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Time has come to tie-off this series. One item does remain, however. We have called significant attention to the NEO-PROTESTANT or “historical-critical method” of biblical interpretation. However, this method is on the wane in the Christian world because of fundamental incompatibilities with Postmodern thought. Has this author been barking up the wrong tree then in noting the significance of the historical-critical method? No. But we should ponder, at least briefly this thing called “postmodernism” and its relation to the continued drive for Women’s Ordination (WO).
Shift to Postmodern Thought and Implications for Women’s Ordination
The Lutheran battles over Women’s Ordination were fought in the last years of modernism. The theological engine in those conflicts was the historical-critical method. A purely rationalistic system and approach, historical-criticism applied “rational” thought to the Scriptures; it treated the Bible as one would treat any other uninspired book.
Through the historical-critical approach, the Scriptures were sifted, certain passages selected as truthful, others discredited and discarded. In the end, bodies accepting historical-criticism accepted Women’s Ordination (e.g. Evangelical Lutheran Church of America). Bodies rejecting it (e.g. Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) rejected Women’s Ordination. Nothing stands still, and a substantive shift has been in process for some time. Late Modernism has given way to early Postmodernism. The approaches share similarities as well as differences.
Postmodern thought is suspicious of the rational, of alleged truth, of any idea of objectivity, of overarching explanatory systems or ideas. It “celebrates (or is resigned to) an approach to life and thought that is playful, eclectic, pluralistic, and subversive of traditional boundaries” (Richard N. Soulen, R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 3rd ed., p. 140). It doubts that the meaning of the biblical text can be recovered, focusing instead on the contemporary reader, looking to the creation of new meaning based not on the writer’s but the reader’s world. Popular examples of postmodern theology include writings by Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Rob Bell.
Feminist Theologian Phyllis Trible marks the postmodern approach:
The orientation of the postmodern perspective focuses on the critic exploring the power and contradiction of texts. The assumptions posit that the modern industrial world uses symbolic constructs (texts) as forms of social control, that the critic must identify these constructs, that the critic functions as social activist, and that the connection of word-thought-thing is arbitrarily invented to support power relationships of domination and subordination. The consensus rejects universal meanings. . . (Phyllis Trible, Rhetorical Criticism, p. 61).
Trible is telling us that under the postmodern regime, the interpreter seeks out discontinuity, not harmony; he is suspicious of texts being granted authority; he abhors power relationships he views as involving domination and subordination.
The “hermeneutic of suspicion” so characteristic of modernism’s historical-criticism, has in postmodernist thought grown into a doubt of the possibility of philosophical excavation resulting in any gains at all. Historical-criticism doubted the text while retaining confidence in the process and the practitioner. Postmodern thought doubts the process and focuses on the interpreter interacting with the text today. Newer, postmodern-friendly approaches to biblical interpretation usually follow somewhere near the Feminist line:
New Historicist approaches to the Bible seek to redress history in favour of the silenced and repressed of (somebody else’s) history, usually the wretched of the earth. For the Bible is now taken to represent a congeries of historiographical writings which isolate, exclude, repress and misrepresent as much as they may be deemed to advocate. New Historicism has as one of aims the reinscription of the repressed and excluded and the breaking of the silences which have lasted since the documents in the Bible were written and ultimately incorporated into the the various collections of books we now call the Bible (Robert P. Carroll, “Poststructuralist Approaches New Historicism and Postmodernism,” in John Barton, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, p. 55).
Carroll paints this anticipated future for Christianity and the Bible:
The future will be a paradise of different readings with none privileged and all equally valid: the modernistic lion will lie down with the postmodernist lamb, the Marxist bear will eat straw with the capitalist goat, the pre/postmodernist fundamentalist sheep will safely trade biblical proof-texts with the modernist wolf and the ecclesialistical dove will dwell in peace with the academic serpent. It will be a veritable paradise of (non)aggressive differing-but-equal biblical readings in which every man and every woman will sit under their own vine and fig tree undisturbed by any point of view alien to themselves. The Enlightenment rupture between medievalism and postmodernity will be healed by a return to a future of uncompetitive diverse readings. Readers of the Bible will also be able to move from community to community as and when they please, choosing the reading communities which suit their current needs best. A veritable reading utopia will have dawned and the old hierarchies and hegemonies of historical-critical biblical studies will have gone forever (Ibid., p. 62).
