To Ordain or Not to Ordain, That Is the Question!
by Dan Appel, May 10, 2015: As we draw closer and closer to the upcoming General Conference session, many of us are getting deluged with material concerning one of the items on the agenda – whether or not to ordain women to ministry. Having read a number of the books, papers and videos that are proliferating throughout our world church trying to create a groundswell against the idea of ordaining women and implying that there is only one way a committed Christian or Adventist could look at the issue, and believing that a person needs a fair and balanced opportunity to examine all sides, I decided to write the following essay.
Recently, our General Conference President issued an amazingly bold, courageous and unexpected call for people to study for themselves the issue of whether or not women should be ordained for ministry. He called the people in the world church he leads to return to the rock-solid foundation that undergirded the Protestant Reformation and the stated tradition of our own church – “Sola Scriptura!” – and to study the Bible evidence, one way or the other, for themselves.
Normally, a person in his position would issue a charge to hew to church tradition and orthodoxy or make a plea to his followers to carefully study any number of different extra-Biblical sources and authorities or issue a call to arms to defend what has always been. Instead, as we approach what promises to be a watershed moment in the history of this issue in our church, our world President has taken us back to the Bible – what we claim is our only true source of authority on issues of this nature.
Given the almost instantaneous scramble to spin what he said by those who are almost frantically committed to maintaining the status quo, and the sudden proliferation of invitations to seminars and special events proclaiming that they will reveal to their attendees why the Church has always been right in their traditional position, it is refreshing to hear our president entreat to go beyond the religious traditions of the 1920s through the 1960s and to submit to the Bible’s authority alone in this matter.
In the spirit of his invitation to use the Bible alone, I have prepared the following Bible study guide outlining some tools and principles that might prove useful in your personal quest to discover God’s will in this matter. And, I join our President in praying that God’s will will reign supreme in this matter.
Credit should be given where credit is due! So, again, I would like to honor our President’s courage in the face of what must be almost overwhelming opposition to his choice from some of his most influential and well-heeled supporters, and pray that it signals a sea-change in his approach to leadership that will begin to unite our increasingly fragmented world church!
Pastor Dan M. Appel
“To Ordain or Not to Ordain, That is the Question!”
I heard a sermon a while back where the speaker spoke at length on the subject of the ordination of women. It would have been very easy to view his remarks as nothing more than an emotional polemic and to dismiss them out of hand. Because he is someone whom I respect personally, I felt his ideas deserved careful consideration so I headed to the Bible to study the subject. His arguments deserve careful and thoughtful scrutiny because they are the major arguments put forth by the Church’s leadership in the Dark Ages and by many even today who argue that women should not be ordained to gospel ministry.
The Adventist Church has chosen at least twice in the past to not ordain their women pastors for good cause, not for good reason. Much of the impetus has been the women’s liberation movement that was prominent in North America, especially during the 80s and 90s. As a church which has claimed to take the Bible as our rule of belief and practice, this was not a good basis for change. Because we did not take the time to thoroughly and carefully study the subject from Scripture, God, I believe, kept the change from occurring in our church. But the fact that it was rejected in the past for good cause does not mean that it should not be adopted, for the right reasons, should we take the time to do our homework in the Bible and show good Biblical basis for doing so.
That is what I hope to begin to accomplish in this article. I have no interest in countering the sociological and biological arguments which are often given for opposing the ordination of women. Those who would claim things like the intellectual inferiority of women and hormones and gender-determined inability to lead and minister do much more damage to their own credibility and the veracity of their arguments than I could ever hope to accomplish.
I would like to look carefully at what the Bible teaches on the subject and offer my reasons why I believe God would be in favor of ordaining women if we would just be open enough to his leading to give him a vote at the upcoming General Conference Session.
A Basic Biblical Paradigm
When God called Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees and led him to Canaan and promised him that he would be the father of many nations, he wasn’t just referring to the Jews and all of the Arab nations. We begin to discover the extent of this fatherhood when we come to Mt. Sinai with the Israelites after their 400-year captivity in Egypt. God’s intention for Israel was that they would become “God’s own possession among all peoples . . . a holy nation, a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:5-6). God told Moses to speak these words to “all of the children of Israel.”
One either has to argue that God was only intending the males to be considered “the children of Israel,” and that his intent was that only the males in Israel would be his own possession and part of his holy nation, or you must accept that both males and females were to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests.
God carried Israel out of Egypt on eagles’ wings (Exodus 19:4) for a purpose. He didn’t set them aside as special because they were better than anyone else; nor were they to serve just themselves; but they were to be his means of taking the Good News of the Kingdom of Light to the rest of the world. Every Israelite, rich and poor, prominent and hardly known, male and female, servant and freeman, was to be actively involved in the priestly ministry of taking the Gospel to the nations.
