From Heaven or from Men?

I take my text from Matthew 11:27-33

Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?”

But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?”

And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.”

And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.

It started as soon as there was religion, this question of authority. You can be as spiritual as you like on your own time. But the moment you move into religion, the work of God becomes a struggle over power. Control. The exigent demands of the gospel fade before policies and certificates and budgets and organizational flow charts. What would any group be without leadership? But religion has a tendency to go too far. There were times when Christianity became so overbearing that you weren’t even allowed to ask God’s forgiveness: someone in authority had to do it for you.

So here’s Jesus going about Palestine doing and saying the most astonishing things ever done and ever said. And yet that didn’t let Jesus escape the authority question. The chief priests and elders likely knew the answer to their first question: “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus was performing miracles before their eyes. They could have had no doubt about where that power came from.

Their real intent is revealed in the followup question: “Who gave you this authority?”

Because we surely didn’t.

No authority to make blind people see? Dead people live? Deaf people hear? Not allowed to say things that, in a sentence, a brief narrative, illuminate one’s life forever?

So it seems. You’re not allowed to do good without a credential from us.

Jesus makes his answer contingent on their evaluation of John’s baptism. Was it, he asks, from heaven or from men? Could they identify spiritual authority when it was shown them? He wants them to consider the possibility that God-given authority is self-evident. Authentic Godliness is shown in the life, Divine giftedness in the results. In another instance Jesus offered this as his only credential: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22).

Godly women in our church are now claiming the call to pastoral ministry. They want us to recognize them. This is hardly a precipitate request. We’ve made them prove themselves for decades, while they wait for us to grant them authority to do what the Holy Spirit has gifted them to do.

I know you denominational dignitaries have studied and voted (and will vote again). But I ask you: did any part of your decision involve observing the work of these female pastors?

Did you talk with them? Listen to them? Watch them at work? If you did, you may be struck, as I have been, with how exceptional most of them are. Many of us male pastors are rather average. We didn’t have to qualify at a very high standard, after all: being male, spiritually-minded, and willing was enough. The female pastors I’ve encountered are extraordinary. They care for needs with sensitivity. They preach with power. They lead with finesse, evangelize with creativity. Listen to Chris Oberg preach. From heaven, or from men? Or Elizabeth Talbot exegete Scripture. From heaven, or from men? See how a young pastor, Tara VinCross, transformed her Philadelphia congregation. From heaven, or from men? Observe how humbly and thoughtfully Sandra Roberts administers the largest conference in the NAD.

I ask you, as Jesus asked the Jewish leaders about John: is their ministry from heaven, or from men? If it’s from heaven, you must accept it. But if, after being impressed by their work for God, you continue to insist that permission is yours to grant or refuse, then you are admitting that you place greater value on authority that comes from men.

In the end, Jesus doesn’t answer the chief priests’ and elders’ questions.

The usual explanation is that Jesus is being merely cunning: that he found a rhetorical contrivance by which he could shut them up. But the construction of the conversation suggests something more. I believe Jesus was saying, “If you can’t see that God has the authority to qualify someone for His work, then I can’t explain this to you. You are locked into such an institutional mindset that you couldn’t understand it even if I explained it to you for a thousand years.” It’s like Paul said: spiritual things are spiritually discerned, and if you lack that discernment, then you simply “cannot understand them” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

I have felt something of that through the years as I’ve listened to this discussion in my denomination, but never so strongly as in the era of Advindicate and its cousins. If you want to enter a place of swirling insanity, question someone who quotes “an elder must be the husband of one wife” about why the text’s sole purpose is to specify gender, not married state or monogamy. Ask them why a single man can be ordained, or one who’s been divorced and remarried, but a woman cannot. Ask them why gentiles are qualified for ordination, but Galatians 3:28 doesn’t claim the same opportunity for females. Ask them why a young woman was the single most influential figure in this denomination, but her female followers can’t be allowed to do full ministry.[1]

Or perhaps you shouldn’t ask. The answers are alchemical: common sense transmuted by ectoplasm-lubricated illogic into a condescending Christian sexism. Because like the elders who questioned Jesus, the frame of reference seems to be not what God is doing, but what we do.

