For a variety of reasons, regrettably, it will not be possible for me to attend Canadian Assembly in Winnipeg this summer. But having served in the Alliance as a pastor for most of my adult life, most recently in a variety of church pastoral transitional ministries in the West, I feel compelled to voice my response to an initiative that definitively moves our Denomination in a new direction. I have written a couple of times about this issue most recently on May 23, 2012. (This latter occasion was in response to the papers on Ordination and the Ordination of Women published by the Board.)
I am grateful for the opportunities the Board had given to respond and dialogue about this issue including the Forum of the C&MA Canada Web-iste, as well as on Twitter and Facebook. I appreciate the commendable effort that has been made by the Board to communicate electronically and by video about their views and understanding of the issues. Steve Kerr communicates with candour and passion. But with all due respect, I can’t help but conclude that the presentation of the Board misses the obvious point of this discussion and controversy: women serving in authority in church leadership.
I think it is wrong that the Board minimizes the significance of this issue by dwelling on the technical aspects of our practice in which they imply that there is no substantial difference between licensing and ordination. This pragmatic approach, I feel, undermines the importance of the authority of Scripture which is so foundational to everything Christ’s work and mission is all about. In fact the video presentations had no reference to biblical authority whatsoever regarding direction on this important matter; instead the appeal to move in this new direction is being made on the basis of how our practice has evolved in the Alliance in its rather short history.
I realize that our Alliance started out as a missional movement fuelled by the full significance and preaching of the Gospel under the anointed ministry of our founder, Dr. A. B. Simpson. In the early days, the Alliance did not attempt to be a church denomination but rather an “alliance” of like-minded people concerning the all-sufficiency of Christ bound together in a “society” who sought to establish “branches” for the sake of promoting the Alliance’s message and mission. And it is true that there are examples of notable women who served and led at this time. But the point is that until 1980 the Alliance did not consider itself a church denomination. That decision was made at its first Assembly in Winnipeg that year!
As a missional movement, prior to that time, there was less concern about church structure but by 1980 a concern began to emerge about matters of church leadership and government. One example of change regarding polity was that Assembly decided our local gatherings should be called “churches” instead of “tabernacles.” Another example was that our Local Church Constitution should reflect the fact that these local churces be led by an “Elders Board” instead of an “Executive Board” and thus more in keeping with the proper biblical designation and meaning of church leadership.
As a missional movement, Simpson’s larger concern was to preach the Gospel so that as many as possible could experience its hope and healing. Obviously, women being spiritually gifted in all kinds of ways, he thought, should also be effectively employed in this great endeavour. But it is telling that even in those missional days of our development, Simpson, by conviction stopped short of the actual ordination of women.
The point that I am seeking to emphasize in this short response is that we are no longer at a place in our history where we can merely take a pragmatic approach to this important issue. If we are serious about being a church of the New Testament that seeks to come under the authority of the entire Scriptures, then we cannot afford to ignore the gender issue in general, and especially as it relates to church leadership.
In recent years, I have come to the conclusion from study in the Scriptures and relevant literature, that there is some difference between God’s larger kingdom work and the work of the church. In my view, the rule of Christ in His kingdom throughout the world is being accomplished especially by Christians of both genders working in many different spheres of endeavor. But the church is the special work of God’s Spirit in which He is working to redeem a particular people to Himself for the sake of eternal fellowship in His presence. It seems to me that the church is at the forefront of God’s kingdom work but is much more particular — it is the fellowship of God’s people who have become believers in Christ’s atoning grace for the forgiveness of their sins, have been baptized into His body, and share together for prayer, instruction, mission and sharing together in the life of Christ as portrayed in the Communion ordinance. And there is a structure for the local church that has been outlined for us in the New Testament — especially in the Epistles.
So I conclude from looking at the Scriptures that ordination is about much more than the affirmation of one’s calling to ministry in some form or another. Rather, ordination is that special calling, as demonstrated in the lives of the Apostles, and others, like Timothy and Titus who became pastors in the early church, to lead and have a significant measure of spiritual authority to teach, to instruct, and to guide the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1-4). Ordination, in the way we have come to understand and use the term in our times, based on Scripture I believe, is essentially about the calling of God for local church leadership. Whatever the opinion of the Board, I believe we need to come to a conclusion about the meaning of ordination on the basis of what we believe God is saying about its significance in Scripture, not merely on the basis of our own historical development.
And if we conclude biblically that ordination is significant in terms of local church leadership, then we also cannot ignore what God is seeking to say to us through His authoritative Word concerning the similarities and differences regarding gender. Men and women should celebrate all that they have in common and submit to one another in Christ as outlined in Ephesians 5 for example. But we should not let the world squeeze us into its mould of thinking there really are not important differences of function — in marriage and in the church. I realize this latter issue is a big one, but I don’t think we in the church should skirt the theological issues involved and simply come to a pragmatic conclusion about which most of us may well end up feeling some sense of unease.
My vote would be a definite NO to the proposal to change the word “men” to “persons” at this time. If we want to be genuinely biblical in these days, let’s take the time to think more seriously about the biblical meaning of ordination and gender. Let’s not sacrifice a bias for what is really true on the altar of pragmatism. Let’s think deeply and prayerfully about the implications of moving too quickly in a direction which may, in the end, lack a significant measure of true wisdom.