Women’s Ordination and the Euthyphro Question

Women’s ordination (WO) is probably, at present, the most divisive issue being discussed in the Adventist church. The role of women in Christianity is, to be sure, not just an Adventist topic. Women have been subordinate in both religious and secular societies throughout history. But, within Adventism, the disagreement has escalated since 2013 when the TOSC committee (Theology of Ordination Study Committee) began to meet. Its final June 2014 report resolved nothing. Three proposals were presented for a (non-binding) vote at the end, with pluralities in favor of each. Two of the three options allowed for WO to some extent, and 62 of a possible 95 votes chose these options.

In 2015 the church’s General Conference (GC) session was held in San Antonio and a proposal for selective implementation of women’s ordination was defeated. Since then some church Union-level constituencies have chosen to continue to ordain women within their field, and the GC has sought to stop this practice. Consequently, part of the contention has to do with governance authority – what is the legitimate reach of church Unions vs. the GC?

The reasons people might have for siding either pro or con WO vary. The two main reasons, I perceive, for people believing that WO should be permitted are:

Pro-1: Theological – that pre-fall men and women were equal, and the priesthood of all believers is consistent with gender equality.

Pro-2: Moral – irrespective of Biblical support, people have an internal sense of morality – one’s conscience. And human equality is a fundamental belief of any adequately functional personal morality.

Conversely, I’ve perceived the two primary arguments proposed by those believing WO should not be permitted are:

Con-1: Organizational cohesion – the GC voted to deny church divisions autonomous authority to ordain women – thus the majority has spoken and the matter should be settled.

Con-2: Theological – some believe in the doctrine of Male Headship, which offers Biblical arguments for subordinating a woman’s role in religious activity, to a man’s.

In my observation of the controversy, the most tightly held reasons driving the two positions are: Pro-2 and Con-2. That is, opponents of WO believe that the Bible is opposed to it (Con-2), and they are trying to be faithful to its teachings. The proponents of WO more frequently argue on the basis of conscience (Pro-2), although a favorable theological argument may also be mixed in.

In what follows I wish to examine what the core difference between Pro-2 and Con-2 is – philosophically.

The Euthyphro Question

One of Plato’s dialogs is entitled The Euthyphro, named for the person Socrates is conversing with. A good summary of the dialog’s “plot” (such as it is) can be found here. The central issue being discussed is: what is the underlying moral rationale for Euthyphro to act as he plans to – which is prosecuting his father for murder. Socrates asks this key question (at Euthyphro10a):

“Is what you’re doing pious because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love what you are doing because what you are doing is pious?”

Now, while the question was written in a pagan context it applies equally well within a Christian one. And it may not be evident just how foundational this question is. So let me unpack it.

Socrates is asking what grounds a person’s morality or ethics. Is it:

E1: whatever God says or does (“loved by the gods”); or

E2: some universal, absolute ethic that God also conforms to (“the gods love what … is pious”)?

The moral ground in E1 is “the gods” and in E2 is “what is pious”. In my experience most Christians would choose: E1 (which is sometimes labeled Divine Command Theory). And the reasoning I’ve typically heard is that nothing is more foundational than God. So to suggest that there is something that even God must conform to seems somewhat blasphemous, or at least it appears to diminish God. This seems like a reasonable, God-honoring position at first look. But I will examine its problems shortly. The second choice (E2) posits that there is an absolute morality, and God embodies it fully, but God also must and does operate in full compliance to it. It doesn’t matter that humans often fail to live up to it, don’t fully align their consciences to it, or that there are many “edge cases” where discerning the proper moral choice is difficult. E2 holds that morality is not relative and is generally discernible without resorting to some revelatory source.

What is the Connection?

Now here is where I propose to connect the left and right parts of my title. Con-2, I assert, exemplifies the E1 side of the Euthyphro question and Pro-2 exemplifies E2. That is, those opposed to WO primarily base their view on a Biblical interpretation. Those in favor appeal primarily to a universal ethic – fairness and equality.

In my examination and tracking of the arguments advanced by those opposed to women’s ordination, the dominant one is that they think women’s ordination is unbiblical. The argument for organizational cohesion either is less often used, or they are sometimes proposed as a pair. But one argument I have not seen used, either at all or in any persuasive form, is that women are unqualified due to something innate in their gender. Occasionally I see someone point out the obvious fact that men and women are not the same, but I have never seen anything remotely persuasive that would explain why such differences matter when it comes to ordination, or even – more broadly – pastoring. A distinction without a difference. And I have never seen those opposed to women’s ordination attempt a rebuttal to the Pro-2 argument. That is, explain why their presumed Biblical stance is consistent with a universally recognized ethic of fairness and equality.

