They say there’s no use in beating a dead horse. But since this unclean animal of female ordination is still not dead I shall continue the beating.
This continuing to push for another vote and another vote and another vote until the ‘correct’ decision is reached must stop. Unfortunately the South Pacific Division last week voted to recommend that at the 2020 General Conference Session that the issue of women’s ordination be put back on the agenda. Again. Yet this is not surprising, and there may even be an upside, which I will come to later. Let us examine the situation further.
The question that was raised at the 2015 General Conference was a rather peculiar question. It was a question that asked if it was acceptable for Division Executive Committees to make provision for the ordination of women to the Gospel ministry as they deem appropriate. Rather than the two obvious options of ordaining women or not, the GC Session was presented with this strange, third, meet-in-the-middle option, a compromise (a term that, depending on one’s view, may or may not be used in a pejorative sense). If this option is presented yet again at the 2020 General Conference what are the implications?
This ordination-by-division option is perhaps the most dangerous. Let us assume for the moment that the ordination of women is permitted according to Division. This implies that the ordination of women is not unbiblical; the Church would have tacitly approved the concept.
But what then happens if a woman (in a Division that chose not to permit female ordination) claims to be called by God into ministry and is denied ordination despite having all the other requisite qualifications? This is a highly possible, perhaps likely, scenario as in various places across the world we already have women claiming to be called by God into ministry and who otherwise have all the necessary qualifications – these are the commissioned female ministers.
But back to the question at hand: what would happen in such a situation, if a woman in a Division that doesn’t permit her to be ordained claimed to be called by God into ministry and was otherwise qualified? Obviously such a Division would have refused to ordain her on cultural grounds. Ironically, those who initially insisted that women called by God must not be denied ordination because of the culture in other parts of the world would then be insisting that some women called by God may not be ordained because of the culture in their part of the world! On the one hand the concept of culture should not prevent the ordination of some women and on the other hand the concept of culture should be allowed to prevent the ordination of some women. Furthermore, if they are accepting of the idea that some women ‘called’ by God may be denied ordination, and are truly concerned about unity, then they should surrender on this whole issue already. If not, they have shown themselves to have elevated culture above Holy Scripture since, by their understanding, they have neither applied their ‘biblical’ understanding of ‘equality’ universally nor have they fairly applied the argument that God’s ‘calling’ is ipso facto qualification for ministry.
On the other hand, if the Church were to be consistent in its reasoning in the above example then the Church must necessarily compel the Division in question to permit the ordination of such a woman. Of course the Church could not, without reneging on its previous commitment, compel a Division to ordain women against its will when it was given freedom to make that choice for itself.
Clearly, this option is basically a means for those who support women’s ordination to get their foot in the door; once this happens it would be very difficult, nigh impossible, to stop them from pushing the issue further and further until female ordination must be accepted universally in the church for consistency’s sake. And consistency is ultimately, I believe, an important driving factor for both sides; we must remember that this whole theological maelstrom is exacerbated by the ongoing inconsistency in the Church (I will return to this point).
What does the SPD want?
But we don’t know that this ordination-by-division option is the question that the SPD wants put to the next GC Session since they didn’t specify a particular question. Furthermore, we can’t anticipate what other church entities may wish to propose before then either, but it should be little surprise if other similar requests arise from insubordinate Divisions. But if this issue is, in all likelihood, to inevitably raise its head again, it may be to request that the ordination of women to the Gospel ministry be permitted outright. This could be a problematic question which could prolong this intractable dispute if asked so simply.
GC Session 2015
The vote at San Antonio in 2015 implicitly indicated that we should not ordain women to the Gospel ministry, and this perpetuated the Church’s existing stance on the issue. But how can the SPD justify asking for women’s ordination again when it was only just recently voted down?
The only way one could not view that last vote as being against the ordination of women, and thus be able to reasonably keep pushing for it, would be to assume that the church merely voted against implementing women’s ordination in a geographically divided way (obviously such a mindset still has to ignore other previous votes). Considering this, if we merely ask a question such as ‘should the Church ordain women to the Gospel ministry?’ and it is voted down, those in favour may continue to say that the Church hasn’t specifically said the women cannot be ordained to Gospel ministry, only that the Church has decided that it simply shouldn’t yet. Of course the incessant push for more votes on the issue would just continue until it turns out the way they want.
So what is the question that must be put to the GC in 2020 if we must revisit this again? I believe that for the best outcome to be achieved for the Church we need to revisit this issue and if we ask the right questions we can put to rest a much greater problem. To resolve this once and for all we should examine some other relevant issues.
