Before I even address the idea of feminism in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I should first discuss what feminism is so there is no confusion or assumption as to what is being written about.
“Fourth Wave” Feminism
Feminism can initially be defined as, “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” It is not some liberal-based agenda to usurp the concept of gender or any other definition stated by those who do not give the subject more than a passing glance. It does not focus on the belief that one gender is more superior than another. This is a very condensed definition on an expansive subject, but for the topic at hand, it will suffice.
Another argument is based on the idea of “wave” feminism, as in second-wave feminism, third-wave feminism, etc. The issue at hand is with the idea of the wave. As Constance Grady writes,
“The wave metaphor can be reductive. It can suggest that each wave of feminism is a monolith with a single unified agenda, when in fact the history of feminism is a history of different ideas in wild conflict.
It can reduce each wave to a stereotype and suggest that there’s a sharp division between generations of feminism, when in fact there’s a fairly strong continuity between each wave — and since no wave is a monolith, the theories that are fashionable in one wave are often grounded in the work that someone was doing on the sidelines of a previous wave. And the wave metaphor can suggest that mainstream feminism is the only kind of feminism there is, when feminism is full of splinter movements.”
Feminism is more complex than boxing it into different eras and dismissing it as a fad. While the wave metaphor is incorrect in how it views feminism, it is helpful as a way to examine its history.
From feminism’s birth in the 1840s advocating for women’s suffrage, it has always been a movement about women and men being seen as equals. The idea that feminists want to eradicate the concept of gender itself or replace men as leaders is a modern invention by very conservative circles who do not truly understand the movement either because of a lack of education, or because of a deep-seated belief that women really are second-class citizens and they just don’t want to say this outright, so they pepper their belief with non-sequiturs about being separate but equal.
Primarily this article deals with women’s ordination, and it’s quite sad there is so much controversy over the idea that women are able to preach like men, when the most essential, beautiful part of the story of salvation, Christ’s resurrection, was first given to a woman, to then tell the disciples (John 20:17). The most beautiful, redemptive point in the story of our Messiah was given first to a woman to preach to the disciples who would then give that message to the entire world.
Learn in Submission
“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” — 1 Timothy 2:11–12, ESV
“Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.” — 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, ESV
The infamous passage in 1 Timothy was written by Paul to Timothy in Ephesus. It was intended to address specific issues that Timothy was dealing with, it was not intended to be the end-all to any discussion of the role of women in the church. As Jesus Feminist author Sarah Bessey writes, “they are a portion of the letters from the Apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, written to specific people in specific cities for specific situations that had arisen.” In these same letters, Paul asks for his cloak, and sent personal greetings. There is a backstory, a shared history, implied and understood by those it was intended for.
Women during this time were teaching, leading, prophesying, and ministering in the church. They were fulfilling the words of the Apostle Paul in Acts 2, “In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on my servants — men and women alike — and they will prophesy.” Women were leading and teaching, and Paul had full knowledge of this. In 1 Corinthians 14:39, Paul was encouraging the women who were leading out congregations.
John Stackhouse writes that we must remember the context in which the Scriptures are written. For example, Paul was instructing the church on how to “survive and thrive in a patriarchal structure that he thinks will not last long and to maintain and promote the egalitarian dynamic already at work in the career of Jesus that in due course will leave gender roles behind.” The Christian churches of the time were revolutionary, accepting women, children, slaves, downtrodden, poor, and anyone else who wanted to join the beautiful, growing family.
Many theologians and scholars believe that in the whirlwind of this revolutionary newfound acceptance, several women in Ephesus were disrupting the meetings and services with constant questions and opinions that prevented the Gospel from being delivered as effectively as possible. Paul wanted to remind them that they learn in quietness and talk it over with their husbands. Even this was revolutionary for the time because he was encouraging women to learn! He wanted them to seek out answers, grow in Christ, and participate in their community. The Jews of the time forbid women from becoming educated, being trained for religious positions, or even participating in religious services.
Regarding the letter to Corinth, this portion of the letter was written during a time of disunity and disagreement in the Corinthian church. Paul wrote that those who were inhibiting the Gospel might more actively participate in it. David Hamilton writes that Paul “wanted everyone to be involved in the ministry of the church, each one contributing according to his or her ministry gifts.” To help accomplish this, Paul went through each and every disordered group and then went back through to “defend their right to communicate in an orderly fashion, correcting those who would silence them outright.”
