And so, one of the most-closely-followed ecclesiological sagas ever within Adventism is now closed – in the sense that more delegates voted ‘no’ than ‘yes.’
It does not matter which way the vote has come, however, because elsewhere the jury is well and truly in: Seventh-Day Adventists cannot do theology.
But long before we start (ab)using words like ‘exegesis’ and ‘hermeneutics,’ I have a simple thought: if we brothers of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church had been the kind of men that God has called us to be – the kind who would give our lives for our wives (and others) even as Christ gave His life for the Church – then our womenfolk would have been so busy submitting to us that no-one would ever have had time for this debate.
That may sound like the naïve rumination of a simpleton, but I do believe that half the time when we accuse others of making things over-complicated, that’s a cop-out for serious thought. But as someone who is frequently accused of making things more complicated than they ought to be and who daily fights against feelings of raging contempt for all those who have made a home for themselves in an intellectual wasteland and then have the audacity to levy accusations at me, I could not be clearer on the fact that at times we DO make things more complicated than they ought to be.
As other SDA thinkers have observed (and not all ‘seminary-trained’ by any means), the whole panoply of constructions that governs our approach to ordination in and of itself is far less Biblical than most have dared to consider. Indeed our approach to the ordination of elders and the appointing of pastors would very likely horrify our pioneers, were they to be alive to see what has become of us. All sorts of things are to blame for this madness, and solutions are cheaply proposed and expensively ignored…
It is beyond dispute that in Biblical terms the man is the head of the household. Good. This means that by the way some Adventists reason, we should tell the mother of a single-parent family that she cannot be the legitimate head of her own house because she possesses the wrong sexual equipment.
Good luck with that.
What, you’d never say that?! Really?! Are you sure about that?!
Let me propose a framework for understanding God’s will:
- God’s IDEAL will
- God’s PERMISSIVE will
- God’s ULTIMATE will
The easiest – and hardest – of these in terms of our limited human comprehension is the last. We have no business talking about ‘God’s will’ as cheaply as we do.
God’s ideal would have been an earth that remained sinless.
His ideal was also that humankind be free in the truest possible sense of the word. And so we have a very under-rated English word “volition” which is defined by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as follows:
Now, this concept is totally crucial to the gospel. It is totally crucial to an understanding of God. God has a will as well as a plan and a purpose. We too have a will, which can itself be bent towards different plans and purposes. Not for nothing does EGW talk about this in Steps to Christ!
God is allowing all of humankind the freedom to use the capacity inherent within humanity to exercise ‘volition.’ Sometimes, we will use this appropriately. Sometimes, we will use this destructively (notice that I did not use ‘creative’ as an opposite of ‘destructive’ because that would be a loose and superficial binary construction; one can use and abuse God’s gift of creativity for both good AND bad!).
Either way, we get to use our own wills and choose. And God works with our choices. That means that when we get things wrong, He has to fix as much as He can – and as much as He chooses – without impugning our own free will.
So the single-parent family is a break from God’s design.
Families make up churches, and so a serious argument exists to say that churches were also originally designed to be led by men.
But that’s the IDEAL.
I already said that Seventh-Day Adventists cannot do theology. Here’s a concept to bend some people out of shape: God is not fair.
He’s really not.
Because if He was, there would be no scope for grace. ‘Fairness’ means that we would get what we deserve. And given the contents of a) Romans 3:23 and b) Romans 6:23a, we would not be in existence right now.
God is not fair. But He IS just! And as far a paradigms go, ‘justice’ trumps ‘fairness’ in pretty much the same way that ‘joy’ trumps ‘happiness.’
Do I think that women being ordained is God’s ideal will? No, I do not. While certain ‘conservative’ Adventists continue to use words the meaning/s of which they have scarcely understood (I’m now talking, for example, about ‘feminism’ and ‘postmodern’), I personally believe that this is very simple. If families are designed to be the mini-microcosms of which churches are comprised, then the church itself is – in paradigmatic terms – a family. And men lead families! We are not close to NT Greek thought, but we are even further away from OT Hebrew thought. We frequently give the Pharisees a bad rap, but they had something over most Seventh-Day Adventists I know: they actually understood that whatever it was they they believed and understood, they had a duty to live in line with that.
