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Digging into the TOSC Documents: Two Reports on Headship


In our quest to highlight the documents researched, written and presented by the different division’s Theology of Ordination Study Committees, we bring you this week excerpts from two reports on the issue of headship. Kendra Haloviak Valentine’s report, “Is Headship Biblical?” and an opposing view, “The Minority Report” by Edwin E. Reynolds and Clinton Wahlen, were both presented to North American Division leaders during their recent year-end meetings as part of the larger report.

The summary of the committee’s overall report had this to say about headship:

The decades-old debate about the role of women in Seventh-day Adventist Church leadership is complex and sensitive. Those who disagree with ordaining women to the offices of elder and pastor are usually in harmonious agreement concerning most facets of the discussion—that women, too, are created in God’s image; that they are created of worth equal to men; that they bring equally valuable gifts to the church; and that they also bring exclusively female contributions to the mission of the body of Christ.

The agreement breaks down around passages in Scripture that have been associated with the concept of headship. Generally, those who would stop short of ordaining women to the offices of pastor or elder take issue with appointing women to headship roles, maintaining that a plain reading of Scripture does not allow women to exercise spiritual authority over men. Others believe that biblical headship does not apply to church leadership roles but is limited in application to the husband’s role as servant-leader in the home. Still others contend that headship is not even a biblical concept, but rather a relatively modern term, and that the original Greek word for head (kephalē), denotes source, not leader. These argue that hierarchical position is not the point, and that correct interpretation of these challenging passages is dependent on understanding the context in which they were written. 

The majority of the committee does not view the issue of headship as a barrier to ordaining women to pastoral ministry.

Valentine introduces her report this way:

The Bible verses in the New Testament often referred to as “the headship passages” must be considered carefully and prayerfully since, as many perceptively note, the interpretations often say more about the interpreters’ biases than Scripture’s intent. We undertake this brief study seeking to understand Scripture and to live it faithfully. We are not surprised that understanding Scripture is often a challenging task. Sometimes a note written just two weeks ago by a loved one or close friend can be misunderstood and requires clarification. Phrases written almost 2,000 years ago in a language other than our own certainly require care and prayer as we seek to understand. So we proceed in humility, grateful for a God who has made us all one family.

This paper will show that headship, as understood with the English connotations of ruler or leader, is not present within these New Testament passages.

Valentine goes on to set the scene, asking readers to “imagine a world where Caesar reigns and everyone is vulnerable to his whims.” She points out that:

Caesar seeks honor and exaltation, even demanding it from his subjects. In contrast, Christ willingly became a suffering servant, even entering the grave and forever proclaiming by his actions that humility is better than so-called ‘kingly power.’ Paul is so convinced of this new era ushered in by Christ that, in his declaration to the house churches of Galatia focusing on the centrality of faith in Christ, he includes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

After examining these different states that Paul lists, she goes on:

Paul assumes the third phrase, “there is no longer male and female,” in several letters that are now part of the Christian Scriptures. In several places within his first letter to the house churches in Corinth, Paul suggests new ways of understanding the family. Men and women may remain single, with their focus on the work of God, rather than following the traditional pressure to marry (7:25–40). Men and women opened their homes as places of worship (16:19), and men and women prophesied (11:4–5). Paul cautions that, due to customs and cultural norms (11:16), men should keep their heads uncovered and women should cover their hair in worship, since private homes had become public spaces. Out of respect for their first-century cultural norms, and embracing the principle of loving others more than their own freedom (8:1–13; 10:23–11:1), men should act as the other men of their day acted, and women should act distinctly as women while leading in prayer and prophesying (11:3–5). The relationship between God and Christ was to be the model for the relationship between husbands and wives (11:3).

