by Mike Manea
In Adventist circles, the debate over the ordination of women to gospel ministry has involved many different topics, ranging from biblical hermeneutics (interpretation,) to headship/complementarian theology, to ecclesiology (doctrine of the church,) etc. At its core, however, the issue is primarily a question of what a biblical theology of ordination is.
The Bible introduces us to the simple act of laying on of hands in passages such as Acts 13:1-3:
“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
The meaning we confer upon this rite, however, has a lot more to do with church history than with Scripture. Two distinct historical developments affect our view on the topic of ordination: Sacramentalism and Covenantalism.
Sacramentalism is a difficult concept to comprehend for those who were not raised Catholic, Orthodox, or other similar denominations. One analogy that might be helpful is to picture a ladder for the human soul. God, being perfect, is at the top of this ladder. Our souls, given we are sinful human beings, are closer to the bottom. To avoid hell or purgatory, the goal is to move the soul higher on the rungs of this ladder, and that is where the sacraments come in. Keep in mind this perspective assumes that both people and objects are composed of two parts: the physical/material that we can see and touch, and an immaterial or supernatural part that is beyond the reach of our senses.
Given the assumption that we have a soul, that this soul is corrupt, and that it needs to be elevated in order to escape hell, one remedy is the eating of the body of the Son of God (John 6:53) via the Eucharist (communion.) Through a process called transubstantiation, the immaterial layer of regular bread (the material layer does not change) is transformed into the actual body of Christ, and, when this body is eaten, it confers grace upon the soul and raises it higher up the ladder, sort of speak. Transforming regular bread into the body of Christ, however, cannot be done by just anyone; individuals who have corrupt souls that need the benefits of Christ’s body cannot themselves transform the bread into the body of Christ. To have access to Christ’s body then, some individuals must have their souls raised to a much higher level on the ladder than regular human beings, so that God can then use them in transforming the bread into Christ’s body. And, the process by which this is done is called ordination. The only people capable of ordaining other individuals are those who have themselves been ordained by previous generations, going all the way back to the apostles who were ordained by Christ Himself.
Raising the soul of the priest to a higher level on the ladder through the process of ordination, under this paradigm, creates two classes of human beings: the clergy and the laity. Through this process, the clergy is not only able to administer the Eucharist, but also the rite of baptism, confirmation, the anointing of the sick, last rites, penance, etc. Priests might look like regular human beings on the outside, but on the inside, they are an entirely different genre of human beings, according to people who imagine reality in this way.
After the Reformation, many Protestant groups began to move away from this sacramentalist paradigm, once salvation stopped being viewed as a climbing up a ladder. Adventists, however, gave the construct a final and fatal blow by rejecting dualism altogether: we don’t believe matter has a material and immaterial layer or that human beings have an immaterial soul that can be elevated through ordination.
Covenantalism is a different kind of thing than Sacramentalism but affects our concept of ordination none the less. Within the Sacramentalist paradigm, the Old Testament temple rituals were viewed as prototypes for the Sacraments. But, as Protestants began to move away from the Sacramentalist reasoning, they needed some other way to explain why God required so many rituals and sacrifices in the Old Testament but no longer requires them today. To do this, they came up with the concept of Covenantalism. Covenantalism claims that God used different modalities of salvation in the Old Testament versus the New. In the old covenant, the Jews were saved by works. They were expected to obey a long list of commands and perform unnumbered rituals and sacrifices to earn their way to heaven. In the new covenant, these things are no longer necessary as we are saved by grace.
Because covenantalists believe that the performing of the sacrifices and rituals of the old covenant had real saving value, they view the Old Testament economy as providing a meaningful model for how ministry should be done in the new covenant. Sure, those rituals themselves are no longer applicable today. But because back then they were applicable, we can learn from how they were administered.
