About the Ordination of Women to the Gospel Ministry
by Eric C. Webster
I wish to submit reasons why I believe men and women should be treated equally when it comes to the question of ordination to the gospel ministry. If at any time the system of ordination is changed to anything else I maintain that equality should still be maintained whatever the system is called. As ordination is the current practice in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I am arguing for that exact same privilege for women pastors. Here are my reasons.
1. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are Not Gender-based
I believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not gender based. There is no indication that these gifts are promised to men alone. The entire church may be recipients of these gifts.
I have heard it said that it is quite in order for a woman to be a prophetess but a woman should not be an elder or a pastor of a church. How do we make such a differentiation in the gifts given by the Holy Spirit.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are listed in 1 Corinthians 12, in Romans 12 and in Ephesians 4. Let us look at some of these gifts listed in Ephesians. In listing the gifts given by the Holy Spirit Paul writes: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11, 12).
What is there in the above passage which says that God can gift some women to be prophets but He will not gift a woman to be a pastor? There is no such distinction in this passage. Any differentiation made is not by the Holy Spirit but is made by man through custom and tradition.
The prophet Joel makes it clear that these gifts of the Holy Spirit will be even more pronounced in the latter days. He writes: “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh, Your sons and your daughters shall prophecy; Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions. And also on my menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28, 29). The context of the passage confirms that this applies especially when there is salvation through the remnant in the latter days.
Notice that “your daughters shall prophesy [or preach] and the Spirit will be poured out on menservants and on maidservants”. The Holy Spirit is not making any distinction based on gender. If the Holy Spirit calls a woman or a lady to be a Pastor and gifts her with the ability to preach and teach what right do we have to say, “The Church says you can’t do this”?
2. The Priesthood of All Believers
Ideally, every member of the church who is baptized is called to be a priest and can stand between God and man. We do not need an earthly priest. Christ is the only Mediator and all members can function as priests to bring sinners to God. This is the thought of 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This royal priesthood consists of all members of the church, men and women, young people and boys and girls without reference to age.
Some would like to say that the priesthood in Old Testament times from which this passage comes, was confined to men and so this priesthood in 1 Peter 2:9 must also be confined to only men. But that is faulty reasoning. Often Old Testament passages which appear to be localized and particularized are made general and wide in the New Testament. If we want to confine the priesthood of the New Testament to men only on the basis of this text, then also the ‘chosen generation’ and “His own special people” are confined to men.
On the basis of this passage, I believe that any woman can function as a ‘priest’ or pastor if the Holy Spirit gifts her for such a work. What God has chosen we have no right to prohibit.
3. Come into Line with God’s Might Moving
The church should always be ready to move into line when God moves in a special way. One period when God moved mightily in the affairs of the world was when multitudes of Gentiles began to join the early church in the days of Paul and the apostles. The question of circumcision was agitated. A group in the church in Jerusalem insisted that all these new believers should be circumcised according to the instruction given to Abraham as a sign of the eternal covenant. (See Genesis 17) Paul began to teach that faith in Christ was supreme and circumcision should not be made a test of fellowship. This position was confirmed at the general church council in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 15.
When one reads Genesis 17 in the Old Testament one can understand the position taken by those who maintained that circumcision should remain a requirement. After all it was clear Scriptural instruction. Who gave the church permission to move away from the authority of Scripture? Today, most Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists believe that the mighty moving of the Holy Spirit in the early church revealed a new direction for the church when it comes to circumcision.
I maintain that there is another mighty moving of the Holy Spirit today which to some might seem to be a moving away from some Scriptural instructions given by Paul on the role of women in the church. This movement is opening up the Church to the exercise of all the gifts of the Spirit by both men and women. This has become evident in the great work done by women pastors in China and by more and more women in ministerial work in different divisions of the world church.
If the Holy Spirit is moving in this way what right do we have to insist on no pastoral role for women or two tiers of ministry, one for men and one for women? One in which men may be ordained and receive full recognition and another for women as second class pastors who may not be ordained? I believe that the moving of the Holy Spirit indicates that the church should open its arms fully to welcome women ministers on the same footing as men.
