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A “Functional” Analysis of Adventist Ministry


Non-Compliance over What?

During the last two Annual Council meetings, little if anything at all has been said about the problematic issue of the Ordination of Women to ministry. The debate has shifted. The “problem” is now perceived as something more serious — a challenge to authority. The role of hierarchy and what is permitted and not permitted by Unions and the General Conference’s policy book is the topic of anxious concern and perceived as a threat to unity.

As we approach another Annual Council to hear a report from the Unity Oversight Committee on how to handle this “problem,” it is important for the church at large to remember the core dispute that lies behind the charge of non-compliance. It is the question of who can be a minister and what we call the process when we set such individuals apart. When looked at closely from a functional perspective of what ministers do and from the perspective of what the Church Manual already allows, it would seem that the Unity Oversight Committee is actually dealing with a dispute over very little indeed. In view of what the Church Manual already permits, the dispute is over little more than the names we give things. Is that seriously a reason for discipline and schism?

A “Functional” Analysis of Adventist Ministry

What does a minister in the Adventist Church actually do? It was a question I was sometimes asked by the students in a scripture class I occasionally taught at the public high school near the church I pastored. I have occasionally asked the question myself of the young people in my baptismal class to get a discussion going on the doctrine of spiritual gifts. How would church members answer the question? Usually, several central functions are identified that differentiate what a minister of religion does compared say to what a secondary school teacher does. The identifiers include preaching, leading out in worship and in other church meetings, conducting Bible studies, baptizing people, visiting the sick and others (conducting an anointing service if called upon to do so), and of course conducting weddings and funerals. My public school students tended to see the marrying and burying functions as the most distinctive. Conducting Communion services was, more often than not, embraced as part of “leading out in worship.” If pressed hard, some might possibly have mentioned conducting a setting apart service for elders and deacons, but I do not recall it ever having been distinguished as that special. For most Adventist young people, that too would be embraced as “leading out in worship” — considered just as one of the special spiritual ceremonies that form part of worship. For some it would possibly not be seen as widely different from the pastor during worship calling up a newly appointed husband and wife Pathfinder director team and with hands laid on shoulders offering a special prayer of blessing on them and setting them apart publicly for their work.

This general set of functions about covers the entire span of the ministerial role as understood by most church members. Unless pressed, most would not consider whether “ordained” or “commissioned” mattered in any of this.1 Does it? Under the present Church Manual, whether the hands that perform these functions in and for the church are called “ordained” or “commissioned,” they do the same things.2 What then is the particular issue that gives rise to the complaint of non-compliance?

With such an important decision looming before the Annual Council this coming October over the matter of perceived non-compliance, it could be helpful to focus more closely on the specific nature of the non-compliance issue. A careful analysis of ministerial functions suggests that the specific non-compliance issue is really about nomenclature — the names we use to describe the ministerial function.

Describing the Gift of Pastoral Ministry

In America, the term Adventists have traditionally used as a title for those called to full-time gospel ministry has been “Elder.” This is an inherited usage from Methodist forbears. The first time Ellen White uses the term, she is identifying the ministers who were so helpful to her during her adolescent struggles with spirituality: Elder Brown and Elder Stockman. They were circuit ministers who had been appointed by the Methodist church in Maine. Elder B was another, the minister at the Chestnut Street church in Portland, Maine, who was responsible for disciplining the family when they were perceived as being schismatic and out of harmony with their fellow believers in their weekly “class meeting.” In 1846, Ellen reports that she married “Elder” James White. Ministers in the emerging Sabbatarian Adventist movement were uniformly addressed as “Elder” and the practice continues to the present.

In commonwealth countries and in most other parts of the world, the term used to describe the work of a full-time gospel minister is “Pastor” or whatever foreign language word is used to translate the term. It does not seem that there needed to be a church council to approve the use of this different nomenclature. It was just what ministers were called. To teenage colonial ears in my home country, calling a minister “Elder” sounded impressive — maybe even slightly pretentious — as if this class of minister was a cut above the locals who were just “pastors.” Perhaps the fact that “Elders” happened to be visiting officials from the General Conference contributed to this misperception. Only later did we learn that “pastor” was, in fact, widely used in America to describe a minister who was less in stature because still probationary and only carrying a license to preach. But in America that distinction is no longer valid. Today, to meet Internal Revenue Service requirements concerning access to the “pastoral allowance” provisions of the tax code, the church has had to agree that there is no essential difference between one who carries a license and one who carries full credentials.