She considers Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts, and then continues:

Then why is the very specific command made that women “be silent in the churches” (14:34)? Is it because of problems with speaking in tongues and disorderly worship? This seems to be the focus of the section (14:26–40). But to what is Paul referring in verses 14:34–35? Does the request for women to ask questions of their husbands at home (14:35) suggest that there is a sense of lively (too lively) discussing and talking while at worship? After saying that “women should be silent in the churches,” why does Paul then ask the male believers: “Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” (14:36). Is Paul actually quoting others when he includes the phrase “women should be silent in the churches”? How did the believers in Corinth understand this letter, and how did it shape their worship and church community? After all, Prisca and Aquila would continue their ministry of setting up house churches in Rome (Romans 16:3–5), Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:19) and Corinth (Acts 18). The apostle would also affirm the church in Nympha’s house (Colossians 4:15), and the one in the home of Philemon and Apphia (Philemon 1–2). The tension reflected in 1 Corinthians 14 suggests that the Christian community experienced diversity of opinion concerning the changes that come when Christ is Lord rather than Caesar.

However one understands the situation at Corinth, and therefore Paul’s concerns and commands throughout the letter, one point needs to be clearly made. The Greek word kephalē , translated as head in 1 Corinthians, is a play on words, with one use being the literal head of a person (11:4–7) and the other meaning best understood as life source. If Paul had meant ruler or leader, another Greek word would have been used. 3 Paul is arguing that what men and women wear on their physical heads is connected to the idea of man as woman’s life source (11:3, 8–9). This argument continues with the proclamation: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God” (11:11–12).

Here it is important to understand that word meanings are determined not only by a dictionary but by how words are used ( kephalē is not used as ruler or leader in the New Testament) and by the context of words in a sentence and passage. The wordplay works in verse 12 only if the origin of humanity is being considered here. It seems that dress code in the Corinthian house churches was being challenged as some Jewish men adopted the cultural habit used by Gentile men, who covered their heads as a status symbol. (Roman men also covered their heads during some cultic celebrations.) In addition, some Christian women leading out in prayers and prophesying were leaving their hair uncovered, which was against Jewish synagogue norms and emulated Roman women at the time. Paul says “no” to both behaviors. Elite male Christians must not flaunt their status, and females must not flaunt their freedom. The reputation of the house churches was at stake. In his argument Paul appeals to “source-ship,” if you will. In worship they should follow the hair and dress codes that underscore maleness and femaleness, a reminder of creation and the God who created man and woman (11:7–9), while acknowledging that hair coverings are customs (11:16). (I am reminded of Maasai women I met on a trip to Kenya in the 1980s, for whom shaving the head is the embodiment of femaleness, while males wear their hair longer.) Paul says that church members should follow dress codes in worship. When praying, men should act appropriately. When prophesying, women should embrace their femaleness as created by God. One could actually see this passage as reflecting Paul’s conviction that both men and women are needed in leading the churches. The use of this chapter in Corinthians to argue for a theology of “headship” imposes the similar English words head and headship on words and ideas that are not present in the passage.

Valentine then discusses the book of Timothy, when a group of angry men and wealthy women was causing problems in the house churches of Ephesus. “This small letter endorses the radical idea that women could learn as male students learned, ‘in silence with full submission’” (2:11).

It is ironic and distressing that one of the most liberating passages in the New Testament for women has been typically used to suppress them: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission” (2:11). Learning “in silence and with full submission” was understood as the way students or disciples learned from a teacher or rabbi in that day. The phrase “sitting at the feet” refers to the student’s position before the teacher; and it is a sign of respect and submission. Paul was this kind of a disciple to Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). In the first century, the opportunity to study was available to very few men—and certainly no women. It was this very challenge to social convention that bothered Martha about her “sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (Luke 10:39). How could her sister assume such a traditionally male position (Luke 10:38–42)? It was just not right. Yet, Jesus affirmed Mary and reassured Martha. Even as women were now allowed to learn, 1 Timothy 2 goes on to say: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (2:12). Does this mean always and in every situation? Or only in church services (which would seem to contradict 1 Corinthians 11)? Or does this mean specifically while listening to the teacher, in order to be a good disciple (2:11)? Is this a command to the new believers who had only recently left the Artemis cult? Some translate “teach or to have authority” as having a sense of “trying to dictate” to men or “seizing control” over others. What exactly was going on at Ephesus? We do not know. But it sounds like this letter of concern about false teaching (1:4, 6–7; 4:1, 7, 16; 6:3, 20) also conveys concern that women not be deceived like Eve (2:13–14) but learn what is right and wrong, including that child bearing is not an evil thing, but a wondrous gift (2:15).

