and the Revelation, and was amazed at the accuracy of Bible prophecy. At the end of the summer, he attended a camp meeting at Pacific Union College; when C.D. Brooks made an altar call, Clinton went forward. He was baptized at the Willits Church.

Clinton wrote to MIT, telling them “thanks, but no thanks,” and enrolled at Pacific Union College. Still loving technology but wanting to read the Bible in the original languages, he took a double major, in theology and computer science. Between his junior and senior year he served as a student missionary to New Zealand. Most importantly, he met Gina, a fourth generation Adventist; they graduated together in June, 1984, and were married that December. Clinton served on the staff of the St. Helena church, and Gina worked as a writer at PUC’s office of public relations. Two years later, the couple moved to Berrien Springs, MI, to attend Andrews University, where Clinton earned his M.Div. and Gina earned a Masters' degree in interdisciplinary studies.

After a time pastoring in Northern California, the Wahlens, who by then had a son, were called to teach at the newly opened Zaoksky Theological Seminary in Russia. Clinton taught Greek and New Testament, and Gina taught Christian journalism and English. The Wahlens served in Russia from 1992-1998, near the end of which time a daughter was born, and Gina co-authored True Believer, a bestseller that sold over 10,000 copies. The couple then moved from Russia to England, where Clinton earned his Ph.D. from one of the world's elite universities, Cambridge. After a five year tour teaching at a GC sponsored graduate school in the Philippines, the Wahlens in 2008, were called to the SDA Church's headquarters in Maryland, where Clinton serves as an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), and Gina worked for Adventist Review and Adventist World, and most recently as editor of the Mission quarterlies at the GC’s Office of Adventist Mission.

I had the pleasure of meeting Clinton Wahlen at the TOSC meetings. He is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken scholar and Christian gentleman. Just as you would expect of someone who had planned a career in high technology, Wahlen does not jump to conclusions; he is a careful, logical thinker and speaker.

Although Clinton Wahlen works for the BRI, Women's Ordination: Does it Matter? is not a BRI publication, but independently published. A troubling aspect of the debate on women's ordination is that those in favor of female ordination have had access to official periodicals and publishing houses, but those opposed have had to use independent publications (like ADvindicate) and independent ministries (like Amazing Facts and Secrets Unsealed) to air their arguments. At last year's Annual Council, Gina approached the president of Pacific Press and asked him if the Press would be interested in publishing a book presenting “the other side of the ordination issue.” He said “no” because: 1) they had committed to publish a book from the seminary on this topic and, 2) since Pacific Press is now a NAD institution, they needed to print “what the NAD constituency wants.” But the NAD constituency should hear both sides of the ordination debate, even if the NAD leadership does not seem to want both sides heard.

The Wahlens continued to feel impressed to write this book. Its purpose is to present pertinent conclusions of scholarly studies, including those presented at TOSC, in lay-reader-friendly language. The book was peer-reviewed by several Bible scholars, and was also read by pastors and lay members for input before going to press. The Wahlens formed “Bright Shores Publishing” to publish the book; due to the current controversy over this issue, their financial backers wish to remain anonymous. I can well relate to the difficulties attending the Wahlen's project, having formed a publishing company, Clarion Call Books, to publish “Dinosaurs—An Adventist View.” The Wahlens hope that their book will help honest seekers after truth who are carefully considering the women’s ordination question.

Turning to the substance of the book, the Wahlens begin with hermeneutics. Disagreement on a doctrinal issue does not mean that there are not clear biblical answers. The question is, what hermeneutic is being employed? Sunday-keepers use a certain hermeneutic to avoid the conclusion that the Sabbath commandment is binding on Christians: (1) they rely on a few vague, unrelated or tangentially related passages, (2) they ignore or explain away clear passages that do not support their position, and (3) they claim that the lack of a clear command in the New Testament to keep the Sabbath means that God must not require it. Watch for a similar hermeneutic among those who favor female ordination.

In a chapter on the qualifications of the elder/overseer, the Wahlens note that Paul specifies these qualifications—including that the elder must be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6)—in letters not to churches but to Timothy and Titus. The instructions were virtually identical, even though Timothy was working in Ephesus, one of the largest cities in the empire, and Titus was working on Crete, a rural island with small towns and villages. Paul's instructions were intended to apply not only in Ephesus and on Crete, but wherever Timothy's and Titus' ministries would take them in later years. Indeed, the appointment of elders was important precisely because Timothy and Titus, like Paul, were itinerant, and would soon move on to the next mission field. Paul's instructions were not bound to a given time and culture, but are timeless, universal guidelines for all Christian Churches, from Timothy's day until the parousia.

The phrase “husband of one wife” is just as clear in Greek as it is in English. Had Paul intended “husband of one wife or wife of one husband,” he could have written that; he used the phrase “wife of one husband” in the same letter in describing the type of widows who were eligible for food aid (1 Tim. 5:9), so he knew how to write that phrase. Moreover, the requirement that an elder be the “husband of one wife” was not aimed primarily against polygamy, which was virtually non-existent in Greco-Roman culture; the disapproval of polygamy has always been one of the prominent differences between Western Civilization and the East. By using the term “husband of one wife,” Paul clearly meant to specify a man.

