Searching the Scriptures

Basically, the ordained ministry is an oversight (leadership or headship) and teaching function within the church ("pastors and teachers," Eph 4:11). In governing the church (Heb 13:7, 17, 24), ordained ministers have special responsibilities to shepherd the flock by ensuring that the physical, social and spiritual needs of the church are well taken care of (Acts 20:28-35; 1 Thess 5:12; Heb 13:7; 1 Pet 5:3; Acts 6:8; 8:5-13, 26-40; 1 Tim 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). They are also to "teach," "beseech," "exhort," "reprove," and "rebuke" (Titus 1:9; 2:15; 1 Tim 5:20; 2 Tim 4:2). To the extent that the ordained ministers faithfully discharge their responsibility as "pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11), church members are to "obey" or "submit" to their authority (Heb 13:17; 1 Cor 16:16). Moreover, as models of the Christian faith, these elders or pastors are to be esteemed "very highly" and are to be "counted worthy of double honor" (1 Thess 5:13; 1 Tim 5:17).

In light of these things, Ellen G. White wrote that the ministry is "a sacred and exalted office," "the highest of all work." Those "who belittle the ministry are belittling Christ" (Testimonies for the Church, 2:615; 6:411).

The issue of ordination of women raises the question whether women should exercise the leadership functions of the ministerial office by being ordained as elders or pastors.

1. Statement of the Problem.

The church faces a decision over ordination of women because, in the face of calls for it from some quarters today, (1) there is no biblical precedent for the practice, and (2) some explicit biblical prohibitions seem to militate against the practice.

(a) Absence of Biblical Precedent. The Bible teaches that, despite their significant role in ministry, women in Old Testament times were not ordained as priests. Also, though they made major contributions to the ministry of Christ, He did not appoint a single one of them as an apostle; further, when a replacement apostle was sought (Acts 1:15-26), even though women were present and surely met most of the requirements set (vv. 21-22), it was a male who was chosen. In addition, we have no record of any woman's being ordained as an elder or pastor in the New Testament church. Why was this so?

Page 16

(b) Biblical Prohibition of Women Elders/Pastors. Despite the active involvement of women in ministry in the apostolic church, Paul's pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus (letters specifically written to pastors and laity) contain instruction that only men may aspire to the office of elder or pastor. "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men" (1 Tim 2:12 RSV); "a bishop [or elder] must be . . . the husband of one wife" (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:6). These passages all use the same Greek word for "man" and "husband." It is not the generic term anthropos, from which the English word "anthropology" derives and which refers to human beings, male or female, without regard to gender. [1] Rather, Paul employed the specific word aner, a term that means a male person in distinction from a woman (cf. Acts 8:12; 1 Tim 2:12), one capable of being a husband (see Matt 1:16; John 4:16; Rom 7:2; Titus 1:6). Why did Paul prohibit women from exercising the headship/leadership role of elder or pastor?

The lack of biblical precedent for ordaining women to the headship role in the church, combined with the Bible's prohibitions of the practice, raises some questions. Were the Old Testament writers, Jesus Christ, and Paul sexist? Should the male headship role be explained away as an accommodation to the Bible writers' culture and times? If so, how can we account for the fact that at the same time, the Bible also noted the significant role of women in ministry, including prophesying, praying, teaching, etc.? Could it be that women's exclusion from the Old Testament priesthood and from the New Testament roles of apostles and elders/pastors is not based on mere sociological or cultural factors but rather is rooted in God's divine arrangement established at creation? If so, does this divine arrangement mean that men and women are not equal?

Conflicting answers to these questions fuel the debate over the ordination of women as elders and pastors. [2] Ultimately, the issue of ordination of women raises questions about the Bible's authority and the appropriate method for biblical interpretation.

2. The Church's Response

Thus far, the Seventh-day Adventist church has responded by: (1) granting women most of the functions of ordained ministers while refusing to ordain them as pastors; and (2) permitting ordination of women as elders but not as pastors. This biblically inconsistent position has generated debate, confusion, and divisiveness in many Adventist congregations, contributing in some cases toward eroding confidence in leadership. Many earnest Adventists wonder whether the church still considers itself obliged to follow Bible principles. The church's financial resources are squeezed from both directions: some groups have encouraged people to withhold their tithes until the church ordains women, while independent ministries have been receiving tithes from people who feel that in various matters the church has not been faithful to the Word but has conformed to culture.

