Why This Book?
Utrecht, 5 July 1995. Emotions ran high as the delegates to the 56th session of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists voted 1,481 to 673 to deny the request of the North American Division to be permitted to ordain women pastors within its territory. There was no way to know for sure how many delegates had voted "No" because they were convinced that the Bible does not allow a woman to be ordained, how many had voted "No" because of the customs of their lands, or how many voted "No" because they were concerned over allowing one division to break ranks with the rest of the world field. Neither was there any way to know what had moved those who voted "Yes" to do so.
Because of the wording of the motion, the question of
whether or not a female Seventh-day Adventist pastor might properly be
ordained to the gospel ministry was not answered at Utrecht. Less than one
month after the Utrecht vote, several union presidents of the North
American Division met with the faculty of the Seventh-day Adventist
Theological Seminary, still asking the same question: May a woman
legitimately be ordained to pastoral ministry? If so, on what basis? If
not, why not? What are the issues involved--hermeneutics? Bible and
theology? custom and culture? history and tradition? pragmatism and
missiological needs? And furthermore, how could all these facets of the
issue be presented in a logical, coherent manner? Would the Seminary
faculty please address these questions and provide answers?
How Did This Book Come into Being?
At the next meeting of the Dean's Council, the decision was made to put together a study group to investigate the multiple issues surrounding ordination. Early in January of 1996 each department of the Seminary nominated two persons to an Ad hoc Committee on Hermeneutics and Ordination. Two students were added to the group. A chair was appointed. In February the committee met to discuss its task and the best way to go about it. After several prayerful discussions, the 15 committee members agreed on the need to investigate various aspects of the ordination question and present the findings in a book. This book would explore the question of the ordination of women to the gospel ministry in the Adventist Church in biblical, theological, and historical perspective. There would be no attempt to relate the findings of the study to the empirical circumstances of the church in any place, nor would our research deal with the cultural constraints and accepted customs that might make the ordination of women inadvisable in many countries. Furthermore, there would be a studious avoidance of any attempt to tell individuals or churches what to do, or of any involvement in the official decision-making process regarding women in ministry. The study was to be driven by a desire to study the biblical, theological, historical understanding of church and ministry, ordination, and women. The final purpose was to provide data to facilitate informed decision making.
By May of 1996 the outline of the book and guidelines for the chapters were complete and the authors—most from the committee itself—had agreed to write. As the chapters began to come in, we gave copies to each committee member to read and critique. These were then returned to the author with suggestions for rewriting; a second version was then presented to the committee. In September of 1996 the committee commenced regular meetings every other Monday afternoon for two hours. These meetings always began with prayer, often several prayers—pleading with God for wisdom and understanding, love and firmness, but most of all for God's leading that His will might be done in the meeting and in the book. While the discussions were at times animated, a spirit of camaraderie developed. Sensitivity to the positions of others, both for and against women's ordination was evident. Yet, the firm desire to be true to Scripture was obvious. This was a group of dedicated Christians seeking to clarify an unclear issue, to do what was right.
Eventually, all the chapters were written, rewritten, and
approved by the committee. After editing, the chapters were put together
and given to outside readers for review. Their comments were taken into
consideration in the final drafting of the book.
What Is the Hermeneutical Stance of the Authors of This Book?
The name given to this group—Committee on Hermeneutics and Ordination—suggested that if only we would clarify our hermeneutics we would be able to decide whether the ordination of Seventh-day Adventist women ministers was acceptable. However, as the committee prayed, studied, and discussed, it became clear that the issue of women's ordination hinged on more than the hermeneutical approach to certain passages of Scripture. Hence, the search was broadened and several chapters on history had to be included.
Nevertheless, the committee realized that in interpreting biblical stories and injunctions, the book's authors followed hermeneutical principles of which the reader would need to be aware. Rather than having a section on hermeneutics in each chapter containing biblical material, the group decided that one presentation, in the introduction, should be sufficient. Thus, the principles of interpretation described here apply to all chapters on biblical materials. The principles applied are time-honored approaches; similar rules appear in recognized Adventist publications.(1)
The following principles, considered basic by the authors and committee, undergird the interpretation of Scripture in this book.
In agreement with the first of the 27 fundamental beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, we accept that all of the canonical Scriptures are divinely inspired. An indivisible blend of human and divine, the Bible is the authoritative rule of faith by which Christians are to direct their lives. Although it was first given to those who lived in an ancient Near Eastern or Mediterranean context and is couched in language best understandable to those readers and hearers, the Bible's message transcends its cultural backgrounds to present God's word for all people in all times.
