Recently, I attended the commissioning service for a woman pastor I know. The service was enormously inspiring, yet, on another dimension, it was sadly disheartening as well. Actually, it was more deeply troubling than disheartening.
Some things were crystal clear. It was clear that the congregation was enthusiastically in full support of this woman as their pastor. Her congregation expressed genuine respect and even affection for her. She and her congregation are united in uplifting Jesus and making him known to their community. It is apparent that her church is moving forward with vigor.
I have talked with her privately and am inspired by her humility, vision, and ability to rally her congregants to participation in the life and mission of their church. She has an active strategy of encouraging and supporting her members in developing their spiritual gifts. She is focused strongly on the primacy of developing their walk with Jesus.
It was also clear that the woman has been granted spiritual gifts which she is using to serve Jesus. You can sense that her spiritual influence is deep but humble. I have no doubt the Holy Spirit continues to gift her for ministry.
It is also clear from our conversation that she is deeply convicted that she has been called by God to ministry. Her congregation is convinced, too. So is the local Conference. So is the Union Conference. (Who else should express an opinion?) While she was interim pastor, her congregation was going through a lengthy search process to find just the right pastor when the light dawned that they already had just the right pastor in her. Her selection was unanimous and the Conference and Union heartily supported their decision.
During the commissioning service, the Conference President explained the difference between ordination and commissioning. It was obvious he thinks the differentiation is ridiculous — as did the Union Ministerial Director. The few pastoral prerogatives that commissioned women cannot perform are, in actual practice, quite inconsequential.
These few technicalities are mostly about maintaining some contrast between ordination and commissioning while simultaneously flimflamming the IRS into believing that commissioning and ordination are essentially equivalent — which is required by the IRS in order to gain favorable tax treatment of pastoral compensation. But we know the truth. It is all just a ruse to keep women subordinate in their service to God while maintaining favorable tax treatment — which saves the Church money.
As the service unfolded, I became agitated at the state of affairs in our Church regarding treatment of women in ministry and I feel compelled to write with some rawness and candor.
What we are doing is just nuts! And worse!
I am fully convicted that the Holy Spirit is calling women into full partnership in ministry. I am also convicted that the world Church bureaucracy is obstructing this work of the Holy Spirit. The words “presumptuous” and “arrogant” come to mind in connection with those elements of our Church who block the ordination of our women in the face of their calling by the Spirit.
This is a perilous path I am walking in this line of thought. I don’t want to be presumptuous and arrogant by judging others who also hold their beliefs sincerely. But I also feel we must examine the risks of frustrating the work of the Spirit when it seems to so many of us that the Spirit is calling our women to full ministry partnership. So I plunge ahead.
Could it be presumptuous and arrogant to frustrate the work of the Holy Spirit? Could it be arrogant to place more value on some anachronistic policy in a book on a shelf in Maryland than the call of the Holy Spirit? Could it be presumptuous to make the judgment that you know better than the Holy Spirit what can and can’t be done by the Spirit? Could it be arrogant to believe that your personal interpretation of Scripture limits the Holy Spirit in his/her quest to seek and win souls?
Could it be presumptuous to, in effect, tell the Holy Spirit who he/she can and cannot call to ministry? (I don’t think the Spirit is too impressed with bureaucracy-created policy.) Could it be arrogant to think you can distinguish between the genuineness of two calls by the Spirit, one to a man and one to a woman? Could it be presumptuous to judge that a man’s calling is genuine while a woman’s isn’t? Could it be arrogant to believe that the Holy Spirit is calling women to a lower status of ministry and leadership?
The March 11, 2019 New York Times carried an article about recent physical altercations at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Ultra-orthodox Jews are attacking women, and their supporters, who come to the Wall to pray in a space created for them by the Israeli government. The ultra-orthodox Jews see women’s presence at the Wall as a sacrilege, and try to stop the women by intimidation, slurs, and even violence. The reason I mention this story is a quote from a non-ultra-orthodox rabbi. “As soon as a sect of Judaism says, ‘We know God’s will,’ it’s like saying ‘God is something we can fit into our minds like something we can fit in our hands.’ That’s idolatry.”
I think that concept fits in our context, too.
And now I escalate, although with some trepidation. I believe we must ask the question whether it is actually blasphemous to believe that the Holy Spirit will not call women to ministry when the available evidence is that he/she does call women. Is it blasphemous when someone attributes the work of the Holy Spirit to some other source? Is that what Jesus was saying in Mark 3, when they accused Jesus of evicting demons through the power of demons? When the Spirit calls a woman to ministry, could it be blasphemous to say that the woman’s sense of calling is coming from an illegitimate source or motive?
To those of you who think you have the Holy Spirit figured out and put in a box of your defining, consider the words of Jesus in John 3 where he equates the activity of the Spirit to the wind. “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” With apologies to Jim Croce and the Holy Spirit, “You don't tug on superman's cape. You don’t spit into the wind.” It is risky business to frustrate the work of the Holy Spirit.
Is this situation that much different from the one in Acts 10 when the Gentiles were first visited by the Holy Spirit? The text indicates there were early Jewish church members who were expressing — no doubt sincerely — opposition to baptizing Gentiles. But Peter declared to them, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Can anyone withhold ordination from women called to ministry by the Holy Spirit just as men have been called?
Some seem to believe that the cause of disunity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is those of us who support the ordination of women as well as their future roles in leadership. Well, I think it is time to reevaluate the source of disunity. Perhaps the source of disunity is actually those who would frustrate the work of the Holy Spirit, who would place policy above the work of the Spirit, who would place culture above the work of the Spirit, who would place their own interpretation of Scripture above the work of the Spirit, who would place some false uniformity above the work of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit, in his/her wisdom, may or may not be calling women to ministry in some parts of the world. I don’t know. But I am fully convicted he/she is calling women to ministry in the part of the world I live in. We dare not frustrate that calling! We do so at our peril.
I believe that the time is quite short for the world church to collectively figure out how to reach reasonable accommodation of our genuine differences on this matter. Quite short.
Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant. He and his wife Janelle live in Fort Collins, Colorado.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.