Solid, biblical evidence shows that God intends for His church to be governed by men. Although Jesus had numerous female followers (Mark 15:40-41; Luke 23:27-30), He chose twelve men as His specially ordained disciples to lead His church on earth (Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; DA 290-297). When lots were cast to replace Judas Iscariot, both of the candidates were men (Acts 1:12-23). The office of episkopēs (“bishop” or “overseer”) is described as a male office, to be filled by sober men who are the husband of only one wife, and capable husbands, fathers, and heads of their families (1 Tim. 3:1-7). Similar requirements were specified for the office of presbuteros or “elder” (Titus 1:5-9). The husband is the head of the home (Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1), and capable leadership of the family is a prerequisite to leadership in the church: “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?” (1 Tim. 3:4) These passages are matched by apostolic guidance that women should not be in leadership roles in the church (1 Cor. 14:33-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-14). There also seems to be a biblical principle that full maturity does not manifest until about age thirty. Jesus did not begin his public ministry until age thirty (Luke 3:23). We read in Numbers that the Levites and priests assumed their religious duties at the age of 30 (Num. 4:3). Joseph was thirty years old when he became vice-regent to the Pharaoh of Egypt (Gen. 41:46) Saul, and later David become King of Israel having attained the age of thirty (1 Sam. 13:1; 2 Sam. 5:4). Ezekiel was called by God to begin a prophetic ministry in his thirtieth year (Ezekiel 1:1). Adulthood, for purposes of paying a half-shekel tax, being counted in the military census, and being punished for grumbling, was reached at age twenty (Ex. 30:13-14; Num. 1:2-3,18; 1 Chron. 27:23; Num. 14:29-31), but mere adulthood was not sufficient for positions of real responsibility, which were deferred to the age of thirty.
So we have a biblical principle that the church is to be governed by males of at least thirty years of age. But the Seventh-day Adventist Church is not governed by individuals of any age or gender. Our church is governed by committees. Local churches elect nominating committees that determine who shall serve in local church offices, including male offices such as that of elder, subject to a vote by the whole church. The regular governance of the local church—particularly with regard to such matters as finances, locally hired staff, local educational matters, and maintenance of the physical plant—is carried out by the church board. Certain matters, like church discipline or membership decisions, are reserved for the entire congregation.
As we climb the ladder of church organization, we find rule by committee at all levels. The conference officers—president, secretary and treasurer—are elected at constituency meetings to which delegates are sent from churches across the conference. Once in office, the conference presidents are governed by their conference executive committees, which stand in for the larger constituency between the constituency meetings, and usually meet four times a year. Likewise, the union presidents are selected at union constituency meetings and, once in office, answer to their own executive committees. The same is true at the division level and even at the level of the General Conference president, who is elected at the quinquennial General Conference Session but answers to a General Conference Executive Committee that meets annually at Fall Council.
Women serve on all of these committees. In fact, women often make up the majority in local nominating committees and church boards. (There are generally fewer women on the higher level committees, because these tend to be aggregations of ordained church officials.) Women serving on nominating committees have considerable influence on who may serve in church offices, including such biblically male offices as elder. Women serving on church boards have a vote on finances, spiritual matters, and many other important church matters. Women serving on conference executive committees vote on the hiring and firing of pastors, and women on union executive committees vote on the ordination of pastors (which raises the question: does it make sense to have a woman voting on whom to ordain, when women are not eligible to be ordained?)
Does the fact that women serve on all these committees make any difference as to how the church is governed? Do women vote differently from men and hence nullify the biblical principle that the church should be governed by mature (over thirty) men?
One of the most well-studied political phenomena of the past half century is the gender voting gap. A majority of women voters in the last six presidential elections has supported the Democratic candidate, while a majority of male voters has supported the Democratic candidate only twice, in 1992 and 1996, and only four times in presidential elections subsequent to 1952. The gender voting gap is getting wider with each presidential election cycle. In the 2012 presidential election, an all male electorate would have elected Romney in a landslide: men voted for Romney by 52 to 45 percent, but women preferred Obama by 55 to 44 percent, a cumulative gender gap of 18 percentage points.
