The Day My Church Broke My Heart
By Elle Berry | 8 May 2018
I remember July 2015 as a miserably hot month. Temperatures were circulating well into the triple digits every day, and since my sister and I had spent the end of June in San Francisco, I recall our July return to Walla Walla as being a particularly painful transition. Yet as relentless as the summer sun was, things were about to heat up in my heart-environment every bit as much.
In another part of the country the Adventist General Conference was about to meet for their 2015 session. There was to be a vote regarding the issue of ordaining women. Although I realized many in the church would oppose this vote, I personally believed a vote in favor of ordaining women was long overdue.
This is not just a feminist endorsement. I believe there is strong biblical support for women’s ordination. The SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University, the North American Church’s primary training ground for pastors, had made a statement in 2014 in support of what they called the “Unique Headship of Christ in the Church.” This statement explicitly affirms Christ as the only head of the church, and pushes back against any kind of post-Genesis-fall disruption of gender equality, saying, “No inspired writer teaches the headship of man over woman at the Creation.” It notes that while some have interpreted Genesis 3 as a disruption of this order, Adventists affirm that the Bible consistently calls us back to an egalitarian ideal.
Furthermore, this equality is endorsed within the framework of Adventist beliefs which state that the church is one body, and we are equal: neither race, culture, education, nationality, economic status, or gender, divide us, because of our equality in Christ. While the 2014 document is recent, these are not new ideas in the church. A 1985 statement from the Andrews Society for Religious studies directly affirmed the aforementioned equality between believers, and furthermore recommended the ordination of women to gospel ministry as a means to “strengthen the work for the church.” This perspective of the church’s theologians regarding women and their ordination has remained consistent.
And so it was my perception that a direct vote in favor of women’s ordination would be difficult to deter without violating previous theological statements on this topic—all based on our Adventist commitment to sola scriptura.
But church leaders chose to side-angle their way into the issue, camouflaging it as an matter of unity, by asking whether to allow individual divisions to determine if women could be ordained within their region. A yes vote would mean that divisions wouldn’t all have the same policy on ordination. A vote against would mean continuing the status quo of not ordaining women.
I have previously discussed here how the relationship between the church and women presses on my heart in a particularly tender way. For many years I confused the church’s witness regarding the inclusion of women with God’s heart for women. While I have reached some personal resolution about this, it continues to cause pain in my relationship with my church.
Ordination itself doesn’t impact my life, in that I have never felt called to be a pastor. However, that summer, in July 2015, I was glued to the conversation. While on the surface level the church was talking about the ordination of women, my heart was reading the subtext of this vote.
If you spend any time talking with Christians of other denominations, you will find that biblical womanhood, male headship, and complementarianism permeate American Protestant culture. Even when Adventists do not directly reference the terms, they are the theological basis for not ordaining women. (Complementarian theology is the idea that genders are equal but separate in roles, and therefore men are predetermined to be in authority over women, just as Christ is in authority over the church.) For instance, evangelist Doug Batchelor, a prominent proponent of male-headship ideology argues that there is an order of authority in the family just as there is an order of authority in the Trinity.
Biblical womanhood sounds harmless on the surface: what Christian woman, after all, wouldn’t want her womanhood to be Biblical? Carolyn Custis James notes, “In some segments of the church the expression ‘biblical womanhood’ is used to define women almost exclusively in terms of marriage and motherhood, which are often regarded as ‘a woman’s highest calling.’ Throw in the adjective ‘biblical,’ and the specific assertions linked to that word carry enormous freight for any woman who cares about what God asks for her.”
Marriage and motherhood are not commodities to be bought or rewards to be earned. When the church uses this notion of biblical womanhood as a marker of identity for women in the church, these items become a worthiness-to-do list, placing many women into a position where they cannot live up to this expectation, and therefore their identity within the culture of the church is diminished. Kate Wallace Nunneley says, “I am a single, educated, working, Christian woman, and the ‘biblical womanhood’ message doesn’t really apply to my life.” The problem with the ideology of male headship is that it sidelines women as supporting cast members to the larger-male storyline. Worse, it castigates single women into a kind of limboland, a waiting place mindset. As James notes in her book, When Life and Beliefs Collide,
“Singleness is perceived by many in the church (including some singles) as a woman’s private purgatory—a suspended state of uncertain duration useful only as a bridge to marriage… The mistaken assumption that God uses the same plan for all women—to marry, conceive children, raise a family, and move on to grandmothering—is painful for women who fail to fit the profile at any given point. In the meantime, there is an unspoken consensus among Christians that what a single woman does with her life is an interim or makeshift plan—a way to mark time until she marries and the real plan begins. Such notions can lead to some rather half-hearted living.”
