Gamaliel’s test


This piece is part of a series providing varying perspectives on the parameters of ordination.

Some years ago I attended a higher education conference in Montreal, Canada. While there, I went to an English-speaking church in the eastern part of the city. There were about 500 people present that Sabbath, all but a handful of whom were West Indians. A baptism took place at the beginning of the divine service. A tall young woman in colourful costume took an animated part in the proceedings. She made the pastor’s contribution look two-dimensional by comparison. If I were to decide my position on women’s ordination by this experience alone I would have no hesitation in supporting it. Here was a talented young woman exercising her spiritual gifts in a most effective way.

Unintended consequences are still consequences.

Yet, when I come to this issue in Scripture, I am compelled to take a different position. A thorough comparison and weighing of the scriptural evidence reveals the principle of male headship in the home and the church, nowhere taught more clearly than in 1 Timothy 3. For those who think that it is an injustice to deny women ordination to gospel ministry, it is pause for reflection that this chapter also excludes many men. Additionally, there are many men who exercise significant spiritual gifts who are not called or ordained to gospel ministry. We do not consider this to be an injustice to them. 

As Stephen Bohr reminds us in his recent book, Reflections on Women’s Ordination1, Korah’s rebellion sought to overturn the role distinctions that God had established in relation to priests and Levites, bringing terrible division to the Israelite camp. For Bohr, the issue is not ministry, equality or ability, but calling. God designated who were to be priests and showed in His unforgettable response to the rebellion that the divinely established roles of priest and Levite were to be maintained and respected. Thus, we can conclude that women may be of equal value with men in God’s sight and be in possession of significant spiritual gifts but still subject to God’s chosen role distinctions when it comes to ordination to gospel ministry. Absence of ordination does not equate to absence of ministry opportunities, as my experience of that Sabbath in Montreal attests.

Despite the evidence that God is particular in relation to the role distinctions He has established, and despite the clear scriptural teaching of male headship in the home and church, a vocal minority in Adventism would have us believe that women’s ordination is essential to the health of the Church and to the completion of its mission. I do not doubt the sincerity of those who take this position but the evidence of recent history is not favourable to it. Gamaliel’s test2 was to let experience inform the Jewish leadership about God’s support or non-support of Peter and the other apostles. We now have the evidence to apply Gamaliel’s test to the likely outcome of the ordination of women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Liberal Presbyterians began ordaining women in 1956. The Presbyterian Church in the United States has halved its membership from 4 million in 1968 to around 2 million today and its percentage of the population has been reduced by two-thirds. The United Methodists also began ordaining women to ministry in 1956. Its US membership has declined every year since 1968, from around 11 million to 7.8 million, a decline from
5 per cent of the population to 2.5 per cent. The Episcopal Church began ordaining female priests in 1974. Its American membership has declined from about 3.2 million to 1.95 million today3. While it’s possible that other factors may be involved in the declines, it’s also clear that the ordination of women has not led to greater growth or relevance for these churches. Embracing female headship has also given homosexuality a foot in the door. Unintended consequences are still consequences. 

The campaign for women’s ordination within our ranks threatens Adventism as a biblical religion and a world Church. Women’s ordination presents us with mutually exclusive options. It has never been more important to choose well.  

1. Bohr, S.
Reflections on Women’s Ordination, Secrets Unsealed, Fresno, 2012, p 36-42.

2. Acts 5:27-42.

3. All figures drawn from, The Adventist Arab Spring, p 9-10.

Dr Barry Harker has extensive experience in teaching, educational administration and staff development. He has a PhD in philosophy of education and has authored three books. Currently, he combines part-time teaching with his role as lay pastor of the Maleny congregation in the South Queensland Conference.