Promoting Women

Sylvia Hordosch tries to reconcile her work for the United Nations pushing for gender equality and her heritage in the Adventist church where women continue to be marginalized.

Question: You work for UN Women, the United Nations entity working to promote gender equality, based in New York City. What do you do in your job?

UN Women was created in 2010 with the goal of strengthening the work of the United Nations on gender equality and the empowerment of women. We work under three pillars: development, peace and security, and human rights.

UN Women works with governments to develop new norms and policy recommendations on a wide range of topics. In the last few years, I have supported a process that has led to the adoption of a set of global sustainable development goals and worked with government delegations to ensure that gender equality is a key element of these goals.

UN Women is present in about 90 countries. Our priority areas include women’s leadership and political participation, economic empowerment, ending violence against women, the role of women in peace and security, and gender-responsive planning and budgeting.

Why do you work to promote gender equality? Why is your job important to you?

I am passionate about issues of equality and justice. My commitment to human rights and gender equality comes from my religious upbringing. God calls on us to defend the orphan, the widow, the foreigner. This call has become even more meaningful to me in recent years.

My interest in women’s rights issues started when I discovered sexist language in a class at university — that is, language that takes male forms as the norm, as in “the man in the street,” the “chairman” or “mankind.” The impact of such language is, of course, more obvious in languages that have grammatical gender, such as my mother tongue, German. Of course, it didn’t take much to discover that sexism is not limited to language, but is a dominant feature of politics, economies, research priorities, or the way institutions such as parliaments, or churches are organized.

Discrimination against women and girls takes many forms :

  • Child marriage, affecting 15 million girls
  • In 2013, nearly 800 women died every day during pregnancy or child birth. Almost all these deaths would be preventable.
  • Women constitute two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people.
  • Globally, only about 22% of parliamentarians are women.
  • In all the countries of the world, women and girls risk experiencing violence in their lifetime — at the hand of their fathers, husbands, or strangers in peace times and during war — in their homes, schools, on college campuses, at work, in refugee camps, and in churches.
  • The fact is that in many countries women do more work than men — when we count all the work that women do, paid and unpaid. This work is insufficiently recognized, even though the work to raise children, take care of the sick and elderly, and do domestic chores is the basis for societies and economies.

Since its creation, the UN (meaning the governments that are members of the UN) have developed an impressive set of legal norms on civil and political rights; on economic, social and cultural rights, and on eliminating discrimination against women. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women calls on states parties to take legal and policy measures to eliminate discrimination, including modifying social and cultural patterns, prejudices and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.

A major challenge of my line of work is the tension between the commitments made by governments to global norms and policies on gender equality and their actual implementation at the national level — the gap between rhetoric and action. Countries may advocate for strong measures to end violence against women at the global level, but cut funding for women’s shelters nationally. Discussions around women’s rights remain contentious around issues of family; equal rights to property and inheritance; violence and sexual and reproductive rights.

How does it feel to be working every day toward promoting equality for women and belong to a church that does not officially ordain women, thus not treat them equally with men?

To be honest, for a long time the discrepancy between my work and the actions of our denomination did not bother me that much. I compartmentalized my life. Work here. Church there. But increasingly, this has felt rather schizophrenic. And the bitter irony is that we hold up Ellen White as our prophet, as one of our founders whose guidance is still very much sought out for, but we refuse to equally recognize the leadership of other women.

Adventist women study theology, they invest much time and energy in their congregations, yet they are asked to hold back, their calling is denied, and they remain invisible for the male decision-makers. My sister is one of these women.

You are a third-generation Adventist — rare for an Austrian. What was that like growing up?

My grandfather was a minister, one of my uncles was a minister, my father and his brother were elders for many years, and my mother was a local church treasurer. So church and family have always been very closely intertwined.

But growing up Adventist in Austria meant that I was considered a member of a sect by others — this came up when I did not go to school on Saturday as the other kids did. This being an “other” continued when I became a liberal arts student at the university where everybody was assumed to be secular.

