As a born and bred Seventh-Day Adventist, I’m thoroughly ashamed of the church of my youth. To think that in the 21st century Adventists cannot agree that women are eligible for ordination as ministers! It’s completely incomprehensible in this day and age.
Admittedly, I’m no longer a member ‘in good and regular standing’, as they say. I go to church irregularly for weddings and funerals. As a child, I got enough church to last me for the rest of my life. I’m a post-Adventist but I do pay sceptical attention to what’s happening in the church: Let’s see what they’re up to now!
On some issues, the Adventist church is reasonably progressive. Education and health are top priorities. In many countries, it is the educational system that attracts members. At the elementary and secondary level, Adventist education is quite respectable. But, to be frank, at the tertiary level, it can be decidedly anti-intellectual. No questions asked.
Adventists confidently know ‘the truth’. And this is non-negotiable. If, as a young adult with an inquiring mind, you ask difficult questions, you get into trouble. Take, for instance, the problem of the ‘mission story’. Each Sabbath, we were told the story of someone from an ‘unenlightened’ culture who was dissatisfied with his or her religion.
That unhappy individual would explore other religions, seeking ‘the truth’. Inevitably, they would find it in the Adventist church. So I wondered aloud if Adventists shouldn’t also question their own religion and go searching for something better. That, of course, was a sacrilegious proposition. Adventists already had the truth so there was no point in looking further.
AN UNGODLY PLACE
As a graduate student at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, I was fortunate to be offered a job at a Seventh-Day Adventist college. Those days, teaching jobs were scarce, particularly in the humanities. So I was tempted. But I wondered how I would manage in an intellectually conservative culture.
I was reassured when the head of department conspiratorially told me that I didn’t need to wear anything ‘special’ for the interview. She’d anticipated that I would have been carefully considering the appropriate costume for my role as a prospective teacher at an Adventist college. As it turned out, she was pleased to have a new member of staff who had not been inbred at an Adventist institution.
But it was a challenge. One of my students from deep rural Maine refused to read fiction because it was a lie. Then there were Caribbean students from New York who had a hard time adjusting to rural life. They were happy to have a teacher who understood their culture. I once took some of them into the city to see The Harder They Come.
I was summoned by the Dean of Academic Affairs and reprimanded. It didn’t matter that I had screened the same movie on campus in a course on Caribbean culture. The issue was that students had gone to an ungodly place – a movie theatre. That was four decades ago. Things must have changed.
FALLEN BY THE WAYSIDE
Gender politics is still very conservative in the Adventist church. True, women can now be ministers. But they can only be ‘commissioned’, not ‘ordained’. The distinction between commissioning and ordination is at the heart of the current debate in the church about the role of women.
It seems as if ordination requires a higher level of sanctity than mere commissioning. And women are, apparently, unable to achieve this level of holiness. Men are genetically disposed to piety, it would seem. But the evidence is disputable. I can recall whispered stories of late-night re-baptisms of ordained ministers who had fallen by the wayside.
Usually, it was a very attractive female member of the flock who magnetically drew the man of God from the path of righteousness. Of course, in some instances, the ordained minister actively put himself in the path of the attractive woman. And suffered the pleasurable consequences. Man is human and flesh is frail – especially when you have a substantial lot of it in your arms.
Seriously, though, the issue of ordaining women is not about the spiritual inferiority of women. It’s just another version of the age-old story of discrimination against women based purely on gender. But there’s a twist to the tale. North American Adventists are, in general, quite liberal about ordaining women. In fact, in 2012, church leaders in two regions voted in support of the proposal. This was seen as divisive.
It is Adventists in the global South who are most committed to keeping women in their place. In the Caribbean, even women believe that God does not sanction the ordination of female ministers. And young people are no less backward. A male student at a secular university quoted 1 Timothy 2:12 to make his case to me: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
The Adventist church started in the US. But the growth rate there is relatively slow. It is in the global South that the Adventist church continues to grow rapidly. So the vexing issue of the ordination of women will only be resolved when Adventists outside North America are good and ready. Until then, dedicated commissioned female ministers will simply have to submit to the status quo, whether or not it’s divinely ordained.