Separate but Equal: A Pastor’s Reflections on the 2015 GC Session
by Errol Liverpool, August 27, 2015: It’s been approximately one month since the General Conference rejected the motion to allow divisions to make their own decisions as to whether or not to ordain women pastors. In retrospect, this outcome should not have surprised me, but it did.
In an effort to better understand the Bible’s teaching on ordination, the church established the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, a group of 106 Bible scholars, church administrators and others commonly referred to by church leaders as TOSC. While all 13 world divisions contributed to the study and were represented on the TOSC, it was not organized to be proportionately representative of the world church, but simply to carry out the two-year study. The TOSC came up with three positions, and three Way Forward Statements.
Position 1 emphasizes the biblical qualifications for ordination as found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and the fact that never in the Bible were women ordained as priests, apostles or elders. Therefore, in summary, the Adventist Church has no biblical basis to ordain women.
Position 2 emphasizes the leadership roles of Old and New Testament women such as Deborah, Huldah, and Junia, and biblical passages in Genesis 1, 2 and Galatians 3:26-28 that stress all people are equal in God’s eyes. Therefore, in summary, the biblical principle of equality allows the Adventist Church to ordain women to positions of church leadership wherever possible.
Position 3 supports Position 1 in recognizing a biblical pattern of male leadership in Israel and the early Christian church. But it also emphasizes that God made exceptions, such as the case of granting Israel’s desire for a king. In summary, women’s ordination is a matter of church policy and not a moral imperative and, therefore, the Adventist Church should allow each field to decide whether or not to ordain women.
The motion defeated on Wednesday, July 8, 2015, said no (59/41%) to giving world divisions the authority to make the decision with regard to the ordaining of female pastors in their respective fields. According to The Way Forward Statement #1 of the TOSC, “Allowing regionally established beliefs or qualifications for ordination would fracture the church, create confusion and disunity, and set a dangerous precedent. It would remove an important protection from non-biblical cultural influences (see AA 95-96) and move the church toward becoming an association of national churches instead of a united world church.” They further added, “Global church unity can be preserved only by yielding to the “plain” and “obvious meaning” of Scripture (GC 268, 599, 521, 54), rejecting “higher criticism” (Ed 227) or other methods of Bible study that give the reader authority over the divinely inspired text (2 Tim 3:16; Luke 24:27).”
I find these arguments baseless. Firstly, the General Conference has already established precedence for divisions to make decisions with respect to the unique needs of a particular field, and rightly so!!! These include, but are not limited to, Regional Conferences in the North American Division (NAD), the use of the wedding band; allowing ordination of women as elders, and new female converts to remain in their polygamous marriages in cultures where polygamy is a way of life, just to name a few. Secondly, the church has not fractured, nor does it lack unity as a result of allowing these, or any other special provisions. The provisions surrounding the wedding band and polygamy show respect for the cultures of territories in the absence of plain and specific biblical instructions. This type of respect is sadly missing in the conduct of the upper administration of our church.
Moreover, the logic in the Way Forward Statement #1 is weak. Firstly, the pronouncement that the church can protect some cultures from “non-biblical cultural influences” is extremely condescending. What it suggests is that ecclesiastical dogma should dominate cultural practices that are thought to be negative by an ecclesiastical hierarchy. This is uniformity and not unity. Secondly, at issue is a case where there is no “plain and obvious” meaning of scripture. What is the plain and obvious meaning of scripture on the issues of slavery and polygamy, considering that the scripture does not plainly condemn those practices? Similarly, what is the “plain and obvious meaning of scripture” on the issue of ordination of women when it is not specifically condemned in scripture?
In addition, the fact that the 106 members of the TOSC could come up with three (3) different positions and three (3) different recommendations as a way forward is ample evidence that “plain and obvious meaning of Scripture” may not be so plain and obvious after all. “Plain and obvious” may mean different things to different people. Instead of sticking to Sola scriptura, the Bible and the Bible only, both those for and those against the ordination of female pastors have used the writings of E. G. White as a religious football in their attempts to bolster their arguments. Notwithstanding, since the Adventist church strongly affirms that the writings of E. G. White are God’s special message for its remnant church, and therefore are of specific value to such discussions, the use of her inspired writings should be subject to the same hermeneutical principles we apply to Scripture. Lifting a statement from the time, place and purpose for which it was written to make present-day application without giving serious consideration to present-day realities, may steer to incorrect and faulty conclusions and may lead to what sociologists call latent functions; unintended consequences.
