A Defense of the Doctrine of Male Headship in the Church, Part 1

The role of women in the church is a doctrinal issue.  It is not a mere “policy” issue, and should never have been treated as one.  Here, and in the installments that will follow, I will present a case study of doctrinal apologetics, a biblical defense of the doctrine of male headship in the church.  Most of what will be presented is not original to me; I am merely the editor and redactor. 

A Note on Hermeneutics:  How Adventists Study the Bible

Historically, Adventists have followed William Miller's principles of Bible study, which were endorsed by Ellen White.  These principles are: 

1.        All Scripture is necessary, and may be understood by diligent application and study,

2.        Nothing revealed in Scripture can or will be hidden from those who ask in faith,

3.        To understand doctrine, bring all the Scriptures together on the subject you wish to know, then let every word have its proper influence.  If you can form your theory without a contradiction, you cannot be in error,

4.        Scripture is the interpreter of itself.

Please give special attention to number three.  We must never interpret Scripture in a manner that sets one text against another, and then explain why we prefer to heed the one and not the other.  We must form our interpretive theory “without a contradiction.”  The texts must be interpreted to harmonize with each other.

The North American Division Theology of Ordination Study Committee calls its new approach to hermeneutics the “principle-based, historical-cultural” method.  This new method is not compatible with the historical-grammatical method in longstanding use in the Adventist Church, and clashes with the 1986 General Conference “Methods of Bible Study” document, sometimes called the Rio Document.  The NAD report urges us to recognize a “trajectory” in Scripture, which can then be use discredit passages that go against the “trajectory.” The trajectory approach is a way to set text against text, so that some texts can be disregarded.  Non-Adventists employ this method to set aside the Seventh-day Sabbath.

Adventist have always held that “the Bible transcends its cultural backgrounds to serve as God’s word for all cultural, racial, and situational contexts in all ages.” “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16, 17).     

 What is Ordination?

It has become traditional to begin with a discussion of ordination, even though ordination itself should not be controversial in the least. What is hotly controverted is whether the church’s headship offices—elder, bishop—are restricted to men.  In a nod to tradition, however, we will begin with a brief discussion of ordination.

Ordination is a grant of ecclesiastical authority, in which the church authorizes someone to act for it in a certain role, office, or mission.  Ordination is how God's church sets aside a person, blesses that person, and authorizes that person to perform a specific mission or fill a particular church office. 

Ellen White wrote that ordination was a “form of designation to an appointed office and a recognition of one’s authority in that office” (AA 161). After their ordination, Paul and Barnabas were “authorized by the church, not only to teach the truth, but to perform the rite of baptism and to organize churches, being invested with full ecclesiastical authority” (AA 160).

Ordination to gospel ministry is the church’s recognition that a man has been set aside for the office of gospel minister—devoting his entire life to the service of Jesus, to be near Him, to receive His instruction, and to be sent as His personal representative (Mark 8:1; Ex 19:22). 

Ordination to gospel ministry is in some ways comparable to a professional license, serving to protect people from quacks and charlatans.  Ordination protects the flock of God from self-appointed persons who would claim to speak for the church, but who are not authorized by a consensus of the church's elders and overseers. 

Ordination is an essential element of church organization and has been important to the Adventist church from its earliest days. Immediately upon the organization of our first conference, Michigan, James White made a motion,

“Resolved, That our ministers’ papers consist of a certificate of ordination, also credentials to be signed by the chairman and clerk of the conference, which credentials shall be renewed annually” (1BIO 455).

The English word “ordination” comes from a Latin word, ordo (order, class, rank), not a word from biblical Greek or Hebrew.  Nevertheless, the concept of the church authorizing someone and setting them apart for a holy purpose is found throughout Scripture. Many English translations of the Bible have used the word “ordination” because it was the most efficient way to communicate in English the concept the Bible describes.

