Women’s Ordination in Adventism: Unity vs. Culture [Updated]
By Jim Walters, July 5, 2015 [Updated July 7], Reporting from San Antonio: As I was flying from Los Angeles to San Antonio Thursday morning to attend the 60th General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination (GC), I thought it inconceivable that women’s ordination (WO) could be voted down next week. But having spent the last two days talking to delegates and laypersons from particularly Latin American and African countries, it’s hard to conceive of WO being passed. The issue is that of contrasting bubbles; think of two soap bubbles with minimal connection.
The first bubble is the one I live in: It’s filled with the light air of theological unity and is inhabited by church people who are characterized by an abundance of education, theological reflection and a living connection with the broader world.
The second bubble is the one in which 90% of Adventism lives, and it’s filled with a palpable air breathed by church people who are largely content with the biblical culture on gender roles that continues to exist in their own lands. These second-bubble, equally bright folk, are characterized by concrete thinking and lives minimally informed by the larger world.
The Theological Unity Bubble
In preparation for coming to this GC Session, I read David Trim’s article of a couple of months ago in the Adventist Review on the first general conference session held in 1863—some 20 delegates from a half dozen newly formed associations of Adventist congregations mostly in the Midwestern US. It’s a fascinating historical account of 20 men gathering for a weekend and putting aside self-interest for the good of the fledgling Advent movement (although James White was unanimously voted to be the first GC president, he declined for the greater good). A central lesson for the current GC Session, argues Trim, is our own need today to pursue policies that put church unity ahead of partisan advantage. Although I don’t recall that he specifically named the WO debate, surely he had the WO issue in mind—called the “800-lb. gorilla” at this GC Session by one attendee I spoke with today. Trim typifies those committed to theological unity in Christ; he is an academic (formerly a professor at Newbold College) who thinks in nuanced terms across cultures in the name of the greater good for his church.
I also recently read excerpts from the 130+ page GC Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report sent to all current GC Session delegates. Leading church thinkers from around the (mostly western) world—left, right and middle—comprised the committee, and even those in the most conservative block of committee members dealt with the theme of church unity, arguing that only ordained men could realistically serve in churches across world Adventism—and they are right! But it was the most progressive block of committee members who were most adamant about church unity: “In the setting of difference of opinions on a subject that is not part of the message and mission of the church [WO], we reaffirm our constant unity in Christ….” (p. 94). My point: the more academic Adventists—both leftists and rightists on WO—are particularly concerned about church unity.
A third example of church leaders being concerned about church unity comes from the invocation offered Thursday afternoon as the Session reconvened in the Alamodome. The gentlemen, obviously not a native English speaker, included a plea for unity in his short prayer.
All three illustrations indicate diverse persons of considerable education, on a world stage, sharing one theological worldview: that unity of the church is of overriding importance—superseding smaller points of difference.
The Biblical Culture Bubble
Thursday afternoon I sat in the bleachers, probably 300 feet from the podium and just behind a whole line of leading laypersons and pastors in bright orange T-shirts (emblazoned with a church logo) from Trinidad. I discovered that the woman immediately ahead of me was a dentist at the local Adventist hospital, and I introduced myself and said I was trying to get a good sense of where she and her accompanying church members were on the WO issue. Delphina Ovid, DDS, was happy to talk and introduce me to leading members of a 500-member delegation that had traveled from the South Caribbean Conference (of some 60,000 members, she said), and we spent over an hour in congenial conversation—them asking me questions about WO at Loma Linda University (LLU), and me probing to get a genuine feel for how the church membership in this large Latin American conference of black members is thinking about this issue.
Friday morning on the sidewalk outside the Alamodome, I fell into conversation with two Nigerian thought-leaders—professor Friday Mbon, PhD, a sociologist of religion at a public Nigerian university, educated at Andrews University and McGill University; and pastor Uzoma Nwosi, communication and publishing director, Eastern Nigeria Union Conference. Both gentlemen are articulate leaders who are well versed on WO issues, and both are thoughtfully opposed.