The chief argument put forth by those against the ordination of women to the ministry is that Jesus called only men as leaders of the church, and therefore, we should follow His example. They see this as a clear prohibition against the ordination of women as pastors. The irony is that those who hold this position would not use the same logic as the Roman Catholic (RC) Church and say that ministers should not marry because Jesus was never married. They would hasten to apply hermeneutics, interpreting the RC church’s position as incorrect, reasoning that because Jesus knew his mission would have ended in his early death, marrying would all but guarantee leaving a widow, and possibly fatherless children.
If the argument against the ordination of women hinges on what Jesus did not do, then some may counter that the Adventist church is, at least, inconsistent with some of its practices. For example, Jesus never condemned the eating of meat. After His resurrection He even joined His disciples for breakfast, and fish was on the menu. While the Bible prohibits the consumption of unclean meats, the practice of forbidding the consumption of all meats in their churches and facilities gives the impression to many that Jesus declared all meats unclean, and therefore prohibited by Scripture. Let me be clear. This is not an argument against a vegan or vegetarian diet, for the health benefits are well documented. However, it is rather ironic to observe how Seventh-day Adventists consume ice cream and cake at their gatherings, in the very churches and facilities where meat is forbidden. Apparently, the health risks associated with the consumption of the combination of milk and sugar are not sufficient to prohibit their consumption in Adventist facilities.
Seventh-day Adventists have so elevated the prohibition of meat in their churches to the level of religious dogma that they would deny a grieving family the use of the facility if chicken is on the menu at the repast. Never mind if this is the only contact this distraught family from the community would have had with the church, and hence, the church’s only opportunity to witness about the love of God. Some may even proudly declare that they witnessed by upholding the church’s standards in denying the use of their facility to a family in mourning. Let me be clear. An organization (church) has the right to determine a meatless menu for any of its planned occasions, but to mandate a meatless menu for any other group using its facility violates the Christian spirit and places manmade laws above the Word of God. Individual members who bring their lunch to church either resort to their vehicles to eat or consume their flesh in hiding somewhere in the facility, so as not to be caught violating their church’s edict. As far as the Adventist church is concerned, the five barley loaves are welcomed to be blessed to feed the hungry, but the two fishes are definitely forbidden in their buildings. In fairness, it should be noted that not all Adventist congregations engage in this prohibitive practice. Some local congregations choose to follow the biblical instruction on the consumption of clean meats instead of manmade prohibitions. Those who equate unity with uniformity may find this most disturbing. The Adventist church’s argument against the ordination of female pastors predicated on the lack of biblical record of Jesus’s having done so is seriously flawed. For their stand of prohibiting meat in their facilities is one example of the Adventist church’s establishing a position when there is no record of Jesus’s having done so.
Several texts (Mark 3:14; Acts 1:21-26; 6:3; 1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Tim 2:13, 14; 1 Cor. 11:3, 8-9) are often cited as clear prohibitions against women as leaders. Let me be clear. These are not prohibitions. These are interpretations. There is no text from Genesis to Revelation that prohibits the ordination of women as pastors. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is a prohibition. “Thou shalt not kill” is a prohibition. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is a prohibition. “Thou shalt not steal” is a prohibition, (Exodus 20: 3, 13, 14, 15). And, the theologian would tell you that even prohibitions are subject to interpretation. For example, “Thou shalt not kill” is interpreted to mean thou shalt not commit murder, or else it would contradict the stoning (executing) of the condemned (see Deuteronomy 17:2–5).
Interpreting Scripture contextually is vital to living in accordance with God’s will. Leviticus 19:19 says, “Keep my decrees, do not mate different kinds of animals, do not plant your field with two kinds of seed, do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” Without the correct application of hermeneutical principles, many would be condemned for using a mule on their farm, their gardening practices, and their choice of fabrics.
