By Woodrow W. Whidden
Basic Assumptions and Principles
While the Bible does not speak directly to the issue as to whether women should or should not be ordained, its seems clear that it does offer believers essential principles that call for the setting apart of women by the laying on of hands to confirm their calling to engage in Gospel ministry. Furthermore, these principles are inherent in the central doctrines of the Trinity, the atoning work of Christ and the Bible’s teachings on the work of the Holy Spirit’s impartation of the “Gifts of the Spirit” to build up His body .
Trinitarian Principles and the Atoning Work of Christ
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Therefore it is abundantly clear that the heart of the plan of salvation is revealed in the loving Self-Sacrifice of Christ Who offered up Himself to the Father and the Fact that the Father then yielded Him up to make full and complete provision for the salvation of the lost. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit was mysteriously involved in this great Triune Self-Sacrifice by almost completely losing His personal identity in the interest of uplifting Christ in His Incarnate work of making a full and complete Atonement. The Son has done this by living, dying, being resurrected and ascending to heaven to “Advocate” for the salvation of sinful humanity.
What we find here is a powerful manifestation of redeeming love, with all three members of the Trinity making infinite self-sacrifices so that the lost could be redeemed and the questions regarding God’s just and merciful love could be properly demonstrated to the complete satisfaction of the entire universe.
Now at this juncture, it is entirely appropriate to raise the question as to why all of these issues are so important and central to the question of the appropriate roles that women should play in Gospel “ministry” (at all levels). And here is where the church is confronted with what seems to be at the foundation of the opposition in its world constituency to the formal “ordination” of women to Gospel ministry. No one’s sincerity is in question. But the key rationale of many of the opponents of women’s ordination is indeed troubling. And what is it that is at the core of their rationale?
It has become abundantly clear that the Trinitarian theology which undergirds the position of many who are opposed to women’s ordination is the view that the Son has been eternally subordinate to the Father! And this subordination conviction has become especially evident in the way they view God as He has dealt with the emergence of sin. Apparently influenced by certain Evangelical thinkers (especially the Calvinistic/Reformed writers), this concept of the eternal subordination of Christ to the Father (especially during the Incarnation) has become a paradigm for these thinkers when it comes to Male and Female relationships in the Christian Church. And their rationale has unfolded along the following lines:
Just as Christ was alleged to have been eternally subordinate to the Primacy and Authority of the “headship” of the Father in the Trinitarian dealings with creation and redemption, so Women should be subject to the authority of men in the work of the Church. And thus it is deemed inappropriate for any woman to be placed in any position of authority where women would be exercising any authority over the work of men in the church. So what can be said in response to this rationale?
Such a line of theological reasoning seems to be not only unbiblical, but also contrary to the clearest and most straight-forward messages given by Ellen G. White. And exhibit “A” would be Volume One of the Ellen White writings entitled The Spirit of Prophecy, pp. 45 ff. In these pages Ellen G. White makes it very clear that it was the Son who initiated the key move by the Godhead in spontaneously offering Himself up to the Father to come to this sin-cursed world to endure terrible temptations and to die an atoning, sacrificial death for the sinful human race. This passage from Ellen White became the fountainhead of all her subsequent comments on the atoning work of the “heavenly Trio,” especially in the context of the “Great Controversy” or “Cosmic Conflict” theme.
Furthermore, in this inspired narrative it is clear that the Son offered Himself up to the Father, not because the Father demanded that He do it (as His “subordinate”) but that the Son made the offer to do so according to His own divine initiative. Furthermore this simple narrative then tells us that the Father “yielded up his dearly beloved Son” only after a terrible and wrenching “struggle” (1SOP, page 48). There is simply nothing in this inspired narrative which comes even close to suggesting that Christ was in any way ontologically or spiritually subordinate to the Father in their eternal relationship in the Godhead. Christ’s self-sacrifice was the fruit of His own infinite love that He has co-eternally shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit and was now being manifested in a powerfully and infinite self-sacrifice—a Self-Sacrifice that was strikingly shared by all three Members of the Infinitely Loving Godhead!!!
To state the issue as simply and plainly as it can be put: not only does this concept of the so-called “eternal subordination” of the Son to the Father tear at the profound Oneness of the Godhead, but it also strikes right at the heart of the efficacy of the Atoning death of Christ as the willing and co-equal manifestation of self-sacrificing love being unfolded by and flowing from the collective Heart of all three Members of the Godhead.
Furthermore, if what has been said about the infinite Self-Sacrifice of the Holy Trinity is true, then it becomes powerfully self-evident that the prime source of the loving authority of the Godhead centers in the two great facts of Divine and Human existence: the very authority of God to rule the universe arises out of the Self-Sacrifice of the Godhead in both the creation and redemption of all free-will beings that dwell either in heaven or throughout the rest of the created universe.