Valentine concludes her report this way:

The above interpretations suggest that headship theology is not present in these passages. In fact, the New Testament view of the Christian family contrasts with the typical assumptions about headship as rulership. A top-down understanding of power and authority is not an adequate reflection of the meaning of particular words in these New Testament passages, nor of first-century house churches and the gifted men and women who led out in them. In the context of the first-century Roman  Empire, where Caesar was worshiped as savior, believers living in major cities as minority communities were trying to be faithful to Jesus Christ. They struggled, as we do, with the intersection of Christ and culture. To what degree should they continue the Jewish culture that birthed Christianity? To what degree could they maintain parts of the Greco-Roman world in which they lived? To what degree did the call of Christ mean a radical departure from their cultural norms? Like all humans, the first- century church members messed up, posed challenging questions, acted contrary to the gospel, and had blind spots. But one of the wonders of Scripture is that 2,000 years later we can read the words written from inspired apostles who were trying to help these congregations, guiding them into greater understanding and more faithful living.

The language of headship is a cultural construct that we impose on the texts. It is a way to discuss certain New Testament passages from a particular perspective. While Scripture uses language that says “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church” (Ephesians 5:23), most Christians today would not say that the husband is the savior of the woman’s body, even though the metaphor continues in just that way: “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.” To interpret the metaphor as denoting authority, power, or rulership would be to impose a personal perspective that ascribes to the Caesar model. It is an imposition of the modern concept of headship onto the term head, which is not part of the Greek meaning. If the Caesar model is actually being challenged in the New Testament, and Christ is the new model for the believing community, head then connotes humility, self-sacrifice, and being “obedient” to others (Philippians 2:8).

The demographics we are accustomed to in the United States today would have been unthinkable in the New Testament. In the United States, 102 million adults (44.1 percent of the population) are unmarried. Of these, 53 percent are women, 47 percent are men, and 62 percent have never been married. In 2011, 33 million Americans lived alone (28 percent of all households). In addition, 10 million unmarried mothers live alone with children, and 1.7 million fathers are unmarried. In the United States today, male headship has little logic or relevance to people living alone, and it could be confounding to single mothers and their children.

Included in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a call to respect and love others in one’s faith community more than one’s own freedom (8:1–13; 10:23– 11:1). This must guide our discussion of the question of the ordination of women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This is why we are not asking for the ordination of women as a global policy, even though we are convinced that such a policy is biblically and morally right. Rather, we are asking that in those places in our world where not treating men and women equally is not respecting cultural norms and is hindering the mission of the church we love, that we be allowed to follow the mandate of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and respect culture even as we proclaim the gospel.

Read the remainder of Kendra Haloviak Valentine’s report here.

A minority report was included with the NAD report, disagreeing with the overall recommendation to ordain women. The minority report mainly centers on a discussion of headship, so we include excerpts here. The report cites many of the same texts that Kendra Haloviak Valentine quotes.


Women in Scripture and Headship

Throughout Scripture women are active in many influential roles, but there is no clear instance of their exercising a spiritual headship role. That is, no woman was ever placed by God as a religious head over a man: women were never given a priestly role in the Old Testament nor in the New Testament are they ever seen functioning as apostles or elders. Some women in the Bible are described as prophetesses, 41 but one cannot necessarily assume, by virtue of this work, that God intended for them to fulfill a spiritual headship responsibility. Miriam, for example, was explicitly condemned for attempting to arrogate to herself the privileges that God had given to Moses. She argued, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Num 12:2), implying that, since she also had the gift of prophecy, she was somehow equal to him. . . .