4. Both Men and Women Are Called to Servanthood, not to Headship
We hear it said that Paul calls men to a position of ‘headship’ over the woman in the family and that this applies to the church as well. Men can have headship over the wife and over the church family but a woman may not be ‘head’ of a church family.
I would suggest that in the church, men are not called to ‘headship’ but to ‘servanthood.’ This also applies to women. They are also called to ‘servanthood’ in the local church and not to ‘headship.’ I will return to this in a moment.
In the marriage setting we could make a case for the teaching that the man should be the head of the wife. But let me also remind you of the ideal relationship in the family. In the Garden of Eden, before sin, the ideal was partnership between husband and wife. After the entrance of sin it became rulership and then God said the man would rule over the woman, he would have to labor for sustenance, and there would be pain in childbirth. All of this is identified as the results of sin, and this rulership has opened the gates to all types of abuse against women.
As Adventists we often hear that we should get back to Eden in diet and many other ways. I would suggest that in Eden the relationship between husband and wife was partnership and after sin it became rulership. As the gospel takes possession of our hearts and we move back to Eden we will move in the home from rulership to partnership.
Coming back to the church, I believe that rulership on the part of the man is out of place. Men are called by God to servanthood in the church. And this call is for women as well. Thus in an ideal church situation neither men nor women are to exercise ‘headship.’ Each is to demonstrate ‘servanthood.’
Jesus made this clear in speaking to His disciples as they contended about who was the greatest. “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you let him be your slave. (Matt. 20:25-27) Today, God is inviting both men and women to positions of servanthood in the church rather than ‘headship’ and ‘rulership.’
I believe that the clear call of the Holy Spirit to the Seventh-day Adventist Church is to treat men and women in pastoral work with equal dignity. We are called to recognize the mighty working of the Holy Spirit in bestowing gifts on all without prejudice towards gender.. This calls for the ordination of both men and women on an equal footing as the Lord calls and as the Church recognizes that call in the usual way.
We must not sit on the fence in this issue. Either we recognize the above or we must go all the way in the opposite direction. We will then have to give preeminence to a literal understanding of Paul’s counsel on women without regard to local custom and tradition and follow him all the way. Not only would we have no women local elders or pastors, women would not be permitted to preach in any local church if men were in attendance for a woman must be silent in church. This would also apply to teaching the Word in any Sabbath School class where men were present. No woman should ask questions in church or in Sabbath School.
In Paul’s day there were church assemblies often in homes and there was no distinction between a divine service and Sabbath School. Whatever the nature of the assembly, women were to be silent and only ask questions of their husbands in private. Of course no women should be allowed to be chair of a committee that includes men for this would be ‘headship’ and ‘rulership’ over the men in the group. Also we might as well go all the way and make it clear that the Theological Seminary is not open to any woman wanting to take a theological or Biblical studies course where she would end up being qualified to lead men.
In the view of some the Bible upholds slavery and in America those who supported slavery based many of their arguments on Scripture. It was a slow process for Christians to move away from slavery and this took place only in the 19th and 20th centuries. Should we be surprised that it has taken an equally long time for the church to move away from the subordination of women to the equality depicted in Galatians 3:28? “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
How should the Adventist Church handle this issue as they approach the General Conference Session of 2015? I think we should remember that we can have true unity in diversity. If we insist on unity defined as complete uniformity on this issue we could split the church. We should recognize the honesty of those who believe that the Holy Spirit is leading the church toward equality in service. Likewise, there are those who honestly believe that the counsel of Paul on women should be followed in the Church today.
Here is my suggestion. The General Conference should work towards presenting a policy of equality to the world church. If the whole Church is not ready to move towards women’s ordination, vote a recommendation that each Union around the world be allowed to decide what to do in this regard. Many of our Unions will want to follow the example of China and just get on with the work of the Lord in their area and ordain their women pastors. The General Conference Session of 2015 should then suggest that the Church move in this direction and by 2020 or 2025 the whole world might be ready to follow the pattern of many Unions throughout the world. By thus recognizing diversity we would be able to maintain the unity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Eric Webster is an ordained minister and veteran leader in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He is a respected Bible scholar and has long served as director of the Voice of Prophecy Bible School in South Africa.