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Perspective: The Challenges of Africa and the Ordination of Women


The question of ordaining women to pastoral ministry (or even as local church elders) is deeply embedded in how we view the broader issue of women in society and in Christian ministry. In which church ministries are women “permitted” to engage, and which ministries are reserved only for men? The answer to this crucial question is often based on one’s understanding of the God-assigned genders roles and whether one can perform the roles presumed to be assigned to the opposite gender. However, it is a fact that no one approaches such questions from an absolutely neutral perspective i.e. we do not approach it “tabula rasa,"  i.e. as clean slates. We are often tainted by our own culture and socialisation. 

Caleb Rosado deals with this issue in his paper “How Culture Influences Our Reading of Scripture,” [first published in Spectrum, Vol. 25:2, Dec. 1995, revised and published in the Journal of Southern African Adventism (JOSA Vol.1 No.2) in Oct. 2012]. Rosado says, 

While we may come to God’s Word as sincere seekers, we do not come alone. We come with all the sociocultural baggage that imperceptibly is ours. Within this baggage are the various cultural influences or social maps in our lives that give direction to our beliefs and guide our behaviour. These include our culture, our gender, our race/ethnicity, our socioeconomic status, and most importantly, the way we have been socialized to see the world, each other, the opposite gender, and even the Word of God." 

These “social maps” influence the spiritual and social routes we take, the heavenly and human “sights” we see along the way in our life course.   These maps or “value systems” shape all our attitudes and actions, for they serve as “a pre-theoretical framework for the development of a worldview, a set of priorities, a paradigm, and a mind-set. They serve as a ‘structural scaffold’ for deep-level thinking at the bottom-line— the threshold of no negotiation. In fact, we cannot act with integrity outside of these value systems as they shape the way we see. We cannot maintain wholeness if we talk and walk differently than we see and our level of consciousness.  And our attitude about others and our behaviour toward them has to be congruent with this level of consciousness and the way we see others, and the way we view life, God and His Word.”

African Society and the Role of Women
It follows that Africans' understanding of the role of women in ministry cannot be developed outside their sociocultural understanding and beliefs on the role distinctions between the genders. Before this is discussed further, it is important to highlight two important issues. 

First, there is no single or uniform African culture just as there is no single or uniform European culture. There are indeed some common and similar traits evident across Africa but there are some vast differences between the different cultural groups as to be expected in a continent made up of 54 independent countries, with a population of about 1 billion people, with over 3,000 ethnic groups and speaking over 2,000 different languages.

Second, the fact that we bring sociocultural baggage as we approach Scripture does not minimize or trivialise in any way the work of the Holy Spirit to illuminate our minds and reveal truth to us. Neither does this diminish our sincerity in seeking to understand and obey God’s truth concerning this or any other matter. It is however still generally true that men and boys in Africa tend to play the public and more visible leadership roles both in the family and the community at large. Girls and women generally tend fill less visible roles, or roles of a less public, leadership nature.  This is not just an African phenomenon because it exists, to an extent, in almost every culture of the world. The United States, for example, has never had a female president or vice president since its independence in 1776, and Switzerland, lying in the heart of Europe, only introduced women's suffrage at the federal level for the first time in February 1971. 

In general, girls have only recently begun to have equal opportunities to boys in terms of access to education and the professions or careers they can pursue.

When I began my university studies in Africa in the mid-1980s, I was shocked to find that there was a female student in the School of Engineering. She was the only female out of about 400 engineering students. I had grown up believing that Engineering was a domain only for men. With times, things have been changing and we have seen many young African females entering areas previously considered male domains. I work for a global organisation involved in mining operations, and we are seeing more and more women in mining (even in Africa). We have women working in underground mining and some of them even drive and operate huge mining equipment.

Principle, Policy and Practice 
There are three broad categories into which an issue in the Seventh-day Adventist church can be located. I consider these the 3 Ps, namely: Principle, Policy or Practice.

An issue of principle is one which is directly connected to the theology or fundamental belief of the community of faith, for example, the true and biblical Sabbath. This matter is settled directly from the Bible, which is God’s revelation to humanity and there is no compromise on the church’s position on such a matter.

Policy is a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes. Policies are there to ensure the smooth and effective functioning of the church in its mission. Policy however should not compromise principle. An example would be the fact that the church needs money for evangelism, but the fundraising methods should not compromise principle (e.g. we can’t run liquor stores to raise money since that would go against our principle).

Practice is often a matter of pragmatism and sometimes just convenience. An example would be the origin of 9.30am as starting time for Sabbath School, which is common in many Adventist congregations. It is neither a biblical principle nor a policy matter. Since it is a matter of practice there are some places where Sabbath School starts at 8.30am or 10am, depending on the local and prevailing conditions.

The world-wide Seventh-day Adventist church considers a General Conference Session or a General Conference Executive Committee meeting as the forum where decisions are made on whether an issue is Principle, Policy or Practice. The lower level structures (i.e. Union Conference, Local Conference or Local Church) have no authority to make a determination under which “P” a matter falls. Although the differences between matters of principle or policy or practice might appear simple and straightforward on the surface, they can be complex and be reason for controversy among church members. Since Adventists believe in a holistic view of life, a matter that might appear to be simply an issue of practice can often be viewed by some through the theological (principle) lenses and sometimes these “theological lenses” are not appropriately used.