As a single and childless thirty-five year old woman, I resonate deeply with the above comments. While many of these things are not directly preached to women, when the church embraces an ideology of male headship, and the practice within the church structure reflects that ideology, it reinforces this subtext: that a woman’s job is as supporting cast to men, and therefore our highest calling as a woman is primarily in regard to how we fulfil our relationships with men, namely being a wife and a mother.
As I noted above these are not acquirable rights. Whether a single woman desires these or not is irrelevant: it is impossible to force these realities into being. And living as though their absence is somehow an interim state, “a kind of limboland,” does lead to some rather tepid living. Membership in a church that even subtly endorses biblical womanhood is both limiting and at times painfully isolating. But more than being hurtful, I believe the ideas are in fact deeply unbiblical, and damaging to the gospel witness.
Furthermore, they are not even in keeping with the theological ideals of the Seventh-day Adventist church.
So when I found out that the vote about women’s ordination would be livestreamed, I knew I would be watching. I ended up watching a livestreamed church meeting with more attention than I do primetime TV! So if you were wondering whether millennials still care about the church, here’s a spoiler: we care.
When they finally announced the results, rejecting the freedom of divisions to decide on women’s ordination 1,381 to 977, my heart sank.
To my own shock, I found myself sitting in my chair crying my heart out for the next hour.
In July 2015 I discovered two things. First, I found out that I still loved my church enough that it could break my heart. Second, in the aftermath I found that many men care as deeply about this issue as women. I was overwhelmed by the response of so many men in the church who did speak up against the outcome of the vote, and championed women in very direct, and affirming ways. To those of you who did so, you may never fully understand how much your words meant.
The 2015 General Conference vote carried some serious implications regarding how the church views women. Obviously there are the women who are gifted and called into ministry, and whose lives are directly impacted in personal and economic ways by the vote. This is an important topic. However, the piece of the conversation that I think has often gone missing is that how the church embraces the leadership of women defines all women in the church. It subtly tells us us what the church thinks our value is. The implication of supporting male-headship theology is that women are primarily to find value as wives and mothers.
And so it begs the question for women who do not have those things: what is our value in this community?
Writing about these things as a single woman, I viscerally worry about sounding like a bitter spinster feminist. I do not disparage men or motherhood, both of which I deeply value and respect. The truth is, I assumed by thirty-five I would be married. Yet my lived reality is otherwise, and that fact has brought both incredible blessing and at times incredible disappointment. (Although I gather from my married friends these emotions aren’t so different from what married people experience. Both singleness and marriage bring their respective challenges and blessings.) Living as a single woman has heightened my sensitivity to living in circumstances that don’t earn the admiration of the community. The point is, the church should not endorse a hierarchy between marriage and singleness, or between genders. And male headship does exactly that.
On a final note, I have often heard it argued in the last few years, that women’s ordination is not a salvation issue. I assume they’re implying that this conversation is a waste of energy, and we should focus on to the real work of the church. But isn’t the primary work of the church to live as image bearers of God? Sharing leadership brings a fuller representation of God’s image into the church, and thus benefits men and women and the gospel.
We have practiced pyramid leadership for centuries: we know where it gets us. But what would happen if we were to begin to work as one body? Not as men in authority over women, or women in authority over men, but as humans in leadership together, under the authority of Christ?
In the last few years, we have watched the fallout of unequal power dynamics between genders in the marketplace, and the outcomes are catastrophic. Sadly, it is often no better in the church. We have the theology, but how long will it take for our practice to match our preaching? The cry of my heart is that the church will become a place where women and men work side by side, and where regardless of the relationship season we find ourselves in, we will be valued based only on our identity in Christ. Our love is most tested, and practiced within our diversity; and if the world will know Christ by our love, then what exactly are we waiting for?
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist, presently putting the finishing touches on a graduate degree from the University of Western States. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com