The shift to postmodern thought is having a decided impact on how the question of Women’s Ordination is being worked out. While the Seventh-day Adventist Church reacted with sufficient clarity to blunt the impact of historical-critical interpretation, it has not reacted so presciently with reference to postmodernist interpretation. Nor was it likely that it would; the postmodern approaches herald a deep and still materializing change in perspective that at first is very hard to nail down. Still, based upon what we now know, how might postmodernist thought impact the WO question?
First of all, it will doubt that anti-WO persons are rightly interpreting Genesis 2, 1 Corinthians 11, 14; 1 Timothy 2; 3, and so forth. How can we know that we are rightly interpreting those texts or any texts, they will ask.
Secondly, postmodernist thought automatically opposes hierarchies, the allegedly privileged, and dispositionally prefers leveling views of reality. It rejoices in many pluralisms, cornucopias of ideas all dwelling side by side.
Thirdly, postmodernist thought highlights contemporary experience and the experience of perceived minorities. The rational is replaced with the experiential.
Which is only to say that in several respects, postmodern thought tends to positions that favor Women’s Ordination (even as it would doubt the spiritual significance of any rite of ordination). Reason remains, but where modernist thought assumed it possible to sift and significantly discern reality, postmodern thinking doubts whether there is any ultimate truth to find. “Reality” is socially constructed. The world is what we make it. Literally.
Postmodern thinkers hold that there could be some variety of truth out there somewhere, but, even if there is, they are skeptical of finding it. Even if we identify something promising, we will not be able to be absolutely certain. And if we cannot be absolutely certain, we have nothing. The result of this mindset is a sense that license is given us to do whatever we want.
God never promised people the luxury and convenience of absolute certainty, nor have we anticipated such knowledge. Since we cannot be bullet-proof certain, all truth claims are seen as unprovable and relative to one another, equally unprovable, thus, in postmodern thought, equally valid.
Through historical-criticism the Bible is approached with a firm set of rules aimed at sifting out uncertainties. The idea is to trim everything away until we are left only with that of which we may be certain. But if (as the postmodern stance suggests) nothing is definite or at least definitely determinable, then every experience is as good as any other. Indeed, to not treat everyone’s experience, no matter its basis, as truth, is unjust, as it is truth for them.
In today’s postmodern skepticism, yesterday’s historical-critical principle of doubt is full grown. The earlier “hermeneutics of suspicion” now approaches not just the Scriptures but all ideas about reality. Suspicion has gone universal.
And so, while the historical-critical method was almost guaranteed to produce error, the same is true of postmodern approaches. There are some gains which we cannot discuss here. There are deep problems in so-called “modernist” thought just as there are in “postmodernist.” But in this moment we face a cultural tide of doubt and hostility toward the definite or the dogmatic. There is no room in this attitude for anything but validation of any and all ideas, the sole exception being ideas deemed restrictive. “Truths” that can coexist with others are in vogue; those which insist on an exclusive claims are disapproved.
This series of articles, very briefly, has outlined the theological underpinnings of Feminist and sister theological forms (Liberation Theology, Mainstream Feminist Theology, Evangelical Feminist Theology, Queer Theology). In several respects, they come out as being roughly the same.
If we synthesize the primary traits of Liberation, Feminist, and Queer theologies, we come up with roughly the following:
- There are “oppressed” classes of persons and one ought to identify oneself with the oppressed
- God is for the oppressed group (the poor, women, the homosexual, etc.)
- God is for the “full humanity” of the oppressed group
- Theology is a tool that is not values-neutral; it is inevitably either for or against a given oppressed group, and is to be used intentionally, in a biased fashion in favor of the oppressed
- The Bible is read selectively, especially for passages useful to the ideology that to be imposed upon the Scriptures
- Biblical passages which we do not deem morally or ethically mature are understood not to reflect historical reality, but are considered non-authoritative
- That which is imperative is one’s being a change agent working to transform the institutions of the culture; focus is moved from future to present, from heaven to earth. Especially important is bringing change in ecclesiastical institutions
- New interpretations are the way forward; new hermeneutics can justify new constellations of ideas
This is the essence of Liberation, Feminist, and Queer theologies. This is how the Liberation Theology machine works. We have investigated the writings of these theologians. These ideas constitute their basic approach to theology and to the Bible and to what it means to be a Christian. This is far different than an approach to Christianity and the Scriptures that so far as possible seeks in the Bible in its own self-testimony concerning how to rightly interpret it. In Liberationist theologies, it is as if the Bible is an occupied territory, with jackbooted enforcers rooting out politically-incorrect passages and deauthenticating them. A master idea has invaded and all is measured according to what it makes normative. Scripture passages which do not fit the preferred ideology are decommissioned. Sola Scriptura is replaced with NEO-PROTESTANT interpretation and the Bible is stripped of out-of-favor texts. As American Lutheran advocate in favor of Women’s Ordination John Reumann, quoted by Lockwood, writes,
To begin with the Old Testament, with 1 Corinthians 14, or 1 Timothy 2, can only lead to the exclusion of women from ordained ministry (Gregory Lockwood, “The Women’s Ordination Debate in the Lutheran Church of Australia,” in eds. Matthew C. Harrison, John T. Pless, Women Pastors? The Ordination of Women in Biblical Lutheran Perspective, p. 356).
