Ordination of women: a question of status or function?

Is the issue of women s ordination sociological or theological? Are women being denied certain privileges simply to keep them "in their place"?

Roger L. Dudley is director of the Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

As we as Seventh-day Adventists continue to grapple with the issue of ordaining women to the gospel ministry, theologians are preparing material and publishing articles on both sides of the question. However, while the right course must eventually be determined by right theology, the situation in which we find ourselves now may be better understood from a sociological perspective than a theological one. Viewing the question from the sociological perspective may help us discover certain "hidden agendas" that obscure the real issues and keep sincere Christians from coming to agreement.

Therefore in this article I will not deal with theological arguments, but will attempt to show why the problem exists in the first place, not only for Seventh-day Adventists but for religion in general and Christianity in particular. I believe that a better understanding of the problem will point the way toward its solution.

Religion as legitimation

The concept of legitimation is crucial to our understanding of the forces that affect social decisions. According to Peter Berger, the term refers to "socially objectivated 'knowledge' that serves to explain and justify the social order." It provides "answers to any questions about the 'why' of institutional arrangements. "1 By social objectivations Berger means that which passes for knowledge in any given group.

Another way of putting this is to say that a legitimation gives a reason why a person or group who claims authority or leadership should be taken seriously. Why should followers accept these claims and render allegiance? The request of the religious leaders to Jesus is ever pertinent: " 'Tell us by what authority you are doing these things' " (Luke 20:2, N.I.V.).

Now while would-be leaders have various sources of authority to which they may appeal, Berger holds that "religion has been the historically most widespread and effective instrumentality of legitimation. All legitimation maintains socially defined reality. Religion legitimates so effectively because it relates the precarious reality constructions of empirical societies with ultimate reality" "beyond the contingencies of human meaning and human activity." 2

For example: Moses could come down from Mount Sinai with the tablets on which God Himself had written the law (Ex. 32:15, 16). The prophets could say, "The word of the Lord came to me" (Jer. 1:4, N.I.V.). The early church per formed wonders and miraculous signs that created awe and respect among the populace (Acts 2:43; 5:12-16). The young Ellen Harmon could demonstrate supernatural physical phenomena in vision and point to fulfilled prophecies as evidence of her divine commission. And leaders in the church can claim God's appointment as a legitimation for their spiritual authority (Heb. 13:7, 17).

By its very nature religion tends to be conservative, since it seeks to transmit the most worthwhile values of the past. (However, religion has also proved to be a powerful catalyst for social change when its ideals have challenged contemporary social practices; for example, humane treatment for the mentally impaired.) It is not surprising, then, that religious reasons have often been given to legitimate the status quo. Some examples are: the "divine right" of kings, based on such Scriptures as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17; the Crusades; the persecution of heretics by church-dominated governments in the Middle Ages; the defense of slavery by Southern clergy, using texts such as 1 Peter 2:18-21; the exploitation by colonial nations under the guise of spreading the gospel; and, more recently, the production of nuclear weapons and the retaining of the Panama Canal. It would be a digression to enlarge on those items, but all have been legitimated by religious reasoning.

The gender caste system

According to Meredith B. McGuire, "a caste system is a social arrangement in which access to power and socioecoriomic benefits are fixed, typically from birth, according to certain ascribed characteristics of the individual." 3 Religion has been used (and still is) "to explain why certain social inequalities exist. These explanations justify both the privileges of the upper classes or castes and the relative nonprivileges of the lower ones." 4

While historically religion has been used to legitimate a number of caste systems, our interest here is in its use to create and maintain a gender caste system. "Women's status in most religious groups is also circumscribed by caste. Gender is far more important than theological or spiritual qualifications in determining whether an individual can perform certain rituals such as carrying the Torah or consecrating the communion elements." 5

In most historic religions, men have held all significant positions of authority and have used these to set up and interpret norms and practices, and to develop ecclesiastical organizational structures that effectively subordinate women. In various religions this has been symbolized by having certain sacred areas of the temple that women cannot enter, or by allowing women to participate in public worship only as spectators. This separation clearly communicates their inferior status. 6

Women's lack of status and power in the religious group has been most clearly communicated through their inferior ritual position. In Christianity this has especially meant being denied the right to administer the sacraments. Ability to consecrate the Eucharist is a special sign of both spiritual and social power. The church has thus kept women in their subordinate status by denying them the authority to do this that is by not ordaining them to the priesthood. 7 The other major sacrament is baptism. As early as the fourth century the Apostolic Constitution (all-male authorship) stated that "baptism by women is dangerous and godless." 8

Some research has traced the historical roots of the exclusion of women from "priestly roles" to the fear on the part of men that women are "unclean" during the menstrual period and therefore could not administer the sacraments without contaminating them. In the Middle Ages women were even believed to be under the influence of the devil during menstruation. Thus the vestiges of a ceremonial law still cling to Christian practice. 9

But how can religion be used to legitimate a gender caste system? Consider a few points. In nearly all religions the most important deity is depicted as male. Much is made of the fact that Eve was the first to sin and that therefore all women should be in a subordinate position to men (although that is not the reading of Genesis 3). An Orthodox Jewish prayer states: "Praised are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not created me a woman." 10 Many hymns treat women as if invisible; for example, "Rise up, O Men of God!" And in Adventist circles it is customary to refer to the leadership of the church as "the brethren."

