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Women’s Ordination “Collateral Damage” in Church’s Turn Toward Fundamentalism


Women’s ordination and biblical interpretation were the main topics of the 34th G. Arthur Keough Lectureship program, hosted by the Department of Religion at Washington Adventist University March 28 and 29.

Featured speakers Drs. Olive Hemmings (Washington Adventist University) and Richard Rice (Loma Linda University) discussed women’s ordination, Adventist biblical hermeneutics, and the politics of interpretation with a highly engaged group of WAU students, campus faculty members, community members, and visiting world division church officials. Post-presentation responses came from Dr. Rice, Pr. Mitchell Tyner (retired), series organizer Dr. Zdravko “Zack” Plantak (Washington Adventist University), and the audience.  

Hemmings’ papers on Friday evening and Sabbath morning each described women’s ordination as “collateral damage” in the Adventist denomination’s turn toward fundamentalism and away from liberalism, feminism, and higher criticism. In “Higher Criticism and the Resistance to Women’s Ordination: Unmasking the Issue,”  Hemmings noted that the 1971 Council on the Role of Women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Camp Mohaven, Ohio) included pro-women’s ordination papers from the General Conference’s Biblical Research Institute. These pro-ordination papers used the “approved” historical-grammatical method of interpreting scripture, just as Dr. Desmond Ford’s research on the sanctuary doctrine had done. 

By the end of the 1980s, however, the same BRI authors published papers against women’s ordination, claiming that the denomination faced a “threat” from nascent U.S. equality movements and the biblical interpretation methods external groups used. The GC followed fundamentalist churches in rejecting the wider Church’s move towards women’s ordination, and women’s ordination became a “symbol” of Adventism’s faithfulness to fundamentalism and resistance to modernity.

Hemmings, who has published her argument in the book Sacred Texts and Social Conflict: the Bible and the Debate Over Women’s Ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, suggested that the denomination’s sudden turn against women’s ordination mirrored its sudden rejection of historical-critical interpretation [higher criticism]. 

For example, Rice later pointed out, the Adventist Bible Commentary discussed historical-critical interpretation [higher criticism] in 1956; former GC president Neal Wilson used the historical-critical method of source criticism to describe the synoptic gospels’ origins in the 1980s; and the White Estate used redaction criticism to show that gospel writers and Ellen White had the same purposeful composition method. But by the 2010 General Conference session, Hemmings said, GC president Ted N. C. Wilson was describing historical-critical methodology as “one of the most sinister attacks against the Bible,” “unbiblical,” and the “deadly enemy of our theology and mission.” 

The interpretation tools needed to support women’s ordination hadn’t changed in 30 years. But the Adventist church’s support for fundamentalist ideology had changed in that time. Hemmings argued that Adventism has aligned its institutions with U.S. fundamentalists, their social policy, and their church polity decisions; Tyner reviewed the social historical and legal trends behind this alignment. Today, the Adventist Review often reprints topical columns from the Southern Baptists’ Albert Mohler, and no mainline or moderate non-Adventist has recurring visibility in our official church paper. 

Hemmings said that the Bible has become “more an accessory” to ideology and culture wars than a “guide for the church”: GC administrators’ prior commitment to male headship and fundamentalist Christianity has determined our denomination’s position on ordination. Further, the “headship” premise left un-debated at the Utrecht session hasn’t yet been judged by the life-beyond-patriarchal-culture that Pauline epistles introduced to the early Church. This failure, Hemmings suggests, has hampered the denominational conversation. 

“The rest of the world has joined the fray,” she said, “not knowing what the [U.S.] war is really about. . . [and] the cultural war cannot be won on the American continent.” She closed with the hope that the church not squander its ability to teach the mutuality that the Bible calls believers to live in.

Dr. Richard Rice’s presentation, “Inerrancy, Adventism, and Church Unity,” outlined the high value Seventh-day Adventism places on biblical studies and the denomination’s challenge with consistent interpretation. Like Hemmings, Rice situated Adventism among denominations that consider the Bible a continuing authority and source of truth [biblical inerrancy]. Conservative evangelicals aligned with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and the Evangelical Theological Society promote a restrictive form of this belief: “infallible divine authority” in the biblical text (in the autographs), the historical-grammatical method of interpretation, and opposition to source criticism.

Rice highlighted the selective ban on higher criticism that emerged in Adventism after meetings on biblical interpretation in 1974 and 1986. While the world church’s Rio Statement claimed that higher criticism “deemphasizes the divine elements in the Bible,” the BRI used its methods to reassure Adventist Review readers that a psalm’s reference to the sun didn’t have to be interpreted as a scientific fact. 

Rice noted that both inerrancy and scientific materialism rely on Enlightenment-era rationalism: both share premises about “accuracy” that aren’t native to scripture or its cultures, and both press believers into apologetics about the text rather than connection with the God the text describes. He suggested that interpretative differences become significant only as used to fragment the community of faith — that we can and should speak in humility as we handle “the book that should bring us together.” 

Audience questions after each session came from students, WAU faculty members, self-identified “disillusioned [Adventist] youth,” and community members. Each question inspired vigorous discussion about how Adventists should handle our debates about church policy, biblical bases for gender equity, links between “plain reading” and support for U.S. slavery, what the denomination has lost by failing to recognize three generations of called women, why Adventists have “allied ourselves with fundamentalists,” and whether it is accurate to blame the Adventist non-consensus about women on “cultural differences” (speakers and respondents were clear that it isn’t). 

Keisha E. McKenzie, PhD, graduated from Northern Caribbean University and studied technical communication and rhetoric at Texas Tech University. She now lives and works in the greater DC metro area, writes at, and is a board member of the Adventist Today Foundation.

Read Richard Rice’s paper in the current issue of the Spectrum journal. Olive Hemmings’ paper is scheduled to appear in the next issue.

The G. Arthur Keough Lectureship, hosts speakers twice annually, and is named for a former Washington Adventist University religion professor and author. The fall semester lectureship featured Hebrew scholar Walter Brueggemann.

To share past G. Arthur Keough lectures with the wider Adventist community, WAU’s Department of Religion is preparing an edited print collection. If you would like to support the development of this collection, please send a check marked “Keough Lectureship Series” to Washington Adventist University, 7600 Flower Ave., Takoma Park, MD 20912. 

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