Is there an Adventist Gender Gap?

A.   The Male Headship Principle

There is solid, biblical evidence that God intends His church to be governed by men.  Although Jesus had numerous female followers (Mark 15:40-41; Luke 23:27-30), He chose twelve men as His specially ordained disciples to lead His church on earth. (Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; DA 290-297) When lots were cast to replace Judas Iscariot, both candidates were men. (Acts 1:12-23) The office of “bishop” or “overseer” is described as a male office, to be filled by sober men who are heads of households. (1 Tim. 3:1-7) The same requirements were specified for the office of elder.  (Titus 1:5-9)

The husband is the head of the home (Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1), and good leadership of a family is a prerequisite to leadership in the church: “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4) These passages are matched by apostolic guidance that women should not be in authority over men in the church. (1 Cor. 14:33-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-14)

I have long recommended that the Fundamental Beliefs be updated to reflect a doctrine of male headship in the church.


B.    The Maturity Principle

There is also a biblical principle that full maturity does not manifest until about age thirty. Jesus did not begin his public ministry until age 30. (Luke 3:23) Joseph was 30 years old when he became vice-regent to the Pharaoh. (Gen. 41:46) Under the laws of Moses, adulthood—for purposes of paying a half-shekel tax, being counted in the military census, and being punished for grumbling (Ex. 30:13-14; Num. 1:2-3,18; 1 Chron. 27:23; Num. 14:29-31)—was deemed to have been reached at age 20, but positions of real responsibility were deferred to the age of 30. The Levites and priests assumed their religious duties at the age of 30.  (Num. 4:3) David become King of Israel at age 30. (2 Sam. 5:4)

This biblical principle is supported by science.  Studies show that our brains continue to develop well into our 20s, until about age 30, when development usually levels off.  The part of the brain that continues to develop during our late teens and twenties is the pre-frontal cortex, which controls attention, complex planning, decision making, impulse control, logical thinking, organized thinking, personality development, risk management and short-term memory.

In vision, Ellen White was shown Lucifer before sin, and she reported that “his forehead was high and broad, showing great intelligence.” Then she was shown Satan today: “That brow which was once so noble I particularly noticed.  His forehead commenced from his eyes to recede.”  The implication is that, over long millennia as chief rebel and Arch-deceiver, Satan’s frontal cortex—the moral center of his brain—shrank, re-shaping his head. 

Do we really want young people assuming the mantle of leadership before the part of their brains which controls complex planning, decision making, impulse control, logical thinking, and organized thinking has finished developing? Clearly, God had good reason for teaching that leadership roles should be reserved for those age 30 and older. 


C.   Rule by Committee

But the Seventh-day Adventist Church is not governed by individuals of any age or gender.  Our church is governed by committees.  Local churches elect nominating committees that determine who shall serve in local church offices, including the office of elder, subject to a confirming vote by the congregation.  Certain matters, such as church discipline and membership decisions, are reserved for the entire congregation.  But the regular governance of the local church—particularly regarding finances, staff, local education, and maintenance of the physical plant—is carried out by the church board.

As we climb the ladder of church organization, we find rule by committee at all levels.  The conference officers—president, secretary and treasurer—are elected at constituency meetings to which delegates are sent from churches across the conference.  Once in office, the conference presidents are governed by their conference Executive Committees, which stand in for the larger constituency between the constituency meetings, and usually meet four times a year.  Likewise, the union presidents are selected at union constituency meetings and, once in office, have their own executive committees to answer to.  The same is true even at the level of the General Conference president, who is elected at the quinquennial General Conference Session, but answers to a General Conference Executive Committee that meets annually at Fall Council.   

