I am admittedly surprised to hear over and over again that the current conversation and study the Seventh-day Adventist Church is having regarding the theology of ordination, generally, and of the ordination of women to pastoral ministry, specifically, is a “distraction” or even a “deception” of the enemy.
Prayerful Bible study in the context of a respectful, if vigorous, dialogue is a good thing. A very good thing. It should be affirmed in the strongest possible language.
I am disappointed to see that many of those with the strongest and most strident opinions about this subject are often not in possession of the basic facts surrounding the current study and dialogue.
Though this may sound hard to believe, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has never really had a properly articulated and systematized theology of ordination. Though formed all the way back in 1863, it wasn’t until 2013/14, with the convening of TOSC (Theology of Ordination Study Committee), that the church formally and officially addressed the subject of the theology of ordination (I encourage you to go there, read up, and poke around a bit. Familiarize yourself with the process and some of the papers.)
It was, in large degree, the ongoing conversation and controversy about the specific issue of the ordination of women that brought the larger issue of the glaring absence of a well-studied and well-defined theology of ordination into focus. So in that sense, the agitation of the subject of women’s ordination has been a blessing in disguise, as it’s forced us all to go back to Scripture and study.
This commitment to Bible study is at the very heart of what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist. It is in our historic DNA to study, pray, wrestle, dialogue, and even, yes, debate. Some of the issues that have historically sent us to our knees and to our Bibles are things like: the starting time for the Sabbath, clean and unclean meat distinctions, Revelation’s trumpets and various other prophetic details and identities, the humanity of Christ, revelation and inspiration, the Shut Door, evangelistic contextualization, and more.
And believe me, at times tensions were every bit as high, or higher, with some of those issues as with the current conversation about ordination.
But it goes back even further. Acts 15 tells the story of the apostolic church wrestling with the thorny and seemingly-impossible-to-navigate issue of the expansion of a thoroughly “Jewish” message—the gospel of Jesus Christ!—into the various Gentile contexts of the day. The epicenter of the debate was circumcision, which was both a theological and methodological issue. Don’t underestimate how tense this was or how polarized the perspectives were. Things looked grim.
But the Holy Spirit prevailed! (See Acts 15:22, 28) The church was slow to fully implement and appreciate the changes that were initiated and instituted that day. It was a process. Today, we look back and it all seems so simple, so clear. But to those back then, it was anything but.
As an almost unbelievable case in point, consider Peter. It was he who had received the three-fold vision and admonition to “rise, Peter; kill, and eat.” It was he himself who confessed in the presence of Cornelius and his assembly, “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean… In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:28, 34). It was he who argued vigorously against the necessity of circumcision for Gentile converts (Acts 15:7-11). And, astoundingly, it was also he who refused to sit with the Gentiles when James and his company arrived in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-21).
Yikes! So, yeah, let that sink in.
I hear the worried warnings of those who think this issue will split the church and even that it constitutes the beginning of the shaking.
I say, No way!
The word “ordination” doesn’t even appear in our 28 Fundamental Beliefs. The pillars will remain firm, no matter which way the church goes on this issue. Saturday will still be the Sabbath. Death will still be a sleep-like state. The high-priestly ministry of Jesus Christ in the sanctuary above will continue unabated.
Whether or not you’re willing to admit it, the facts are that there are wonderful, godly, committed, converted, biblically-literate, reputable, and brilliant Seventh-day Adventists that see this issue of ordination differently.
Don’t believe the hype. The church will endure this. More than this, I am convinced that the church will be better off because of this study and conversation. Not everything in Scripture is simple and easy. There are difficult passages and difficult applications. Wrestling with the text is an essential and necessary part of being the remnant.
And the answers aren’t always as neat and tidy as we’d like them to be.
Whether or not you’re willing to admit it, the facts are that there are wonderful, godly, committed, converted, biblically-literate, reputable, and brilliant Seventh-day Adventists that see this issue of ordination differently. And here’s a crucial point to grasp: both “sides” base their case on Scripture. You may not like this. But the facts are what the facts are.
I like to say it this way. If TOSC has taught us anything—and surely it has!—it is this: clearly, this issue is not as clear as some would lead us to believe.
