How the Women’s Ordination Debate Shaped My Theology
By Loren Seibold | 24 August 2018
I didn’t start out with any particular objection to women being pastors. Before I got to college, the idea had never crossed my mind. In our little country church in North Dakota I’d not seen any women pastors. We did have some extraordinary women, though, who shaped my spiritual life in Sabbath School and Pathfinders, probably more than the male pastors covering big rural districts who showed up at church once a month. At Walla Walla College I found myself surrounded by bright, capable and interesting people, some of whom were bright, capable and interesting females. Once it was suggested to me that there was no reason women couldn’t be pastors, it seemed perfectly logical that they could.
It wasn’t until recently that I’ve learned how misguided that line of thinking was. Some of the arguments against women in ministry that have emerged in the past decade I could never have imagined.
I have also recently received instruction in the headship doctrine, which is the notion that Carmen and I aren’t quite the same under God: I am her boss, just as God is my boss. (She presumably, gets to be the boss of the cat, though the Bible is unclear on this point.) That Carmen is smarter than me, and better at a good number of things, doesn’t matter: this is an a priori state that she can’t do a darned thing about. I had been taught at Walla Walla College—erroneously, it now appears—that my wife and I were equal in the eyes of God, just as Jesus and the Holy Spirit and God were each roughly a third of a coequal set of three. I have since learned that Carmen is below me—and, as noted, the cat below her—because Jesus and the Spirit are subservient to God.
This was, to me, an entirely new line of inquiry in systematic theology: the degree to which God values hierarchies. It has helped me to understand why both we and the Roman Catholics have organized our denominations as we have.
(I’m a little worried about its implementation here at home, though: what if Carmen fails to submit to our family hierarchy with the servile amiability the Bible demands of her? But that’s my problem, not yours; forgive me for even mentioning it.)
Herewith the evolution in my Biblical understanding. Before, I thought the Bible described a sort of parity between men and women, not just in salvation but in life generally. I was told that the “he”s in the Bible were short for “he or she” (See Genesis 5:2) and that “man” meant “human being.” I even thought that equal in the eyes of God meant equal through all of God’s domain, including the church.
Boy, was I ever wrong. If this ordination debate has taught us anything, it’s that gender should be our first interpretive principle. That is, where the Bible says man, or uses the male pronoun, it is referring to a human being with male genitalia, and expressly excluding human beings not thus accessorized. Since most of the Bible’s instruction is given in male language, that means many supposedly sensible passages just don’t apply to the female portion of the population. Likewise, the few passages addressed to women don’t apply to men in any way.
I have begun to employ what I call my “fully-gendered hermeneutic” in my Bible exegesis. Let me tell you just a few of the things I’ve discovered.
“…I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments…” 1 Timothy 2:9
That this passage is addressed to women, there is no argument. What you may have failed to note is that it cannot apply to men. Read through the lens of a fully-gendered hermeneutic, this prohibition is no more applicable to men than are the prohibitions against women speaking in church. That is to say, we men can wear anything: gaudy finger rings, earrings, nose rings, flashy cufflinks, necklaces and bracelets, pearls and gold. While our wives must content themselves with long shapeless denim frocks and unadorned tied-back hair (never braided), we men could legitimately spend money on, say, a Desmond Merrion Supreme Bespoke suit ($47,500).
There are no limits to how ostentatious we men are allowed to be. God made peacocks grand and peahens plain, and he apparently designed that the same pattern apply to the human species.
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. Galatians 6:7
Reaping what you’ve sown seems at first quite logical. As a man, I have often proven the truth of this passage: when I make bad choices, I end up with bad results. But I now see that this applies only to men! Women apparently defy the cause and effect that bedevils men. They can sow without reaping anything, or sow and then reap something else entirely.
This interpretation (referencing, as it does, seeds) will undoubtedly come as a surprise to you women who have become pregnant and have a pretty good notion how it happened. However, there is an easy explanation: pregnancy is a reaping of what a man has sown, not you yourself. You are merely the garden. (If you still have questions, please consult Doug Batchelor, who may have some leftover knowledge of this topic from his study on the origin of the word “seminary”.)
I’m unsure whether this disconnect between sowing and reaping will work with actual plant seeds. Next spring, we’ll do an experiment: Carmen will plant some zinnia seeds, and see if she can harvest eggplants.
For as he thinks in his heart, so is he. Proverbs 23:7
Ignore the context of this passage for the nonce, that it is about a duplicitous host. Let’s let it mean thoughts leading to actions, as it was taught us as a memory verse. When it comes to men—note the “he”—thoughts shape the man and the man’s actions. But amazingly, once we apply a fully-gendered hermeneutic, women are excluded from this particular consequence of thought! Their thoughts apparently swirl through their heads with no results whatsoever.
“… but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.” Exodus 20:10
Sometimes you have to exegete carefully and compare text to text in order to find the gender issue. Let’s start here by looking through the list of the people who shouldn’t work. You, son, daughter, manservant, maidservant, animals, visitors from out of town. Who isn’t listed? The wife! The wife doesn’t fall under the Sabbath rest requirement. She is not only allowed to work, but she must, because the rest of the family is required to be bone idle all through the holy day, and it is up to her to take care of these lazy people.
But doesn’t the wife fall under “you”? you might ask. If you make that assumption, you’re going to have trouble with the tenth commandment:
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Exodus 20:17
If the commandments are addressed to women, then not coveting your neighbor’s wife is nonsense—unless the Bible is condoning gay relationships, which seems unlikely.
Which leads us to another logical conclusion: the command against coveting someone else’s spouse applies only to men. A woman is allowed to covet her neighbor’s husband with impunity. Whether she can covet her neighbor’s servants or his donkey is a trickier question and should be left to Bible scholars wiser than I am.
You will say, “But, Loren, it’s about the principle! The text may not make mention of women, but the principle applies to everyone.” Ah, my poor deluded friend! I used to think like you. I thought it obvious that women and men all come under the the authority of the same Scriptural principles.
But now I know how wrong I was. What I’ve learned is that when you apply a fully-gendered hermeneutic, gender comes first. This is only logical: what a text commands or promises is nonsense unless you know to whom it was addressed. The Old Testament passages about the priests, for example, don’t apply to the laypeople. And, we now see, passages addressed to men (even if identified only by the male pronoun) don’t apply to women.
You might think that just because women aren’t specified in a particular text shouldn’t exempt them. But the argument from silence is used all the time in the women’s ordination discussion. How many times have you heard that Jesus didn’t call any women to be disciples? (Nor did he call any black people or East Asian people as disciples, but let’s set that aside as a bit too incendiary for this discussion.) Nor did he ever ordain women. (True, there isn’t any evidence that he ordained men either, but nevertheless…) So it makes perfect sense that if females aren’t specifically referenced in a passage, that passage doesn’t apply to them.
I’ve only scratched the surface of this new way of reading the Bible. Now that I’ve given you the outlines of my fully-gendered hermeneutic, I’ll leave the rest to you better Bible scholars. I’m certain you’ll find plenty of applications. Carry on.
Loren Seibold is a pastor, and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.