Scripture, Policy and Unity

Randy Roberts, DMin, LMFT, senior pastor, Loma Linda University church, Southeastern California Conference, addresses delegates to the Pacific Union Conference special constituency session, August 19, 2012. (Updated Aug. 23)

I stand before you as a lifelong and devoted member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a church which I deeply love. I believe my church has been given a divinely-inspired mission. It continues to be my hope and prayer that it will move forward in a Spirit-inspired way to engage the world in which we live and minister. It is my intention to do anything within my God-given power to support the accomplishment of that to which God has called us.

You have been convened here today to cast an historic vote: to approve the ordination of ministers “without regard to gender.”

As I have listened to and read about this debate, I hear three principal objections repeatedly stated. They are:

1. That it is contrary to Scripture;

2. That it is contrary to General Conference policy; and,

3. That to proceed in this direction will fracture the church.

I sincerely thank you for the opportunity to offer, on behalf of the union executive committee, a response to each of these objections.

Objection number one: To ordain women would be to do something that is contrary to Scripture. To begin, let me be clear on one fact: there is NO text in the Bible that forbids the ordination of women. None. Not one. Now, there are texts which, if read literalistically giving no attention to context, principle, and interpretation, do forbid women to do a number of things and instruct them to do a number of others. For example, if such texts were followed with wooden literalism women could say nothing at all in church; they would wear head coverings when they pray; they would be barred from having any authority over men such as being presidents of Christian hospitals or universities; and they would need to bear children in order to experience salvation. (see 1  Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11). Not even the most hearty literalists among us would suggest that such a role is God’s will for the women we love and value as full and equal partners in the kingdom of God.

What, then, does the Bible say about women and leadership? The Bible tells us of women who filled every conceivable role. Huldah was a prophetess. Deborah was a judge and leader. Ruth was an astute and loyal progenitor of David and of Jesus. Esther was a queen who was the salvation of her people. Mary was the mother of our Lord. Numerous largely unnamed women were the most faithful and courageous disciples of Jesus. Priscilla was in a ministry team with her husband. In fact, significantly, when Paul writes about this ministry team, he is quite consistent in listing Priscilla first, which may have placed her in the lead role. Phoebe was a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. And Junia was identified by Paul as a leading apostle. Women filled every leadership role you can imagine!

But, aside from these examples, is there a biblical principle to which we can turn to guide us in such decisions? The answer is, Yes, there is! Doubtless, the most potent passage Paul penned to address this issue was Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Gerald Winslow, a dear and respected friend of mine, pointed out the following about this passage: it does away with three key distinctives. First, Paul says, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile.” That was the key question of the early church—could Gentiles become equal members without becoming Jews? After tremendous debate, dissension, fighting and, yes, even bloodshed, the church resolved that question by saying, Yes, they can become equal members without becoming Jews. Make no mistake about it—had they not resolved the question that way, you and I would not be here today. Christianity would have been doomed to be a backwater sect of Judaism.

Second, Paul says, “There is neither slave nor free.” To our everlasting shame, it took the Western world over 1800 years to finally bring that theology to fruition. As recently as twenty years ago, one of the largest Christian denominations in the world finally apologized for its support of slavery. Not a very courageous stance by then.

And third, Paul says, “There is neither male nor female.” It’s the 21st century and we are still trying to figure out if he really meant what he said.

There are some who say that this passage only describes how God views us; that it is not addressing the issue of how we are to view each other. They say that it is speaking only of our inheritance in Christ; that it is not suggesting that the distinctions which often separate humans ought to be erased. To paraphrase that approach, one would have to say it this way: “God makes no distinction between his male and female children but, while he makes no distinction, he asks us to.” To that point I would say this: To see distinctions where God sees none is an egregious affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

After all, in what other facet of our walk with Jesus are we not to follow God’s example? Aren’t we to strive to treat others in the same way God treats them? Isn’t it, for example, true to the essence of the gospel to say that when God loves the unlovely, we are to do so as well?  Doesn’t the New Testament say, “Forgive each other just as Christ has forgiven you?” (see Ephesians 4:32). Are we not told to “Be kind and compassionate to others just as Christ has been to you?” (see Ephesians 4:32). And didn’t Jesus tell a story about a man who was forgiven a staggering debt only to refuse to forgive a minor one? And didn’t the master judge the man for such actions? (see Matthew 18).

In other words, the way in which God both sees and treats us is the model and standard by which we are to see and treat each other. That sentiment is underlined repeatedly in the New Testament. Galatians 3:28, then, not only states that God sees each one of us as equal in his eyes and that he draws no distinction as to whom he will call; it is also ethical ground zero for how we are to treat each other.

