Searching the Scriptures

From the preceding analysis, it is clear that ordination of women as elders or pastors is not a cultural issue to be settled according to a person's prejudice or preference or the sociological structures existing in a particular region of the world, be they "democratic," "patriarchal," "authoritarian," or otherwise. Neither is it an equal rights issue to be resolved through such things as civil laws or lawsuits. The issue is not a financial matter to be decided on the basis of economic might or threat of economic blackmail. It is not even a political issue to be settled by petition drives, public opinion polls, referenda, or surveys. The issue is theological. It can only be resolved legitimately on the basis of Scripture.

But how can we resolve an issue from the Bible if we do not agree on how to interpret the Bible?Searching the Scriptures will provide some suggestions on how the Spirit guides believers--as individuals, as a church community, and as a worldwide body at a council meeting--when they seek to understand His will on an unresolved theological issue. The foundational principles discussed in this chapter are crucial to a proper understanding of the Bible. [1]

Scripture: The Sole Authority

The 66 books of the Old and New Testaments are the clear, trustworthy revelation of God's will and His salvation. They constitute the standard on which all teachings and practices are to be grounded and by which they are to be tested (2 Tim 3:15-17; Ps 119:105; Prov 30:5, 6; Isa 8:20; John 17:17; 2 Thess 3:14; Heb 4:12). The first article of our Seventh-day Adventist fundamental beliefs states: "The Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His [God's] will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the authoritative revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God's acts in history." At least three implications emerge from this fundamental belief:

1. Scripture, the Authoritative Norm. Upholding sola scriptura (the sole authority of Scripture) means believing and obeying all that Scripture sets forth and letting Scripture judge and control every thought and practice. Christ's own example, repeatedly appealing to Scripture (e.g., "Have ye not read . . . ?";

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"It is written"), shows that Scripture is the final court of appeal (cf. Matt 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; Matt 4:4, 7, 10; 5:17-19). Against Scripture, there is no appeal, for "the scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35).

Ellen G. White explained why theological issues--matters of faith and practice, which includes the ordination of women to the gospel ministry--should be settled solely on the basis of the Bible: "The Word of God is the great detector of error; to it we believe everything must be brought. The Bible must be our standard for every doctrine and practice. We must study it reverentially. We are to receive no one's opinion without comparing it with the Scriptures. Here is divine authority which is supreme in matters of faith. It is the Word of the living God that is to decide all controversies" ( The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials , pp. 44, 45).

2. Scripture, Above Human Reason and Experience. The Bible's sole authority means that human reason and experience regarding beliefs and practices must be subject to the Bible's correction. Reason is to be employed to its fullest extent, but it must not operate as an independent authority apart from Scripture (1 Cor 2:1-10). Adam and Eve misused their reason when they accepted the invitation to pursue wisdom out of the resources of their own independent judgment (Gen 3:5-6). Intellectual self-sufficiency indicates unbelief, not faith. Therefore in approaching Scripture, the real question is not whether a Christian should think, but how he should think--that is, whether his thinking should be controlled by the Bible (Prov 3:5-6). To defer to God's Word is not only a faithful use of reason,but also an act of faith.

Similarly, experience is important in the Christian religion (1 John 1:1-3), but it should not have priority over Scripture. To avoid equating subjective religious experience with "the Holy Spirit's leading," believers need the corrective norm of the Holy Scriptures, which are "more sure" than any experience. The apostle Peter's manner of addressing this issue is significant. In 2 Peter 1:16-18 he rejects the charge that the Christian message is a myth with no objective basis in a factual historical event. For proof he appeals to the apostles' first-hand experience: "We were eyewitnesses . . . we heard . . . we were with Him." However, in verse 19 he appeals to something "more sure" than experience--namely, the prophetic word, the divinely-inspired, authoritative Scriptures (vv. 20-21; cf. Luke 24:25-27, 32). [2] Whereas people tend to accept the Bible because it confirms their experiences (personal, cultural, scientific, religious, etc.), Peter argues that experience (including his own sanctified experience) is trustworthy because it is confirmed by Scripture.

According to Ellen G. White, "God will have a people upon the earth to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines and the basis of all reforms. The opinions of learned men, the deductions of science, the creeds or decisions of ecclesiastical councils, as numerous and discordant as are the churches which they represent, the voice of the majority--not one nor all of these should be regarded as evidence for or against any point of

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religious faith. Before accepting any doctrine or precept, we should demand a plain "Thus saith the Lord" in its support" ( The Great Controversy , p. 595, emphasis added).

