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Snake Handlers, Holy Kissing and the Hermeneutics of Women in Ministry


And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Mark 16:17-18[i] 

Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” 1 Cor 14:34–35

Mack Wolford, pastor of the House of the Lord Jesus, a Pentecostal, snake-handling congregation from Matoaka, West Virginia, died of a timber rattlesnake bite on May 26, 2012, after refusing to allow members to call paramedics. Mack [pictured] had recently vowed to keep the “faith” alive by reviving the dying practice in rural Appalachian congregations. His dad had the same fate in 1983.

Although most Pentecostal denominations worldwide do not go to the extent of making venomous snakes part of their liturgy based on questionable Scriptural evidence (Mark 16 ends in verse 8 in the oldest manuscripts), glossolalia, i.e., speaking in tongues is widespread. In my native Brazil, there’s even the Adventist Church of Promise, a Pentecostal, Sabbath-keeping, tongue-speaking offshoot of mainstream Adventism which started in the 1930s congregating alongside the Pentecostal Christian Congregation which requires women to wear a veil over their heads during worship (See 1 Cor 11). 

Whereas Adventists have long criticized speaking in tongues as spiritualistic (and have never even come close to considering handling snakes to the sounds of “We Have This Hope” on Sabbath), I believe the current discussion on women’s equality in ministry reveals yet again the Achilles’ heel of Adventist hermeneutics. The rationale against equality for women in ministry we see in some quarters is akin to the prooftext method used by Pentecostals who attempt to make practices of the early church normative for Christianity today.

The problem is not new. Since its inception, mainstream Adventist hermeneutics has been strongly tethered to prooftexts. From tendentious KJV translations and decontextualized passages in Daniel and Revelation to visionary “confirmations”, all was going swimmingly for Adventist theology in the early years. But when the voice of the prophet went silent, Adventism came to a crossroads: either allow for a revised dynamic in denominational prophetic writings and let new light shine or elevate the prophet to infallibility and question new light. And although la crème de la crème of Adventist thinkers present in the 1919 Bible Conferences hinted at a new understanding of inspiration as seen in the ministry of Ellen White, rethinking how Adventism had so far understood the relationship between the “Spirit of Prophecy” and Biblical interpretation was clearly unacceptable to some. The Adventist theological house of cards became too big to fail or change. The pendulum swung the other way and prooftexting passed to new generations.

In general terms, the prooftext method is characterized by a three-pronged hermeneutical approach:

  1. a literal reading of the text;
  2. a disregard for its broader contextual concerns;
  3. a presentist, universal application of its perceived “principles”.

In other words, if there’s any Scripture describing a certain ancient Christian practice, we should follow it as closely as possible. Silence on any given subject amounts to a tacit prohibition. Thus, while Adventists have long rejected the charismatic outbursts common to the early church such as speaking in tongues—although the “holy kiss” was normal in some Millerite quarters as revealed by the Israel Dammon affair—we tend to adhere to notions of structure, hierarchy and organization allegedly practiced by the early church.

And although our prooftext hermeneutics has maintained Adventist theology and practice largely within the safe boundaries of what may be liturgically acceptable and commonsense (the excesses of the Holy Flesh movement continue to haunt the Adventist psyche), it is ultimately cut from the same cloth as that of Pentecostals. The way certain passages are over-contextualized and not applicable today while hard universal “principles” are drawn from similar others reveals that we simply do not have a consistent hermeneutical method. This allows anyone to pick and choose what to consider normative today and what to consider cultural or contextually relevant only to the early church. Such anomalies have been all the more jarring in eschatological interpretations that see apocalyptic “fulfillment” in every political development, an omen in every earthquake. YouTube videos abound with the most outlandish “eschatological” interpretations by Adventist lay preachers and others not so lay. An incorrect hermeneutics will invariably lead to incorrect conclusions.

But as many have pointed out in the past (and I run the risk of being repetitious), there’s no clear universal principle in the New Covenant that women should not be allowed to serve the church in the same capacity as men. When dealing with the legalistic, tradition-oriented and most likely male-led church in Galatia, Paul affirms that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Far from being a simple “prooftext”, Galatians 3:28 actually explores the most profound truth of the Gospel: if it is anything, the Gospel the great leveler of mankind. None is called because of inherent peculiarities such as gender, social status or caste; none should be rejected because of them.

So how do we work around the clear inconsistencies in our relationship with women in the church? Why are clear “tenets” being ignored (“be silent”) while not so clear ones (“no female ordination”) are enforced? Well, consistency is not naturally part of the prooftext method. But more serious study demands that we go deeper. For example, one of the problems with basing the arguments on women’s equality on prooftexts from Timothy and Titus is the question of their Pauline authenticity; New Testament scholars are divided on whether these were written by Paul at all, and one of the reasons is precisely the hardline attitude towards women, among other things, which is jarring when compared to the support for female leaders in Romans 16, for example. [2] Moreover, there are also considerable questions as to the authenticity of 1 Cor 14:34-35 (“women should be silent in the churches…”) which most recent scholarship considers as a later interpolation.[3] 

In a recently launched site, opponents of women’s ordination seek to provide  “biblical, historical, and church support for this position and to address the challenges of the latest effort to compromise biblical truth in favor of social and cultural acceptance.” The articles written in order to provide “biblical support” are emblematic of the prooftext method. One argument is allegedly based on 1 Tim 3. But what about chapter two? Why is the so-called “biblical position” based on only part of the context? The context of Paul’s command for women to be silent in 1 Tim 2:12 is also based on male headship: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Tim 2:13). In order to be consistent with our prooftexting, women should not be allowed to speak in church for the same reason they are not to be given leadership roles. The authors attempt to explain away 1 Tim 2:12 by stating that the prohibition of a woman to speak relates to “authoritative teaching restricted to the pastor.” Says who? The context talks about how men and women should relate to the society at large, in worship and prayer; he recommends men to lift up “holy hands”, not to be “angry”, and for “women to dress…with good works” and, yes, “be silent”. Surprisingly, the prohibition against women speaking in church found in 1 Cor 14:34-54 is not dealt with in any of the articles; in fact, I was not able to find 1 Corinthians 14 anywhere on the site.