The fact is that in TOSC more than 100 people met for hundreds of hours over a two-year period to pray, study, listen, and dialogue and when it was done one-third felt this way, one-third felt that way, and another one-third felt another way. (Note: it wasn’t exactly divided between three groups of one-third. I’m using this as an approximation to make the simple point that there wasn’t a resounding consensus. Though there was, I am told, a majority who saw the issue in a particular way.)
Now, again, you may not like the outcome. I’m sorry that the facts don’t always fit so nicely into our preconceived categories of reality. It looks like we may just have to tolerate those who differ with us. And maybe that’s the best thing to come from the debate. Maybe, in fact, that is precisely what we need in order to really be like Jesus.
Actually, we need to do more than tolerate them. We need to celebrate. Freedom is essential to the Gospel. We should celebrate the right that we all have to be “fully convinced in [our own] mind” (Romans 14:5), particularly regarding issues that aren’t viewed unanimously and which don’t possess that written-with-the-finger-of-God-on-tablets-of-stone-clarity we all prefer. Paul called these issues “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1, NIV).
And women’s ordination may well fit snugly into this category, as there is no guarantee that continued study will produce consensus.
We should celebrate the right that we all have to be “fully convinced in [our own] mind”
You may be tempted, like some clearly are, to demonize, disparage, or diminish those who are on the other side of the aisle. You would do so at your own peril. Rather, you should esteem them, their sincerity, and their commitment to Scripture and the church to be greater and better than your own (Philippians 2:3). In fact, it is your Christian responsibility and privilege to do so.
My good friend, and esteemed Light Bearers colleague, James Rafferty was a member of TOSC. Knowing that men and women of James’s caliber were on that study committee gave me confidence in the process. I had many other friends who were also members, but let me dwell, in closing, on James.
I have known James for many years and have had the privilege of working alongside him as a co-director (also with Ty Gibson) at Light Bearers for three years. The guy is a true Christian, a man of integrity, and a friend. Just this year, at the annual Light Bearers convocation, we stood side-by-side in the rushing and refreshing waters of Oregon’s Willamette River and baptized soul after soul in the name of the Father, the Son—Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. It was a glorious and beautiful occasion which heaven, no doubt, took supreme interest in.
When James left for the first TOSC session, we disagreed on the finer details of the issue of the ordination of women. But this never, for a moment, caused us to question the other’s sincerity or commitment to Scripture, the church, or Jesus Christ.
It never even crossed our minds.
And it shouldn’t cross yours either.
So here’s my advice on how you should relate to this issue and to the conversation surrounding it. I hope you’ll take these suggestions to heart.
- Pray for the church. Pray that God will continue to guide us to unity of purpose, identity, and spirit.
- Resist the temptation to demonize or disparage those with whom you disagree. Claim the promise of Philippians 2:3. Pray this prayer: “God, you urge me to esteem others better than myself. Since your biddings are enablings, I’m asking you to empower me to do this. Give me confidence in the sincerity and commitment of others. Knowing that ‘love believes all things and hopes all things’ (1Corinthians 13:7), help me to believe the best about those who see this issue differently than me.”
- Don’t think of this situation as a “distraction,” but as an opportunity to study, pray, and learn from others. Bible study is not a “distraction,” plain and simple. It’s an essential part of being the remnant in the modern age. We are called to wrestle! Don’t whine about it. Accept it.
- Don’t promote a political or fear-mongering perspective. Though it may not move as fast as some of us would like, the church is addressing this issue in a careful, responsible, and systematic way. Trust the system. Trust the church. Remember, you are the church! And, most importantly, trust that Jesus Christ has not taken leave of the throne of the universe nor of the supervision of His church. Recall His promise: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [the church]” (Matthew 16:18). The process may be slow and seemingly laborious, but remember this is a global community of faith with a representative system of government. Sometimes, slow is good. Trust. Wait. And, again, pray.
- Keep the big picture in mind and heart. Purpose in your heart that no matter which way this issue goes organizationally, that you will remain committed to God’s end-time church that has been prophetically anticipated (Revelation 10-12) and called to preach His end-time message (Revelation 14:6-12) in its proper and beautiful gospel context of the covenantal faithfulness of God manifested in the righteousness of Christ. Jesus is coming soon!