3. Scripture, Its Own Interpreter. In upholding the sole authority of Scripture, we acknowledge that it is both sufficient (i.e., it contains all that the church needs to know for guidance in the way of salvation and for the work of ministry) and clear (i.e., it can be understood from within itself, by comparing one passage of Scripture with another) (2 Tim 3:16-17). This means that Scripture does not need to be supplemented by any external source (e.g., human reason, experience, or tradition). Neither is it to be interpreted in the light of some outside sources (e.g., ecclesiastical tradition, philosophy, science, extrabiblical religion, psychology, etc.), as though the authority of these sources were equal to or above that of Scripture. Rather, the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture affirm the Prtestant Reformation principle that Scripture must remain its own interpreter.

Ellen White repeatedly emphasized, "Make the Bible its own expositor, bringing together all that is said concerning a given subject at different times and under varied circumstances" ( Child Guidance , p. 511). "I saw that the Word of God, as a whole, is a perfect chain, one portion linking into and explaining another" ( Early Writings , p. 221). We must submit to "the Bible as the word of God, the only sufficient, infallible rule," which "must be its own interpreter" ( The Great Controversy , p. 173). "Scripture interprets scripture, one passage being the key to other passages" ( Evangelism , p. 581). "The Bible is its own expositor. Scripture is to be compared with Scripture" ( Education , p. 190). Whatever information is needed to understand a given passage of the Bible can be found in the pages of Scripture itself.

This historic principle that Scripture is its own interpreter discredits the popular belief that every person or theologian is his own interpreter. If, instead of Scripture, every person is his own interpreter, a lack of consensus among theologians on issues such as women's ordination can easily be misinterpreted as a lack of agreement among the inspired writers themselves, as though the authority of theologians were on a level with the authority of the inspired Bible writers. On the other hand, upholding the principle that Scripture interprets itself suggests that when there is a lack of consensus among Bible students, they must prayerfully continue in their searching the Scripturesuntil God sheds further light on the issue.

Both the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture imply that the Spirit, as the infallible interpreter, can enable every sincere seeker of truth to know God's will (John 7:17). This does not mean that no difficulties will be found in the Bible, but only that because the Holy Spirit attends the Word, the substance of the Bible's message can be understood by every Christian--scholar and non-scholar--as Scripture is compared with Scripture.

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Harmonious Method of Interpretation

Scripture should not be viewed merely as a library of books written by different writers and dealing with many unrelated subjects. On the contrary, inspired Scripture is a single book with a single author--God (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21)--and a single theme (God's plan of salvation through Christ [John 5:39; Luke 24:25-27]). Because of the Holy Spirit's inspiration of the entire Bible, the correct meaning of every portion of Scripture will be consistent with the rest of the teaching of the Bible on that subject. Therefore, in approaching the Scriptures, we should not interpret them in such a way that one part of Scripture is made to appear to contradict another; instead we should seek the harmony among its various parts.

Ellen White wrote, "As several [biblical] writers present a subject under varied aspects and relations, there may appear, to the superficial, careless, or prejudiced reader, to be discrepancy or contradiction, where the thoughtful, reverent student, with clearer insight, discerns the underlying harmony" ( The Great Controversy , p. vi). Consequently, "He who earnestly searches the Scriptures will see that harmony exists between the various parts of the Bible; he will discover the bearing of one passage upon another, and the reward of his toil will be exceedingly precious" (Signs of the Times, Feb. 6, 1893 , p. 214). Again, "The Bible is its own interpreter, one passage explaining another. By comparing scriptures referring to the same subjects, you will see beauty and harmony of hich you have never dreamed" ( Testimonies , 4:499).

Attitude of Trust and Dependence on God

As the church considers ordination for women, the apostle Peter's warning about Paul's writings is particularly significant: "Even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction" (2 Pet 3:15-16). If we are to avoid wresting Scripture or misinterpreting its message, we must adopt an attitude of trust and dependence on God as we approach His inspired Word, and we must seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit individually and collectively.

