May 2015 Feature: Navigating the Road to San Antonio
We asked church leaders and theologians the questions you’re asking about women, ordination and unity.
By Celeste Ryan Blyden
The road to a yes or no in San Antonio has been long and bumpy to say the least. Sincere Bible-toting, Spirit of Prophecy-quoting Seventh-day Adventists who agree on doctrine, give sacrificially to the mission and long for Jesus to return, can’t find consensus on the question of women’s ordination that will be discussed at the 60th General Conference Session in July: Can divisions decide?
It’s not the first time the world church has attempted to sort out this issue, but unlike the last discussion in 1995, it’s being facilitated in large part by social media, which has enabled members, pastors and leaders alike to weigh in on the fine points of theology and ecclesiastical interpretation like never before. Augmenting the customary books, articles, sermons and potluck conversations are dedicated websites, Facebook pages, videos gone viral, even hashtags. Adding to the melee are trollers who pounce on every conversation with alacrity and precision to police the discussions and insert their perspectives.
Somewhere between the proponents of a yes or no are members with earnest questions:
What are the issues?
The discussion around the question is currently centered on creation order, headship, hermeneutics and cultural impact.
Creation order suggests that since God created Adam before Eve, and she subsequently caused their fall, women are to be subordinate to men in home, church and life. The headship principle suggests that Paul’s writings about women in the church of Ephesus transcend time and culture and are applicable today. Hermeneutics is the study of Bible interpretation and how it should be applied to church practice. Some worry that the church is being overly influenced by the post-modern culture, which could lead to compromise on doctrine or fundamental beliefs.
Why didn’t Jesus call a woman to be one of the 12 disciples?
“Jesus did not choose a female disciple, but neither did He choose Latinos or Africans,” explains Jiri Moskala, dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University (Mich.) and author of a chapter on hermeneutics in the new book Women and Ordination (Pacific Press, 2015). “He was a child of His time and did things that were possible for that time. To have women in His close company, it’s difficult to imagine how it would have gone and how it would have looked for Him.”
In a March 1996 article in Ministry titled “Proving More Than Intended,” church historian George Knight took that premise a step further. In relaying a story from his pastoral formation class, he shared how a student noted that every ordained priest was male. “If you follow your logic, you will have to conclude that very few, including you, are biblically eligible for ordination, because the Old Testament approved only the ordination of male Orientals. … They had to be Hebrew, and then only of the Aaronic line of the Levitical family. … Jesus appointed only non-Diaspora Jewish disciples.”
Should we follow the plain reading of Scripture?
“Many people are using hermeneutical principles to prove their points, but they are very selective,” says Moskala. In one discussion, he says the apostle Paul speaks about silence of women in church, women have to have a veil and they need to have long hair. “Our practice is inconsistent. Either all three need to be observed or none. You cannot take one or two and say it’s literal and say the other is cultural. All three are cultural and need to be interpreted.”
As for plain reading of Scripture, one author asked, “If masculine gender terms in the Ten Commandments do not exclude women from obedience, how then can they be excluded from serving as pastors or elders in Timothy or Titus?”
Does the Bible speak of ordination?
Although the word ordination does not appear in the Bible, the concept has been linked with biblical terms such as “laying on of hands” (see 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6; Heb. 6:2). While seminary professor Darius Jankiewicz cites a Catholic origin for today’s practice, the Consensus Statement on a Seventh-day Adventist Theology of Ordination, voted and endorsed at the 2014 Annual Council, states: “English versions of the Scriptures use the word ordain to translate many different Greek and Hebrew words having the basic idea of select or appoint that describe the placement of these persons in their respective offices. Over the course of Christian history, the term ordination has acquired meanings beyond what these words originally implied. Against such a backdrop, Seventh-day Adventists understand ordination, in a biblical sense, as the action of the church in publicly recognizing those whom the Lord has called and equipped for local and global church ministry. … While ordination contributes to church order, it neither conveys special qualities to the persons ordained nor introduces a kingly hierarchy within the faith community. The biblical examples of ordination include the giving of a charge, the laying on of hands, fasting and prayer, and committing those set apart to the grace of God” (see Deut. 3:28; Acts 6:6; 14:26; 15:40).
Do Adventists ordain women?
The Adventist Church has been ordaining women for 40 years—as deaconesses (voted at GC Sessions in 1975, 1985 and reaffirmed in 2010) and female elders (voted in 1975 and 1984). Today’s ministers who are licensed or commissioned are required to be ordained as local elders before being considered for further recognition (see NAD Working Policy L 26 05).
In most places, a woman can be ordained as long as it’s not as a pastor, and a woman can be a pastor as long as she’s not ordained as one—though, by policy, “commissioning” is approved. But, to be commissioned as a pastor, she first must be ordained as an elder.
Was Ellen White ordained?
Shortly before her death in 1915, White reflected on her calling at age 17: “In the city of Portland the Lord ordained me as His messenger, and here my first labors were given to the cause of present truth” (The Review and Herald, May 18, 1911).
The Adventist Church was officially established in 1863. From 1871 onward, White was granted ministerial credentials by the General Conference and the Michigan Conference. According to a February 1989 article in Ministry, “The certificate that was used read ‘Ordained Minister.’ Several of her credential certificates from the mid-1880s are still in our possession. On the one from 1885 the word ordained is neatly struck out. On the 1887 certificate, the next one we have, it is not” (William Fagel, “Did Ellen White Support the Ordination of Women?”).
