In the aftermath of San Antonio’s Women’s Ordination (WO) “No vote” there has been, unsurprisingly, considerable reaction. Emotion, speculation, criticism, defense—words have spilled out in prodigious quantity. Almost everything I have read concentrates on specific context, that is: women, ordination and church governance. Some attempts have been made to propose underlying rationale—mostly relating to cultural effects on the delegates’ mindset. There has also been a lot of argumentative “clutter”—questionable logic, back and forth attacks along the liberal-conservative divide, and the endemic talking past one other.
What I wish to do in this essay is first a modest attempt at some de-cluttering and then try to move from considering the specific context to looking for some understanding at the level of underlying World Views. Given the current intensely polarized climate, any hope of progress in such an endeavor is very problematic. The Spectrum website is considered, by many SDA conservatives, to be heterodox and hostile. Thus an article like this might be viewed, likely by both sides, as non-neutral. A pro-WO reader would expect confirmation of their position; an anti-WO reader would be on high-alert – seeking opportunity for rejection of any disturbing ideas presented. Such insulating filters are not surprising. People somewhat generally resist contrarian input. Couple this with a number of pro-WO supporters whose disappointment has morphed into bashing, and we have a difficult climate in which to investigate underlying world views dispassionately.
· Distinction without a difference
There are two categories of argument I’ve seen employed in service of the Male Headship doctrine – and thus in support of a No vote. One is exegetical and the other is natural. Setting aside the exegetical for the moment I’ve been singularly unimpressed with the reasons offered for why women are disqualified for ordination due to something related to a woman’s nature. It is uncontroversial that men and women are different in some respects. Men tend to be stronger on average, women bear children, etc. But none of the differences I’ve seen mentioned have anything that plausibly explains why a woman cannot fulfill tasks currently denied to them because ordination is withheld. This is a major problem, I suggest, for a No voter to consider. It is painfully clear that there is not a lot of difference, pragmatically, between commissioned and ordained. The most significant difference is that commissioning is insufficient to be considered for some administrative positions, such as a conference president. But where, in examining the natural differences between a man and a woman, can there be found justification for this sort of disqualification? I have never seen anyone really develop a solid argument to answer this. And if it cannot be done one ought to legitimately ask what then might God’s reasons be for disqualification? It seems that a No adherent wants to declare that there is an important distinction that should be made with regard to ordination but cannot come up with any plausible differences that would explain why God is making the distinction. Without such differences God’s presumed distinction appears arbitrary.
What is God seeing that we cannot? At this point I frequently hear a major pushback (which I will delve into, below) which declares, in effect, that such a question is invalid. We are not God and it’s none of our business speculating. This strikes me as a very dangerous view. Why shouldn’t we humans be able to discern any natural reasons for disqualification, if there are any? And, pragmatically, a potential convert is not likely to accept these assumptions. So a God like this is surely going to appear arbitrary at best and a misogynist at worst. It seems to me we ought to be trying to find nature-based disqualifications that make sense if we want to evangelize someone who generally believes in equality.
· Why the intensity of a pro-WO position?
The reason is obvious to me and has been clearly articulated – the issue is perceived to be a moral one. In the minds of those favoring women’s ordination this is about equality. That is why the word “discrimination” is frequently used as a summary descriptor. And it has a straight analog to the U.S. Civil Rights movement – fighting arbitrary discrimination based on an irrelevant characteristic (gender or race). To fail to understand this means one might think the problem can die down, because the church has made an administrative decision, which should then be accepted because a majority has spoken. But majorities don’t dictate morality. And, it has also been stated that we should now be focusing on spreading the gospel instead of arguing about WO, inferring that the “gospel” is unrelated to equality or issues of God’s character. Now, a Yes vote was sought by the pro-WO contingent – but not because adherents were in favor of some policy modification, per se. It was because Yes would be in alignment with a foundational moral absolute – equality. And when a church institution votes something perceived as immoral – and likely largely based on the No voters’ understanding of God’s revealed viewpoint – then that implicates God. So, unless and until the No perspective can persuade the Yes perspective that: 1) this is not a moral question; and/or 2) God really does object to WO – the battle will continue.
· Why the intensity of an anti-WO position?
Some have charged that the Adventist Global South voted No as a political muscle-flexing move. Understandably, some from these regions are highly offended by this contention. It seems plausible to me that there is some truth to this but more important is whether this was the dominant reason for delegates voting No. I doubt that it was. However, irrespective of the role politics might have played, the much more central question is what was the rationale a No voter understood themselves to be employing? And the answer also seems fairly obvious to me. A No voter believed they were being faithful to God, because no-WO is a consequence of the doctrine of Male Headship, which is understood by many Adventists to be Biblically correct. Thus the No position is elevated to a moral absolute – faithfulness to God’s word.