1. Humility and Teachability. To overcome doubts and skepticism towards the teachings of God's Word, we must have the simplicity and faith of a little child, and we must be ready to learn, accept, and believe what Scripture teaches, however unpalatable it may seem to us. We must humble our pride and surrender our sin-loving hearts, which ever seek to usurp Scripture's authority. "Disguise it as they may, the real cause of doubt and skepticism, in most cases, is the love of sin. The teachings and restrictions of God's Word are not welcome

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to the proud, sin-loving heart, and those who are unwilling to obey its requirements are ready to doubt its authority. In order to arrive at truth, we must have a sincere desire to know the truth, and a willingness of heart to obey it. And all who come in this spirit to the study of the Bible, will find abundant evidence that it is God's Word, and they may gain an understanding of its truths that will make them wise unto salvation" ( Steps to Christ , p. 111).

Through prayer one acknowledges dependence on God in understanding His Word. Prayer is therefore an effective aid in interpreting Scripture, connecting the interpreter with the same Holy Spirit who inspired the writers of Scripture. Prayer acknowledges a sincere desire to discover God's will rather than supporting evidence to justify one's preconceived opinions. Consequently, as we approach Scriptures, we must pray, "O Lord: teach me thy statutes. . . . Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law. . . Give me understanding" (Ps 119:12, 18, 34; cf. vv. 27, 33). In answer to such prayer, God has promised to give knowledge--(1) through the Holy Spirit and (2) through the Christian community (Eph 3:16-19; Eph 1:17-19; Col 1:9).

2. The Spirit's Guidance of Individual Believers. Scripture cannot be understood correctly apart from the Spirit's guidance and illumination. "We can attain to an understanding of God's Word only through the illumination of that Spirit by which the Word was given." "But without the guidance of the Holy Spirit we shall be continually liable to wrest the Scriptures or to misinterpret them" (Steps to Christ , pp. 109, 110).

Without belittling the valuable contributions of technical biblical experts, we need to remember that it is possible for everyone to study Scripture without a mass of technical theological expertise. One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to lead laypersons, no less than theologians, into "all truth" (John 14:26; 16:13-14; 1 Cor 2:10-14; 1 John 2:27). The assurance that "the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple" is still valid (Ps 19:7). Scripture is able to make even little children "wise unto salvation" (2 Tim 3:15). The Holy Spirit will lead everyone who approaches the Word of God with the humble, tachable, and God-fearing attitude of the child Samuel: "Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth" (1 Sam 3:9-10).

The truth that the Holy Spirit enables average church members to understand Scripture undercuts the tendency to ascribe biblical understanding to only a few "infallible" experts, be they "popes," "scholars" or "leaders." Ellen White warned of the danger: "Satan is constantly endeavoring to attract attention to man in the place of God. He leads the people to look to bishops, to pastors, to professors of theology, as their guides, instead of searching the Scriptures to learn their duty for themselves. Then, by controlling the minds of these leaders, he can influence the multitudes according to his will" ( The Great Controversy , p. 595, emphasis added). Scripture points not to fallible human beings, but to the Holy Spirit, Christ's appointed Teacher of the church

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(John 16:13ff.), as the only infallible Person to whom Bible believers must look for guidance in studying the Word of God.

3. The Spirit's Guidance Within the Church Community. But while the Spirit guides individual believers in their study of Scripture, Paul says that believers will come to a knowledge of God "with all the saints" (Eph 3:18), suggesting that God also gives spiritual understanding through the Christian community. This fact repudiates "Lone Ranger-ism" in interpreting Scripture--the spirit that says "I'll go my own way without regard to what the community of believers thinks"--and it serves as a check on those who tend to believe that they alone are guided by the Holy Spirit.

"God has not passed His people by and chosen one solitary man here and another there as the only ones worthy to be entrusted with His truth. He does not give one man new light contrary to the established faith of the body. In every reform men have arisen making this claim. . . . Let none be self-confident, as though God had given them special light above their brethren. Christ is represented as dwelling in His people. Believers are represented as 'built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief Cornerstone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit' [Eph 2:20-22]" ( Testimonies for the Church , 5:291-292).

