Theology of Ordination (TOSC) committee member David Read discusses the question, Does culture drive biblical interpretation, in relation to the question of women’s ordination. Considering first the broader culture, then the Adventist subculture, Read also discusses WO in connection with the immediately following issue—homosexuality and the church.
After some 18 months of work, the 106 member Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) concluded deliberations with a June 2-4, 2014 meeting. The TOSC study group was appointed as a result of the 2010 Atlanta General Conference session request made by the North American Division (NAD) that the Church consider women’s ordination yet again. It is now possible to look more broadly at what TOSC (not an NAD but a General Conference committee), has revealed.
Key outcomes from the 2013-2014 TOSC process now concluded include:
- The committee agreed that the Seventh-day Adventist practice of ordination was valid (some had urged the practice was unbiblical).
- The committee agreed that women should be involved in ministry. This was never in dispute although some favoring women’s ordination (WO) had suggested it was.
- As meetings progressed it became apparent some supporters of WO were proposing the use of methods that seriously diverged from the longstanding Seventh-day Adventist use of the historical-grammatical approach to biblical interpretation. Advocates of WO unveiled an “adaptation” of the historical-grammatical method and a “major” (2013 NAD Report, p. 24) plan for biblical interpretation they called the “principle-based, historical-cultural” (PBHC) method. This approach they placed on a continuum between the historical-critical and historical-grammatical methods! (Ibid., p. 8). This modification in approach, they said, was “required” in order to address certain “difficult passages” (Ibid., p. 31). Fortuitously for those favoring WO, the use of the PBHC method eliminated from the Bible “conclusive evidence prohibiting the ordination of women” (Ibid., p. 25). The NAD study committee report here quoted from, far from supporting the historical-grammatical method as claimed (Ibid., pp. 7, 8, 14-20) actually treated the 1986 “Methods of Bible Study” document advocating it selectively at best, even criticizing it (Ibid., pp. 23-25).
- Several biblical passages touching the question of Headship were studied in TOSC. Although the committee as a whole was divided, many found the exploration of the Scriptures on this point stimulating and useful.
The spirit of the meetings remained positive, but TOSC closed with no consensus. Participants remained sharply divided over women’s ordination.
The results of the TOSC process will in due course be made available in its final report, which includes the positions and recommendations suggested by groups in the committee. This material will be forwarded to General Conference ADCOM (Administrative committee) this month. At Annual Council this October the General Conference will review TOSC’s advisory recommendations and determine how the women’s ordination question will be processed at the 2015 General Conference session in San Antonio, Texas, USA.
In the concluding meeting, a third distinct group developed. This group felt it necessary to concede that the Church should let each division decide the women’s ordination question for itself. While holding that the office of the ordained minister should ideally be carried out by males, this group’s overarching stated concern was unity. And so, as God permitted Israel to choose for itself a king against His will, the Church should let each division decide the women’s ordination question for itself—even if the decision to ordain women was wrong.
A straw poll was taken on the last day of the meeting. Thirty-two persons voted for the biblical-qualifications (anti-women’s ordination) position. Forty committee members favored women’s ordination. And 22 persons voted for the let-each-division-decide-independently option. Imagine! Here we stand on the very borders of the heavenly Canaan, and the best we can do is agree to disagree?
The straw poll seemed to show that the participating majority of the committee would approve of having each division decide the matter of women’s ordination for itself—yet this was not so. In fact, the “Biblical qualifications” (anti-WO) and the “A proposal for an accord on Women in Ministry” (pro-women’s ordination) positions were very firm. Thus, the majority of the 95 polls returned (73) were NOT interested in the compromise position as their first option. (But as many as 12 who favored women’s ordination could have included the compromise position as their second option). But the straw poll also showed (32 + 22) that more than half of those participating understood male headship/leadership to be the biblical position. The compromise position garnered 22 responses as first choice, yet of those 22 almost as many, 19, were willing to accept another option. Thus, the compromise position lacked deep commitment. In contrast to these, zero of the 32 participants marking the “biblical qualifications” (anti-WO) position were willing to mark either alternative as second choice, while two did have a distant third option they preferred to the other. And so, a more nuanced look at the poll results shows that rather than being fluid, the positions are rather firmly locked.
Some favoring women’s ordination will overstate the significance of the straw poll results, but in actuality, there is little in the TOSC process for them to rejoice in. TOSC has revealed the most fundamental point in the whole matter. Namely, that should the world church adopt women’s ordination, it will have to change its approach to biblical interpretation in order to lend support for the new practice. It is no news that some are ready to change how we interpret the Bible in order to prevent “division” of the church. Yet the facts remain: the church is divided as never before.
TOSC has not created the divide. It has only more clearly revealed it.
Everything turns on the Adventist approach to biblical interpretation. Encouraging each division to act unilaterally on women’s ordination would set the precedent that in future, every division would decide on same-sex marriage or any other overly controversial matter. In essence, this course of action would mean abandoning global coherence as a church body. We would become a gaggle of disagreeing units each doing what was locally felt to be the right. Can a church thrive or even persist in existence when it values unity even at the sacrifice of God’s ideal, more than that unity founded on the authority of “the Scripture of truth”? Another denomination might survive that approach for a time; the Seventh-day Adventist Church would not.
TOSC could not have been more successful in revealing that the Church now stands at a monumental crossroads in biblical interpretation. Whatever is decided in San Antonio, it will be impossible to turn back.
