The Pentecost experience of the disciples was a singularly defining moment for the founding of the Christian church. “That the disciples of Christ might be prepared for the great work which they were to do, Jesus had instructed them to tarry in Jerusalem until they should be endowed with power from on high. On the day of Pentecost, as they were assembled together, and with one accord were seeking for the fulfillment of his promise, the Spirit of God descended, and the hearts of those who believed were filled with the Holy Ghost. The most signal evidence of the power of God was manifested, and thousands were converted in a day” (Signs of the Times, June 9, 1890).
For these first believers, this manifestation of the power not only allowed them to share the gospel in multiple languages, it gifted them for the ongoing work of the church and served as a supernatural indication of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It was in this assurance and giftedness that they set out to build the church in the name of Christ. But the focus was mostly in Jerusalem and surrounding Jewish areas. It was the stoning of Stephen and the threats of Saul that drove them out to continue preaching in the surrounding country.
“Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said…. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:5 & 6, 14-17).
This unique manifestation of the Spirit is reported as occurring four times in the book of Acts. These first two occurred within the Jewish Christian community and were taken by the church as a clear demonstration of God’s approval of their commitment, and a gifting of the church for ministry. But the next two such events occurred outside the Jewish community, the first of which caused significant distress among the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem. It is not recorded as to whether similar events occurred on other occasions, but the third of these events caused a serious rethinking of both how God was working to establish His church and who was included.
Peter, in his itinerant preaching, was in the town of Lydda when word came to him that Dorcas, who lived and ministered in the seaside town Joppa about ten miles away, had died. Going directly to her, he raised her up and returned her to her ministry. “This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord” (Acts 9:42).
In Caesarea, a coastal town about 30 miles north, the centurion Cornelius received a vision of an angel instructing him to send for Peter and bring him to his house. Peter, meanwhile, received a vision which he did not understand at first, but upon arrival at Cornelius’ house, it all came clear.
“Talking with Him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said, ‘you are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection’” (Acts 10:27-29). Then Peter presents the Gospel story to them and while he “was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 10:44-48).
Word of this event traveled throughout Judea so that “the apostles and the brothers” heard about it, and when Peter returned to Jerusalem “the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them’” (Acts 11:1 & 2). Clearly, even though the church and its leadership had experienced the confirmation of their faith by an outpouring of the Spirit, they were not prepared for the same to be true outside their ranks.
So Peter rehearses the story in full, coming at the end to the conclusion, “if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” (Acts 11:17). This Holy Spirit manifestation is reported one more time in Acts. This time it is Paul who is on a journey in southern Asia, and arriving in Ephesus, “he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’” (Acts 19:1&2). So they were baptized and received the Holy Spirit. These gentiles from Ephesus were accepted now without question. It was already established that the old order of things had changed.
It is a story particularly relevant to questions and decisions the Adventist Church faces today in the ministry of women in the church in China. Word of the events of church growth in China have traveled widely in Adventist circles, covered in particular by the Adventist Review, as well as in reports brought back by those who have recently visited in the area. This information has been greeted with enthusiasm by a church eager to fulfill the gospel commission of preaching the gospel in all the world, and has been seen as a latter day outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The unique part of this manifestation is in the fact that work in the church in China is being led and accomplished largely by women. It is not that there are no men in China to do this work, or that the men are somehow prohibited from doing the work, but rather that the churches there recognize the empowering by the Spirit of women to do this work, and thus have ordained them to do so.
This was not a problem for the world church until the issue of ordination arose. As with the issues surrounding the outpouring of the Spirit on the gentiles, the “Apostles and the brothers” in Washington and North America have heard this news and have reacted similarly. In a letter attributed to the General Conference Officers and Division Presidents, dated June 29, 2012, it is stated that the “Seventh-day Adventist Church structure as we know it cannot administer or control what is practiced in the ‘unorganized territory’ of China.” It further indicated that, “Government regulations do not permit outside involvement in church affairs within China.”
This raises the question as to whether a stand against the ordination of women to ministry–“against our law” as Peter put it”–is a principle of the church or not. If it is a principle of the church, then the church is responsible to instruct those violating it to cease and desist, and revoke the unauthorized practice, or to discipline and expel those who do not comply. Laws and customs of any given territory are not an excuse for the church to do nothing. On the other hand, if this is not a universal principle of the church, it destroys the notion that the church may force compliance in other locations. Failure to grant permission for an action is not the same as forbidding it. Unless a specific action is forbidden, there is not cause for granting permission to do it, or punish a person for engaging in such action.
At this juncture, perhaps the question the church should be asking is not whether the ordination of women to ministry is forbidden or permissible, but rather the question that Peter asks when confronted with the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles, “If God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” As Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Gary B. Patterson, D.Min., is a retired Field Secretary of the General Conference.