Second in a short series of opinion pieces by Adventist lay persons regarding the role of women in leadership.
The pursuit of diversity has been a challenge for our church. During the past half century, North American culture had made huge strides toward inclusivity regarding ethnicity, age and gender. Although inclusivity is a core value of New Testament teaching, we have struggled to keep pace with secular society in achieving it.
Sadly, the church has had to be shamed into ethnic diversity, frightened (by attrition) into age diversity, and sued into gender equality—but only in terms of pay for female employees. Regrettably, we have escaped the responsibility of gender diversity within our church leadership structure (as mandated by Gal. 3:28-29) by taking refuge in church-state separation protection.
But from whom are we protecting ourselves? And how is it working out for us, specifically in our current quest for revival and reformation?
An adventure in diversity
I recall an experience in the mid-1990s at the General Conference. PREXAD commissioned our Ministerial Association to organize a Friday night communion service to culminate colloquium week. Led in discussion by the late James Cress, we all agreed this service should represent the diversity of the body of Christ in terms of ethnicity, age and gender.
To be inclusive of women, we decided to invite trusted and beloved “mothers in Israel” among the headquarters staff to participate. They would serve Communion emblems to the world church leadership family. When we checked with our VP representative from PREXAD, however, a frustrating discussion ensued. The debate continues unresolved two decades later—despite earnest attempts to quench the Spirit of discussion at various church councils and sessions.
As I recall, the answer about including women in the colloquium communion service came back as an unqualified No. Why? Ordained deacons—exclusively males—bore the solemn responsibility of distributing the emblems. Women as unordained deaconesses could bake the wafers, set the tables and clean up afterwards. But female participation in the service itself was verboten.
So it was back to the planning table for the Ministerial Association. We fell into a discussion of the difficult question: Where does the New Testament distinguish between male and female deacons (traditionally called “deaconesses”)? Suddenly Dr. Cress leaned back with a smile. “I’ve got it! No use arguing about deacons—but listen to this: It’s true we don’t ordain women as deacons—but we do ordain them as local elders! So let’s involve our women who are ordained elders in local churches in distributing the emblems—that ought to satisfy any concerns, since elders trump deacons in ecclesiastical hierarchy.”
We all smiled and praised the Lord. “Jim—that’s a God-given strategy!” We were going to make history for gender diversity at the world headquarters of our church!
Our smiles faded when our plan was announced to the VP who supervised our Association. It’s fair to say he didn’t share our enthusiasm. When we asked Jim why, he reported that this beloved godly man—whom we all respected and loved—looked like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. No reason was given for gender exclusion—just a statement like “this has never been done before.” (Tradition rests on precedence, not principle.) This VP’s well-worn Bible was not opened to give us any answers.
We also were advised not to make this an issue of controversy. Never mind that those who still clung to the past—refusing to accept women being ordained even as local church elders—freely promoted their partisan views in opposition to voted church policy. They got away with it, because they had two forces on their side, both unseen and unspiritual: conservative money and political power. But we, the staff of the church’s Ministerial Association that served the world field, had no such freedom of facilitating public discussion.
Ellen White was a woman
An even greater conundrum is the ongoing partisan usage of Ellen White to oppose installing women in positions of church leadership. While many things regarding the interpretation of EGW are discussable, one thing is beyond dispute: she was a woman—a women fully engulfed in ministry!
It is for historical ecclesiologists to argue whether the famous ordination document with Ellen White’s name on it is valid or not. In practical terms, she not only had ministerial authority on a global level—she wielded more leadership power than any Adventist male who ever lived.
Actually, the Bible doesn’t specifically address the matter of women being ordained. The NT 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 who forbid leadership roles to woman tend to be the very ones who invest supreme importance in Ellen White’s leadership and teaching authority over the church—more in fact than Roman Catholics allow their popes. Papal authority to infallibly interpret scripture is strictly limited to those occasions when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. No such boundary is placed on Ellen White—even as her most vocal proponents tend to restrict leadership roles for every other Adventist woman.
Even without that perplexing dynamic within our church, we are left with important issues of contradiction to resolve regarding our present ordination policy. Among them: 1) the NT makes no distinction between the ordination of local church leaders and regional church leaders; 2) there is therefore no biblical warrant for allowing women into one ordination while forbidding them the other.
It’s been suggested, tongue in cheek, that it is good we Adventists hold the doctrine of the millennium, because that’s about as long as it will take for us to explain to the saints of all the ages some of our traditions involving ecclesiology, inspiration and assorted lifestyle interpretations.
