Do the Writings of Ellen White Authorize Female Headship?
Consistent with her oft-repeated statement that her prophetic ministry was “a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light” of Scripture, Ellen White taught nothing contradictory to the scriptural principles we have discussed so far in this series. She taught that the husband is the head and priest of the home, and that a man’s successful governing of his own home is a prerequisite for leadership in the church. She taught that ordained ministers are to be men, but that there is an important house-to-house ministry for women to perform. This can consist of Bible studies and pastoring (the gift of shepherding), as well as meeting people’s material needs with social welfare ministry.
An article of this length can quote only a fraction of the relevant passages, so my goal is to describe categories of statements a reader will encounter in Ellen White's writings, and to supply representative examples in each category.
A. The Husband and Father is the Head and Priest of the Home, and Successful Government in the Home is a Prerequisite for Church Leadership.
Although she issued numerous warnings against the abuse of the husband/father's headship role in the family, Ellen White never denied that role. The woman Ellen White admonished in the following statement had a habit of speaking to her husband in an imperious, un-submissive tone of voice; people noticed this tone, and the wrong attitude underlying it, and it diminished her Christian influence:
“I have often noticed . . . a manner you have in speaking to John in rather a dictating manner, the tone of your voice sounding impatient. Mary, others notice this and have spoken to me. It hurts your influence. We women must remember that God has placed us subject to the husband. He is the head and our judgment and views and reasonings must agree with his if possible. If not, the preference in God’s Word is given to the husband where it is not a matter of conscience. We must yield to the head.” (6 Manuscript Releases Ch. 20, MR 366, p. 126).
The following is found in a section entitled “Family Religion,” and the context is that many women fail to do what is in their power to make their home happy and inviting for their husband:
“The husband is the head of the family, even as Christ is the head of the church; and any course which the wife may pursue to lessen his influence and lead him to come down from this dignified, responsible position is displeasing to God. It is the duty of the wife to yield her wishes and will to her husband. Both should be yielding, but the Word of God gives preference to the judgment of the husband. And it will not detract from the dignity of the wife to yield to him whom she has chosen to be her counselor, adviser, and protector. The husband should maintain his position in his family with all meekness, yet with decision.” (1T 306).
In several passages, White speaks of the husband as being “the houseband,” meaning that his authority holds the family together:
“The father is to be the houseband of the family. This is his position, and if he is a Christian, he will maintain family government. In every respect his authority is to be recognized. In many families the father’s authority is never fully acknowledged, and a series of excuses are offered for the disobedience of the children.” (R&H, March 13, 1894).
In several passages, Ellen White wrote that the father is the priest of the home:
“All members of the family center in the father. He is the lawmaker, illustrating in his own manly bearing the sterner virtues: energy, integrity, honesty, patience diligence, and practical usefulness. The father is in one sense the priest of the household, laying upon the altar of God the morning and evening sacrifice. The wife and children should be encouraged to unite in this offering and also to engage in the song of praise. Morning and evening the father, as priest of the household, should confess to God the sins committed by himself and his children through the day.” (Adventist Home, p. 212).
The headship and priestly role of the father in the home is crucial to the debate on female ordination, because Scripture lists capable and successful leadership in the home as a requirement for a candidate for elder or bishop/overseer in the church. (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Titus 1:6) Ellen White confirms and amplifies what Scripture says on this topic:
“All parents should strive to make their families patterns of good works . . . But in pre-eminent degree is this the duty of those who minister in sacred things, and to whom the people look for instruction and guidance. The ministers of Christ are to be examples to the flock. He who fails to direct wisely his own household, is not qualified to guide the church of God.” (Signs of the Times, Nov. 10, 1881).
“If a man does not show wisdom in the management of the church in his own house, how can he show wisdom in the management of the larger church outside? How can he bear the responsibilities which mean so much, if he cannot govern his own children? . . . God's blessing will not rest upon the minister who neglects the education and training of his children.” (5 Manuscript Releases, Ch. 84, MR 343, p. 449).
