Editorial: Jesus’ Stories and Equality for Women

(Spectrumbot) #1

If the church’s path to equality for women is boulder-strewn and mountain-steep, that’s due in part to the sheer audacity of Adventism.

What will happen on the last Saturday night of the General Conference Session in San Antonio? Some 60,000 Adventists, astonished once again, will watch the Parade of Nations while costumed representatives of every nation, kindred, tongue and people file by as though marching straight to the Sea of Glass. For turning the then of final unity and joy, just what John imagines in Revelation, into the now of jubilant anticipation, perhaps no religious experience involving any religious community anywhere in the world can top this. Not for pageantry or ethnic reach and not even, perhaps, for aspiration.

Do I exaggerate? No doubt. And if you imagine a multitude without distinctions of status on the Sea of Glass, we will not yet have fully aspired to such a thing. But the spectacle will still amaze. And it will still symbolize a beautiful ideal: that despite differences of language and nationality, culture and tribe, income and education, those who make up the body of Christ must share a common life, a fundamental unity of spirit.

Must? This is what the body of Christ gets to do this. But how? Some of us, after all, have graduate degrees, some little or no formal education. Some of us have lived long in Adventism, some are new and hardly know the church’s long conversation. Some of us feel the disturbing weight of secularization; some bear less of this burden and do not understand those who bear more. In addition, resentments, acknowledged or not, may color what we think and how we feel.

On one reading, at least, three famous parables of Jesus address the urgency and strain of forging a common life, and also the joys of success, partial or otherwise. Amy-Jill Levine’s premise in her new book, "Short Stories by Jesus," is the agreement of scholars that each of the Gospels has its own point of view, its own argument. Her book invites reflection on how Jewish audiences might have heard Jesus’ parables before they were embedded in a particular Gospel writer’s argument. What might “the original provocation” have been? That first provocation could, if we listened for it, correct mistaken readings (such as negative stereotyping of Judaism) and supplement the helpful readings we have inherited by surprising us into fresh perspective.

So consider Luke 15 with its three parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son (or better, perhaps, Two Lost Sons). For Luke all three are about repentance and forgiveness. But in Matthew 18 the Parable of the Lost Sheep (the two others appear only in Luke) concerns the church’s responsibility to care for members who may have been, as the Greek verb suggests, led astray by false doctrine. Such uses of the stories by Gospel writers stimulate Levine’s interest in what she calls the original provocation, in how, that is, the stories might have come across to those who heard them directly from Jesus.

Levine is suspicious of too-easy leaps into allegorization. With respect to the third parable, for example, it is usual think of the father as God, the younger son as the repentant Christian, and the elder son as unrepentant, works-obsessed Israel. But the father is flawed, and the sons don’t have all the traits that would befit their roles in such a reading. Levine surmises instead that in the original telling Jesus was simply addressing the difficulty and joy associated with reconciliation. If the wholeness of a family or community breaks down—some part of it is lost—the finding, even the noticing, of the problem may require great effort. But success, Jesus emphasized, evokes great joy.

The parable of the Lost Son elaborates on the difficulty by drawing attention to the relationship a father and his two sons have with one another. To Jesus’ first hearers this would be familiar territory—think of Adam and his sons, or Abraham and his. For Jesus’ audiences, one surprise would be that here neither son is, so to speak, the star. The younger is self-absorbed and possibly conniving. The elder allows his resentment over being left out to crush any joy he might have felt at his brother’s homecoming. The father falls short as well: he is compassionate in the way Jewish sources say a father is meant to be, but he indulges his younger son’s rash wishes and later overlooks, at least to begin, inviting his elder son to the party. In this parable reconciliation proves difficult: as is not the case for sheep and coins, memories and resentments get in the way. Jesus doesn’t say, indeed, whether the elder son ever joins the party, or whether the younger does or does not continue to take advantage of his father’s love.

The question remains—this, Levine suggests, is the original provocation—of how the listener might respond to breakdowns in his or her own relationships or communities. Can we deal with our resentments, or adjust our desires, in such a way as to restore wholeness? Can we make peace with the seeming endlessness of the reconciliation process? These questions apply to personal life and to public and church life as well. Just think, for example, of Adventism’s long journey toward equality for women, and of the inventive if still disruptive compromise that will be considered in San Antonio. For the sake of wholeness—of reconciliation—can the world church give “division executive committees” leeway to decide for themselves about ordination of women? Other examples, equally trenchant concerning challenges associated with reconciliation, come easily to mind.