Studying the inspired Word "with all the saints" should not be understood as questioning the value of, and even the obligation for, personal Bible study, or as suggesting that individuals should surrender their judgment to others. Neither is it the same as taking an opinion poll regarding a theological position and then tallying the results. Nor is it the same as waiting until other individuals, churches, or Divisions "are ready" to adopt a "lockstep" theological position on an issue such as women's ordination. Studying Scripture "with all the saints" is none of these. Rather, it is a genuine, equal participation of church members toward a common understanding of Scripture. Evidently such a common understanding is possible, since on the basis of Scripture, Seventh-day Adventists have come to hold a body of beliefs--our fundamental beliefs--as reflecting a true understanding of Scripture.

By studying the Bible in partnership with other members of the church, the believer recognizes that in the church God has entrusted different gifts to different members for the edification of the entire body (1 Cor 12). In this context the spiritual gifts--notably, the gifts of teaching, knowledge, wisdom, and discernment of spirits--and the role of theologians, elders and pastors (those who are "apt to teach") become particularly significant. In a worldwide church such as ours, these gifts are essential to our corporate understanding of the Bible.

Furthermore, the Spirit's design that believers study His word "with all the saints" delivers us from the tyranny of being tied to our own thoughts

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and our naive cultural conceits. It enables us to recognize that the Holy Spirit is not active only in a few regions of the world, nor at the study of only a few scholars and church members, but that He is also leading other believers (experts and no-scholars, without regard to gender, race or social status) to a clear understanding of God's will in His written Word. It is as Christians study the Bible together and share the Word with each other, not as solitary individuals nor as groups of individuals from particular regions of the world, that they are given understanding most fully.

4. The Spirit's Guidance at a Church Council. Just as there is safety and certainty "in the multitude of counselors" (Prov 11:14; 15:22), so also in the collective decision of the worldwide church at a council meeting there is safety. The Spirit's guidance at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) may be instructive for the Seventh-day Adventist church as it seeks a solution regarding women's ordination. [3]

First, the problem confronting the apostolic church was not merely a sociological issue, shaped by culture or geography, to be resolved pragmatically by compromises and concessions. Rather, it was a theological issue--one which concerned doctrine and practice ("Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved. . . . The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses," vv. 1, 5 NIV). Because it was a theological issue it became a church-wide issue. Consequently, it could not be settled by each different region of the church according to the cultural "readiness" of the various churches, nor according to the sociological structures (be they "democratic" or "non-democratic") in the respective regions where the church had a presence.

Second, to resolve the "sharp dispute and debate" occasioned by the theological issue (v. 2) a council was convened, attended by delegates from the different regions of the church (vv. 2-6). Before a final decision was made, they had a free and open discussion of the issue, with theological input from both Gentile and Jewish Christians (vv. 7-12). Could this suggest that theological issues confronting the church must be given impartial hearing in the various publications of the church today?

Third, the decision was not based on pragmatic considerations; instead, after Peter, Paul, and Barnabas called attention to God's work among Jews and Gentiles, James appealed to Scripture as the basis for the theological solution (vv. 15-21). [4] We should note that he adopted a harmonistic approach toward interpreting Scripture ("The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written" [v. 15]). In other words, the solution was based on a sound exegesis (interpretation) of the available scriptural passages that had a bearing on the issue. The apostolic church appears to have recognized an underlying harmony in the inspired writings of the Old Testament.

Fourth, the scriptural solution to the theological problem not only resulted in unity and harmony between the Jewish and Gentile Christians (vv. 22-35,

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they were "with one accord" [v. 25 KJV]), but it also met the approval of the Holy Spirit ("It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. . ." [v. 28 NIV]). Their decision was approved by the Holy Spirit because it was in harmony with His expressed will as revealed and recorded in inspired Scripture.

Finally, the theological decision they made at that council was not to be accepted or rejected according to the needs or circumstances of the different churches. The council's prohibitions were binding on all the churches: they are said to be "necessary," not optional (v. 28). Though the letter was addressed to the Christians in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia (vv. 23-29), it was binding on all the other Christian churches (Acts 16:4; 21:25; Rev 2:14, 20). [5] Because the various churches submitted to the council decision, the mission of the church was greatly helped, resulting in a growing church membership: "As they [Paul, Silas, Timothy] traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers" (Acts 16:4-5 NIV). The mission of the church is enhanced whenever there is theological unity, not just a "unity in diversity,"--a phrase which has become a codeword for theological pluralism. [6]

Conclusion. Whenever the worldwide church faces a theological problem, it must always insist on scriptural--not pragmatic or socio-cultural--solutions. Those scriptural solutions must recognize the Bible as the product of one divine mind, with an underlying harmony in its various parts. Thus the interpreter must not relativize the Bible or ascribe mistakes or contradictions to its message. When believers from the different regions of the world adopt a trusting attitude to accept, believe, and obey whatever God's Word teaches, the Holy Spirit will attend their efforts by shedding light on their theological problem, thereby restoring unity in their midst and empowering them for mission.

