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Those Cursed Women

Another General Conference session has passed, and again our leadership has declined to take action extending ordination to female clergy. All the reasons for their ordination (Galatians 3:28, Junia in Romans 16:7, Jesus’ kind treatment of women, Ellen White’s ministry) and all the reasons against it (no female disciples, no explicit command to ordain women, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 3:2, 1 Corinthians 11:3, the inflexibility of the world church) have been rehearsed, repeated and rebutted until no one is listening any longer.

I’m going to take one final poke at it. Too often I’ve heard that the reason women can’t be ordained is the fall, particularly Eve’s role in it, and the subsequent curse pronounced on her by God in Genesis 3. From that pronouncement proceed notions of male headship and female inferiority that tip the few New Testament references about the role of women in the direction of refusing them ordination.

That first sin — eating a piece of fruit in a garden full of fruit trees — has struck commentators of all ages as being too small a crime to merit the subsequent punishment. If God is going to be seen as at all just, it must represent a great deal more, which is why we explain it as a test of humankind’s willingness to obey God absolutely, even in small details. A few commentators have suggested that the story as it’s given is merely a polite cover for the discovery of sex, and cite as evidence the first couple’s realization of nakedness, fertility symbols of fruit and the phallic serpent, and one specific result of that sin: childbirth. To Eve, God says, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.” [1]

When in 1848 Scottish physician James Young Simpson pioneered the use of chloroform in obstetrics, some churchmen objected that it shouldn’t be used, because God wanted women to suffer pain during childbirth! They read the passage not as a description, but a prescription. [2]

If you understand this as a state that must be maintained, then not only can women not have an epidural as they give birth; they must also be subservient to men, for God also told Eve, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

But only if the pronouncement to Adam is also mandatory. “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.” [3] If women must be ruled by men, men must raise their own food. They can’t buy it at a market. They must grow it, and without the use of tractors that make their work less painful, or chemicals that keep weeds from growing.

You guys who live in apartments in the city are in trouble.

In nearly everything we do, we follow Jesus’ example of fighting against the results of sin. We try to cure diseases. We attempt to ameliorate the effects of natural disasters. We make laws that we hope will prevent people from doing bad things, and encourage them to do good things. We invent ways to produce more with less work. We don’t simply let sin have its way.

Except, some have said, in what sin did to the status of women. Women are cursed and must remain so.

Whatever arguments we use against women taking ministerial leadership, let’s have an end to this one. In a world as cursed by sin as ours is, to insist that half the population is especially cursed and that we who are just slightly less cursed must enforce their curse rather than overcome it is the worst, most primitive kind of religion.

What God said in Genesis 3 wasn’t a prescription but a prophecy, and it has proven true: women have suffered in giving birth, and men have toiled to grow food. And men have ruled over women, at some times and in some places so harshly and hurtfully as to create tremendous suffering.

But that’s not how God wants it to be. Inequalities won’t exist among us in heaven; shouldn’t we work against them here? Rather than keeping women subservient, we ought to lift women up, to strive for an egalitarian rather than a patriarchal society.

I remain puzzled by our once bold and prophetic denomination’s reluctance to be bold and prophetic by bringing women into full ministry in the church. Ellen White’s authoritative role should be reason enough — and don’t give me any hair-splitting about how she was ordained a prophet, not a pastor. It’s worth considering that perhaps the reason God chose a woman to have such a major role in founding this denomination is so we could show what Christianity can do to empower women.

That cultures in some parts of the world church don’t appreciate female leadership seems to me the very reason to do it. Ordaining women should be part of a whole slate of things we do to take a stand against the cultural patriarchy that oppresses women in places like India and Africa. Our church leaders should say to the world church, “You will — you must — ordain women, and you will do it precisely because it goes against your culture, for we Seventh-day Adventists stand for justice and fairness even when culture would urge otherwise.”

But don’t hold your breath.

1 Genesis 3:16
2 Simpson countered that God was the first anesthesiologist, for when he took Adam’s rib, “he caused a great sleep to fall upon him”—though that reasoning didn’t impress his adversaries, since Adam was a man and wasn’t giving birth. The criticism of obstetric anesthetic diminished after Queen Victoria asked for what she called “blessed chloroform” at the birth of Prince Leopold in 1853
3 Genesis 3:17-19
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