In Exodus and Leviticus we discover the tribe of Levi set aside, perpetually, to be trainers constantly preparing each new generation to minister effectively. God designed that every Israelite would be spoken of as “ministers of our God” (Isaiah 61:6), and that they would bring those from all nations and tongues who accepted citizenship in the Kingdom of Light and that they too would be chosen and trained to be priests and Levites (Isaiah 66:18-21). It was to be an ever-widening circle of people called to relationship with God, trained in ministry, and sent out to tell others. The Gospel, to use Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18-20, “was to go to the whole world – to every nation, tribe, tongue and people” until the whole world knew about his love for humanity. The day would come, God desired, that “every pot in Jerusalem and Judah would be sacred to the Lord of Hosts” and that anyone coming to Jerusalem to sacrifice could “choose any pot in the country and use it to make his sacrifices” (Zechariah 14:20-21). Unfortunately, Israel began to imagine that they were chosen because they were somebody, that they were somehow better than everyone else and that their value lay in their specialness to God rather than in God’s ability to use them. Instead of becoming a nation of priests taking the Gospel to the world, they became exclusive and hoarded the Good News to themselves. The Levite males, who had indeed been chosen by God for the special task of leading the rest of the people, men and women alike, into ministry became closed and exclusive. As a consequence, the males in Israel began to imagine that they were more privileged than the women and instead of leading them into intimate relationship with God and ministry and honoring them as equals, they relegated them to secondary position in the spiritual life of the community and nation. When the New Testament Church was driven out of Judaism after Pentecost, God once again tried to restore his dream for his people.
Jesus, when he was here on earth, picked 12 males as the first servant leaders of his church. Those who argue that Jesus only called males to be in his inner circle are correct. But, he chose them not because they were the only ones to be qualified by God, but because they were the only ones culturally acceptable to lead his people from a narrow, mistaken view of God’s will to what he had designed for them to be.
Peter, one of his inner circle, understood God’s intent for their leadership when he tells us that Jesus told them that his followers were: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).
One cannot pick through this passage and apply some attributes to both men and women – a chosen race, a holy nation, God’s own people who are called to declare God’s wonderful deeds, God’s people who have received mercy – and just one to men only. Again, one either has to say that only men are a chosen race, a holy nation, a royal priesthood and God’s own people who have received mercy, or one is forced to acknowledge that all those terms apply to both genders.
It is even clearer earlier in the chapter where Peter says, “Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).
Again, either the call to come to Jesus as one of his chosen and precious ones and to allow him to build us into a spiritual house so that we can offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus as holy priests all applies only to men, or it all applies to both men and women. The great New Testament theologian, Paul, was one of the most gender-progressive people in New Testament times. At a time when women, if they made it through the door of the synagogue at all, were forced to sit in a separate part of the building behind a screen in silence, he encouraged women to sit with their husbands in the main part of the room (1 Corinthians 14:33-35). He did encourage them to remain silent while they were in the building and to not push for leadership so that they did not “upset the apple cart” and destroy his efforts to lead people to where God wished them to be.
Paul’s clearest statement on the subject of the spiritual equality of men and women is found in Galatians 3:27-29 – For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
John, in the Revelation, picks up on this theme in two places when he writes: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, everyone who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen” (Revelation 1:5-7).
Again, in Revelation 5:9-10 he writes, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom people for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”
As in the previous verses, either Jesus freed only males from their sins by ransoming them from everywhere on earth by his blood and made them a kingdom, priests to his God and father destined to reign on earth, or it applies to all no matter their gender.
Once again, as in Old Testament times, rather than using their position as servant leaders to lead all of God’s people into their priestly ministry (called, during the Reformation, the “priesthood of all believers”), the male leadership of the church instead took the opportunity to make priestly ministry an exclusively male domain and to use it to exercise that power to subordinate women.
In the process, one of the most basic Biblical concepts was lost, and God and his church on earth misrepresented.
Now that we have laid a basic theological baseline for the Bible’s purpose for both men and women in ministry, what about those texts that seem to state or imply something different?
Because much of the textual basis used by those who oppose or favor ordaining women is drawn from the writing of Paul the Apostle, we need to remind ourselves to use good hermeneutics as we seek to determine just what the Bible, and especially Paul, meant in certain places and instances. As Peter said so eloquently, “. . . our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking . . . as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand . . .” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Using the conservative historical-grammatical method, it is fair to try to determine which of Paul’s statements are personal and cultural and which are based on sound theology. Even when he is talking about clearly held beliefs we need to ask which are his opinion and which are a clear “thus says the Lord.”
The New Testament statements most often used to combat the notion of ordaining women are as follows:
Colossians 3:18-20 – Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
This passage sounds clear-cut, and if it were the only text from Paul we had on the subject, it would be pretty clear that in the family, wives are to subject themselves to their husbands.
