Does the Life of Ellen White Authorize Female Ordination?
In the previous installment, we saw that Ellen White wrote nothing that would upset the Bible doctrine of male headship in the church. Nevertheless, there remains among many Adventists a strong feeling that Ellen White’s life and ministry broke the pattern of male spiritual leadership. They do not point to any specific prophetic counsel or writing, but rather to the fact that Ellen White played such a large role in the founding of the denomination. This feeling is often expressed like this, “How can a church that was founded by a woman refuse to ordain female pastors to gospel ministry?”
Ellen White was indeed tremendously influential in the founding and development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and through her writings she remains a guiding influence.
But Ellen White was not an ordained minister of the gospel and does not serve as an example of a female ordained to gospel ministry. Beginning in 1871, for various practical reasons, the church issued ministerial credentials to Sister White. Some of these say, “ordained minister,” but in at least one instance the word “ordained” was neatly struck through. The church had, and has, no credential for prophets, so it gave Ellen White its highest credentials—those of an ordained minister. But no ceremony of ordination was ever performed on Ellen White. She was not ordained (William A. Fagal, “Did Ellen White Support the Ordination of Women?” Ministry, February 1989, p. 6; see also Records Pertaining to Ellen G. White's Ministerial/Ordination Credentials).
Furthermore, there were no ordained women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ellen White's lifetime. There were female preachers and evangelists who worked for the church, were paid a salary, and were issued ministerial “licenses” (the credential for non-ordained preachers), but there were no ordained women in the church.
Some say, “Yes, we understand that Ellen White wasn't ordained, but she was much more important than any ordained minister; therefore, women should be able to serve as ordained ministers.” The logic is that if a woman can be a prophet, then women may serve in any other capacity. But is this biblically correct?
When we look closer, we find that women were prophets in both the Old and New Testaments, but could not serve as priests in the Old Testament, nor as elders or bishop/overseers in the Christian Church, the Bible offices most closely analogous to today's ordained gospel minister.
It is crucial to understand that there are spiritual gifts and there are church offices, and they are not the same thing. Offices and gifts can and often do overlap; for example, deacons and elders, in addition to holding a church office, will also have one or more spiritual gifts, but this overlap notwithstanding, gifts and offices are not the same thing.
Offices have biblical criteria that must be met by a candidate seeking that biblical office. For elders and bishop/overseers, the criteria are set out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. For deacons, the criteria are set out in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. When the church ordains someone to serve in theses offices, the church is bound to follow and adhere to the biblically specified requirements for those offices. If a candidate does not meet the qualifications, the church is not at liberty to say, “Well, Sam has a gift for preaching, therefore, he should be ordained an elder.”
The offices of elder and bishop/overseer are limited to men, a conclusion based upon the following factors:
· The candidate must be the “husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6).
· Immediately before listing the qualifications for elder, one of which is that the elder must be “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2), Paul forbids women to teach (1 Tim. 2:11-14; 1 Cor. 14:34-35), which bars women from serving as elders.
· Elder are described as “ruling” (1 Tim. 5:17), an authoritative function, so if women may not usurp authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12), including their own husbands who will be attending the same church, women cannot be elders.
· The elder must have his own family in order, or else how can be govern the church (1 Tim. 3:4-5)? In Scripture, men are always heads and rulers of their households; women are never in that role (Gen. 3:16; Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1), so an elder must be a man.
In contrast to offices, every believer has at least one spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 4:7-8; 1 Peter 4:10). One of the gifts is the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:10), and Scripture specifically states that there will be female prophets (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18; 1 Cor. 11:5).
Not only does Scripture clearly state that women will prophesy, it supplies us with several examples of female prophets. There was Miriam (Ex. 15:20; Micah 6:4) Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and the Daughters of Phillip (Acts 21:8-9). Scripture even refers to women who were false prophetesses, or prophesied falsely (See, Neh. 6:14; Ezek. 13:17-23; Rev. 2:20). There were also women who, although not prophetesses, were inspired to make prophetic statements, including Rachel (Gen. 30:24), Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10), Abigail (1 Sam. 25:28-31), Elisabeth (Luke 1:41-45), and Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46-55). In all but one of these cases, these women, in addition to being given prophetic truths, were miraculously enabled to have a male child.
