Last week, we ended with a question: Can we say that someone who has every other qualification, e.g., the experience, the education, etc., that we normally would like to see in a conference president be denied solely because she is a woman?
That question is a” hot potato”-believe me. But it is something that we in the Seventh-day Adventist Church have to settle. And we simply cannot settle it, without talking about it. And we cannot talk about this issue, without talking to people on both sides of the issue-and talking to each other-even when we disagree, in a civil and Christ-like manner, one that honors that God we all serve.
I said last time that I would give my answer to that question. I do not pretend that my answer is some divinely inspired answer to a discussion that, in some way or the other, has been going on in our church for decades.
The late Elder C.E. Dudley, who was the President of South Central for thirty-one years, and who I believe was gifted by God to be one of the greatest administrators in the history of our church, had a saying (actually, he had many sayings-I wish someone had written a book about them) “Where you stand, depends on where you sit.”
I think what he meant was that one’s position on a particular issue (except for issues where the Lord has directed us to take a particular position) is often shaped by where we are serving at a particular time; in other words, often times, our position that we take is often shaped by the position that we have.
I have the privilege of being the President of South Central Conference. One of my major responsibilities in that position is to lead the processes that staff our conference. A big part of my job is to find the best possible people to fill the positions that we have in South Central.
When the Lord blesses us to find the best possible person for a particular church (or school, or a position in the conference office) my life is considerably easier and less complicated.
Because of the position that the Lord has allowed me to have, all that is really important to me is: Is the person who we are considering connected to the Lord and can they do the job for which they are being considered?
If the answer to both of those questions is “Yes,” then, that is what matters most to me. Their gender, their race, their ethnicity-all of that is quite secondary to me.
I recognize and respect that South Central has a rich history that includes a primarily (but not exclusively) African-American constituency, with an (until recently) exclusively male pastoral team.
But what does one do when you begin interviewing prospective ministerial candidates and you come across a gifted, spiritual candidate, who is female and she tells you that she has been called to the ministry? That has happened to me on many occasions. Do you then rule out the possibility that person may really have been called to ministry just because they are female?
When a man says that he has been called to the ministry, we do not question that call, until he behaves improperly and his actions call into question the validity of his claim to be called by God. In other words, we judge the validity of a man’s call to ministry based on what he does. To deny a woman’s call to ministry solely because she is a woman means that the validity of her call is not based on what she does, but rather on what she is.
To those of us who have the very high privilege and honor of being called to the gospel ministry, that call is so intensely personal, I am not certain that it can be explained to anyone else. If one cannot really explain or say how you were called to the ministry, it is even more difficult to say that someone was not called to ministry by anything other than the fact that some things that they have done bring into question their calling.
But that is not what is being done with women. Their calling is questioned, not on the basis of what they do, but their calling to ministry is questioned on what they are. There is just something about that that is difficult for me.
A few days ago, I sat in a meeting with Dr. Roberts and a bunch of other conference presidents. She was very intelligent, said some very helpful things about how they are addressing the skyrocketing costs of providing workers with healthcare benefits in her conference that we are pretty certain to try here in South Central. There was absolutely nothing that I saw in that meeting that gave any indication whatsoever that she was any less capable of being a conference president than anyone else in the room.
Does that mean that I do not wish that the unions that went ahead with ordaining women ahead of the rest of us had done things differently? No, I wish we were all together on this important issue.
But that is a different matter. Once the Pacific Union voted the way they voted, then, as I said last time, Southeastern California did what conferences (including South Central) have done scores of times: They elected the second highest person to their highest office. And under the rules that govern Pacific Union (and it is unions that approve ordinations), Dr. Roberts was eligible to become President. No one would have even noticed if Dr. Roberts were not female.
I know that there are people who sincerely feel that a woman in a position of leadership is prohibited in Scripture. People will quote Paul in 1 Timothy, Chapter 3, when he says that a bishop must be “the husband of one wife”-which would certainly seem to eliminate women in ministry, since they could not be husbands.
But if that text eliminates women pastors, it must also eliminate single pastors as well, since they are not husbands, either. A young single pastor (like I was, when I started out in ministry 35 years ago) could not be a minister without being married first. Effectively, that would require ministers to get married in order to be ministers. We would then be the Catholic Church in reverse; they forbid married clergy, we would require it. I believe that anyone who has ever been either married or a minister knows that we really do not want to go there.
Further, Paul talks in that same chapter about “ruling well their own house, having their children in subjection. “…For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?”
A very good question, but if we apply it in the same manner that “the husband of one wife,” is sometimes applied, i.e., as a prohibition against female pastors, then, the same standard would apply to pastors who either have no children, or, do not have them in subjection, i.e., they would have to be prohibited from ministry, as well.
But what about couples who, for whatever reason, cannot have children? Must they be prohibited from the ministry? Or, what about ministers who have children, but who cannot get them to live the way that they were taught? Is there any responsibility on children who may have been brought up the right way but who made the wrong choice? Are the ministerial parents culpable, and therefore, unfit for the ministry, because of their child’s poor choices?
Did Samson choose Delilah because of his heritage or because of his hormones? And what about Lucifer? Is not he that worst example of a child gone wrong? And his parent was God. But to blame God for Lucifer’s choices is not only unfair to God, but it seems almost blasphemous.
The point is, that if we are going to take these texts, and others-such as the one where Paul says “I suffer a woman not to teach”-without considering that there was quite likely a cultural aspect to Paul’s instruction to a church that existed at a time when women were considered more as property than as people, then we have to say that women cannot be pastors or teachers.
But no one says that. If we did, if we are going to apply everything Paul said in a non-cultural context, that would mean that what Paul meant was that woman cannot preach or teach. And that would mean that not only can Dr. Roberts not be president of a conference, she also cannot be a teacher in a Sabbath School class or in a church school.
And the truth is, I have never heard an Adventist say that women cannot be Sabbath School teachers or church school teachers. Because if we did say that, there would not be virtually any Sabbath School classes or hardly any Seventh-day Adventist church schools.
And that is just not a place where I think God intended for us to be.