One of the most serious issues in the discussion of women’s ordination that has been taking place in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the last few years has been the issue of the unity of the world church. It has been intimated by concerned church members and leaders that the unity of the world church is under threat due to the opposing views that different world divisions have on this topic. Since Jesus, in His John 17 prayer before His crucifixion, prayed to the Father for unity of His believers and suggested that unity would only come by a study of the Word and uniting under the banner of truth (v 17), it could appear that all who deviate from the consensus opinion of the General Conference world policy are a threat to the fulfillment of the plan of Jesus for His church by not becoming “sanctified by truth.”
So, the question becomes, “How do sincere believers in Christ in different parts of the world come to divergent views on any given topic that is not expressly prescribed in Scripture?” Is it possible, as some claim, that there are groups of people, almost whole world divisions, who are unfaithful to Scripture and have to some degree apostatized from the true biblical faith? It could be true, but before we accuse whole sections of the world church of unfaithfulness to God’s Word we should probably look at one of the largest factors of how all of us come to decisions: culture.
What does culture have to do with unity?
Some might be thinking, “What does culture have to do with the unity of the church? Shouldn’t we just follow the plain teaching of Scripture and not worry about cultural norms?” While this supposition has a pious ring to it, it will not serve us very well in the discussion of women’s ordination. For those of us who have worked in various divisions of the world church it is naïve to think that culture doesn’t influence us or didn’t influence the Bible writers and their views.
Shame/Honor vs. Guilt/Innocence
The scope of this article does not allow for an in-depth discussion of the main cultures of the world, but a word must be said about the main culture of the West (the main culture of Christianity) and the main culture of the East (the main culture that the Bible was written in). In the West, Christian Europe and North America, the main culture is guilt/innocence. The dominant value in Western culture is innocence and “rightness.” Christian denominations have proliferated over doctrinal and social issues based on people’s perception of what is right and wrong. Elaborate court systems are set up to determine who is right/innocent and who is wrong/guilty.
The Bible, however, was drafted in cultures that were predominately shame/honor cultures. These cultures did not place their main values on law and rightness (probably why God added the laws of Deuteronomy and Leviticus to the Israelite culture); they valued predominately the honor or shame that was received from the surrounding community. The “rightness” of an action wasn’t as important as the perceived results to reputation and standing in a community. Therefore, Western Christianity has been theory-based while the Bible was written in a relationship-based culture.
Shame/Honor and Women’s Ordination
So what does the shame/honor culture have to do with women’s ordination? First, we must understand that there isn’t a clear mandate from God to define “rightness” in Scripture on the issue. There is not a “Thus says the Lord…” quote condemning women’s ordination or condoning it. We must look at principles from Scripture on this issue and use our reasoning to come to a conclusion, much as we do with the issue of polygamy.
Our Western right/wrong mentality must be tempered with the understanding that the Bible is sometimes, on some issues that don’t relate to God’s express law or revelation, concerned with the honor of God and His people and not always the “rightness” of their behavior according to our modern standards (an example of this is God’s failure to expressly condemn the polygamy that many of the heroes of faith of the Old Testament practiced).
When one looks at how the New Testament writers portray Christ and the church it must be noted that Christ and the church are honorable — they are caring, help heal people, care for the poor, teach, are forgiving and understanding in relationships, tell the truth, etc. The authors also portray the unbelievers as just the opposite — don’t care for the poor, commit all types of sins, rely on lies, and eventually fight against those who uphold the truth. The epistles of Paul, Peter, and James are primarily concerned with the behavior of the church and the subsequent honor that they should receive from those who observe them and ultimately honor from God on the Day of Judgment after becoming followers of Jesus.
This is the context of the New Testament writings in regard to women and their role in the church. The greater culture at the time of Paul was a very conservative one in regards to the role of women in society. Thucydides in the 5th century B.C. wrote that the most honorable woman is the one that is the least talked about by men (Hist. 2.45.2).1
Six hundred years later, Plutarch states basically the same thing: a woman should be seen in public with her husband but remain hidden at home (“Advice on Marriage,” 9).2 Plutarch adds that a woman’s words should not “be public property” but instead guarded from strangers; she should only speak to and through her husband (“Advice on Marriage,” 31-32).3
These pieces of advice seem archaic to most modern Western Christians but they were strongly rooted in the overall cultural understanding of women. Women at that time were not viewed as independent entities; their personhood was embedded in the identity of their closest males, either a father if she were single or a husband if she were married. Because of this, women were viewed as a vulnerability to a male’s honor. If a woman engaged in shameful behavior this didn’t affect just her, but also her father or husband. Because of this, Ben Sira (2nd century BC) viewed the birth of a daughter as a liability to a man (Sira 42:9-14).4
Could these views have affected the views of Paul when he addressed the role of women in 1 Corinthians? It certainly appears that they did. He argues that one reason all women should pray or prophesy with their heads covered (and have long hair — and if a woman didn’t want to do that she should have her head shaved) is that the “head of the woman is man” (11:2) and that a “woman is not independent of man” (11:11). In chapter 14 he continues and states that all women should not even speak in church; rather, they should talk to their husbands at home who could then later speak for them in public.