Paul would not have recognised our ‘modern’ social phenomenon whereby I can ‘say’ that I am x or y but then ‘live’ like I am in fact a or b. For him, what you said about yourself could only be in conjunction with how you lived. A man who has prepared himself to be a husband and father and who has executed these duties with diligence and grace is God’s ideal for pastoral leadership.
But if God legislated solely on the basis of what was ideal (fairness), we would not be in existence to be having this argument. That does NOT give us the licence to abuse grace, but it does mean that every time we wield a legalistic approach to truth and practice, we condemn ourselves. The proof that as a denomination in general we are terrible at ecclesiology can be found at every level of church life. We have a more rigid approach to ‘hierarchy’ than the New Testament church ever did. We have a more formalistic approach to liturgy than the New Testament church ever did. God in His patience and mercy works with us, but in the final analysis, the same God who has called a woman to prophetic ministry of the magnitude that we see in EGW is the same God who may well choose to call a woman to be a pastor.
Scripture has given us no authority whatsoever to presuppose that in the 21st century, God could not and would not choose to call a woman into pastoral ministry. I have yet to meet a single fellow Adventist who believes that God has indisputably called every male minister who is ordained by the church. The sad truth is that the ministers are the greatest liability of the church, and that fact was highlighted by a certain prophetess who announced that a very significant role would be played by laity in finishing the work (some of you need to read the last seven verses of Isaiah 43 VERY carefully!).
The work needs to be finished. Children need to be raised with authority and love.
The latter is true whether the family has a husband/father or not. And the former is true whether the church is led by a man or by a woman. If we did not believe women should be ordained, we should never have allowed them to become pastors in the first place – but that is typical of Adventist ecclesiology, and that’s why our credibility is not what it might be under God. We’re pretty good at lots of things, but our ecclesiology suffers because our general theological literacy is woefully underpowered. And that lack of conceptual consistency does us no favours when we try to reach people who have actually thought more rigorously about what they do not believe than we have about what we claim to believe!
It is impossible to show from Scripture that God does not want WO under ANY circumstances. I submit that WO may well be in the category of what would be His PERMISSIVE will.
The ‘no’ vote is not a sign of God’s true word on the subject of whether or not WO is right. It means that no division can take it upon itself to deviate from our historic position and start ordaining women. But I hope that those who rejoice in this decision do not forget that the vote at GC 2000 (Toronto) to allow people to divorce for reasons that were about more than adultery was its own radical departure from what any literate person could perceive as the clear testimony of Scripture, and we have now accepted what God may have rejected.
Not only that – by insisting on tradition and personal sentiment over rigorous Biblical theology (“…but it simply cannot be God’s will to have women be ordained!” or “I’m a woman and I don’t need to be ordained to do the work I’ve been called to do”), we have in fact become increasingly close to all sorts of other denominations that last I checked we were trying not to be like… And – more interestingly still – our approach to hierarchy, our insistence of distinctiveness at the cost of engagement with others and the force with which we defend beliefs rather than principles makes us more like the Roman Catholic church than we’d like to consider.
This is why I say that we cannot do theology (and OF COURSE this is a hyperbolic overgeneralisation designed to make a point!). When we put ‘being distinctively Adventist’ over ‘being scrupulously and consistently Biblical’ we deviate from the path set by our pioneers. The decision to widen the parameters for marriage at GC 2000 was not an easy one and while I understand it, it means that we have opened the door for church members to embark upon marriage with less covenantal seriousness than would have been the case before. Interestingly, some observers were convinced that the ‘yes’ vote on that occasion would open the door to WO, but this has been proven to be false. Both the GC 2000 and GC 2015 decisions are hermeneutically flawed in very different ways, but for those of us who take Bible prophecy seriously, it is more proof that we are in the Laodicean church.
I have learned that whoever the church ordains and overlooks, only God’s approval matters, and His ULTIMATE will is: whatever takes place. So whatever God has called you to do, if it really is He who has called, then human systems are not going to hinder His work to save the world. God will work with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church wherever He can, but He will use other people and communities where He can if – and when – we fall short. The Laodicean church has already failed in so many ways. Read EGW and weep.
“…God’s will?” Careful now, my brothers and sisters, careful…