Women in Leadership—a Logical and Theological Mandate
by Martin Weber, March 29, 2015: Global Adventist delegates to July’s General Conference Session will vote whether or not the 13 world divisions will have authority within their own territory to ordain women as pastors. North American Division leaders favor such an outcome. Following are reflections from a veteran of the discussion.
Achieving inclusivity has been a challenge for our church. Regarding ethnicity, age and gender, Seventh-day Adventists have straggled behind secular society in facilitating human freedom and dignity. Sadly, our church had to be shamed into ethnic equality during the civil rights movement. We’ve been frightened into respecting young adults to keep from losing their membership (and their tithe). Female employees had to actually sue their way into the gender equality required by the law of the land—but only in terms of pay. Adventists still deny women equality in professional church administration by taking refuge in governmental religious “freedom” protections.
But from whom are we protecting ourselves? And how is that working out for us—quenching the Spirit’s gift of leadership in women, while questing for inSpirited revival and reformation?
A misadventure in diversity
In the early 1990’s, church administrators tasked the GC Ministerial Association with organizing Friday night communion service during a week of spiritual emphasis for headquarters employees. All of us agreed with our Association director, the late James Cress, that Holy Communion must reflect the diversity of the body of Christ in ethnicity, age and gender.
To be inclusive of women, we decided to invite trusted and beloved “mothers in Israel” among the office staff to participate. They would distribute Communion bread and grape juice to GC employees.
However, when we informed our administrative representative, a GC vice president, he tactfully but emphatically denied his own Ministerial Association’s initiative. Why? Because ordained deacons who bore the sacred responsibility of serving Communion are exclusively males. Women can bake wafers, set tables and clean up afterwards. But they are unsuited to serve with males in the actual service.
One argument against ordaining women is that it will lead to ordaining homosexuals. Actually, for the past 40 years now we’ve been ordaining women as local church leaders. You probably have women elders in your congregation. Has that opened the door to your church ordaining homosexuals? Rejecting the ordination of women pastors for fear of bringing on homosexual pastors makes as much sense as rejecting a woman prophet to save us from a lesbian prophet.
Other escapes from ordaining women also suffer logically and theologically. Why do we label women in the role of deacons as “deaconesses”? And where is the biblical warrant for that? It would make just as much sense to call our teens “deaconettes” when they take up the offering.
Back to our Ministerial Association Communion drama. As we prayed about and discussed our situation, Dr. Cress suddenly interrupted with a joyful shout: “I’ve got it! Listen to this: It’s true the church doesn’t ordain women as deacons—but we do ordain them as local elders! So let’s invite women employees who are ordained local elders to distribute the emblems Friday night. That ought to satisfy administrative concerns, since elders ‘trump’ deacons in ecclesiastical hierarchy!”
The Ministerial Association staff rejoiced—we had found our solution. But our smiles faded after announcing our strategy to the supervising vice president. He didn’t share our enthusiasm, even though this godly leader—whom we all respected and loved—could offer no reason for gender exclusion enforced by General Conference administrators. He just sadly but firmly pronounced: “This has never been done before.” Evidently tradition rests on precedence, not principle.
We also were “advised” (warned) not to disrupt “unity” (uniformity?) at church headquarters by making women leadership at Communion an issue of “controversy” (honest discussion). Nobody tried to explain why the Adventist Church allows ordination of women as local church elders since 1975 but not as local church pastors—when the New Testament makes no such distinction between elders and pastors.
Ellen White was a woman
An even greater theological conundrum for thoughtful Adventists is how Ellen White factors into this discussion about women in leadership. One truth is beyond dispute: Sister White was a woman—fully engulfed in ministry. She wielded more global leadership authority than any Adventist male who ever lived. Ponder that while church historians argue whether or not the famous ordination documents that bear Ellen White’s name are valid.
Actually, the Bible doesn’t specifically address the matter of women being ordained. The New Testament discussion focuses on women not teaching men and being silent in church (as mandated by both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture). But Ellen White was anything but silent! She instructed and rebuked entire assemblies of (male) church leaders.
Which raises an interesting point. Those today resisting leadership for women tend to invest supreme authority in Sister White’s leadership and teaching—often as an infallible interpreter of Scripture. How do we explain this inconsistency to our neighbors—or even to our own young adults as we try to persuade them not to abandon their church family?
Let’s hope that our church will cease being in a state of denial regarding women in ministry. Let’s pray that delegates to the General Conference Session will resolve this matter both logically and theologically.
Martin Weber, DMin, retired from four decades of denominational ministry to become the Adventist product manager at Faithlife Corporation, makers at Logos Bible Software. The archives of Adventist Today magazine (1993 – 2013) will become uniquely searchable in the Logos interlinked library; it is currently on sale at a pre-publication discount.