There is much discussion in the Seventh-day Adventist Church about women in ministry. In response to this interest, Nathan Brown, editor of the South Pacific Division’s Record, posed a series of questions to theologian Dr. Paul Petersen. This article is the second part of that conversation. Considering the importance of this issue for our worldwide church, we are also presenting this interview in Elder’s Digest.
In Galatians 3:28, Paul seems to set out a new egalitarianism found in the gospel. This is echoed by a statement in the Adventist Church’s Statement of Fundamental Beliefs: “We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation.” How can we make this a reality in our churches and church leadership?
The unique characteristic of Christian leadership is submission to the needs of others. This characteristic reflects the nature of God Himself. God’s challenge to us is to create a loving community based on unselfish mutual service, helping us by our fellowship to exemplify His kingdom on earth and prepare people to live for eternity. God’s vision for us is to take the world back to Eden, countering the results of sin and reflecting Jesus Christ by never abusing power in our social relationships. His kingdom is to be among us. It is to this corporate sense that Jesus refers in Luke 17:21.
The only way to reach that goal is for each of us to submit to the crucified Savior, known to us from the way the Holy Spirit portrays Him in the Bible. Only then are we able to put aside our personal and culturally conditioned prejudices, gender biases included.
Is recognizing and affording equality of opportunity, giftedness, and ministry a biblical imperative for the church? Is it a cultural discussion?
Justice is a biblical principle. Equal pay for equal work and responsibility is in accordance with biblical ethics. At the same time, we must acknowledge that opportunities within the church will be impacted by the opportunities within the specific culture where a church operates.
A number of the functions of the church are directly related to its public relations. In some cultures, for example, young people might have relatively better opportunities than in other cultures to serve the church in some functions. The same is true for different genders, not because of different values in the eyes of God as such, but because of the need of the church to function most efficiently in its particular culture, enhancing the chances of proclaiming and sharing the gospel.
Because the issue of gender roles is so culturally influenced, to what extent should the church be responsive to the culture in which it ministers?
There needs to be a balance. We are to be sensitive, but the message of the gospel should not necessarily submit to culture. There are clashes. We do not accept “cultural rape.” My home country earns a great deal of income from exporting bacon and beer; our Adventist message contradicts these aspects of my culture. In other situations, we need to leave minor—though important— issues for the sake of the all-important one: to bring the Advent message to the people.
Though slavery is morally wrong and though the Christian church over time became a major force in eradicating it from the Roman Empire, God did not put that issue first on the agenda for the apostles. So, at times, we will have to let the core of the gospel do its work. We should not expect a group of people to learn in one generation what has taken God’s people generations to understand.
How do we balance the conflicting biblical principles involved in the call of some women to specific ministry roles with the offense this may cause to others who see this as biblically wrong?
Let me answer by quoting the Swiss Reformer Zwingli who, albeit in a different context, expressed that “whoever through . . . ignorance wants to take offense without cause should not be permitted to remain in his . . . ignorance but should be strengthened in order that he may not regard as sinful what is not sinful.”
It seems that discussion of women-in-ministry will inevitably arrive at the question of the ordination of women. If we can answer the general objections to women in ministry roles, are there further specific objections to the ordination of women?
We will have issues if we maintain or return to a Catholic view of ordination and the sacraments. It is paramount for us to come to a genuine understanding of God’s intention with these rituals. But besides that theological question, within the Adventist context we have chosen to give the ordained minister worldwide functions. This fact has been a major issue in our discussions so far. An ordained minister is allowed to baptize and conduct the Lord’s Supper everywhere in the world. Because of this, the General Conference delegates in Utrecht denied separate church divisions the right to ordain female ministers to function within their territories.
My personal opinion is that this objection could be overcome in a practical way by understanding that no minister should perform duties anywhere in the world without cooperating with appointed local leadership. I have in my ministry been asked to perform clerical duties in areas other than where I work at present, and I have been happy to do so, but never without informing and consulting with local leadership.
Some would include marriage in the rituals belonging to the ordained minister. It often is, but in a sense, marriage is a civil institution. The right to legally perform marriage is extended to the church by the government, as is the case in Australia, for example. In some countries, the local elder also shares such legal authority. In other places in the world, ministers are not allowed to carry out the legal aspect, but marriages exist nonetheless. They do not depend on ordained ministers.
Is ordination important or necessary to ministry? Would we be better off to stop ordaining anyone?
Dedication for service, being officially shown the trust of the corporate church, the community of believers, is personally inspiring. Ordination also implies that the church has appointed some people for certain functions. Without ordination or a similar action, organization would disappear, and the era of the judges would return.