“The family of the one suggested for office should be considered. Are they in subjection? Can the man rule his own house with honor? What character have his children? Will they do honor to the father's influence? If he has no tact, wisdom, or power of godliness at home in managing his own family, it is safe to conclude that the same defects will be carried to the church, and the same unsanctified management will be seen there.” (5T 618)
Ellen White, in perfect harmony with the Scriptures, states that, (1) the man is the priest and head of the home, and (2) successful headship in the home is a requirement for the church office of elder/overseer, or what we today call the gospel minister.
B. Ministers are to be Men
Ellen White made several statements that implicitly indicate her acceptance of the fact that the gospel ministry is restricted to men:
“The primary object of our college was to afford young men an opportunity to study for the ministry and to prepare young persons of both sexes to become workers in the various branches of the cause. . . . Young men moved upon by the Spirit of God to give themselves to the ministry have come to the college for this purpose and have been disappointed.” (5T 60).
Note that young men were to prepare for gospel ministry, but persons of both sexes were to prepare for work in various branches of the cause.
“Young men must soon bear the burdens older ones have borne. We have lost time in neglecting to bring young men to the front and give them a higher, more solid education” (5T 582).
“Those whom God calls must be men of deep experience, tried and proved, men of sound judgment, men who will dare to reprove sin in the spirit of meekness, men who understand how to feed the flock” (1T 209).
C. Women Called to a Shepherding/Nurturing Ministry of Home Visitation
Often cited by proponents of female ordination is this statement that the canvassing work “prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God”:
All who desire an opportunity for true ministry, and who will give themselves unreservedly to God, will find in the canvassing work opportunities to speak upon many things pertaining to the future, immortal life. The experience thus gained 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. (6T 322)
Here we must remember what we learned in part 2 of this series. The biblical term “pastor” (Greek = poimen, meaning “shepherd”) is not a church office but a spiritual gift (Eph. 4:11). Although we often refer to our ordained gospel ministers as “pastors,” in both the Bible and in Ellen White, pastoring (shepherding, nurturing) is a spiritual gift. A pastor is anyone who has the spiritual gift of shepherding or nurturing the church. And just as the gift of prophecy can be bestowed upon either sex, the gift of shepherding the flock of God can be given to either sex. It is in this sense that Ellen White speaks of the canvassing work as preparing women to be “pastors to the flock of God.”
To women, and especially to the wives of ordained ministers, Ellen White recommended a pastoral ministry of visitation from house to house. Those who engage in this ministry full time should be paid just as their husbands are paid for full time work:
“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” (5 Manuscript Releases, Ch. 71, MR 330, p. 323).
The woman's ministry contemplated in these passages does not include having “the hands of ordination laid upon her.” Women need not be ordained to the headship offices to perform this pastoral house-to-house ministry.
Later in this same manuscript release (on “Women as Workers in the Cause”) White states that if God has not naturally brought children into a ministerial marriage, the minister's wife should not adopt a child, who will then be the sole focus of her nurturing instincts, but rather she should shepherd the whole flock of God by taking up house-to-house visitation and Bible work. (5 MR Ch. 71, MR 330, p. 325)
Again, it should be noted that the women are to be paid for their labor, just as men are paid:
Women, as well as men, are needed in the work that must be done. Those women who give themselves to the service of the Lord, who labor for the salvation of others by doing house-to-house work, which is as taxing as, and more taxing than standing before a congregation, should receive payment for their labor. If a man is worthy of his hire, so also is a woman.” (1 Manuscript Releases, Ch. 46, MR 62, p. 263).
D. Women Are to work as Deaconesses in a Social Welfare Ministry
A closely related ministry that Ellen White recommends for women is the social welfare ministry of the deacon:
“Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time to the service of the Lord should be appointed to visit the sick, look after the young, and minister to the necessities of the poor. They should be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of hands. In some cases, they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister, but if they are devoted women, maintaining a vital connection with God, they will be a power for good in the church. This is another means of strengthening and building up the church. We need to branch out more in our methods of labor. Not a hand should be bound, not a soul discouraged, not a voice should be hushed; let every individual labor, privately or publicly, to help forward this grand work. Place the burdens upon men and women of the church, that they may grow by reason of the exercise, and thus become effective agents in the hand of the Lord for the enlightenment of those who sit in darkness” (R&H, July 9, 1895, par. 8).