The most powerful legitimations in Christianity, however, have been the use of certain New Testament scriptures such as 1 Timothy 2:11-15 ("I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent" [verse 12, N.I.V.]) to justify a lower, submissive place for women. I will not digress from my task in order to discuss these scriptures (the theologians are doing that). The question for the church is whether these statements are part of the central message of the Christian gospel or whether thev are merely the product of the first-century culture's gender-role distinctions and thus of limited geographical and chronological application.

Actually, few Adventists would accept these statements at face value as the divine command for us today, for women have historically played an important role in preaching and teaching in the Adventist Church (the prime example is Ellen White) and are the backbone of local congregational leader ship in many places. But some would make a partial application of the statements to deny to women the full recognition and equality that would be given by ordination.

Some will be uncomfortable at this point. "If you explain away clear Bible statements as being culturally conditioned," they will say, "isn't there a danger that everything in Scripture may be explained away, leaving no absolutes to build a faith upon? Don't Adventists believe in taking the Bible just as it reads?" The answer to the first question is Yes. There is a danger, and it is real. Nevertheless, the church has no choice. It must always be in the process of sifting timeless truth from cultural norms or else find itself locked into the distant past with no contemporary relevance.

That makes the answer to the second question No. Adventists have always found it necessary to reapply the meaning of certain scriptures. Most Adventists don't celebrate the Passover in spite of clear commands like Exodus 12:14- A church leader who killed a couple found in the act of adultery would be considered an unbalanced criminal, not a hero, despite the example of Phinehas (Num. 25:6-13). We would not consider it necessary or even right to return a runaway slave (see Philemon 12). Ellen White approved the breaking of slavery laws in her day. And if 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35 means that women today must be silent in church, only asking questions of their own husbands at home, then the Adventist Church stands in fundamental apostasy from its very beginning because of the key founding role of Ellen White, not to mention the local leadership roles assumed by women today.

The Bible is not a collection of specific rules, but a series of stories in which divine principles are illustrated by showing how God worked in the lives of human beings. The challenge to the church, now as always, is to discover the principles and apply them to situations that confront God's people today.

When women break the pattern

This brings us to the question Under what conditions are women most likely to be granted equality with men in leadership positions? The answer: In the early years of a religious movement. New religious movements represent a break with traditional authority and therefore are not as likely to have a strictly defined chain of command. They often include charismatic authority. Thus they are more open to positions of leadership for women, especially if women have the charismatic gifts.

New religious movements also tend to draw their followers disproportionately from the nonprivileged classes. Years ago classical sociologist Max Weber wrote: "The religion of the disprivileged classes ... is characterized by a tendency to allot equality to women. . . . But only in very rare cases does this practice continue beyond the first stage of a religious community's formation,- when the pneumatic manifestations of charisma are valued as hallmarks of specifically religious exaltation. Thereafter, as routinization and regimentation of community relationships set in, a reaction takes place against pneumatic manifestations among women, which come to be regarded as dishonorable and morbid." 11

In the nineteenth century, women played important leadership roles in emerging religions such as Pentecostalism, Christian Science, and, of course, Seventh-day Adventism. The Adventist Church not only accepted the charismatic authority of Ellen White but placed women in other key roles, such as treasurer of the General Conference. But with the passing of time and the creation of more traditional authority structures, a gender caste system has evolved, and women have found themselves subordinated as in traditional religions.

A recent report revealed that women hold fewer leadership positions in the Adventist Church in North America today than they did early in this century.
In 1905, twenty local conferences had women treasurers, and thirty local conferences had women executive secretaries. Since 1950 no women have held
either office. A significant decrease has also occurred in the number of women in conference departmental posts. 12 In recent years the women's rights movement and its influence on society in general has led to some improvement in the positioning of women within the church. But the admission of women to ordination remains a formidable hurdle.

Thus the church finds itself in the dilemma of, on the one hand, having to defend the call of God to women in order to legitimate the authority of Ellen White, while, on the other hand, having to deny the call of God to women for ministry in order to justify its reluctance to admit women into the full ministerial circle through ordination.


