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0. The Campaign for Women's Ordination--Part 1 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
The Campaign for Women’s Ordination—Part 1

[This article is excerpted and updated from the author’s book Must We Be Silent?]
Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, PhD
Director, Public Campus Ministries, Michigan Conference

    “Truth is straight, plain, clear, and stands out boldly in its own defense; but it is not so with error. It is so winding and twisting that it needs a multitude of words to explain it in its crooked form.”[1]
    The above statement by Ellen G. White is applicable to the ongoing campaign within the Seventh-day Adventist Church to ordain women as elders and pastors.  In this four-part article, I will argue that the issue of women’s ordination is a theological one, and as such it can only be settled by Scripture—not well-orchestrated political-style campaigns by pro-ordination church leaders, scholars, and liberal-feminist interest groups. We begin with a look at their mistaken appeal to culture.

Not a Cultural Issue

    It is far too simple to claim, as some do, that our varying positions on women’s ordination have arisen merely because of our different cultural backgrounds. They have suggested that those outside democratic cultures are not ready to go along with women’s ordination either because their cultures do not have a high view of women, or because their cultures make it difficult for them to understand the Bible correctly or even to discern the Holy Spirit’s leading of women who are aspiring to the roles of elder or pastor. The unfortunate implication is that theological knowledge and spiritual insight belong only to some cultures; unless one belongs to those cultures, one cannot legitimately address the issue.

    A Theological Issue. From the analysis in other articles on this website, it must be clear that ordination of women as elders or pastors is not a cultural issue to be settled according to a person’s prejudice or preference or the sociological structures existing in a particular region of the world, be they “democratic,” “patriarchal,” “authoritarian,” or otherwise. Neither is it an equal rights issue to be resolved through such things as civil laws, lawsuits, or some type of affirmative action to ensure gender parity in the pastoral ministry, or to equalize some supposed power structure. The issue is not a financial matter to be dictated by a desire to enjoy United States tax law benefits to ministers or to be decided on the basis of economic might or threat of economic blackmail. It is not even a political issue to be settled by petition drives, public opinion polls, referenda, surveys, questionable church policy revisions, unilateral ordinations, or some carefully choreographed campaign-style strategies to legitimize women elders or women pastors in our churches, institutions, and publications. The issue is theological. It can only be resolved legitimately on the basis of Scripture.

    This is why we must take exception to the recent claim by a respected church historian, who also contributed to the pro-ordination book Women in Ministry, that the divisive question of women’s ordination is a cultural issue. Pointing to the 1990 General Conference session when the “majority of the delegates from the United States and Western Europe favored ordination, but the powerful voting blocks representing the denomination’s Latin American and African divisions overwhelmingly opposed such a move,” this author suggests that the underlying reason for the varied positions on the issue is differences in “cultural norms” or “vastly different cultures and ways of thinking.” [2]

    Statements such as the above fail to recognize that the issue of women’s ordination is theological, not cultural. Such statements also tend to trivialize discussions on the subject, relegating the issue to one’s cultural preference, rather than to one’s fidelity to Scripture.

    Furthermore, such assertions reinforce the false beliefs held by some advocates in the church of the West regarding their fellow brothers and sisters in the rest of the church. In the view of these ordination proponents, those believers who conscientiously cannot go along with their un-Biblical agenda of ordaining women as elders or pastors are theologically, ethically, or hermeneutically “immature.” [3] Or in the words of a European church administrator who wrote in the Adventist Review not long ago, those opposed to the ideology of women’s ordination belong to the “fundamentalist fringe.” [4]

    The undertones of cultural and intellectual arrogance in the above comments may, perhaps, be unintended. But the statements betray the prevalent mistaken notion in certain quarters that those who oppose women’s ordination are anti-women, deficient in ethical sensitivity, [5] or that they are incapable of serious theological and ethical reflection.

    Position of the Adventist Pioneers.
I am confident that as more and more pro-ordination Adventists move beyond their superficial knowledge of the issues, they also will be led to conclude with our studious Adventist pioneers that ordaining women as elders or pastors is a theological issue, not cultural, and that there are gender role distinctions in both the home and the church:
The divine arrangement, even from the beginning, is this, that the man is the head of the woman. Every relation is disregarded or abused in this lawless age. But the Scriptures always maintain this order in the family relation. ‘For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the Head of the church.’ Ephesians 5:23. Man is entitled to certain privileges which are not given to woman; and he is subjected to some duties and burdens from which the woman is exempt. A woman may pray, prophesy, exhort, and comfort the church, but she cannot occupy the position of a pastor or a ruling elder. This would be looked upon as usurping authority over the man, which is here [1 Timothy 2:12] prohibited. (Editorial, The Signs of the Times, December 19, 1878, p. 320; emphasis mine.)
   The overwhelming majority of the worldwide church (not a “fundamentalist fringe”) still upholds this long-standing Adventist pioneers’ position, as evidenced by the 1990 and 1995 General Conference session votes.

    It is therefore incorrect for some advocates of women’s ordination to continue casting the issue as a cultural one. The question of ordaining women to the spiritual leadership roles of elders or pastors is theological, not cultural.