World View Analysis
If an action is based on principle we first must have determined that the motivating principle is true. Both the Yes and No positions are being driven from principle but they are different in one substantive way – the presumed source of the knowledge. It is self-evident that there are two broad categories of where knowledge can come from. One is from God, via revelation (assuming God exists – not everyone thinks this source is available). The other is from human experience, extended by valid reasoning and the collective understanding and research of others. Science is an example of knowledge obtained this way. But so is what I might call a person’s internal moral compass, or conscience. This is how people “know” that (in general) things like killing, stealing, lying, etc. – are bad. And things like protecting children, treating others respectfully, etc. – are good. While there are many counter-examples of individuals whose moral compasses are severely broken, morality is not obtained solely from the Bible, such that, if that book didn’t exist humans would run ethically amok.
It seems to me that the Yes position is grounded in this internal moral compass and its adherents would argue that the Bible is broadly consistent with the principle of equality. Thus the Headship doctrine is considered a misapplication of scripture. The No position is arguing strictly on the basis of exegesis – and ignoring or denying the validity of human experience being applicable or even existing as a potentially valid source of knowledge. In other words: “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it”. And initially, this would seem totally appropriate. After all, God is infallible. Thus the revelatory source is – by definition – superior. And I think this is exactly the line of reasoning generally used by the No position. Moreover it is correct – as far as it goes. Knowledge obtained from God is true by definition; it is humans who make mistakes.
But here is the problem that seems to be ignored or denigrated by the No group. How does one determine if we have understood the revelatory source correctly? We have the Bible but it is fallible humans who read the material and interpret it. And the history of Christianity is replete with examples of theological error. How do we know that we – error-prone humans – have interpreted the material rightly, given the sorry littered landscape of theological misunderstanding?
Humans have a problem, in fact, in justifying their knowledge claims in both categories – revelatory and experiential. It just seems, superficially, that the revelatory category is immune from error because God is down there somewhere. And there are, in fact, two types of possible error with respect to a revelatory source. First is determining if the material is actually revelation at all, and second (after the first has been settled) is correctly understanding what God wants us to know from the material. People are not born believing in the Bible (or the Koran, or the Bhagavad-Gita or whatever), they are persuaded of its truth in various ways – plus often (a big hidden reason) simply acculturated into their religion without much personal effort toward justification. Thus Bible-belief is never foundational – it is derived from somewhere else. It is quite important (but well beyond the scope of this article) to examine the ways in which people come to belief in a God-communication-source and justify their presumed knowledge. But it is sufficient here to realize that both categories of potential knowledge are filtered through fallible, limited, sinful people – us. At minimum it shouldn’t be presumed that we will do a better job of correctly interpreting revelatory material than we will do making inferences from our internal moral compass or from the external world (as science attempts to do).
It is tempting for the No viewpoint to feel they have the moral high ground because it is presumably derived from scripture and the argument in support seems clearly correct. But we often think we are right when we have worked out a position and given it some thought. That is, until something new comes along to dislodge the prior view – unless we are so positioned we will not test our belief. People are always at risk of falling into the mistake known as the Argument From Ignorance. We believe we are right because we cannot imagine how we could have gotten it wrong. Or we believe a position we reject is wrong because we cannot imagine any way for it to be true. In both cases the problem is human limitation, even though our lack of imagination in no way means our viewpoint is thereby incorrect. It just means it might be wrong because we obviously lack a God’s-eye-view. The hubris potential in the No position is that the inescapable human limitation to knowledge-justification is ignored or minimized.
The Yes view could, obviously of course, be in error also. Our moral compasses are not infallible as I have alluded to above. But in this case I think the concept of equality/fairness is deeply entrenched in everyone’s conscience-compass. And to argue that what is going on with WO has nothing to do with fairness seems quite lame, when argued on “natural” grounds. A distinction without a difference. The only argument that seems to have potential force is if God is clearly telling us something that seems to violate this sense of fairness and we either cannot see it presently (but will by-and-by) or we should purge such questions from our mind because God is God and we are not. This is the Argument From Transcendence, and it can never be totally disproven as there is always a place – by definition – where humans can no longer understand what God is doing or meaning, where transcendence is operative and we are incapable of following. The salient point here, though, is whether this argument is actually applicable. It is surely inappropriate to appeal to transcendence as a way to shut down discussion or avoid thinking hard about difficult problems.
I contend that both potential knowledge sources have fallibility risk simply because we are fallible. There can be absolute truth but we cannot know it absolutely. Thus we need checks-and-balances to avert error. Ideally we should find scripture, our internal moral compass, and evidence from the natural world and human logic – all in agreement. Unfortunately, in every “hot-button” area the church is struggling with, that agreement is somewhat lacking. It is not controversial for Christians that since God is the author of nature then revelation and evidences from nature ought to agree. So if they appear not to then it seems appropriate that we ought not to rush to judgment but move slowly and carefully, realizing one or both of our interpretive processes might be mistaken. Likewise when revelation might be understood to state something contrary to our conscience-compass. This is the conflict, I contend, that is largely occurring in the WO controversy. And people do not like ambivalence and cognitive dissonance. There often is an urgency to resolve the difficulty if for no other reason than to relieve personal “ambiguity-pain”. This is understandable, but dangerous.
Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is the Spectrum website Columns Editor.