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Book Release: Sacred Texts and Social Conflict

Interview by Taashi Rowe
Published 11/13/13

Olive Hemmings, PhD, who has taught New Testament studies at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Md., for 11 years, recently published Sacred Texts and Social Conflict. The book discusses women’s ordination—a rather timely topic as the Seventh-day Adventist Church is currently grappling with the issue. Hemmings said the book came out of her doctoral studies on theology, ethics and culture at Claremont Graduate University in California. In it, she looks at the ongoing debate over women’s ordination, which now spans three centuries.

Q: Why is ordination important to you personally?
A: As a young teenager raised in a strong, Baptist family, I grew up hearing my mother preaching at the pulpit like St. Peter. When I arrived on the campus of West Indies College (an Adventist institution in Jamaica), I was shocked, to realize that my choice of vocation was an anomaly. The religion chair was happy to have any willing female prepare for the ministry, but many of my fellow students were so offended. They had meetings with me trying to discourage me asking me, “What are you trying to prove?” and “Who is going to employ you?” It was then that I knew God had indeed called me to this church not only to save me, but to be an agent of change and that just remaining firm to my call is going to be my greatest testimony. After the 1995 [General Conference Session] discussion and vote about this topic, I knew I had to do some significant academic work on the subject.
 
Q: What did you discover as you researched this topic?
A: The resistance to women’s ordination is really symbolic of a deeper fear—the fear of liberal religion and the interpretive methodology associated with it—namely higher criticism. Strict application of the tools of higher criticism poses significant difficulties for [Adventist] fundamental doctrines. Yet none of the major arguments for or against women’s ordination used this methodology. The issue … found itself caught in the biblical theological controversies of the 1980s (and onwards), and took on symbolic weight as the enemy of the denomination. Also, I discovered that the same leaders who steered the church toward women’s ordination in the 1970s led the resistance to ordain women in the 1980s using the same interpretive methodology but different biblical texts.
 
Q: Why do you think ordination has become such a divisive issue for the Adventist Church? 
A: First, some believe this poses a threat to our belief that we are the one true church. And while women’s ordination poses no real threat to this stance, anything that may be associated with radical social change becomes associated with this threat. Secondly, communities often blur the lines between religious (even spiritual) ideals and the cultural norms. Various constituencies in the world church have different cultural norms. … As long as we hold onto the cultural norms of the Bible instead of its timeless principles of love and righteousness, the issue will remain divisive.
 
Q: Who is the book written for?
A: I wrote this book for my family of 17.2 million people that comprise the [Adventist] world church. Mostly, I have written it for those who genuinely have little or no idea as to the real reason for the opposition to women’s ordination.


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