In his March 1996 article in Ministry, Knight tells of an evangelist who came to California promising to “prove that the Adventist Church was a false church [and Ellen White a false prophet] because one of its primary founders was a woman who defied the teachings of the apostle Paul forbidding women to speak in Christian churches. Adventists, for obvious reasons, have always resisted that interpretation,” explained Knight in the article. “The church has traditionally justified Ellen White’s public ministry by noting that the counsel given about women being silent in church in 1 Timothy 2:11, 12, was rooted in the custom of time and place and was not to be woodenly applied now that conditions had changed. Thus, as The Seventh-day Adventist Commentary puts it, ‘Because of the general lack of private and public rights then accorded women, Paul felt it to be expedient to give this counsel to the church. Any severe breach of accepted social custom brings reproach upon the church. … In the days of Paul, custom required that women be very much in the background.’”
Knight went on to say of Ellen White that, “To put it mildly, she seldom remained silent in church. She taught authoritatively to men and women everywhere she went. … She was (and is) the most authoritative minister the Seventh-day Adventist Church has ever had.”
What role did other women play in the early days of Adventism?
From the earliest days of our church’s history, the highest credential given to ministers has been that of “licensed minister.” Before 1900 at least 31 women were credentialed as licensed ministers. As fully credentialed ministers, these women served as full-time evangelists, preachers, teachers and departmental ministry directors who baptized new believers and raised up churches. Records reveal that a few served as conference administrators and Lorena Florence Plummer as acting president in Iowa (1900). In those times, because most people traditionally used their first initials and last names (i.e, J.N. Andrews), it’s possible there were untold others.
According to Laura Vance, author of Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an Emerging Religion (University of Illinois Press, 1999), 15 percent of church administration positions were held by women in 1890. By 1905 it had dropped to 11 percent. At the 1923 Autumn Council, just a few years after Ellen White’s death, it was recommended that all departmental leaders, including home missionary and missionary volunteer secretaries be selected [from those] who have had successful experience in evangelistic work, preferably ordained ministers. This automatically eliminated many women who had specialized in departmental ministry. As a result, by 1928 the percentage of administrative positions in North America held by women declined to 7.8 percent. In 1932, during the Great Depression, Autumn Council recommended: “Because of the exigencies of the present economic conditions ... We recommend that … husband and wife shall not be remuneratively employed. Where … it seems necessary to vary from this rule … the wife be paid on the basis of a greatly reduced wage.” As a result, by 1935 the number of administrative positions in North America held by women declined to 4.5 percent (see session.adventistfaith.org/timeline).
In the 20th century, a new job for ministers was recognized—the local church pastor (as opposed to exhorter and traveling evangelist).
How did ordination become a focus at the world church level?
In 1881, 1950 and 1970, GC leaders discussed women’s ordination. It gained global interest in 1973 when two overseas divisions asked for further study; Ellen White’s July 9, 1895, The Review and Herald article was rediscovered, suggesting that some women should be set apart for service by “prayer and laying on of hands;” and several conferences moved forward and hired women pastors.
Nearly 20 years later, at the 1990 Annual Council, the church officially authorized women to serve as pastors. However, they held back on endorsing ordination “due to widespread lack of support and in view of the possible risk of disunity, dissension, and diversion from the mission of the church” (“Session Actions,” Adventist Review, July 13, 1990, p. 15).
William Johnsson, former editor of the Adventist Review, recalls, “I was deeply involved during the 1970s, 80s and 90s when the church studied these same issues at considerable length,” he shared via email. “No resolution could be found because neither the Bible nor Ellen White’s writings gave clear direction. Now 25 years later, we have gone through a similar exercise at similar expense, to reach the same conclusion. But, the church is not in the same place as it was then. We now have a 25-year track record of women in [pastoral] ministry, and the evidence is overwhelmingly positive. The Holy Spirit has made it abundantly clear that women belong in ministry.”
Can we maintain unity if some parts of the world ordain women?
Cindy Tutsch, retired associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate, and Martin Hanna, a seminary professor, co-editors of Questions and Answers on Women’s Ordination (Pacific Press, 2014), wrote, “Throughout Adventist history, we have often faced theological and ecclesiastical issues that have caused differences among us. Despite vigorous debate at times, we have remained united as one body under Christ pursuing our unique God-given mission” (p. 98).
They quote Ellen White as saying, “We cannot then take a position that the unity of the church consists in viewing every text of Scripture in the very same light. The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and thus root out disagreement. Nothing can perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christlike forbearance” (“Love, the Need of the Church,” Manuscript Releases, Vol. 11, p. 266).
What’s the best way forward?
Although church policies and practices are implemented differently throughout the world, all interviewed expressed confidence that the church will remain a unified, worldwide organization. “The church is not going to fall apart,” assured one GC official. “Though some places have not implemented the policy on ordaining women elders, for example, we haven’t fallen apart.”
Because the worldwide Theology of Ordination Study Committee of 2013-14 failed to reach consensus on the best way forward, some leaders suggest that each division should choose what best promotes the mission of the church in their field, yet no organization should be forced to move forward or wait for worldwide readiness based on cultural influence.
Are there signs of change?
Some say that, although ordination remains a decision at the union level, as established at the 1901 GC Session, there are signs of change since the last worldwide discussion 20 years ago. First, eight of the 13 world division study committees took a more flexible and supportive stance on the subject. Secondly, at the GC Session in San Antonio, there will be more female delegates than ever before (20 percent) and 181 young adults under age 30. Third, since the 2010 session, six unions have voted support: North German, Mid-America, Columbia, Pacific, Norway and Netherlands; three have acted. There’s also China, where women pastors are ordained in compliance with government regulation and lead churches the size of some of our conferences. Fourth, our own division is actively seeking to double the number of women pastors, currently about 100 out of nearly 5,000.
While some feared in 1990 that ordaining women would hamper mission, the South African Union study committee recently concluded, “Ultimately, we believe that the church will fulfill its mission only when women are empowered to achieve their full potential.”