by Monte Sahlin
By Keisha McKenzie and Monte Sahlin, April 7, 2014
Despite the fact that the idea of including women among the ordained clergy of the Adventist Church was introduced as early as 1881, there is no opposition on record until 100 years later, and that opposition was rooted not in Biblical theology but in concern about perceived threats of higher criticism and liberal religion, feminist sympathizers and critiques of patriarchy. This is the history revealed by Dr. Olive Hemmings during the 34th Annual Edward Keough Lectures on March 28-29 at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland.
In the 1980s and 1990s some Adventists began to suggest that these were a “mortal threat” to the fundamental beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Despite the fact that these considerations were absent from the proposals for women’s ordination before 1980, nevertheless women’s ordination came to symbolize an Adventist identity crisis for many believers.
Hemmings cited the Biblical Research Institute papers on “The Role of Women in the Church” (Mohaven report) and “Men and Women in Genesis 1-3.” After those papers were approved by the denomination's General Conference a “fundamentalist resistance to modernity" emerged and an attitude that "someone must be sacrificed to save the community,” Hemmings observed.
Bible evidence is shaped by this ideology, she pointed out. The evidence used for post-1980 “male headship” arguments include Genesis 3:16 (“he will rule over you”), 1 Corinthians 11:3 (natural order of creation), 1 Corinthians 14:34 (women should remain silent in church), and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (do not allow a woman to teach). There are other texts that are ignored that present gender mutuality. These include Genesis 1:28, Galatians 3:28 and 1 Corinthians 11: 11-13 ("all things" come from God).
Hemmings argues that male headship was the “most consistent argument available” that matched the patterns of ancient cultures as well as Western society’s customs related to power. It is a status quo the church still holds to in opposition to modernity. This ideology of male power and female subordination placed the church's position in alliance with fundamentalism in the 1980s and 1990s. It offered a “secure space for males” in a changing society. As society continued to change, various compromise attempts emerged, such as a combination of gender equality with male headship, but these compromises are incoherent, Hemmings observed.
Opponents to equality in the family and/or the church frame it as a “threat to civilization as we know it.” One effect of this is “divide and conquer.” If God is understood as a male, that symbol cannot easily guide the whole church. Resisting women’s ordination is currently presented as a sign of denominational loyalty, forcing defenders of women’s ordination to prove their team loyalty in order for their proposals to remain viable.
In these cultural tensions, the Bible has become “more an accessory” to ideology than a source of truth for the church or the grounds for its policy, Hemmings stated. Prior ideological commitment to male headship determines the church’s position on ordination and members around the world convinced by their cultures on this idea is easily persuaded against women’s ordination. The Bible is recruited as a weapon in the cultural tensions.
At the 1995 GC Session in Utrecht the two speakers asked to present the two sides of the issue unwittingly demonstrated that the issue was not the method of Bible interpretation used but women’s ordination and the cultural ideologies that drove opposition to it. Both the pro-ordination and anti-ordination presenters began their arguments from an assumption of male headship. This meant that the GC did not address the fundamental question of whether headship was the most Biblical premise for the denomination and no argument for gender mutuality was presented.
Hemmings reminded the audience that “word study” as an interpretative method can distort the text if not linked to an understanding of the context in culture and history. For instance, Dr. Gerard Damsteegt’s presentation at Utrecht claimed that the early church was battling an early form of the women’s movement and that background explained the headship statements attributed to the apostle Paul. The counter argument began with Galatians 3:28, but claimed that the terms used in 1 Corinthians 11:3 meant there should be a difference between male authority at home and authority in the rest of life. This argument never addressed verses 11-13 in the same chapter, where the same words were also used without gender distinction.
Hemmings proposed a look at the narrative and rhetorical pattern in the Pauline epistles; that he often presents opponents’ arguments before offering a new way “in the Lord.” Mutuality, she stated, appears in 1 Corinthians as part of the believers “new life” in Christ over against the cultural status quo. But the presentations at Utretcht ignored this textual reality in favor of an ideological notion which equates the authority of scripture with the authority of the male.
Some church members often say that opposition to women’s ordination comes from the developing world. Hemmings stated that, in fact, the opposition comes from the culture war in the United States and the developing world functions as a proxy conflict, as “soldiers in a war that’s not theirs.” If U.S.-based fundamentalists are fighting in “easier terrain,” the implication is that the U.S. is comparatively difficult terrain. Discrimination is legally and socially outmoded in the U.S., a source of shame for the church, but still comparatively more acceptable elsewhere.
“The rest of the world has joined the fray not knowing what the war is really about," said Hemmings. This concept that the developing world opposes women's ordination has been developed because "the cultural war cannot be won on the American continent.” The second generation of almost all immigrant groups almost universally supports gender equality even in the church and its ministry.
All of this shows that this is an ideological conflict, not a disagreement over Bible interpretation. Hemmings pointed out that the Adventist denomination has the resources to lead the world church into mutuality, as it seemed ready to up to the early 1980s. Instead it has used divisions in developing regions to advance fundamentalist ideology. "I am asking the church not to squander its power to teach," she stated.
During the question and answer time following her second presentation, one person asked, If the Adventist church is now aligned with fundamentalists, where else could we go? Hemmings and others suggested that we might go back to our progressive roots and move away from fundamentalism. The fundamentalist view did not come into the Adventist movement until after the death of Ellen White in 1915.
Another person asked Hemmings, Has she noticed a basis for interpreting literally (with “plain reading”) regarding women but in a more abstract, principled way with regard to slavery? "Yes," she said. Nineteenth Century fundamentalists promoted slavery using literal readings of Bible texts, but the founders of the Adventist Church were strongly opposed to that reading. Another participant in the discussion reported that this kind of using scripture to permit slavery has recurred very recently in a paper by an Adventist because of the author’s literalist presuppositions.
Is there a relationship between view of male-female roles and views of the Trinity? Yes, said Hemmings, one's view of the Trinity does influence one's view of how men and women should relate and how authority should operate in the church. The Jesus story has as much to say about the nature of humanity as it does about the nature of God, and this is a question that Adventists have not resolved yet. She pointed out that the Pauline literature includes a low Christology (view of Christ’s nature and relationship to the divine). 1 Corinthians 11, for example, represents God the Father as the sole Head with Christ at God’s right hand. By contrast, a high Christology presents Christ as fully God in every way.
Why do Adventists align themselves with fundamentalist and non-progressive interests if the Adventist movement is truly committed to “present truth” as it says it is? Fundamentalism is defined in terms of its resistance to modernity, its reductionist approach and its dogmatism. Adventists who align with fundamentalism are not content with advancing the Adventist mission, but are also attracted to the fundamentalist strategy in the culture wars.
Dr. Hemmings' book, Sacred Texts and Social Conflict: the Bible and the Debate Over Women’s Ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is available from Amazon and other online book sellers. Keisha McKenzie is a board member for Adventist Today who attended the Keough lectures and took notes. Monte Sahlin is executive director for the Adventist Today Foundation. The third presentation by Dr. Richard Rice will be reported in the next few days.