Sometimes, the same word in the English language can be spelled in marginally different ways. “Labour” in England is “Labor” in America, but the meaning is the same. This is true also of “neighbour/neighbor” and of “flavour/flavor,” and there may be others. The spelling might be different, but the meaning is the same. The difference between Elder and Pastor is a little more than just spelling. But in another sense, the difference is just spelling. The ministerial function is the same when we are talking about a full-time ministerial function that has been recommended by a conference committee and conferred by a Union Committee. Each term, of course, reflects a different etymological background, and each bears a different metaphor rich in meaning, but in practical use for describing every day full-time ministerial functions, they designate exactly the same role. Can the same be said for the terms “ordained” and “commissioned”? There have been strong voices in Adventism that insist there is a difference between the terms and that they reflect an inherent, qualitative theological difference because women in ministry can be described by one term but not the other.3 The reality is that they perform the same functions.

As Table I below illustrates, under present church policy as defined in the 2016 Church Manual the difference between what full-time gospel ministers routinely do, and can do; whether they are described as “ordained” or “commissioned” is minimal indeed. Where there is a difference in function, it is an artificially imposed difference and is not one that is inherent to the function. In each case concerning functions k and l on the table below, a local Conference if need be or if circumstances warrant, could authorize both of the functions to be performed by “commissioned” hands, and for function k that is routinely done.

Table I: Comparative Function Analysis of the Roles of Minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church

1Permissible by specific approval of Local conference with Division approval and subject to the commissioned/licensed pastor also being appointed as a local elder (CM 75). In certain countries government approval and registration is also required. Not every Division sees a current need for women to be ordained as elders.

2Only if permission for establishment of congregation is granted by the Conference Executive Committee after consultation with the Conference President. This function is performed generally only when President is able to be present in person. (CM 36)


The frequency of chartering new congregations or uniting two congregations into one is limited. Because of the nature of their assignments, many pastors are never called on to exercise function l.

Responsibility “k”: Setting Apart Deacons and Elders

In the schedule of functions of a congregational minister, the role of setting apart elders and deacons by the symbolic act of laying on of hands under the terms of the Church Manual is designated to “ordained” hands and only to “commissioned” hands by special permission. Why? When the minister engages in this ceremony, the minister is not conferring downward any special grace through the “ordained” hands as if only ordained hands can ordain other hands. Adventists do not believe in a sacramental, hierarchical view of passing on of some special grace. No, the minister is in fact simply acting on behalf of the congregation which has already recognized the gift of grace in the individual through the work of the nominating committee and the vote of the congregation. In reality, it is the congregation that does the setting apart. On Sabbath morning, the minister acts on their behalf. That is why, in some congregations, members of the church family are invited on to the platform to gather around the elders or deacons being set apart and all lay hands on the individual, sometimes in concentric circles. Such congregations may be seen to be acting outside of policy in a sense because the language of the Church Manual has not yet caught up with this very meaningful approach to conducting a setting apart ceremony, but it is a form of ceremony that is very much in harmony with our theology. Conferences can approve “commissioned” hands to lead out in a setting apart ceremony within a congregation if some “ordained” hands are present — even if the “ordained’ hands are not actually involved but are resting on a lap in a pew some place. There is a vague reason behind this that is awkwardly linked to scope and authority.

The reasoning reflects a vestigial remain of the Roman Catholic tradition that lingers on in our practice, reflecting a residual subliminal notion of sacramental authority. “Commissioned” hands are somehow different from “ordained” hands because they do not carry authority by themselves — they did not first bear that special “ordination” grace. This is not biblical. This is not Adventist theology.

