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Women in Ordained Ministry? (A Biblical paradigm)

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

A Business Paradigm: From the view of the business community here in the States, some policies are incontrovertible. They are the law of the land. Compliance officers pull out their hair attempting to ensure laws of commerce are properly followed. However, it is sometimes nearly impossible for leaders who have the responsibility of guiding company policy in difficult foreign cultures to develop an acceptable model. There are places on our planet where compliance to American norms will cause great difficulty and even failure for a company.

Looking at the Church: Should the Worldwide Church declare policies that are completely consistent with American mores to the detriment of the bottom line? Should Americanism accept the role of being an evangelist on the front lines for modern cultural norms? Does the American Church bear responsibility for holding high the banner of cultural growth and change as it enters less developed countries?

For some, the answer may cause rage. For others, the proper course of action may appear to be a cop out. But the guidance being proposed is in black and white and has about as solid a basis as you'll ever encounter: it comes from God's Word.

The business model may be of help. I submit the following thoughts and hope they are helpful to a healthy discussion on the related topics. To focus attention, let's turn to a realistic scenario. Consider this example. If a business is going into rural, tribal areas of a third world, industry leaders must configure certain guidelines in advance. Should company leaders insist on equal pay and equal opportunity for women? Should a policy condemning prejudice against sexual orientation be a mainstay of the company? Should all workers' suggestions and comments be given the same weight?

Biblical Application: While it would be folly to pretend to know the answers to all these questions, there is a centuries-tested basis upon which to make those decisions and policies; the Bible. The Good Book isn't just a presentation of "be good, be kind" meanderings. It is far more. Human nature is a given constant and we humans often say "Amen!" until the Word of God tells us we've been on the wrong side of things. However, if some of these ideas help decision-makers, it will have been worth the risk.

First, recognize that God prioritizes the light He directs into the cataracted eyes of mankind's darkened soul. This principle may add a measure of guidance as we attempt to answer our contemporary problems. His way of handling social issues is supremely practical and effective. Be warned, nevertheless, that this exemplar is not for the impatient. It is not for those whose impulse is to right every wrong; right here, right now. Change in an entire society demands time.

God's mode of addressing past societal conditions can be very enlightening. An excellent, albeit, sensitive paradigm that demonstrates the way He brought man to question the institution of slavery is revealing. There is a distinct, divine, genius presented in the Old and New Testaments that demonstrates the way the Lord handled the culturally accepted, but evil practice of slavery.

We should recognize that God gave no direct, explicit commandment that prohibits slavery.

To the contrary, in the Ten Commandments, specifically in the Sabbath instructions to His people, God makes no mention of releasing slaves. God does, instead, tell believers to let their slaves rest on His holy day. Some may be tempted to challenge the wisdom, or even the goodness of God at this point. Why would He ignore this opportunity to rid His chosen people of the evil of slavery? It would seem, at first blush, that a new start for Israel would be the ideal time for a prescient Being to present the reprehensible nature of slavery. Why didn't He use His great voice on Mount Sinai to denounce the human invention of granting ownership of one human to another? The answer may be a difficult pill to swallow, but often God's priorities are not easily understood. He has a plan.

The following assertion will be a new concept for some. God's reasons for avoiding the issue of slavery at the beginning of Israel's desert trek involved the timing of when to reveal the truth. Is slavery wrong? Yes. Should it be obliterated from our midst? Absolutely. But when a society or an individual has plummeted so far into the darkness, it requires informed judgment to know exactly when to bring those people to enlightenment. Informed judgment comes with experience. For example, the seasoned evangelist who has a history of working in a certain culture will have advantages over a novice. The evangelist knows the order in which to present truth. That order, or timing, comes from knowing the hearer's culture and mindset.

What this means in the context of business. Creating opportunities for profit must be an overriding priority. Equal pay and equal treatment are simply the right things to do. On the other hand, if implementing those social standards into societies that lag far behind our own may jeopardize the livelihoods of workers and the demise of the company, they must be dealt with in a patient manner. Although the company can lead by example in some cases, the tone of the prominent society must necessarily be a major force in determining when enlightened policies are implemented. Bringing people to the light of cultural evolution is only secondary to obtaining the goal of success.

Looking at the human condition, God is primarily in the saving business. He is the Ultimate Soul-Winner. Like any caring parent, He is, of course, also interested in improving the quality of our lives. But whether or not society progresses in its enlightenment, God's actions are to be understood in the context of saving as many of mankind as possible.