By Many Hands
Nothing is standing still. The Council of Adventist Pastors continues to observe developments in other communities of faith. One such is the Methodist church. The United Methodist Church (UMC) is experiencing a historic meltdown right now. As you read these words a significant number of North American Methodist Conferences are in one way or another refusing to support the agreed discipline of that denomination with reference to homosexuality.
The Methodist Church states its position on human sexuality thus:
“The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (Book of Discipline, p. 126). This statement and three similar, have been subject to relentless attack within the UMC by their homosexual lobby. Yet at each General Conference session the Church has continued to uphold this biblical statement.
Methodism began in the mid-1700s and shares a variety of similarities with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Ordination of women pastors has been the policy since 1956. Today—predictably—the issue in the Methodist Church is over homosexuality.
On March 10, 2014, the New York Annual Conference, Methodist Church dismissed the case of a retired Methodist minister who officiated at a “wedding” between his son and and another male (see http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/new-york-conference-court-dismisses-ogletree-case, accessed 2014-03-11). In response, UMC pastor Rob Renfroe offered the following editorial comments on the website of Good News ministry:
The truth is we may not be able to live together as one church. The truth is if our bishops do not act swiftly and decisively to uphold our process of holy conferencing and enforce our Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church will be lost. God’s church will continue and the Gospel will go forth, but we will have squandered the beauty and the power of Wesleyan Christianity as embodied by the UM Church.
Knowing that they will not be able to change our official UM positions regarding human sexuality and marriage at the next General Conference, progressives have begun a campaign of disobedience and are now publicly performing services of holy union for homosexual couples. How our bishops respond will determine if this defiance is the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end (http://goodnewsmag.org/2014/02/editorial-methodisms-late-hour/#sthash.QyXRhbsO.dpuf).
According to Renfroe,
Since 1972, the UM Church has waited in vain for our bishops—our shepherds who are charged with defending and promoting our doctrines—to create statements, resources and teaching materials that explain and promote our balanced position that all persons possess sacred worth but not all sexual practices are compatible with Christian teaching. Perhaps if the Council had fulfilled its responsibility at some point in the past forty years, we would not be in the confused and divided place we now find ourselves (Ibid.).
There are lessons here for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Methodists did not hold their appointed leadership accountable. They trusted without verifying. Today that church is in the throes of an amazing conflict. Adventists have opportunity to learn from Methodist mistakes. Here, our General Conference president Ted N.C. Wilson in his 2010 inaugural message offers a good plan:
Seventh-day Adventist Church members, hold your leaders, pastors, local churches, educators, institutions, and administrative organizations accountable to the highest standards of belief based on a literal understanding of Scripture.
If we unite on the authority of the Bible and the Historical-grammatical method of interpretation highlighted in the 1986 Annual Council Methods of Bible Study Document, we can find unity. Those Methodists who compose the homosexual lobby within that denomination are running far afield of the Historical-grammatical method. For example, William M. Kent, a member of the United Methodist Committee to Study Homosexuality, stated
. . . the scriptural texts in the Old and New Testaments condemning homosexual practice are neither inspired by God nor otherwise of enduring Christian value. Considered in the light of the best biblical, theological, scientific, and social knowledge, the biblical condemnation of homosexual practice is better understood as representing time and place bound cultural prejudice (William M. Kent, op. cit. by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Homosexuality in Theological Perspective,” part two, http://www.christianpost.com/news/homosexuality-in-theological-perspective-part-two-6458/, accessed 2014-03-12).
In Kent’s view the plain reading of Scripture is rendered non-authoritative while the group-think of current culture is determinative. “Best” is determined based not on what the Bible says but on what “we” think. This is the road to oblivion and dissolution. In a similar but more subtle manner, the pro-women’s ordination lobby in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is engaged in creative ways of discarding texts which stand in the way of their preferred approach. As one such Adventist recently wrote on another website, “Can someone explain why the opinions of Paul of Tarsus, an individual living roughly 2000 years ago in a totally different culture and social system, should be considered as authoritative concerning what a small Protestant Christian faith community functioning in the 21st Century should do or not do with regard to whether women should be ordained? Please enlighten me.”
The Methodist Church is crashing on the homosexuality issue. As a random sample, of 20 stories on the United Methodist News Service website on March 25, 2014 the headlines or summaries mentioned gays, homosexuality, same-sex, wedding (referring to homosexual unions), 10 times.
While it is amazing to see what is transpiring in Methodism’s late hour, what some are engaged in in Adventism is equally alarming. Let us hold our leaders, pastors, local churches, educators, institutions, and administrative organizations accountable. Let us reaffirm our commitment to sound biblical interpretation which will very largely prevent the problems other groups are facing and aid us in keeping focused on our mission of sharing Jesus’ third Angel’s Message with the world.
This presentation marks the conclusion of Pr. Mike Lambert’s six part series especially focusing on women’s ordination and church unity. In this conclusion, Lambert summarizes and focuses on the larger issues. Twelve action-steps are offered, including a call about the proposed NPUC special constituency meeting” and also about women elders. Pr. Lambert also deals with the argument that “the church crossed this theological bridge long ago and cannot now turn back.”
At the Stateline Church, near Milton-Freewater, Oregon, Pastor Mike Lambert presents part five of his six-part series on “A gender agenda.” The message addresses Deborah’s behavior in relation to headship in Judges 4, Phoebe and Junias in Romans 16, Ellen White’s “ordination” credential, and finally and very importantly, some of the urgent larger issues.