What about the “silence” texts? The Wahlens argue that 1 Cor. 14:34, where Paul says “Women should remain silent in the churches,” is really about orderly worship, and, unlike the epistles to Timothy and Titus, was addressed to a specific church with a specific problem. The disruptive elements in the Corinthian Church were (1) men who spoke in a foreign tongue without an interpreter (v. 27-28), (2) men who began to prophesy while another man was still speaking (v. 29-33), and (3) women who kept noisily asking questions during the church service (v. 34-35). Paul uses a harsh word for silence, sigao, but the point was not that women should never speak, but that they should not disrupt. By contrast, in 1 Tim. 2:11, where Paul says that “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission,” the word used is not sigao but hesychia, a form of which is used in 1 Tim. 2:2, where Paul urges us to pray for those in authority that we may live “peaceful and quiet lives.” The Wahlens conclude that the Scriptural teaching is not that women must never speak in church, but that they must (1) not disrupt orderly worship and (2) not authoritatively teach a man in the church, meaning to not usurp the authoritative teaching function of the male elder.

In the chapter on male headship in the home and the church, perhaps the most unusual insight is that in Gen. 3:16 (“your desire shall be toward your husband, and he shall rule over you”) the Hebrew word 'el can mean either “for” or “against” depending on context. The Wahlens argue that the word in this context is better translated as “against,” as in: “your desire shall be against your husband, and he shall rule over you.” In other words, sin would bring in disharmony, such that the wife would often want something contrary to what her husband wanted; Eve's sentence was that, when she and Adam were not in agreement, God gave preference to the man. In the extensive questions and answers section at the end of the book, the Wahlens note that the Hebrew construction in the last clause of Gen. 4:7 (“. . . sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”) is almost identical to that in the last clause of Gen. 3:16.

Gina tells a very poignant personal story to illustrate the benefits of a wife's submission to her husband. Clinton purchased an expensive supplemental cancer policy because their regular insurance would not cover everything related to cancer treatment. Looking at the substantial money deducted from their take-home pay, and noting that they were both very healthy, Gina argued that they should drop the cancer rider. But Clinton was firm, and Gina, thinking specifically of Eph. 5:22-25, submitted to Clinton's decision. A month later, Gina was diagnosed with cancer, which entailed frequent doctor visits, lab tests, major surgery, and radiation treatments, all of which were covered by the supplemental insurance.

In a chapter on Ellen White, the Wahlens note that at the General Conference session of 1881, a resolution was introduced to ordain women to gospel ministry. There was a discussion, then the matter was referred to a committee, which was really just a polite way of defeating the measure. Ellen White never said anything about this measure, and some argue (perhaps having too often seen “A Man for All Seasons”) that her silence means that she consented to it, or even favored it. But is that how we are to read her silence?:

From the light given me by the Lord, I knew that some of the sentiments advocated in [The Living Temple] did not bear the endorsement of God, and that they were a snare that the enemy had prepared for the last days. I thought that this would surely be discerned, and that it would not be necessary for me to say anything about it. Selected Messages, Vol. 1, p. 202.

Ellen White would have remained silent about the errors in Dr. Kellogg's book if the church had seen and rejected them. She was silent where she did not need to speak. She could remain silent on female ordination because the church discerned that error and rejected it. Ellen White did not say anything about it because she did not need to.

Ellen White opposed injustice in the Church; she spoke out strongly in favor of female workers being paid fairly, about the importance of sustentation for older ministers, and against the unfair treatment of black preachers. But she never said anything about ordaining women to gospel ministry, so she must not have viewed it as an issue of justice or fairness.

The Wahlens relate that a woman named Sarepta M.I. Henry, a Methodist activist in the WCTU who had become an Adventist after a stay in the Battle Creek Sanitarium, was Ellen White's ideal woman minister. S.M.I. Henry's burden was to educate women about their irreplaceable, crucial role in raising and educating godly children. Even though she frequently spoke to large crowds, the thrust of her ministry was to be a “teacher of the ideal” (Titus 2:3-4) to younger women, regarding the duties of the wife and mother in a Christian home.

Ultimately, the Wahlens conclude that this issue does matter, because it is a question of faithfulness to Scripture:

If we ever come to the place as a Church where we can interpret “husband of one wife” to mean “wife of one husband” or simply “faithful man or woman,” then we can make any passage of Scripture mean whatever we want it to mean or whatever our culture tells us it should mean. Could it be that, as a Church, we are now being tested as to whether we will continue to maintain the Bible as the authority for our faith and practice so that, having passed this test, we will be prepared for the greater tests just ahead with regard to same-sex marriage and even the Sabbath?  p. 124

We are no more at liberty to substitute female elders for the male elders specified in Scripture than we are to substitute the first day of the week for the Seventh day. God wants us to be faithful to the order that He created in the beginning and intended to last for all time.