With respect to the vote in San Antonio, what do you think? With all we hold in common, we remain, as it must sometimes feel, unmanageably diverse; no argument about equality for women has, so far, won over the entire church. But if in different ways we feel hurt by this reality, we still love our church’s international character: it seems so like the New Testament vision. Who could want any part of our community to be lost? If we hear Jesus the way his original audiences might have heard him, we treasure wholeness even as we face the difficulty, and seeming endlessness, of the reconciliation process. In this light, the question delegates in San Antonio will consider seems ingenious. For the sake of wholeness—of reconciliation—shall we, or shall we not, find our way to middle ground? On a matter that escapes our consensus, yet elicits great passion, shall we, or shall we not, trust “division executive committees” to do what seems best to them? Delegates who vote Yes may have to master a resentment or adjust a desire, but surely their Yes will reflect the spirit of Jesus when it comes to the value—the audacity—of shared existence under Christ.

But wait. Won’t key texts continue to careen like bullets into Adventism’s wounded body? I suppose so. But delegates can rise above this, and at every opportunity between now and San Antonio our leaders need to say so.

Charles Scriven is chair of the Adventist Forum Board of Directors.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6818

(Kim Green) #2

Interesting question, but I do believe that there will be many that will not care. They may feel justified in “holding firm to the banner of truth” and not care how it impacts the rest of the church. I could be wrong…and soon we shall all see.

(Carolyn Parsons) #3

I continue to believe that culture leads the way on the issue of equality of women. Areas where women enjoy most equality lean towards ordination for women. Those areas where women have low family and social status seem to be the most against ordination for women.

In an attempt to understand this issue, I went to the Southern-Africa Indian-Ocean division entry in the yearbook. What I find there is not substantially different from other divisions in the yearbook. Leadership is dominated by men and women are rarely serve in the executive area and are concentrated in the Education, family and children’s ministries. It seems like there are some barriers to women that are worldwide.

So I got to thinking about what is really happening at the in the church on the issue of ordination and leadership for women.

First we have the true believers, on both sides. We have a group that believes that the Bible rejects the idea of ordaining women. Then there are those who believe that there should be no barrier to ordination because it is simple discrimination to do otherwise.

Then there are the accommodationalists; those who have their own opinions but don’t think it is necessary for force ordination of women on the world.

It would have been possible for the World church leadership to show leadership on this issue. They hid behind committees and meetings and made little to no attempt to prepare the world church for what would happen depending on the vote. There has been little transparency and mostly idle threats from the presidency of the GC. This does nothing to prepare the world church for either outcome and only encourages division in the church body.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #4

A very interesting turn of phrase–Not wanting any part of our community lost–
Jesus taught us to pray by beginning"Our Father Which art in heaven–"
if we have the same Father we are kin, despite denominational affiliation. He has the whole world in His hand. The history of Adventist health care has demonstrated that value and continues to so so. would that its evangelism would be as ecumenical. Dr. John Stott was a clear voice calling for that fellowship. Adventists encourages open communion, which implies open fellowship. So beyond WO may the church welcome everyone who call Jesus Lord. Tom Z

(Ed Reifsnyder) #5

Indeed, indeed. Our GC President missed a golden opportunity to act the senior statesman by putting forward a proactive recommendation that the delegates vote for a compromise that allows each division to decide for itself on an issue on which there is not consensus. Alas! He did not for reasons that aren’t clear. Idealogy? Re-election concerns? Who knows?

(Elaine Nelson) #6

The first Christians were faced with a similar but equally impossible barrier to consensus. The Holy Spirit must have been with the apostles when they refused to yield to the Jews who wished to continue their traditions. Eventually, the agreement was to separate, each going their separate ways.

Was this God’s will? Would it have been a very different church? It did become much more open, far less exclusive, and welcoming all who accepted Christ. Adventists have erected so many barriers in its FBs that it rivals Judaism. Is this not a repetition of the church in its very beginning?

(Kim Green) #7

Ed, from what I observed when he spoke before anyone else voicing their opinions (forgot which meeting this was but someone else might) TW is adamantly opposed to WO. I could not believe that he had actually gave his own opinion when he should have acted his own part and kept his opinions to himself as President and let the delegates do their job without his influence.

(Marianne Faust) #8

Kim I cannot believe that the President opposes WO…This can only be justified by the “headship theology”, rightly rejected by our theologians. How could this possibly work?? A President who believes in a different theology??

(Kim Green) #9

I wouldn’t be shocked or surprised, marianne, if this is the case. As to how this could possibly work- it will work for the 2nd and 3rd World Countries just fine…not so much for the rest of the world :slight_smile:

(Thomas J Zwemer) #10

We sing a hymn that reads in part–Praise God from Whom all blessings flow–Should we not also sing --“praise God to whom all blessings may flow” Christ offers an open invitation. he stands at an open door. That door is not denominationally labeled. A church offers fellowship indeed, but salvation is in Christ alone. SA will not change that. Tom Z


Thank you for another thoughtful article introducing another book new to me. I continue to hope that “the inventive if still disruptive compromise” can be the way out of this situation.


