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From Heaven or from Men?


I take my text from Matthew 11:27-33

Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?”

But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?”

And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.”

And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

It started as soon as there was religion, this question of authority. You can be as spiritual as you like on your own time. But the moment you move into religion, the work of God becomes a struggle over power. Control. The exigent demands of the gospel fade before policies and certificates and budgets and organizational flow charts. What would any group be without leadership? But religion has a tendency to go too far. There were times when Christianity became so overbearing that you weren’t even allowed to ask God’s forgiveness: someone in authority had to do it for you.

So here’s Jesus going about Palestine doing and saying the most astonishing things ever done and ever said. And yet that didn’t let Jesus escape the authority question. The chief priests and elders likely knew the answer to their first question: “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus was performing miracles before their eyes. They could have had no doubt about where that power came from.

Their real intent is revealed in the followup question: “Who gave you this authority?”

Because we surely didn’t.

No authority to make blind people see? Dead people live? Deaf people hear? Not allowed to say things that, in a sentence, a brief narrative, illuminate one’s life forever?

So it seems. You’re not allowed to do good without a credential from us.

Jesus makes his answer contingent on their evaluation of John’s baptism. Was it, he asks, from heaven or from men? Could they identify spiritual authority when it was shown them? He wants them to consider the possibility that God-given authority is self-evident. Authentic Godliness is shown in the life, Divine giftedness in the results. In another instance Jesus offered this as his only credential: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22).

Godly women in our church are now claiming the call to pastoral ministry. They want us to recognize them. This is hardly a precipitate request. We’ve made them prove themselves for decades, while they wait for us to grant them authority to do what the Holy Spirit has gifted them to do.

I know you denominational dignitaries have studied and voted (and will vote again). But I ask you: did any part of your decision involve observing the work of these female pastors?

Did you talk with them? Listen to them? Watch them at work? If you did, you may be struck, as I have been, with how exceptional most of them are. Many of us male pastors are rather average. We didn’t have to qualify at a very high standard, after all: being male, spiritually-minded, and willing was enough. The female pastors I’ve encountered are extraordinary. They care for needs with sensitivity. They preach with power. They lead with finesse, evangelize with creativity. Listen to Chris Oberg preach. From heaven, or from men? Or Elizabeth Talbot exegete Scripture. From heaven, or from men? See how a young pastor, Tara VinCross, transformed her Philadelphia congregation. From heaven, or from men? Observe how humbly and thoughtfully Sandra Roberts administers the largest conference in the NAD.

I ask you, as Jesus asked the Jewish leaders about John: is their ministry from heaven, or from men? If it’s from heaven, you must accept it. But if, after being impressed by their work for God, you continue to insist that permission is yours to grant or refuse, then you are admitting that you place greater value on authority that comes from men.

In the end, Jesus doesn’t answer the chief priests’ and elders’ questions.

The usual explanation is that Jesus is being merely cunning: that he found a rhetorical contrivance by which he could shut them up. But the construction of the conversation suggests something more. I believe Jesus was saying, “If you can’t see that God has the authority to qualify someone for His work, then I can’t explain this to you. You are locked into such an institutional mindset that you couldn’t understand it even if I explained it to you for a thousand years.” It’s like Paul said: spiritual things are spiritually discerned, and if you lack that discernment, then you simply “cannot understand them” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

I have felt something of that through the years as I’ve listened to this discussion in my denomination, but never so strongly as in the era of Advindicate and its cousins. If you want to enter a place of swirling insanity, question someone who quotes “an elder must be the husband of one wife” about why the text’s sole purpose is to specify gender, not married state or monogamy. Ask them why a single man can be ordained, or one who’s been divorced and remarried, but a woman cannot. Ask them why gentiles are qualified for ordination, but Galatians 3:28 doesn’t claim the same opportunity for females. Ask them why a young woman was the single most influential figure in this denomination, but her female followers can’t be allowed to do full ministry.[1]

Or perhaps you shouldn’t ask. The answers are alchemical: common sense transmuted by ectoplasm-lubricated illogic into a condescending Christian sexism. Because like the elders who questioned Jesus, the frame of reference seems to be not what God is doing, but what we do.

Once we recognized spiritual giftedness. People without any ecclesiastical endorsement founded this denomination. A farmer. A retired ship captain. A teenage girl. We heard them and knew they spoke truth.  Should we vote to reject ordination for women in July, it will be evidence that we have lost a vital bit of discernment, that we have grown too arthritic to follow the Spirit as we once did. Within our boundaries, God now speaks through us. We seem not able see what new thing He might be initiating. We only know what we do on His behalf. Which is why we keep trotting out the popish old statement that the General Conference is God’s highest authority on earth, even though Ellen White herself repudiated it.[2]

I give you only this bit of comfort: when a church has lost the ability to recognize spiritual gifts, its approval isn’t vital. I have often wondered why called women desire ordination at all after what they’ve seen of us. Perhaps they should shun it, lest they become like us. (If not this year, it’s likely women will get ordination in our denomination, eventually—about the time we men have bankrupted it with too many office buildings and a surfeit of useless travel, and diminished it through inattention to small dying congregations.)

But if spiritual things are spiritually discerned, then perhaps institutional things can only be institutionally discerned. And so we may be doing with women’s ordination the only thing we are still able to do: analyze texts and vote. But how much more true to our own history it would have been were our first consideration the evidence of the Spirit at work in the lives of called women!

[1]Keep your eyes open for the possibility that a few may try to deemphasize Ellen White’s authority in order to facilitate a headship theology.

[2]“That these [leaders] should stand in a sacred place, to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be, that is past.” – General Conference Bulletin 1901 page 25 {PC422}


Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.

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