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Women – Fear and Loathing in the Redoubts of Dogmatism

Why does dogmatism correlate so naturally with rebellion against the Resurrection and the Holy Spirit?

As everyone knows, when someone proposes that a metaphorical (rather than literalistic) reading of Genesis 1 and 2 might help Adventist scientists communicate their belief in Creation, the inner Inquisitor of dogmatic traditionalists bestirs itself from slumber. “That would betray scripture,” it says. “That would deny official church teaching. That should not be allowed.”

Jesus himself said things — think of his story about Abraham and Lazarus — whose deep truth comes through by way of metaphor. But for dogmatists (as I will say for short) this seems irrelevant; it seems not to matter.

So how do you suppose Adventists of this stripe are dealing with objections to Doug Bachelor’s recent sermon against women? At least some of them (to no one’s surprise) are rushing into rant-and-rave mode. Ordain women to ministry, as we do men? That would be an outrage, and no true Adventist would permit it.

The Resurrection of Jesus is God’s validation of care and respect that knows no boundaries: radical love is what Jesus was about. You would suppose, therefore, that the Gospel message might cast doubt upon traditions that exclude the vulnerable and marginalized — of either sex. But the dogmatists ask: Weren’t the original apostles men? And doesn’t that mean that men, not women, are called to spiritual leadership? Doesn’t that mean that God wants us to exclude women from the inner circle of the ordained?

Although some New Testament women were spiritual leaders, the point about the apostles is true: they were men. But basing an argument against women on this fact is just what invites the question I started with. Such an argument has the reek of rebellion. It smells of rebellion against the Resurrection; it smells, too, of rebellion against the Holy Spirit.

John 16 reports that just before his death Jesus told the disciples that in the future they would learn things they could not now bear to consider. He would be present through the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit would guide them into ever-deeper knowledge of his movement’s meaning.

The Resurrection is a radicalization of prophetic insight about divine regard for human life. The Holy Spirit empowers us to respond to the Resurrection. But in addition, the Holy Spirit illuminates our path into the future. The risen Christ’s communication with us, through the Spirit, enables us to grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But the dogmatists resist this as you might resist an intruder climbing through your window. They are afraid — deeply afraid — of change. The dogmatists realize that thoughtless change can be disastrous (and on this we may all agree with them). But they fail to realize that obeisance to the status quo can be disastrous, too. In a fallen world (and imperfect church), it may serve no purpose but to baptize the privileges savored by Entrenched Power, and to erode the hopes of the vulnerable and marginalized.

With respect to women, unacknowledged fear is just one of the emotions that drive dogmatism. The other, also unacknowledged, is loathing — of what women represent, of what full equality might come to suggest about male leadership.

The New Testament was written in a time of stunning disdain for women. They were consigned (remember Martha) to the kitchen. They were considered unwise and uneducatable. So the Gospel story is nothing short of astonishing when it says that as the crucifixion loomed, men withdrew from Jesus in disloyalty and cowardice, whereas women stuck by. At the cross, Jesus’ women followers offered the ministry of presence, not the jolt of abandonment.

What is equally remarkable, the Gospel story tells us that women were first to see and bear witness to the Resurrection. Men at first resisted what they said, but the leadership of women proved trustworthy, and men, tardy though they were, came around. A revolutionary movement sprang to life.

This surely suggests that women represent a high point in the history of human response to God. It surely suggests, too, that male assumptions of superior qualification for ordained ministry are dubious, or even laughable.

Men predominated in church leadership during 1,700 years of Christian consent to slavery. It was easy to show that Scripture gives no explicit mandate for abolition of slavery. And thus it was easy to rationalize that slavery was compatible with God’s validation of the message of Jesus. But these rationalizations, as I suppose even the dogmatists would agree, were entirely specious and self-serving.

Who would deny that resistance to the Holy Spirit lengthened the sway of slavery? And who would deny that the persistence of the Holy Spirit was what finally changed the church’s mind?

Today resistance to the Holy Spirit is lengthening the sway of misogyny. Perhaps one reason many Adventists are complicit in this misogyny is that some church leaders have tried to suppress the truth about the Holy Spirit’s work. In 1988 an official exposition of the (then) Twenty-Seven Fundamental Doctrines omitted any consideration of the document’s preamble, which made just the point I am making about the Holy Spirit’s teaching function.

This was an outrage. But neither it nor any other outrage will cause the Spirit to give up.

Nor do I think any of us should mince words in the meantime. On the matter of women and leadership, dogmatic traditionalists are an abomination. They may call themselves “defenders of the faith” but they are as much on the scoundrel side of history as any Papist or Protestant who ever made the Bible an excuse for looking the other way at the auction block.

Charles Scriven is Board Chairman of Adventist Forum

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