A matter such wether or not a man must wear a coat and a tie when preaching on Sabbath could be seen as a matter of practice. But there are Adventist churches where one cannot preach without wearing a jacket and a tie. This has been elevated by some to a matter of principle and they try to argue from Scripture (rightly or wrongly) why it is so. Therefore some matters that would clearly be questions of practice get elevated and viewed as matters of principle without a solid biblical foundation. In the same vein there are some aspects around the roles women can play in ministry and in the life of a church which become issues of controversy because different people place them in different categories. These fundamental disagreements reflect themselves in the conversations around the ordination of female elders and pastors.

Women in the Adventist Church in Africa
The question of what roles women can perform in the church was rarely debated in African congregations a few decades ago. It was often assumed that the answers were very clear and biblical. Even the majority of African women themselves never asked the questions. Asking the questions would have been seen as challenging the status quo and the biblically defined order.  The classical roles of women in the African church have usually been in the Dorcas Society (and Adventist Women’s Ministries), as Sabbath School superintendents, in Children’s Ministries or as Deaconesses. There were hardly any females, for example, teaching adult Sabbath School classes made up of male and female participants since the teaching function would have been perceived a male responsibility. And some attempted to justify this by using 1 Timothy 2:12 “And I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over man . . .”

Women rarely, if at all, formed part of the platform or pulpit team during the Sabbath 11 o’clock worship (divine service). In general they were not requested to offer the “pastoral prayer” from the pulpit on Sabbath or lead out in the offertory section of the service or preach the Sabbath sermon. The entire party on the pulpit during the Sabbath 11 o’clock service was, and is still in many places, always made up of men. This is often still the case, in spite of the fact that, on average females comprise over 60% of those in attendance on Sabbath.  Again, this is not unique to Africa, but was and still is also prevalent in many other cultural settings of the world.

Female Pastors and Elders in the Southern Africa Indian Ocean Division
The Southern Africa Indian Ocean Division (SID) is made up of 9 Union Conferences and  has an Adventist population of about 3.1 million baptised members worshipping in approximately 9,200 local congregations. The total population of the geographical territory of the SID is about 176 million. That is a ratio of about 1 Adventist for every 57 non-Adventists. It is one of the fastest growing of all 13 world divisions of the Adventist church. The SID administration has the detailed breakdown on the total number and distributions of ministers serving in the division as a well as number of female ministers. It is however evident that the number of females serving as frontline ministers or church administrators (e.g. conference departmental leaders) is very small. There are also some women who have gone through theology or pastoral training in the Adventist institutions (e.g. at Helderberg College, South Africa or Solusi University, Zimbabwe) but for various reasons never served as pastors or served briefly and then left. The reasons for their departure from pastoral ministry are varied but the most obvious one would be the general challenges a female would face e.g. no path to ordination, not getting the full respect of some congregations and members etc. According to the General Conference Yearbook, one of the Union Conferences in the SID is the Southern Africa Union Conference (SAUC). The SAUC has 7 Local Conferences and in 2012 it had 181 ordained ministers and 119 licensed ministers (i.e. a total of 300 ministers). It is very likely that this number has not changed significantly in the last three years. 

A recent (2015) survey indicates that there is a combined total of about 10 female ministers and 3 female officials (mostly chief financial officers) in all the local conferences of the SAUC. In addition to that, those conferences that have a stand-alone AWM department would of course have females as departmental directors (and these are not necessarily ministers). Although these are estimates, they reflect accurately the orders of magnitude in the SAUC, indicating that of all ministers in the Union Conference only about 3% are female. Without having to determine the exact figures from the other 8 Union Conferences of the SID, it is evident that this picture is similar across the SID. The GC Annual Council in 1974 resolved that women may be ordained as elders, and in November 1993 the SAUC Executive Committee voted to affirm the accepted practice that lay female elders may be ordained  but church boards and business meetings be consulted in the process. There are indeed some local churches that have been appointing and ordaining female elders, while there are others which do not. It is estimated that females form between 10-15% of all ordained elders currently serving in the churches of the SID. 

The Ordination of Female Church Officers 
Historically the Adventist church has only ordained males as pastors, elders or deacons. Female church officers were not ordained although there is evidence that there were some ordination of deaconesses in the Adventist church around 1895. As already indicated, the GC Executive Committee took a decision in 1974 that female local elders may be ordained. Although the question of the ordination of female pastors appears to have first come up at the General Conference 1881 Session, the GC 1990 Session resolved that female pastors not be ordained. The GC 1995 Session rejected the request from the NAD to allow individual divisions to decide on the matter. Although the NAD proposal was specifically about permitting each division to decide (and not for session to vote to ordain female pastors), many saw its rejection as a general rejection of the ordination of female pastors. However the General Conference Session in 2010 resolved to establish the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) and requested the world divisions to conduct studies on the matter and feed into the TOSC process. This was a golden opportunity presented to the world church family to make a contribution to the process which in the past had often been viewed as a North American and European process.