Scripture must be allowed to interpret itself. One part of the Bible interprets another. The clear illumines the dark; the simple explains the complex. Because of the intrinsic unity of the Bible, the whole of the Bible message must be taken into account. Scripture must be compared with Scripture to find the true meaning of any passage: difficult texts must be studied in the light of clearer ones. Thus, doctrine cannot be construed on the basis of one text alone.
On matters on which Scripture is silent, one must search for biblical principles that relate to the situation and apply them with sanctified reasoning. For example, the Bible does not prohibit smoking, but it does admonish us to care for the body temple. Church organization is not spelled out in the Bible. In the 1850s and 1860s Adventist pioneers agonized over whether or not to organize the little flock. James White put forth his position: "All means which according to sound judgment, will advance the cause of truth, and are not forbidden by plain scripture declarations, should be employed."(2) While some Christians have taken the position that whatever Scripture does not specifically command is prohibited, Seventh-day Adventists have followed James White's thinking. Our committee did likewise.
While readers of the Bible can and do profit from a simple reading of a given passage, understanding is enhanced by a study of the context of a passage, both literary and historical. At the same time external interpretations cannot be imposed on the Bible. For example, the way things are today cannot be used to explain how things were in Bible times. A careful analysis of the text and its context leads today's readers to better understand the meaning of the passage for its original readers. It also helps modern Christians to apply Scripture to the life of the church.
To understand Scripture one must approach it in faith, with a heart willing to learn and obey. Without the aid of the Holy Spirit, Scripture cannot be correctly interpreted; thus prayer requesting God's gracious gift must precede and accompany the study of Scripture.
Finally, the committee recognized that absolute uniformity of understanding was not possible or desirable. We took note of the following paragraph from Ellen White:
We cannot then take a position that the unity of the
church consists in viewing every text of Scripture in the very same light.
The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all
disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and root
out disagreement. These resolutions may conceal the discord, but they
cannot quench it and establish perfect agreement. Nothing can perfect
unity in the church but the spirit of Christlike forbearance.(3)
How Is This Book Put Together?
The twenty chapters of this study fall into five different categories. The first looks at priesthood, ministry, and the laying on of hands in the Bible. The second concentrates on ordination, considering its meaning, both theological and historical. The third section reviews the contribution of women to ministry and leadership through the Bible and in Adventist history. In the fourth section, biblical concepts and injunctions, together with an Ellen White quotation, all considered as impediments to the ordination of women, are elucidated. Finally, various issues, especially urgent in the North American setting, are considered.
Each chapter was written by a different author and retains the writer's individual style. In fact, careful readers will notice slight differences of opinions between chapters. Our agreement was on the big picture.
Each author chose the Bible version he or she would use.
As might be expected of a group of academics, references were considered
vital. Yet in deference to readers who would feel that footnotes are
burdensome, these references have been relegated to endnotes. Research
language and the use of biblical languages were kept as unobtrusive as
What Do We Hope This Book Will Do?
The Seminary Ad hoc Committee on Hermeneutics and Ordination prayerfully submits this book, not as the final answer to whether or not the Seventh-day Adventist Church should ordain its women in ministry, but rather as a resource tool for decision making. While recognizing that good decisions are based on hard facts, we are also cognizant of the fact that at times clear evidence may be lacking, thus making necessary the use of sanctified judgment and imagination to resolve questions and issues.
Naturally, this volume represents the understanding of the Seminary Ad hoc Committee on Hermeneutics and Ordination. We do not claim to speak for others, either at the Seminary or in church administration. Some may disagree with our findings. That is their privilege. We welcome their responses and invite them to dialogue.
We hope and pray that this volume may assist individuals, leaders, and the community of faith at large in deciding how to deal with the issue of ordination and, more specifically, the relationship of ordination to women. We believe that the biblical, theological, and historical perspectives elaborated in this book affirm women in pastoral leadership. As Seventh-day Adventists we have a mission, a task to accomplish: the sharing of a unique message of hope with a dying world. Let us all use all our energies to that end.
Nancy J. Vyhmeister
1. Among these are: "Principles of Biblical Interpretation," Problems in Bible Translation (Washington, DC: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1954), 79-127; Gordon Hyde, ed., A Symposium on Biblical Hermeneutics (Washington, DC: Biblical Research Committee, 1974), especially 163-262; Gerhard Hasel, Biblical Interpretation Today (Washington, DC: Biblical Research Institute, 1985), 100-113; "Methods of Bible Study," report approved at the Annual Council of the General Conference of SDA, Rio de Janeiro, 1986, and published in the Adventist Review, January 22, 1987, 18-20; and Lee J. Gugliotto, Handbook for Bible Study (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1995).