By Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, PhD
Director, Public Campus Ministries , Michigan Conference
Author, Must We Be Silent? and Receiving the Word
Regardless of one's position on women's ordination, this one fact is incontrovertible: Ordaining women as elders or pastors is new light that the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist church is being urged to embrace. 1 For more than 100 years, Adventists have been unanimous in their view that no precedent for the practice of ordaining women can be found in Scripture or in the writings of Ellen G. White and the early Seventh-day Adventist Church . 2
By the 1970s, however, this established position began to be reversed in favor of ordaining women as elders and pastors.
This new trend was created by the converging interests of feminism; liberalism; church leaders' desire to enjoy United States tax law benefits to ministers; questionable church policy revisions and Church Manual alterations allowing women to serve as elders; calculated attempts by some influential North American churches unilaterally to ordain women as pastors; the silence of leadership to this defiance of two General Conference (GC) session votes against women's ordination; a well-orchestrated strategy by influential thought leaders and pro-ordination groups to domesticate the practice in the church; a determined effort by some church scholars to reinterpret the Bible and early Adventist history to justify the practice; the systematic and aggressive lobbying by liberal and feminist groups for the church to issue unisex ordination credentials for ordained and nonordained employees of the church; the hijacking of official church publications, institutions, departments, and certain other organs and events of the church for pro-ordination propaganda; and the silencing, coercion, or persecution of individuals who challenge the un-Biblical practice of ordaining women as elders or pastors. 3
Initially, the campaign to overthrow the long-standing Biblical position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church was spearheaded by a relatively few, but influential, liberal and feminist thought leaders within the church. But today, as a result of the converging interests identified above, and as a result of a wide range of arguments being employed, an increasing number of church members are not sure about what the real issues are in the debate over women's ordination, nor about the Biblical correctness of the practice.
In this article, I will (1) briefly summarize the arguments that have been employed over the years in defense of women's ordination, (2) identify the crucial issues in the campaign for women's ordination, (3) discuss the role differentiation between men and women, and (4) set forth the Biblical and theological obstacles against ordaining women as elders or pastors.
I'm writing this article from the perspective of one who used to support the practice but who has since changed my mind on the strength of the evidence from the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy, as reflected also in the understanding and example of the Adventist pioneers, including Ellen G. White. 4
The Evolving Arguments for Women's Ordination
Since the 1970s, several arguments have been employed in the church in an attempt to overthrow the church's long-standing position against ordaining women as elders or pastors. During this period two major pro-ordination works have come to embody the most reasoned defense of women's ordination: (1) The Welcome Table and (2) Women in Ministry .
The Welcome Table. In 1995, fourteen (14) pro-ordination thought leaders produced the 408-page book, The Welcome Table: Setting a Table for Ordained Women. 5 Published shortly before the 1995 General Conference session in Utrecht , this volume was designed to convince the world church to approve the request by the North American Division to ordain women.
In this work some of the authors argued that Bible passages (like Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18, 19; 1 Peter 3:1-7; 1 Corinthians 11:3, 11, 12; 14:34, 35; 1 Timothy 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 opinionsopinions 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. 6
Despite the wide publicity given it, The Welcome Table (1995) did not gain much credibility among thoughtful Adventists because its conclusions were based on liberal/feminist and revisionist interpretations of the Bible and Adventist history. Thus, at the 1995 Utrecht General Conference session, the world church overwhelmingly voted to reject the request to ordain women. The arguments in the book, together with other pro-ordination arguments up to 1995, failed to convince the world church. These can be summarized as follows:
1. The Bible is "silent" or "neutral" on the women's ordination issue (that is to say, the Bible is "neither for nor against" women's ordination).
2. The lack of Biblical precedence for women in spiritual leadership (as priests in the Old Testament, and as apostles and elders in the New Testament) and the presence of Biblical prohibitions against women serving in those roles, is due to the nature of the Bible as "culturally conditioned" (that is to say the Bible is the product and a reflection of its unenlightened or patriarchal culture).
3. Ordaining women as elders or pastors is a "power" issue (this argument transformed the Biblical teaching of male "headship" in both the home and in the church into a symbol of male oppression of women).
4. Ordaining women as elders or pastors in the church is a "cultural" issue (in the sense that it has to do with the "cultural readiness" of groups or regions of the world Adventist Church ).
5. Women's ordination has to do with "equality," "capability," and "ability" of male and female (this argument transformed the women's ordination issue into a "fairness," "justice," or civil rights issue).
6. The issue of women's ordination is not theological but "ecclesiological" (by this argument proponents meant that the issue of women's ordination could be settled not by the Bible, but by administrative "policy" of church leaders).
7. The issue of women's ordination is an example of "unity in diversity" (this argument, which deals with pluralism in belief and practice, maintained that just as there is "diversity" in attitudes and practices within the church in such areas as Sabbath observance, worship styles, dress, participation in one's tribe's/nation's war machinery, so also on the issue of women's ordination there should be "diversity"). Some argued that "diversity" or pluralism in theological belief and practice was evidence of maturity, strength, and true unity, not of blind uniformity or lockstep conformity.