Being aware of this principle helps us with some of the questions generated by God's actions or inactions. A prime example can be found in God's apparent indifference, for hundreds and hundreds of years, to human bondage. Slavery had existed for many centuries before the sandals of Moses ever scuffed through the sands of Egypt. When the Ten Commandments were given, slavery was just the way things were. Society could not expunge itself of slavery without destroying itself. Early on, men had become benighted and reliant upon the free labor of captives. It was basically impossible for any slave-based society to look into the full, revealing sunlight of the social evil of slavery. Even more difficult would have been the task of eradicating it without causing a whole civilization to implode. God's focus was not upon curing all social ills so much as it was directed to the saving of human-beings into His eternal Kingdom. It is with this realization that we should examine the issue of ordaining women.

Ordination of women to Gospel ministry: When Jesus came, He never gave a direct command for His followers to release all slaves. Neither professing the sinfulness of slavery, nor the releasing of slaves was set forth as a prerequisite to becoming a member of the Christian Church. God followed this same principle in regard to women serving, or not serving, as pastors of His Church.

As with the slavery question, God takes into account the state of society as to the acceptance or rejection of women ministers as leaders of the church. Again, we ask ourselves, is slavery evil? Given the struggle of conscience we have witnessed in America, South Africa, and elsewhere, it is safe to assume that most of humanity would answer, "Slavery is, indeed, wrong. It is a sinful scar on the human landscape." How, then, did society come to the elevated ground of finally looking down upon the institution of slavery?

God has been influencing mankind, without forcing them, to understand His principles and to take steps, however small, to implement those principles through word and deed. Bible readers have come to understand the meaning of Jesus' words when, on multiple occasions, He called Himself the "Son of Man." He didn't qualify His statement with any restrictions as to race or societal standing. He had come to save "mankind." The freeman, the slave, the Jew, and the Gentile. He came to save all. God inserted the principle to be discovered; "As many as believed in Him," "whosoever believeth in Him," "All men seek for Thee." These and like phrases have taken centuries to come to the light of understanding. Historically, when good people recognized the all-encompassing nature of these words and attempted to persuade others of their true meaning, society at-large was not prepared to open itself to such a strange concept.

Paul's letter to Philemon shows the Gospel to be the great equalizer of mankind.

Let's look at the New Testament in illustrating God's Way in the ministry of Paul. In Philemon, Paul demonstrates that he is aware that fellow Christians should not be held in slavery by other Christians. Even though he knows slavery is wrong, Paul does not openly attack it. Why? He is an experienced soul-winner. He follows the leading of God in regards to a deeply embedded cultural evil by presenting a principle demonstrating that human bondage is wrong; that slavery has no place in the Christian's belief system. He hopes the Christian master, Philemon, will become enlightened.

Philemon, the master, is encouraged to take back and forgive his erring slave and to do even more. He is your brother. Look at how delicately Paul reintroduces Philemon's converted, runaway slave. It is beyond human genius. It is Inspiration that imbues the Apostle's words with such tact and wisdom. When Paul breaks the news to Philemon, in the original language translated, he says, "I beseech you on behalf of my child, whom I have begotten in bonds, Onesimus." Not until the very last does Paul attach a name to this child he has won to Christ while he, himself, was in chains. Why is he being so careful? Because he is very aware of the import of his words! He is an experienced soul-winner. Paul is being sensitive to Philemon's mindset. Onesimus is walking about in the darkness of his cultural norms. His society tells him that Slaves are inferior beings. They are completely unqualified to stand alongside other citizens. Paul doesn't order Philemon to take back his slave. He doesn't demand that this thieving slave be freed. He does not dictate, he asks. Why doesn't Paul directly engage this pernicious evil? Why all the "skirting" diplomacy? Why didn't he raise his voice in Rome to condemn the practice of human bondage? What could be more important than preaching the release of slaves? While he did not directly condemn slavery, Paul did preach the releasing of "slaves." In his ministry, he made it clear that the Gospel of freedom from the guilt of sin wasn't for only one race, i.e. Jewish, but for all men, free and bond. Hadn't he preached and seen a runaway slave, considered "property," give His heart to Jesus?

Applying the Principle to Women's Ordination:

Let's examine God's Ways now in addressing women's ordination. Women, in Old Testament times and into the era of the New Testament and far beyond, were not permitted into the priesthood. Women in many ancient societies were not given a voice in public affairs. The Church followed this cultural norm. Why? For the same reason Christ's early followers avoided a fight over the slavery issue. Because something was more important than banning the disgraceful ostracizing of women. Saving souls!

God set forth principles to bring about enlightenment with time and study on the treatment of both slaves and women. The Bible's inspiration says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."