Ordination (to “set apart for an office or duty”) 55 is described in the New Testament by various Greek words, which reflect the preferred vocabulary of the individual authors. The only ritual associated with ordination in the New Testament is the laying on of hands, although prayer, fasting, and other practices are also sometimes mentioned. Use of the ritual, based on Old Testament precedent (Num 8:10; 27:18) serves to represent both the sanction of the church at large (through the one previously ordained by the church) and church members (who have expressed their confidence in God’s calling of the individual through their vote with the uplifted hand, 2 Cor 8:19). . . .

Next follows instructions for “women who profess godliness,” i.e. believers—women in the church:

They should dress modestly and prudently (vv. 9-10), so that fashion does not lead to rivalry or divisions in the church. What immediately follows should also be understood as part of this church code: women should not take an authoritative teaching role (vv. 11-12) apart from or independent of the male-based church leadership prescribed in 1 Timothy 3. Again, as in the earlier part of the chapter, Paul gives his rationale for this assertion, this time based on the history and theological significance of the Creation and the Fall: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (vv. 13-14).

Mentioning the order of creation, man first and then woman, concisely invokes from Genesis 2 the male leadership principle that God established in Eden. The word Paul chooses for deceive (exapataō ; cf. Gen 3:13, LXX) means “to cause someone to accept false ideas about someth[ing].” 60 As we saw above, the serpent deceived Eve by approaching her as if she were the head, reversing the headship principle, and by suggesting that she and Adam could rise to a higher level of power through eating the forbidden fruit. Adam was not deceived—he saw the headship principle had been reversed and “mourned that he had permitted Eve to wander from his side. . . . Love, gratitude, loyalty to the Creator—all were overborne by love to Eve. She was a part of himself, and he could not endure the thought of separation.” 61 Yet, Paul also exalts as crucial one of the roles that only women can play in counteracting the Fall and obtaining salvation—as mothers in fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. This verse points first and foremost to the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the promised seed (Gal 3:16), the source of eternal salvation (Heb 5:9); but it is also a part of God’s plan that women who have the opportunity exercise this God-given privilege and role of bearing and raising godly children (1 Tim 2:15; 1 Cor 11:11-12). Paul is not suggesting that women who are unable or choose not to have children cannot be saved since he makes clear that the condition for obtaining salvation is not childbearing per se, but maintaining one’s connection with Christ by continuing “in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (v. 15).  . . .

As those who carry responsibility for the spiritual and material well-being of the church, overseers and deacons must be carefully selected based on the specified qualifications, which are almost the same for both offices. In addition, however, the overseer must also be “able to teach” (didaktikon, cf. 2 Tim 2:24), a qualification not required of deacons. Another church code, Titus 1:5-3:2, gives nearly identical qualifications for the overseer/elder, including competence in teaching (1:5-9).

The importance of such competency is apparent in view of the frequent New Testament references to false teachers, and not only in the Pastoral Epistles. Requiring this competency of the overseer or elder coupled with disallowing women an authoritative teaching role (1 Tim 2:12) helps to explain why the person filling the office of overseer/elder “must be . . . the husband of one wife” (3:2, dei . . . einai , mias gynaikos andra ), a stipulation Paul underscores also to Titus (1:6). Deacons have a similar requirement (1 Tim 2:12).

Some translate this phrase as “one-wife husband,” arguing that the word order in Greek places the emphasis on “one-wife” (as opposed to two or more) when actually the syntax makes all parts of the phrase emphatic. It stresses competence in managing a stable, respectable Christian home, which demonstrates in turn that, as an ordained officer of the church, the man should be capable of caring for and managing well God’s church. The requirement that he be “the husband of one wife” cannot refer to polygamy, which was not practiced in cities of the Roman empire such as Ephesus; 65 rather, it stipulates that men be appointed who exemplify a loving, unselfish headship and the values of a lifelong marriage. The parallel between 3:12 for deacons and 3:2, 4-5 for the elder shows that there is a connection between having one wife and the ability to manage the household well (including any children).

