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Chapter 1, Part 2

Theology or Ideology?
Background, Methodology, and Content of Women in Ministry

Samuel Koranteng-Pipim


A. How Women in Ministry Came into Being

Women in Ministry was published against a backdrop of an ongoing controversy in the church between "liberals" (Adventist scholars who believe in the use of modified versions of contemporary higher criticism) and "conservatives" (those who reject the liberal method).14 The Seminary Ad Hoc Committee on Hermeneutics and Ordination, the group responsible for producing the book, was a gathering of pro-ordination scholars who, though disagreeing on the appropriateness of the higher-critical method, are nonetheless united in their view that women should be ordained as elders or pastors.

The first challenge that faced the committee was how to construct a theological justification for women's ordination without tripping the explosive hermeneutical land mine (the use of contemporary higher criticism) that for years a number of scholars at the Seminary have avoided handling and defusing. Another challenge was how to craft a justification for women's ordination that would appeal to a conservative Adventist church which shows no interest in liberal and feminist reinterpretations of Scripture.

After two years of regular meetings and "animated" discussions, "a spirit of camaraderie developed" among these scholars. With this spirit of friendship, "eventually all the chapters [of the book] were written, rewritten, and approved by the committee."15 Introducing the book at a special Seminary assembly on October 7, 1998, the chair of the Ad Hoc Committee stated that "no chapter was accepted until all members felt they could live with the document." Even though "each chapter was written by a different author and retains the writer's individual style," explains the book's editor, "careful readers will notice slight differences of opinions between chapters. Our agreement was on the big picture."16

The "big picture" that kept the pro-ordination committee together was its members' shared belief that the Bible is not against ordaining women as elders or pastors. Without doubt, theirs was a daunting task in pursuit of today's "unity in diversity"--theological unity (women's ordination) amidst hermeneutical diversity (conflicting approaches to the Bible). But the authors believe that they accomplished their mission: "We believe that the biblical, theological, and historical perspectives elaborated in this book affirm women in pastoral leadership."17

In two later chapters I will evaluate the validity of their conclusion. Presently, however, we shall make some important observations on how Women in Ministry came into being.


1. The Reason Behind the Book

The initial request for the book came from "several union presidents of the North American Division" who, before and during the 1995 Utrecht General Conference session, had urged the North American Division President that there be "no turning back" in their campaign for women's ordination.18 When their petition was rejected by the world body at Utrecht, certain leaders in the North American Division began calling for "a clarification of the Adventist theology of ordination, culminating in the ordination of women," and for steps that would lead to "clear understanding and member education regarding valid Adventist hermeneutical principles [of biblical interpretation]."19

Notice that the call for "a clarification of Adventist theology of ordination" was really a quest for a scholarly work that would "culminate in the ordination of women." The meaning of "valid Adventist hermeneutical principles" was later made explicit at the October 1995 Year-end meeting of the North American Division leaders to be an approach to Scripture that would ultimately justify their belief in the biblical correctness of women's ordination.

At that October 1995 Year-end Meeting in Battle Creek, just three months after the Utrecht vote, the North American leadership announced that a commission was being appointed to recommend ways to "expand the role of women in ministry," recognize and deploy the gifts God has given to women, and "affirm women in pastoral and other spiritual ministries."20 In their Statement of Commitment to Women in Gospel Ministry, adopted on October 13, 1995, the Union presidents of North America also reaffirmed their belief "in the biblical rightness of women's ordination" and pledged their support for a clarification of the church's theology of ordination.21

This brief background leads one to conclude that the initial request to the Seminary faculty by "several" of these union presidents for a clarification of the Adventist theology of ordination and for a clear understanding regarding valid Adventist hermeneutical principles was a search for a scholarly work that would justify the ordination of women. Some three months before the Seminary appointed its Ad Hoc Committee in January 1996 to study issues related to hermeneutics and ordination, some of the North American Division leaders were already convinced of the "biblical rightness of women's ordination."