    Knowledgeable thought leaders of the church clearly recognized this fact a decade ago, when pro-ordination advocates at the 1995 Utrecht General Conference session failed to convert the world church to their view that the Bible “is neither for nor against” (or “the Bible is silent” on) women’s ordination.  It was this realization that led some North American Division church leaders to urge pro-ordination scholars at the Andrews University Theological Seminary to “do something about” Utrecht, a plea that resulted in the controversial book Women in Ministry (1998). Despite the book’s serious defects in theological and historical scholarship, it is to the authors’ credit that they acknowledge the issue of women’s ordination as a theological one. [6]

    Indeed, in an article on this website (titled “Leadership in the Church: Are We Honestly Mistaken?”) and in my previous books (Searching the Scriptures [1995] and Must We Be Silent? [2001]), I have challenged the mistaken notion that the issue of women’s ordination is a cultural issue. To continue arguing for women’s ordination on the basis of culture is, at the very least, to be seriously uninformed about the biblical and theological issues.

    Unfortunately, the practice of ordaining women as elders and pastors is an ideological agenda that is seeking a theological justification. But because there is no compelling Biblical or historical basis for it, its advocates keep resorting to a cultural justification. And in recent times, they are pursuing this un-Biblical agenda by means of a carefully choreographed political strategy.

    In Part 2 of our discussion, we shall show how the politics is being done.


[1]    Ellen G. White,  Early Writings, p. 96.

[2]    George R. Knight, A Brief History of Seventh-day Adventists (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1999), pp. 151-153; emphasis mine; cf. his “Proving More Than Intended,” Ministry, March 1996, pp. 26-28. For a response to the latter article, see P. Gerard Damsteegt, “Scripture Faces Current Issues,” Ministry, April 1999, pp. 23-27.

[3]     For example, shortly after the 1995 General Conference session in Utrecht, the Netherlands, an Adventist scholar in ethics wrote the following: “The vote refusing the NAD [North American Division] permission to ordain its women is the real ‘tip of the iceberg,’ the iceberg being the clash between Scriptural literalism, a view largely held in the developing world—Africa and much of South America and Inter-America, and a principle-based approach to Scripture followed in areas where the church has matured for a century and a half.” In contrast to areas where the church has “matured for a century and a half” (i.e., North America, Europe, and possibly Australia), this professor of ethics states that “many African converts, not far removed from bigamous exploitation of women, are naturally drawn to an interpretation of Scripture [‘Scriptural literalism’] that affirms a millennia-old sentiment toward women.” See Jim Walters, “General Conference Delegates Say NO on Women’s Ordination,” Adventist Today, July-August, 1995, p. 13. Walters is an Adventist ethicist and an editor of Adventist Today, an independent publication whose stated purpose is to follow “basic principles of ethics and canons of journalism,” striving “for fairness, candor, and good taste.” Cf. J. David Newman, “Stuck in the Concrete,” Adventist Today, July-August, 1995, p. 13. Newman last served as the editor of Ministry, “the international journal of the Seventh-day Adventist Ministerial Association.” For a response to this kind of reasoning, see my Receiving the Word: How New Approaches to the Bible Impact Our Biblical Faith and Lifestyle (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Berean Books, 1996), pp. 10, 11, 91, 92. In the light of our evaluation of Women in Ministry, a volume that captures the very best case pro-ordinationists can offer in defense of their view, can any honest student of the Bible still believe that those opposed to women’s ordination are hermeneutically “immature”?

[4]    This church leader wrote: “To be honest, at times I am frustrated with my church. Sometimes I feel it is somewhat out of tune with the times and the world I live in. Sometimes I get upset by its frequent failures to deal decisively with important issues. I wish my church could settle the issue of women’s ordination (yes, I’m one of those people) and deal with a few other hot potatoes. And I often wonder why the church allows its fundamentalist fringe to set so much of its agenda. And yes, I need a double or triple portion of grace to interact with some people in the church” (Reinder Bruinsma, “Why I Stay,” Adventist Review, July 1999, pp. 8-12). For Bruinsma, who is the secretary of one of the European Divisions, “the church” is nothing more than the “church in the West” which is pushing women’s ordination; and the “fundamentalist fringe” is the rest of the world church that refuses to go along. Given the fact that the SDA church has twice (at the 1990 and 1995 GC sessions) overwhelmingly rejected the call for women’s ordination, some will justifiably contend that the real “fundamentalist fringe” in the church comprises those who have embraced the fundamentalism of feminism’s egalitarian ideology (see chapter 43 of this book for a discussion of that ideology).

[5]    Decrying the “terrible thing” that happened in Utrecht (the vote against women’s ordination), one key advocate of women’s ordination wrote: “We who have grown and progressed in our faith development to understand and value racial and gender equality and justice are hurt by the lack of understanding, intolerance, and animosity that was displayed at Utrecht. . . . The ministry of sensitive and caring men and women who voted to support this action [for women’s ordination] feel hurt by the abuse that was so forcefully and overwhelmingly hurled at them here in Utrecht.” See Penny Miller (chairperson of the Gender Inclusiveness Commission of the Southeastern California Conference), “Women Denied Equal Rights at 56th GC Session in Utrecht,” Dialogue [Loma Linda University Church paper] 6/8 (August 1995) :1, emphasis supplied.

[6]     The Seminary book’s serious theological and historical defects have been compellingly exposed by authors of the volume Prove All Things: A Response to “Women in Ministry,” (published by ADVENTISTS AFFIRM in 2000).