Women In Ministry

Special Committee, SDA Theological Seminary - Nancy Vyhmeister,  editor 

Women in Ministry: Biblical and Historical Perspectives. 

Nancy Vyhmeister, ed. (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1998). Paperback, $11.95.

A book review by Fritz Guy.  Published in Ministry Magazine,  v72, January 1999,  p28-29. Used by permission.

In the summer of 1973, a committee of 14 Adventist women and 13 men met at Camp Mohaven in Ohio to talk about the role of women in ministry. The committee concluded that there was no biblical or theological reason not to ordain women in ministry, and it recommended the implementation of a pilot program that would lead to the ordination of women in two years.

The intervening two and a half decades have seen more study, more meetings, more proposals, more discussion at conference constituency meetings, annual councils, and General Conference sessions, but no fully authorized ordination of women in ministry.

After the 1995 General Conference vote against according the North American Division authority to ordain women pastors, the question still remained: "Can a woman legitimately be ordained to ministry?" At a meeting with the seminary faculty, NAD church leaders encouraged the Seminary to come up with biblical and theological answers to the question.

The Seminary faculty accepted the challenge, and, in good Adventist fashion, appointed a committee. Chaired by Nancy Vyhmeister, professor of world mission and editor of the journal Andrews University Seminary Studies, the members of the committee were two faculty members from each department, representing a variety of academic disciplines and theological approaches, plus two students.

The result of the committee’s work is a 439-page book, Women in Ministry: Biblical and Historical Perspectives, edited by Vyhmeister and published last October by Andrews University Press. Most of the essays were written by members of the committee, including the students, but there are also contributions by other present and former members of the Andrews faculty.

Women in Ministry consists of 20 chapters, which are organized in five sections, plus a prologue and an epilogue.

Part One is "Ministry in the Bible" and includes essays on the priesthood of all believers, the reasons why there weren’t women priests in ancient Israel, the shapes of ministry in early Christianity, and the symbolism of laying on of hands in ordination.

Part Two is "Ordination in Early Christianity and Adventism" and includes essays on the ordination of ministers among early Christians and early Adventists, Ellen White’s view of ordination, and a contemporary Adventist theological interpretation of ordination.

Part Three is "Women in Ministry and Leadership" and includes a survey of women in Scripture, a summary of Ellen White’s view of women in ministry, and reports of Adventist women in ministry in the nineteenth century and in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.

Part Four is "Perceived Impediments to Women in Ministry" and includes studies of headship, submission and equality in Scripture and in the writings of Ellen White, examinations of the New Testament instruction (in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy) that women should be silent in worship, and a study of Ellen White’s objection to Adventist participation in the Women’s Rights Movement. For many readers this may well be the most valuable part of the book.

Part Five is a small miscellany of items under the rubric "Other Considerations": a comparison of nineteenth-century pro-slavery arguments and twentieth-century antiordination arguments; a consideration of the implications of the character of God for the role and status of women; and an application of principles of cross-cultural mission to the issue of ordaining women in ministry.

The thrust of the book is evident throughout and explicitly stated in the epilogue: "Our conclusion is that ordination and women can go together, that women in pastoral leadership’ is not an oxymoron, but a manifestation of God’s grace in the church" (436). The tone is serious (as befits the subject), and often scholarly (as befits the authors), but it is certainly not pedantic. The content is readily accessible by the general reader. Documentation is plentiful but not obtrusive, and scholarly debates are located in the endnotes, where they belong.

The tone is irenic. Although the book has a clear and consistent point of view, it is never shrill or abrasive. Very rarely are Adventist opponents addressed by name. Far from claiming to be the last word on the subject, it explicitly invites further conversation. "We view our work as a contribution to an ongoing dialog" (436).

As a whole, the book has some of the weaknesses and the strengths typical of collections of essays by various authors. The essays vary in style and depth; they are not all brilliant; the authors have not all done their homework equally well. But each essay has its own contribution to make to the ongoing discussion. There is some overlapping in content; but this sometimes gives the reader the benefit of a second opinion on a particular issue. Furthermore, while there is obvious benefit in reading the whole book, each of the essays is completely intelligible by itself.

Because the authors read and as a group discussed each other’s work, and because they each revised their own essays accordingly, they sing in harmony. At the same time, they do not always sing in unison. Sometimes the claim is the modest one that there is no reason not to ordain women in ministry, and sometimes the claim is the more robust one that there is good reason to ordain them.