The pro-ordination group, in my experience, appeal primarily to an internal and presumed universal ethic. And they seem somewhat bewildered that con-WO people cannot see that their con position is a violation of that ethic. While Pro-1 (theological basis) is sometimes appealed to, or given in tandem with Pro-2 (equality ethic), it seems to usually be significantly subordinated.

Thus, I assert, we have the two sides of the Euthyphro Question. The con-WO group is largely appealing to revelation which, they seem to suggest, is the ultimate grounding of authority (as is often expressed in the phrase: “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it”). The pro-WO adherents believe there is a knowable universal ethic that God is fully aligned with but it does stand independent, and thus – in a sense – God cannot or will not violate it.

So, is this a stalemate? Is one side better grounded? I believe so and the better position is E2 (God loves what is pious). If so, then the con-WO position is faulty and needs different and/or better justification. So now let me explain why I assert this – as the implications are quite significant for the problem the church is struggling with.

Problems with Revelation as the ultimate Moral Grounding

Within space constraints I’ll briefly consider three problems with holding E1:

1. If God/Bible is the ground there is the problem of how a person decides what is revelation and what is not. We are obviously not born believing the Bible is God’s revelation, so there has to be some criteria that is more foundational which would allow a truth-seeker to differentiate between different and inconsistent revelatory candidates. Like, say, the Koran or Book of Mormon. I think a lot of Christians just elevate the Bible by cultural osmosis. But, how can we justify accepting one choice over another if not by appealing to something more foundational? And I also have seen E1-Christians actually appealing to E2 if this problem is pointed out. But then, inconsistently, they want to also declare their morality is E1-grounded, because, I guess, E2 somehow seems to diminish God.

2. Consider how we define words like “good”, or “worthy”. If our understanding of God is the ground for how we define such terms then “good” is whatever God is or does. But then the phrase “God is good” – becomes a tautology, and meaningless. By substituting out the word “good” we would get “God is whatever God is or does”. Which could be anything, in theory. If, for example, you possessed revelation that stated that God approved of murder, stealing, pedophilia – or any typically recognized moral evil – you would be constrained to change your moral opinion to also approve of that which you likely formerly understood to be evil. In my experience this idea is really hard for people to wrap their minds around, so think about it carefully.

3. A Biblical counter-example (one of many possible): Consider the well-understood Adventist (and also broadly Christian) doctrine of Lucifer’s rebellion in heaven. The story has Lucifer trying to undermine God – by persuasion. By telling the angels that God was, essentially, not operating in their best interests. But, if the angels – unfallen beings and thus having sinless clarity of thought – were operating based on E1 (whatever God does/says is de-facto right) then Lucifer would have no possible persuasive opening. It is only E2 thinking that would allow them to even consider the possibility that God might be wrong.

Summary

This essay suggests that the women’s ordination issue (as well as some other contentious conflicts in the church) has, underneath the specifics, the problem of moral grounding – first articulated by Plato in “The Euthyphro”. Analysis of the two choices produces, to the best of my understanding, a clear winner. If opponents of WO wish to gain traction more broadly I think they need to “defeat” the case I’ve laid out here (which is certainly in no way original with me). Alternately, they can move their defense to rebutting the moral argument (Pro-2). I have tried to consider how I might successfully present their case and, frankly, cannot find any rebuttal. Consequently I align as pro-WO, and would ask the con-WO adherents to think these arguments through carefully. Because a mere “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” defense – is inadequate.

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/authors/rich-hannon

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you respond to this article, please: Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8419
1 Like

The fall of Adam was the greater sin. It brought sin upon us all. So we have dumb and dumber. yet dumber is demanding control over dumb. We give management,control and learning over to women at a child’s most vulnerable age. Proper vetting should not consider gender. There are more competent women that Ellen White even without unattributed use of others words.

2 Likes

Excellent presentation of arguments I’d never (or would never have) considered. Thanks for laying this out quite clearly, without taking 10 pages to do it!