Why was there a need for the Seminary to clarify the church's principles for interpreting the Bible when the church already had done so--in the "Methods of Bible Study" document, approved by the church's worldwide leaders in 1986 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil?22 And why was there a need to clarify the church's theology of ordination, when the church already had articulated its position in the 1988 volume Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . : A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines (pp. 142-150)23 and our Minister's Handbook (pp. 75-79 [1992 edition]; pp. 83-86 [1997 edition])?24

The answer seems obvious. It wasn't because the church had no valid hermeneutical principles for interpreting the Bible, nor a sound theology of ordination. It already had these. Instead, some of the pro-ordination leaders wanted a theological validation of their stance on ordination. This was the only way they could justify earlier church policy revisions and Church Manual alterations in response to problems resulting from the North American Division's desire to enjoy United States income tax benefits.25

Thus, in the production of the Seminary book Women in Ministry, the interests of pro-ordination leaders and that of pro-ordination scholars kissed each other. Or as the book's editor later explained, the North American Division leadership, feeling "let down" at Utrecht, wanted the Seminary to "do something about it [the Utrecht vote]."26

The conclusion is inescapable. After several years of unsuccessful attempts at legislating the ideology of women's ordination, the proponents decided that the time had come to try another strategy: the proclamation of the theology of women's ordination. Using one of the leading and most influential church institutions, the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, some of the North American Division leaders sought to shift their strategy of women's ordination from ideology to theology. The Seminary book Women in Ministry is the result of this strategy.


2. The Partners in the Seminary "Dialogue"

There is another indication that the Seminary volume was an attempt to justify theologically the ideology of women's ordination, not a quest for an open-minded investigation into what the Bible has to say on a divisive and controversial issue in the church. The Seminary committee's "dialogue" did not include Andrews University scholars opposed to women's ordination, some of whom, through their earlier published works, had demonstrated a grasp of the crucial issues in the debate.27 Though twenty authors collaborated to produce the book, the Seminary Ad Hoc Committee allowed no other viewpoints in the book except those favoring women's ordination.28

Although dissenting scholarly views were not represented in the committee, readers are informed that during its two years of regular meetings, "sensitivity to the positions of others, both for and against women's ordination was evident."29 Lamentably, this is typical of the manner in which the issue has been discussed even in official church publications.30

Is it not ironic--and unfortunate--that the views of scholars upholding the long-established Seventh-day Adventist convictions on this question are not always welcome today in church publications and even in the book originating from the Seminary? Whose interest is served when, on unresolved theological issues, opposing views are excluded even when those views are still embraced by the overwhelming majority of the church through official action?

The authors of Women in Ministry sincerely believe that the church made a great mistake at Utrecht, a mistake that they believe constitutes a hindrance to God's purpose and therefore needs to be ameliorated and/or corrected in order for the church to fulfill God's purpose. Does belief in the rightness of a cause justify the excluding of opposing views from a volume promoted and financed by the church's leading theological Seminary?

The Seminary book under review would have gained much credibility and, as we shall later show, would have avoided some of its theological and historical shortcomings if it had allowed for challenges by opposing views during its two years of "animated" discussions.31

Women in Ministry would also have escaped justifiable criticisms that the Seminary's name and resources are being (mis)used to promote the ideological agenda of women's ordination. Since the authors "do not claim to speak for others, either at the seminary or in church administration,"32 would it not have been better for the pro-ordination scholars of the Seminary to have published and financed their private views independently (as other scholars both for and against ordination had previously done), instead of using the Seminary's prestige and resources to gain credibility for their one-sided view?


3. Expected Use of the Book

The authors claim that their book is not to be seen as "the final answer to whether or not the Seventh-day Adventist Church should ordain its women in ministry, but rather as a resource tool for decision making." They "hope and pray that this volume may assist individuals, leaders, and the community of faith at large in deciding how to deal with the issue of ordination and, more specifically, the relationship of ordination to women."33

Since the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist church has already decided on the issue of women's ordination at the 1990 and 1995 General Conference sessions, one wonders why the book is being offered "as a resource tool for decision making." Could it be that the authors anticipate the use of the book in providing a theological basis to overturn the worldwide decision?34

This seems to be the case. For, in the opinion of some post-Utrecht advocates of women's ordination, (1) the 1990 vote was not a categorical No to women's ordination; instead of a theological reason against the practice, proponents claim that the General Conference session simply cited pragmatic reasons--"the widespread lack of support" for it and "the possible risk of disunity, dissension, and diversion from the mission of the Church" that could result had the church gone ahead at that time in ordaining women as pastors;35 (2) the 1995 General Conference session addressed "only the procedural recommendation" of the North American Division, not "the theological appropriateness of women's ordination"; thus a pro-ordination book from the Seminary could be used to justify theologically a future push to overturn the Utrecht vote;36 (3) unlike opponents of women's ordination who allegedly defied a 1988 "moratorium" or "ban" by the General Conference president on publishing and distributing materials on the issue, proponents loyal to the church chose not to present and publicize their theological defense of women's ordination, in compliance with the supposed "moratorium"; the alleged ban was apparently lifted in 1995 when "several" North American Division leaders met with the Seminary professors and urged them to "do something about Utrecht."37

The above justification for Women in Ministry is based on a creative reinterpretation of church actions on women's ordination (see endnotes 35-37). Yet, building upon these arguments, advocates and promoters believe that a pro-ordination book from the Seminary would not only create the much-needed consensus for women's ordination but could also be used to theologically bolster a future push to overturn the Utrecht vote.