Adventists have already agreed that there is nothing intrinsic to these functions (no question of the holiness of the sacrament being spoiled by being administered by “commissioned” hands, for example) that prevents the holder of commissioned credentials from performing the function. It seems quite inconsistent, therefore, that the same “commissioned” hands that chair the Nominating Committee which recognizes gifts in deacons and elders and prayerfully invites them to serve, and then presides in leadership at the Church-wide meeting (usually during a church service), and calls for the vote to approve the nominating committees recommendations, cannot actually preside at the service of setting apart without gaining specific permission each time by the conference. It is an artificial distinction, an inconsistency that reflects the tortured history of the way the church has tried to find its way through the problem of women’s role in ministry and perhaps to be pastorally helpful to those church members who still hold to a hierarchical sacramental view. Conferences that face this problem of inconsistency often resort to extending permission to preside over such setting apart services to commissioned and licensed hands in a given local area as a standing permission — it does not need to be sought for on each and every occasion.

It is clear that the artificial distinctions in the permissions required to carry out this ministerial function concern scope — the problem of “where” but not “what.” They are not imposed because of some inherent theological reason. The functions are allowed by attaching them to a local congregation through the requirement that the commissioned or licensed minister be appointed as a local elder.4 But this is not related to the intrinsic nature of the function.

The scope of an individual’s responsibility is an important issue for organizations to consider. The areas or limits of one’s responsibility are carefully designated in most job descriptions. The differences between a Faculty Dean and a Department Chair within the faculty, for example, have to do with scope. The difference between a Conference Secretary and a Treasurer in a Conference, or between a Pastor for Senior Visitation and a Pastor for Teen Ministry in a large church are questions of scope. But differences between an “ordained” pastor in one church and a “commissioned” pastor in the next door church of similar size and complexity are not genuine everyday practical differences of scope. If scope is thought to be the issue, it is an artificially imposed difference that has nothing at all to do with the way the minister serves the congregation or other congregations within the conference should other churches and the conference agree.5

Are the limitations of scope in the case of a mature, experienced, and spirit-blessed “commissioned” minister based on some other hidden concerns? Is it that they cannot be trusted or that they are inferior because they have a different chromosomal configuration? Is it that they are subject to males and must submit or obey? Really? Our wedding rituals have surely moved on beyond this.6 To suggest this as the reason, as has frequently been pointed out, is to be out of harmony with Fundamental Belief 14. “We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation. Through the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures we share the same faith and hope, and reach out in one witness to all. This unity has its source in the oneness of the triune God, who has adopted us as His children.”

Responsibility “l”: The Chartering of a New Church

The ministerial function of organizing a new church is the only function apparently that “commissioned” hands are unable to do. But it is to be noted also that even “ordained” hands are unable to do this without specific permission on every occasion being granted by the Conference. When a new church is chartered, the Conference President actually has to be physically present as well. There is nothing intrinsic or inherent in the function that would prevent “commissioned” hands from working side by side with the president in undertaking this joyous task. It is also to be noted that for most ministers this is a function that is carried out rarely. Some evangelists might be involved in doing it more often, but in my forty-four years of ordained ministry I have not been called upon to do it even once.

Non-compliance over Names?

It is clear then that the basic non-compliance issue to be dealt with at this Annual Council, stripped of its overlay of emotion, ultimately concerns the problem of naming. Should we describe the authorizing of the performance of the functions of a minister in the Adventist church as “ordained” or “commissioned”? For some time, some conferences recognizing the overlapping or parallel terminology used to describe the ministerial functions clearly permitted under the Church Manual chose to issue a credential card with the words “Ordained-Commissioned” printed on it indicating that, in practical reality, the ministerial role was the same. Afterward, the word “commissioned” was simply discontinued.

Given that under the provisions of present church policy as set out in the 2016 Church Manual a commissioned minister with appropriate approvals (approvals already allowed for) is able to function in exactly the same way as an ordained minister, should not the task of the Unity Oversight Committee, if it is needed, be focused on finding a way to adjust the language of the Church Manual to embrace and more consistently describe what is already being practiced by “commissioned” ministers?

If ministers can be called either “Elder” or “Pastor” or both, what is the need for uniformity in the use of “commissioned” or “ordained” in describing how they are appointed. Is the approach of the membership in the loyal Danish Union that has chosen to use the functional title of pastor for all ministers and to talk of them as being appointed to a pastorate really so non-compliant as to be disciplined? Are the constituencies of the loyal unions in the United States who have seen more ethical consistency in recognizing both male and female ministers as ordained really so far out of compliance with current practice where both men and women minsters are functioning side by side every day and ministering in exactly the same way as each other?