It should be noted that by a two thirds majority vote the TOSC agreed that they could “Find no Biblical support for, or against, the ordination of women.” Yet, after failing to convince his fellow committee members that the Bible presents “clear teachings against the ordination of women as pastors,” a well-known Adventist TV preacher and teacher took to the video airwaves and tried to convince his viewers that a yes vote would spell the demise of the unity of the church, and would somehow promote same sex marriage and allow for homosexuals to be pastors in the Adventist church. Apart from lobbying and politicizing the process, this was a case of advancing what social scientists call illusionary correlations; making connections where there are none, or mistaking correlation for causation. For those who predict the demise of the church if divisions are allowed to make their own decisions on the question of the ordination of female pastors, one is left to wonder as to what it is that really unites us and holds the church together in the first place? Were one to believe the prognosticators of gloom and doom, one would have to conclude that the Adventist church is indeed most fragile, and that God is incapable of advancing His cause were women to be ordained as pastors.
In 2010, the Adventist denomination had 124 union conferences. We have since added 35 new union conferences, and the idea that our unity is threatened because some see the ordination of women as pastors as just, beckons us to reexamine the definition of unity. Maybe “an association of national churches” is already what we have in essence, and this may not be so bad after all. For those who think unity is uniformity, this may be a difficult concept to grasp. With three unions, (two in the US and one in Germany) having already ordained women as pastors, we may reasonably predict that more unions will follow their lead. There is no evidence, empirical or otherwise, that our church is experiencing “confusion or disunity,” which according to the rationale for the no vote, should be currently occurring in these unions. While the world church does not recognize the decisions of these three unions, it continues to benefit from all its unions, financially and otherwise, including these three.
At this point, allow me to digress for a minute to cite a few observations about the General Conference session. If we truly want to be sensitive to culture in recognizing the diversity of the world church, we would realize that saying “amen” is not the only way of affirming God’s truth in the worship service. Some like to shout and clap their hands too, among other forms of expressions of praise. While the music was excellent, we should provide more than just Eurocentric songs at a gathering such as this one. Some enjoy Gospel songs, like “Every Praise” (Hezekiah Walker), and to not have the world-renowned Aeolians sing during Divine Hour on one of the two Sabbaths makes me wonder if we’re afraid of Negro spirituals. To be inclusive, we must do more than give lip service when we say that we value our youth, the Millennials, and that we want them involved. We need far more representation of youth in the delegates chosen. We need to see more of our youth featured in Sabbath services. One demographic stood out as we witnessed those leading out in the various services – old men and women (50 years+)!!!! Let me be clear. It is not my belief that intentionality was at play here. I understand that culture is ingrained and may even be so institutionalized that the norm may be to verbally speak of diversity and inclusivity and use jargons like “world church,” while not seeing our behaviors as lacking diversity or inclusivity. I feel that the structure of the liturgy during the session is evidence of the disregard for the cultural diversity of our church. Hence, we are afraid to allow divisions to make decisions about non-biblical issues. These issues are connected.
To continue to advance the argument that women should not be ordained as pastors is to fail to give serious weight to the place of culture in the interpretation of Scripture. Jesus performed His first miracle, turning water into wine, because He understood the importance of the cultural expectations of the wedding guests. This does not mean that one should take the position that the Bible is subject to cultural norms, no matter what they are. A close friend reminded me recently that “In all cultures we may find what is constructive, destructive and neutral.” I would add that culture may also be instructive. We can certainly emulate from other cultures how to better fulfill the will of God in our lives. As a church, we have a responsibility to reach all peoples and to work to ease the suffering and injustices of God’s children, wherever they may be found. While we are not to force our culture down the proverbial throats of others, neither are we to continue treating our female pastors as second-class ministers. To accept women in our seminaries, have them complete all degree requirements, give them graduation certificates, hire them as pastors, but then deny them all the rights and privileges of their male classmates because they are women is the very definition of sexism. However, we do recognize that while women gained suffrage in the US in 1920 and have come a long way since, we also recognize that the US must be sensitive to the cultural realities of other fields. Therefore, on the question of the ordination of female pastors, each division deciding for itself is a viable way forward.