A stumbling block
It’s a lot easier for older, veteran Adventists to navigate these inconsistencies than it is for our children. My DMin research suggests that Adventist young adults are not fond of the way we treat women as leaders. One need not consult scholarly data to expect anything different from those who live in a society that not only expects but demands inclusivity and diversity on every level—including gender diversity. This is not only true for our young women. Many of our most thoughtful and conscientious sons are failing to bond with a church that unbiblically deprives official leadership from their wives, sisters and moms.
Which of us hasn’t had this discussion with our adult children? And what does this portend for the future of our church in North America?
Looking beyond our own denominational circle, what effect does systemic chauvinism in church authority have upon evangelism? Neighbors and workplace associates don’t care how much we know about the Bible until they know how much we care about people—including women. Proving the Sabbath means little if they visit our churches and see that women are excluded from the most important local leadership position—that of a fully ordained pastor.
Have we polluted our pure truth with dysfunctional applications that are chauvinistic . . . unbiblical . . . inconsistent . . . irrational . . . exclusivist . . . pro-attrition . . . anti-evangelistic? How much is lost when we shut women out of church leadership! That’s a huge issue in itself that gets worse when we consider the inevitable effect of leadership chauvinism upon our current quest for revival and its aftermath of reformation (GC) or transformation (NAD).
Quenching the Spirit
At the core of revival is praying for the Spirit. Any emphasis on prayer is laudable, but of course not as an end in itself, which would amount to a religion that is heavenly minded but of no earthly good. There is a practical purpose in experiencing the Spirit: to edify (build up) the church qualitatively and quantitatively through the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit.
Our continuing shortage of love, joy and peace is a study in itself. In reference to our current discussion, our policies toward women limit our experience in the gifts of the Spirit. We cherish one historic woman who had the gift of prophecy, but what about the many women called to leadership?
Consider dramatic church growth in the most populous nation of the world—China. We all know it is Adventist women in leadership, locally and regionally, who facilitate and oversee that growth. One might say, “Well, that goes to show that you don’t need to make women official leaders in order for them to function.”
Perhaps a better response to gender exclusivism might be the same as the early church Jewish elders being taught to abandon racial limitations: “So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” (Acts 11:17).
You see the question: Since God is blessing women in leadership, how can we withhold our official installation of them in those roles? Also, how much more could women do if artificial obstructions were not placed in their way?
Yes, women are functioning in the present system around the world—but are they functioning optimally? Is God to some extent working, not through the current leadership structure but in spite of it?
In some places, no doubt the current gender structure is optimal for local culture. Obviously not in the NAD, TED and other regions that value gender inclusivity. Such is the genius of having a world church: one global mission, with each division having freedom to interpret denominational policy in its unique region of the world.
Endangering the incarnation of Christ’s body
At stake here is the very incarnation of the church as the body of Christ. Jesus took upon Himself not only human flesh, but He was incarnate in human experience contemporary for His time and place. He tailored His teaching and applied His principles for His native Palestinian Jewish audience.
We too must be incarnate in our own culture, which means applying the everlasting gospel as present truth within our division. Each of the 13 world divisions is uniquely called and qualified to discern how to ensure that the principles, policies and practices of the world church are incarnate in its territory.
Much has been said by missiologists in the past several decades about the folly of imposing Western culture upon the developing world. Amen! And the reverse is also true. Overseas Adventists must understand that the NAD has its own unique cultural mix equally precious in God’s sight and deserving of respect from the global community of Adventists.
Some suggest that the NAD is restricted by its “special relationship” with the General Conference, being the birthplace of Adventism and its historic benefactor. Somehow this is supposed to deprive it of the privileges and responsibilities afforded every other world division has: to establish its own identity and administrate its own territory.
Should not the NAD’s manifold contributions to the global field inspire gratitude rather than the expectation that it become a homogenized sample of the composite world field? Divine wisdom has afforded Seventh-day Adventism with an organic capacity to relate culturally to “every people, tribe, tongue and nation.” To restrict this in any world division would be to diminish the incarnation of the body of Christ in that part of God’s vineyard.
Chauvinistic practices enjoined upon the NAD not only alienate us from our neighbors but also from our own young adults. This diminishes both outreach and nurture by putting human limitations on the function of spiritual gifts—particularly the vital gift of leadership. And forbidding women from functioning optimally in leadership quenches the Spirit in their lives and in the corporate life of the church. At risk then is the whole enterprise of revival and reformation/transformation.
Try to imagine the Seventh-day Adventist Church without the unrestricted leadership of its pioneer woman. Impossible? Then how would we dare place every other Adventist woman under restrictions that are unbiblical, irrational, exclusivist, pro-attrition and anti-evangelistic?
God has a better plan for our church. May He empower us to achieve it together.