And make no mistake! The question is one of symbolic spiritual and social authority. According to McGuire, "the significance of the ordination of women
is that it presents an alternative image of women and an alternative definition of gender roles." 13 While the official interpretation of ordination emphasizes service, the implications of at least one of the suggested charges in the Manual for Ministers are clear: "Your ordination is a public recognition of your divine appointment, and you're now invested with full ecclesiastical authority." 14 In truth the act of ordination does not convey authority over others, for Jesus taught that leaders are to be servants (Mark 10:42-45). Yet ordination is widely perceived as giving authority, and it is the perception that determines the
status. The nature of this authority is further highlighted by the fact that only ordained ministers are eligible to become presidents of conferences and higher organizations.

Some would contend that women are fully equal with men in the church but have been assigned different roles and functions. Such either ignore or do not understand sociological history. The separate but equal functions correspond to the separate but "equal" schools of pre-Civil-rights-laws days. Some of us are more equal than others. In truth, women can now perform most of the functions of ministry. They can preach, win converts, teach, pray publicly, chair boards, and counsel parishioners. Many perform these functions--in all divisions of the world field.

What is it they cannot do without ordination? Administer the "sacraments"--baptism and the Lord's Supper. Why? Because in historical religion this is the symbol of spiritual authority. It is not function that is in question, but status. Are women in the church fully equal to men, or in some way still subordinate to them?

Socialization and social control

Why do well-meaning, intelligent people who live in a society that stresses equal treatment cling to caste systems when it comes to religion? The answer is found in the twin processes of socialization and social control.

McGuire describes the process by which socialization ingrains certain social values in individuals: "Religion is a personally meaningful combination of beliefs, values, and practices that is usually related to the world view of a larger group into which that individual has been socialized. In socialization, the individual typically receives many of these beliefs, values, and practices from representatives of the larger group such as parents and teachers. Much of this received meaning system becomes internalized--that is, made a part of the individual's own way of thinking about self and others." 15

A part of this socialization process is the group's definition of maleness and femaleness. "Males and females are taught their culturally assigned gender roles--the social group's expectations of behaviors, attitudes, and motivations 'appropriate' to males or females." 16 Thus many women oppose ordination for women and choose subordination to men, because this concept has become thoroughly internalized by years of socialization. It seems the "right" thing to do, even though it denies full dignity to womanhood.

The related process of social control "seeks to contain individual or group resistances within tolerable limits." " This is usually done informally as the group makes evident its disapproval of what is seen to be social deviance. Thus women who aspire to the ministry may sense a coolness from their peer group, may be openly discouraged, or may even be shunned. Social control may also have its more formal aspects. The news media recently carried a story of a Mormon woman who received church discipline because she openly supported the proposed equal rights amendment.

In view of all this, what should the Seventh-day Adventist Church do? If our Biblical and theological studies inform us of the dignity and equality of all persons as created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28) and as restored through the liberating power of the gospel (Gal. 3:26-29), then we must not let ourselves be bound by sociological considerations. Sociology tells us how groups have traditionally organized themselves--it does not say that they must continue in that pattern.

Much of what I have written is not directed specifically to Adventists, but applies to religion in general. Adventists, however, now have an opportunity to make a bold statement about their belief in the worth of people under the gospel. They have the chance to break the gender caste system and discontinue using religious reasons to legitimate treating some persons as if they were of less worth than others for reasons beyond those persons' control. "Christ came to break down every wall of partition. . . . The life of Christ established a religion in which there is no caste." 18 "No distinction on account of nationality, race, or caste is recognized by God."19

By removing the barrier to the ordination of women, by according them full equality of status in the structure of the church, Seventh-day Adventists may now make a positive statement about the character of God to the watching world.

1 Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a
Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday,
1967), p. 29.

2 Ibid., p. 32.

3 Meredith B. McGuire, Religion: The Social
Context (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co.,
1981), p. 91.

4 lbid.

5 Ibid., p. 92.

6 Ibid., pp. 93, 94.

7 See Ruth Wallace, "Bringing Women In:
Marginality Within the Churches," Sociological
Analysis, 36, No. 4 (1975): 291-303.

8 Clara Maria Henning, "Canon Law and the
Battle of the Sexes," in Religion and Sexism, ed.
Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1974), p. 273.

9 Wallace, op. tit., p. 294; Henning, op. tit.,
pp. 272,273.

10 Quoted in Sally Priesand, Judaism and the New
Woman (New York: BehrmanHouse, 1975), p. 57.

11 Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1963), p. 104.

12 Jane Allen, "Women of Mission," Focus: The
Andrews University Magazine, 20 (Fall, 1984): 15.

13 McGuirey, Op. cit., p. 95.

14 Manual for Ministers (Washington, D.C.:
General Conference of SDA, 1977), p. 26.

15 McGuire, op. cit., p. 89.

16 Ibid., p. 90; see Laurie Davidson and Laura
Kramer Gordon, The Sociology of Gender (Chicago:
RandMcNally, 1979), pp. 11-13.

17 Berger, op. cit., p. 29

18 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1942), p. 25.

19 White, Christ's Object Lessons (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), p.
386.

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Roger L. Dudley is director of the Institute of Church Ministry, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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