Also, in 1 Timothy, the word quietly, in Greek hesuchia, is better translated as stillness — meaning more of a peaceful learning, not outright silence. Scot McKnight writes that Paul “is not talking about ordinary Christian women; rather, he has a specific group of women in mind.” Some scholars even translate the word women as a woman, meaning Paul may have been talking about one specific woman. Loren Cunningham writes,
“So, should women be silent? Yes, just like the men. Should women be prepared to minister with ‘a hymn, or word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue of interpretation’? Yes, just like the men. Should women exercise self-control as they minister? Yes, just like the men. Should women seek to educate themselves so that they can better edify others when they minister? Yes, just like the men.”
When women are prevented from serving in their full capacity, the Church is allowing an ancient male-dominated culture to drive our understanding rather than Jesus and the Scriptures. As Carolyn Custis James writes in Half the Church,
“God never envisioned a world where his image beaters would do life in low gear, or be encouraged to hold back, especially when suffering is rampant, people are lost, and there is so much kingdom work to do. He wants his daughters to thrive, mature, gain wisdom, hone their gifts, and contribute to his vast purpose in our word… God created his daughters to be kingdom builders — to pay attention to what is happening around us, to take action and contribute.”
A Mountain Removed, One Stone at a Time
A pastor and his wife living in their Haitian compound dreamt of having a school for the orphans that lived there. However, there was a large rocky hill in the center of the land. One day, a Haitian man in his sixties showed up with a pickaxe and shovel, and only lunch as his promised payment. He moved every single stone from that rocky hillside, shovelful by shovelful. It took months in the sweltering heat, but he leveled the ground, and the pastor and his wife were able to set up a tent school. More than 150 kids from the compound and neighborhood showed up in their uniforms and began their education.
The process of change is long, slow, and sometimes painful. We may feel as though we want to stop; we may feel that no progress is being made when only a single stone has been moved. Some churches and leaders may even believe that the fact that the mountain is there means that it’s simply God’s will that nothing should be done and that we should leave things as is.
Christianity is radical, in that it disrupts the status quo. Women, slaves, and poor people being seen as equal? Unheard of. Dialing into Adventism specifically, our popular evangelists have fervently debated over the idea of whether or not women should be ordained, rather than commissioned ministers. Doug Batchelor, a man with no theological training, president of Amazing Facts Ministries, and something of a rockstar in more conservative, fundamentalist circles of Adventism, believes that one of the reasons women shouldn’t be allowed to be ministers is the fact that the word seminary shares the same root as the word semen. At the same time, Dr. George Knight discusses how the concept of ordination isn’t even biblical, it’s a post-Catholic idea. You can really only have a problem with ordaining women if you believe in ordination as the Roman Catholics did, as increasing said person’s power. In the Adventist view of ordination, it is a recognition of what has already happened in Heaven, where God has called the person to preach the Gospel — all of this disagreement for something God has already decided.
It’s also quite strange that some individuals believe women should not be ministers even though some scholars believe that it was a woman who wrote the book of Hebrews. Women are more than capable to deal with the spiritual and emotional toll of ministry. In his book, Life and Work on the Mission Field, J. Herbert Kane wrote, “the more difficult and dangerous the work, the higher the ratio of women to men.” While we prevent and hold down the powerful women throughout our world church, we are preventing half of our congregation from living up to their full potential. Megachurch pastor Dr. David Yong-gi Cho once said,
“All the churches are so little! And all of them are holding back their women, not allowing them to do what God calls them to do. I’ve told them to release their women, but they insist that’s not the problem. They ask me, ‘What’s the key to your church?’ I tell them again, ‘Release your women,’ but they just don’t hear me!”
Rather than empowering our women to spread the same Gospel their male counterparts are preaching, we instead enforce their skirt lengths. We disregard the idea of Galatians 3:28, that “there is no Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We do not believe that women should be the spiritual “head of the household,” yet we draw the foundations of our very belief system from a woman.
Katherine Bushnell wrote, “cows were made before men — even before theologians — [therefore] men must be subordinated to cows.” The idea that there is a hierarchy based on order makes no sense, because man was one of the last things to be made. Also, woman was not taken from man’s head to be higher than him, or from the foot to be lower than him, but from his side to be his equal. God did not say man was good, and then create woman. God created man and woman and then said it was “very good” (Gen 1:27; 1:31). The two are pieces of the same puzzle, essential and one not higher or greater than the other.
As the church has always shown us, it is a slow, sometimes painful process to strive towards a more Christlike theology. But in the end, the light of God always shines through and we slowly grow closer to the image of Christ. I believe we will come to a place as a church where men and women are seen as equals. Until the traditional church takes the official stance to see men and women equal in all aspects, we shall go forward hand in hand in the mission field, local churches, and hospital rooms. As Sarah Bessey says, “it’s a lovely thing to watch men and women working together for the kingdom of God.”
This piece was originally published in Spectrum Magazine.