In the pages that follow, we shall begin our attempt to apply the principles of interpretation discussed in this chapter to the crucial theological issues of women's ordination identified in the previous chapter. Our prayer is that as we seek guidance by searching the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit will clear most of the confusion we have on this subject.


[1] These foundational principles are summarized in the "Methods of Bible Study Committee Report," Adventist Review, January 22, 1987, pp. 18-20. The principles are opposed to the historical-critical method of interpretation--a method established on the assumption that the Bible is not fully inspired, and that not all biblical accounts (miracles, supernatural events, chronology, history, geography, etc.) are reliable. For a further discussion of how the historical-critical method is being used in the women's ordination question, see C. Raymond Holmes, The Tip of an Iceberg,pp. 31-48. A detailed treatment on methods of Biblical interpretation may be found in David S. Dockery, Kenneth A. Mathews, and Robert B. Sloan, Foundations for Biblical Interpretation(Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Holman Pub., 1994); and Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics(Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994).
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[2] For more on this, see Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, "Inspired Book or Inspiring Booklet? Biblical Authority in an Age of Theological Pluralism," in the Spring 1995 issue of Adventists Affirm.

[3] Perceptive readers will observe from what follows that we do not subscribe to the interpretation of Acts 15 offered by Andrew Bates (pseudonym), "The Jerusalem Council: A Model for Utrecht?"Ministry, April 1995, pp. 18-23.

[4] The four categories of requirement the apostle cites correspond to the instructions Moses gave in Leviticus 17 and 18, which include reference not only to the Israelites but to the "strangers which sojourn among you" (17:8, 10, 12, 13, 15; 18:26). In the letter that went out to the churches, these items are even listed in the same order as they appear in Leviticus (see Acts 15:29). That the council did not require circumcision of the Gentiles seems to indicate a recognition that this sign was given to the Israelites but not to the "strangers which sojourn among you," unless they should choose to become Jews. The Jerusalem Council ruled, in effect, that Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to be Christians and experience Jesus' salvation. As with matters of the ceremonial law, circumcision was not to be expected of the Gentile Christians. Paul himself made the Christian perspective explicit: "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts" (1 Cor 7:19 NIV).

[5] Those who argue against "lockstep unity" on theological issues often suggest that Paul's "flexibility" or "freedom" towards (meaning alleged violation of) the Jerusalm council's prohibition of foods offered to idols, as indicated in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 8-10), is a model for "unity in diversity" in a worldwide church. By this they mean that the different regions of a worldwide church such as ours should be given the permission to adopt different positions in their theological practices. However, a careful study of chapters 8-10 of 1 Corinthians will reveal that Paul did not violate the council's decision. Paul addressed three issues with regard to food offered to idols: (a) Could Christians accept invitations from their friends and relatives to eat these foods in pagan temples? (b) Could they buy such food if it was sold in the market? and (c) If the food was brought home, was it all right to eat it? Paul answered that: (i) Christians could not go to pagan temples and eat these foods (1 Cor 8:10; cf. 10:19-21); (ii) they could buy these foods in the market-- unless it violated the consciences of those who called attention to that fact (1 Cor 10:27-33); (iii) they could eat the foods in their homes, since idols were really nothing (1 Cor 10:25-26; cf. 8:1ff.). Eating the foods at the temple was incompatible with Christianity, since it implied worship of those gods. This seems to be the thrust of the Jerusalem Council's decree (cf. Rev 2:14, 20; see also Lev 17:7; 18:24-30). Likewise, where others might construe that homage was being offered to the gods, the Christian should not buy the foods in the market. At home, where worship was not implied, eating the foods would compromise neither conscience nor witness. Thus, Paul did not contravene the prohibitions of the Jerusalem council decision, but rather established a theological explanation of the spirit behind the decision (1 Cor 8-10) and how Christians should implement it, balancing freedom and responsibility (1 Cor 8:9, and following through ch. 9).

[6] See note 2 above.

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