Now, at this juncture, someone might reply: what was so self-sacrificing about God creating free-will beings in the rest of the universe? It is simply this: if God was going to create various orders of free-will beings, then He inherently has to run the risk that they might not continue to choose to serve and obey Him. And if anyone takes seriously the inspired canonical Scriptures and the writings of Ellen G. White, this is exactly what happened—both Lucifer and one-third of the Angelic beings of heaven rebelled against God and fomented the “Great Controversy” which challenged the fairness and benevolence of the Triune God in meeting this sin emergency.
Thus the question arises: How then has God responded? And the answer is that He has responded with the great salvation plan which has as its major goals the following: the making of provision by Christ, through the working of the Holy Spirit, Who has initiated, through grace, saving actions and initiatives which have made it possible to offer saving grace to all who will respond by faith. But at the very heart of this plan has always been the Self-Sacrificing love of the Triune God. And thus one can simply conclude that it is God’s Great Self-Sacrifice in Christ that has undergirded His right to continue to rule His created universe. Stated more succinctly: it is the Trinity’s great self-sacrifice which forms the foundation for God’s exercise of any ruling and redemptive authority. Such authority does not reside in any inherent subordination of the Son to the Father, but it arises out of their equally collective, mutually self-sacrificing love!!!
Furthermore, if any sincere believer feels led to contend that all of this accomplishment was due to some inherently, ontological subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Father, then all of the loving power of freely chosen, self-sacrificing love is effectively drained out of the Atoning work of Christ. Thus it is safe to conclude that both the Son and the Spirit have been given up by the Father to do His loving, redeeming will. And thus it seems logical to conclude that such an effort to save any concept of supposed Male Headship is essentially anti-Trinitarian and deleterious to the most profound manifestations of God’s self-Sacrificing, redeeming love. Furthermore, it also seems logical to conclude that such a vision of God is primarily “authoritarian,” rather than lovingly authoritative– as has been actually manifest in the unparalleled self-sacrifice of the Holy Trinity. If Christ and the Holy Spirit are only doing what the Father has demanded and is continuing to make them do so because of His inherently overweening authority that dwells exclusively in His Fatherly power, then the whole salvation plan loses it profoundly redemptive poignancy and costliness —all of which arises out of the infinite love which has been freely demonstrated in an incomparable manifestation of divine self-sacrifice on the part of all Three members of the “Heavenly Trio”!
Once more it seems that any rationale which is based on the concept of the so-called “eternal subordination” of the Son to the Father is a rationale that is patently headed in the wrong theological direction—a direction which effectively strikes at the heart of the central, biblically sourced and Ellen White confirmed doctrines of the Trinity and the Atonement.
The Gifts of the Spirit and Church Authority
Now what do all of these considerations have to say about the work of the Holy Spirit in bestowing spiritual gifts? This question becomes very pertinent to the question of women’s (or any person’s) appropriate roles in ministry. It seems that the question of authority in God’s church arises out of His self-Sacrificing love as ministered by the Godhead through the Incarnate Christ, His High Priestly Intercessions and the effective workings of the Holy Spirit to lead the lost to Christ’s saving grace. Furthermore, any legitimate authority in the church is exercised by Christ as He manifests His abundant grace(s) through the effective influence of the varied spiritual gifts in the church and the world. And one is hard-pressed to find any evidence from the inspired writings that any of the Spiritual gifts have been given, based on any sort of gender identity in the Body of Christ (especially so when it comes to the ministry of Ellen G. White)!!! She has, as a female, clearly exercised the greatest authority in the Remnant church, aside from what has been given in the Bible!!!
And, furthermore, it must be asked: upon what basis has she been enabled to exercise such authority? It has all been based on two key facts:
1) She has passed the test of her claims to possess prophetic authority in the church. And her claims have been more than vindicated since she has met every Biblical test that has been given to differentiate between the true and the false gifts of prophecy.
2) Her authority is not only based on her well tested prophetic gift, but it has also been vindicated in the pastorally redemptive manner in which she has exercised her gift in both the past and also in her on-going printed witness. To state it another way: her authority is self-authenticating in the way her Gift has been exercised in such a loving (self-sacrificial) and persistently redemptive manner.
There are certainly many other issues that could be addressed, but what has been laid out here represents what should be the most appropriate response to the actions taken at and after the 2015 General Conference Session.
Woodrow W. Whidden II,PhD, Emeritus Professor of Religion, Andrews University and author of numerous books and articles on SDA and Protestant (especially Wesleyan/Arminian) theology.