We also see on the website the ‘argument from silence’, a corollary of the prooftext method. David R. Hall posits that an argument from silence occurs in historical analysis when “the absence of a reference to an event or a document is used to cast doubt on the event not mentioned.”[4] They argue: “There’s no evidence of female ordination in the early church, thus, we should not ordain women.” Interestingly, those most zealous among us against women’s ordination for its absence in the early church would be hard pressed to find prooftexts for tithing or the seventh-day Sabbath in the “new covenant”. 

A petition urges leaders of the Pacific Union Conference to “support the limitation of ordination to well-qualified men as Seventh-day Adventist pastors” and not change the “historical” position of the Adventist church because, for “150 years, the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s position has consistently been that only men should be ordained as pastors.” (So far, around 490 have signed it.)  But loaded terms such as “historical” and “traditional” are part of yet another fallacy, the scarecrow, which attempts to brand any dissenting voices as “unhistorical”, “untraditional” or “rebellious”. And it depends on which period you look for the “historical” Adventist position; for starters, the very thought of ecclesiastical tradition was anathema for our pioneers as they launched the Adventist movement.

While the recent domino effect of allegiance to women’s ordination in the North American Division is encouraging on many fronts, at the same time, such maverick initiatives have been tempered with the reluctance of others to follow suit. Some prefer a “word from above”, the proverbial tip of the hat. The disconnect shows that, at least in some quarters, Adventism continues to jettison the foundational principle sought by our pioneers, i.e., a suspicion of organization as an impediment to charismatic gifts in tandem with progressive Bible study. In the Adventist church, if the Spirit moves, it must wait around five years for the Church to respond!

Part of the problem is that the debate continues to be centered on who can be ordained and not on why we should ordain people at all. This was precisely the point made by Dr. Darius Jankiewicz, Ph.D., in a seminar at the 2012 Women Clergy Conference sponsored by the NAD Ministerial Association when he argued that we should not practice ordination, period. After perusing the practice in the early church and primitive Christianity, Jankiewicz concludes that ordination is a mere tradition inherited from Catholicism without biblical support. He concludes that an emphasis on organization leads to the notion that “organization brings salvation”. He contends that organization should be understood functionally and not sacramentally. He says: “The goal of the church is not organization. Organization can be changed. The longer organization remains, the more it will be understood as sacramental.”

And unfortunately, the formulaic ways in which we pursue male ordination have led to church politics. Besides being plagued by questionable Scriptural support, the practice has degenerated into a mere way of measuring a minister’s commitment to denominational interests. For example, in the South American Division (over 2 million members), pastors who keep up with the goal of baptisms or other quantifiable results get ordination quickly as a sort of  “spiritual prize”; those who fail in some artificial metric (even in sales of denominational literature) remain “un-ordained”; a pastor who remains un-ordained for too long is ultimately let go.

But such judgments are not ours to procure. Ordination predicated on the results of “standardized tests” elevates human reasoning to the detriment of the invisible work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives. One size does not fit all in ministry. We would do well to remember that for years the apostle Paul rejected the recognition of the establishment because his calling came directly from God on the road to Damascus (see Gal 1-2). He drew his sense of purpose from his direct encounter with Jesus, not because Peter or James thought his talents were needed in the ministry. Success in numbers was never a prerequisite for Paul’s calling. And while he did not seek recognition from church leaders, he did expect the church at large to view him as a duly appointed apostle, not because the the hierarchy approved of him, but because God had personally called him. The roots of the ministerial privilege which on one hand separates prelate from people and on the other, men from women, can be traced back in part to the artificial hierarchical and sexist notions of ordination, at a time when the church began down the slippery slope of replacing the Holy Spirit by the tradition of the (male) elders.

Ultimately, if we are to become faithful to the most basic foundational practices of the kingdom of God as established by Jesus, we must return urgently to baptism as the one and only practice which stands both as initiation ritual and anointing for Christian ministry. For while there’s no clear commandment to ordain only men to ministry by laying on of hands[5] to the detriment of women, Jesus specifically instructed his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mat 28:19-20), a commission that extends to all Christians, until “the end of the age”. The typological priesthood of the old covenant is now shared by all believers (1 Peter 2:5-9), regardless of caste, nationality or gender. In the words of the old hymn, “in Christ there is no East or West, in Him no South or North” and, alas, also no “male or female” (Gal 3:28).

Let the waters of baptism give birth to God-ordained, duly appointed, unbridled missionaries. Maybe then “there would be a hundred workers for Christ where now there is one” [6]?

—André Reis has a B.A. in Theology from the Adventist University in São Paulo, Brazil, an M.A. in Music from Longy School of Music and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in New Testament. He, his wife Francini and three daughters, Pamela, Chloe and McKayla are active members of the Florida Hospital SDA Church.

Image by Lauren Pond. 

  1. All Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
  2. See Stanley E. Porter, “Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles: Implications for Canon” (Bulletin For Biblical Research 5, 1995), 105-123.
  3. See Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 1147-1162.
  4. Seven Pillories of Wisdom (Mercer University Press, 1991), 55-56.
  5. NT passages which mention laying on of hands are mostly descriptive rather than prescriptive.
  6. The Desire of Ages, 251.
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