Professor Mbon freely speaks about “cultural” and “ideological” issues, as would be expected from a sociologist. Mbon cited Paul’s saying that in Christ there’s no basic difference between Jew or Greek, slave or free, or male or female (Galatians 3: 28). He says that Paul is stating that in Christ there is no “superiority” of classes of persons, and he questions whether WO is relevant to Paul’s spiritual directive. He says that the New Testament doesn’t clearly address all our questions, and on such questions we should be “silent.”
Pastor Nwosi strongly contended that we should not “sacrifice on the alter of cultural difference” the unity of the church “in truth and in mission that it has enjoyed from the beginning.” Pastor Nwosi asked several rhetorical questions: “Should we rewrite Scripture?” “Can a house divided among itself stand?” “Should we exalt any culture above inspired Scripture?”
Five take-home points:
- Caribbean Adventists largely oppose WO. Elder Michael Phillips, the evangelism director for the conference, who indicated that he had a good feel for where the membership stands, suggested that a quarter are strongly opposed to WO, a quarter are mildly opposed, a quarter softly opposed, and a quarter are to some degree in favor. Phillips particularly stressed the deep cultural roots of the issue, but he added a theological component, indicating that there isn’t a New Testament example of women leading out in church as did men, and Ellen White was not ordained as were men.
- The Caribbean has very active churchwomen. Two-thirds of the group of 15 I spoke with were women, one of whom, Pamela Stephen, introduced herself as a “pastor.” Pastor Stephen is one of 5 “commissioned” pastors who work as conference-paid religious educators serving multiple congregations (and 3 additional women serve as assistant pastors). Interestingly, although Stephen is a positive, self-confident woman of ability who is commissioned, she volunteered that she opposes WO. She views WO as against Biblical practice.
- WO could initiate “the shaking” in Adventism. The senior churchman of the group, elder Emmanuel Peters, director of the regional ADRA, unhesitatingly gave me this quotation for attribution (and this after he’d given me pro-WO arguments I’ve long heard in Southern California): “Women’s Ordination may begin the shaking of our world church. If sincere church members will allow God to do his work in bringing gender equality to the ministry, they will not be shaken.” However, upon hearing Peters say this, Phillips the evangelist, quipped that the shaking may well go the opposite direction.
- Caribbean youth are evenly divided. A young and articulate woman attorney, a Pathfinder badge on her shirt, was introduced to me as being knowledgeable about where the Caribbean youth stand on WO. The attorney confidently declared that the young church members, overall more progressive than their elders, are evenly divided—strongly opposed and strongly in favor.
- Nigerian church members, if the two leaders are at all representative, believe that male leadership in the church is a divinely directed practice of long standing that is important to continue for the good of the church.
Upon reflection, the striking thing that emerges from the prolonged dialogue with articulate church leaders from Trinidad and Nigeria—to say nothing of strolling through the hundreds of eclectic denominational and independent booths in the sprawling convention center—is the immediacy of a vibrant church life: God working through his people to build up the church. The great majority of women don’t mind a supporting role to ordained male pastors, particularly if the latter are doing a good, conscientious job. The more abstract and distant concepts of “church unity” and “equality” did not naturally arise, and were only addressed when I raised the issues. Biblical zeal exercised through biblical cultural roles that continue in more traditional areas of the world, if the Caribbean islands and Nigeria are any indication, is the life and blood of Adventism—and that’s why the world church, come next Wednesday, will almost surely vote against WO. And the fact that the issue is nuanced, allowing divisions to make individual judgment, is almost totally beside the larger Biblical/cultural precedent.
The one development that could possibly upend the above predication would be for President Ted Wilson to forthrightly make a Biblical/ missional case for WO. Given his unchallenged orthodoxy and his considerable authority in developing world Adventism, Wilson is uniquely qualified to make the case for Yes on WO. But given Wilson’s well-known opposition to WO, it seems more likely that he’d make the opposite speech.
However, miracles do happen. And just as performers can make one big soap bubble out of two, so Wilson could be a unifying churchman, making room for progressive elements in the church. But without question, an inspired world Adventism is sprinting forward—with or without their theologically sophisticated, worldly wise brothers and sisters.
Dr. Jim Walters is a professor in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University. He is a contributing editor for Adventist Today and vice chairman of the board for the Adventist Today Foundation.