A Seat at the Table
by Hannele Ottschofski | 3 December 2019 |
When the annual council in 1984 voted that the divisions should be allowed to decide whether to ordain women as elders, some people feared that the church would split. That was not the case. That would not have happened in 2015 at the General Conference Session either, if divisions had been allowed to proceed with ordination in areas where it is fitting. The cramped effort to coerce uniformity in this matter is a much greater risk to the church’s unity.
What is the question of the ordination of women to the ministry really about? It is simply about the recognition of the church that the Holy Spirit calls women into ministry. When God calls, how should we as humans fight against it?
How I wish that the leaders of the world church had listened to the wise advice of Gamaliel: “Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
In Biblical times, the women were in the kitchen or at the fireplace preparing the food and serving the men who sat down at the table. The women and children ate what was left over after the meal. They had no business at the table with the guests. Sarah in the kitchen tent heard what the guest told her husband Abraham in the main tent. But even a “princess” such as Sarah was not able to sit down with the men. There are still countries today where this culture prevails. The women live their lives apart, as welcome servants. Even today, they would not think of simply sitting down with the men.
We also know the story of Martha and Mary. Martha struggled to entertain the guests, while Mary sat down with the men to share in the teachings of Jesus. Mary listened attentively. She was not content to hear just a word here and there while she set the table or carried food back and forth. She wanted a seat at the table in order to be able to follow the conversation properly. Martha responded with irritation. You just can’t do that!
When Martha complained to Jesus, he affectionately answered her: “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” As so often, Jesus did not conform to expectations. Martha had been sure he would send Mary back to the kitchen. But no, Mary was allowed to stay with the disciples and to quench her spiritual thirst, instead of pouring water for the men.
If Jesus then allowed a woman to sit down at his feet at the table, who are we today to question his behavior? Did he consider if the religious society of his day was ready for such a revolutionary attitude? The law teachers of his time paid close attention to compliance with all regulations, and they certainly did not agree. But Jesus made room for women in his life and at his table.
Jesus must have known the Biblical story of the five sisters, Zelophehad’s daughters—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah—who already demanded justice. They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. “Say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies and leaves no son, give his inheritance to his daughter…This is to have the force of law for the Israelites, as the Lord commanded Moses.’”
Respectfully but assertively, these women demanded to be treated fairly and on an equal footing. It required a lot of courage from them to challenge the prevailing culture and jurisprudence. Moses could have said, “We always did it thus. Only men have the right to inherit land. Be content with that.” But no, he said,” I will ask the Lord. “And the Lord answered in favor of the women. The rules and orders of the entire nation were changed, so that women were entitled to inherit if necessary. (See Numbers 27.)
Interestingly enough, when the question arose at the Annual Council 2019 where the working policy stipulates mandatory ordination for male pastors, the General Conference (GC) president answered “This is our historical understanding: The ministry has been built upon ordained ministers. It may not specifically say that ministers must be ordained. It certainly is implied.” It is implied. That is how it has always been done. And so Adventist tradition becomes the basis for disciplinary actions.
On March 2, 2019, General Conference President Ted Wilson said in a question and answer session at Andrews University: “Our church has decided that ordination is for men only.” He referred to the vote in San Antonio in 2015. But like Zelophehad’s daughters, there were many who had hoped that church leaders would ask the Lord for His will, rather than hide behind a man-made decision to uphold the old order. Moses was ready to change rules and regulations. If we as a church were willing, we could find the necessary unity in the diversity of our church.
The young generation values honest dialogue and transparency. They want to be taken seriously. The questions put to Wilson were well worded and grouped into categories. However, the answers did not really address the questions. Wilson emphasized in general how Christians can develop a relationship with God and engage in mission without responding to the questions.
It is sad that the leadership of the church is not interested in an honest, open conversation. In the Adventist Review reports following Wilson’s election in 2010, he said “Spiritual leadership involves a lot of listening.” The aforementioned Q&A proves the opposite. He apparently does not hear or understand the questions that are bothering the church members. Perhaps it is also because someone who has spent several decades in the upper administrative levels of the church has lost sight of church reality. Church members suffer from the current leadership style. Women pastors do not feel fully accepted and are hurting. Wilson could at least have shown empathy in this conversation. There was no word of appreciation for female clergy.
The administrative guidelines of the church state that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of race or gender, except when it comes to the question of ordination. There discrimination is expressis verbis demanded.
Should we be satisfied with the status quo? The development in our church shows that in the beginning women were seen as equal partners in ministry. How could it be otherwise in a church where a woman is considered a co-founder and messenger of God? In the early times of our church many women were given ministerial licenses, although we have no mention of ordinations. They were treated like their male counterparts. There was a time in the history of our church where the working policy did not prohibit women from serving as presidents or being ordained.
After the death of Ellen White in 1915, women were slowly ousted from leadership positions. This regression was reinforced by policies that linked leadership responsibilities to ordination. Many opponents of women’s ordination today look back at the time between the world wars as the time of “Historical Adventism” to which we should return today. It was at this time and up to 1960 that a shift towards fundamentalism significantly changed the original position of the church. Now the leadership of the General Conference sees its task in defending this retrogression.
