One year ago the Church met in San Antonio (US) to review its activities and plan for the future. There were many reasons to be delighted. God was moving among His people. Reports from around the globe were inspiring. Just seeing people from every nation and tribe, gathered in His name, was a beautiful sight.
Sadly, the vote on ordination took a knife through that historic gathering, dividing women and men, Latin Americans and Africans, old and young, lay people and professional clergy.
He made man and woman to be equal, honouring each other and honouring God.
In preparation for the vote, the world Church engaged in two years of comprehensive study on the topic of ordination, and then, the ordination of women. The results of this prayerful and deeply serious discussion were published in a report by the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC). The results were inconclusive. Some of our most senior, conservative scholars favoured ordination. Some did not. Some senior church leaders supported opening ordination to women, should a world field believe God was moving in that direction. Others did not. There were godly men and women on both sides of the discussion, and no consensus was reached. There was, however, a very clear majority in this committee who supported allowing each division to make its own decision on the issue.
This is in keeping with Ellen White’s counsel. Specifically, she states: “The division of the General Conference into district union conferences was God’s arrangement. In the work of the Lord in these last days there should be no Jerusalem centres, no kingly power. And the work in the different countries is not to be tied up by contracts to the work centring in [the General Conference], for this is not God’s plan. Brethren are to counsel together; for we are just as much under the control of God in one part of His vineyard as in another” (General Conference Bulletin, April 10, 1903).
Regrettably, the TOSC report was set aside by General Conference leaders at last year’s session and a popular vote was taken on the issue. As a consequence, this vote now requires everyone to abide by just one of the positions proposed, irrespective of whether their conscience believes it to be right or wrong. The questions I’m left with are: Has the position taken by the Church been the right one? What does the Bible say about the treatment of women and gender equality? Is it even an issue for God?
Genesis 1:26 states: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” From the beginning God gave rulership equally to man and woman. There was no discrimination.
Genesis 2 goes on to provide some role definition but does not subordinate one to the other. It speaks of a partnership. Old Testament scholar Jirí Moskala notes the following: “The Hebrew phrase ‘ezer kedegdo literally translated is “help as opposite to him” or “help as corresponding to him”, meaning that they are equal partners in life, even though they are sexually different (the biblical Creation text stresses the sexuality of both of them). Thus, even though they have different physical functions, there is no subordinate or superordinate hierarchical status in their relationship.”1 They are different but equal.
In Genesis 3 we find the consequences of the fall and its effect on human relationships. Humans and nature are no longer in harmony. Death begins. And women become subjugated to men.2 None of these are God’s intentions. They are the awful results of sin. God never wanted anyone or anything to die. He wanted humanity and nature to live in harmony. He made man and woman to be equal, honouring each other and honouring God.
Which brings us to the purpose of Christ coming to our earth. Yes, of course His primary mission was to bring redemption. But He also came to bring restoration. It’s not without consequence that He announced His public ministry proclaiming from Isaiah, “[I’ve come] to set the oppressed free.” Pentecost was a new beginning for God’s people. We see the Holy Spirit given to all present in the upper room, some 120 persons, both men and women.3 We see the gospel preached to the representatives of nations visiting Jerusalem at that time. We see the crippled and sick healed. It was the beginning of restoring Eden’s values. This finds its natural end point in Galatians 3:26-29 when Paul says there is “neither male nor female” in Christ, and in His church, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. The New Testament keeps pointing us back to the values that God embedded at Creation.
As Christians, and particularly as Seventh-day Adventist Christians, we are on a journey with Jesus towards the Eden ideals. That is why we eat the Eden diet. It’s why we rest on the day created for rest in Eden. It’s why we believe in marriage. It’s why we work for harmony between nature and humanity. And, yes, it’s no coincidence that God chose a woman to lead His end-time Church to remind us that in Eden, men and women were equal. And we should strive for the same level of mutual respect today.
On all these issues we have a choice. We can choose to take a sin-shaped position or a cross-shaped one. We can choose to adopt values from the times of the Patriarchs or those from Pentecost.
The trajectory of Scripture is quite clear. It begins with Creation, moves to the fall of man, reaches the cross of Christ and redemption from sin, moves out to the restoration of the values of God for His church, His people, and awaits the second coming of Christ and re-creation. This is the biblical narrative. This is the direction of Scripture. And yet when I consider the decision made at San Antonio I see a Church that was not willing to be restorative, to put back the creation order of relationships between women and men. Instead I see a Church that chose to uphold the effects of sin on human relationships. By so doing we failed to continue the work of restoration that Jesus began and ignored the foundation of Adventist theology. Like the children of Israel who refused to cross the Jordan, we lived under the fear of the sin narrative, not the freedom of the salvation narrative.
Genesis 1:26 describes God’s order for mankind: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
As followers of Christ on the journey of restoration to the new creation, we should aim to emulate Eden, not be slaves to the effects of the fall.
1. Jirí Moskala, Back to Creation: Toward a Consistent Adventist Creation—Fall—Re-Creation Hermeneutic (Biblical-Theological Reflections on Basic Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics Applied to the Ordination of Women). A paper presented to the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, 2013.
2. Genesis 3:16.
3. See Acts 1:12-14. Also Acts 2:1 refers to this same group being together the night the Holy Spirit was given. Here is a fulfilment of 2:28, 29.”Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”
Dr Brad Kemp is president of the New Zealand Pacific Union Conference.