Nathan Brown is the editor of Record

Paul Petersen is field secretary for the South Pacific Division, based in Wahroonga, New South Wales.

There is much discussion about women in ministry. In response to this interest, Record magazine from the South Pacific Division posed a series of questions to theologian Dr. Paul Petersen. This is the first part of that conversation. Considering the importance of this issue for our worldwide church, we are also presenting this interview in Elder’s Digest magazine. 

Usually the most significant questions people have about women in ministry are theological. Why is this the case?

As Christians we believe God has spoken through Christ and the Bible, and theology seeks to describe the content and the implications of that divine revelation. Any issue of significance has to be settled on the basis of what God has said. 

Throughout the Bible, why is God generally described as masculine? Is this understanding of God too limited? How might this impact on our understanding of gender relationships and roles?

While Scripture describes God as a Father and other masculine metaphors clearly dominate, the male perspective is not exclusive. God is also compared to a mother (see Isaiah 49:15), a woman giving birth (see Isaiah 42:14) or to a woman cleaning her house (see Luke 15:8). Remember that in the Creation account the oneness of the Godhead encompasses both masculine and feminine.

We have to realise the limitations of human language in describing God. The essence, the very being of God, is beyond human comprehension and categorisation. We must be careful not to make God too much like us. Next, we have to realise the cultural background of the times in which the Bible was written. Feminine goddesses were associated with rampant sexuality, while the Father imagery could be used to underscore the origin and the important concepts of God as Creator and Provider.

At the same time, traits typically associated with women are often used to characterise God. The most common Hebrew word for “mercy” or “compassion” - core to the character of God - comes from the word for the female bosom.

How do you respond to objections to womenin-ministry raised from the following parts of the Bible: Are women somehow precluded from ministry and leadership because of Eve’s role in the first sin or from God’s specific “curses” following the Fall (Genesis 3:16)?

Many biblical and historical examples prove otherwise. Deborah was the divinely appointed spiritual and political leader of the people of God; Huldah was a significant prophet; in the New Testament, Phoebe and Priscilla were important spiritual leaders in the church; and the ministry of Ellen White within the history of the Seventh-day Adventist movement certainly should convince us that the result of the Fall is not a divine imperative against women in ministry or leadership positions among the people of God. Otherwise, God would not have provided us with such powerful role models.

When it comes to the curses—the consequences of the Fall—we should note that the purpose of the people of God is to counter these curses by being a blessing. This is clear in the call of Abraham, the father of the people of God, in Genesis 12:1-3 , where blessings are first mentioned after the curses of the Fall. As a church, we are to exemplify the original gender equality established by God at Creation, before the Fall.

The curses describe results of sin. They are consequences, not necessarily divine commands for what we are to do. In a selfishly dominated world, for instance, males have used their physical power to oppress women. We don’t have to, just as we don’t have to force women to bear children with pain, but are allowed to ease that pain.

Is there any women-in-ministry significance to the fact that only the sons of Aaron were eligible to serve as priests in the Israelites’ sanctuary and in the temple?

Seventh-day Adventists are Protestants. We believe we are called to complete what the Reformers of the 16th century set in motion. Central to the view of the Reformation is that Jesus alone is our Priest. The priesthood of the Old Testament sanctuary prefigured Jesus Christ and His service in the heavenly sanctuary. This is crucial to the self-identity of the Seventh-day Adventist movement.

Using the Old Testament priesthood as a type of ministers in the Christian church takes us straight back into the most fundamental Catholic heresy. Ministers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church are not priests offering sacrifices and they do not by way of the rite of ordination receive any special gift that sets them apart from other Christians, giving them a unique authority, independent of both the corporate church and the Word of God. We believe in the heavenly sanctuary and the heavenly priesthood of Jesus Christ alone.

Do the Levitical laws about women’s monthly uncleanness (see Leviticus 15:19-23) have any relevance to this discussion?

No! Let us remind ourselves of the unique position of the Ten Commandments. By trying to make obscure and at times less understood elements of the Mosaic law eternal and to apply them independent of culture and context, we downgrade the significance of the Ten Commandments that alone were intended for all people at all times.

How would you explain Jesus’ relationships with women? Why did He have only men among His 12 disciples? 

Compared with, for instance, the Pharisaic party, Jesus was unique in His positive attitude toward women—and women were the first to proclaim the message of the resurrected Saviour. From the outset, these factors positioned the early Christian church as a far more egalitarian movement than previously seen.

Jesus naturally chose 12 male disciples as a symbol of the new Israel He was about to establish, patterned on the model of the 12 tribes of Israel, the sons of Jacob. 

Why does Paul seem so anti-women, particularly in the church context, with statements such as 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15? 

Misunderstandings of Paul’s views abound, due to lack of close attention to Paul’s actual statements, ignorance of the social environment of the time, and also the fact that some of the specific texts in question are among the more difficult sayings in the New Testament because of uncertainty about the exact background.