It is obvious from the phrase, “they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister,” that Ellen White is not here recommending that women fill the role of the ordained gospel minister (or the biblical headship offices of elder and bishop/overseer). Rather, she is urging women to do the original work of the deacon.
Today, we think of deacons as taking up the offering, tidying up the sanctuary, etc., but the first deacons were appointed to relieve the disciples from the burden of operating the church's food distribution system, so that the disciples could concentrate on teaching and preaching the word. (Acts 6:1-6) The first deacons were appointed to take care of people—to minister to the practical needs of the poor, the widowed, the elderly. Ellen White believed that there was still a need for a social welfare ministry in the Adventist Church, and that we needed to “branch out” and meet that need. Women, who are naturally the more nurturing sex, and especially solicitous of the needs of other women, the young, the weak, and the defenseless, are well fitted for this social welfare work.
I see no biblical obstacle to ordaining women as deaconesses. In listing the criteria for the office of deacon, Paul mentions women, stating that deaconesses must be “worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (1 Tim. 3:11). Dorcas/Tabitha provides a biblical example of a woman doing social welfare work (Acts 9:36), and Paul also recommends this work for women in 1 Tim. 5:10.
While she was living in Australia—including in 1895, when she wrote the words quoted above—White attended services where elders, deacons, and deaconesses were set apart by the laying on of hands.
In a letter to A.T. Jones, she mentioned another reason deaconesses are necessary: “When a woman comes to you with her troubles, tell her plainly to go to her sisters, to tell her troubles to the deaconesses of the church” (21 Manuscript Releases, Ch. 20, MR 1520, p. 97). It is inappropriate and unseemly for a woman to privately confide her marital problems to a male elder or minister; the intimacy thus created can too easily take a sinful turn. Older women who are spiritually mature are thus needed to be “teachers of the ideal” (kalodidaskalos) to younger women (Titus 2:3-5).
As this material was rehearsed at the TOSC meetings, I was struck by our manifest failure to follow Ellen White's prophetic counsel. We are not strong on the social welfare ministry that Ellen White encouraged women to pursue. The Catholic Church enjoys a well-deserved reputation for welfare and good works for the poor, whereas our church does not. This is not to our credit. I could speculate on possible reasons for this (e.g., differences in culture between Protestantism and Catholicism, the "Protestant work ethic," attitudes toward poverty and extreme differences in material condition, etc.), but our failure is without excuse.
Had we followed Ellen White's recommended course of placing women in paid ministry in house-to-house visitation and social welfare work, we would thereby have established complementary gospel roles for the sexes, and perhaps we would not now be facing schism over the unbiblical attempt to erase all sex roles in the church.
When we read Ellen White in context, she confirms what Scripture teaches. Men are the heads and priests of their families, and their headship role carries over into the church, to the headship offices of elder and bishop/overseer. Ellen White does not contradict Scripture on the roles of the sexes in the church, but rather fleshes them out, suggesting ways that women should be involved in a ministry that will complement the ministry of the male elders and bishops. She strongly recommended for women a house-to-house ministry of shepherding and Bible work, and also the social welfare/nurturing ministry of the deacon. She encourages women to enter these lines of ministry and urges that they be paid fairly for their work. But she never encouraged women to usurp the headship offices of the church.
Frequently Asked Questions:
1. Did Ellen White warn women not to rebel against the Biblical gender role distinctions between men and women?
“Eve had been perfectly happy by her husband's side in her Eden home; but, like restless modern Eves, she was flattered with the hope of entering a higher sphere than that which God had assigned her. In attempting to rise above her original position, she fell far below it. A similar result will be reached by all who are unwilling to take up cheerfully their life duties in accordance with God's plan. In their efforts to reach positions for which He has not fitted them, many are leaving vacant the place where they might be a blessing. In their desire for a higher sphere, many have sacrificed true womanly dignity and nobility of character, and have left undone the very work that Heaven appointed them” (PP 59; see Titus 2:4-5).