My memories of my home church are mixed. There are very fond memories of children’s Sabbath school, Bible studies, performances in church plays, summer camps. But there was also a strong focus on rules of behavior and “us vs them” thinking. I remember as a young person with mostly non-Adventists friends, that I did not understand the distinction between “us” and “people in the world.” Where were we if not in the world? When asked what Adventists believed, I talked about how we differed from Catholics (the majority in Austria). It was important to think that we had the “truth,” that we were right. I remember that asking questions was discouraged.

Were you surprised by the vote in San Antonio? Or by the recent actions of the GC in threatening to discipline unions that have ordained women? Have you considered leaving the church? Why do you stay?

I was in Utrecht in 1995 [at the General Conference session], just a few months before I attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. I remember clearly how I arrived for the last few days of the session, and learned about the vote against the ordination of women. I quizzed the two Austrian delegates who told me that they had voted No — which may have been an accurate reading of the Austrian church at the time, but there had certainly been no serious discussion or assessment of the views of members.

Before the San Antonio vote, I debated what I would do in the case of a “no” vote. I felt that I had to follow my conscience and leave the church if there was a vote against women. In the end, I did not leave, but my loyalty to my church is very shaken and my sense of belonging is very much linked to my local congregation, the Church of the Advent Hope, in New York.

Not long ago, you preached a sermon at your home church suggesting that Jesus broke rules of his time for women, making them more visible. What lessons can we draw from his actions today?

My point was that Jesus violated cultural practices and the laws of his society in the ways he engaged with women. There are many women around Jesus in the Gospels: his mother, his sisters, his close friends Martha and Mary, and many unnamed women. As a Jew, he was not supposed to speak to a Samaritan woman, but she was the first person to whom he outed himself as the Messiah.

In the case of the woman who was accused of adultery (note the absence of the adulterous man), Jesus stood with the woman and protected her life. And more importantly, Jesus did not judge her, and did not condemn her. We Christians have a bad reputation for being judgmental, and of condemning others. How would Jesus act today? With whom would he interact? Who would be his friends? I think he would talk with the homeless, the undocumented migrants, the young LGBT people — the people who need him.

The ways Jesus interacted with women should encourage us to recognize the humanity of all while uncovering the sinfulness of sexism and racism, of unjust conditions and relationships.

Why do you think some parts of the church are so against ordination for women, and for letting the different divisions make their own choices?

We mistake uniformity for unity — even though we are not consistent in our practices. Consider how Adventists look at military service differently across the world. Some Adventists volunteer for military service in some countries, such as the US, while Adventists are firm conscientious objectors.

In my view, the opposition to women’s ordination is linked to efforts to maintain male privilege and power; to social norms that are based on male superiority and female subordination. And if you look back at discussions during the last few years (TOSC), differences regarding women’s ordination are not limited to certain parts of the world. There were hostile voices in North America.

And of course, arguments — nicely embedded with Biblical texts and interpretations — are not limited to our church. In reality, it is really sad that we have had these discussions for decades when the word “ordination” does not even appear in the New Testament. The Bible is clear that we are all equally created in the image of God, equally redeemed by Christ, and equally sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

In light of these clear teachings, what is the purpose of hierarchy other than maintaining power? How can we justify the loss of talents when we marginalize women?

If we read the Bible from the point of view of all those created in the image of God — women and men, created in the diversity of our identities— we discover male-centered aspects of Christian theology. We must ask who benefits from this theology, including the theology of ordination and headship.

How we talk about God shapes our understanding of God individually and collectively. We are told not to make images of God, but if we exclusively use male terms for God, this becomes a form of idolatry. If God is male, then the male becomes god-like. Religious patriarchy — not at all limited to Christianity — presents itself as divinely established and leads to the belief that God, as a male, delegated power to men. And so God can only be represented by men. The problem is not the male terms we use for God — the father, the son, the king, the warrior — but that we use these terms exclusively, making maleness an essential part of the divine being.

