This piece is part of a series providing varying perspectives on the parameters of ordination.
With deepest sincerity a first-century Jewish man could pray: “Thank you God that I was not born a Gentile, thank you God that I was not born a slave, thank you God that I was not born a woman.” While explanations of precisely what this prayer may mean vary, it’s clear that for much of history it was, indeed, “a man’s world”.
In the new community there are no restrictions on who may receive the gift of being pastor, coach and nurturer.
But, as with so many other things, the life of Jesus turned the “man’s world” concept on its head. God began this revolutionary process by choosing a young teenage woman with resilience and raw courage. And through her, the entire world was blessed. Mary was unique in human history, not only because she was the only human ever to physically carry God, but because she was entrusted with being Jesus’ teacher, His instructor. She had parental authority over Him and she was primarily responsible for raising Him into a Man.
God came in human form in Jesus to save us and because He had a vision of a new community of people overwhelmed by His grace. A new community reaching into every corner of the planet with good news. A new community where artificial barriers and walls of distinction are gone. A new community described by Paul: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. Therefore, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-29, NRSV). In the new community God launched, His sons and daughters did, and still do, prophesy (Acts 2:17) and the walls of discrimination started to come down (Ephesians 2:14).
But how would God nurture this new community? How would He empower its members to do business for Him? He nurtured His people Israel through a line of hereditary male priests. Some of them made Him proud, but many of them did not. There must be a new and better way.
Instead of focusing leadership gifts on the hereditary line of male inheritance, God gifted every last member of this new community. He flooded it with the power and energy of the Spirit, and told every member they were crucial to the mission of this new Christian church community, exercising their gifts of teaching, healing, encouraging, evangelising, giving, hospitality and others. To any still locked into the old hereditary way of thinking about priestly leadership, God also expressed His gift idea another way: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). If you want to think “priest” that’s fine, said God, but just know that every last Christian is a priest.
Now God needed a way to encourage all His gifted people. So He poured out into His church the gift of coaching and nurture. He called it pastoring (Ephesians 4:11). This gift works best when people express it in a full-time way. It’s no more important than the others. People who have this gift are not more holy or more valuable to God. But when they are willing and able to put their full-time energy into using it, God’s kingdom advances mightily.
In the new community there are no restrictions on who may receive the gift of being pastor, coach and nurturer. The biggest threat to the new community early on was that people were tempted to think that the old barriers of race, social standing and gender were still there. But God would have none of that. Paul almost weeps with passion as he insists to the Galatians and to us, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”.
The passage so often relied upon to support male only leadership and thus ordination (1 Timothy 3:1-2) is simply explaining that when elders are chosen, they are not to be polygamists. It is not intended to exclude single men, widowers or women from being elders. If this text precluded single people from leadership, then Paul’s later statement that he would prefer others remain single like himself (1 Corinthians 7:7-8) would not only be an admission that he was not fit for church leadership but would be a call for others to make themselves unfit as well. Clearly this was not his intent and these texts should not be read in such an internally inconsistent manner today. Single men, widowers and women can all be pastoral leaders. Further, like many passages in the Bible that refer to all people as “men” or “mankind”, this text lays out the qualifications from a male perspective. This does not imply that it only covers men any more than do the myriads of other texts in the Bible that refer to humanity as “man” or “mankind”. Christ gifts single people, He gifts married people, He gifts women, He gifts men, He gifts people from every nation, kindred, tongue and people to serve His church in pastoral ministry.
When we Seventh-day Adventist communities affirm and empower women and men in pastoral ministry, it is among the most profoundly right things that we do. For in so doing we remind everyone in the congregation how valuable they are to God. We remind them that God has gifted them all—that there are no second-class citizens in the new community He is building. We celebrate and acknowledge the fact that another of God’s gifted ones is willing to put full time and full energy into her or his particular task, which is to be coach, nurturer and encourager—pastor of all of God’s gifted people.
Lyell Heise is director of the Institute of Worship and lectures at Avondale College of Higher Education.