Spiritual Gifts vs. Church Offices
Before we can analyze whether women are excluded from the headship offices of the church, we must first distinguish between church offices and spiritual gifts. They are not the same thing.
In the New Testament we can distinguish between church offices and spiritual gifts as follows:
• The following church offices are mentioned in Scripture: apostles (Acts 1:21-25), elders and bishops/overseers (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), and deacons (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim 3:8-13). But while we only see these three basic kinds of offices, there are many gifts (1 Cor 12:8-11; 28-30; Rom 12:6-8; Eph 4:11), and every believer has received at least one gift (1 Pet 4:10).
• Those who occupy offices are ordained, appointed, or chosen based on objective qualifications (Acts 6:3; 14:23; 1 Tim 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). Gifts, however, are bestowed according to the will of the Holy Spirit without any stated qualifications (Eph 4:7; Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:11, 18, 28).
• Though every believer has at least one gift, not every believer has an office (Eph 4:7; 1 Cor 12:7, 11; Rom 12:4).
• An elder “cannot be a recent convert” (1 Tim 3:6), but gifts are bestowed independently of age or experience.
I would add the following: The offices of elder and bishop/overseer are limited to men (1 Tim 2:11-3:7), whereas spiritual gifts are given to both men and women (Acts 21:9-10; 1 Cor 11:5).
In the New Testament there is no office of “pastor.” In Ephesians 4:8-12, “pastor” is listed as one of the spiritual gifts. Pastor is from a Greek word (poimen) that means “shepherd.” A person with the spiritual gift of pastoring or shepherding the flock of God does not necessarily hold a church office, and is not necessarily qualified to hold the office of elder or bishop/overseer. It is this biblical office that is equivalent to the modern SDA Church's ordained gospel minister, conference president, etc.
The distinction between spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of pastoring, and church offices is crucial to understanding Scripture and the writings of Ellen White.
Spiritual gifts are for all of us. Every church member must cultivate and employ his or her spiritual gifts for the saving of souls and the advancement of God’s church. I would like to think that one of my spiritual gifts is writing, especially apologetical writing, i.e., defending Christian beliefs in a logical and compelling way. But unlike spiritual gifts, ordination to church office is not for everyone. Regardless how gifted I am, regardless how capable an apologist I am, I probably will never be ordained to the gospel ministry. And that is okay.
Frequently Asked Questions:
1. Is ordination the acknowledgment of an individual’s spiritual gifts?
No. This is a basic confusion. Every Christian has been given gifts of the spirit, but church offices have specific qualifications. Ordination is associated with church offices. To be ordained to an office, the candidate must meet the objective criteria or requirements for that office.
In the chapter titled, “He Ordained Twelve”, Ellen White says of the disciples, “their office was the most important to which human beings had ever been called …. As in the Old Testament the twelve patriarchs stand as representatives of Israel, so the twelve apostles were to stand as representatives of the gospel church” (DA 291). The disciples were ordained to an office.
2. Do spiritual gifts make ordination either automatic or unnecessary?
No. Consider Paul and Barnabas: they had received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and had been given spiritual gifts. Their ministry was fruitful. “God . . . abundantly blessed the labors of Paul and Barnabas during the year they remained with the believers in Antioch. But neither of them had as yet been ordained to the gospel ministry” (AA 160).
But spiritual gifts are not a substitute for ordination. Even though they had received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, without ordination Paul and Barnabas would not have had church authorization to baptize new members or organize new congregations (AA 160-161).
3. In the Old Testament, was an outpouring of the Holy Spirit sufficient to qualify the possessor for ordination?
No. King Saul was filled with the Spirit, but forbidden to offer sacrifice. “The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you …. You shall go down before me to Gilgal; and surely I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and make sacrifices of peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, till I come to you” (1 Sam 10:6-8). Two years passed. As predicted, there was a time of crisis. The Philistines were attacking, while Saul's army was deserting.
