I’m going to stick my neck out regarding a polarizing issue in the church: women’s ordination.
It’s become especially crucial to speak about this now with an important vote to be taken at the upcoming General Conference Session in 2015. Ever since I started researching the issue a few years ago, I’ve become increasingly drawn to one side. I’d like to share my thought process.
First, a few points I believe should be kept in mind. Whenever we are discussing contentious issues like this, it is beneficial to:
- Learn how to discuss the issues without anger/excessive emotion
- Accept the fact that we approach Scripture with differing presuppositions
- Recognize that none of us has all the answers
That said, here is how I think about this issue.
Since early in Scripture, God has had a priesthood.
Historically, priests were those whose office it was to perform religious rites, and especially to make sacrificial offerings. In Christianity, that function takes one of two forms:
- Person ordained to the sacerdotal or pastoral office; a member of the clergy; minister.
- (In hierarchical churches) A member of the clergy of the order next below that of bishop, authorized to carry out the Christian ministry.
The earliest mentions of priests in Scripture were Melchizediek (Genesis 14:17-19) and Jethro (Exodus 2:15-17). The two priests came from vastly different backgrounds. The first was a mysterious king who also served Abram as a priest. The other was a farmer who became Moses’ father-in-law and also served as a priest.
There are a few characteristics I note about these two priests:
- They served full-time but also had side jobs.
- They were at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum
- Both served God’s leaders before they (God’s leaders, i.e. Abram and Moses) fully realized their own calling.
- They were priests before the establishment of the covenant at Sinai.
God’s original plan to reach the world was to have a Nation of Priests.
Oftentimes, the Levitical priesthood (The first, established priestly lineage in Israel) has been referenced as the pattern for how pastoral ministry began and should operate today. But, many people overlook the fact that the Levites were, in fact, not God’s plan A. Exodus 19:5-6 indicates God’s first intention: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”God’s Plan A was for everyone to be a priest–man, woman, and child. Everyone was called to know the Lord and to minister. The only problem with this plan, as with all of God’s plans, is people.
Because of the people’s rebellion, instead of a Nation of Priests, God had to settle for priests in a nation. Plan B.
Though the assembly promised to do as God required (Exodus 19:7-8), and even though God gave the people instructions for the Sinai theophany (later part of Exodus 19), The people refused to go near to God. They remained at a distance, afraid, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. The people insisted on a mediator between themselves and God.
The same problem manifested itself in Exodus 34, when the people wanted to make an idol because they thought a god they could see was better than a God they could not see. When Moses came down and called the people to arms, only the Levites responded (Exodus 32:25-29).
So again, instead of a Nation of Priests, God had to settle for priests in a nation (and not even all the Levites; the priesthood was relegated primarily to the Aaronic lineage). The very model that people point to as a basis for the non-ordination of women is a faulty model based on the human rejection of God’s plan; it was the byproduct of a rebellion, not a mandate from God.
So the Old Testament priesthood is not the ideal model for ministry in today’s world (especially because we believe in the priesthood of all believers). To which plan was the Apostle Peter referring in 1 Peter 2:9: God’s plan A or God’s plan B?
“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
The formalities and perks that come with ordination–my being called “Elder Fernandez” instead of “Pastor Nelson,” as I’m currently called; salary increases; the perception that I am somehow closer to God–are found nowhere in Scripture. They are man-made perks that make people feel good about having a select group doing “the work of ministry,” instead of everyone’s direct engagement in ministry, allowing the Holy Spirit decide who gets what gift. Spiritual gifts include the gift of pastoring and neither the gifts nor the fruits of the Spirit are gender-specific. Furthermore, I cannot accept the idea that because Jesus didn’t explicitly have female disciples that it means only men can be prominent leaders in His church. If we follow that logic, we should also exclude slaves, freed slaves, Gentiles, or people of color.
