The Role of Culture When the Bible Has No Clear Command: Missiological Consequences
By Borge Schantz, August 28, 2013
An important global committee dealing with the issues of women’s ordination, consisting of 106 leading theologians and administrators, has, halfway through their deliberations, reported that a clear “thus says the Lord” has not been found in the Bible. This could mean that the final and decisive vote on the important question would have to be based on extra-biblical sources as committee members (and later the General Conference delegates) to a great extend will have to cast their vote on their personal “interpretation” of Bible texts which will be strongly based on their worldview, culture and customs. The role of women in the more than 1,500 cultures in the world differs tremendously, with the majority of Adventists living in areas where the ordination of women will be on top of the agenda.
Pope Francis, with some interesting and revolutionary suggestions for an “updated” Roman Catholic Church, seems on this issue to take a firm conservative stand. Most Roman Catholics live in continents with cultures where the role of women does not include whatever ordination bestows.
Palestinian Culture and Jesus
Perhaps there is a lesson in the biblical narrative of Christ's meeting with the Samaritan woman in John 4? God loved the world, including the people in all cultures, and gave His Son for their salvation. Christ came and lived among men and women. The Jewish community of Palestine, with its religion as well as its customs and culture, was chosen for His life on earth. In this way the incarnation made Jesus Jewish in all aspects. This implied some submission to human culture, even the following of the excessive interpretations of laws some of the Pharisees had introduced. However, in all His dealings Jesus was always obedient to Divine law. 
The strict Jewish rules on relationships between men and women were a part of the Jewish worldview of the time. When women in Palestine went about activities outside their homes, they were expected to cover their faces and be unobserved in public. A man was not allowed to be alone with a woman nor even look at a married woman. Christ followed these customs while in Palestine.
Christ did not openly stand up against Jewish cultural practices, not even those which perhaps were not completely “kosher.” However, Jesus, in a non-provocative way, went as far as He could in displaying some “counter-cultural” attitudes relative to the role of women in Jewish society. He granted women a place among the disciples (Matthew 12:49), revealed compassion for a despised woman (John 8:1-11), challenged women to higher levels of spirituality (Luke 10:38-42), shared with them in their grief (John 11:30-32) and accepted their grasp of theological issues (John 26:6-13, John 4:7-12). Jesus in His parables and illustrations mentioned incidents where women played important parts.  These texts are evidence of His positive attitude towards women. It can be seen that in His careful loyalty to the Jewish cultural framework, Jesus still revealed a full acceptance of the dignity and value of women.
Lessons from Samaria
“Now he had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4, NIV). At the well in Sychar a Samaritan woman came for water. Jesus asked her for a drink, which in itself indicated a kind of “meal fellowship” not in agreement with Jewish law.  In obedience to His divine call He became engaged in an important dialogue with the Samaritan woman.
This incident is the first time Jesus in His ministry met and communicated with people in a culture different from the Jewish. Syncretistic elements in the Samaritan religion had influenced their customs in such a way that there existed a liberal and cosmopolitan atmosphere relative to the Jewish culture in which Christ was raised. 
In Samaria Jesus and the disciples were outside the control of rabbis and other keen enforcers of Jewish customs, He could talk freely to a woman. He could not have done that in Jerusalem. It was a matter of cultural differences. Jesus was able to clearly distinguish between human cultural patterns and divine absolutes.
"Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, 'What do you want?' or 'Why are you talking with her?'" (John 4:27 NIV)
In Samaria His disciples experienced the same freedom as Jesus. They were also free to follow “neutral” Samaritan cultural traits. However, they were still in their minds directed by a Jewish worldview and consequently faithful to Jewish culture and customs. Their reaction shows that they silently questioned His conversation with a woman.
Did Peter also miss the lesson from Samaria?
Peter was no doubt one of the “surprised” disciples in Sychar. In the Acts of the Apostles we have five evangelistic sermons where Peter, taking various angles, preached to different groups of people about the cardinal point in the Christian faith, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.
In the Resurrection narratives heavenly angels, supported by the risen Savior, told women to bring the great message to the disciples (Matthew 28:5-10; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:10-18). This means that one of the most important messages to the world was first revealed to women who became the primary messengers of the greatest event in human history. And Peter was the only disciple who went to the grave to confirm personally the message the women shared. However, he does not in any of these five sermons give credit to the women who first saw Jesus alive after the resurrection. 
There could be two reasons for Peter not mentioning the important role of the women in the Resurrection message. Was he still guided by his Jewish view on the secondary role of women in society? Or was Peter practicing "instinctive missionary anthropology" in accordance with the excellent principle put forth by Paul, an important principle in cross-cultural soul-winning even today: "I became like a Jew… I became like one under the law… I became all things to all men that I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9: 20-22).
The Seventh-day Adventist Global Church
In our evaluations and attempts to establish a fair role for women in the Adventist Church, we should, based on the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4, diligently consider what elements in the Old and New Testaments are Jewish culture and therefore not binding for churches in a non-Jewish setting today. At the same time we must keep in mind that the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 2013 is operating in more than 200 countries with more than a thousand languages and cultures. The majority of church members are from areas that in varying degrees are struggling with equality issues.
How would a positive decision on women’s ordination influence our main task, to bring Christ to “every nation, tribe, language and people?” Are we prepared to take into consideration the historic customs of the people in each of these cultures, which in some cases are far from the cultural contexts and customs in the West? Many of them are, on the question on the role of women, more like the Jewish culture of Bible times.
People cannot and should not be hastily overruled in their cultural patterns. If improvements and changes are called for, they should be dealt with carefully. This is where much patience, education and understanding are needed. Dealing with age-old cultural issues regarding equal rights and other negative sentiments will require time.
In missionary, evangelistic and ecclesiastical situations, debate and decisions on the role and ordination of women, important as they are, could at initial stages be a hindrance to shepherding activities, soul winning endeavors and administrative patterns. It could completely overshadow the greatest message for any race or culture, namely that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and is the Savior of men and woman.
1. Brown, Colin (1975). The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol 2. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Publishing House. pp 810-814.
2. Jensen, Evelyn (1993). "Women’s Issues in Context," in The Good News of the Kingdom. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books. p 215.
3. Brown, Vol 3, pp 449-468.
4. Jeremias, Joachim (1969). Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus. London: SCM Press Ltd. p 360.