The New Testament’s emphasis on the importance and integrity of the family social structure is not simply out of convenience to harmonize with the surrounding culture or out of expedience to facilitate mission. In fact, not unlike today, there were many cultural forces in Greco-Roman society that tended to undermine family stability including immoral lifestyles, homosexuality, and materialism.

The minority report concludes this way:

In the course of this brief but wide-ranging study, we have seen that the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of ordination and church order was established very early through extensive Bible study and remained essentially unchanged until the 1970s and 1980s when church policy started becoming more dominant in defining ministerial functions. However, the increasing conflict over the ordination of women, seen in recent years at various levels of our church, suggests that deeper theological issues are involved which can only be fully resolved by returning to a more Biblically based understanding and practice of ordination. An alternative approach suggests that we must continue down the path of pragmatic solutions because the Bible provides us no more than a vague, principle-based “trajectory.” It implies that the Old Testament’s consistent affirmation of male priests, the precedent of Jesus in ordaining twelve men as apostles, the selection of seven male deacons, and the teachings of Paul regarding the qualifications of church officers, are all products of the time, circumscribed by the limits of the culture. In fact, ordaining women represents a significant departure from the Biblical model. Is our degenerate Western culture of modernism and post – modernism, with its intentional dismantling of the family and family values, Christian distinctiveness, and, ultimately, “truth,” better equipped to address the needs of the church today than are the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy? From our earliest beginnings as Seventh-day Adventists, we have found a solid, Bible-based approach to be our source of unity, and this challenge will be no exception. Ultimately, when policy-based rather than Scripture-based solutions to theological problems are employed, church order and unity may be undermined, as our recent experience in connection with this issue has shown. Genuine unity is the product of the converting power of the Word of God. It must be our guiding light—not a social reengineering of gender roles and functions that can never bring lasting relief from the abuses brought about by sin. Jesus has shown us the way, not through external social reforms but through inner transformation and the power of a positive example.

Beginning with the creation narrative of Genesis 1 and 2, the Bible consistently describes human beings as both equal and complementary, assigning the primary leadership role to the man with a supportive role given to the woman. The entrance of sin attempted to reverse these roles, but God indicated that male leadership would continue (Gen 3:16). Paul describes, based on Genesis, how this leadership, both in the home (Eph 5) and in the church (1 Cor 11), is to be subject to and modeled after Christ’s own unselfish headship. Throughout Scripture, women fulfill important supportive roles and women were specifically included by Jesus in His ministry. They also assisted the apostles in their work of establishing churches, but none are ever seen functioning as an elder or deacon because such persons “must be” ( dei . . . einai ) the husband of one wife, exhibiting godly character qualities and demonstrating wise spiritual leadership in the home (1 Tim 3:2-5, 12; Titus 1:6). This same Scriptural requirement applies also to pastors, whose headship role transcends that of a local church elder. The theological basis for this requirement is grounded in the early chapters of Genesis. Paul sets out guidelines for men and women in the church based on the creation order, which in turn is based on the relation between the Father and the Son (1 Tim 2-3; 1 Cor 11, 14; Titus 1-3). Within this Biblical paradigm of godly male headship, all supportive avenues for service within the church are open to both women and men based on their Spirit-bestowed gifts and calling, including teaching, helps, hospitality, ministry to the poor, and many others. Naturally, how men and women relate to each other in a church setting will vary somewhat from culture to culture. At the same time, it will be evident that the principle of male church leadership is supported by the congregation as a whole, particularly by those who take leading roles in worship.

To follow the Bible model on the issue of women’s ordination will require courage like that of our pioneers. Nevertheless, it is the only basis on which we can expect to maintain global unity, receive God’s continued blessing, and, most importantly, anticipate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to finish His work.

Read the remainder of the minority report here.

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