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In Defense of Women Pastors

I was ordained on a hot and humid day in mid-June 2001 during the annual Pennsylvania Conference Camp Meeting. I’ll never forget that day. My wife sat beside me on the stage of the un-air-conditioned gymnasium, Dr. Jon Dybdahl spoke for me with words that moved me to tears, Pastor Jose Rojas gave a very moving homily and then my Conference President, Mike Cauley, put his hands on me and prayed for me. I went into the day feeling a little cynical about the whole thing. I had just come from the Seminary at Andrews University the previous Fall, so I had questions about ordination swirling in my head. I even made jokes with my friends and colleagues about “getting made.” But in the end, it was a deeply spiritual and moving experience.

On the same Sabbath afternoon, after the 4 or 5 of us men were ordained, there was another service. This service looked very much the same but didn’t have nearly the gravitas. People filtered out after the ordination service was over, and so there were far fewer in attendance when my dear friend, who happened to be a young woman, was “commissioned.” With the spiritual euphoria of my ordination still making my heart sing, I was now confronted with other emotions: sadness, disappointment and anger. And I felt complicit in this injustice. I had just been ordained and this young woman who was doing just as much amazing work, if not more, for the cause of Christ, was treated as a second-class citizen. She could not be ordained because she is the female of the species.

I understand the reasons the North American Division created the category of “Commissioned Pastor.” But it’s still so far from real equality. Separate but equal has never been a goal worth striving for.

So when I heard Doug Batchelor’s sermon, “Women Pastors: A Biblical Perspective,” last week, all these memories came flooding back for me, and with the memories, the emotions of sadness, frustration and anger. The difference now is that I know many more women pastors and another decade has passed, and still we are in this terrible place of marginalizing and scapegoating women and calling it “biblical.”

The problems all began, says Batchelor, when, as Ellen White says in Patriarchs and Prophets, Eve wandered from her husband’s side. The only problem with that assertion, which I have heard all my life, is that it isn’t “biblical,” especially in the sense that Pastor Batchelor wants us to think of “biblical.” Here’s what the author of Genesis says:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. (Gen 3:6-7).

Both of them ate the fruit together. Genesis specifically says that the man was “with her” at the tree, when the serpent beguiled both of them. “Then the eyes of both of them were opened…”

But Pastor Batchelor wants us to believe that the root of all the problems of our world find their root in women asserting their independence from men. First, she wanders from her husband’s side. Then, Batchelor says,

Adam defers to his wife. Instead of leading, he submits. And he takes her advice. All the problems that you see in our world today, both in our relationships and in the world spring from this interruption of God’s design for the relationship between God and man and woman (Doug Batchelor, “Women Pastors: A Biblical Perspective,” 4:11).

All the problems we see in the world today are because women didn’t stay in their place and because Adam submitted to Eve? This seems like gross hyperbole at best and incendiary and hateful speech at worst. But to blame women for all of humanity’s problems isn’t a new tactic. Victims of sexual abuse are blamed for their own abuse. Men sexualize and objectify women and then turn around and blame them for seducing them into compliance. Anger and rage of men toward women is rampant in our society.

While I’m not saying that Pastor Batchelor hates women, he is certainly espousing a theology that for centuries has been used as a club to subjugate women under the often abusive authority of men. This line of reasoning seems to me not only unbiblical in the truest sense, but also downright dangerous. This is an abusive theology, which both instructs women that they must submit to their husband’s God-given authority over them and mandates that men exercise authority over them.

Throughout the sermon this instruction comes with the caveat, in the words of Paul, that men are to “love their wives as Christ loves the Church.” This is a beautiful and compelling image; one I have used many times. But who is to say whether the husband is being loving? Certainly not the women involved. Their role is merely to submit and trust and obey. I have counseled with many battered and abused women through the years. They have a hard enough time asserting their own power to extricate themselves from abusive relationships without their pastor telling them that their job is to submit. How many women have died while submitting to their angry and abusive husbands?

Pastor Batchelor amasses an impressive array of Bible texts to make his rather specific point that women should not be “ordained as pastors”. Here are some examples:

. . .women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says (1 Cor. 14:34)

Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything (Eph. 5:24).

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God (1 Cor 11:3).

In addition to this, he dismisses Paul’s repeated statements that we are “all one in Christ,” without distinctions of race, economic status or gender, with little more than a wave of the hand. He relegates this statement to only dealing with “salvation”. For Pastor Batchelor, salvation most likely means how we find forgiveness of our sins and eternal life with God at some point in the distant future. So, with a wave of the hand he argues that this oneness that we experience in Christ has nothing to do with the way we live our lives now. It only means that we have equal access to God’s grace and future eternal life. Nothing more. All other actual inequalities as we experience them in our world today can carry on. Notice how dangerous this argument can be. But first, here’s Paul’s statement from Galatians 3:28.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus

Now just add the phrase, “…not as it pertains to people’s actual lives, but only in terms of salvation.”

So is Pastor Batchelor saying that, in Christ, there is neither slave nor free only as it pertains to salvation? But in actual, every day, experience, we know that there is a tangible difference between slaves and free people? Isn’t this the same argument that was used to prop up more than a century of slavery in this country?

Throughout the sermon Pastor Batchelor claims to be giving us the “plain reading of Scripture.” In other words, he claims to be just taking the Bible exactly as it reads without putting any of his own interpretation or cultural values on it. This is a powerful rhetorical device because you instantly gain the high ground in any debate. In principle “the plain reading of scriptures” sounds deeply spiritual and exactly what we need. But in reality, there is no such thing as this sort of “plain reading.” Every reading is an interpretation inasmuch as we bring our own minds to the task of reading and understanding.

Pastor Batchelor is doing exactly this. For example, the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 are “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak.” So, the plain reading is that women should not speak in the churches. But Pastor Batchelor says, this isn’t what it really means. In fact, he lets women teach and speak in his church. What Paul really means is that they cannot have headship over men, so as long as they’re speaking and teaching under the authority of a head pastor who is a man, it’s okay.

He is actually doing what I would do. He is taking several verses and trying to make sense of them as a whole. There are some obvious inconsistencies. The statement that women are not allowed to speak in the church is hard to reconcile with the more lofty teaching that we are all one in Christ. If God doesn’t make value distinctions between men and women, how can Paul say women should basically “sit down and shut up?”

While Pastor Batchelor and I come to very different conclusions, we are both trying to interpret these texts. Batchelor says, male headship is the issue. It’s not that women can’t speak at all, but rather they are not permitted to usurp absolute authority of men. Therefore if there is an ordained pastor who is male, it’s okay to have a woman preaching in the pulpit.

I would say that “oneness in Christ” – actual oneness, not just theoretical oneness at some point in the future – is the issue and Paul’s other statements have to be reconciled to this primary value.

This is how interpretation of any text happens. And we often come to different conclusions. But let’s not say that one is a plain reading and one is convoluted mental gymnastics.

Pastor Batchelor has a very specific point to make. Women cannot be ordained as pastors or elders over churches. But his sermon doesn’t address the theology of ordination at all. He simply uses this concept as though it were a biblical notion that we all understand clearly. He doesn’t mention that the whole practice of ordination as we have it today is a mix of biblical texts and centuries of cultural practice. I don’t have a problem with the fact that it’s a mix of texts and culture, as long as it’s not being passed off as though it came directly from God.

But any type of theological support for the subjugation, intimidation and abuse of women must stop. Our world can no longer afford for religious people to give God’s approval to gross injustices such as the inequality of men and women. It’s time for church leadership to lead – to take a stand for what is right and tell pastors like Doug Batchelor that their teaching is dangerous and theologically unsound.

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