Although identifying the "best" of the 20 essays is something like choosing the "best" flavor of ice cream, I would nominate one of the shortest, "Shapes of Ministry in the New Testament and the Early Church," by Robert Johnston. A model of careful scholarship and effective writing, it claims that both the charismatic ministry of apostles and the appointive ministry of deacons included women. In arguing that the name Junia in Romans 16:7 was indeed a feminine rather than masculine name, Johnston corrects the errors of other scholars.

Another example of careful and thorough scholarship is the longest essay in the collection, "Headship, Submission, and Equality in Scripture," by Richard Davidson. While insisting that "headship without subordination" is God’s prescription for marriage after the Fall, Davidson argues that the notion of "headship in Scripture is restricted to marriage and can no more be broadened to refer to men-women relationships in general than can the sexual desire of the wife [in Gen. 3:16cj be broadened to mean the sexual desire of all women for all men" (269). So the idea of male headship in the family cannot be used "to prohibit women from taking positions of leadership, including headship positions over men" (284).

In "Women Priests in Israel: A Case for Their Absence," Jacques Doukhan proposes that the historical reason usually cited—namely, the prominent involvement of women priests in ritual prostitution in the contemporary pagan religions—should be supplemented by another, theological reason—namely, the incompatibility of the priest’s role in killing animals for sacrifice with the woman’s role as the bearer of life and promise.

In "A Theological Understanding of Ordination," Russell Staples includes a summary four-point argument for ordaining women: (1) The basis of ministry is the action of God in an "inner call," which the church cannot afford to ignore, much less deny; (2) since the difference between clergy and laity is one of role and function rather than status, "what serious impediment can there be to the ordination of women?" (150); (3) the silence of Scripture regarding the ordination of women is an invitation "to careful study, prayer for guidance, and the use of sanctified reason" (151); and (4) the ordination of women will contribute to the fulfillment of the church’s mission.

"The Ordination of Women in Light of the Character of God," by Roger Dudley, provides an additional and broader theological argument. For some readers this will be the best argument of all; for others it will seem less compelling because it is less specific.

"Ellen White and Women’s Rights," by Alicia Worley, includes a curious and little-known tidbit of editorial activity. Ellen White originally wrote to "those who feel called out to join the Woman’s Rights Movement, objecting to the aggressive and worldly spirit that seemed to characterize it. However, when this appeared in Testimonies for the Church, 1:421, the reference to the specific endeavor known as "the Woman’s Rights Movement" had been generalized to "the movement in favor of woman’s rights." Perhaps the anonymous editor thought his changes made Ellen White’s meaning clearer, but evidently her objection was to the ethos of a particular organization, not to the advocacy of gender justice.

"‘A Power That Exceeds That of Men:’ Ellen G. White on Women in Ministry, by Jerry Moon, not only brings together many well-known statements but also enlarges the collection to an impressive size with unmistakable power. In view of her insistence that women be financially supported at the same level as men, combined with her comprehensive view of the ministerial vocations open to women (preaching, teaching, pastoral care, evangelism, chaplaincy, counseling, church administration) it is difficult to imagine Ellen White not urging, once the issue was raised, that women in ministry be ordained for the same reasons that men are ordained.

"Culture and Biblical Understanding in a World Church," by Jon Dybdahl, is a patient lesson in the cross-cultural understanding of theology. This is a lesson that everyone in the conversation about the ordination of women needs to learn. It is easy enough for us to recognize the cultural conditioning of our opponents' views; it is less easy for us to recognize the cultural conditioning of our own.

"The Distance and the Difference: Reflections on Issues of Slavery and Women’s Ordination in Adventism, by Walter Douglas, is a comparison of proslavery arguments and antiordination arguments. The fact that antiordination arguments parallel proslavery arguments in many ways does not prove that the former are as wrong-headed as the latter; but it does raise some interesting questions that the opponents of the ordination of women need to address.

Although the book does not give us the last word, it gives us some very important words. It is eminently worth reading.

The "bottom line" is that this is a good book—important and useful. Although it will not satisfy partisans on either side, it is essential reading for any Adventist who wants to participate in the ongoing discussion. And although the information is not all new and the ideas are not entirely original—that would be too much to expect on a subject that has already been discussed so long and passionately—Women in Ministry brings together a wealth of material and deserves to be taken seriously—Fritz Guy, Ph.D., is a professor of theological studies at La Sierra University, Riverside, California. 


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