“Then he waited seven days, according to the time set by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him. So Saul said, ‘Bring a burnt offering and peace offerings here to me’” (1 Sam 13:8, 9). And he offered the burnt offering.
Samuel showed up immediately after this act and told King Saul:
“You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you. For the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue” (1 Sam 13:13, 14).
Ignoring God’s specific instructions as to who was authorized or ordained to perform the priestly functions was so serious that it warranted an end to Saul’s dynasty.
4. Does Ellen White’s statement that the canvassing work “prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God” mean that women should be ordained to headship offices in the church?
No. In this passage, Ellen White is using the term “pastor” in a spiritual gifts sense, rather than a church office sense:
The experience thus gained [from door-to-door literature evangelism] will be of the greatest value to those who are fitting themselves for the ministry. It is the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God. As they cherish the thought that Christ is their Companion, a holy awe, a sacred joy, will be felt by them amid all their trying experiences and all their tests. They will learn how to pray as they work. They will be educated in patience, kindness, affability, and helpfulness. 6 Testimonies, p. 322
When reading both the Bible and Ellen White, the term "pastor" (Greek = poimen, literally, "shepherd”) is not a church office but a spiritual gift (Eph. 4:11). Although we have begun calling our ordained gospel ministers “pastors,” in both the Bible and in Ellen White, pastoring is a spiritual gift, not an office like that of elder or bishop/overseer. A person of either sex may have the spiritual gift of nurturing the flock of God. It is in this sense that Ellen White speaks of the canvassing work as preparing women to be pastors to the flock of God.
In another passage, Ellen White makes a clear distinction between the work of the ordained minister and that of women working as pastors/shepherds to the flock, while affirming the importance and value of both:
"Some matters have been presented to me in regard to the laborers who are seeking to do all in their power to win souls to Jesus Christ. . . . The ministers are paid for their work, and this is well. And if the Lord gives the wife, as well as the husband, the burden of labor, and if she devotes her time and her strength to visiting from family to family, opening the Scriptures to them, although the hands of ordination have not been laid upon her, she is accomplishing a work that is in the line of ministry. Some women are now teaching young women to work successfully as visitors and Bible readers. . . . This is the grand and noble work that the minister and his wife may qualify themselves to do as faithful shepherds and guardians of the flock” (5MR 326-328).
There is much in this passage. Women can do the work of visiting homes and conducting Bible studies in the home, and if they pursue this work full time, they should be paid. Both men and women, according to the above statements, can have pastoral responsibilities to the Lord’s flock. But their roles are not the same.
5. If a woman seems to have received gifting to ministerial leadership, who are we to deny that God has called her?
God never calls men or women contrary to His written word. The validity of any call to service in the Lord’s work must be measured against the collective judgment of the inspired writings. Let us again consider Ellen White’s statements regarding the harmony between the written Word’s teaching and the Spirit’s call:
"Since it was the Spirit of God that inspired the Bible, it is impossible that the teaching of the Spirit should ever be contrary to that of the word. The Spirit was not given--nor can it ever be bestowed--to supersede the Bible; for the Scriptures explicitly state that the word of God is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested. Says the apostle John, 'believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world "(GC vii).
The gifts are measured against or “tried” by the objective criterion of the written word. A supposed calling or gifting that goes against the written word of God is not genuine.
6. Isn’t it unfair to exclude women from any church office?
Was God unfair when He singled out Adam as head of the original male-female relationship, calling to him first when he and his wife sought to hide from God’s presence (Gen. 3:9)? Was God unfair when He forbade any but the male descendants of Aaron to serve as priests in the sanctuary (Ex. 28:1; Num. 3:3)? (Korah and his followers certainly thought so.) Was God unfair when He struck King Uzziah with leprosy for daring to officiate in the temple as though he were a priest (2 Chron. 26:17-20)? Was the apostle Paul unfair when he forbade women to hold authority over men because of the order of their creation (1 Tim. 2:12-13)?
We should not be seeking to impose human cultural standards of fairness on divinely specified aspects of the church’s faith and practice.