What Needs to Happen
The church needs to revisit the issues of male leadership in general and the ordination of women to local eldership positions specifically and make a definitive resolution on these issues.
One of the legitimate points of contention made by those in favour of women’s ordination is that we as a church permit women to serve as elders locally, but not as elders at-large (which is what ordained ministers of the Gospel are). This is clearly inconsistent. Whether or not one is an elder at a local church or is the president of the General Conference, both are eldership positions, both are offices of leadership and both require ordination.
In fact, some make the argument that the rite of ordination is not supported biblically but such an argument is immaterial since, even if it is true, the same arguments continue to hold since the qualifications for these positions remain nonetheless. This inconsistency around women serving as elders locally came as a result of a decision of the GC Spring Meeting in 1975. While this decision was later reaffirmed by the 1984 Annual Council, the fact is that it is fundamentally an issue of theology, not policy, and as such should have been recognised as being outside of the jurisdiction of the GC Executive Committee.
So if a question is to be put to the General Conference Session at Indianapolis regarding the ordination of women it must include the ordination of women elders at a local level as well. This would then also deal with the issue of female commissioned ministers since they must be ordained as local elders where they are serving. This inconsistency just provides more ammunition to those on the liberal left: I remember being at a local church board meeting once when a certain board member basically suggested that some of us were inconsistent for having an issue with a minister because she was a woman but at the same time accepted female local elders.
Indeed, I remember that I was not the only one that instantly spoke up to insist that I didn’t support females as local elders either. Incidentally, being a woman was not amongst the litany of issues we had with this minister that sparked this extraordinary meeting. But this illustrates how the inconsistency around ordination at different levels only provides for more argument.
How We Understand The Bible
The deepest issue that requires our attention is biblical hermeneutics. The fact is that this whole issue stems from two completely different ways of interpreting Scripture.
It seems that as time has passed and the influence of other denominations has started trickling into our educational institutions, that our methods of approaching Scripture have slowly been changing. There are those who still hold strongly to the traditional ways we have interpreted the Bible, but these are seemingly becoming fewer, while those that support the newer higher-criticism approach to hermeneutics are becoming more.
Once upon a time, Protestant churches were united around the interpretation of prophecy that pointed to papal Rome as the anti-Christ power. Now, thanks to the Counter-Reformation, many of these ‘Protestant’ churches are merely protesting social injustices—if they protest anything at all. Homosexuality in the church, women’s ordination, and theistic evolution are only possible with modern hermeneutics. This is the root cause of the massive divisions that have formed in the church.
But the Spirit of Prophecy lightens our path on this matter:
“The language of the Bible should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure is employed” (GC 599.0).
In fact, if we hold firmly to the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy, there should be no doubt about some of the various issues of doctrine that are floating around the Church in this present time.
But those who question the plain truths of the Bible don’t have any difficulty questioning or dismissing the Spirit of Prophecy either. I believe we need to address our hermeneutics as a church if we want to move past these issues and have the best chance of avoiding them in the future. Indeed, we should keep looking for greater light, but new light never contradicts the clear, established, inspired light of truth from the past that is found in the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy. This would promote a healthy unity within the church.
But, if there are those in the Church who would continue to push for the ordination of women, I wonder what provisions, if any, they would be inclined to make for those of us who are against women in leadership. They have been so concerned with this issue, making it to be an issue of conscience and insisting that their own consciences be catered to. Would they be willing to accommodate the consciences of the rest of us if they should gain their desire?
The Church of England has what they refer to as ‘provincial episcopal visitors’, commonly known as ‘flying bishops’, who come to minister to members and parishes that will not accept the ministry of female priests and bishops as a matter of conscience. I personally refrain from participating in the Lord’s Supper if a woman is involved in administering the ordinance for my conscience’s sake. Would those in favour of women in ministry offer such an option to those of us who have deep convictions on this issue if they had their way?
Ultimately, if we revisit the question of women in leadership at the next General Conference we must ask clear questions that will definitively establish our position on these issues and clean up our inconsistencies as a church. We should settle these issues:
Statement on biblical male leadership in the Church
Even more, we need to vote to establish our basic position on biblical interpretation (hermeneutics)
Proper answers to these questions will prevent these issues from being put back on the GC Session agenda for a long period of time. Then we can renew our focus on giving the world the Message for this time.
Samuel Whitehead lives in Queensland, Australia with his wife Louise and young sons Jethro and Zadok. Having been brought up in a non-Adventist Christian families, he and Louise became members of the SDA church in 2010 after having been greatly impacted by Steve Wohlberg's 'The Anti-Christ Chronicles' and Walter Veith's 'Total Onslaught' series.