Once we recognized spiritual giftedness. People without any ecclesiastical endorsement founded this denomination. A farmer. A retired ship captain. A teenage girl. We heard them and knew they spoke truth. Should we vote to reject ordination for women in July, it will be evidence that we have lost a vital bit of discernment, that we have grown too arthritic to follow the Spirit as we once did. Within our boundaries, God now speaks through us. We seem not able see what new thing He might be initiating. We only know what we do on His behalf. Which is why we keep trotting out the popish old statement that the General Conference is God’s highest authority on earth, even though Ellen White herself repudiated it.[2]

I give you only this bit of comfort: when a church has lost the ability to recognize spiritual gifts, its approval isn’t vital. I have often wondered why called women desire ordination at all after what they’ve seen of us. Perhaps they should shun it, lest they become like us. (If not this year, it’s likely women will get ordination in our denomination, eventually—about the time we men have bankrupted it with too many office buildings and a surfeit of useless travel, and diminished it through inattention to small dying congregations.)

But if spiritual things are spiritually discerned, then perhaps institutional things can only be institutionally discerned. And so we may be doing with women’s ordination the only thing we are still able to do: analyze texts and vote. But how much more true to our own history it would have been were our first consideration the evidence of the Spirit at work in the lives of called women!

[1]Keep your eyes open for the possibility that a few may try to deemphasize Ellen White’s authority in order to facilitate a headship theology.

[2]"That these [leaders] should stand in a sacred place, to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be, that is past." - General Conference Bulletin 1901 page 25 {PC422}

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6824
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You’ve identified the absolute crux of the matter. Thank you.

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A good reason why both men and women, both in ministry and laity, should shun the practice of ordination until the church can formally define it as an “acknowledgement of a calling and a setting apart for service” rather than a bestowing of authority.

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Honestly, I don’t know how we’d make that happen widely enough to make it effective. For years, we’ve had some male pastors decline ordination in favor of commissioned credentials out of solidarity w/ women, but it’s been isolated.

It seems to me that the question of God’s authority in calling whomever God wants to call isn’t identical to the question of what authority isn’t held through ordination. It seems to me that this column is saying the former is being ignored. The latter actually was addressed by TOSC & a consensus statement achieved.

In any case, the inequality needs to be solved first, because without that—whatever the new definition—I’m certain that some leaders will apply it in ways that exclude women from ordination. Many believe that males represent God better, authority or not.

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[quote]Every church traces its creed through an uninterrupted transmission from Christ and the Apostles. And truly every Christian creed that has been derived from Christ must have come down to the present generation through a certain transmission. But that does not prove that it alone of all that has been transmuted, excluding all the rest, can be the sole truth, admitting of no doubt.

Every branch in a tree comes from the root in unbroken connection; but the fact that each branch comes from the one root, does not prove at all that each branch was the only one. It is precisely the same with the Church. Every church presents exactly the same proofs of the succession, and even the same miracles, in support of its authenticity, as every other. So that there is but one strict and exact definition of what is a church (not of something fantastic which we would wish it to be, but of what it is and has been in reality)–a church is a body of men who claim for themselves that they are in complete and sole possession of the truth. And these bodies, having in course of time, aided by the support of the temporal authorities, developed into powerful institutions, have been the principal obstacles to the diffusion of a true comprehension of the teaching of Christ.

It could not be otherwise. The chief peculiarity which distinguished Christ’s teaching from previous religions consisted in the fact that those who accepted it strove ever more and more to comprehend and realize its teaching. But the Church doctrine asserted its own complete and final comprehension and realization of it.

Strange though it may seem to us who have been brought up in the erroneous view of the Church as a Christian institution, and in contempt for heresy, yet the fact is that only in what was called heresy was there any true movement, that is, true Christianity, and that it only ceased to be so when those heresies stopped short in their movement and also petrified into the fixed forms of a church. The Kingdom of God Is Within You, p.40.[/quote]

Tolstoi goes on to quote E. de Pressense’ who notes, “The very use of the word heresy seems an attack upon liberty of conscience and thought.” And summarizes further citation from “Histoire du Dogme” (Paris, 1869) by saying

[quote]"that every opinion which differs from the code of dogmas we believe in at a given time, is heresy. But of course at any given time and place men always believe in something or other; and this belief in something, indefinite at any place, at some time, cannot be a criterion of truth.

"It all amounts to this: since ubi Christus ibi Ecclesia, then Christus is where we are.