Would, then, affirming God’s call to ministry in the lives of women by ordaining them be contrary to Scripture? No! Absolutely not.

The second objection is that to vote yes on the motion before us would be to go against General Conference policy. In offering a response to such an objection, let me begin, not with policy, but with a much more important and foundational reality: doctrine. Seventh-day Adventist doctrine.

I quote to you directly from Fundamental Belief #14, part of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, voted by the church in official General Conference Session. It is entitled, “Unity in the Body of Christ.” I quote this fundamental belief in its entirety.

The church is one body with many members, called from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. 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. Through the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures we share the same faith and hope, and reach out in one witness to all. This unity has its source in the oneness of the triune God, who has adopted us [all, I would add] as His children. (Emphasis added).

Forgive me for reminding you that those are not my words, but the words of a fundamental belief voted by the worldwide Adventist church in General Conference Session.

That’s doctrine and, in the best of cases, doctrine is the foundation of policy. So now let us turn to policy. I want to read to you from the General Conference Working Policy, policy numbered BA 60. I am only going to read certain sections to you, as it is a bit lengthy, but they are representative of the entire policy. Now, before reading, I must tell you that as I read through this policy, its emphasis on total equality is so clearly and forcefully stated—even in the area of pastoral ministry—that it quite honestly left me wondering why we even needed to be here today voting on this question, because to simply read this policy makes the issue of ordination without regard to gender the only and obvious choice! As you listen, you will see what I mean. Here it is:

The Church rejects any system or philosophy which discriminates against anyone on the basis of race, color, or gender. The church bases its position on principles clearly enunciated in the Bible, the writings of Ellen G. White, and the official pronouncements of the General Conference.

It then quotes Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). 

A paragraph further down it quotes Ellen G. White:

No distinction on account of nationality, race, or caste is recognized by God. He is the maker of all mankind. All men are of one family by creation, and all are one through redemption. Christ came to demolish every wall of partition, to throw open every compartment of the temple, that every soul may have free access to God… In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free. All are brought nigh by His precious blood. COL 386…

It then goes through a list of nine policies and practices which the church upholds that are nondiscriminatory in nature. I will read the opening sentence to this section and the final paragraph of the section, as they are representative of the entire section. Here’s the opening sentence:

The world Church supports nondiscrimination in employment practices and policies and upholds the principle that both men and women, without regard to race and color, shall be given full and equal opportunity within the Church to develop the knowledge and skill needed for the building up of the Church…

And here’s the final paragraph:

Administrators, departmental directors, pastors, educators, local church officers, and others in positions of leadership in the Church shall uphold this position and support these principles as a part of the gospel and God’s special message for the world.

Reading through this policy makes clear the answer to the objection, would voting Yes here today be contrary to General Conference policy? is a resounding no. Absolutely not. It would actually be in harmony with studied and voted Seventh-day Adventist doctrine as well as with the overall spirit of General Conference policy.

And finally, the third objection: To vote yes today on this change will fracture the church. Will it fracture the church? In a word, no. Maybe a better way to ask the question is to ask, Does unity allow for varied convictions and practices in different parts of the world without fracturing the church? In a word, absolutely. It already has.

To take just one example, consider that different branches of the church have already voted at least five policies relative to women in leadership that are not followed in all parts of the world:

1. The policy that women deaconesses should be ordained

2. The policy that women can serve as elders

3. The policy that women elders should be ordained

4. The policy that women can serve as pastors

5. The policy that women pastors should be commissioned and can perform virtually all the functions that a male pastor can

While these particular policies have not been followed around the world, (in fact, not even everywhere in the Pacific Union), they have neither shattered nor strengthened the unity of the church, because unity is based on something far deeper than making certain that everyone everywhere follow the same practices.

The Christians in Ephesus were famously divided along several lines. Paul told them, “At the cross, Jesus destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility and, in so doing, he made you one.” (see Ephesians 2:14). And he provides a list of realities which were to be the basis of their unity. The list is strikingly short. Listen to his words:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3–6, TNIV).

Paul lists seven foundations for unity: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Surprisingly short, isn’t it? It’s also surprising what is missing from the list. He says as much by what he leaves out as by what he includes.

He does not say that there must be unanimity of thought regarding circumcision. He did not say that there must be unanimity about how to approach the issue of food offered to idols. He did not even say that there must be unanimity over the issue of how to handle the Jewish festival days, though he has much to say elsewhere about all three issues.

