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Slavery, Circumcision, and the Ordination of Women

What do slavery, circumcision, and the subordinate role of women have in common? All three of these seem to be supported by Scripture. However, slavery is no longer valid and the necessity of circumcision as a  requirement for membership into the Christian church has been abandoned. I will argue that the subordinate role of women also should be abandoned on the same grounds as the previous two, especially in regard to the ordination of women as ministers in the Church.

American Christians in the South believed that slavery was supported by the Bible and, therefore, opposed its abolition on theological grounds. Those who opposed slavery were not able to quote literal passages from Scripture to support their radical view that slavery should end. From a biblical standpoint, they were at a disadvantage. Yet, today even though the Bible has not changed, biblical support for slavery has disappeared. What happened?

People came to see the evils of slavery and how it did not harmonize with the broader Christian value placed on human beings. The Bible speaks of human beings made in the image of God and  the value placed upon them in the sight of God and for whom He gave his only Son. Additionally, the Bible mentions Paul’s treatment of the slave, Onesimus, and his instruction to the churches on how slaves should be treated (Ephesians 6: 5-9). These Scriptural passages while not directly commanding the abolition of slavery, surely had an effect upon some people’s views and had a leavening effect upon society until the time became ripe for the abolition of slavery completely.

The abandonment of circumcision as required by God was a different matter. While the removal of slavery was slow and gradual, the rejection of circumcision came about quickly and in a short period of time. It is a miracle and a wonder that it happened at all. We know that circumcision was the symbol of the covenant which God established with Abraham. In Gen 17:9-14,

God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout you generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with you money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring.  Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.

Thus the command for circumcision was clear. Besides, it was to be everlasting and included foreigners within the household. Therefore, you can imagine how difficult it was for Paul to combat the “Judaizers” in the letter to the Galatians who maintained that Gentiles must be circumcised if they were to be members of the church. This question came up before the whole church when a good number of Gentiles were accepting Christ and the matter had to be dealt with at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). The surprising fact was the decision of the Council. In conclusion, James said, “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, . . .” (Acts 15:19).

What reasons were given for making this monumental change in practice?  Peter’s argument in favor of admitting Gentiles without circumcision was “’My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who know the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?  On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will’” (Acts15:7-11).  So the first reason was the reality that the uncircumcised Gentiles were receiving the Spirit just as the circumcised Jews were.

The second reason was given by James who says that Scripture supported Peter’s reason quoting from Amos 9:11, 12 and Jeremiah 12:15 indicating that Gentiles would be seeking the Lord.  

In retrospect this was a tipping point in the history of the church for at this point it became an international organization rather than a national one. Not a national practice which favors one nation but faith where all are equals becomes the means of entrance.  At the same time, while not as significant at the time, it signaled an end to male dominance and priority in regard to membership in the church.   

Today the issue within the Adventist Church is the ordination of women. Again Scriptural texts are marshaled against it, although none of these are as strong as those that opposed Gentiles coming into the church without circumcision nor even those that opposed the abolition of slavery. Are the kinds of reasons Peter and James set forth for Gentiles coming into the church without circumcision valid today for the ordination of women?  First of all, we see that women have entered into professions before that were forbidden, including the ministry.

Women have held or hold significant pastoral positions in our churches. Furthermore, we see women serving as successful ministers in China and other places where needed. Women have held the highest political offices in many countries of the world. The most recent advance was the ruling in Great Britain that a woman can succeed to the throne instead of a male heir if first born. How can we continue to think that women are in any way inferior to men in regard to the pastoral ministry?

Therefore, it seems to me that Peter’s pointing to the reality that God is blessing the Gentiles who are not circumcised just the same as the Jews who were circumcised is being fulfilled with regard to women and ministry today. The reality is that women are successfully fulfilling in this particular case the role of ordained pastors.

The second point which James made that there is scriptural basis for it is valid today. In fact, while it was not fully comprehended at the time, Joel 2:28-32 can be used as Scriptural support for women’s ordination today. “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;  your sons and your daughters  shall prophesy, . . . . Even on the male and female slaves, in those days I will pour out my spirit.”  
It is truly ironic that the church that claims a woman as prophet would not ordain women to the ministry, especially in the light of society’s enlightened understanding of the role of women and Christ’s treatment of women in a society where women were truly subordinate.

No rational and Biblically literate person today would argue for the reestablishment of slavery or circumcision as a condition for church membership. The same logical and scripture principles applies to women’s ordination. To argue otherwise places would be like maintaining that the world is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth.    

—Sakae Kubo received his Ph.D. in New Testament and early Christian literature from the University of Chicago and taught eighteen years at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He later served as dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla College and as president of Newbold College in England. He is the author of several books, including A Beginner’s New Testament Greek Grammar.

Art: Kara Walker, Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta, 2005.

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