Why We’re Not Ready for a Doctrinal Vote on Women’s Ordination

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Why We’re Not Ready for a Doctrinal Vote on Women’s Ordination

I do not enjoy discussing or talking about the question of women’s ordination publicly, as it always seems to stir up unpleasant conversations these days, and I dislike controversies with my fellow believers and friends, with whom I so often agree. Nevertheless, the issue is upon us, and so I’ve decided to offer a few words about why, sadly, I fear we as a church will continue to disagree, even after the vote. Yet I hope we can take courage, for God is over all, and we may have peace with each other so long as we recognize this. There is hope for those who trust in God.

Whether it is from beliefs or more pragmatic concerns, the lesson immediately following the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 discussing circumcision may be apropos to our situation. It was here that Paul and Barnabas felt obliged to differ and part ways for pragmatic mission-minded reasons (Acts 15:36-39).

Think about it for a minute. Both Paul and Barnabas were genuine soul-winners, and they had just emerged from a unifying council on a controversial issue not so dissimilar from our own. Then immediately afterward, for practical considerations, these two giants of the early church separated their ministries. In the end the more prominent one, Paul, was proven the more judgmental, with his later change of heart about Barnabas’ kinsman, John Mark, who simply needed more time to mature in his faith (Col 4:11; 2 Tim 4:11; AA 170.2).

If believers can disagree after a conference that resulted in unity, how much more so when the prospects of continuing disagreements linger?

I would like to mention, as senior editor, that I’m aware of and respect the fact that The Compass Magazine has readers who lean, some more strongly than others, toward both directions on the matter of ordination. That said, we also hold firm to the notion that “those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed. As long as we hold to our own ideas and opinions with determined persistency, we cannot have the unity for which Christ prayed” {CET 203.2}.

Therefore, so long as God has not led us to establish something at the level of a fundamental belief or pillar doctrine, we must remain open-minded and generous in our attitude toward those who differ from us. Whether or not our General Conference delegates vote this summer to affirm or deny divisional discretion on whether to ordain women to gospel ministry, I would encourage that we all consider the true origin of unity, God.

Whence Comes Unity?

One of the suggestions that has been floated around the Adventist world is that the upcoming GC delegates’ vote on women’s ordination should have been arranged as a doctrinal vote, one that would “settle” the issue for our church once and for all, and thus “create unity.” I believe God’s Spirit, in wisdom, has prevented us from taking such a rash vote at this time, and it has to do as much with how unity is created as well as what is the truth on the matters of gender and ordination. Let me share why I believe this is so.

If we truly seek harmony on this issue, we need to understand, first and foremost, why it may be that God is preventing us from creating a new doctrine addressing ordination and women. I share this to those holding perspectives on either side of the issue. If I may say it, now would have been the perfect time to permanently vote down women’s ordination, given that no one questions that a global majority of adult baptized believers would reject women’s ordination if we all voted democratically.

So why has God not inspired us to do so? Is it because it would create a false harmony and unity that only concealed a deeper discord? Is it because not all the issues, despite years of study, have yet been fully revealed? Does God want us to understand how real unity works first?

A few points to consider:

1. The Question of Women’s Ordination Touches on Complex, Interrelated Issues.

There is nowhere near a “super-majority” opinion on the matter amongst our leading scholars and thinkers; in fact, an opposite majority exists amongst our most credentialed scholars in support of women’s ordination. Our laity and scholars are divided deeply.

Part of this division has to do with just how many issues are interrelated with the questions of gender and ordination. Some issues take more time to bake in the ovens of our minds than others. Despite how clear either side may think their view is, we still disagree, and I suggest it’s because there are too many questions being addressed at once. These questions include

  • the meaning / purpose of ordination,
  • its relationship to priesthood / leadership,
  • the extent of gender roles / functions beyond the physical, such as psychological aspects,
  • the nature of hermeneutics,
  • the presence of culture in Scripture,
  • the nature of the Trinity,
  • the extent and purpose of headship,
  • the significance of ecclesiology / visible church, and
  • corporate perfection.

Even after years of study, I frequently see online that many do not understand just how many issues are interconnected on our question of whether to ordain women. It’s not as simple as some people think, and a doctrinal vote either way would imply far more than we actually believe on the other intricately connected issues.

