Ever since I was a kid, there have been polarizing issues within the church. If you want to get a group of Adventists riled up on a Sabbath afternoon, just talk about the nature of Christ, Last Generation Theology, worship style, or conference segregation. Today, I’m going to finally stick my neck out regarding another polarizing issue in the church: women’s ordination.
It’s become especially crucial to speak about this now with an important vote to be taken at the next General Conference session in 2015. Not only that, the rhetoric on both extremes sadly rivals any political campaign today. Nowadays, it feels like the Marvel Civil War arc where Tony Stark (Iron Man) goes up against Captain America and every superhero is forced to take sides in the conflict; even to not act is to take a stand on one side or another.
Ever since I started researching this issue a few years ago, I’ve started to become more and more convicted of one side. I’m not going to simply spit out my position. Instead, I want to take you briefly through my thought process.
A few important points that I believe need to be kept in mind, though. Whenever we are discussing contentious issues like this, we need to:
- Learn how to discuss such issues without anger/excessive emotion
- Accept the fact that we all approach the Scripture with a priori presuppositions
- Recognize that none of us have all the answers
I apply all those points to myself first and foremost. With that said, I think that the entire conversation about ordination is taken way too deep. I’m not saying that there are not some disputed passages and deep study that occurs in both sides of the argument. Personally speaking, I just try to look at things as simple as possible (or at least simple for me). So here is what I think about this issue.
- God has always had a priesthood.
A priest by definition is a person whose office it is to perform religious rites, and especially to make sacrificial offerings. In Christian use, it can be taken in one of two ways:
- Person ordained to the sacerdotal or pastoral office; a member of the clergy; minister.
- (In hierarchical churches) A member of the clergy of the order next below that of bishop, authorized to carry out the Christian ministry.
The earliest mentions in Scripture that I found for priests were in reference to two people:
Melchizediek (Genesis 14:17-19) and Jethro (Exodus 2:15-17)
The first is a mysterious king who also served Abram as a priest. The other was a farmer who became Moses’ father-in-law and also served as a priest. There are a few important characteristics to note about these first two priests:
- They were full time but also had side jobs.
- They were at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum
- Both served God’s leaders before they (God’s leaders, i.e. Abram and Moses) fully realized their own calling into ministry.
- They were priests before the establishment of the covenant at Sinai.
So there were people who were already serving and functioning in the priestly office before Sinai. Because they were on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum and also had side jobs, I believe this shows us that anyone can be a priest, be it a king or a peasant.
2. God’s original plan to reach the world was to have a Nation of Priests.
Oftentimes, the Levitical priesthood (God’s first established lineage of priests in Israel) has been referenced as the pattern for how pastoral ministry began and should operate today. But, many people overlook the fact that the Levites were, in fact, not God’s plan A. His original idea was in Exodus 19:5-6:
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.
Again, God’s Plan A was for everyone to be a priest. Man, woman, and child. Everyone was to know the Lord and minister for Him. The only problem with this plan, as with every plan God tries to make, is people. People and this whole concept of free will makes things complicated.
- Because of the people’s rebellion, instead of a Nation of Priests, God had to settle for priests in a nation. Plan B.
Even though the congregation promised to do as God required (Exodus 19:7-8), and even though God gave the people instruction in what was going to happen when He showed up on the mountain and how to prepare for the crazy sights they would see (later part of Exodus 19), we find that the following happened when everything went down in Exodus 20:18-21:
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.
The people insisted on a mediator (or a buffer person) between themselves and God. They couldn’t handle the presence of God so they asked to be able to have someone else do the work of ministry so that they wouldn’t have to deal with the Deity. The same problem manifested itself later in Exodus 34, when the people wanted to make an idol because they thought a god they could see was better than a God they could not see. When Moses came down and called the people to arms, only the sons of the tribe of Levi came to aid in cleansing the camp (Exodus 32:25-29)
So again, instead of a Nation of Priests, God had to settle for priests in a nation (and not even all the Levites, it was primarily relegated to one family: Aaron’s lineage). The very model that people allude to as a basis for the non-ordination of women is a faulty model based on the human rejection of God’s plan; it was the byproduct of a rebellion, not a mandate from God. So the Old Testament priesthood is not the ideal model for ministry in today’s world (especially because we believe in this little thing called the priesthood of all believers).
Now, which plan do you think the Apostle Peter was referring to in 1 Peter 2:9, God’s plan A or God’s plan B?
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;
The pontifical titles and perks that come after ordination, like calling me “Elder Fernandez” instead of “Pastor Nelson” like I’m currently called, salary increase when you get ordained, and the perception that I am somehow closer to God because of ordination is found nowhere in Scripture. They are man-made perks to make people feel better about having a select group of people doing “the work of ministry,” instead of everyone having direct engagement in ministry and letting the Holy Spirit decide who gets what gift. Spiritual gifts include the gift of pastoring… and no, neither the gifts nor the fruits of the Spirit are gender-specific.