4 Likes

@Rich_Hannon

In conjunction with Elder Ted Wilson’s personal Facebook page and his recent answer to a question concerning the ordination of women elders, a correspondent from Uganda argued against the ordination of women on the basis that their sacred ministry would be interrupted by a season of child-bearing and child rearing. His reasoning is not an isolated opinion. Rather, it is the conviction of many Adventists in Africa.Thus, it is a fact that millions of Adventists believe that women are unqualified for ordination due to something innate in their gender.

If we could teach such people that it is ok to take leave of pastoral leadership responsibilities for a season we may have a great deal more success in our discussions of the ordination of women.

Even in Australia, it is almost unheard of that a person leaving salaried pastoral leadership, even for very innocent reasons, will ever make it back into a salaried pastoral leadership position again!

On another score, I don’t believe that our author has understood the force of the Con-2 argument. It is not just a theological argument ie. Male Headship, but it is more accurately understood as a theological/ moral argument. Recently, Jon Paulien has described this well. He states that many are impelled by their understanding of Scripture to a conscientiously held believe that all Adventists, no matter where they live must submit to a con position. Otherwise, those who are involved in WO will contaminate us all, by sin in the camp.

So in a very real sense the theological position of the opponents of WO coalesces then with the organizational cohesion position of the opponents and these two arguments, Con-1 and Con-2 will not be separated.

I believe the whole ordination issue will only be successfully tackled when there is a successful dose of grassroots mass education on the issue of the nature of the whole people of God with a band of pastoral leaders distinguished solely by their function (not by a difference in status). This then goes to the heart of the nature of ordination.

This functional difference as opposed to an ontological difference between people and their pastoral leaders is not well understood in traditional Roman Catholic cultures, nor in tribal cultures.

This is the place to begin a process of building a common biblical approach to women’s ordination.

This is a clear summary of the argument in Plato’s Euthryphro. Its application to the current WO debate is not quite clear. I will just refer to two aspects of the presentation. There is biblical evidence for leadership positions occupied by women, but there is no biblical word about ordination at all, neither for men nor for women. Such was the conclusion of TOSC. So the notion that “God spoke and I believe it” is not quite to the point.
As to women being unqualified due to something innate in their gender. It may be remembered that the Catholic Church’s decision against women priests is based on the notion that the priest is a representative of Christ, and Christ had been a male. Therefore only males can represent him at the altar. Following the writing of Thomas Aquinas, the male is the perfect human, perfection being the possession of all the attributes and faculties. Since females lack a penis, they are not quite perfect, lacking something. To this argument, Catholic women have answered reminding the church of a statement of Gregory of Nasciasus. During the debates trying to establish the relationship between the Logos who was God (as defined at Nicea) and the human Jesus, it was suggested that the Logos (word, mind, reason = mind) had gotten together with a human body and spirit. So the incarnate Son was a person with the three essential parts of a human being in which the human and the divine were combined. This suggestion was attacked by Gregory of Nasciansus with the declaration that “what is not assumed is not redeemed.” If what was being proposed was to be accepted, he argued, it meant that the human mind had not been redeemed. So, if Jesus was incarnated into a male it means that he did not redeem females. Even though these arguments are not known, the observation that females are not quite the perfect human, because they lack something did get absorbed into the culture without reference to Aquinas.

The more divisive issue in Adventism than WO, I believe, is the threat of post-colonial minority rule by pro-WO union conferences. Like it or not, it’s both Con-1 and Con-2.

Here we have the typical problem within Adventism which has surfaced so many time over the latter years. In the past we used to have a certain standard as our arbiter of truth. We then asked the question, does God’s word “actively” support and command this belief and action? Does it clearly mandate such actions? (we are not talking about something trite as to whether you can used a mobile phone, etc).
In more recent years we have been asking the question does God in His word actually say we CAN’T do this or that? And so we have spawned a plethora of ideologies and sometimes incompatible concepts of right and wrong.
This article finishes with an attempt to tear down the former of these two mindsets by belittling the adage and principle our pioneers used, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” We used to sing those words in youth meetings many years ago, ending in the words, "for me."
Today, however, we now hear the unspoken plea, “God’s word doesn’t actually say we can’t.” From there a range of conflicting ideologies are sanctioned for either discussion, or agitated for as normative. This article includes such a premise. But sadly, it does so much more than that. It appeals to ancient philosophers and their ideas, making them into a form of dictum - a truism by default. In so doing, the author has unwittingly engaged in the very thing he claims is included in the statement, “God is good.” If the author will take some time to contemplate that theme, I hope he will discover far more significance than a mere "tautology."
Are we to read between the lines that he is merely engaging in a form of hyperbole to spark heightened discussion of the women’s ordination issue in yet still more endless rounds of “I think, she thinks, he thinks.” A condition in which no-one ever accepts that if God has set the standard, and if we love Him above all else, we will be willing to be made willing to follow Him and not our inclinations, however strong we now feel they now are.
It is in that setting that I state what has been said on another issue which again, sadly I get the feeling the author will not agree with. “You can have your opinion, but quite frankly I am not interested in your opinion” (because it is just another human opinion and there are so many of them). My standard is in the Word of God. And it is definitely not a “mere God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” There is nothing mere about it. If you think hard enough about it beyond trying to desperately to make God’s word fit into you wishes, you will discover that the concept of believing God implicitly, is entirely a salvational issue. Wouldn’t that be laudable if we all had, and followed that standard? The claimed “inadequate defense” would become the joyous goal of every one of us.