This was a concept difficult to understand in the slave-based Roman Empire. For some societies, the concept is difficult still. It is too great a light to be readily accepted. Today, for example, in several Muslim countries, this light would be completely rejected and almost certainly bring violent societal upheaval.

One rather obvious example designed to cause a beneficent crack in the carbon fiber of our hearts is seen in the hierarchical system of God's workers. It is true, in Old Testament times, that women were not priests. Neither were they called upon to serve as leaders in the Temple of ancient Jerusalem. Was this because women are inferior as humans or due to their need of qualification to stand alongside others? Or was the true reason due to the darkness of understanding within society? Although gender prejudice is wrong, God worked within that matrix to save mankind. He has left ample evidence for us to see the light. He did not call or ordain a woman as a priest, a high priest, or even an apostle. He did, however, go completely to the top by calling women to serve Him as His prophets. Some are mentioned by name: Miriam (Ex. 15:20) Deborah (Judges 4:4) Huldah (2 Kings 22:14) Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14) and Anna (Luke 2:36). The Lord God spoke with them directly. Why?

Why did He chose to have a woman he met at the well be His chosen evangelist for Samaria? Why did our Heavenly Father choose a woman to be the very first human to proclaim the Gospel of the risen Son of God? Why?

In our own Seventh-day Adventist Church history, God tried to avoid the difficulties of maneuvering through the gender prejudice of the times by first calling a man to be a prophet to His last days' Church. However, it was a woman, a young girl with a disfigured face and frail health, that said, "Yes, I'll be Your messenger." Why would God choose an inferior gender to be His prophet? Why would He call a person of inferior qualifications as the one upon whom to bestow such marvelous information? Could it be because He wanted to show us, in the passage of time, the Way?

It took time for men to see the barbarity of slavery. Then, as greater light came, more and more people could accept the light. This present issue before the Church, of whether or not to ordain women to the Gospel ministry is also difficult for Christians to understand as they sincerely search to make right decisions.

Should a proclamation be handed down by the Worldwide Church? Is it essential that every pastoral member of the world Church be on the exact same page? Given that slavery nor women being ordained is on the same level as accepting major Biblical teachings in order to be saved, what should the Church do? There is, at least, one other option as opposed to either voting the ordination of women up or down and that option is very Biblical.

A Proposed Guideline

Sincere Christians in the 1860's American South believed in Jesus and saw slavery as essential to the existence of their homeland. They fought to preserve that institution and paid in their own blood as testament to the depth of their belief. Were they all just bad people? No. Then why would sincere Christians want to preserve slavery? What if these soldiers were not evil men but unenlightened men?

Religious interest was greatly awakened shortly before society was purged by the American Civil War. Perhaps God was saving all the people possible prior to the blood-letting. This would make sense if the axiom is true that God is primarily interested in saving men's souls and secondarily in abolishing cultural evils.

The Civil War nearly destroyed Southern society. God saw fit, at that time and place, to fully reveal the pernicious nature of the institution of human bondage. He saw that American society was now prepared, even at terrible loss, to finally snap the chains and to free their fellow human-beings. American culture had evolved to a level where God could address the issue. The fact that He took so long to implement the destruction of slavery is not a testament to God's reluctance, but to the depth of the black hole of darkness man had created for himself.

Knowing that God works within the cultural context of man, the quintessential question is: Will ordaining women impede or enhance the spread of the Gospel? With the illumination of these past examples, we will recognize that a blanket statement from the worldwide Church cannot possibly answer that question with much accuracy. It can only be addressed by smaller regions who are aware of the impact women in ministry will have on the spread of the Gospel in their assigned territory.

Although we are a united church, we must always make room for sectional cultural differences. It is understandable, given all the various attempts to disrupt the Church's cohesion, that leadership is sensitive to unity. Theological oneness should be maintained, protected, and defended. But the issue of having ordained women in Gospel ministry is not on that level. Women in ministry is not a crucial teaching of the eschatology of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

God did not directly address the issues of slavery or the inequality of women in society. Neither slavery nor women's equality was His first priority. He undermined unjust social issues by injecting principles that would cure these evils in time. In the Old Testament era, God was establishing a people for Himself out of primitive tribesmen who could not understand the evil of slavery. Since He does not employ force on man's conscience, He moved with great patience. God allowed room for growth. The important issue at that time was Israel's acceptance of Him so they might be saved and be an evangelistic tool in His hands.

Today, the question before us is, "Will ordaining women in certain territories help or hinder the use God can make of us in the saving of mankind in these troublous days just before Christ's Second Coming?"

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