The Ordination of Women

Arguments against the ordination of women in Protestant churches are wrongly framed. The issue is not ordination. That is a smokescreen. What is ordination but laying on hands and appointing someone for a particular work? (For more, see my post, Thoughts on the History and Theology of Ordination).  The issue is, rather, what kind of work women can do in a church.  And those who talk about “male headship” are right–they are arguing for particular roles of men and women.  They want men to be in charge in the family and in the church. They don’t want women to be spiritual leaders.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church does not presently “ordain” women to the ministry. And yet, there are Adventist women in ministry. They serve as pastors, chaplains, and leaders of conference, union, division, and General Conference ministries. One is a conference president.  Those who are pastors can baptize, can lead communion, can preach, can marry–because they are ordained as local elders.  “Ordination” to the ministry would not change anything. It would not give them new privileges. It would not give them new powers. Right now, women in ministry are in the same position as their male colleagues who are starting out in ministry, who have to “prove” themselves for several years before they are “ordained.”  Except women never get to “prove” themselves; they must always be in the position of “interns” who are waiting for the day when they can be “ordained”–despite the fact all acknowledge, in word and practice, that this ordination does not do anything.

It’s a strange practice. A recent “Theology of Ordination Study Committee” never addressed this issue. Obviously, Adventists reject the Roman Catholic understanding that ordination imparts an indelible character that ontologically changes a man, conforming him to Christ the head of the Church in a unique sacramental way, giving him the power to confect the Eucharist and to absolve sins. Protestantism rightly jettisoned this metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, seeing ordination as the community’s act of calling a person to act for the community, and praying for God’s guidance and support of that person.

Adventist ministerial theology and practice evolved in an era when the ordained pastors were itinerant evangelists, traveling around establishing churches and periodically visiting established churches to baptize and lead communion.  Local churches were led by elders. That’s the primary Adventist ministerial role–the ordained pastor functions more like a Catholic bishop. Sometimes. There are exceptions–such as those strange cases where the Adventist church will “ordain” someone who has never preached, and will never preach, and will not be expected to baptize or lead communion–that’s when the church has ordained bookstore managers and conference treasurers. This, too, was not touched on by the Theology of Ordination Study Committee.

But let’s return to the point we started off with. The issue for the opponents of women’s ordination is not the ceremony–it is women having a spiritual leadership role.  If they face this issue head on, and honestly deal with the implications, they will be forced into a couple of positions. One, they will have to remove all women from pastoral, teaching, and administrative leadership positions. There’s no way around this one. If women can’t be in spiritual leadership roles, they can’t be pastors, ordained or unordained.

And they will have to grapple with Ellen White.  Here’s the real irony–a church whose most important figure is a woman has a loud faction of conservatives who think women should have no leadership role. Under their theology of headship,followed to its logical conclusions, she must be silenced.

But her ministry was established in the church in the conviction that we are living in the last days, and in these days, God is doing new things, as was prophesied by the prophet Joel:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.

God is not bound by what he did in the past. God’s Spirit cannot be restricted by man. God will do what he wants, with whom he wants. And the early Adventists saw evidence of that in the life and ministry of Ellen White.

God birthed his church in freedom. It broke the ethnic boundaries between Jew and Gentile. He led it to freedom through the waters of baptism, in which all distinctions between Jew or Greek, male or female, are eradicated, and all are one.  Jesus gave no instructions for how to organize the church. He simply told them to go, preach, make disciples, and baptize.  He poured his Spirit upon them, and the Spirit led them in new ways. When disputes rose in the church about the needs of Hellenistic widows, neglected in the distribution, they created a new office of deacon to deal with it.  Jesus gave no instruction on presbyters or episkopoi (elders or bishops), but the church established those offices, too, acting in freedom.  How did we move from this creative freedom to act and to organize to a place where these offices are sacred precincts surrounded by theological chain link fences and concertina wire?

Jesus breathed freedom on the church when he breathed the Spirit. And that Spirit has led the church to do new things. And the Bible says that a sign of the last days days will be an unfettered outpouring of that spirit upon young and old, upon men and women. And this is as surely a sign of the end as signs in the sun, moon, and stars.  Instead of complaining that the wrong people are doing the wrong things, let’s give thanks to God that he has called, and men and women are responding, and are eager to preach the Gospel.