When we challenge the male lens of looking at the Bible, we come across many unnamed characters, many of them women; we can find new ways of seeing and understanding, new ways of being liberated and becoming whole. Looking at Jesus allows us to address the contradictions between the theological identity of women and the actual lives of women, faced by discrimination, violence, and inequality.

Jesus lived in a patriarchal society, but he came to transform his community, and I believe, the world. As followers of Jesus, we are called to challenge unjust structures and distorted symbols in our fallen world. This must begin in our own church community.

How do you think the Adventist church will change in its treatment of women in the next decade? How do you see the church as a whole changing?

I am actually encouraged by the unions here in North America and in Europe who are standing up for the equality of women and men in church. I keep hoping that we will move toward more representative structures of governance. It is a shame and injustice that women are the majority of church members, but a small minority in decision-making within our denomination.

In times of bigotry, racism, and sexism — not only in the US, but also in Europe — I would hope that we learn to focus on the two commandments that Jesus highlighted: love our God, and love our neighbor. What does love your neighbor mean? Does it refer only to my family? Maybe also my church friends? Or does it include people in a much broader sense? I have a dear friend, who does not call herself a Christian, but in my eyes, she lives out Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 25. She has opened her house to strangers, spent many days volunteering after the huge damage that Hurricane Sandy caused, and has visited a man in prison for years. I want to be more like her, and I want my church family to act like the Good Samaritan, and become true neighbors to the people around us.

Sylvia Hordosch is a policy adviser in the Intergovernmental Support Division of UN Women. Her current focus is the post-2015 development agenda. She has also worked in the Leadership and Governance Section of UN Women. Before the creation of UN Women, she was the Chief of the Gender Analysis Section in the Division for the Advancement of Women.

Prior to her work at the United Nations, Hordosch worked for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina and for the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in Vienna.

Hordosch, a national of Austria, has been based in New York since 2000, where she lives with her husband.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7737
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What a delightful message! Thank you for sharing, Sylvia. Hang in there with us.

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Thank you for your discussion on – WHAT WOULD JESUS DO [WWJD] those bracelets one sees around sometimes on person’s wrists.

Years ago I used to hear the Mantra – The TRUTH as it is in Jesus.
Thank you for expressing one of those Uncomfortable Truths.
The Truth that Jesus Elevated Women to Equality with Men in Society.

The Seventh day Adventist Church, Theologically and in Practice, has a very long way to go before we have ALL the Truth As It Is In Jesus.
And those in positions Authority – Local, Conference, Union, Division, World Headquarters – seem the Most Militant in FIGHTING AGAINST ALL the Truth As It Is In Jesus.
We just saw this in South America – Only Ordained persons can teach.
This means that ALL the Women teaching in the Departments of Religion will have to be Fired, lose their jobs. Jobs they have been fulfilling successfully for many years.

Elaine-- Yes. Recent. When a male person of “importance” was asked about the firing of the women, HE said they could teach Hebrew and Greek [only]. He hadnt thought about them being fired, losing their jobs.
This was in the article.
Elaine- “South America”. not just America as came out on yours.
I looked for the article again on another site, and it appears it was taken down.

Joselito-- Membership in the Armed Services of ANY country HAS to be a PERSONAL CHOICE. The so-called Church CANNOT mandate For OR Against anyone becoming a Member. It is a Personal Choice by each individual.
However back in mid-60’s there were quite a few Women who went to Nursing School with a Government Tuition Scholarship in RETURN for serving so many years in one of the Armed Services as a nurse. I met a number of these in the mid-60s when I was drafted as a Navy Nurse.
It was a great way to get post-graduating nursing experience. After being in a couple of years there was the opportunity for an overseas assignment. Which is a nice benefit.

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I remember, Sylvia, your sermon at the Church of the Advent Hope. Thanks for then and thanks for now, too. Inspiring interview. As a white man, I cannot know what’s it’s like to persist against injustice decade after decade. We appreciate your courage, and the courage of so many Adventist women like you.