God bestows the gift of prophecy on whom He will, and He sometimes selects women to be prophets. He has told us He would do that, and He has done it several times in Bible history. Another female prophet simply confirms that divine pattern. But when the church fills the offices of elder and bishop/overseer, it must select a candidate who meets the qualifications that God has set out through His apostles, and those qualifications exclude women (1 Tim. 2:11—3:7).
Does anyone really believe that Paul was not aware of the female prophets in Bible history when he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to limit the offices of elder and bishop/overseer to men? Obviously, Paul was well aware of the existence of female prophets, not only in the past but also in his own day. In the same passage in which he sets out the principle of male spiritual headship, he also notes that women will sometimes prophesy in church:
But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head . . .” (1 Cor. 11:3-5)
Here, we have the principle of male spiritual headship mentioned in the same breath with the fact that females will prophesy. Clearly, the fact that there were, are, and probably will be female prophets does not change the normal gospel order that God has specified for His church on earth.
Some say, “Yes, we understand that Ellen White was not the first female prophet, but she was far more than a prophet, she was the leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and thus is an example of female headship or leadership.”
But Ellen White never held a formal office in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She was never a conference, union, or General Conference president. She did not have administrative responsibilities for the day-to-day operation of the church. She did not have the power to hire and fire pastors. With the sole exception of serving on the board of directors of Madison College, whose site she selected after having been shown it in a dream, she did not serve on governing boards or executive committees.
Some say, “We understand that Ellen White never held a formal administrative office of leadership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but informally, she was always the leader of the church.”
Not according to Ellen White:
No one has ever heard me claim the position of leader of the denomination . . . He has not provided that the burden of leadership shall rest upon a few men. Responsibilities are distributed among a large number of competent men. . . Every member of the church has a voice in choosing officers of the church. The church chooses the officers of the state conferences. Delegates chosen by the state conferences choose the officers of the union conferences, and delegates chosen by the union conferences choose the officers of the General Conference. By this arrangement every conference, every institution, every church, and every individual, either directly or through representatives, has a voice in the election of the men who bear the chief responsibilities in the General Conference . . . neither then [when the work was just starting] nor since the work has grown to large proportions, during which time responsibilities have been widely distributed, has anyone heard me claiming the leadership of this people” (8T 236-237).
Here, Ellen White is plainly saying that the leaders of the church are the officers (all men) who are elected by the constituencies through the normal processes, and that she has never claimed to be one of those leaders.
Some say, “Yes, we understand that Ellen White was not the formal or informal leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but she exercised authority over men, so it is okay for women to be ordained to headship roles in the Church.”
But Ellen White did not exercise authority over men. In her capacity as a prophetess, she often delivered divine rebukes to both men and women, including the male leaders of the SDA Church. But she was not in direct administrative authority over them; she did not have the power to hire and fire. Those who were rebuked by her in her capacity as a prophet were free to heed her counsel, or not. And in several notable cases—too many—they did not.
In fact, Ellen White herself submitted to the regularly constituted male authority of the church, as in the case of her nine-year sojourn in Australia. She did not move to Australia on her own initiative or based upon a prophetic prompting from God. In a letter to General Conference President Ole A. Olsen, she wrote, “The Lord was not in our leaving America. He did not reveal that it was His will that I should leave Battle Creek. The Lord did not plan this, but He let you all move after your own imaginings.”
In other words, even though she had no prophetic guidance on the matter, she followed the call of the male leaders of the General Conference in moving to Australia:
At times before leaving America, I thought that the Lord did not require me to go to a country so far away, at my age and when I was prostrated by overwork. But I followed the voice of the Conference, as I have ever tried to do at times when I had no clear light myself.” (July 10th 1892, Manuscript Releases 21, emphasis added)
There is nothing in the life of Ellen White that overturns God's order for His church, nor should we expect to find such a thing. Long before Ellen White was a prophet, God had chosen to speak through female prophets, but the priesthood was always reserved for men, the disciples whom Christ ordained were men, the apostles were men, and the New Testament clearly restricts the headship offices of elder and bishop/overseer to men. Ellen White did not, by the example of her life, disrupt this pattern.