As I listened to the debate at GC, I did not hear anyone suggesting that women are intellectually or spiritually inferior to men. Neither did I hear anyone say that God’s truth only flows through men. What I heard is that while in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female….,” (Galatians 3: 28), only men should be ordained as pastors. That is, when it comes to the ordination of women, academic preparation, ability, commitment, spiritual gifts, moral living, and God’s calling – none of these matter. Being born female is the only disqualifier. For centuries, well-intentioned men used the Bible to support racism. Being born of a particular race or caste was all that mattered. Today, some are using the Bible to support sexism. What do race and sex have in common? They are both (ascribed statuses) formed in the womb, and thus choice is not a factor in the equation. In other words, like race, we are using sex to disqualify God’s children from what He has called and equipped them to do. The church has an opportunity to act in accordance with what social psychologists call, Moral Integrity; that is, doing something because it is the right thing to do. We live in a world that frequently operates from Self-Interest and Moral Hypocrisy, where the respective questions are what’s in it for me? and how would I be perceived? What is right (Moral Integrity) should guide our decisions, both personally and corporately.
It is incredible, but true. In order to justify their position of not ordaining women as pastors, here is a recommendation for a way forward by TOSC. “#1, (5) Return to the biblical practice of electing and ordaining only men to the office of local elder throughout the world church, while providing for women to serve as un-ordained church leaders under certain circumstances.” It should be noted that un-ordained church leaders cannot officiate at Communion services in the Adventist church. Notice, they did not suggest what local churches are to do with the women who are already ordained as elders, and what would happen to the female-populated congregations where there is a paucity of male leaders.
Even more incredible is Way Forward Statement “#1, (2) Provide enhanced access to educational opportunities for women in gospel work and ensure fair and just treatment upon their placement in ministry.” Someone said a long time ago, “Insistence upon the obvious is sometimes more important than clarification of the obscure.” Here I am propelled to ask the obvious: How can a group of people recommend “fair and just treatment” of female pastors, and at the same time deny them the right of ordination!!!? Sounds like another, “Separate, but equal” policy!
For those who are afraid of the disintegration of the church, the ordination of women as pastors should not be their worry. We need to be more concerned about our apparent lack of involvement and presence in the Fergusons, Staten Islands, and Charlestons of our world. When Boca Haram and ISIS are slaughtering God’s children we need not stand on the sidelines. For those who say we should not get involved in fighting injustices, I am glad that Luther, Jerome and Huss were not afraid to challenge the power structure of their day. I am glad that Dr. King got involved in his fight for fairness and equal treatment of all of God’s children. I am glad that if I ride at the back of the bus today, it is by choice. Let us not stand on the sidelines while our female pastors are left to ride at the back of the ministerial bus. For those who say that the vote was taken and the outcome is God’s will, let me remind you that it wasn’t God’s will for Israel to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Things could have been a lot different had it not been for their stubbornness. In 1948, an overwhelming majority of white Americans, and even a greater number of white enlisted men opposed the integration of the Armed Forces. I am glad that President Harry S. Truman was not swayed by the majority. History is replete with majority decisions that were clearly wrong. One wonders if the outcome of the vote would have been different had the GC leadership had the courage to experience a Trumanesque moment.
After the debate, it became agonizingly clear that once entrenched, some people will never be persuaded by facts, let alone reason or logical argument. Nonetheless, I trust that others would see that sexism by any other name is still sexism and allow no one to take away what God has given to all; conscience. Let us not stand on the sidelines of apathy while our colleagues in ministry are denied fair and equal treatment. Separate, but equal is man’s way of soothing the conscience while fervently supporting the unfair treatment of the women God has called as pastors.
Dr. Errol Liverpool is a pastor in the Lake Region Conference in the United States. He did undergraduate studies at Northern Caribbean University and the University of Southern Caribbean and a graduate degree at Andrews University before earning a PhD in clinical psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit. He has served as a pastor in Guyana and in Canada.