We have already noted that Women in Ministry was produced at the urging of some North American leaders to "do something about it" [Utrecht]. In fact, a year and a half before the book was released, the "prospectus" of the Seminary book (detailing how it came into being, its objective, a partial listing of the authors and their topics, the target audience, its wide distribution in Latin America, and the marketing strategies) was published in a non-official pro-ordination Adventist publication.38

Barely six months into the two years of regular meetings "which always began with prayer, often several prayers--pleading with God for wisdom and understanding,"39 at least some of the Seminary Ad Hoc Committee members were already convinced that the 150-year-old practice of the Seventh-day Adventist church was wrong and needed to be changed. Before all the chapters of the pro-ordination book were written, the tentative thrust of the Seminary volume was to suggest that the "Adventist church structure, however legitimate, has not been, historically, an exact replica of biblical patterns of ministry. While accepting the decision of the Adventist church not to ordain women at this time as voted at the 1995 General Conference Session in Utrecht, the book will attempt to provide data on which to base future decisions."40

Also, following the book's publication, a press release from the public relations office of Andrews University announcing the book-signing concluded: "Whether the book will signal a shift in the worldwide Adventist Church remains to be seen. In Utrecht, conservative factions from Latin America and Africa voted down the women's ordination question. The next General Conference session, to be held in Toronto, Canada, in the year 2000, could be the site of another theological firestorm if the North American Church pushes the issue."41

Could the plan to "do something about Utrecht" and the possibility of the North American Division "pushing the issue" again at the year 2000 General Conference session in Toronto be behind the Seminary's wide distribution of the book to church leaders around the world, ostensibly to "foster dialogue"?42 There is nothing wrong in attempting to overturn a General Conference session decision that is believed to be biblically flawed. But if we choose to do so, as sometimes we ought, at least we must be candid about our intentions.

Perhaps the pro-ordination General Conference vice-president who chaired the women's ordination business session at Utrecht and who enthusiastically endorsed the book in Adventist Review may have spoken for many of the book's authors when he wrote: "Though unfortunately too late to inform prior [Utrecht] debate, my opinion is that Women in Ministry has the potential to be determinative in future [General Conference?] discussion."43

If indeed the intent of the Seminary book is to overturn the worldwide decision at Utrecht, some major questions arise: Is it ever right for the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary to allow its prestige and resources to be hijacked for some ideological agenda rejected by the church? If, for instance, a General Conference session votes against homosexuality, can a group of pro-gay theologians in a church institution use the name and resources of the institution to advance their homosexual agenda?

This question is not about the biblical rightness of women's ordination, homosexuality, or any other issue. My point here is simply about the responsibility of the church's leading theological institution to the community of faith at large. What kind of precedent do we set when the Seminary begins to cave in to ideological pressure or "appeals" from some quarters of church leadership?

Also, the concern here is not about whether theologians may legitimately mass-distribute their published works; they have a right to do so. The issue being raised is simply this: Since the book's editor states in the prologue that the authors of Women in Ministry "do not claim to speak for others, either at the Seminary or in church administration," is it appropriate for the Seminary (or Andrews University, or any other church institution) to use its resources, name, and influence to promote some privately held opinions that are contrary to official church actions? Would the Seminary (or Andrews University, or some other church institution) do the same for other scholars holding opposing views on this question, and perhaps on another controversial issue like homosexuality?

I raise these questions in an effort to highlight the real reason behind the Seminary book ("doing something about Utrecht"), the unfortunate silencing of views opposing women's ordination, and the potential use of such an ideological document to overturn a worldwide General Conference session decision. But perhaps this background glimpse into how the book came into being is not the most important thing at this point. The book is already out, is being widely distributed around the world in the name of the Seminary, and is being used by advocates of women's ordination to push their agenda.44

Perhaps we should now turn our attention to another aspect of my review: the hermeneutical approach adopted by the authors of the volume. Focusing on questions about the authors' methodology will shed some light on conclusions in Women in Ministry, enabling us later to evaluate the validity of the book's message.

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Chapter 1, Part 1

Chapter 1, Part 3

Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Ph.D., is Director of Public Campus Ministries for the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

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