Wow, I don’t think you understood a single thing I wrote.

There is a certain false dichotomy here.

E1 and E2 are in a certain sense the same. Is there a universally understood ethic that God, too, must adhere to, or is God he basis of all good?

Jesus answered this when the rich young ruler called him “good”. Jesus rejoined, “There is none good but God.” And the problem with taking a stance where God is not good is met by Paul and by the stories of the OT.

The Israelites were told by God to destroy the Canaanites. Men, women and even children. Many have felt this does not adhere to a universal standard of “good”, and have explained it as an error by scribes, an addition, or some other mistake of insertion that does not reflect on God as good. Therefore it is rejected.

But such thinking is never praised in scripture.

Paul in Romans 9 speaks of one criticizing God for hardening Pharaoh’s heart. His answer to such a one is troubling for E2 thinkers. “Who are you to question God?”

The example of the angels is an interesting one, seeming to confirm E2 thinking. But I would say this, God has given us the power to evaluate his workings and doings, and has given us the amazing gift of free choice. So we are able to hold his actions up to a seeming universal standard. But he is the bias for that standard, and without him, there would be no such standard.

So my argument would be, either one of these two ways of thinking may lead to understanding God. And either can be used to depart from him: Blaming him for unfairness, or referring to a standard such to say, “Well, we do not need God, for we have a standard that is better than he is. Look what he has done!”

Those on the con side of WO do often refer to scripture for support, but as I have seen, really are referencing their own cultural norms.

The proponents of WO say it is a conscious issue, but are really referencing their own western cultural norm.

I guess as an E1 thinker, I would say, “Where in scripture does it say we must do WO?” But I could also say on the same basis, “Where in scripture are we forbidden to do WO?”

As n E2 thinker, WO is a proposition consistent with equality. But what or whose “universal absolute ethic” says that that interpretation of equality is universally right? Westerners think it’s a no brainer, but how can we know that western ethics is the ethic that is actually universally true?

The author, as most WO advocates feels he has trumped the other side. He has not. WO is a cultural issue. Those that oppose are not morally less advanced than those that do. it is a matter of cultural roles.

I am a westener, but respect my third world brethern and sisters. They had the votes to defeat the motion. We should abide by it, for to go against it is to divide the church as we are seeing.

And neither way is more moral than the other.