In verse 35, Paul uses the Greek word for “disgraceful” or “shameful” to describe the thought of a woman speaking in church. His language appears to be in step with the non-Christian theories of the time and his usage of the word “shameful” appears to show his desire to prove to the unbelieving public that the Christian community was an honorable one. Did Paul really believe that it was “wrong” for a woman to speak in church or pray at any time with her head uncovered? Judging from his egalitarian conviction that there is no “male or female” in Christ in Galatians 3:28 it wouldn’t appear so.
We must keep in mind that Paul was an evangelist at heart and his main desire was to spread the gospel of Christ to the world (1 Corinthians 9:22). This desire would necessarily inform his views of public behavior that the nascent Christian church should approve of. Given the culture of the time can we really blame him? What would have happened had all the new Christian women converts been “liberated” and thrown off all restraints by tossing their head coverings in the trash and speaking up loudly in public meetings and associated with men other than their husbands or fathers? Would Paul have been able to convince unbelieving men to join this group? Would he have even been able to convince other women to join the group knowing that they would risk shaming the males and extended families in their lives? Based on a study of the existing culture at the time, Paul’s position on women in church doesn’t look so anachronistic as it might to a modern Christian who doesn’t understand what the culture was at the time.
How should this affect the discussion of unity in the church?
Given this understanding of Paul’s position on women in the church what would Paul say to the modern Adventist church in Europe or North America? What would he say to the church in Africa or South America? Would he have the same position for the entire world church as he did for the church in Corinth in the 1st century AD? What would Paul have counseled Ellen White who blatantly violated his advice to the Corinthian sisters in the faith by not covering her head and speaking in church services? If we understand that Paul was attempting to take the biblical position of equality in Christ (tempered with the bestowal of the authority of the family to the man found in Genesis 3) and crafting a policy that would bring honor to the church, we can assume that his position might change based on the culture he is dealing with.
In reality our church better hope that this is the case because not one world division follows all of Paul’s counsel in regards to women! There is not one division in the world church that forbids women to speak in church and cover their heads while attending worship services with the threat of shaving their heads as penalty for disobedience to this policy. We are all in violation of Paul’s counsel and if his positions are the express will of God for behavior in the church we are all in need of grace and should approach this issue very humbly.
The irony of looking at the question of women’s ordination in this way is that this might actually point to the fact that the world church is already united in their position on women’s ordination by virtue of having different positions on the topic. You might be wondering how this is so. In the West many Adventists argue that not ordaining women is discriminatory. This argument is brought forth in a cultural context where there are laws that forbid an employer from not hiring or promoting someone based on their gender. In this cultural context a policy that forbids women from a position appears anachronistic, unfair, and even bordering on the illegal. It has been argued that this is one reason in the West why young people leave the church when they see that it is discriminatory. In other words, we could say that Westerners are concerned that the church will appear in a shameful light to outsiders and young people. Adventists in Eastern and/or traditional cultures (which are more similar to the biblical culture) argue that ordaining women goes against biblical teaching and doesn’t support the traditional roles of gender in society. This is also very sensible for those living in cultures where outsiders would frown upon a woman pastor.
One can make the argument that because the world divisions have different positions on this topic it could mean that as a world church we are already united: we are united in trying to do our best to present God’s church before the world in the most honorable way we can in our own cultures. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that each world division doesn’t deviate very far from the position on the role of women in society that the greater culture holds.
So, instead of seeing this issue as a potential threat to the future of the unity of the church, maybe we should look at the issue through the prism of honor and shame, and relate with understanding to all of God’s people who find themselves in different circumstances and cultural milieus and are doing their best to present their faith as an honorable element of their society. Maybe we are more united than we think.
Notes & References:
1. deSilva, David. “Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture.” Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press Academic, 2000, p. 33.
4. Ibid., 34.
Doug Hardt is an SDA pastor in northern Minnesota of 5 churches. He and his wife, Tatiana, served the world church 8 years in the former Soviet Union and Middle East before moving to Minnesota with their two children, Nicole and Michael.
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