Perceptions of women throughout history
The recent action at Annual Council that asks the World Church to vote on whether divisions should be allowed to decide the ordination issue locally has elicited some hard campaigning against this idea. This campaigning has led to some spectacular facepalm comments like this:
“Oh the deception! Can you imagine what will happen next? Our Church is wasting God’s money with women’s ordination. Common sense alone will tell you that God did not ordain women. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or a professor of theology to know that God has a standard. Think! What will happen when someone has to be baptized and the woman pastor is on her period. Think! Next they will have to accept gays as ministers.”
That quote speaks for itself. I’m not sure where people come up with these things, but I can say that it’s not from Scripture. However, there is a precedent for this type of put-down of women throughout the centuries by church leaders.
The comment above sounds closer to early Catholicism than early Adventism. Consider the following pronouncements:
Synod of Paris (829 AD)
“In some provinces it happens that women press around the altar, touch the holy vessels, hand the clerics the priestly vestments, indeed even dispense the body and blood of the Lord to the people. This is shameful and must not take place. . . No doubt such customs have arisen because of the carelessness and negligence of the bishops.”
But it gets worse. Here is a sprinkling of some of the best of the worst comments about women from Church leaders throughout history:
Tertullian (3rd century)
“And do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert – that is, death – even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins.”
Aphrahat (4th century)
“From the beginning it was through woman that the adversary had access unto males. . . . for she is the weapon of Satan. . . For because of her the curse of the
Law was established.”
Basil of Cesarea (4th century)
“However hard, however fierce a husband may be, the wife ought to bear with him. . . . He strikes you, but he is your husband. . . . He is brutal and cross, but he is henceforth one of your members, and the most precious of all.”
Augustine (4th century)
Male – the mind
Female – the sexual nature
Papal decretum (1140 AD)
“The image of God is in man in such a way that there is only one Lord, the origin of all others, having the power of God as God’s vicar, for everything is in God’s image; and thus woman is not made in God’s image.”
Compare those statements with the following quote from Patriarchs and Prophets (by a prominent woman leader of the early Adventist Church):
“Eve was created from a rib taken from the side of Adam, signifying that she was not to control him as the head, nor to be trampled under his feet as an inferior, but to stand by his side as an equal, to be loved and protected by him” (46).
I believe that all people, men and women, may receive ordination as an affirmation of the call of God.
There are intelligent people on both sides of the debate and I don’t doubt their sincerity. What troubles me is that currently, I’ve seen fear mongering, conspiracy theories, and incredible leaps in logic to argue against ordaining women to pastoral ministry. If everyone is called to be a priest (instead of only a select few who have the gift of pastoring), then the importance we give ordination today is really a moot point, anyway.
On a cultural note, many of the divisions around the world that speak most strongly against women clergy tend to view and/or treat women less favorably. I’m Hispanic, so I’ll pick on myself as an example.
A recent Gallup Poll found that Latin Americans (where a large chunk of the world church resides) were “least likely in the world in 2012 and 2013 to say women in their countries are treated with respect and dignity.” I wonder how many votes will be cast based on what some prominent preachers say, backed up by the cultural “machista” perception?
If another part of the world isn’t ready for women pastors yet, I can understand. However, I also contend that it’s wrong for another culture to impose its expectations or norms on the rest, any more than those in North America would expect other parts of the world to start wearing wedding bands just because we do. Contextualized ministry for the sake of the Gospel is what it’s all about.
I don’t know what to expect from now until the official vote next year. What I do believe is that God is still in control of His church. Every day, I am convicted even more that we need to go back to God’s “plan A” where we will be a NATION of priests and not leave the decision of who should or shouldn’t be in pastoral ministry to gender, but rather, the Holy Spirit. The decision of who to call into ministry is after all, as my friend Kessia says, not our right, but God’s.
Nelson Fernandez Jr. serves as a Seventh-day Adventist pastor in a bilingual and multicultural church district in the Carolina Conference. A longer version of this article originally appeared on pastornelsonsblog.com. It is reprinted here by permission.