2. Does Ellen White teach that men and women can be involved in ministry without needing ordination?
"Those who stand as leaders in the church of God are to realize that the Saviour's commission is given to all who believe in His name. God will send forth into His vineyard many who have not been dedicated to the ministry by the laying on of hands" (AA 110).
“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 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” (DG 110).
3. Ellen White once stated that men are not always better than women in church management. Does this mean that women should be ordained as local elders and pastors?
"It is not always men who are best adapted to the successful management of a church. If faithful women have more deep piety and true devotion than men, they could indeed by their prayers and their labors do more than men who are unconsecrated in heart and in life" (10MR 70).
First, just because the spiritual headship offices are not open to women does not mean that women are not involved in the management of church business. They are. Much of the day-to-day business of a local church is handled by very capable and usually female church secretaries. Women also serve on local church boards, where their management abilities are valuable in the oversight of church business. Just as with Lydia (Acts 16:14-15) in the First Century, today there are women who operate businesses, and their practical management skills can be of value to the church.
In exceptional situations, qualified men are not available to serve as elders of the church. In such cases, women have had to step into the breach. Recognizing this reality, the Church Manual addresses leadership in a local congregation in the absence of a Conference pastor or ordained local elder:
“Occasionally no one possesses the experience and qualifications to serve as an elder. Under such circumstances the church should elect a person to be known as ‘leader.’ In the absence of the elder or a conference-assigned pastor, the leader is responsible for the services of the church, including business meetings. The leader must either conduct these or arrange for someone else to do so.
“A leader may not preside at any of the church ordinances, administer baptism, conduct the Lord’s Supper, perform the marriage ceremony, or preside at business meetings where members are disciplined. A request should be made to the conference president for an ordained pastor to preside at such meetings” (Church Manual, 2010 edition, pp. 75-76).
Notice how this statement distinguishes the role of the elected “leader” from that of either an ordained pastor or an ordained local elder. As defined by the above statement, a woman could fill the position of “leader.” But this exceptional situation cannot be bootstrapped into a license to ordain women to the headship offices of elder and bishop/overseer as a normal policy of the church.
4. Didn’t Ellen White indicate that church structure must be adaptable to changing needs and placed at the service of the people?
Yes, but not when these “adaptations” contradict Biblical principles. Otherwise, arguments from adaptability could be used to justify Cain’s “more humane” worship changes (Gen. 4:3), Aaron’s and Jeroboam’s golden calf worship with its joyful celebration (Ex. 32; 1 Kings 12:25-33), King Ahaz’s worship adaptations and modernizations (2 Kings 16:10-18), or King Saul’s response to the worship crises of his people (1 Sam. 13:7-14; 15:21).
5. Ellen White has written that “circumstances alter cases.” As the circumstances of Western culture have altered so dramatically in recent decades, wouldn’t Ellen White, were she with us today, urge that women be given roles identical to men in all areas of ministry?
A careful study of the writings of Ellen White indicates that, once duplications are eliminated, there are only two clear examples of this phrase being used in a positive sense. One of the positive examples involves counsel to canvassers regarding different approaches to be used in different situations (6T 339; see also CM 42). The other is Ellen White’s well known letter to the Colorado Conference president regarding her use of her tithe money to aid needy and neglected ministers, usually black ministers laboring in the South (2MR 100; see also Arthur L. White, The Early Elmshaven Years, 1900-1905, p. 395).
Neither case rises even close to the level of the divine order of gender authority established at creation and affirmed throughout both Testaments. Different methods of reaching different persons with the same eternal truths and the discreet use of tithe funds to support worthy but neglected laborers in no way compare with the present culture-driven, higher-criticism-based crusade for obliterating gender role distinctions in the ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The following use of this phrase may have more relevance to current denominational controversies:
“Often the professed followers of Christ are found with hearts hardened and eyes blinded, because they do not obey the truth. Selfish motives and purposes take possession of the mind. In their self-confidence they suppose that their way is the way of wisdom. They are not particular to follow the path that God has marked out. They declare that circumstances alter cases, and where Satan tempts them to follow worldly principles, they yield, and making crooked paths for their feet, they lead others astray. The inexperienced follow where they go, supposing that the judgment of Christians so experienced must be wise” (UL 318; see also UL 310; RH Sept. 14, 1905; 14MR 155-156; 18MR 37).