8. The issue has to do with the "Spirit's leading" or "progressive revelation" (this argument seeks to make the women's ordination issue a question of "present truth" or "new light"). 7 Not infrequently, the issues of polygamy, slavery, war, and divorce and remarriage were cited as Biblical examples to illustrate God's "accommodation" to sinful human situations in the Bible writers' timesconditions that 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 roles, within the complementary relationship of spiritual equals in the home and church, were explained away as "culturally conditioned."
When the above arguments failed to overthrow the long-standing Seventh-day Adventist position against women's ordination, some pro-ordination church leaders in the North American Division urged pro-ordination scholars at the Andrews University Theological Seminary to "do something about it [ Utrecht 's decision against women's ordination]." The result was the 1998 book Women in Ministry .
Women in Ministry . The second major pro-ordination work was published by some 20 scholars at Andrews University. 8 The book, Women in Ministry: Biblical and Historical Perspectives (1998), prepared by an Ad Hoc Committee from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, was supposed to offer the much desired justification for the new light of women's ordination. 9
Unlike the authors of The Welcome Table , many of whom seem to put their liberal and feminist commitments above Scripture, the authors of Women in Ministry consciously underscore the claim that their approach to the Bible is different. They disavow the feminist and higher-critical method of their ideological cousins. 10 Although the actual practice in the Women in Ministry book was inconsistent with the authors' claim, at least for the first time a group of church scholars attempted to present conservative arguments to justify women's ordination.
The Seminary book presents new arguments and, in some instances, articulates more carefully old arguments to justify women's ordination. The following are the essential contours of the Biblical and historical arguments advanced by Women in Ministry : 11
(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 nonideal arrangement designed only for the governance of the home, not the of the church or covenant community.
(2) New Testament teaching on headship and submission (Ephesians 5:21-33; Colossians 3:18, 19; 1 Peter 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 (Romans 16:7), for example, was an outstanding "female apostle," and Phoebe (Romans 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 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35, etc.) that 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 that unilaterally engaged in "congregational ordinations") to drag the church along. 12
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. 13
If the reader were not yet convinced by the Biblical, theological, historical, and moral or ethical arguments of Women in Ministry , 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?" 14
Today, Women in Ministry has become the basis for some to see t he campaign for women's ordination as an issue of the "individual's moral conscience." (This argument, which is another way of saying "I'll have my own way, regardless of what others think," offers a moral basis for advocates of women's ordination to go against the decision of the world church on the matter.) The Seminary book is also the reason why some view the question of ordaining women as a "moral imperative" (in the sense that it is "immoral" for the worldwide church to refuse to ordain women as pastors). This argument offers the ethical basis to silence any objection to the practice and to coerce or persecute anyone who objects to the practice).
Women in Ministry is the most recent attempt by well-meaning church scholars to provide a much-desired Biblical, historical, and ethical justification for ordaining women as elders and pastors. But as some other church scholars have argued in their Prove All Things: A Response to Women in Ministry , the Seminary book suffers from some serious shortcomings. Prove All Things reveals that the Seminary book is based on: (1) ambiguity and vagueness, (2) straw man arguments, (3) substantial leaps of logic, (4) arguments from silence, (5) speculative interpretations, (6) questionable reinterpretations of the Bible, (7) distorted Biblical reasoning, (8) misleading and erroneous claims regarding Adventist history, (9) a seriously flawed concept of "moral imperative," and (10) a fanciful view of the Holy Spirit's leading. 15
The Evolving Arguments. Perceptive observers of the Adventist theological landscape will discover that the arguments for women's ordination have evolved, some overlapping, and others contradictory, during the past four or more decades. In recent times there has been a 180-degree change in some of the arguments that had in the past been advanced in favor of women's ordination.
For example, during the initial phase of the church debate, proponents of the practice argued that the Bible was either "silent" or "neither for nor against." But now, since women's ordination is believed to be a "moral imperative," it means the Bible is for women's ordination! The Bible is no longer to be seen as "neutral" on the issue of women's ordination; Scripture is now decidedly for it!
Also, proponents in the past admitted that there was no Biblical precedent for women serving in the roles of spiritual leadership as priests, apostles, and elders in Bible times. But now, under the "Spirit's leading" (or His work of "progressive revelation"), advocates are now preaching the "new light" that there were in fact women priests, women apostles, and women elders in the Bible!
Furthermore, because it was originally believed that the Bible was "neither for nor against" women's ordination, the decision was to be determined by each "culture" according to the "cultural readiness" of the respective divisions. In other words, women's ordination was to be settled by regional administrative "policy," but the decision was not to be binding on all. Yet now, since women's ordination is believed to be a "moral imperative," it would seem to follow that, sooner or later, the practice would be urged as binding upon all, with moves to encourage it in all areas of the world church.
In view of the orchestrated attempt to impose women's ordination on the Seventh-day Adventist Church , and in view of the confusing, sometimes plausible-sounding, arguments being advanced for women's ordination, it is important that we identify the crucial issues that are at stake and find out what the Bible has to say on the issue.