Frequently Asked Questions:
1. Doesn't the fact that Deborah was not only a Prophetess but also a Judge—a leader of civil government—authorize the Ordination of Women?
Deborah was a prophet and a judge, but never a priest, and thus does not serve as an example of female spiritual headship in normal, day-to-day church office. The biblical headship principle that is relevant to the issue of female ordination is spiritual headship in the church. An example of a woman holding a headship position in government does not challenge this principle.
Furthermore, Scripture makes clear that it was not God's ideal for women to be leaders of civil government:
• The rulers appointed by Moses in the wilderness under God’s direction—to rule over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens—were all male (Ex. 18:25).
• The seventy elders appointed by Moses under God’s direction were all male (Num. 11:16).
• Only men were anointed by God to serve as kings of Israel and Judah. One woman tried to forcibly install herself as queen by killing all but one of her grandsons; she was later executed (2 Chron. 22:10-12; 23:12-21).
• “As for My people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O My people! Those who lead you cause you to err and destroy the way of your paths.” Isaiah 3:12
Deborah lived in the era of the judges, when the prescribed theocratic government had broken down. Ellen White says: “She was known as a prophetess, and in the absence of the usual magistrates, the people had sought her for counsel and justice” (DG 37). She was a humble woman who judged the cases brought to her under a tree (Judges 4:5), not at the city gate where the usual magistrates presided. Deborah did what a vice-president does in the absence or incapacity of a president, or what a wife should do in the absence or incapacity of her husband: “Before leaving the house for labor, all the family should be called together; and the father, or the mother in the father’s absence, should plead fervently with God to keep them through the day” (GC 519). In the absence of competent and willing male judges, Deborah stepped in and judged Israel, but this was not the ideal.
In any case, the fact that she exercised civil authority in Israel still does not serve as an example of female headship in normal spiritual offices, such as Hebrew priest or Christian elder or bishop.
2. Wasn't Miriam a Leader of the Congregation as well as a Prophet?
Although Miriam had a leadership role, her dispute with Moses offers clear evidence that it was not a headship role. The incident recorded in Numbers 12:1-9 makes it evident that Aaron’s and Miriam’s responsibilities were not on the same level as those of Moses, and that God intended it that way. This order of authority is reflected in Micah 6:4, where God declared of Israel, “I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” In Ellen White’s words: “In the affection of the people and the honor of Heaven she (Miriam) stood second only to Moses and Aaron” (PP 382). Miriam's role was clearly subordinate to that of her male siblings.
3. Are there any examples of any Seventh-day Adventist woman being ordained to the gospel ministry during Ellen White's lifetime?
Rumors circulate to this effect, but there is no example of any woman being ordained to gospel ministry during early Adventist history. (See, David Trim, The Ordination of Women in Seventh-day Adventist Policy and Practice, Up to 1972, presented at the July, 2013 TOSC, p. 5, http://www.adventistarchives.org/the-ordination-of-women-in-seventh-day-adventist-policy-and-practice.pdf).
4. Besides Ellen White, were there other women who held ministerial credentials?
Here, one must understand traditional Adventist terminology and usage. In the Adventist Church, un-ordained workers are issued “licenses,” or “ministerial licenses,” whereas ordained ministers are issued “credentials” or “ministerial credentials.” There were other women workers who held ministerial licenses, but they were not ordained and hence did not have what are commonly called “credentials.” The only woman in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist church from 1860 till 1915 to receive a ministerial "credential" was, as discussed in above, Ellen G. White.