Thus, according to God’s inspired messenger, circumstances do not alter cases when it comes to “the path that God has marked out” through His written counsel to His people. And regarding the issue before us, the the Holy Spirit has indeed marked out a clear path. As we have in this series studied the relevant scriptural passages, we have have seen how, “the Scriptures are plain upon the relations and rights of men and women” (1T 421).
6. Are altered versions of Ellen White’s writings being circulated to appear she supported women’s ordination?
Unfortunately, yes. A significantly altered quotation of Ellen White was used and circulated in an effort to make it appear that Ellen White’s writings support the ordination of women (Angel Rodriquez, "Evaluation of the Arguments Used by Those Opposing the Ordination of Women to the Ministry," p. 66, presented to the January, 2014 TOSC.)
Those placed in positions of responsibility should be men and women who fear God, who realize that they are humans only, not God. They should be people who will rule under God and for Him. Will they give expression to the will of God for His people? Do they allow selfishness to tarnish word and action? Do they, after obtaining the confidence of the people as leaders of wisdom who fear God and keep His commandments, belittle the exalted position that the people of God should occupy in these days of peril? Will they through self-confidence become false guideposts, pointing the way to friendship with the world instead of the way to heaven?
As written by Ellen White:
Those placed in positions of responsibility should be men who fear God, who realize that they are men only, not God. They should be men who rule under God and for Him. Will they give expression to the will of God for His people? Do they allow selfishness to tarnish word and action? Do they, after obtaining the confidence of the people as men of wisdom, who fear God and keep His commandments, belittle the exalted position that the people of God should occupy in these days of peril? Will they through self-confidence become false guide-posts, pointing the way to friendship with the world instead of the way to heaven?
(By the way, doesn't this passage, either in its original wording or in the gender neutral version unfortunately produced by the E.G. White estate, call to mind the many high union and NAD officials who are fanatically promoting female ordination and, in the process, flouting multiple votes of the world church in General Conference Session?)
7. Are Ellen White’s writings being taken out of context ?
Yes. Here is one example, “When women are wanted with well-balanced minds, with not a cheap style of education, but with an education fitting them for any position of trust, they are not easily found” (RH June 21, 1887). This quote is being used to argue that Ellen White taught that women should be trained for every office in the church. By implication, this would include that of pastoral ministry, including the track to ordination.
The title of the Review article is “Proper Education of the Young.” The first paragraph of the article gives us the context,
“Ministerial labor cannot and should not be entrusted to boys, neither should the work of giving Bible readings be entrusted to inexperienced girls, because they offer their services, and are willing to take responsible positions, but who are wanting in religious experience, without a thorough education and training” (RH June 21, 1887).
Obviously, Ellen White contemplated a different ministry for each sex: Males would be trained for ministerial labor, females for the role of Bible workers.
Elsewhere Ellen White explains what she means by the expression, “any position of trust.” In her words: “Faithful, earnest, and frequent prayer should be offered that these children may be fitted for any position of trust to which God shall call them” (ST June 9, 1881). And God never calls contrary to His Word.
8. Does the Bible authorize women to work as evangelists and Bible workers, as Ellen White Recommended?
Yes. The New Testament gives us snapshots of the important work of women in evangelistic outreach. Priscilla with her husband Aquila worked with Paul (Acts 18:18), and later taught Apollos the word of God more accurately (Acts 18:26). There were many others such as Euodia and Syntyche who also served on Paul’s evangelistic team (Philip. 4:2-3). “The elect lady” spoken of by the Apostle John was “a helper in the gospel work, a woman of good repute and wide influence” (AA 554)
Aquila and Priscilla were a husband and wife team of evangelists, Andronicus and Junia might have been another. It is wonderful when husbands and wives can work together in ministry.
“When it is possible, let the minister and his wife go forth together. The wife can often labor by the side of her husband, accomplishing a noble work. She can visit the homes of the people and help the women in these families in a way that her husband cannot” (Ev. 491).