A few days ago I picked up a copy of an Adventist periodical and ran into an article on this whole "women's ordination" thing. As I read the article I found myself horribly irritated. The article alluded to the following statements by Ellen White:
A great work can be done by presenting to the people the Bible just as it reads (2TT 129.2).
If men will take the Bible, just as it reads, they will make no mistake... (RH May 25, 1876, par. 40).
If men would but take the Bible as it reads... a work would be accomplished... (GC 598.3).
The language of the Bible should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure is employed (GC 598.3).
I could be wrong here, but I got the distinct impression that the point of the article was: If we all take the Bible just as it reads we will all agree that women should not be ordained. This is what I found irritating. While I do not disagree with the above quotes by Ellen, they are only half the story. And by highlighting this half of the story alone the article leaves the impression that students should disregard the cultural, literary, and historical context of the passages in question and just read them as they are. End of story. Yet nothing could lead us into error faster than taking the Bible as it reads without considering its cultural, historical, and literary context.
For the sake of clarity allow me to propose what would happen if we read the Bible "just as it reads" while ignoring the context.
- If you are single forget about finding a wife.: 1 Corinthians 7:27
- Don't go to the doc if you are sick. Just pray.: James 5:14
- Forget about women as pastors. They shouldn't talk in church at all!: 1 Corinthians 14:34
- Ladies: Don’t Make Yourself Look Nice: 1 Peter 3:3
- Self-mutilation is acceptable if you want to overcome sin: Matthew 5:29, 30
- If you and your family get attacked, don't try and protect yourselves.: Matthew 5:39
- If someone asks you for something you have, anyone, give it to him/her.: Matthew 5:42
- Don't pray in public (no saying grace at the restaurant!).: (Matthew 6:6)
- Get rid of your savings account.: (Matthew 6:19)
- Don't make future plans.: Matthew 6:34
- Hate Your Family: Luke 14:26
- Give everything you own away. Don't keep a thing!: Luke 14:33
Now of course, no one would accept this as a legitimate way of studying the Bible. Those who ignore the process of exegesis (which includes studying the cultural, literary, and historical context) often end up doing really dumb things like refusing to wear clothes with multiple fabrics because it says so in Leviticus or thinking that Jeremiah 10:1-10 is referring to a Christmas tree. Reading the Bible "just as it reads" often translates into superficial reading that leads to erroneous interpretations of scripture as opposed to a pure interpretation.
So was Ellen White wrong? Of course not. The context of her statements have to do with the Sabbath. In order to discredit the Sabbath many engage in Bible verse twisting - a process in which the plain teaching of scripture is twisted in the name of "exegesis". It was to this that Ellen referred to when she wrote her statements. But to blindly apply this same counsel in every situation would lead us to adopt the ridiculous views shared above. In the same vein, there are people who twist the Bible to say that having multiple wives is OK, that Jesus is not God, that grace gives us a free licence to sin, and that slavery is not wrong. In this context, a plain reading of scripture is absolutely necessary (though such a plain reading would gain - not lose - from the exegetical process). But when it comes to issues that are not as clear, such as women's ordination, it is foolish to assert that the entire debate can be settled by a "plain reading" of scripture. A thorough study of the cultural issues, historical perspectives, and literary intentions (among other things) needs to be studied and understood before we can make a claim about what is the true biblical position that God expects of his church today.
Sadly, there are some who equate exegesis with rationalizing and come to the conclusion that unless the text is read just as it is we are disobeying the Bible. But such is not the case. While Ellen White counseled us to take the Bible as it reads she also rebuked those who disregarded context. At the end of the day we may still disagree on our conclusions but lets refrain from pridefully asserting that we alone have the "plain reading of scripture".
photo credit: Marco Bijdevaate via photopin cc