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“An Exact Transcription of God’s Very Words”: A Review of Batchelor and Hall’s “Strange Fire”


In order to understand how Doug Batchelor and Dwight Hall approach ordination in their book, “Strange Fire: Understanding the Hot Topic of Women’s Ordination,” it is first useful, I think, to try and define the hermeneutical principles they appear to use when they claim biblical support for not ordaining women. Their primary assumption appears to be that the way things are presented in the Bible, to their minutest detail, is exactly the way God wanted the biblical writers to write them. On the surface this does not sound like a belief in verbal inspiration, i.e. God dictated and the Bible writers wrote what He said, word for word, but in essence the authors assumption seems to lead to the same conclusion. This leads the authors to completely ignore the potential effects of the patriarchal nature of the culture and society in which the Bible was written. In fact, the authors actively ridicule the hermeneutical approach that would interpret the Old Testament through the lens of patriarchy, and instead they conclude that God established that very patriarchy.

By way of example, the authors say the following:

We also need to understand that God—not man, tradition, culture, or even sin itself—instituted the roles of men and women in the beginning. Genesis 2:18 says, “And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone: I will make him an help meet for him.” Later, after sin entered the picture, God also established a system of authority to maintain harmony in the family, the church, and society. It is a system in which man would lead. “Unto the woman He said … thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16). The word “rule” means “to govern or have dominion.”

Then, lest the reader misunderstand the point, the authors say this:

It is important not to rush past this pivotal verse, as some have argued that the passages regarding man’s leadership role simply reflect the biases of a male-dominant culture. When Adam and Eve were created, it was not a male-dominated culture. It was one and one, 50-50. The deciding vote, if you will, was not from any human being; it did not come from Moses, King David, Peter, John, or even Paul. It is God’s own voice that spoke the command in Genesis 3:16.”

Clearly, the authors consider these words in Genesis to be an exact transcription of God’s very words. Even if we consider Moses the author of Genesis, as some conservative theologians try to maintain, this would have to mean that God either dictated these words to Moses, or gave it to him in some sort of vision. Since the writer of Genesis never tells us how this story was transmitted to him, and most theologians consider Genesis a compilation of materials originally from oral tradition, this represents the most narrow interpretation of these verses.

Even if we presume these are God’s actual words, there are still many questions that remain. Did God intend these words to apply only to Eve and not to woman-kind in general? Was He addressing woman-kind within that cultural context? Did God intend this to be for all time for all women? If the answer to the last question is yes, then how could women like Deborah and Huldah have held roles that clearly put them in authority above men.

The fact that so few women in the Old Testament-era held these kinds of positions speaks more to the default level of patriarchal repression than it does to God forbidding women serving in roles where they had authority over men. If it was simply against God’s order for women to serve in such a capacity, than surely God would have prevented Deborah from becoming a judge, and would have never considered using women as prophets. Maybe it is not so much God’s prohibition against females as it is the patriarchal system that prevented God from using more women as He might otherwise have done. The Old Testament is replete with examples of how men limited God’s ability to do what He had hoped to do with Israel. Just imagine what more God could have done with Israel had they been more egalitarian.

Another dubious hermeneutical approach by the authors is to equate our modern process of ordination with some Biblical equivalent. Fortunately the authors recognize that ordination was never practiced in the Bible, so to get around that problem they equate the roles of modern day pastor with that of Old Testament-era priests. Here is how the authors make their case:

Even though the Lord has chosen some women to serve as prophets through the ages, He never hinted that a woman should be ordained as a priest. Pastors and elders, of course, are roughly the New Testament equivalent to the Old Testament priests. Pastors and elders lead out in communion, which is the New Testament equivalent of offering a sacrifice—a role that was performed by a man. And while many priests were prophets, no women prophets were priests. Amram and Jochebed had three children—Miriam, Aaron, and Moses (Exodus 7:1; 5:20). All three were prophets, but only the men served as priests.

First of all, to say that these two offices are “roughly” equivalent is, to put it mildly, an overstatement. Priests were at the center of the cultic worship system of the Old Testament. They were acting as the people’s intercessors with God. The modern pastoral role is more that of a rabbi, who is more of a teacher and spiritual advisor. The Protestant church, including Seventh-day Adventists, do not have a cultic based system, and no one stands as an intercessor between the individual and God except Christ Himself. So, to point out that there was never a documented female priest in the Old Testament hardly constitutes an argument against the ordination of female pastors. To even equate Communion with the cultic temple service of animal sacrifice is inaccurate. Communion is a commemorative service, not a sacrificial service, and has no implied sacrificial benefit of the sort promised to Old Testament Israelites when they sacrificed an animal in the temple.

I think it is fair to say that if one were to view the hierarchy of positions within the Christian church, the place of prophet is greater than that of pastor, and if God has been freely willing to choose a woman as a prophet, who are we to bar Him from freely choosing women as pastors and elders. It follows that if women can be pastors and elders, then ordination, which is a modern way of publicly recognizing that God has called a person to such a position, should also be freely dispensed. To bar women from being ordained simply because they are female is essentially giving God, and our fellow believers, the message that we really don’t believe God can call women to be pastors and elders.

Sometimes the exegetical approach used by the authors defies reason. Here is a prime example:

The word translated “servant” is the Greek word diakonos (dee-ak’-on-os). It literally means “to run on errands; an attendant, a waiter at tables or in other serving duties.” The word in the masculine gender, diakoneo(s) (dee-ak-on-eh’-o), appears in the New Testament about 68 times and is translated as “serve, minister, administer.” Every time but five, the word refers to the office of a deacon that can be held only by men (1 Timothy 3:8–13; Acts 6:1–7). I bring this up because some say that Phebe held the office of a deacon. She did not. She was a servant, a helper around the church, and she succored (assisted, helped, or was hospitable to) many such as Paul.”