Rather, he provides us with a list that is Trinitarian: one Father, one Lord, one Spirit. His list includes how we receive salvation and live the Christian life: one faith. It includes how we come into the church: one baptism. It includes the context in which we live the Christian life and grow mature as believers: one body. And it includes the ultimate destiny toward which the church is heading: one hope. Simple. Succinct. Non-negotiable. But it allows for differences in conviction about many other facets of our life and practice.

We make a deadly mistake when we confuse two terms: unity and uniformity. Unity means that our hearts are bonded together even when our function, our gifts, or our thoughts and perspectives are different. Uniformity means that we must all walk in lockstep fashion, thinking, believing, behaving and voting in precisely the same manner while all seeking to participate in the same practices at the same time. As a family therapist, I can tell you that one of the quickest ways to fracture a family is to require that the members live in uniformity.

When it came to differences between people and how the gospel relates to that, Paul had some very pointed words. After having laid out his rights as an apostle, he then says this:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19–23, TNIV. Emphasis added).

The gospel is the ultimate priority, says Paul, and everything else bends to that. So I am willing to flex who I am to the circumstances in which I work, in order that the gospel might have a hearing.

If Paul were writing this today, he might say, “If I am in southern California, I work within the context of what’s acceptable there. If I go to Africa, I will adapt my practices to that world. If I labor in China, I will be respectful of and in harmony with the practices of the Chinese. And if I preach the gospel in South America, I will do so in a way that will not needlessly trouble those who live there.”

In other words, Paul calls for unity of heart around the core realities of the Christian faith while he allows for and even encourages divergent practices if they will allow the gospel to be heard.

What does that mean? It means that if it is our priority for the gospel to have a hearing, we must be respectful of the context in which we labor, being thoughtful so as to not needlessly offend. Therefore, while we are respectful of the conscience of those who see the ordination of women differently than we do because of their context, and while we do not intend to coerce them to feel the same about it as we do, we also—being cognizant of our very different context—align ourselves with the Paul who said, I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. In so doing, we recognize that telling women who are clearly called by the Spirit that they cannot receive the affirmation of the church will do great harm to our cause here in this part of the world.

“But,” the plea has been, “we must wait until we are all unified on the issue of women’s ordination before we can move forward. That,” it is said, “is what unity means.”

That is not the unity of which Scripture speaks. It is not even the unity of which Ellen White writes. I want you to listen to these words from her pen as she addressed the issues of unity and equality.

All who are found worthy to be counted as the members of the family of God in heaven, will recognize one another as sons and daughters of God. They will realize that they all receive their strength and pardon from the same source, even from Jesus Christ who was crucified for their sins. They know that they are to wash their robes of character in His blood, to find acceptance with the Father in His name, if they would be in the bright assembly of the saints, clothed in the white robes of righteousness.

Then as the children of God are one in Christ, how does Jesus look upon caste, upon society distinctions, upon the division of man from his fellow man, because of color, race, position, wealth, birth, or attainments? The secret of unity is found in the equality of believers in Christ. (Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, Vol. 1, p. 259. Emphasis added).

Do you desire a unified church? I do! Then did you hear those words—words penned by a woman—a woman—called, empowered, and ordained by God for such a time as this. Here again is what she said: The secret of unity is found in the equality of believers in Christ. To summarize: if you want unity, fight for equality.

With that in mind, let me ask you: What if Moses had waited until every enslaved Israelite had agreed that God was calling them to freedom?

What if Gideon had waited to act until he had the support of an army he considered to be big enough?

What if David had waited until the entire Israelite nation was ready to crown him king?

What if Paul had waited until the entire church agreed that circumcision was no longer needed?

What if Martin Luther had waited until the bishops agreed with him concerning justification by faith?

What if William Wilberforce had waited to act until the entire British empire could be unified in its opposition to slavery?

What if Abraham Lincoln had waited to issue the Emancipation Proclamation until all the states agreed that slavery was wrong?

What if John F. Kennedy had waited to act until the southern states all agreed to integrate their schools?

And what if, in 1888, Ellen White had waited until every Adventist leader agreed that righteousness by faith was the central doctrine of importance?

Time and again, churches and governments have faced such moments. And time and again, braved-hearted followers of Jesus have taken a stand for the right. The result of that—and I implore you to hear this—the result of that has not been the demise of the church or the state but, rather, its salvation.

Today, here in the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, might we go forward in faith in the God of every nation, kindred, tongue and people; the God who calls and empowers whom he will; the God who will pour out his Spirit on our sons and our daughters; the God who is no respecter of persons!