2. Votes Do Not Produce Unity.

Unity of heart is the real objective, not simply a new resolution or even doctrine that would be so deeply misunderstood. Ellen G. White offered sound advice for our church concerning the origin and nature of true harmony amidst divisions and disagreements in a church consisting of erring mortals. Especially noteworthy is the role that resolutions (majority votes on non-fundamental beliefs) play in bringing about unity:

Christ prayed that His disciples might be one, even as He and His Father are one. In what does this unity consist? That oneness does not consist in everyone having the same disposition, the very same temperament, that makes all run in the very same channel. All do not possess the same degree of intelligence. All have not the same experience. In a church there are different gifts and varied experiences. In temporal matters there is a great variety of ways of management, and yet none of these variations in manner of labor, in exercise of gifts, need to create dissension and discord and disunion. One man may be conversant with the Scriptures, and some particular portion of the Scripture is especially appreciated by him because he has seen it in a certain striking light; another sees another portion as very important; and thus one and another presents the very points to the people that appear of highest value. This is all in the order of God. One man blunders in his interpretation of some portion of the Scripture, but shall this cause diversity and disunion? God forbid. We cannot then take a position that the unity of the church consists in viewing every text of Scripture in the very same shade of light.

The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and thus root out disagreement. These resolutions may conceal the discord but they cannot quench it and establish a perfect agreement. Nothing can perfect a perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christlike forbearance. Satan can sow discord; Christ alone can harmonize the disagreeing elements. Then let every soul sit down in Christ’s school and learn of Christ who declares Himself to be meek and lowly of heart; and Christ declares that if we learn of Him, then our worries will cease, and we shall find rest to our souls. {15MR 149-150, emphasis supplied}

Read the rest of Ellen White’s letter: “More Love Needed”

3. Some Theology Is Nonessential.

Drawing from White’s quote above, the uncomfortable fact is, sometimes people see things differently and disagree. This side of glory, we will never have perfect harmony of mind; we will never understand certain passages of Scripture in the same light. This does not mean, however, that those who disagree on some minor points don’t both maintain faithfulness to our pillar doctrines. Unity comes in recognition of this fact.

How we learn to navigate through differences says a lot about what kind of people we really are and desire to be. It may prove well to remember that “Christ did not reveal many things that were truth, because it would create a difference of opinion and get up disputations” {1888 24.3}. This is a rebuke to both sides who push their nonessential views too strongly upon those around them.

Indeed, writing in the aftermath of the infamously divisive GC session in Minneapolis in 1888, White commented, “We are in danger of falling into similar errors. Never should that which God has not given as a test be carried as was the subject of the law in Galatians. I have been instructed that the terrible experience at the Minneapolis conference is one of the saddest chapters in the history of the believers in present truth” {1MR 142.2, emphasis supplied}. Again, White shared, “The law in Galatians is not a vital question and never has been. Those who have called it one of the old landmarks simply do not know what they are talking about. It never was an old landmark, and it never will become such” {1888 841.1}.

Nonessential theology? Yes, White absolutely believed that nonessential theology existed. Are there aspects of how we understand ordination and church authority that are nonessential? I think so. I believe the precise details concerning how ordination works and how we should understand gender within our church structure are not vital test questions, and never will be.

During the time of trouble, I don’t expect communiqués from the GC or my conference president encouraging the faithful believers. Church structure has its place and functions here on earth, but it is not eternal and unchangeable, nor are its leaders infallible, nor will it endure or have meaning as it does today through the time of trouble.

Furthermore, Ellen White is far clearer about some issues, like our health message, that are also never to be a test of fellowship, than she is on the law in Galatians or on specifically excluding women from a particular church office. For example, White actually says it’s a sin to violate natural law (3T 161.2), yet she still doesn’t make abstaining from eating meat a test or a doctrine. It seems that not even some issues that are clear should become tests of our faith, even when White did express clear preferences on a given issue.

So which issues are deserving of greater importance? White would leave that answer to the complexities of biblical hermeneutics and the leading of the Holy Spirit. If a new issue emerges which represents new light, then let it come. But the process for how we would cement such light into a fundamental belief must not change. It must still be something upon which our sincere scholars and laity agree, in their joint and mutual efforts of Bible study. If we’ve learned anything from our history, it is that God will not present any tests arbitrarily that confuse as much as they divide.

With these thoughts in mind, I think it would serve us well to remember that, as White put it so well following 1888, “There are mistakes being made on both sides in this controversy.” Let’s try to trim down some of those mistakes with that humble forbearance which is only possible through the influence that the Holy Spirit inspires. Let’s not bring down the scourge upon our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ; let us leave the world and its fallen deposed ruler to do that.

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Michael Younker is a consulting editor for The Compass Magazine. He is completing a doctoral degree in philosophical theology (2019) at Andrews University.