A brief introduction to the divide between essentialist and constructionist thought,
with reference to the question of women’s ordination
Many of us look on with a degree of curiosity, scratching our heads and wondering why some are so bent on placing women into male roles. The role of an ordained minister appointed to the position of primary spiritual leadership in a congregation is defined in the Bible as a male-only role (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:1-3; 1 Timothy 2:13, 14; 3:2; Titus 1:9). In the actions of some advocates of women’s ordination (WO) we have sensed a relentlessness, an almost life or death mission to change the practice of the Church. One division president favoring WO even said in an article in the Adventist Review that he was willing to die for women’s ordination. Some are partaking of some strong soup. We wonder if possibly something is up.
Make no mistake. Something is up.
When it comes to male and female roles, things boil down to two basic approaches: the essentialist position, and the constructivist.
The essentialist believes that there is something deeply significant in God’s having formed humans as male and female (Genesis 1:26-28; 1 Corinthians 11:8, 9; 1 Timothy 2:12, 13). There is a built into the creation-ness to it, an imprint from God our Designer. There is a signature from its Author woven into the very fabric of the world, an inescapable, non-optional, creational fact that goes “down” as far as reality goes.
Humanity at its most fundamental level is binary. God created us male and female, and there is in maleness that which speaks to us of God in a way femaleness does not. Likewise, in femaleness there is that which speaks to us of God in a way that maleness does not. A rounded picture of what God is like is not to be gained by blending or blurring the sexes, but by letting each biological sex stand distinct. The paintings, as painted by the Painter, represent the Painter. The Bible uses both masculine and feminine models to represent particular aspects of the Divine. Yet while fatherhood portrays something of particular divine attributes, God never calls women to portray fatherhood. A female cannot portray fatherhood any more than a male can portray motherhood.
God made us this way and He intended that we bear a particular sexual template. Fundamentally, you are male or female. You were born into a particular biological sex, and that fact is inescapably and permanently an aspect of what one is. Most readers will immediately understand this position as that of Genesis chapters one and two.
In fact, this is what is called a complimentary view of the two biological sexes. God designed the two sexes to teach us about His image. In deep essential ways, the two biological sexes, male and female, are part of a whole representation sent from God to His creatures. But if maleness and femaleness are actually interchangeable and non-essential to human personhood, or, if they may be mashed-up and mixed together according to human whimsy, the two sexes would not be complimentary and there would be no basic, essential male representation of God’s image nor any basic, essential female representation of it. The creation would be left without the Genesis one and two image of its Creator.
In contrast to the essentialist/complementary position, there is an opposite approach called the constructionist position. The idea in this line is that humans construct themselves. Reality is “created” by humans interacting with other humans. In their social interaction humans themselves define what reality is; they construct it. God is no part of the equation. Rather, there is no God and since He does not actually exist, there is no image for humans to reflect. Let’s review a few references on this from the horse’s own mouth that can help clarify.
One of the written works that helped popularize this view was the 1966 book by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann titled, The Social Construction of Reality. Berger and Luckmann write, “I encounter language as a facticity external to myself and it is coercive in its effect on me. Language forces me into its patterns” (p. 38). And
Language now constructs immense edifices of symbolic representations that appear to tower over the reality of everyday life like gigantic presences from another world. Religion, philosophy, art, and science are the historically most important symbol systems of this kind (p. 40).
Language is said to be constructed by humans into symbol systems. These merely-human constructions however are said to take on an enormous power. In effect, they shape what we perceive reality to be. Then, if people don’t like these allegedly humanly-created symbol systems, they must find ways to change them. But notice also that in this view, reality is changeable. People make reality and people can unmake or remake it. There would thus be any number of possible templates for reality. And so, if one template is determined to be outdated, the same “creator” of that reality, humanity itself through social processes, can and even should remake it. Reality can be reconstituted into the newly preferred way while the outdated template is discarded.
Berger and Luckmann, while certainly wrong in some respects, yet recognize something of the significant role played by language in our understanding of the world. They recognize that Science and religion are among the most powerful institutions shaping human thought.
Institutions by the very fact of their existence, control human conduct by setting up predefined patterns of conduct, which channel it in one direction as against many other directions that would theoretically be possible (p. 55).
