On September 21, 2013 the Netherlands Adventist Union officers ordained the first woman pastor in Europe, Ms. Guisèle Berkel-Larmonie. The ordination ceremony was conducted by the Union president Wim Altink at the Christus Koning church in the Hague. On November 11, 2012, the Netherlands Union constituency had already voted to approve the ordination of women. The conference executive committee made that decision effective on May 30, 2013 and announced the action publically July 5, 2013.
On October 27, 2013, this current month, we will probably have the first Conference president woman in Adventist history. The Southeastern California Conference (SECC) has nominated Sandra E. Roberts to serve as their president. The nominating committee recommendation to its constituency session is to elect Roberts to this position. Roberts is currently executive secretary of SECC.
These actions, together with similar ones taken previously by some Unions in the U.S.A. and Europe, are considered by some to contradict voted General Conference policy and represent a kind of “administrative disobedience” that includes and implies “theological insubordination”. But beyond the Ordination issue itself there is also at stake the Adventist understanding of administration and the nature of theology itself.
On the administrative level we observe a stiffening of what could be called “top-down” administrative-causation. This means that lower institutional levels are asked to just apply what higher levels decide is best for them. This trend is in contrast with the general orientation and understanding of the New Testament Church, which is always referred to and understood as a local reality. But more generally this trend also contradicts the noble subsidiarity principle, which defends the greater efficiency of what could be called a “bottom-up” administrative-causation.
Subsidiarity is an organising principle of decentralisation, stating that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralised authority capable of addressing that matter effectively. The concept is applicable in government, political science, cybernetics, management, etc. The risk of a top-down trend in Adventism, which is parallel to a reductive theological understanding of Unity, is to similarly orient church strategy for other coming issues like divorce, re-marriage or homosexuality. Since Adventism does not at all wish to become a hard-centralised organization, which would contradict its own ecclesiology and disregard local realities, it manages somehow to offer real local options and choices. But these are often only choices on secondary matters. For things that matter, as the ordination issue shows, Adventism has become in practice a very centralised organization that can easily overlook the real challenges of local church communities and countries.
On the theological level we observe the same trend in our church. Instead of working out a healthy, convincing and inclusive general perspective of our core theological convictions, Adventism is obsessively trying to construct more specific, detailed and exclusive theological statements. By doing so Adventism is plastering its own creed and removing from local purview the possibility of constructing more relevant theological and religious proposals and projects, for more specific audiences and listeners.
Let’s now try to relate both these dimensions, administrative and theological, to the ordination issue.
With ordination our “theological reasoning” doesn’t simply evidence the reductive trend problem, described in the previous paragraph, but also a deeper one. It’s our approach to the Bible that has itself become problematic. That approach necessarily pushes us in a reductive direction. Being biblical should always remain a “sine qua non” for Adventism, a non-negotiable principle. But there are various modes of being biblical. As a believing and trusting community we Adventists are not necessarily choosing the best one. And it’s not really a consolation of having overcome the temptation of inflexible biblical literalism, one of the worst modalities of being biblical. For us to be biblical still means, even for our best theologians, to start always and uniquely from the Bible. That’s really reductive.
Since we don’t find in the Bible any consistent allusion to ordination, so we simply don’t ordain women as pastors. No matter if, out in the society, a sense of justice, respect and equality toward women has massively and irreversibly invaded and changed the average individual and institutional sensibility. No matter if this naïve literalism hinders and limits our own witnessing and proclamation. No, we simply, in inflexible obedience to the bible, don’t go that way. In this case the Bible, instead of being a helper, has become an obstacle. Even the fact of believing in the Bible, a primordial act in any Christian religious experience, can’t escape the crucial question of assessment of its effects and results. Nobody can just pretend to believe in the Bible for the Bible. In this sense the Bible is not final but a means to promote and increase life, value, justice and meaning in people’s existence. And it’s by this principle that the Bible should be judged.
We also shouldn’t overlook the fact that our chosen “administrative strategy”, in the ordination issue, is just the extension of a larger question: our relation to society and culture. While our theology can more or less be brought back to the Bible, the same can’t be said of our organization. With reasonable certainty we can affirm that our organization and administrative policy are more from our time than really biblical. The most we could pretend for them is that they claim some biblical principles for an intelligent organization. That’s all.
Do we really need to biblically justify our own organization and administrative policy? No, we just need to justify them rationally and culturally. This fact suggests that not all we Adventists do is based on the Bible. So “de facto” we have successfully incorporated current societal administrative procedures because we found them convincing, functional and useful.
If some societies today, with their juridical codes and policies, have managed to treat women professionally with more dignity, respect and recognition than our Adventist communities, do we need to blame them? Do we really need to neglect, disregard and even despise those positive cultural developments and remain encapsulated in our so-called biblical convictions? I don’t think so. The Bible doesn’t pretend to say or to contain all valid, meaningful and positive words and initiatives in the world. It just purports to give meaning and life to every human positive and noble action wherever they may emerge. For this reason is not forbidden for a Bible-based believer to start from society and culture if some modern societies and cultures have developed strategies and policies, not considered in the Bible, that more fully acknowledge and promote women’s dignity and skills.
For the ordination issue then we don’t need to wait for the Bible if there is convincing evidence in “outside” social structure and codes as much as in our own churches “inside” social structure. The spirit of the Bible sometimes allows us to start from beyond the Bible. When that happens, we should nevertheless be able to go back to the Bible and find the illuminating perspective for the experience or event we found elsewhere. And that is particularly true for our current cultural and historical milieu that has grown up so uniquely from other cultural areas or historical periods more closely resembling the Bible.
In a coming column, in the second part of this reflection next month, we will be approaching the ordination issue from a more critical perspective.
Hanz Gutierrez, “Villa Aurora”
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5562