By Alfonso Valenzuela, Senior Pastor, Loma Linda Campus Hill Church
The current debate over ordination without regard to gender covers so many aspects — church doctrine, structure, procedures, votes, committees, policies, biblical interpretation and all the rest. It’s discussed at length in blogs, magazine articles, and church hallways — so much so that some people are tired of it. But this is a serious topic, and it’s important not to miss the fundamental issues.
Instead of arguing the rights and wrongs of policy, or framing the debate as a clash of conservatives and liberals, or assuming there’s some kind of power conflict in the church, I want to share a different viewpoint. I see things from the perspective of a pastor. This is who I am. The gospel ministry is my life, and Christ is both my motivation and inspiration.
I’m often asked my opinion on women’s ordination. It comes up in church committees and phone conversations, during pastoral visits and Sabbath school discussions. Is it biblical? Are we just following culture? What is Ellen White’s role, both as example and in what she says? Is this part of a feminist agenda? Don’t women pastors already have the right to function in the same way as the men? What’s so important about a piece of paper that says someone’s ordained? How will this affect our church work? Will women’s ordination split the church?
These are all very important questions, certainly. But in terms of answers, I want to think about our mission and our vision. Our church structure and policies exist to help us fulfill the great commission of sharing the good news, to baptize and welcome into church fellowship those who accept Jesus, and to help believers in their life journeys as they look forward to an eternity in God’s presence. In all the debates, let’s not miss the vital point that, in the end, this is what matters: people in the kingdom.
So how does ordination without regard to gender impact our mission and vision? Here are some responses that I have found helpful in discussing this much-debated issue.
Getting the Work Done
First of all, we need to be biblically practical, most of all in our mission. We do not need some theoretical perspective. We are all called to ministry. We believe in the priesthood of all believers. The fact that we ordain pastors does not deny this fundamental belief that includes all of us in the work of the gospel ministry.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul makes it clear that he would do all it takes to win people to the gospel. Jew or Gentile, he operated using all methods and strategies to share the gospel. Women are very much part of this. I am honored to share the gospel ministry with women who bring to the calling their specific gifts and God-given talents. Recently, I shared the privilege of baptizing some precious souls with a female colleague. They contribute so much to the mission of the church. The church has rightly recognized the role of women in ministry by affirming that God has called them. We already ordain women as elders. Why? Not because they are women, but because of their gifts and contributions to the building up of the body of Christ.
Some people raise Titus 1:6 as an objection to the ordination of women as pastors. This text speaks of an elder being the husband of only one wife. So they apply that to pastors and say pastors can only be male. Of course, by ordaining women as local church elders, the church has already addressed that argument. However, it’s also important to notice that in this text, the emphasis is on right living, not on gender exclusiveness. Paul was concerned that those appointed as elders would not be liable to accusations of unfaithfulness or inappropriate relationships. Though he operates within the cultural context of his time, there’s no evidence that his statement was a deliberate attempt to exclude women. In fact, Paul’s practice was to accept the help and support of women — Junia, Priscilla, Julia, Phoebe, Euodia, and Persis, among others — in sharing the gospel message.
Others stress the “headship of man” as a reason to deny ordination to women pastors. Again, this kind of argument could be stretched to any role in which women are ordained to church leadership. But more importantly, in passages such as Ephesians 5, Paul is referring to the relationship of husbands and wives. There is no mandate to apply this to pastoral ministry. Nor does he say in 1 Corinthians 11 that a man is the head of every woman. In fact, in this very passage, Paul speaks about women praying and prophesying, which shows he did expect women to fulfill those particular functions.
No doubt people will continue to debate the meaning and applicability of these and other Bible passages. I am glad for the insistence that we remain true to Scripture; I am committed to that fundamental principle. As I read Scripture, I see God working through all kinds of people and situations to achieve His will. I for one will not oppose anyone called by the Spirit.
Affirming Women in Ministry
This brings me to my second main point: affirming women in ministry. We cannot proclaim we truly value women pastors, and then turn around and say that they cannot be affirmed in the same way as men. My ordination is very important to me. It is acknowledgment from my faith community that they recognize and endorse my calling to the ministry. My certificate of ordination is no more “just a piece of paper” than is my marriage certificate. More than “just some document,” it sums up the affirmation of my church that they believe I have a special work to do for God as an ordained minister.
If that is true for me, then it is surely true for my female colleagues in ministry. The word “ordination” does not occur in Scripture. Our system has developed as part of our practice of church. Yet in the same way as Paul and Barnabas and others were “set apart” for a specific role (their missionary journeys), I believe men and women are “set apart” today to do a similar work for God. In Acts, we read: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3, NIV). This simple act of blessing and confirmation of the Lord’s calling by the church in Antioch was a demonstration to all involved that they believed God was directly leading and guiding their mission.
Finally, I want to share my conviction that this is right. When Jesus spoke to some of the men in His day about the way they were behaving as they related to women, He reminded them that “from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8, RSV). While sin has marred God’s original intention, the plan was for man and woman to stand at each other’s side as equals. While this world has emphasized difference and legitimated discrimination and division, God does not recognize subordination based on race, social status or gender. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NIV). He says this, even after just telling His readers two verses before that they are all “sons of God.” Clearly, we need to expand our reading of such “gender language.”
Paul gives us a mission-driven perspective that we would do well to follow: “So I become all things to all people, that I may save some of them by whatever means are possible” (1 Corinthians 9:22, GNT). By the way, the word “men” that is in many translations is not in the original Greek. Paul used many means to bring salvation to as many as possible. He argued philosophy with the Greeks in Athens. He preached to Jews in the synagogues. He defended himself and the gospel before kings and rulers. He insisted on salvation going to the Gentiles before the church council in Jerusalem. He preached to women on a riverbank in Philippi (and, incidentally, converted Lydia, who invited Paul and his companions to use her house as a base for their evangelistic operations.). He really was all things to all people, trying to save some by whatever means possible.
Our mission is the same. We are not here to argue ecclesiology. We are here to win souls for Christ. Our position is clear. What matters is sharing the good news of God, preaching salvation in Jesus. Let’s get on with the work of the gospel. I for one want to share with my fellow pastors, men and women affirmed and ordained by God and the church, in getting the work done. Even so come, Lord Jesus.