1. Christians must always welcome new light from God's Word, as long as the proposed new light does not contradict an established Biblical truth. For a careful summary of what Ellen G. White taught about "new light," see P. Gerard Damsteegt, "When Is a Doctrine New Light?" at the Web site: AdventistsAffirm.org.
2. In my Receiving the Word: How New Approaches to the Bible Impact Our Biblical Faith and Lifestyle ( Berrien Springs , Mich. : Berean Books), pp. 123-126, I have challenged revisionist reinterpretations of Adventist beliefs and practice of ministry (see also pp. 138-140, nn. 34-44 of my book).
3. See Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Must We Be Silent?: Issues Dividing Our Church ( Ann Arbor : Berean Books, 2001), pp. 161-189. Cf. C. Mervyn Maxwell's "How Money Got Us Into Trouble," in Here We Stand: Evaluating New Trends in the Church ( Berrien Springs , Mich ,: ADVENTISTS AFFIRM, 2005); Laurel Damsteegt's "Shall Women Minister?", ibid., nn. 28-30.
4. See, for example, my Searching the Scriptures: Women's Ordination and the Call to Biblical Fidelity (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Adventists Affirm, 1995), my articles in Prove All Things: A Response to Women in Ministry (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Adventists Affirm , 2000), and part II of my book Must We Be Silent?: Issues Dividing Our Church (Ann Arbor: Berean Books, 2001).
5. The Welcome Table: Setting a Place for Ordained Women , edited by Patricia A. Habada and Rebecca Frost Brillhart (Langley Park, Md.: TEAMPress, 1995). The "fourteen prominent SDA historians, theologians, and professionals" who contributed essays to the book are: Bert Haloviak, Kit Watts, Raymond F. Cottrell, Donna Jeane Haerich, David R. Larson, Fritz Guy, Edwin Zackrison, Halcyon Westphal Wilson, Sheryll Prinz-McMillan, Joyce Hanscom Lorntz, V. Norskov Olsen, Ralph Neall, Ginger Hanks Harwood, and Iris M. Yob.
6. For a brief evaluation of the pro-ordination arguments by some of the authors in The Welcome Table , see my Receiving the Word , chapter 5, part 2, pp. 126-129.
7. During the discussions that culminated at the General Conference session in Utrecht , some voices heralded the ordination of women as elders and pastors as new light for God's church in the last days. For example, in a letter dated June 1, 1995, given out to delegates at the 1995 General Conference session in Utrecht, the president of a major North American conference, in support of women's ordination, presented new interpretations of "new light," "present truth," and "progressive revelation," arguing that "present truth" represents "truths that were not present in earlier times"i.e., "the prophets and disciples of old" were not privileged to have the "new light" that our (then) twentieth-century progressive culture needs.
8. The 20 scholars whose works are published in Women in Ministry are: Nancy Vyhmeister, Jo Ann Davidson, Richard Davidson, Walter Douglas, Jacques Doukhan, Roger Dudley, Jon Dybdahl, Denis Fortin, Robert Johnston, George Knight, Jerry Moon, Larry Richards, Russell Staples, Peter Van Bemmelen, Randal Wisbey, Daniel Augsburger, Raoul Dederen, Keith Mattingly, Michael Bernoi, and Alicia Worley (the last two were MDiv Students at the time the book was published).
9. The generic phrase "women in ministry," employed as a title for the book, can be misleading. For, the authors' goal was not simply the ministry of women in the church (which has never been opposed by the Adventist Church ), but rather ordaining women as elders and pastors. For an insightful background into how this book came into being and its serious theological and historical defects, see Mercedes Dyer, ed., Prove All Things: A Response to Women in Ministry (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Adventists Affirm , 2000).
10. See Vyhmeister, "Prologue," in Women in Ministry , pp. 3, 5, n. 1. Observe, however, that contrary to the church's official position in "The Methods of Bible Study" document ( Adventist Review , January 22, 1987, pp. 18-20), shortly after the publication of Women in Ministry , Robert M. Johnston (a Women in Ministry author), for example, argued for the use of the historical-critical method. See his "The Case for a Balanced Hermeneutic," Ministry , March 1999, pp. 10-12.
11. Source references from Women in Ministry for each of the following points, are provided in my evaluation of the book in Prove All Things , pp. 179-218; 287-312; cf. Must We Be Silent? , pp. 127-289.
12. Randal R. Wisbey, "SDA Women in Ministry: 1970-1998," Women in Ministry , p. 251. For my response to the unilateral post-Utrecht ordinations, see my "How the Holy Spirit Leads the Church," Adventists Affirm 12/3 (Fall 1998) :28-35.
13. Roger L. Dudley, "The Ordination of Women in Light of the Character of God," in Women in Ministry , pp. 400, 413, 414; Walter B.T. Douglas, "The Distance and the Difference: Reflections on Issues of Slavery and Women's Ordination in Adventism," ibid., pp. 379-398; Nancy Vyhmeister, "Epilogue," ibid., pp. 434, 435.
14. Vyhmeister, "Epilogue," p. 436.
15. See Prove All Things: A Response to Women in Ministry ( Berrien Springs , Mich. : Adventists Affirm , 2000).