Interestingly, the gender voting gap does not involve married women: Married women preferred Romney to Obama by 53 to 46 percent, the same seven point margin by which men preferred Romney to Obama. The gender gap was entirely the product of single, divorced, and widowed women, who voted for Obama by a two to one margin. This aspect of the gender voting gap has given rise to a theory that explains that gap: As compared to men, women have a heightened need for security. Married women look to their husbands for security and view politics and government in largely the same light as do their husbands. By contrast, unmarried women look to government for security, and because the Democratic party is the party of robust government and a strong social safety net, unmarried women vote Democratic. (This theory doesn't entirely explain the phenomenon, because even very wealthy unmarried women, whose security concerns would thus seem to have been met, vote overwhelmingly Democratic.)
Beyond the large and growing Democrat/Republican gender voting gap, there are substantial gender gaps on specific issues. Last November, three states, Washington, Maryland and Maine, voted on ballot initiatives to legalize same-sex marriage, and Minnesota voted on a measure that would have amended its state constitution to provide that only traditional marriages would be recognized in Minnesota. The ballot initiatives all succeeded and the proposed constitutional amendment in Minnesota failed. The exit polling indicated that the female vote was decisive. Women favor same-sex marriage, whereas men do not:
- Washington: 57 percent of women voted for same-sex marriage and only 49 percent of men did, creating an 8 percent gender gap.
- Maryland: 55 percent of women voted for same-sex marriage and only 48 percent of men did so, for a 7 percent gender gap.
- Minnesota: 56 percent of women and only 46 percent of men voted no on the state constitutional amendment to only recognize marriages between one man and one woman, making a 10 percent gender gap.
- Maine: 61 percent of women voted for same-sex marriage and only 47 percent of men did, for a whopping 14 percent gender gap.
The universally acknowledged reality of a gender voting gap in secular politics suggests that there might be a similar discernible difference in voting patterns on the various Adventist nominating and governing committees and boards. Generally, these bodies try to do business by consensus, or with unanimous votes, but usually voting is involved and sometimes the votes can become quite divided and contentious. If female votes tip the scales in church committees (as they undoubtedly did in the recent presidential election, and on ballot initiatives to approve same-sex marriage), then the biblical principle of male church governance is being transgressed.
I propose that we put a mechanism in place to determine whether gender is making any difference to the way the church is governed. When seriously contested votes are held on any governing committee, from local church board up through General Conference Executive Committee, the vote should be tabulated by gender (and by age, if there are any committee members under the age of 30). If it appears that men and women are voting for and against the measure in roughly similar percentages, then sex is not affecting the vote. But if a significant gender gap emerges—in other words, if it appears that women are voting substantially one way, and men substantially the other way—then the male vote must carry the issue. The same procedure should be followed with regard to age. If committee members below the age of 30 are voting substantially in one direction and those over 30 substantially in the other direction, then the issue will be decided by the more mature members. In this way, the biblical principle of governance by men over the age of 30 can be protected.
This solution to the gender issue may sound odd, but it would have the effect of rendering the female ordination controversy moot. Women should be allowed to rise as high in the church organization as their gifts will allow them to rise. If they have a gift for preaching—as some Adventist women, like Elizabeth Talbot, undoubtedly do—then they should be able to exercise that gift. They may be ordained and even serve as conference and union presidents, with the only proviso being that if it appears that their votes, on the numerous committees on which they serve as part of their official responsibilities, are significantly different from how the men are voting, the disputed question must be decided by the men on the committees. This will uphold the scriptural principle of mature male governance of the church, while allowing women to serve in any capacity suited to their gifts and interests.
This proposed solution is premised upon the view that the important principle expressed in the relevant New Testament passages is not that all offices should be held by men, but that the government of the church should be in the hands of men. The principle, reduced to its essence, is that women may not authoritatively govern over men. The governance of the church is reserved to men. It is my position that this principle is not violated by having women preach, teach, pastor, evangelize, give bible studies and generally serve in any capacity to which their spiritual gifts fit them. The principle is adequately served when men's votes prevail in any situation in which there is a “gender gap,” in which women are voting persistently in one direction and men in the other direction.
Is this proposed solution controversial? Obviously it is. But at this point in our denominational history, anything the church does will be painfully contentious and controversial. If the church adopts a doctrine that women may not be ordained, that will be a wrenching reverse for women who have already been ordained, and for the constituencies that voted in favor of female ordination. On the other hand, if the church adopts a doctrine of ordination regardless of gender, that will amount to ignoring the overwhelming biblical evidence regarding male headship in the church, which will be a setback to Adventists who embrace our high view of Scripture, and will open the way to ignoring the many verses condemning homosexual conduct. My proposed solution will allow women to be ordained while ensuring that male votes prevail on governing committees, thus honoring our high view of Scripture.