"Every so-called heresy, regarding, as it does, its own creed as the truth, can just as easily find in Church history a series of illustrations of its own creed, can use all Pressensé’s arguments on its own behalf, and can call its own creed the one truly Christian creed. And that is just what all heresies do and have always done.

“The only definition of heresy (the word αἵρεσις, means a part) is this: the name given by a body of men to any opinion which rejects a part of the Creed professed by that body. The more frequent meaning, more often ascribed to the word heresy, is --that of an opinion which rejects the Church doctrine founded and supported by the temporal authorities.” pp.41-42[/quote]

[quote]"The follower of Christ, whose service means an ever-growing understanding of his teaching, and an ever-closer fulfillment of it, in progress toward perfection, cannot, just because he is a follower, of Christ, claim for himself or any other that he understands Christ’s teaching fully and fulfills it. Still less can he claim this for any body of men.

"To whatever degree of understanding and perfection the follower of Christ may have attained, he always feels the insufficiency of his understanding and fulfillment of it, and is always striving toward a fuller understanding and fulfillment. And therefore, to assert of one’s self or of any body of men, that one is or they are in possession of perfect understanding and fulfillment of Christ’s word, is to renounce the very spirit of Christ’s teaching.

"Strange as it may seem, the churches as churches have always been, and cannot but be, institutions not only alien in spirit to Christ’s teaching, but even directly antagonistic to it. With good reason Voltaire calls the Church l’infâme; with good reason have all or almost all so-called sects of Christians recognized the Church as the scarlet woman foretold in the Apocalypse; with good reason is the history of the Church the history of the greatest cruelties and horrors.

“The churches as churches are not, as many people suppose, institutions which have Christian principles for their basis, even though they may have strayed a little away from the straight path. The churches as churches, as bodies which assert their own infallibility, are institutions opposed to Christianity. There is not only nothing in common between the churches as such and Christianity, except the name, but they represent two principles fundamentally opposed and antagonistic to one another. One represents pride, violence, self-assertion, stagnation, and death; the other, meekness, penitence, humility, progress, and life.” p.43[/quote]

“We cannot serve these two masters; we have to choose between them.”

Trust The BEing.

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This holds for family systems, as well—no one has yet been able to tell us what is at stake for them, personally or spiritually, should women be ordained or they afforded their spouses full family equality. What do the resistant think is going to happen? If that decision brings end times closer, tornadoes and earthquakes more likely, then maybe they should board up their homes and sleep under their doorjambs. One Adventist employee, highly placed, did suggest that were women ordained, “the Denomination’s entire social system will be changed.” That was twenty-five years ago, but all I could say was, “Yes, exactly.”

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Correct, because it is entirely coming from an institutional state of mind…which means that it may have little or nothing to do with what God intends or desires. An institution is set up to perpetuate itself as its main function and that is what Adventism doing.

How much God is blessing the current state of things is being reflected in the downward membership spiral within NAD. If Adventism were a healthy organism this would not be happening and all of its “branches” would be flourishing. I am not at all hopeful that things will change but pray that they do learn to truly follow His voice.

Thank-you, Loren, for yet another thoughtful article. I hope that they listen.

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excellent! Christianity has gone in two directions, The course that the Hebrews followed from the days of Ezra and another that is following the course of Baal. unfortunately Adventism is in the post Ezra camp. Both camps are self aggrandizing and self indulgent in their own way. Christ was and is Anathema to both ideologies. Christ did away with the sons of Levi, so get over it you guys. Tom Z

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Anyone have any ideas for a more lively and appropriate picture for the piece?

why
Not a picture of Mary running to tell the disciples He is Risen! Tom Z

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Or a picture of a profile of a man facing both directions…best if you can see that they represent evil/good.

Not more lively, but authoritative in a less trite way:

http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Matthew_11_1611

Sort of an ironic take on tradition. The second page can easily be dragged off the site, and I don’t believe the original KJV is copyright protected (it’s been more than fifty years, hasn’t it?).

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A picture of a woman being ordained by a man. That says it all, ordination is a human institution and ordination of a woman is an evolution of a human-created institution.

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A man’s being ordained by a woman. Norma Osborn and son, for example. I wish we could find a woman pastor from an emerging nation, which would be better.