Women serve on all these committees.  In fact, women not infrequently compose the majority in local nominating committees and church boards.  (There are fewer women on the higher-level committees, because these tend to be aggregations of ordained church officials.)  Women serving on nominating committees have considerable influence on who may serve in church offices, including such biblically male offices as elder.  Women serving on church boards have a vote on finances, spiritual matters, and many other important church matters.  Women serving on conference executive committees vote on the hiring and firing of pastors, and women on union executive committees vote on the ordination of pastors (which raises the question: does it make sense to have a woman voting on whom to ordain to gospel ministry, when women are not eligible to be ordained to gospel ministry?) 

Does the fact that women serve on all these committees make any difference to how the church is governed?  Do women vote differently than men, and hence nullify the biblical principle that the church should be governed by mature (30 or older) men?


D.   The Gender Gap

A well-studied political phenomenon of the past half century is the gender voting gap.  Women famously vote much more liberal than men.  Most women voters in the last eight presidential elections have supported the Democratic candidate, while a majority of male voters has supported the Democratic candidate only twice, in 1992 and 1996, and only four times in presidential elections subsequent to 1952. 

The gender voting gap is getting wider with each presidential election cycle.  In 2012, an all-male electorate would have elected Romney in a landslide: men voted for Romney by 52 to 45 percent, but women preferred Obama by 55 to 44 percent, a cumulative gender gap of 18 percentage points.  But in 2016, women preferred Clinton by 12 points and men preferred Trump by 12 points, creating a cavernous 24-point gender gap. 

Interestingly, the gender gap does not show up among married women:  in 2012, married women preferred Romney to Obama by 53 to 46 percent, the same seven-point margin by which men preferred Romney, and in 2016, married women voted for Trump by 10 percent, which is only two points less than the 12-point Trump margin among men. 

The gender gap is almost entirely the product of single, divorced, and widowed women; these voted for Obama by a two to one margin in 2012.  This aspect of the gender voting gap has given rise to an explanatory theory:  As compared to men, women have a heightened need for security.  Married women look to their husbands for security and view politics and government in largely the same light as do their husbands.  By contrast, unmarried women look to government for security, and because the Democratic party is the party of robust government and a strong social safety net, unmarried women vote Democratic.  (This theory does not entirely explain the phenomenon, because even very wealthy unmarried women, whose security concerns would seem to have been met, vote overwhelmingly Democratic.)

The universally acknowledged reality of a gender voting gap in American politics suggests that there might be a similar gender-based difference in voting patterns on the various Adventist nominating and governing committees and boards.  Generally, these bodies try to do business by consensus, or with unanimous votes, but usually voting is involved and sometimes the votes can become quite divided and contentious.  If female votes tip the scales, then the biblical principle of male church governance is being transgressed.


E.    How the Young Vote

Young people also vote much more liberal than older voters.  While the “Age gap” is not perhaps as well-known and well-studied as the gender gap, it is very real.  On election day 2016, Hillary Clinton won the 18 to 29 age group by 55 percent, while Donald Trump won only 37 percent of this demographic. But Trump did better than Romney; in 2012, young adults voted for Obama by 60 to 37 percent.

Millennials are infamous for favoring socialism more than any other age group in the United States: In a 2016 YouGov survey, 43 percent of respondents in the 18–29 age group viewed socialism in a positive light.  A national Reason-Rupe survey found that 53 percent of Americans under 30 have a favorable view of socialism compared with less than a third of those over 30. Gallup has found that an astonishing 69 percent of millennials say they’d be willing to vote for a “socialist” candidate for president.  Indeed, they’ve done just that: exit polling revealed that during the 2016 Democratic Primary, about 70 to 80 percent of young Democrats voted for Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a “democratic socialist. 

Leftist utopian ideological thinking is immune to all human experience.  Socialism has only ever had baneful results.  The most recent victim of socialism is Venezuela, which has more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia and was one of the wealthiest nations in Latin America in the 1970s.  Last year the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds, people were killing zoo animals for meat, and 90 percent of people in Venezuela were living in poverty, up from 48 percent as recently as 2014.  Utopian ideology has terrible real-world consequences.