Specific texts are anathema. To begin with Genesis two, and move along to the obvious New Testament passages, can only lead to one conclusion: “the exclusion of women from ordained ministry.” Here is confirmation of our central thesis over these 100 pages of articles. The Bible does, we think, address these questions with sufficient clarity to provide a discernible biblical principle that we can apply to present clergy roles in the church. Our purpose in this series has been to outline the situation, to aid the reader in understanding where the pro-Women’s Ordination advocates are coming from. The fundamental question is our approach to the Bible. The debate over Women’s Ordination is irreducibly a debate about biblical interpretation.
Reiterating the Specifics
At the very beginning of this series, we pointed out that while this topic has come to be known as the question of “Women’s Ordination,” that terminology is problematic. Many of us see no biblical prohibition to appointing women to serve in Scripturally appropriate positions when the congregation perceives that God has called them, or in signifying that call by the laying on of hands. Nor do we oppose women serving in paid ministry positions, or, where appropriate, their being reimbursed out of tithe funds. We do not oppose women receiving equivalent pay to men for equivalent work done. We do not oppose women serving in certain administrative roles where they are not leading a congregation nor providing directive spiritual leadership.
What many do oppose, is the ordination of women to a class of congregational and denominational leadership positions which biblical principle reserves to males. In particular, these include the role of local church elder, the church pastor who in ordained capacity carries global authority, and the position of conference, union, division, or world church ministerial directors and presidents. These positions are directive headship positions which the Designer of humanity has reserved for called, spiritual persons of the male sex. We object to the ordination of women to the particular spiritual leadership offices which biblical principle identifies as male-sex specific.
The main issue is not Women’s Ordination, but whether the Seventh-day Adventist Church will concur with its Creator who made men and women equal while appointing us sex-specific role differentiation.
A Possible Future?
What might a reformation in the area of male-female sex-roles mean for the Seventh-day Adventist Church? This case has not been made in this series; all we have done here is outline the development of the foundations of Women’s Ordination. Still, we can ponder.
What if God has permitted our energies as a Church to be spent these past forty years on this topic, not so that His Church might ape the secular world, but to call us to faithfulness to His Word? What if we repent of following in the wrong track that there may come a renewal of godly fatherhood and motherhood in our midst? What if more husbands love their wives and more wives respect their husbands? What if children benefit from families more reflecting of heaven’s order? What if those appointed to serve as elders in the church are faithful males after the Bible order, taking their roles seriously? What if lead pastors in every congregation are male, but in some congregations women fill roles, not as pastors or elders but as associates in pastoral care, ministering especially to the needs of women? What if the church engages in reforms in these areas, becoming more true to Scripture? And then, optimized for service to Jesus, the church advances evangelistically as the bride of Christ?
This can happen. But only if we are willing to study, to hear from God, to accept Him as Lord, and make actual reforms in the church. This will mean discontinuing the practice of ordaining women elders, and it will mean our understanding that women are not called to fill male-sex specific roles such as those of pastors and conference presidents.
It seems fitting to close this series of articles with a final discussion of unity. What are unity’s preconditions? A goal of the church is focus upon mission. This becomes very difficult in the absence of unity. What then is the best path to unity?
The church has a mission and this is not based upon a pronouncement from an ecclesiastical body, nor upon the sermon of some excellent preacher, nor upon an idea from a committee. That kind of mission for which men and women will invest their lives demands a firm basis, nothing ephemeral or subjective. Therefore, the church receives its mandate and understands the parameters of its mission via the Scriptures. The Scriptures also demonstrate another phenomenon we call “Present Truth.” At given points in history, Heaven develops certain understandings and brings them to the front among God’s people. Therefore, mission focus shows some variation across time.