But, Paul speaks in other places on the same subject, where he takes the opportunity to clarify what he intends.
In Ephesians 5:21-33, Paul says, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
The identical word is used in both Ephesians and Colossians. Here “subjection” is a two-way street, required of both spouses in a marriage. Paul describes what he intends in Ephesians 5:33 when he says that each one should love his wife as he does himself, and the wife should respect her husband. The meaning of the subjection Paul admonishes wives to have for their husbands is not blind obedience, but respect – something not given because it is deserved or demanded, but because the person offering it chooses to do so. Men are challenged to give up themselves (their pride, power and desire to control) for their wives as Jesus gave up himself for the church. Love always gives up its desire to dominate, and serves. Paul clarifies his meaning when he says that husbands are to spiritually lead their wives to God by lining up themselves and becoming servants in love to lead them to a relationship with God. In this setting, the “subjecting” Paul advises for men is much greater than that which he advises for women.
This is far from the power and pride of position that characterizes many who wish to use this passage to exert their predominance over women.
Another passage often used by those opposed to the ordination of women is 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, where Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head – it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. . . . (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.) That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels. (Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.) Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her pride? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God.
This passage must be considered as a whole.
First of all, Paul says that what he has delivered to them on this subject is part of, literally, the Jewish traditional laws (paradosis), the Jewish traditions handed down orally from Moses’ time to the Pauline present which illustrated and expanded the written law. Paul was still keeping many of these non-Biblical traditions because they were a part of his religious culture, not because he believed that they came from God – although he tried to excuse them by appealing to religious grounds like any good Talmudic rabbi would.
If we are going to be honest about what Paul intended, we must admit that the issue in this passage is hair – the hair of the Christian. Anything he says about the relationship between men and women is by way of illustration – based on tradition and Paul’s opinion based on those traditions. After stating his opinion that the head of every woman is her husband, he goes on to state that any woman who prays or prophesies without her head covered might as well have her head shaved. In fact, he goes on to say that if she is not going to wear a veil she might as well shave her own head.
Most in today’s religious world, even those in very conservative circles, would say that what Paul says here about hair here was cultural, based on his times, and not normative for the Christian. No one I know insists that his wife and daughters veil their heads in church. And, if he does not veil their hair, I have never heard of him trying to shave his wife’s head, or advocating that she do it herself. It is therefore disingenuous to make his aside illustrations a standard for whether or not women should be ordained.
Titus 2:2-6 – Bid the older men be temperate, serious, sensible, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Bid the older women likewise to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited. Likewise urge the younger men to control themselves.
First of all, it should be obvious from this passage that the issue is not whether women should or should not be ordained. Rather, Paul is admonishing all concerned to live lives that will not discredit God or the church in the eyes of the world. In a culture where men ruled the women that were their legal chattel, Paul is concerned that women not use their freedom as followers of Jesus to bring discredit on the church so they should be respectful of their husbands.
1 Peter 3:1-6 – Likewise, you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior. Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are now her children if you do right and let nothing terrify you.
Even a careless reading reveals that this passage is not about ordination of women or even the place of women in the larger scheme of things. It is about winning souls for Jesus.
Peter is writing to women whose husbands were not Christ followers, and he suggests that the wives, through their respectful behavior, can win their husbands to Jesus. It is a voluntary submission or respect to someone who is not a follower of God for a purpose, not because God or even the church demands it. Sarah chose to relate to Abraham and to win him to a relationship with God, Peter says, and so can you if you are willing. (This is an interesting insight into who originally, way back in Ur of the Chaldees, first became acquainted with God in Abraham’s family. Sarah’s choice to respect Abraham apparently won him to God just like any other wife has the opportunity to win her unbelieving husband.)
1 Timothy 2:11-15 – Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
This passage may be one of the most rationalized passages in all of scripture. Most commentators dance through these verses like Fred Astaire. Let’s just let Paul say what he says and ask ourselves if this is what the larger context of the rest of the Bible teaches or if this is another of those hard-to-understand Pauline sayings that were based on his opinion.
Does any thinking Christian really believe that the Bible teaches that the only way that women can be saved is by having plenty of babies? In addition, does God really intend that women learn obediently in total silence and never teach anything to any man? Finally, is it the message of scripture that Eve and all her female descendants are the source of all the bad that has happened in this world, so this is her lot in life and she should get used to it!
If a person truly believes that Paul was basing his statements on God’s intent and that this passage is normative, then he should be willing to practice and advocate everything in this passage. If we don’t believe that everything Paul says here is an accurate picture of God’s will, then it is not reasonable to pick bits and pieces and apply them to the subject of ordination.
