Women's Ordination: The Evolving Arguments
One of the best things that has happened to the Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) church in recent times is the intense discussion of the issue of women's ordination (WO) as elders/pastors. It has brought to the open a theological crisis that has long been ignored, if not denied. This crisis has to do with our understanding of (a) the inspiration and interpretation of the Bible, and (b) the nature and authority of the worldwide SDA church.
Regrettably, the contribution of the WO debate in focussing attention on these crucial issues has not always been been fully appreciated--probably because of the emotional nature of the debate, and possibly because of the evolving arguments that have been advanced in support of WO. This essay will attempt to call attention to these issues by (i) identifying three major phases in the debate on WO, (ii) summarizing the main arguments that have been employed over the years in support of WO, and (iii) suggesting some possible implications, of the current phase of the WO debate, to the church.
PHASE 1: PRIOR TO THE 1990 GC SESSION AT INDIANAPOLISDuring the first phase of the debate, proponents of WO (and this includes scholars and church leaders) employed the following kinds of arguments to justify their bid for the ordination of women as elders/pastors:
(1) The Bible is "silent" on the WO issue.
(2) The Bible is "neither for nor against" WO.
(3) The issue of WO is "cultural" (in the sense that it has to do with the "cultural readiness" of individuals or groups).
(4) The issue of WO has to do with "equality," "capability," and "ability" of male and female (this argument transformed the WO issue into a civil-rights issue).
(5) The issue of WO has to do with the "Spirit's leading" or "spiritual gifts."
(6) The WO issue is equated with either (a) the "empowerment" of women to ministry, or (b) an "affirmation" of women in ministry.
On the basis of these arguments, church leaders' council deliberations in the 1970s and 80s, made outside GC in session, voted to: (a) allow women to do all the essential functions of the ordained ministry, and (b) ordain women as local elders. Encouraged by these Annual Council actions of church leaders, a proposal was presented at the 1990 Indianapolis GC session to ordain women as pastors. By a 3 to 1 margin (1173 to 377) the world church rejected the proposal--suggesting that the above arguments were not convincing to the entire church.
PHASE 2: FROM INDIANAPOLIS TO THE 1995 GC SESSION AT UTRECHTWith the rejection at Indianapolis of the proposal to ordain women as pastors, new arguments were added (some would not consider them as "new" but rather as matters of "clarification" or "emphasis"). These arguments, which would lead to the 1995 GC session at Utrecht, include the following:
(7) The issue of WO is not theological but "ecclessiological." It should be pointed out that, by this argument, either proponents failed to realize that ecclesiological issues are theological issues, or they meant that the issue of WO could be settled by administrative "policy."
(8) The issue of WO is consistent with "progressive revelation" (in the sense that it is "present truth"--however a person chooses to understand the expressions "progressive revelation" and "present "truth"). Not infrequently, the issues of polygamy, slavery, war, divorce and remarriage were cited as biblical examples to illustrate God's "accommodation" to sinful human situations in the Bible-writers' times--conditions which led God, under His "Spirit's leading," to later "correct" these prior revelations. In this argument, biblical examples and texts that teach male-headship and female-supporting role, within the complementary relationship of spiritual equals in the home and church, were explained away as "culturally conditioned."
(9) The issue of WO is an example of "unity in diversity." This argument maintained that just as there is "diversity" in attitudes and practices within the church, in such areas as Sabbath observance, worship styles, participation in one's tribe's/nation's war machinery, so also on the issue of WO there should be "diversity." Some argued that "diversity" or pluralism in theological practice was evidence of maturity, strength and true unity, not of blind uniformity, or lockstep conformity
(10) Since the Bible makes no theological difference between the identity and function of elders and pastors, and since previous church council meetings of church leaders had authorized the ordination of women as elders, it was considered a question of "fairness" and "justice" to not "turn back" on the ordination of women as pastors.