The present mission focus for the Seventh-day Adventist Church is clear: it is found in Revelation 14:6-12. It is a particular message for a particular time. It makes specific demands of the believer. It is not a haze or a mush or a gelatin; it is a specific, particular message. It does not arise from a hodge-podge of disparate views but from a Bible that is uniformly inspired and which although authored by scores of different writers crossing a millennium and a half, presents one harmonious, unified message.
We accept as Scripture authority the standard Christian Protestant canon, the 66 Bible books from Genesis to Revelation. We also approach the Bible from a standpoint of faith, not skepticism. We open its pages anticipating that the Holy Spirit was able and active in its inspiration so that the Bible contains an infallible revelation of God’s will. It is no mere human book; it is not just a patched-together collection of human experiences; it is a communication from the infinite Creator to the creature made in His image. It is loving instruction from a Father to His children.
Many interpretive systems current in Christianity begin with what has been called a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” This is different than the Seventh-day Adventist understanding. These approaches are mutually exclusive and are doomed to conflict. In order to find unity, we need two essentials: (1) an agreed upon set of authorities, and (2) an agreed upon approach in terms of how we shall interpret those authorities. If we are seeking for unity, yet lack these two common starting points, unity must be unattainable. “Foundations of Women’s Ordination” outlined the theological underpinnings of Feminist and cohort theologies. It showed the different approaches to the authority of Scripture and to methods for its interpretation. Unfortunately, the differences are so great in the area of interpretation that unless one side or the other changes its approach, unity cannot be a possible outcome.
A pertinent line of thought involves statements made by Ellen G. White, which on this point become urgent to us.
Those who feel called out to join the movement in favor of woman’s rights and the so-called dress reform, might as well sever all connection with the third angel’s message. The spirit which attends the one cannot be in harmony with the other. The Scriptures are plain upon the relations and rights of men and women (Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 421).
On the same page, addressing the mannish styles of women’s dress women were experimenting with, White stated that “God’s order has been reversed,” and then referred to Deuteronomy 2:5. The reader can examine the whole passage in Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 409-422. The general theme is about avoiding involvement with ideas that destroy the credibility and influence of Adventists. It is apparent, whatever one might want to think, that White indicates that (1) there are particular relations and rights of men and women, (2) the Bible does address these, (3) the movement in favor of women’s rights (first wave Feminist Theology discussed in the second article in this series) was characterized by a spirit that could not be in harmony with the Advent Movement.
If we cannot begin with a basic commonality, there can be no hope for resolution and unity. Advocates and opponents of Women’s Ordination, so long as this is true, can only disagree. Then there is no place for a compromise position. The only possibility for the church to move forward faithfully will be for it to act decisively although this may result in an ecclesiastical separation. The two positions cannot coexist. Two kinds of Christianity are claiming to be Seventh-day Adventist; if Ellen White is right, only one can be, for “the one cannot be in harmony with the other.”
This may also help to explain why Women’s Ordination has remained unresolved so long in the Adventist Church. We have been either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge the difference in our midst, or to take the kind of action necessary to bring the inevitably painful resolution.
If the Seventh-day Adventist Church accepts the ordination of women to positions in biblical principle reserved to males, and in so doing accepts its correlate—the idea that the revelation (the Bible) “is articulated in historically limited and culturally conditioned human language” (Elizabeth Shüssler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, pp. 13, 14)—it shall set in motion the final abandonment of its Scriptural basis for being.
We would plead for both, those who endorse and those who oppose Women’s Ordination to read through this series of eight articles, not because it pretends to be the last word, but because its content should make clear exactly one point: that because mutually irreconcilable methods of biblical interpretation are in conflict, there is no possibility of a compromise resolution. In the end the Church will have to make a decision that will be unacceptable to some of its current members. The longer we delay, the more energy is wasted that could be spent living and giving Jesus’ final message of mercy to the world. We anticipate that it will fall to delegates to the General Conference session in 2015 to act decisively. May God give all parties discernment.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Pastor Larry Kirkpatrick has served churches in Nevada, Utah, California. They presently serve in the forest fastness of Northern Idaho where Larry lives with his wife Pamela and their children Seamus (age 7) and Mikayla (age 6).