These institutions promote particular human roles. But all roles are not equal. According to Berger and Luckmann, “Some roles. . . symbolically represent [an institutional] order in its totality more than others” (p. 76). Indeed, “. . .roles that symbolically represent the total institutional order have been most commonly located in political and religious institutions” (Ibid.). That is, certain institutions shape human thought on the broad scale more than do others. Some are more important than others in this function. Berger and Luckmann affirm religion as one of the most important.
Only performed roles equal reality transformation
Now watch this idea taken to the next step. These authors also propose that “the institutional order is real only insofar as it is realized in performed roles” (Ibid., emphasis in original). In other words, the language that people use shapes the way reality is understood. Certain institutions especially shape this collective sense of what reality is. The Church is one of these primary institutions. To reshape how people think about certain human roles, leaders in those key institutions must be encouraged to place into those roles the very persons best able to reshape how those roles are perceived.
Remember, the idea is that reality is constructed by people. That is, biological sexual reality is not essential; it is not a fixed fact separate of our volition and created by God. Reality, so they say, is shaped, particularly so by people in institutions; reality is constructed by people.
We’ll add more on this in part two, but let’s pause long enough to permit some of the implications to begin to set in. Remember, we are exploring the question of whether maleness and femaleness is part and parcel of human essence, objectively designed-into the creation by God, embedded and imprinted as reality according to His sovereign wisdom and determination, or, whether human sexuality is fundamentally only humanly constructed.
Is my sense of what sex I am just a choice similar to my determination of which salsa I prefer? Maybe this week I want “California Pico de Gallo mild,” but next week I’ll want “Blazing Gringo Hot Habanero”? That is, is human sexuality divinely designed and essentially fixed in place, or, is human sexual identity self-chosen, self-constructed, shifting, variable, and blurry?
The implications are not difficult to grasp. If personal identity is fundamentally and irrevocably shaped by our birth-sex, then in a revelation purposed by God to reveal to us that which sin-distorted nature and human reason cannot adequately reveal, the Creator would reveal to us in some clear manner the enduring and essential aspects of human sexuality. But, if God is actually not God, but just humanity creating itself while trapped inside its own sealed echo-chamber, and if the determination of our human sexual identity is best understood as being an entirely humanly-based affair, we would not look for fixed, definite roles. Roles in general would be interchangeable.
In the first case, the Bible would be expected to present for those who believe in a personal Creator distinct, designed roles. In the second, such representations would be merely the biased, culturally-conditioned preferences of ancient writers, subject to later “improvements” and “advances” in human understanding illuminating human culture. Then there would be no reason not to open the doors wide for any person that contemporary culture deems should act in such a role.
Further, should one come to understand that reality is only the result of human constructions, then there is no God, and there is no moral wrong involved in trying to change other people’s perception of reality. Then why leave behind your fellow friends in the Christian denomination you belong to? Rather, as one having embraced a more correct understanding, such a person might perceive it as being their duty to continue to claim membership in the deluded group all while working behind the scenes to bring that group along to a more correct understanding.
Then one might work toward the goal of reconstructing the group’s view of reality yet proceeding outwardly by working only within the range of opinions acceptable to that group. If naked constructionism is an unacceptable viewpoint, one might employ arguments that achieve the same goal but which are considered as falling within the range of accepted belief within the system. In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, this would mean framing the arguments in terms of “the Bible supports the ordination of women,” no matter how unconvincing the arguments brought forth.
The above could be the case for some Adventist advocates of women’s ordination. However, it seems more likely that many Adventists advocating WO simply have yet to grasp the more extended ramifications the Church’s ultimate acceptance of their biblical interpretations supporting the new practice would bring in the long term.
In any case, women’s ordination, by changing our expectations about human roles, is the gateway out from Genesis to worlds unknown.
NEXT: Part two will further develop how human constructionism employs the use of language in attempt to remake the world in support of a new view. We’ll look further into this with special reference to the essentialist/complementary view versus the constructionist view.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Larry Kirkpatrick has served congregations across the American West, and is presently pastor of the Deer Park and Chewelah Seventh-day Adventist churches near Spokane, Washington.