Taken together, arguments 1-10 were employed to suggest that each region/division of the world field should be permitted to ordain women for their respective fields. The understanding is that the divisions that choose to go ahead will not impose their will on others. However, by a margin of 2:1 (1481 to 673), the GC session at Utrecht voted to reject the NAD request for "local ordinations"--suggesting that the pro-ordination arguments were still not convincing.
It should be pointed out that, there were two major reasons why some Adventists were opposed to WO. First, they were concerned about the kinds of theological/hermeneutical arguments being used to promote WO. In their view, if the arguments were accepted they would have some far-reaching implications for SDA beliefs and lifestyle. This concern has been articulated in our Searching the Scriptures (cf. Adventists Affirm's "Answers to Questions About Women's Ordination").
Second, those who were opposed to WO rejected the "local ordination" proposal on the grounds that, passage of the action would have undermined the worldwide purpose of ministerial ordinations in the SDA church--a situation which they feared might open the door for congregationalism within the worldwide church. Apparently, proponets of WO did not fully appreciate this concern.
But readers are no doubt aware of the fact that in the SDA church, an ordained minister in any part of the world can function anywhere in world. Or as the current "Church Manual" (1990) puts it, the SDA church recognizes "the equality of the ordination of the entire ministry" (p.38). In other words, the ordination of a minister automatically qualifies him to serve anywhere in the world field. The current SDA "Minister's Manual" (1992), published by the Ministerial Association of the GC, to govern the conduct and professional practice of SDA ministers, is even more explicit. It understands ordination to be a call "to serve as a minister of the gospel in any part of the world" (p.75); it is the investment of the ministers with "full ecclesiastical authority to act in behalf of the church anywhere in the world field where they may be employed by the church" (p. 77). Again, "Workers who are ordained to the gospel ministry are set apart to serve the world church. . . . Ordination to the ministry is the setting part of the employee to a sacred calling, not for one local field alone but for the world church and therefore needs to be done with wide counsel" (p. 79).
Thus, had the church gone ahead at Utrecht and adopted the NAD's request for "local ordinations," there would have been introduced, for the first time, into the SDA church polity "unequal" or "inferior" kinds of ministerial ordination. Fortunately, the "local ordination" proposal was rejected at Utrecht. I say "fortunately," because (i) the concept of "local ordination" of pastors in the SDA church (just like "local baptisms" of polygamists into SDA church fellowship) is an oxymoron (i.e., it is an incongruous or self-contradictory concept, similar to saying a person is a "Christian atheist"); (ii) had the NAD "local ordination" request been approved, it would have introduced and institutionalized superior and inferior kinds of ordained ministry in the SDA church; such an action would have further aggravated the condition of a church which is now slowly waking up to the tragedy of racially exclusive conferences.
With the rejection of the "local ordination" request at Utrecht, however, proponents of WO usshered the church into a new phase of discussion, with a new set of arguments that are apparently designed to gain legitimacy for the ordination of women, not for local needs, as originally argued, but for the worldwide church.
PHASE 3: IN THE WAKE OF THE POST-UTRECHT REBELLIONFollowing the 2:1 defeat of the WO request at Utrecht, proponents of WO began to employ other kinds of arguments. These post-Utrecht justification of WO includes the following arguments:
(11) The issue of WO is hermeneutically valid in that it is based on a "principled" interpretation, instead of the alleged "literal" approach of those against WO. This argument offers the hermeneutical basis for proponents of WO to question and rationalize away the Utrecht decision.
(12) The issue of WO is one of an "individual's moral conscience" (just as Martin Luther and other Reformers insisted on following their consciences). This argument, which is another way of saying "I'll have my own way, regardless of what others think," offers a moral basis for proponets of WO to rebel against the Utrecht decision
(13) The issue of WO is a "moral imperative" (the implication being: It is "immoral" for the worldwide church to refuse to ordain women as pastors). This argument offers the ethical basis for those who want to leave the church, and those who prefer to stay in the church and play the political role of "loyal opposition" (even though they are apparently oblivious of the incongruity of such a role in the SDA church).