Page 17

Recently the North American Division requested that the upcoming General Conference session in Utrecht, Netherlands [July 1995], make ordination to the gospel ministry "gender-inclusive." The request asks that "where circumstances do not render it inadvisable, a division may authorize ordination of qualified individuals without regard to gender." Furthermore, "In divisions where the division executive committees take specific actions approving the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, women may be ordained to serve in those divisions." [3]

The significance of this request should not be missed. Beyond the immediate issue of women's ordination and the pragmatic basis for the proposal (i.e., "where circumstances do not render it inadvisable"), the request from the NAD, if approved, would represent a historic shift in our understanding of the role of ordination in Seventh-day Adventist church government. The currentChurch Manual (1990) recognizes "the equality of the ordination of the entire ministry" (p. 38). In other words, the ordination of a minister automatically qualifies him to serve anywhere in the world field. [4] However, if the NAD's request is approved, for the first time in Seventh-day Adventist history the ordination of a minister will not be equal everywhere, but may only be recognized within certain territorial boundaries. This situation opens the door to independent national churches and to congregationalism.

3. The Challenge Facing the Church

The current turmoil in the churches and the threat of division and congregationalism within the worldwide church indicate that the Seventh-day Adventist church can no longer waffle on this issue. As the church takes up the matter it must speak clearly, unambiguously, and definitively at the next General Conference session in Utrecht, Netherlands. In order for the church to do so, however, it must understand what the theological issues are and what they are not. At issue are biblical authority and the nature of Seventh-day Adventist church government (ecclesiology). The ecclesiological concerns would require another entire treatment; the present document will deal specifically with biblical authority.

Before discussing the specific issue of women's ordination, it will first be necessary, by searching the Scriptures, to understand the nature of authority and ordination as they relate to the gospel ministry.


[1] For examples using the generic term anthropos, see Matthew 4:4, 12:35, and John 2:25, where the word refers to human beings, male or female, irrespective of gender. Anthropos means a person--whether man or woman (Acts 19:16; Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16; Jas 1:19; 2:24; 3:8).

[2] The ordination question is not the only area affected by one's understanding of roles. Controversy over the Bible's presentation of role distinctions has led some to ques-

Page 18
tion the Bible's teaching about relationships within marriage, and a few even to question the validity of the marriage institution itself. Furthermore, minimizing the differences in gender roles may, in some extreme cases,contribute to confusion of sexual identity and the acceptance of unisex roles and clothing, and of homosexuality as a morally acceptable lifestyle. For a discussion of the underlying factors leading to the crisis over Christian lifestyle, see Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, "Contemporary Culture and Christian Lifestyle: A Clash of World Views," Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 4/1 (Spring 1993):129-150.

[3] The North American Division's request reads: "To request the Annual Council to refer the following action to the General Conference session for consideration: The General Conference vests in each division the right to authorize the ordination of individuals within its territory in harmony with established policies. In addition, where circumstances do not render it inadvisable, a division may authorize the ordination of qualified individuals without regard to gender. In divisions where the division executive committees take specific actions approving the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, women may be ordained to serve in those divisions." For the request's rationale, see Alfred C. McClure's article, "NAD's President Speaks on Women's Ordination," in the NAD edition ofAdventist Review, February 1995, pp. 14-15.

[4] The Seventh-day Adventist Minister's Manual, published by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (Silver Spring, Md.: Ministerial Association 1992), understands ordination to be a call "to serve as a minister of the gospel in any part of the world," and as the investment of the ministers with "full ecclesiastical authority to act in behalf of the church anywhere in the world field where they may be employed by the church" (pp. 75, 77). Again, "Workers who are ordained to the gospel ministry are set apart to serve the world church, primarily as pastors and preachers of the Word, and are subject to the direction of the church in regard to the type of ministry and their place of service. . . . Ordination to the ministry is the setting part of the employee to a sacred calling, not for one local field alone but for the world church and therefore needs to be done with wide counsel" (p. 79).

Sign Up for our Newsletter