God gave man, both man and woman, the same task: they were to subdue the earth and rule over the animals. There was no distribution of roles. They should do it together. And it was all very good. The degradation of the woman’s role came through the effects of sin. The curse described the result of sin.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we value the restoration of the institutions established at creation, such as the Sabbath and marriage. The liberation of women from oppression is just as much a part of restoration. Salvation wants to press the reset button and restore the beauty provided by God. But it does not seem to happen by itself, no matter how much revival and reformation is preached.
As long as ordination is prescribed as a prerequisite for leadership, the administrative level of the church will continue to consist mainly of old men in dark suits. We should pay respect to the men who advocate the equal treatment of women. These include the courageous leaders of many divisions and unions in the western world and Australia.
Long-time leading retired Church workers such as William G. Johnsson and George Knight have stated in their latest books that the church they served for a long time is moving in a direction that makes them very concerned. Is this really the church that they have served their whole lives? The same question is asked by many Adventists who are concerned about the direction in which the Church is currently headed.
Today’s youth is accused of being too well-behaved and adapted. Maybe something is slowly changing. The Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has launched a worldwide protest movement with her school strike Fridays for Future. Many adults have joined her protest. 11,000 scientists warn about a climate crisis. She is honored by Amnesty International as an “ambassador of conscience.” She was awarded the alternative Nobel Prize. If the world is to be saved from a climate catastrophe, it is high time that governments take action, and if not, the young generation has no future. There is no Plan B for the Earth. This protest movement wants to show the rulers that they have ignored the signs of the times and now have to respond. Politicians should take this seriously.
The results of the European elections in 2019 showed the traditional political parties that they are also risking their future if the younger voters turn away from them. If the leadership no longer understands the base and ignores the signs of the times, something is wrong. That applies to more than politics.
The signs of the times in our church do not only refer to prophetic dates. Anyone looking at the demographic development of the church will realize that most congregations in the western world are aging. Many local churches will barely exist in 20 years. The young people have already voted with their feet because they no longer see the church as relevant to their lives. The church leadership should understand that the future of the church is also endangered. The answer is not threatening sanctions for non-compliant organizations. The General Conference is making itself irrelevant to people.
And yet they are still there, the young people who have not given up on the church. The students at Andrews University, who lined up at a floor microphone on March 2, 2019, silently demonstrating, fought to be heard. They wanted real answers to urgent questions. Although the speaker did not pay any attention to them, Andrea Luxton, president of Andrews University, who moderated the conversation, said they were perceived. These young people want to stand up for their church and still hope that the leadership not only exercises power to enforce an outdated model, but is moved by the Spirit of God to challenge long outdated traditions. We should be glad that they have not given up the fight yet. They are an encouragement for us as well.
I have often thought about what would happen if Adventist women were to join a church strike and leave their honorary posts vacant. The Catholic women have dared to do so. A small group of women in Münster, Germany, spoke about the current state of the church and especially about discrimination against women, abuse and sexual morality. Without women, nothing happens in the Catholic Church. But women have no voice within church structures. “We have to do something,” they said, “more than just talk about it.” They are active in parish councils and pastoral care, supervise the preparation of the communion and plan family worship services. But they are not allowed to baptize or receive confession. Only men who live in celibacy are allowed to do so. Thus the protest initiative “Maria 2.0” was born, which calls for a change in the structures of the Catholic Church – a church strike from May 11 to 18, 2019. Word got around quickly, and this became a nationwide action in Germany in which the women in the churches showed their protest. The women did not enter a church during this time. They organized services in front of churches where women officiated. The participation was much greater than expected. The news media reported about the action. The action does not seem to have had much effect on the church.
For at least 140 years, the Seventh-Day Adventist church has been discussing the question of the ordination of women pastors. Again and again a decision has been postponed despite thorough study, with the excuse: “The Church is not yet ready for it.” There are people in the church who insist that all statutes in the working policy are strictly adhered to when it comes to the issue of women. Women are required to be patient with the brethren who struggle to make room for women. But how long?
We women in the western world are allowed to sit at the same table in the family as men. We are allowed to have a say and make decisions. We have achieved unprecedented appreciation and freedom in society and politics. The times when women should care only for children, kitchen and go to church are finally over. But what about the church? What are women allowed to do in the church? Do women in the church have to quietly fill the pews and remain silent?
The apostle Paul wrote many a text that is used against women. Yet I am convinced that he was no misogynist. He valued their cooperation and saw no problem in calling Phoebe a deacon because she held this office in the church at Cenchreae. Women were allowed to pray and to prophesy in public. And he wrote to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Even Paul made room at the table for women. I think it’s time for our church to do the same.
- Acts 5:38,39 NIV ↑
- Luke 10:41 NIV ↑
- William G. Johnsson: Where Are We Headed? Adventism after San Antonio. George R. Knight: Adventist Authority Wars. 2017 by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform ↑
- Galatians 3:28 NIV ↑
Hannele Ottschofski is from Finland, and has spent most of her life in Germany married to a pastor. She has served the church as a writer, educator, editor, conference speaker and translator. She was chosen by General Conference Women’s Ministries as one of five to receive the 2019 Women of the Year Award. This essay is a translated excerpt from her recent book, Mit am Tisch: Frauen in der Freikirche der Siebenten-Tags-Adventisten (At the Table: Women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church).