IMPLICATIONS OF THE POST-UTRECHT ARGUMENTSPerceptive observers of the WO scene should notice the 180-degree change in some of the arguments advanced in favor of WO between Phases 1 and 3:
(i) At the beginning, the argument was that on the question of WO, the Bible was either "silent" or "neither for nor against." But now, since WO is believed to be a "moral imperative," it means the Bible is for WO! Either this view had been held all along, or it is a case of post-Utrecht "progressive revelation." In any case the Bible is no longer to be seen as "neutral" on the issue of WO; Scripture is now decidedly for it.
(ii) Because it was originally believed that the Bible was "neither for nor against" WO, the decision was to be determined by each "culture" according to the "cultural readiness" of the respective divisions. In other words WO was to be settled by administrative "policy," and the decision was not to be binding on all. But now, since WO is believed to be a "moral imperative," it would seem to follow that, sooner or later, WO would be urged as binding upon all, with moves to encourage it in all areas of the world church.
(iii) Since the "present truth" of post-Utrecht "progressive revelation" teaches that "local ordination" is no longer viable under the terms of the "moral imperative" argument, we should expect to see some future developments in this new phase of the WO debate. Among these are the following:
(a) As the earlier "unity in diversity" argument is subsumed under the more "ethical" concept of the principle of the "individual's moral conscience," we should expect to see in the coming days a greater emphasis on "diversity in unity" (i.e. the celebration pluralism as a sign of spiritual and theological maturity).
(b) Hopefully, the "conscience" which has been relatively dormant for so long will now wake up--either to leave the church because of the church's alleged "immoral" views on WO, or to stay in the church to "reform" it. Let's hope that the reform will be solely on the basis of Scripture.
(c) In the coming days, as Bible-believing Adventists are called upon to address this "moral imperative" phase of the evolving arguments for women's ordination, we are likely to hear more echoes of the now tired, post-Utrecht, hermeneutical jargon: "principle-approach" for proponets of WO, and an alleged "literalistic-approach" for those opposed to WO. This phase of the discussion will most likely reveal the extent of the pervasiveness of the historical-critical method--a liberal methodology that the anti-WO book The Tip of an Iceberg warned against, but which finds expression in some essays in the pro-WO book, The Welcome Table. The result of such a future investigation may help uncover why scholars are divided on such issues as the inspiration of the Bible and Ellen G. White, the Sanctuary doctrine, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the doctrinal standards on dress, food, entertainment, relationships, etc.
On the positive side, the hermeneutical discussion (i.e., the discussion on principles of biblical interpretation) may likely lead to a better understanding of the Bible's teaching on polygamy, slavery, war, divorce and remarriage--issues that have been used to justify the new views of "progressive revelation." Hopefully, as we continue searching the Scriptures, we shall be led to capture the same kind of joy, spiritual and numerical growth, vibrancy, and faithfulness that attends those who always seek to know and to do God's will.
CONCLUSIONIt is gratifying to know that finally, both sides of the WO issue have arrived at a consensus that the Bible is not silent on WO, and that it has spoken clearly on the issue of the relationship between male and female in both the home and the church. Exactly, what that relationship is will be the subject of discussion in the coming days. But at least, now that we are agreed that the issue of WO is theological (not cultural), and can legitimately be resolved on the basis of Scripture alone, there is hope that the Lord will reveal His will to us.
Phase 3 of the evolving arguments for WO promises to be the most
fruitful of all. As we stay tuned for future developments, and as we
pursue our future discussions with prayer and with humility, let's pray that:
we shall also discover, in the process, Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord;
These will be the fruits of our continued efforts at Searching the Scriptures. MARANATHA!
1. For the arguments against WO, see:
2. For a response to the post-Utrecht ordinations in some NAD congregations, see:
3. For an insightful book on how current views on the Bible are influencing the re-interpretation of traditional Seventh-day Adventist beliefs and practices, see:
4. For articles dealing with other contemporary issues in Seventh-day Adventism, see