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Is Bakersfield an emerging nation?

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How anyone can read Loren’s brilliant examination of male institutionalism and still maintain that the church should continue to be a male-ordered church is more closely related to the Neanderthals than today’s modern humans.

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the REASON Christ was crucified was – He taught without authority – Did not have his Ph.D from the Temple School, and therefore Did Not have his graduation colored cap, his gown with hash marks on the sleeves, and and his colored sash for all to see, and no Magna Cum Laude cords hanging around his neck.
The Real Question about Jesus was, How can he say these things, having never gone to school?
He had no Diploma, so he was questioned, and rejected by the people.
When he healed on the Sabbath, it again was, WHO told you that you could do this today? WE would have told you to wait till after Sundown, or come back tomorrow morning.
When he told the man lying on his bed, everyone covered with dust from the roof caving in, that his sins were forgiven, Christ in the person of the Jesus body, said which is easier? Christ in the person of the Jesus body, ALSO told his Church followers to Forgive Sins. That is for us today. Again, WHO gave permission for this Jesus to tell the 12, the 70 to Forgive Sins [an event ONLY God could do]?
When one has No Authority from Institutions, Crucifixion is the Gift for Doing Good. For bringing the Good News. This is the RULES of the Institutional Church, the RULES of the Men [Leaders] of the Church by Tradition.
A WARNING to All Other Heretics, and Potential Heretics, not to mess with Rules and Tradition.

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reminds me when I once asked Kevin about the female pastors in China, if their ministry was from heaven or from what…? And his “answer”: “They don’t belong to the Adventist church…”

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Marianne –
I have to Chuckle. that reminds me of the disciples who asked Jesus to stop those who were preaching and baptizing in the name of Jesus who were not eating at their table or sleeping under their tree at night.

Jesus said, They are members of our group. Just not “working in our territory” at this time. And all they could say was “Oh!”. With a puzzled look on their squinched up faces.
I just love that scene!
Maybe, The End Church is not just 18,000,000 SDAs. Perhaps more than a 1,000,000,000. Just not “working in our territory”, and not eating at OUR table, sleeping under OUR tree.
Christ in the body of Jesus accepts them, Christ in the body of Jesus embraces them. Christ in the body of Jesus tells THEM to Baptize in his name, to Forgive Sins. All we can do is say “Oh!”, and squinch up our SDA faces in puzzlement.

THAT is the gift of Authority! The gift of Christ in the body of Jesus. Just follow me, do what I do, how I do it. Now go out on your own in My Name. The churches they were to establish were Home Churches, every house on the block, a Home Church. Those “working in other territory” listened, watched, practiced, and did without asking permission. That was their Authority ---- Imitating the Christ in the body of Jesus.
Imitating God.

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Indeed.

If we want to know what the bible has to say, we need to only read Acts 15 to identify the biblical pattern for deciding questions of ecclesiastical practice.

Acts 15 is uniquely clear. From now on, all questions of ecclesiastical practice are spiritual in nature.

The evidence of the Holy Spirit as seen in the lives of people is the measure of acceptable spiritual practice.

Acts 15 sets the standard for church leadership.

Theology is to be set aside when assessing spiritual practice.

James did not, in any way, assert a theological rationale for laying aside a perfectly settled theology of circumcision. Rather, James exclusively endorsed spiritual practice on the basis of spiritual evidence.

That the General Conference leadership has failed to follow this biblical pattern for decades is no small matter. That the same leadership has now conceded that women’s ordination is not, and has never been a matter of theology is telling.

To have sent a spiritual matter off to the General Conference for some kind of vote is an utter miscarriage of spiritual leadership by the church officers.

Voting is a total violation of the biblical model in Acts 15. James could have called for a vote, but James clearly sensed that to bring the church together required that he lead. James changed minds because he seemed to understand that voting only closes minds.

James saved the early church by avoiding a vote. Of course, the church is under no threat by this vote.

Perhaps the item, regarding giving Division Committees of the church authority to ‘enable’ ordination of women, will be voted to be tabled by asserting the question is neither cultural or territorial nor theological in nature, but rather is a spiritual matter, and therefore is already within the purview of the various local and union organizations already commissioned to directly and personally assess the spiritual endorsement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals already ministering.

Far less likely things have happened. Ask Robert Folkenberg.

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