On March 5, 1899 Pastor D. W. Reavis asked the following question of the chair of the General Conference Ministerial Credentials and Licenses Committee: “I have wanted to know for some time what is the difference between ministerial credentials and ministerial license.” Here is the Chair’s answer: “Ministerial credentials are granted to ordained ministers in good standing, and engaged in active labor. Ministerial licenses are granted to licentiates—those who are engaged in preaching, but who have not yet been ordained to the gospel ministry” (General Conference Bulletin, March 5, 1899, p. 147).
5. Did the fact that the early Adventist Church had female preachers mean that the Adventist pioneers favored women's ordination?
Female preachers and female ordination are not the same thing. We are not aware of a single article between 1850 and 1915 that advocated for the ordination of women to gospel ministry, or as conference, union, or General Conference presidents. We are, however, aware of statements upholding male headship and barring women from the office of ruling elder (e.g. ST Dec. 17, 1878; Jan. 24, 1895).
As the following statements indicate, several of our leading pioneers definitely held to the primacy of male authority within the church, and did so on Biblical grounds. Consider J.H. Waggoner’s view in the Signs of the Times:
“The divine arrangement, even from the beginning, is this, that the man is the head of the woman. Every relation is disregarded or abused in this lawless age. But the Scriptures always maintain this order in the family relation. ‘For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.’ Eph. 5:23. Man is entitled to certain privileges that are not given to woman; and he is subjected to some duties and burdens from which the woman is exempt. A woman may pray, prophesy, exhort, and comfort the church, but she cannot occupy the position of a pastor or ruling elder. This would be looked upon as usurping authority over the man, which is here [1 Timothy 2:12] prohibited.” (ST Dec. 19, 1878).
In a later issue of the Signs, a reader asked, “Should women be elected to offices in the church when there are enough brethren?” Here is the response of Milton Wilcox:
“If by this is meant the office of elder, we should say at once, No. But there are offices in the church which women can fill acceptably, and oftentimes there are found sisters in the church who are better qualified for this than brethren, such offices, for instance as church clerk, treasurer, librarian of the tract society, etc., as well as the office of deaconess, assisting the deacons in looking after the poor, and in doing such other duties as would naturally fall to their lot. The qualifications for church elder are set forth in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and in Titus 1:7-9. We do not believe that it is in God’s plan to give to women the ordained offices of the church. By this we do not mean to depreciate their labors, service, or devotion. The sphere of woman is equal to that of man. She was made a help meet, or fit, for man, but that does not mean that her sphere [or role] is identical to that of man’s. The interests of the church and the world generally would be better served if the distinctions given in God’s word were regarded.” (“Question Corner # 176: Who Should Be Church Officers? ST Jan. 24, 1895, italics original).
6. Didn't Adventists Vote to Ordain Women at the 1881 General Conference Session?
No. It is true that a resolution to ordain women was placed on the agenda of the 1881 General Conference Session, but that resolution was not carried by a majority vote of the session. (See, David Trim, General Conference archivist presentation to TOSC, July 2014, The Ordination of Women in Seventh-day Adventist Policy and Practice, Up to 1972, p. 13).
The resolution in question read as follows:
“Resolved, That females possessing the necessary qualifications to fill that position, may, with perfect propriety, be set apart by ordination to the work of the Christian ministry” (RH, Dec. 20, 1881, p. 392).
Although resolutions are commonly debated and then voted up or down, that did not happen in this case. After the above resolution was read and discussed by the delegates, of whom at least eight voiced an opinion, it was voted to refer the issue to the General Conference Executive Committee. Referring the motion back to committee was equivalent to "tabling" it and was really just a polite way of killing it without an up or down vote. Neither that motion nor a modified version of it was brought back to the floor in the 1881 Session, nor in any subsequent General Conference session for over a century.
The General Conference session of 1990 considered a resolution to allow the ordination of women. It was voted down by 74 to 26 percent. At behest of the North American Division, the 1995 session considered a measure to allow divisions to decide on their own whether to ordain women. The request was thoroughly debated and then rejected—69 to 31 percent. In 2015 at San Antonio, the 1995 question of whether divisions could forge their own ordination policies was considered again and, after much Sturm und Drang, was voted down again, this time by 58 to 42 percent.