I understand you only too well. You want me to believe you didn’t write a “mere God said it, I believe it, and that settles it defense is inadequate” after prefacing this with your argument with the following (in brief)?
[The Pro WO] is “better grounded?” [You] "believe so, and the better position is E2 (God loves what is pious). If so, then the con-WO position is faulty and needs different and/or better justification.“
You intended to put a certain description of the arguments you disagree with and designate such as E1 etc. and then demolish them as “inadequate” and flawed, when in fact the arguments you draw from them are intrinsically flawed. I hope you understand the classic “straw man argument” which describes much of your method of philosophy in this article. Again I say this with all sadness, this is part of the problem in modern Adventism. We are so puffed up with our knowledge of philosophy and philosophers that we are losing the rudimentary points of biblical Christianity.
The “Is what you’re doing pious because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love what you are doing because what you are doing is pious?” being one example of such philosophy. Des Ford of some years ago used to use such methods. One classic of his was: “Are we sinners because we sin, or do we sin because we are sinners?” Hopefully you will acknowledge that how we answer such philosophy is about how we view the biblical definition of sin, as attested to by the SOP, in contrast with how we want sin’s definition to be something more than the biblical term; something we can use as an excuse for our failures and continuing in sin.
If you try and unpack pagan philosophy into neat slots and then apply how you have made these theories dovetail into the Christian principles as outlined in the Bible you will obviously run into this dichotomy in terms. Paul understood this problem when he said, " But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” 1Cor 2:14. See also 1Cor 1:18, 21. Verse 18 is most profound in its implications: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” What we might say, the one message preached has entirely two different outcomes. The philosophers would be best described as the “Greeks” who would view our salvational message as "foolishness."
This is what I saw you doing. You took their philosophy about a God they did not understand, so they packaged Him into their finite thinking, and extrapolated their concept. This is entirely the backwards way to understand God and His principles for us.
This led you to then claim, "[the pro WO individuals] appeal primarily to an internal and presumed universal ethic."
Again this surfaces in your E1 and E2 description, and in the paragraph following its outline, which reveals how much influence the philosophers writings have influenced you thinking, Without the writings of this philosopher quoted would you have attempted to describe God in such a manner?
Having read you’re unraveling of this philosophy in the paragraph mentioned, I would fear to give any support to any of the description that followed in case I was misunderstood. Because neither adequately and completely describes God and His morality. It is noteworthy that EGW had similar issues in her day when men wanted to describe the Godhead in what was termed “advanced scientific ideas.” (Ev 614).
When you come to point three just before the conclusion, this problem of taking the philosophy as a description of the nature/character of God (E1 & E2), and applied this philosophy to the rebellion in heaven unravels completely.
Taking this background of philosophy which has no meaning in God’s design, we find it unraveling more and more as we move into the summary as you now challenge the WO opponents to defeat your case which (in a nutshell), is that you see nothing wrong with it (remember my first post that we are looking in the wrong direction when we want to decide truth, based on I can see nothing wrong with it, rather than what the Bible says is right).
Nor, it seems, will you allow for the moral argument based on Scripture, though adequately presented by many leading men up to, and following, the 2015 GC. I presume you have listened well to these positions before making your claim here. It is then that you state emphatically, “Because a mere “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” defense is inadequate.” I cannot help but understand your intent when you so state. I hope and pray that if you come before a tribunal to defend you Sabbath observance in the last days, your defense will be something along the lines of, "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me.”

The “problem of moral grounding” certainly does seem to be the issue at hand, on all levels of conflict in Adventism.

If I’m understanding you correctly, Rich, you are saying it is “more grounded” to believe that God and the angels are subject to what you call “some universal, absolute ethic.”



How shall we ground those assertions, Rich?

Plato’s Socrates pwned Euthyphro for making ungrounded assertions.

On the other hand, Socrates didn’t paint himself into that corner:

Socrates: What is piety? That is an enquiry which I shall never be weary of pursuing as far as in me lies;

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html

If we cannot find grounding for this “knowable universal ethic,” then I suspect that Socrates has posthumously pwned us also.

Alas, hemlock is the beverage of those who ask too many open-ended questions.

1 Like

I find this premise unstable and weak on the basis that E2 is understood among mental health professionals as a consequence of values shared by everyone through normal biological development, maturation, epigenetics and common life experiences. There is no such thing as a set of values independent of God. There are common experiences everyone innately understands by virtue of having experienced them through development, maturation, and life experiences but wrongly attributed as a set of values independent of God. Jung referred to these phenomenon as “collective unconscious” and serves as organizing events in our lives. Because we do not know the characteristics of angels and how they came to being, we cannot assume the premise of E2 in regards to Lucifer’s situation as credible. Created human beings share no common experiences with angels and it is blasphemous to assume otherwise. Because of this, the whole house of E2 cards becomes vulnerable to tumbling down. Besides, the lesson of philosophy, as in Euthypro’s case, is not the ascertain what is right or wrong but to question the validity of answers.

Although I have already commented, I would like to compliment the author on his clear presentation and the interesting comments he has stimulated.

Kudos!

QUESTION –
In HOW MANY of the 1000’s of local church groups in North America are members EVEN AWARE that Women Ordination is even being discussed?
That there is EVEN a Thought regarding having a Woman as a Pastor to feed their flock???
Probably very few.
I know it isn’t in my church.
And from what I sense, the Southern Union is NOT Friendly to it.

As a pastor who did speak to my fellow pastors, there is plenty of discussion of WO and feelings one way or the other. My take is that many would not have a problem, but that the more conservative would. It is something that would have to be gotten used to. The more liberal would not have a problem with it.