. . . because we know she wouldn’t be allowed to vote.
From private, locked-away meetings to wide-open social media forums, the 7th day Adventist Church has wrung out this frothy debate over many years. Two “NO” votes predated this last one, but this vote was different. I’ve been a member for four decades and have never seen the church polarize to the degree it has over this last vote. On one extreme, “WO” has become a social justice litmus test and a must-have mark of our Christianity; on the other, it’s the Omega of apostasy, a dangerous lurch toward irreverent interpretation methods and moral chaos. Reports say that millions of dollars have been spent on carting high-level officials, thinkers, and scholars to meetings where they would present papers, review history, and discuss, discuss, discuss.
If women get nothing else out of this, it should be a compliment that we matter. But for some, the “no” crushed their spirits with a message that left them feeling devalued and discouraged. I empathize. I’ve never aspired to be an ordained pastor, but I’ve been left out many an inner circle of men. Experience has taught me that the exclusion and undervaluing of women are much more essentially about human nature than they are about church policy. I believe that even if the exclusion of women from pastoral ordination is biblically correct, our attachment to it has, to a degree, been fueled by plain old, garden-variety male chauvinism. “Male privilege” has been well-documented in scientific literature, well-validated in personal experience, and even predicted in Genesis 3:16: “Your desire shall be toward your husband, and he shall rule over you.” As James Brown sang, “It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world.”
As I’ve followed this debate, I’ve come to a point of tension: I fear gender neutrality as the gateway to gender confusion and, ultimately, moral anarchy. For this reason, I affirm gender differences and male headship in the family. At the same time, I realize that the demon of chauvinism has crept into the sanctuary under the cloak of these very things.
I have no trouble admitting that women are weaker in many respects. We are weaker physically, and arguably that has led to us being weaker socially, financially, and politically (1 Peter 3:7). Our uteruses keep us, collectively speaking, tending to children versus building empires. This “weakness” has put us in an unenviable position in a world where “dominion becomes the prize of the strongest.” DOA 436. The carnal heart devalues and exploits what is weak, leading to the global denigration and oppression of women.
I wish I could say this strong-dominates-the-weak boot never crushes anyone on church soil, but Jesus calls today’s church Laodicea and charges it with covert carnality. Fleshly motives are alive and well among us, however righteously they may be dressed. In our condition, why would Laodicea not exploit the little guy—or girl?
Jesus bluntly stated that “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,” but then quickly inserted that “you are not to be like that,” Luke 22:25-26, NIV. Servant leadership lifts up what is weak, bestowing “more abundant honor” upon the “weaker members,” 1 Cor. 12:23. Whether or not we conclude that this honor entails ordaining women to pastoral leadership, we can all agree that it does entail valuing women, paying women, including women, and that it does not entail leaving women out of paid ministry positions and creating an “ol’ boy’s club” in church leadership as we have done over the last century. C’mon, let’s just admit that we haven’t conquered chauvinism, and that we need more of Jesus.
But—and I’m talking to my sisters now—don’t hold your breath. Instead breathe a prayer, and follow the example of Mary Magdalene, who showed us a better, braver way. Think about it: Not only was she female, but a recovering prostitute. Apparently Mary relapsed six times before she finally stayed clean. I think I know what triggered her—could it have been the ol’ boy’s club? The inner circle that Jesus had hand picked, but that still evinced all kinds of fleshly superiority including male privilege attitudes to the point of offending this little one, a brand plucked from the fire, a lost sheep on her way back to the fold? I can imagine how over and over again they belittled her, and how over and over again she felt the crushing sense of shame and devaluing, synapses screaming memories of sexual abuse at the hands of privileged male clergy. And I can imagine how over and over again Jesus sought her out with I’m not like them. Mary, follow me. Don’t look at them. They’re wrong. I love you. That’s how I see her story anyway, because I’ve experienced and witnessed it many times over.
Mary finally got it. The last devil—the one that whispers, “If they shame you, you’re shameful!”—came flying out when Mary finally renounced her (understandable) desire for human affirmation, rapturously crashing to her signature position at Jesus’ feet. In that instant, she was delivered of her demons. Psychologically speaking, her rattled brainwaves stabilized and her tender emotions began to re-emerge like so many tiny crocuses in spring.
How to thank Him? She had a good stash of money, but Moses said the hire of a prostitute could not be used as an offering (Deut. 23:18). Thankfully, creative Genius sent His Spirit, who coalesced with this God-follower until they birthed a beautiful idea. She would buy ointment for Jesus’ burial. Thirty thousand dollars later she held her famous alabaster box close to her tender, thumping heart.
I doubt that Simon invited Mary to his party. He considered her his victim, not his equal. Still, she crept in unnoticed, spotted her Messiah, broke her box, drenched His body, cried a river, washed His feet, and worshipped. Planning to then disappear unnoticed, she suddenly realized: I forgot the power of this fragrance (a week later the masses would worship Jesus as king because they smelled the still-exuding spikenard, a fragrance associated with royalty). The disciples smelled the money, and, taking in the embarrassing scene, issued their disapproval, Judas’ scorn swelling the loudest. Simon sat back, arrogant and smug, wondering why Jesus indulged such weakness.
Flustered and afraid, Mary waited for Jesus to join the chorus of shame. Instead, He surprised her again with what a different kind of man He was. His voice rang out over the cacophony, confident and clear: “Leave her alone.” Oh, that each victim of abuse and corresponding shaming could hear those three simple words. Jesus says, “Leave her alone.” If you don’t, you will one day meet the eyes of infinite, holy, righteous Servant leadership. Then you will wish you had left her alone.
Like a schoolteacher shushing the class smarty-pants so the shy genius can shine, Jesus diverted His attention from the disciples to Mary. “She has done a beautiful thing to Me . . . Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her,” Mark 14:6, 9.
Never has such an unqualified compliment come from the lips of God to the ears of humankind. Without fear of evoking pride, He anointed with praise the one who anointed Him with perfume. The honor shown her nipped at the egos of the ever-striving disciples until they bled envy. Judas immediately left to feverishly pursue his betrayal plot.
This story speaks powerfully to the issue at hand: Jesus’ words to Mary exhilarate all of us (male or female!) who have poured out our spikenard without recognition. God allows for systems, even establishes them. But humanity taints those systems. Undeterred, God finds a way around the systems, breathing inspiration into the worshipping, willing marginalized. We’re human and will long for “at-a-girl”s from our brothers. But it’s an unreliable supply line. Let’s not imply by our despair that the frail, fitful tributary of human support keeps us alive. What sustains us is the roaring river of God’s faith in us, which, in one powerful surge, can exalt the humble and humble the proud. “He shall purify the sons of Levi,” Mal. 3:3. He said He would. Leave them with Him for now. Fix your eyes on Jesus, who has fixed His eyes, and His extravagant hopes for womankind, on you.
And then tell me what he’s done for you lately.