First, the apostle Paul—far from being a male chauvinist, as critical scholars at times claim—is unique within his culture in underlining mutuality in the relationship between husband and wife. He speaks about mutual submission (see Ephesians 5:21, 22), and with regard to the sexual life he tells in 1 Corinthians 7:4 that the body of the wife belongs to her husband—no surprise to his culture—but likewise that the body of the husband belongs to his wife. That was a shocking statement at the time! 

Second, when applying the Epistles we do well in showing caution. This part of the Bible gives examples of the application of the principles of the gospel to various local situations in the apostolic churches. We are reading letters to churches about which we know little, if anything, except from the letters themselves. For example, any given letter may be part of ongoing correspondence. Sound interpretation does not establish doctrines for all times and places on the basis of a few texts in the Epistles only.

So what about 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35, for example? Does Paul intend to say that no women should ever be allowed to speak in a Christian congregation? 

If so, he would abolish part of Scripture. And his own example speaks against such an interpretation. He worked with Phoebe (see Romans 16:1) and with Priscilla, a teacher of the gospel (see Romans 16:3; compare Acts 18:2, 18, 26). He recommended Junia (see Romans 16:7), who without question was a woman, even calling her an “apostle,” meaning someone sent to give a message, and a title of authority (compare 1 Corinthians 12:28). 

So, what does Paul mean? We may never know on this side of the kingdom. He wrote to a church with extreme challenges and peculiar problems. He wrote a letter permeated with irony. Amid a chapter dealing with the issue of speaking in tongues in Corinth—a contentious question in itself—he asks the women in that church to keep quiet for the sake of order. He does not say, “You women in Sydney or New York or Johannesburg keep quiet.” Rather, he speaks to the situation in Corinth, because it seems some women in that congregation caused disturbance. We do not know the precise reason. 

Similarly, a text like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is difficult, both with regard to translation and background. Paul may be countering prevailing heresies among some pre-Gnostic teachers who spread peculiar ideas about the order of Creation, turning the sequence of Genesis 2 upside down. For both passages we have to acknowledge uncertainty, and God does not expect us to make doctrines, nor to generalise and apply rules we might deduce from these texts as principles for churches everywhere. 

As Adventists, our approach has never been to let a few isolated and difficult texts determine what the Bible otherwise makes clear. And when it comes to the general principle of equality between the genders within the kingdom of God and His church, Paul in Galatians 3:28 leaves little doubt.

Others would argue that the New Testament compares the church with a family and the elder with a father, implying that elders—and ministers—have to be male. How are we to assess this argument?

The first major problem with the argument is that the New Testament texts never say so. Nowhere in the New Testament is the elder called the head. The text about headship in Ephesians 5:23 speaks about marriage—and certainly, we would not call the husband/head of his wife her “father.” Likewise, no New Testament text calls the elder “father.” Jesus as the head of the church is not compared to a father. He is our older brother and leaders of the church are rather older siblings taking responsibility. Indeed, we are advised not to call human leaders our “father” (see Matthew 23:8-10).

Second, though the whole Bible compares the people of God and His church to a family, the metaphor of the family is not used in such a consistent manner that we can organise the church accordingly. The New Testament believes in organisation, but organisation is not an end in itself. In the Catholic Church, for example, the church structure and organisation is regarded as divinely ordained. But, as Adventists, we do not find that the New Testament prescribes only one type of organisation for the church. Organisation serves the message and the mission. The specific way we organise depends on the need to present the message in the best possible way—and that may change.

Further, the specific functions we attach to the various offices of the church are functions we as a corporate body have decided to delegate to these positions. They are only rarely explicitly mentioned in the New Testament. Elders are not said by way of office to possess any “teaching authority” as at times claimed. The New Testament provides no specific example of the ordination of ministers in our sense of the word, and we have no example of pastors or ministers either baptising, performing the Lord’s Supper or marrying, to mention some of today’s functions. These are functions the church delegates to certain people for the sake of order.

In short, the so-called “headship/father role of the elder” is, biblically speaking, non-existent. It is a phantom, a construct, having no textual foundation, and it is based on a Catholic presupposition of one prescribed divine model of organisation.

But does not Paul describe elders as men in, for instance, 1 Timothy 3:2, where he says they are to be husbands of one wife?

Of course he does. He is referring to historical fact. The elders were male and he spoke about them. But historical description is not divine prescription. The Ten Commandments, for instance, though containing eternal principles, are also spoken in the language of their time. It prohibits men from killing, stealing and lying—the Hebrew addresses the masculine, not the feminine—and the 10th commandment tells me as a man not to covet my neighbour’s wife. Does that mean women are not included in the commandments and that they are free to kill, steal, lie and lust for their neighbours’ husbands? Of course not! These texts are gender inclusive. The principles of murder, theft, truthfulness and covetousness cover everyone. So does the principle of faithfulness to one’s spouse emphasised by Paul to Timothy.

This conversation will be concluded in the next issue of Elder’s Digest magazine.

Nathan Brown is editor of Record.
Paul Petersen is field secretary for the South Pacific Division.