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Chapter 1, Part 3

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

Samuel Koranteng-Pipim

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B. The Hermeneutical Approach of Women in Ministry

Women in Ministry should be read against the backdrop of an earlier work by another team of pro-ordination scholars. The 1995 volume, The Welcome Table: Setting a Table for Ordained Women, was authored by 14 thought leaders.45 Although not published by any Seventh-day Adventist institution, like the present work under review it also was widely promoted in the church as "a definitive collection of essays for our time from respected church leaders--both women and men. Informed, balanced, mission-oriented, and thoroughly Adventist, this book--like Esther of old--has `come to the kindom [sic] for such a time as this.'"46 The book's release was timed to influence the 1995 Utrecht General Conference session's debate on the North American Division's request for divisional ordinations. Upon closer inspection, however, thoughtful Adventists rejected its conclusions because of its revisionist interpretation of the Bible and Adventist history.47

Observe that in The Welcome Table some of the authors argued that Bible passages (like Eph 5:22-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Pet 3:1-7; 1 Cor 11:3, 11-12; 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:11-14; 3:2; and Titus 1:6) which Adventists historically understood as having a bearing on male-female role relations in both the home and the church are the product of the Bible writers' faulty logic or mistaken rabbinic interpretations in vogue in their day. Reasoning along feminist and higher-critical lines, some of the writers maintained that the apostle Paul erred in his interpretation of Genesis 1-3 when he grounded his teaching of role distinctions between male and female in Creation and the Fall. They claimed that the apostle Paul's statements were merely expressions of uninspired personal opinions--opinions that reflect his culture and hence do not apply to us. To these authors, Paul was "a man of his own time." He occasionally glimpsed the ideal that Jesus established during His time on earth; yet he never fully arrived at "the gospel ideal" of "full equality" or complete role interchangeability in both the home and the church.48

In contrast to the authors of The Welcome Table, the authors of Women in Ministry consciously underscore the claim that their approach to the Bible is not the same as that of their distant ideological cousins. Significantly, the editor of Women in Ministry states that "all the chapters" in the book are based on the "time-honored approaches" reflected in such "recognized Adventist publications" as the 1986 "Methods of Bible Study" document, an officially approved church document that rejects even a "modified use of the historical-critical method."49

Given that some authors of Women in Ministry also still subscribe to a modified use of contemporary higher criticism,50 some readers may wonder if the carefully-worded statement on the use of the church's time-honored approaches to the Bible is not calculated to appeal to conservative church members who are now waking up to the baneful effects of the historical-critical method in the church.51

Still, to the extent that the authors have put themselves on record as not using aspects of the historical-critical method, readers should see the hermeneutical stance professed in Women in Ministry as a step in the right direction. Whether the actual practice in the book is consistent with the claim remains to be seen. Insofar as the authors claim to uphold the church's generally accepted approach to Scripture on this particular issue, I personally sense a far closer affinity with the authors of the Seminary book than with those of The Welcome Table, many of whom seem to put their liberal and feminist commitments above Scripture.

My point is this: There are two major defects plaguing the arguments of liberal and conservative proponents of women's ordination--defects arising from the use of a wrong methodology, and those arising from an inconsistent use of a right methodology. Whereas The Welcome Table should justifiably be criticized for using a wrong methodology (liberal and feminist hermeneutics), Women in Ministry, if truly adopting the traditional Adventist approach, should be evaluated on the basis of whether the book consistently uses the right methodology (the "time-honored" approach). It is this latter issue that divides the views of conservative opponents of women's ordination from those of conservative proponents (the conservative image the Seminary writers seek to project when they all claim to subscribe to Adventism's time-honored principles of interpretation).

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C. The Content of Women in Ministry

Women in Ministry should also be read against the backdrop of the long-standing Seventh-day Adventist belief and practice of ministry. Regardless of one's position on women's ordination, this one fact is incontrovertible: Ordaining women as elders or pastors is "new light" which the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist church is being urged to embrace.52 Until recently, Adventists have been unanimous in their view that no precedent for the practice of ordaining women can be found in Scripture, nor in the writings of Ellen G. White and the early Seventh-day Adventist church.53

Thus, in order for the authors of the book to overthrow what has been understood as the universal consensus of the Old Testament, New Testament, and early Seventh-day Adventist belief, and thus succeed in "doing something about Utrecht," they must come up with compelling reasons for women's ordination. The writers believe they have done exactly that: "Our conclusion is that ordination and women can go together, that `women in pastoral leadership' is not an oxymoron, but a manifestation of God's grace in the church." Or as the prologue states: "We believe that the biblical, theological, and historical perspectives elaborated in this book affirm women in pastoral leadership."54

Perceptive readers of Women in Ministry will notice slight variations in the views of the authors regarding the above conclusions. A majority of the writers are fully convinced that the New Testament "affirms new roles for women in the church that do not preclude women's ordination to ministry" or that it "never" prohibits women from taking "positions of leadership, including headship positions over men."55

But a minority is more modest: "It is time for the Adventist Church to calmly admit that the Scriptures are silent on the matter and that we have no direct word from the Lord either in Scripture or in the writings of Ellen White. This is an opportunity therefore for the exercise of prayerful study and sound judgment. It is our responsibility to seek divine guidance and make a decision as best we can in the light of the Adventist understanding of the church and its mission."56

