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On Unity, Gender, and Power

Andrei Rublev (c1360–c1430), “Trinity” (detail, panel icon), 1411 or 1425–27, Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

This week the Adult Bible Study Guide comments on the first half of Ephesians 4. It focuses on unity as believers in Christ. But what does Christian—and even more specifically denominational—harmony mean? 

In the runup to the 2015 General Conference Session, as a vote about ordaining women loomed, debate focused on the difference between uniformity and unity. While Ted Wilson argued for uniform maintenance of male denominational supremacy, other Adventists suggested that he was sacrificing spiritual unity for political uniformity. Beyond the flaws in Wilson’s male headship theology, a focus on the spiritual power of divine unity exposes an internal philosophical absurdity in the attempt to maintain a uniform dominant patriarchal hierarchy. 

At its fundamental matrix of gender, power, and religion, the Wilsonian aim for sameness collapses into the absurd: ordination requires a penis. This member similarity obviously excludes more than half of the actual church members. Is spiritual greatness really defined by gender identity? Wilson’s argument requires reification, and his actions to enforce uniformity reveal an internal destructive illogic that clearly breeds current organizational disharmony. The Wilsonian fixation on this uniformity categorically undermines the very concept of unity, and as the Sabbath School lesson for this week shows, it corrupts the body of Christ. 

The memory text focuses very practically on church roles. Ephesians 4:11–12, states, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (ESV).* In the early Christian church, everyone, including Paul, had other employment. So, the roles in this list need to be understood as primarily spiritual roles, in contrast with professional church roles that exist today. 

As I write this, I’m in Phoenix, Arizona, at the North American Division Educators’ Convention. Yesterday, I saw a pedagogical shirt worn by Jose Cortez Jr., Associate Director of the NAD Ministerial Association. It says, “Teachers are pastors in the classroom and pastors are teachers in the pulpit.” This helps to illustrate that it's not a title but a context that defines spiritual work. 

Unfortunately, the debate over gender and ordination has conflated title and spiritual work even more by delineating who has access to administrative power. Ordination, which some see as a symbolic representation of spiritual power, is required for someone to hold top executive roles in the denomination’s structure. Throughout this week’s lesson it's clear that building up the body of Christ is supposed to lead to unity, not exclusion. 

In fact, the second half of Ephesians is very focused on pragmatic instruction on how to administer the Christian community. The text emphasizes that unity will be the proof that Christ is the center of the Ephesians’ focus, while discord shows a lack of divine influence. The lesson’s Teacher Comments states, “Church unity is achieved when the church looks at the triune life of the Godhead and embraces God’s values and attitudes: the Three Persons of the Godhead though different, live and act in perfect unity.” Without getting into the theological weeds of the Economic and Immanent Trinity, there is perhaps a simple, practical lesson here. 

Each person of the Godhead has a different role, yet they are equal in spiritual power. Traditionally, these are described as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To again avoid conflating gender and inherent power, some prefer Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. This renaming also helps draw focus to their work in our existential and spiritual reality. The unity of the three-in-one divine reality shows that God is, in Godself, different and diverse, yet equal and harmonious in mission and in relationship. As a model for Christian unity, this suggests that spiritual gifts, not gender difference, should define church work roles—from bottom to top.

“Unity does not mean uniformity. Christ gives different spiritual gifts to individuals,” writes Yusufu Turaki on Ephesians 4:7-16 in the Africa Bible CommentaryDistinguished Professor of Theology and Social Ethics at the Jos ECWA Theological Seminary in Nigeria, Turaki points out that the text emphasizes that “these are gifts, they cannot be earned.” He adds, “Paul quotes Psalm 68:18, implying that these gifts are like the rewards that a victorious general distributes to his supporters, who may not even have been present at the battle. They are a proof of Christ’s victory over his enemies.” By not recognizing God’s spiritual gifts to women, denominational policy clearly denies the ultimate power of Christ. Perhaps church leaders perceive a rival. 

Next week’s lesson will continue building on this understanding of Ephesians 4. “God celebrates diversity and cultural expressions in harmony with the gospel of His kingdom. For this reason, the gospel does not call for the complete uniformization of all cultures. When a culture builds on the values and lifestyle of Christ, it will only prosper and be enriched” (Teacher Comments). This gives all members a clear way to judge community spiritual health. Just how harmonious is Adventism these days?


Notes & References:

*A note on the translation choice. The King James Version uses “perfecting” whereas the ESV uses “equipping.” The meaning of katartismos certainly supports this focus on preparation rather than purity. I could see a Sabbath School class or two getting hung up on debating the word “perfection,” so it's probably a good linguistic and pedagogical translation choice. 


Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum

Title image: Andrei Rublev (c1360–c1430), “Trinity” (detail, panel icon), 1411 or 1425–27, Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

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