Randy Roberts just preached a sermon entitled “Why Can’t the Church Be More Like the Marines?” The main point was why aren’t we more sad to lose a member? You know, like the Marines, no man left behind…

(Kim Green) #13

Yes, just why aren’t members missed? I think that it has more to do with being/not being Christian rather than just Adventist.

(Kim Green) #14

From your lips to God’s ears, Tom.

(Bill Garber) #15

What an inspiration you see in the finale at General Conference session, Chuck!

The first last-Sabbath finale I remember was in San Francisco in the 1950’s. I think it was the year the church paraded a bushy-haired, grass-skirted, barefoot-in-the-city member from the South Pacific. For the most part the finale was constituted by missionaries dressed in the costumes of the countries where they were ‘stationed.’

Now the finale is populated by people born and living in the various world countries represented. The clothes fit much more naturally. There is a growing reality of true oneness. General conference officers and Division leaders call the distant cities of the world, home. Like the Roman Catholic church, Seventh-day Adventists are vastly more numerous beyond Europe and the West. It will not take our church as long as it took the Roman church to be led by a South American or an African or an Asian.

And there is little doubt that Seventh-day Adventists are already much further along with women in leadership roles than most Christian churches around the world. We are indeed, one in Christ. And the last Sabbath evening finale in San Antonio will demonstrate that the cultures of the world are merging like never before in any Christian church.

While the Holy Spirit has not been in as big of a hurry as some members in terms of gender inclusion, there is no slowing the cultural inclusion necessary for gender inclusion to be fully embraced around the world by the Body of Christ

Indeed, the foundation for true oneness will make it obviously both safe and compelling for the church to one by one first ignore and then to eventually remove difference-determining fundamental beliefs from its list of now 28 ways to tell if one is a Seventh-day Adventist. We as a church seem well on our way to realizing that when it comes to beliefs we have become like David dressed in Saul’s battle gear. Like David, we are increasingly convinced that we do not need any of that to share our faith.

Indeed, we will be observing Jesus’ description of what defines His disciples during the last-Sabbath finale in San Antonio. The memory of that experience will both energize and free the church and especially its leaders for its future.

(Carolyn Parsons) #16

Thanks Bill. I am glad that you pointed out. We are, more than ever, an interconnected world and the values of inclusiveness is part of that world.

(Allen Shepherd) #18

How can the ex. com.s be allowed to decide a moral issue? Is that how we decide what is moral, the votes of administrators? And if it is immoral not to ordain women in NAD, how can it not be immoral not to in Africa or S. America? I think the delegates have to vote NO. If this is a moral issue, halfway measures are immoral as well. It is immoral for the church to not fully embrace WO.

Key texts as bullets!? And here I thought they were a line of evidence for truth! Doesn’t this mean we should avoid the Bible altogether? I mean, if we will only be hurt by it, why embrace it?

(Elaine Nelson) #19

Of all the 28 current FBs are any “immoral” if not followed or believed? Is it immoral not to believe in the IJ as taught by the SdA church, is it immoral not to observe the seventh day of the calendar? Is your neighbor immoral because he does not observe that day, or the God you worship?

Immorality, in common usage, is the flouting of civil laws such as stealing, murder, dishonoring parents; those laws in the Decalogue were in other cultures both before and after Moses received them. They are universally found in all cultures today. But the other laws in the Decalogue and Torah are specific only to the Jews and they are never universally considered to be “moral” laws. Adventists have never separated them and it has caused great confusion in citing “sins.”

(Charles Scriven) #20

My point, Allen, is this: all evidence suggests that as a community we’re not sure about full equality for women. So in light of our disagreement, plus the strong feelings of the differing camps, let’s follow, I am saying further, the example of Gamaliel, who against the advice of conservatives in his day said “Let’s see” with regard to Peter and his newly Christian allies.

I’m sure you have a way of saying you love Gamaliel, but what is it? He seemed to think that humility sometimes requires patience with respect to disagreement. In what way do you agree with Gamaliel?


P. S. Bible texts as bullets? They can be. Consider the record of pro-slavery ministers in the ante-bellum south. When the Bible is read as a story culminating in Christ (Heb. 1:1-3) it becomes the intended written means by which we are led into divine grace–and true community.

(Allen Shepherd) #21

Then, according to your reasoning, it is not immoral to leave the ministry to folk of the male sex. So, you are in agreement with me. Not a common happening, but I will take it.