By contrast, Adventists don’t believe that the sacrifices and rituals of the old temple had saving value. People in the Old Testament were not saved by works but by grace, just as we are. All those rituals were purely symbolic, pointing forward to Christ. The old covenant was not with individuals, towards their own salvation, but with the entire nation of Israel. God promised to bless and protect them as a nation as long as they maintained the temple and its rituals as a lesson book through which individuals (Jews and non-Jews) might learn about the gospel.
Because of the symbolic nature of the rituals, the sacrificial lamb, for example, was to be without spot or blemish, signifying the perfect life of Christ. The priests themselves were not allowed to be people with any kind of physical deformity, not because disabled people are somehow inferior, but because the office symbolized Jesus as our perfect High Priest. It is to maintain the integrity of the symbols that things were done a certain way in the Old Testament and not because God generally assigned the work of ministry to only certain classes of people.
Thus, the remnants of Sacramentalism in the Protestant psyche, have left us with the impression that ordained individuals are somehow superior or closer to God than regular individuals, while Covenantalism gave us the impression that God used only male priests in the Old Testament because that is God’s preferred method of operation rather than simply a symbol pointing forward to Christ. If that were the case, however, we would need to forbid disabled individuals from being ordained as well (Lev. 21:16-23.)
Adventists & Ordination
Given that Adventists reject both Sacramentalism and Covenantalism, what exactly does ordination mean for us? Under the Adventist theologico-philosophical paradigm, ordination means something far more practical than for other denominations. It simply means that the individuals involved have shown themselves to be trustworthy. Ordination plays a similar role for pastors as tenure does in academia or the residence program does for medical students. Ordination is a way to address the fact that it is not possible to know another human being’s true character when hiring them as pastors and some duration of time is needed before it becomes clear that they can be trusted with the responsibilities of the office and as adequate representatives of the denomination. Paul told Timothy not to be too quick to lay hands on anyone (1Tim. 5:22) and thus become a partaker of their sins. Refusing to ordain female pastors, therefore, means nothing more under the Adventist paradigm than that, even after sufficient time has passed, they still have not proven themselves competent and trustworthy.
What about Headship Theology Etc.?
Many who argue for headship theology claim that their opponents have abandoned Adventism’s Biblical Hermeneutic. What such fail to understand, however, is that the Fundamentalist/Inerrantist hermeneutic (method of interpretation of Scripture) they are promoting is not actually Adventist but has, in fact, driven people out of the church in the past (ex. Desmond Ford.) The Adventist Hermeneutic is neither Fundamentalist nor Culture-based but is in fact the only true Sola Scriptura approach in Christian theology. I have written on this at length elsewhere (bit.ly/solascripturamanifesto) and will not repeat myself here. I also recommend the book Canonical Theology by John Peckham.
The point of this article, however, is that even if headship or complementarian theology could be supported with Scripture, it would apply generally and not specifically to ordination. It would mean that females would not be able to speak in church, to teach Sabbath school, to respond in discussions, to serve on the board or give Bible studies to non-Adventists, but it would say nothing regarding their ordination. Not if we hold an Adventist view of what ordination is.
Ordination and the General Conference in Session
Given the above, Adventists who have opposed the ordination of women have done so based on a mistaken notion of what ordination actually is within the Adventist perspective. They have allowed themselves to be influenced by foreign perspectives of ordination that are based on a very different theology/philosophy. Within the Adventist view of the topic, a refusal to ordain women is tantamount to saying they are incompetent at their job and is therefore discriminatory.
None the less, many who have been in favor of ordaining women have been equally mistaken in trying to undermine the vote of the General Conference in Session. The reason is that, by trying to subvert the very process by which we make our decisions, not only is this one decision affected but every other subsequent decision. The future of the denomination is placed in jeopardy in order to correct the one mistake. And, that’s a price too high to pay. We need, instead, to educate our people to correctly understand our theology so that they can make the right decision at the GC vote and thus repair the mistake while simultaneously preserving our mechanism for decision making as a church body.