As the debate over ordination and female headship has progressed, several otherwise conservative Adventists have stated that they see no problem with female headship in the church. In several instances, they have said this not because they have studied this biblical issue for themselves but because they trust a conservative theologian who has studied it and sees no problem with female headship in the church. Preliminarily, the idea that we can outsource our Bible study to some theologian or panel of theologians is not an Adventist, nor an historic Protestant position, as Ellen White makes very clear:
But God will have a people upon the earth to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines and the basis of all reforms. The opinions of learned men, . . . the creeds or decisions of ecclesiastical councils, . . . the voice of the majority—not one nor all of these should be regarded as evidence for or against any point of religious faith. . . . Satan is constantly endeavoring to attract attention to man in the place of God. He leads the people to look to bishops, to pastors, to professors of theology, as their guides, instead of searching the Scriptures to learn their duty for themselves. Then, by controlling the minds of these leaders, he can influence the multitudes according to his will. Great Controversy 595
Although this debate was not sought by traditional Adventist believers but, rather, was thrust upon us by our more liberal brethren, the current posture of church politics demands that every Seventh-day Adventist personally study this issue. We must not look to “the opinions of learned men” nor to “bishops, pastors or professors of theology” to decide for us what is Bible truth.
The theologian most frequently cited as a conservative who favors female headship is Richard Davidson, a professor of Old Testament at the Adventist Seminary. He wrote a chapter (Ch. 13) in the book, Women in Ministry, entitled, “Headship, Submission, and Equality in Scripture.” Turning first to the issue of whether there were created, pre-Fall sex role distinctions that might have a bearing on sex roles in the Christian Church, Davidson notes that most commentators have seen in Genesis 2 clear indications of role distinctions. The most frequently cited indicators are:
- man was created first and woman later (2:7, 22);
- woman was created for man to be his “helpmate,” to solve Adam's loneliness after naming the animals and seeing that they had mates but he did not (18-20);
- woman comes out of man, created from Adam's rib (21-22); and
- the man names the woman (v. 23 [also 3:20]).
Davidson argues that these Bible facts do not indicate created role distinctions, or male headship, in the pre-Fall world.
But in arguing that these facts have no bearing on sex roles in the church, Davidson contradicts other passages of Scripture. Paul uses three of these facts to argue for male authority and female submission in the church, including 1) man was created first, 2) woman was created from man, and 3) woman was created for man. See 1 Tim. 2:11-14, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve”); 1 Cor. 11:3, 8-10 (“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. . . . For  man did not come from woman, but woman from man;  neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have a sign of authority over her own head”). Instead of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, Davidson argues against Paul's inspired interpretation of the Genesis narrative.
Scripture must be allowed to interpret Scripture. This method of Bible study defines us as Protestants and as Seventh-day Adventists. The Protestant reformers understood that to concede that a panel of scholars—a magisterium—was required to rightly interpret Scripture was to concede that Rome had been right all along, and that the Reformation had been a mistake. Scripture must be interpreted not by a council of learned doctors of the church but by reference to other Scriptures. As the Westminster Confession (1646), a typical Reformed statement of faith, puts it:
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one [one Spirit inspired it]), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
Ellen White concurs with this historic Protestant principle and methodology:
The Bible is its own expositor. One passage will prove to be a key that will unlock other passages, and in this way light will be shed upon the hidden meaning of the word. By comparing different texts treating on the same subject, viewing their bearing on every side, the true meaning of the Scriptures will be made evident. Fundamentals of Christian Education 187
Applying the principle that Scripture is its own expositor, we must submit to the Bible's own interpretation of the Bible facts regarding the created sexual order. Richard Davidson's interpretation must not be allowed to trump Paul's inspired interpretation, and the Pauline Epistles clearly indicate that the history of creation prior to the Fall has implications for the sexual ordering of the Christian Church.