As far as I can make out from this line of reasoning, what they are trying to say is that since deacons are, by definition, male, Phoebe (who is female) cannot therefore be a deacon, even though the same word is used to describe her as is used to describe male deacons. I wonder how many Greek scholars would buy that one?

Beyond the doubtful hermeneutical and exegetical arguments, the authors use a variety of simplistic analogies to caution against women’s ordination. Here are a few examples which I think speak for themselves:

In this unit, we find a basic truth, seen not only in God’s Word but also in His creation: men are fathers, and women are mothers. They are not only distinct sexually, but many other aspects of their natures are different as well. I believe these differences should be apparent, maintained, and even emphasized. Men should never try to be women, and women should never try to be men.”

Some suggest that because there are generally more women than men in the church, leadership roles should be divided according to those percentages. But by using this reasoning, it would follow that in a family with three children, kids would be entitled to the larger share of leadership!”

Over the years, I’ve learned that God is really very smart that way. When He says, “This is good, and this is bad,” or “This is the best course to follow,” He actually knows what He is talking about! When He made us male and female, He actually knew what He was doing! I’m sure I don’t understand all the reasons He did what He did; maybe I can see a few of them, but even that’s not necessary. Sometimes the difference between a blessing and a curse isn’t what we understand, it’s just what we do with what we’re told. I may not understand all the reasons for eating some things and leaving other things alone [The authors are referring here to God’s injunction against eating pork. God said don’t eat it, end of story.], but God does, and He’s told me which is best for me.”

If you find the above examples offensive, so do I. If the issue were not so important these arguments might even be humorous, but the authors see these as rock solid arguments.

The last major way they try to make their case is by the age-old slippery slope argument, which goes something like this. If we allow women to be ordained, the next thing you know we will start throwing out other doctrines and we will probably decide to let gays into the church, oh my! As an example of this line of reasoning the authors include the following extensive quote from “New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views,” ed. Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2010):

When, in 1973, a group of socially conscious evangelicals from all over the country came together in Chicago for a gathering called Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), in which they would discuss a progressive approach to social justice and peace issues, Nancy [Hardesty] made sure that the issue of gender equity was included. At a follow-up ESA gathering in 1974, one of the break-out discussion groups or “caucuses” at the gathering was the women’s caucus, thus laying the foundation of what later became the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC). …


Like their counterparts in society in general and in mainstream manifestations of Christian feminism, evangelical feminists began organizing. The Evangelical Women’s Caucus had numerous chapters in various states, held biennial conferences, and published a newsletter. In 1986, after the group had adopted several resolutions, including one that affirmed civil rights for gay and lesbian persons, a large group of members broke away and formed Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) to dissociate themselves from what they considered an unbiblical endorsement of homosexuality. From that time forward, there were two major evangelical egalitarian organizations. In 1990, as EWC was attracting a more theologically diverse membership of both Protestants and Roman Catholics and was increasingly known for its inclusiveness, it added another E to its name and became the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus (EEWC).


Both EEWC and CBE have been engaged in scholarship and activism within and outside the larger evangelical world of churches, academic institutions, and parachurch organizations, presenting an alternative to the traditionalist insistence that the only true biblical view is male dominance and female subordination. Each group has produced periodicals, books, and online resources presenting a message of biblical egalitarianism. The two groups, while not abandoning their evangelical roots, overlap in some respects but also differ in their respective audiences, with CBE’s outreach concentrated more directly on the moderate evangelical community (taking great care to remain within certain theological and socially conservative boundaries), whereas EEWC has a more expansive outreach, offering a safe and welcoming place to those who have felt emotionally and spiritually abused by conservative churches (both Protestant and Catholic), or have been marginalized because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, or have been ready to give up on Christianity because of its teachings on women, or whose general doubts and theological questioning have not been welcome elsewhere.”

Then the authors add their own take on this:

Once the Evangelical Women’s Caucus had accepted the position that there were no distinctions to be maintained between men and women, it was a simple logical step to affirm “civil rights for gay and lesbian persons.” Though not explicitly stated here, the EWC’s position also included full acceptance of these same groups by the church. Over the years since 1986, both organizations have continued to maintain their basic positions.”

Regardless whether this slippery slope exists, this is never a good argument for not doing what is right. If women’s ordination is acceptable or not is an entirely separate issue from gay and lesbian rights. The only similarity is that both involve human rights. The church may sometime decide to grant gays and lesbians basic civil rights, but that has nothing to do with this issue.

The book ends with the argument that gave the book its title. After recounting the sin of Nadab and Abihu in using “strange fire” in their censers the authors conclude with this unflattering comparison between the issue of women’s ordination and “strange fire”:

This lesson we should never forget. God says what He means and means what He says. He does not make mistakes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He has set up a system since creation. It is not good enough for us to imagine that—as long as we love Him and have been honored by Him— He will accept our reinterpretation of things.

God has pronounced a curse upon those who depart from His commandments, and put no difference between common and holy things. He declares by the prophet: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness!… Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! … which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him! … They have cast away the law of the Lord of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.” Isaiah 5:20–24. Let no one deceive himself with the belief that a part of God’s commandments are nonessential, or that He will accept a substitute for that which He has required (pg. 360).

When God sets up something as holy and good and when we change it ever so slightly it becomes dangerous and finally deadly. God in His infinite wisdom set up an order—a divine order—that was established from the beginning—before sin. Divine order is organization that makes our lives possible, peaceful, and everlasting. When we take God’s divine order and change it, no matter what our intentions are it will bring disorganization, chaos and finally death.”

Bryan Ness is Professor of Biology at Pacific Union College.

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