Many sincere, well-meaning Christians down through the centuries have used the Bible to justify their desire to “be the boss.” The strongest human drive is the drive to control others. It is convenient to be able to find a Bible verse that justifies it. But the Bible, when a person just reads Scripture with an open mind, does not teach that women should not be ordained. On the contrary, it was God’s original intent that his people restore the equality that was in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. He set in place leaders who he hoped would make it happen, and intended that his church would illustrate the restoration of the equality between men and women that comes when our sinful humanity has been redeemed.
Maybe it’s time we finished the work God gave his Church and honor the female side, the heart, of the priesthood of all believers.
To review, if you are going to take the Bible passages as literally as many wish, then you have to take all that they say literally. You cannot pick and choose your way through them, using some of what Paul and Peter said and ignoring the rest.
How Did We End Up in This Mess?
The subject of the ordination of women was not a major issue in early Adventism. Women held many responsibilities in the church hierarchy equally with men; a female prophet spoke and wrote authoritatively in and for the church and was credentialed as if she was ordained – even though she never felt the need to be formally ordained because her ordination, she believed, was from God. Women led out in church services, preached, evangelized and were generally accepted in roles that were unusual in Victorian America.
There were apparently instances where women were licensed to preach and were considered by those who worked with them as ordained – even though we are not aware if they did or did not go through a formal ceremony.
As time went on, though, in a Victorian age dominated by men where women were often chattel and were not considered equal or physically or mentally capable enough to deserve a vote in national or local elections, women were increasingly relegated to second-class status. To support this situation, well-meaning but misguided men trying to defend their position, developed theologies that were as egregiously wrong, hermeneutically, as those developed to defend slavery. Emotionally they were attractive to those proffering them, but Biblically they were very weak. Eventually, during the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, some women of the Adventist Church began to agitate for a change. Unfortunately, the basis for many of their arguments was social rather than Biblical, and the church was very slow to change. On the other side, the same tactics and arguments used against abolition and women’s suffrage were used to discredit the idea, and it was reduced to a slow simmering volcano that occasionally raises its head – generally around General Conference times.
The issue was made worse by a set of circumstances that virtually destroyed any meaning of the idea of ordination itself.
A number of years ago, the Adventist Church faced a difficult dilemma. The Church had a two-tiered system of setting aside individuals for pastoral ministry. A person went through a period of being “licensed” (eventually called commissioned) – sort of a time of professional probation; then, when he was judged to be ready, was “ordained.” The church claimed the same tax privileges for both classes. The IRS then ruled that for individuals to be entitled to the same tax benefits, they had to be allowed to perform the same duties. In short order, commissioned or licensed pastors were allowed by the church to perform anything an ordained person could.
This created a second awkward situation. We had commissioned women in many areas of church service clear back to the late 1800s. Suddenly, by IRS ruling, these commissioned employees were qualified to do anything ordained ministers could do.
This created the theological equivalent of the Keystone Cops, as church administrators scrambled to figure out what to do, and those on the fundamentalist side of Adventism sprang to find some way of holding on to their two-tier – male and female – distinctions in the church. Soon we were left in a position that made a mockery of ordination for everyone involved.
Because of the widely and forcefully held diversity of opinion on the subject, the Church at large has continued to “ordain” men to ministry and has chosen to “commission” women – even as certain Union and local conferences have begun to ordain them. Both commissioned and ordained individuals can fulfill the same responsibilities, perform the same functions, lead and direct the same activities, programs and departments, and take advantage of the same tax and employee benefits. The two words have become absolutely synonymous – their meaning and choice for use determined solely by whether they are being applied to a man or a woman. The semantic hairsplitting that leads to the distinction between the two different classifications is demeaning to both genders; it degrades the whole idea of ordination; and it creates an artificial distinction, not based on scripture – the main reason why a growing number in the church are beginning to call for the elimination of ordination altogether.
At some point we will either have to say that the ordination of female clergy is truly a moral issue and refuse to bow to government pressure and penalize all of our commissioned individuals by not allowing them the legitimate tax advantages our ordained clergy enjoy, or we should realize that the issue is primarily a cultural one and set aside our personal prejudices and vote to ordain women.
There are parts of the world where ordaining women may never be practical – where, culturally, it will probably always be anathema. There are other areas where the majority of the church may consider it culturally and theologically acceptable – where the majority feel that there is legitimate reason to ordain women. If it is one of those basic areas that define who we are, then we should not budge and compromise. If, on the other hand, it is not, then we should be willing to allow others to see things differently than we do and not attempt to impose our will on them. In those cases, it should be a matter of personal choice, not church mandate. That is one reason why recent church councils have recommended to the world church that each Division be allowed to make the decision for themselves.
One thing neither side should be willing to allow this subject to do is to divide our church any longer.
As Augustine said, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things love.”