It would have been of great benefit and more value would have been derived from the process if each Division’s Biblical Research Council (BRC) had called on all its Union Conference to also conduct their own studies to feed into the Divisions’ BRC. Union Conferences would have called on Local Conferences and they in turn would have called on Local Churches to do the same. Of course not all local churches would have participated, but those who wanted to would have had an opportunity to do so.

In the SID, a conservative estimate could probably have resulted in 2 000 of the 9 200 churches actively participating in the study and this input would have been considered for the final SID report to TOSC. Although not every submission would have been an academic output par excellence based on a solid theological and scholarly footing, the process of conducting a study in the local church would have been immensely valuable. This study might not have resolved the initial question on the ordination of female pastors, but it would have inevitably dealt with the many underlying issues such as: What is ordination? What do we believe to be the roles women can perform in the church? What is the basis of our position? Why don’t we ordain women? Should we ordain deaconesses? If the Adventist church permits ordained female elders, why don’t we have any in our local church? Why don’t we have females preaching in our church on Sabbath at 11 O’clock?

The local churches would have had a platform and opportunity to interrogate their own beliefs, assumptions, traditions and practices on the roles of women in the church and in ministry.

Since the process leading up to the SID position at the TOSC did not, in my opinion, include a wide representation or broad spectrum of the division constituency, it is difficult to determine how representative that opinion is. Although some aspects of the SID position would indeed correlate with that of the majority of the 3.1 million members, it is very likely that there is a considerable section of the membership that has a different view on other aspects of the SID submission. The only way to determine this would be to take the SID position through an interrogation process by the general constituency. This would be important and necessary even after the GC 2015 Session, however the session decides on the matter.

Dealing with the Main Issue
It is evident that individuals and churches which accept that some of the perceptions held and restrictions placed on what roles women can perform in the church are not biblically founded but rather come from tradition and sociocultural practice (e.g. women not permitted on the pulpit or not preaching on Sabbath) are more willing to allow women to perform a broader range of roles in the church. The question of women preaching during Sabbath divine service is contentious in some Adventist churches in Africa although the Adventist church has always had women preaching, even at camp meetings. Ellen White used to preach very often and even at General Conference sessions. The opposition to women preachers even leads to some “weird” situations where it would not be surprising to find men preaching even on Sabbaths that are dedicated to Women’s Ministries. There are even cases where men preach at Women’s Conventions, although there are definitely women that could have been identified and invited to preach.

The challenge of the Adventist church in Africa is not primarily about whether females can serve as ordained pastors or elders or not, but rather about the question of what women can and cannot do in church. There is a clear connection between this fundamental question and the position one holds concerning women ordination. Churches that allow female preachers on Sabbaths or women to perform leadership roles in the church services are more likely to accept female elders and pastors as well as their ordination. But those churches that believe that when women do any presentation in church on Sabbath, they should only do it during Sabbath school and from the table or podium that is physically placed at a lower level than the pulpit used for the 11 o’clock service are less likely to appoint female elders or accept female pastors. That is the issue that needs to be dealt with in Africa and that is what the recent world-wide ordination conversation would have helped resolve if there had been a broader consultation within the Adventist churches in Africa. 

As the Church Goes to GC Session 2015
As we go to the General Conference Session 2015 in San Antonio it is unlikely anyone goes there tabula rasa. Most minds are likely to have been made up, but God is certainly able to change people’s understanding and minds for His purpose. My prayer and desire for the 2015 GC Session is that the church votes to allow regions (world divisions) to make decisions on the question of ordaining female pastors based on their specific context and conditions, to ensure that the church in the regions becomes more effective and relevant in missioni.e., vote YES to the proposal from GC Annual Council 2014.

Second, I pray that no matter the vote outcome we will remain united as a church in our mission. What unites us is much bigger and more important than what separates us.

Third, I wish that we still come back and encourage churches and members to engage in ongoing studies on many issues facing the church. Adventists have always made decisions based on biblical grounds and it is unfortunate if some might have made up their minds on the question of women ordination without looking at the biblical evidence or by only considering the evidence that suits their pre-conceptions.

Fourth, I pray that we have learnt from this process, that there might be some issues we face as a church where there is not necessarily a right or wrong, correct or incorrect, black or white answer. It would therefore serve us well if we were to heed the advice from one of our pioneers, James White, who in the 1860s said “All means which, according to sound judgement, will advance the cause of truth, and are not forbidden by plain scripture declarations, should be employed.”


Alvin Masarira PhD, is originally from Zimbabwe and is a Senior Structural Engineer for a global mining company based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since attending the 1995 General Conference Session in Utrecht, he has been an active participant in the conversations within the world-wide Adventist church on the ordination of female pastors and elders. He has also completed the Global Partnerships “Tent Makers” training on cross-cultural ministry at the Institute of World Missions, Andrews University (USA) and currently serves as an ordained elder in his local Adventist congregation in South Africa.

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