Furthermore, I also don’t buy the idea that because Jesus didn’t explicitly have female disciples that it means only men can be prominent leaders in His church. If we follow that logic and stick with only men, we should also not include slaves, freed slaves, Gentiles, or people of color… so basically 95% (and that is a conservative estimate) of all Adventist males who do not have predominant male Jewish heritage should be kicked out of leadership position.
Perceptions of women throughout history
Now on to what we as a church are facing today. With the recent action at the Annual Council allowing the world church to decide whether sections of the church can be allowed to ordain women in their field has made some people start campaigning hard against this idea. This campaigning has led to some spectacular facepalm comments like this:
“Our Church is waisting God’s money with women ordination. Comman sence alone will tell you that God did not ordain women. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or a professor of theology to know that God have a standard. Think . What will happen when someone have to be baptize and the woman pastor is seeking her period. Think . Next they will have to accept gay as ministers…” [sic]
Yes… you read that correctly. This quote speaks for itself. Now WHERE do people come up with these things? I’m not sure, but I CAN tell you that it’s not from Scripture. What I can say is that there is a precedent for this type of put-down of women throughout the centuries by church leaders.
The above comment is actually closer to Catholicism than Adventism. Check out the following quote:
Synod of Paris (829 AD)
“In some provinces it happens that women press around the altar, touch the holy vessels, hand the clerics the priestly vestments, indeed even dispense the body and blood of the Lord to the people. This is shameful and must not take place. . . No doubt such customs have arisen because of the carelessness and negligence of the bishops.”
That’s not the best of it. Here is a sprinkling of some of the best of the worst comments about women from Church leaders throughout history:
Tertullian (3rd century)
“And do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert – that is, death – even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins.”
Aphrahat (4th century)
“From the beginning it was through woman that the adversary had access unto males. . . . for she is the weapon of Satan. . . For because of her the curse of the
Law was established.”
Basil of Cesarea (4th century)
“However hard, however fierce a husband may be, the wife ought to bear with him. . . . He strikes you, but he is your husband. . . . He is brutal and cross, but he is henceforth one of your members, and the most precious of all.”
Augustine (4th century)
Male – the mind
Female – the sexual nature
Papal decretum (1140 AD)
“The image of God is in man in such a way that there is only one Lord, the origin of all others, having the power of God as God’s vicar, for everything is in God’s image; and thus woman is not made in God’s image.”
Compare all of these statements with a great quote from Patriarchs and Prophets (a book written by a prominent founder of Seventh-day Adventism… also a woman):
Eve was created from a rib taken from the side of Adam, signifying that she was not to control him as the head, nor to be trampled under his feet as an inferior, but to stand by his side as an equal, to be loved and protected by him (46).
Clearly, I believe that all people, men and women, may receive ordination as an affirmation of the call of God.
There are intelligent people on both sides of the debate and I don’t doubt their sincerity. Speaking from my own personal experience, what troubles me is that currently, I’ve seen fear mongering, conspiracy theories, and incredible leaps in logic as reasons against the ordination of women to pastoral ministry. Again, when you realize that everyone is called to be a priest (instead of only a select few who have the gift of pastoring), then the importance we give ordination today is really a moot point.
As a side note, even culturally, many of the divisions around the world that are probably against the idea of women clergy may view and/or treat women less favorably. I’m Hispanic, so I’ll pick on myself for this one example. A recent Gallup poll found that Latin Americans (where a large chunk of the world church resides) were “least likely in the world in 2012 and 2013 to say women in their countries are treated with respect and dignity.” I wonder how many votes will be cast based on what some prominent preachers say, backed up by the cultural “machista” perception?
If another part of the world isn’t ready for women as pastors yet, I can understand. But I also don’t believe it’s right for another culture to impose their expectations or norms on us any more than we would expect other parts of the world to start wearing wedding bands just because we do in North America.
Contextualized ministry for the sake of the Gospel is what it’s all about.
Now, I don’t know what the future holds between now and the official vote next year. What I do believe is that God is still in control of His church. Every day, I am convicted even more that we need to go back to God’s “plan A” where we will be a NATION of priests and not leave the decision of who should or shouldn’t be in pastoral ministry to gender, but rather, the Holy Spirit. The decision of who to call into ministry is after all, as my friend Kessia says, not our right, but His.
[Update] I wrote a follow up article to this one providing the theological basis for my thoughts here. It answers many of the questions that came out of this article. That can be found by clicking here or entering this address in your browser: http://www.pastornelsonsblog.com/the-priesthood-of-all-believers-womens-ordination-qa/
[Update #2] What do Millennials think about this issue of Women’s Ordination? There was a recent study done on the subject. You can read more about it by clicking here or by entering this address in your browser: http://www.pastornelsonsblog.com/what-do-millennials-believe-about-womens-ordination/