Discussing Gen. 3:16 (“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”), Davidson concludes, correctly I think, that this should be viewed not merely as a description of the way things would henceforth be, but rather “a normative divine sentence” subjecting a wife to her husband. But although Davidson concedes that Genesis 3 is a sentence of female submission in the family, he denies that there is anything in the history of the Fall that points to male headship in the Christian Church. Here again he contradicts Paul, who finds in the history of the Fall a rationale for male headship in the church: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (1 Tim. 2:11-14).
Davidson's response to 1 Tim. 2 is to argue that this passage, which is commonly translated, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man,” should really be translated, “I do not permit a wife to teach or have authority over her husband.” He argues that the passage is yet another variation, or reiteration, of the household codes that command a wife to obey her husband. (See, e.g., Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1) The Greek is ambiguous, so one has to look at the context to see whether it should be translated woman/man or wife/husband. The context is public worship, i.e., what goes on in church, and assuming that the husband and wife attend the same church, putting the wife in a headship role in that church would effectively put her in authority over her own husband. Hence, Davidson's interpretation contravenes what he himself believes is the purpose of the passage, unless untenable provisos are added, such as that only single women may exercise authority in church, or only married women whose husbands attend different churches. The overwhelming majority of translations translate this passage as woman/man rather than wife/husband.
Davidson takes this same approach to 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, arguing that the Greek term should be translated “wives” rather than “women,” as in, “wives should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission . . . it is disgraceful for a wife to speak in the church.” Here again, however, if Davidson's advocacy of female headship prevails, wives will not be in submissive roles in church, even vis-a-vis their own husbands. The self-defeating nature of this interpretation is likely why, just as is also true of 1 Timothy 2, the overwhelming majority of translations render the Greek term “women” instead of “wives.”
Davidson argues that this passage addresses a specific problem in the Corinthian Church, perhaps wives disrupting the service by loudly asking questions of their husbands (if the Corinthian Christians were following the Jewish synagogue model, men and women would have been seated in different areas, thus physically separating husbands and wives). But the term “ecclesias” is plural—“the churches”--indicating that the advice applies to more than one church. Moreover, there is a legitimate question as to whether the clause “as in all the churches of the saints” in verse 33 modifies the previous clause, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace,” or the next clause, “Women should remain silent in the churches.” That God is a God of order and peace seems to be a general attribute of the Divinity, not an attribute that applies alone with regard to the churches. Hence, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the churches of the saints,” does not really make sense. Accordingly, several modern translations put the latter two clauses together, rather than the former two: “As in all the churches of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches.” If these clauses are joined, then Paul clearly was not addressing a specific problem in Corinth, but was giving general guidance about deportment in Christian Churches.
Davidson's strategy—pursued by sacrificing a rational translation of texts such as 1 Timothy 2:11 and 9 Corinthians 14:33-35—is to limit male headship to the marriage relationship and the family, denying that it applies to the organization of the church. But he does not seem to realize that in placing even more scriptural weight behind the “household codes” he is pari passu strengthening the argument for male headship in the church based upon 1 Timothy 3:
Whoever aspires to be an overseer [episkopes, bishop] desires a noble task. . . . He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)
Davidson would weaken the case for male headship in the church based upon passages such as 1 Timothy 2, but in so doing he inadvertently underscores the fact that, biblically, only men are heads of households, and hence only men are qualified to be overseers and fill headship roles in God's church.
Ultimately, the problem with the supposedly conservative Davidson is that his approach to this scriptural issue is not the historic Protestant and Seventh-day Adventist approach. He does not allow Scripture to be the rule of interpretation of Scripture. He analyzes passages in isolation from other passages that bear on their meaning. Few Adventist doctrines could survive this hermeneutic, if subjected to it by hostile theologians. One suspects that Davidson is trying to save Scripture from the ignominy of being out of step with the dominant culture. But, as I explored more fully in the article, “The Adventist Arab Spring,” the dominant culture (which is nowhere more dominant than in academia) is increasingly hostile to biblical values with regard to sexuality and sex roles. As we approach the end of time, it will become more and more difficult to remain faithful to Scripture while remaining, in any degree, sympathetic to the prevailing culture.