Despite the slight differences among the convinced voices ("there are compelling reasons to ordain women") and the cautious voices ("there are no compelling reasons not to ordain"), the two years of animated discussions, writing, re-writing, careful editing, cross-referencing, and approval by all members of the committee has produced a work in which there seem to be ten basic lines of argument for the ordination of women as elders or pastors. I suggest the following as the essential contours of the biblical and historical arguments advanced by Women in Ministry:57

  1. Genesis 1-3 teaches that God did not institute headship and submission or male-female role distinctions at creation. Adam and Eve enjoyed "full equality" of "shared leadership" or "shared headship." Male headship and female submission were introduced by God after the Fall; even then, this was a non-ideal arrangement designed only for the governance of the home, not the church or covenant community.
  2. New Testament teaching on headship and submission (Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Pet 3:1-7) suggests that today Christians should aim at reaching the creation ideal of "total equality," understood to mean the obliteration of any gender-based role differentiation.
  3. A careful study of the Bible reveals that there was actually at least one "woman priest" in the Old Testament. God Himself ordained Eve as a priest alongside Adam when, after the Fall, He dressed both as priests in the garden of Eden using animal skins. Prophetesses Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah exercised headship or leadership roles over men.
  4. The Bible also reveals that there were actually "women apostles and leaders" in the New Testament. Junia (Rom 16:7), for example, was an outstanding "female apostle," and Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2) was a "female minister."
  5. The New Testament teaching of "the priesthood of all believers" suggests that women may be ordained as elders or pastors.
  6. When correctly understood, biblical texts (like 1 Tim 2:11ff., 1 Cor 14:34ff., etc.) which seem to preclude women from headship responsibilities in the home as husbands and fathers and in the church as elders or pastors are temporary restrictions that applied only to specific situations during New Testament times.
  7. Careful study of early Seventh-day Adventist history reveals that women actually served as pastors in those days and were issued ministerial certificates. Ellen G. White apparently endorsed the call of such women to the gospel ministry.
  8. The 1881 General Conference session voted to ordain women. This vote, however, was apparently ignored or killed by the all-male General Conference Committee (comprised of George I. Butler, Stephen Haskell, and Uriah Smith).
  9. A landmark statement in 1895 by Ellen G. White called for ordaining women to the gospel ministry. This statement could have spurred on the male brethren who were reluctant to implement the alleged 1881 General Conference decision.
  10. Ellen G. White was herself ordained and was issued ministerial credentials.

In two later chapters I will argue that the above assertions are based on speculative and questionable reinterpretations of Scripture as well as misleading and erroneous claims regarding Adventist history. Yet on the basis of such "biblical, theological, and historical" evidence, Women in Ministry seeks to convince readers of the "new light" of ordaining women as elders or pastors.

But there is also a moral-ethical argument. Emphasizing the ethical necessity of ordaining women as elders or pastors, some of the Women in Ministry authors argue that "it is morally reprehensible to hold back from women the one thing that formally recognizes their work within the church." "It is imperative" that the church act "with justice, with mercy, and with courage on behalf of its women." The failure of the church to act ethically, or a delay on its part to do so, will compel "the forces of history" (such as the churches in North America which unilaterally engaged in "congregational ordinations") to drag the church along.58

Moreover, we are told, unless the new light of women's ordination is implemented, the witness of the church will not only be discredited in countries where it is wrong to "discriminate" against women, but it will make God "look bad." Thus, the church's rejection of women's ordination will be an affront to the character of God, even as slavery was in the nineteenth century.59

If the reader is not yet convinced by Women in Ministry's biblical, theological, historical, and moral or ethical arguments, there is one final argument: We must listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit as He calls upon us today to change our patterns of ministry in response to the pragmatic needs of a growing church. Writes the editor in her summation chapter:

"If circumcision, based on divine [Old Testament] mandate, could be changed [by the apostles, elders, and believers, together with the Holy Spirit, at the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15], how much more could patterns of ministry [ordaining women as elders and pastors], which lack a clear `Thus says the Lord,' be modified to suit the needs of a growing church?"60

Because my later chapters will evaluate the contents of the book, for now I will simply make the following comments in response to the "moral imperative" argument and the appeal to the Holy Spirit's leading to meet the pragmatic needs of a growing church: (1) For believing Christians, there is a "moral imperative" always to trust and obey biblical truth. Whenever they are compelled to believe and practice error, that imperative is not moral--it is coercion. (2) The Holy Spirit cannot lead believers today into "new truths" or "new light" that contradict those already established in His inspired Word.

Therefore, Women in Ministry's arguments concerning ethics and the Holy Spirit can only be sustained if the book's biblical, theological, and historical arguments are compelling enough to overthrow the historic understanding of Seventh-day Adventists that ordaining women is an unbiblical practice.

Before embarking upon a biblical and historical evaluation of Women in Ministry, it may be helpful to show how this pro-ordination book from the Seminary fits into a carefully orchestrated strategy to impose women's ordination upon the Seventh-day Adventist church.

 

Next Page
Chapter 1, Part 2
Chapter 1, Part 4
 

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

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