F.    Recommendations

I propose that we put a mechanism in place to determine whether gender is making any difference to the way the church is governed.  When seriously contested votes are held on any governing committee, from local church board up through General Conference Executive Committee, the vote should be tabulated by gender. If it appears that men and women are voting for and against the measure in roughly similar percentages, then sex is not affecting the vote.  But if a significant gender gap emerges—in other words, if it appears that women are voting substantially one way, and men substantially the other way—then the female vote should be disregarded.  Persistent, statistically significant gender voting gaps should be reported in the Adventist press, so that the Adventist membership might become better acquainted with the science of gender voting gaps.

The same procedure should be followed with age.  If committee members below the age of 30 are voting substantially in one direction and those over 30 substantially in the other direction, then the votes of those under age 30 should be disregarded and the issue decided by the more mature members.  In this way, the biblical principle of governance by men over the age of 30 will be protected.  (It is notable that 17% of the delegates at the San Antonio General Conference Session were women, and 6% were below the age 30.)

Perhaps a more practical solution is to move decisions related to doctrine or theology away from mixed-gender committees and put them in committees composed of men over the age of 30, typically a board of elders.  Unfortunately, because a Spring Council and then an Annual Council took it upon themselves to approve female elders without a vote of the world church in General conference session, there are increasing numbers of female elders in the SDA Church.  But because biblically the office of elder is clearly a male office, ideally a local church’s Board of Elders should be an all-male committee. 

Decisions that bear on the application of doctrine or theology should be moved to the Board of Elders. This would include church discipline for reasons of apostasy or denial of the fundamentals of Christianity or the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In theory, every baptized member of the church can attend and vote in a church-wide business meeting.  But does it make any sense for a recently baptized 12-year-old child to attend a business meeting where the subject is church discipline for apostasy?  Or for adultery?  Clearly, some subjects are not appropriate for church-wide voting but should be referred to the Board of Elders.

Obviously, this does not mean that all decisions related to local church governance should be made by men.  Decisions regarding the church plant—including the church interior decoration, the mother’s room, the bathrooms, the lower-grade Sabbath School rooms, the kitchen, the fellowship hall, etc.—should be made by committees with prominent female input.  I imagine that most boards of elders would want to seek out female input on these subjects, or indeed even to delegate the decision-making to a female committee.  

There is also an urgent need for a female-staffed social welfare ministry that would include house-to-house visitation, food distribution, light medical care, and special needs projects.  Remember that Ellen White wrote:

“Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time to the service of the Lord should be appointed to visit the sick, look after the young, and minister to the necessities of the poor. They should be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of hands. In some cases, they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister, but if they are devoted women, maintaining a vital connection with God, they will be a power for good in the church. This is another means of strengthening and building up the church. We need to branch out more in our methods of labor.”

The church needs the contributions of both sexes to further its ministry of (1) preaching gospel truth and the three angels’ messages to the end-time generation, and (2) meeting the practical needs of people.  But the answer to the church’s need for “total member involvement” is not to eradicate created gender differences and try to place women in every role in the church, but rather to have each sex fulfill duties that are gender-appropriate and complementary to those tasks undertaken by the opposite sex. 

This proposal is premised upon the view that women should be involved in the ministry of the local church, but that the government of the church, especially in theological or doctrinal matters, should be in the hands of mature men.  This principle, reduced to its essence, is that women may not authoritatively govern over men. 

It is my position that this principle is not violated by having women preach, teach, pastor (in the spiritual gift sense), evangelize, give bible studies, and generally serve in any capacity to which their spiritual gifts fit them. It is violated only when the governance of the church is effectively in the hands of women and children, as would be the case if a “gender gap” (either male-female or under 30) voting preference decided any doctrinal or theological issue, or the practical application of doctrine or theology.  This “gender gap” voting preference is what must be avoided, and steps should be taken to ensure that it is.