Ordination does not function in a magic sense, infusing the minister with some special “power.” It would, however, be wrong to say that it is just an appointment by the church. Such expression downgrades the value of the church. Ordination is so immensely significant exactly because it is the church of God that has appointed the minister. Whoever treasures the church will treasure its expression of confidence through ordination.
A recent statement from General Conference president Jan Paulsen on the question of ordaining women included this comment: “Although we may not see a clear biblical [reason] that ordination may not happen, there are many cultural issues that impact this decision on a local level.” At the same time, church leadership has insisted that this is a question on which the church must maintain unity. How important is worldwide uniformity on questions such as this?
Unity in the Spirit is always important, but it has two sides. We have avoided being split on the question of ordaining woman; hopefully, we will manage not to be split on the question of not ordaining. The proclamation of the gospel is always our first priority. To achieve our divine task, it may in parts of the world be important to give full acknowledgement to female ministers preaching that message.
Do you see a way forward on this issue?
Education and cultural sensitivity must go hand in hand. Theologically, we need a clearer understanding of the nature of the Protestant message regarding the authority structure of the Papacy, which in reality is the foundation for all theological objections against female participation in pastoral ministry. Further, we need to develop cultural self-consciousness, realizing more fully the biases of our own culture so as not to impose them on biblical texts or other people.
What advice would you give to a young woman who feels called to full-time ministry?
Become a minister of Christ. Preach the gospel; present the Advent message. Serve as a human being, not because you are a woman. Serve because you have been called by Jesus Christ to represent Him, not yourself.
The corporate church today provides such opportunities. Policies are in place so that female ministers may, for almost all practical purposes, share equal rights and responsibilities; although you will definitely encounter your share of human opposition, there are rich and wonderful rewards and blessings in following that call.
The corporate church needs such role models to persuade skeptics and inspire other women to serve. And in my experience, our church members in general are kind and gentle Christians who will be grateful for your contributions.
What advice would you give to a member of a congregation to whom having a woman pastor just seems wrong?
The Adventist community worldwide exceeds 20 million people. For most of us, there will, of course, be elements of the life or teachings of the church with which we agree more or less.
First, I take for granted that disagreements are to be expressed with Christian kindness and courtesy. Second, I trust that we will always make an attempt to question our own presuppositions and cultural biases.
We do well in adhering to the views of the pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In contrast with the prevailing Christian American culture of the time, they argued strongly for female preachers of the gospel in a series of articles in Review and Herald during the 1850s. And, remember, Ellen White was a woman. Would you not have liked to have, for instance, Ellen White as your pastor and preacher? I would.
Learn from the position of our pioneers regarding female preachers, and respect the decisions of the corporate church. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has voted to accept female preachers and elders. Commissioned female ministers are fully qualified to perform baptisms and other such functions. The position of the church on these issues is clear.
But more than that, the authority is the Word of God, never the preacher—whether male or female. For instance, we do not, as in some charismatic circles, submit to the authority of any leader because of his charismatic gifts and supposed direct link to God, independent of the Word. The Bible is the source of our doctrinal authority, not the role of any leader. Creating or accepting such an authoritative teaching role in the church will set aside the Bible.
Our leaders are appointed or elected by the church and, in relation to the organization, receive their authority from the church. They may be replaced, and they are replaced from time to time. The role of our leaders is not to decide the message, but rather themselves to submit to the message and to the church at large. And as we elect them, we should respect their right to exercise the authority we give them in the appropriate areas.
Let me illustrate this point by referring to one of the most exciting events during the awakenings in the 1840s. In Sweden at that time, laypeople were not allowed to preach or even gather people in homes for Bible studies. To create revival, God called children between the ages of six and ten, to preach the Word. They would read from the Bible in clear voices, in public places and in gatherings in homes, calling for conversion and commitment to Jesus, appealing for a sober life and preparation for the second coming of Jesus. Though many of these children were incarcerated and tortured, they continued their biblical preaching, led by the Holy Spirit.
If a girl at the age of six preaches truthfully from the Bible, the authority of that message stands above the authority of any elder or ordained minister if he preaches contrary to the Word of God. This is the measure by which we judge anyone who ministers or leads—regardless of gender (see Matt. 7:20).
Nathan Brown is the editor of Record.
Paul Petersen is the field secretary for the South Pacific Division, based in Wahroonga, New South Wales, Australia.
Maria Sierra has been a local church elder for 4 years at the Bayridge Spanish SDA Church in New York, U.S.A. She is a busy mother with 3 kids, but finds the time in her schedule to contribute mightily.
“I enjoy working in God’s church. It is an amazing experience! I understand that through my ministry I can help advance members to grow spiritually and to become more involved in church activities. I pray to God each day to help me be a blessing channel through His hands while I work for Him.”