Ellen White found the term “ordain” and “ordination” useful. She used the term ordain both in connection to the twelve disciples and to later apostles, such as Paul and Barnabas.  She describes the simple ceremony by which Jesus ordained the twelve disciples:

“When Jesus had ended His instruction to the disciples, He gathered the little band close about Him, kneeling in the midst of them, and laying His hands upon their heads, He offered a prayer dedicating them to His sacred work. Thus the Lord’s disciples were ordained to the gospel ministry” (DA 296).

Probably because the word “ordination” comes from a Latin word, it has been asserted that the Adventist Church got its practice of ordination from the Roman Catholic Church.  This is not true.  The Adventist pioneers took their concept of ordination directly from the Bible. They understood the Catholic version of ordination and rejected it.

Ellen White was explicit in differentiating the early church’s practice of ordination from the corruptions to ordination that crept in during the apostasy. She makes clear that ordination is not a sacrament, and the rituals and symbols associated with it, such as the laying on of hands, do not magically transform the candidate being ordained:

“At a later date the rite of ordination by the laying on of hands was greatly abused; unwarrantable importance was attached to the act, as if a power came at once upon those who received such ordination, which immediately qualified them for any and all ministerial work. But in the setting apart of these two apostles [Paul and Barnabas], there is no record indicating that any virtue was imparted by the mere act of laying on of hands” (AA 162).

Many use the term “ordination” only in relation to the headship offices of the church, and do not use the term “ordination” in connection with the ordination of deacons, deaconesses, medical missionaries, and other church offices.  This practice is not helpful.  It is very important to keep the concept of ordination separate from the issue of whether the headship offices are restricted to men. The conflation of the term “ordination” with the belief that the headship offices are restricted to men has led to needless broadsides against the whole concept of ordination. 

After the first meeting of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, a smaller subcommittee was appointed to prepare a statement on ordination.  Even though this subcommittee contained partisans on both extremes of the question of whether women can assume the headship offices, e.g., Randy Roberts and Doug Batchelor, they were able to cooperate easily in producing a statement of the doctrine of ordination, because ordination is simply not that controversial.  What is controversial—at least in the context of today’s egalitarian culture in the West—is the belief that the headship offices are restricted to men. 

Frequently Asked Questions:

1.  Is the distinction between ordained and un-ordained workers trivial?

No. It was so important that during a time of heart searching, fasting, and prayer, the Holy Spirit sent the Antioch church leadership instructions to ordain Barnabas and Paul (Acts 13:1-3).

2.  Why do some theologians say ordination is an un-biblical or even a pagan concept?

As we noted above, the English term “ordination” comes from a Latin term ordo. Latin is not a biblical language but is the language of the Roman Catholic Church. The term “ordination” comes freighted with centuries of church history and practice—mostly that of the Catholic Church.  This creates a not-unreasonable fear that some of the pagan concepts that entered the Catholic Church’s practice of ordination will attach themselves to the modern Adventist Church’s practice of ordination.

But there is no reason to believe that the early Adventists imported any pagan concepts into their practice of ordination.  As indicated above, Ellen White was aware that non-biblical concepts had come into the church during the middle ages, and was careful that our understanding of ordination remained free of these errors. 

Do not get hung up on words or word origins.  We are not defending the word “ordination” but rather the biblical concept that some—and not others—should be set apart by the laying on of hands for a church office or mission. This concept can be seen in connection with apostles (Acts 13:1-3 “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’ Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away”), with the twelve (Mark 3:14 “And he ordained [KJV, Gr. = “he made”] twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach”) with local elders (1 Tim. 5:22 “lay hands on no man prematurely”).

Ordination is not of pagan or Roman Catholic origin, but finds its roots in Scripture:

“God foresaw the difficulties that His servants would be called to meet, and, in order that their work should be above challenge, He instructed the church by revelation to set them apart publicly to the work of the ministry. Their ordination was a public recognition of their divine appointment to bear to the Gentiles the glad tidings of the gospel” (AA 160).