Chuck

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Well…it looks as if the Spirit of Prophecy is alive and well in the church…

Thank you, Sylvia! I especially appreciated your analysis of how our understanding of God, mediated through symbols and language, plays out in our treatment of each other and how all this should be informed by the teaching and example of Jesus. Theology matters and moving ahead on these matters requires addressing these deeper issues. We need to learn to read our Bibles better.

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“We just saw this in America–only ordained persons can teach. This means that ALL the women teaching in the Departments of Religion will have to be fired, lose their jobs, jobs they have been fulfilling successfully for many years.”

Please amplify; this is news some of us have not heard. Was it officially made just recently?

Those who know me will not be surprised I liked the interview. More than that - I am encouraged by Sylvia Hordosch’s decision to remain Adventist. I have deep respect and understanding for each one who leaves. At the same time NOT giving up and making your voice heard (e.g. in the sermon that was linked) gives hope for the future. Thank you.

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The Seventh-day Adventist church is not a political movement, is not regulated by the democracy principles, in fact is a monarchy (God is the King and his voice is in the Bible),The notion of women rights as we know it today were disavowed by God himself in in the Garden of Eden when He said : “and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Génesis 3:16 . If we stay or not in the church is our problem, God will not lose anything, Gods words were “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Mathew 22:14 . Stop blackmailing the Church with leave, God is not asking for crowds, He said: Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved. Romans 9:27

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this is definitely an area where, once again, NAD will need to lead the world church, although the question is whether the world church is interested in being led…but regardless, i think we should stick to our principles, even if the rest of the world church decides to part ways with us…after-all, we are in the right, and the world church is clearly wrong…abraham and lot parted ways, paul and barnabas parted ways, and the 10 tribes of northern israel parted ways with benjamin and judah…i’m not seeing a necessity for staying together with people who only cause friction…think of all the harmony we could have had in san antonio if our GC had consisted only of NAD, TED, EUD and SPD…

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A delightful read, I am speaking next week in Ottawa on Empowering women in agriculture:the Sustainable Development goals. Your inspiration to me cj

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The friction is being caused by those who refuse to accept the will of the body as expressed in San Antonio, not by those who are trying to abide by it. But in the fantasy world created by those who refuse to accept the results, up is down and right is left.

Samuel anointed David to be king over Israel, but the despot, king Saul, was still in power. David could have reasoned that since it was God’s will that he be king, he could dispose of Saul and take power. But he refused to raise his hand against the one whom God had previously anointed, reasoning that God will take care of the situation in His own time and way. Can we do any less?

I read that 65% of SDA members = women.

Soo, would equality mean that 65% of pastors should be women or is equality 50% women and 50% men?
Is WO making the church say “OW” instead of “WOW!”?

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So, Paul, I take it that you totally reject the ordination, teachings, writings, leadership and speaking by Ellen G. White as a “woman” messenger to the Remnant? You just can’t have it both ways, sir.

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“the will of the body”

It is unfortunate that this is being touted as the “will of God”…no worries, there shall be a split and then both sides can have their own “will of the body”.

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as if a 60/40 split IS the will of the body! if it ain’t 100% its snot of God.

Lord have mercy.

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Someone has removed my post on this topic. I do not think my posts are all that welcome on this board. The wonder to me is that I have lasted this long…from about March 2016 when I was told about Spectrum by a friend and author on Spectrum, Bernard Headley. I am writing another book and cannot sleep beyond 2:00 am and the first thing I usually do is peruse this site, Wonderful Adventist magazine I must say. However since this has happened two times before, I get it.

Recommend to let each division Executive Committee to decide on behalf of women and men within their respective territories.in regard to military service and non-combatancy.

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I’m trying to figure out how, when talking about women’s rights and
dignity issues globally, that a toxic, totalitarian ideology of Shariah
law under Islam is not mentioned? Surely there is no greater threat and
abuse to women on the planet right now. But oh that WO male privilege!