Learning from History

When on October 2, 2018, the Presidential Advisory gathers in Battle Creek in preparation for this year’s annual council, they will be looking back to days of yore and trying to recapture the spirit of our pioneers. They may not notice it, but they will be meeting just three days after the occasion of another day of quiet looking back. The last day of September this year commemorates an important moment in American history. The presidential advisory should pause to notice the occasion for they could profitably be informed by it.

One hundred years ago this coming fall, on September 30, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson finished typing up his speech on his typewriter, signed an accompanying letter and with some ceremony took them from the White House to Capitol Hill where he read his famous speech to the Senate.7 The letter formally indicated that he would now support the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution and his speech explained why. The historic 19th amendment would finally enable women to fully exercise their role as citizens of the United States by recognizing and counting the votes that they would cast in federal elections. Some women had been trying to vote in elections since 1873, and the first, Susan B. Anthony with a few others, the cousin of Adventist pioneer, John N. Andrews, among them, had been prosecuted for doing so. Now in the fall of 1918 the president was taking steps to recognize their participation in voting. Such voting participation would no longer be regarded as non-compliant. Women could vote and their votes would be counted.

By 1918, already in many different countries of the world women’s participation in voting had been recognized, and there had been blessing in the extension of temperance principles and good governance. There were, of course, some countries both south and north of the equator which would not be willing to follow the pattern of the United States just then nor for many years to come — just as America was itself well behind other countries that had taken the step earlier. Not all agreed with Wilson that 1918 day inside the Senate chamber. But Wilson pressed on because he had been persuaded it was now necessary for the unity of the nation.

President Wilson had previously not thought such a step important and for four years had resisted giving such approval. In September of 1918, he had changed his mind as he had slowly come to see how fully involved women already were in every aspect of national life and how they had fully supported the great struggle the nation had been engaged in. Women had been fully engaged with the challenge of finishing the work and the goal of bringing an end to the War that had engulfed Europe. The war had ended and the troops were coming home even as he spoke.

Is it too much to hope that this October 2018, the Unity Oversight Committee will advise the General Conference’s President Wilson to take a recommendation to the Executive Committee that now is the time to find language to recognize in our Church Manual and in other policy manuals the work that God is already doing among us? Such language would not establish any new order. It would not bestow any new strange or out-of-order status upon women as this article has pointed out. It would not exalt them “beyond” their calling. It would simply describe and recognize the gifts God has already given and the way they are already working in the church — in the same way and with the same function as men engaged in extending the Kingdom of God and heralding the Advent. As noted, such functions are awkwardly described and permitted under the present Church Manual. New adjustments to the language of the manual would simply recognize those gifts and those ministerial functions in more faithful and more consistent ethical terms.


Notes & References:

1. The term “commissioned” was first used as a credential for males involved in certain categories of church work such as treasury, college presidency, or other institutional leadership.  Since 1990, it is a term used for the credential given to women ministers, although not exclusively. In some conferences, the credential is still given to male pastors who have a moral conviction that they should be treated equally with their spirit-gifted female colleagues in ministry.

2. The observation that there is “no material difference” in function between these two terms is also made very succinctly as point 4 by Edwin Torkelsen in “Reformatio in Capite et in Membris: Seventeen Questions that need an Answer,” Spectrum 48.2, (2018) pp. 14. The point has also been given lengthy scholarly discussion. See for example the comprehensive overview by Darius Jankiewicz, “The Problem of Ordination: Lessons from Early Christian History,” TOSC Paper, (2013) article further explores the theme from a practical perspective.

3. Alberto Timm provides an excellent review of the history of the role of women in ministry in the Adventist Church and identifies the voices on each side of the conversation. “Seventh-day Adventists on Women’s Ordination: A Brief Historical Overview,” Theology of Ordination Study Committee, January 21-25, 2014.

4. In 1990 the General Conference in session approved a revised statement on “Ordination of Local Elders” to be included in the Church Manual allowing elders to conduct baptisms and marriages. Such local Church eldership was open to women. The editors of Adventist Today highlight the context and the background understanding which this action implied and also point out helpfully that in 1990 the new Church Manual also adopted gender-neutral language.  Earlier editions used “he” in referring to local elders, while the new language said simply, “the elder” and does not specify sex. General Conference Bulletin (1990) p. 911. See “Has a General Conference Session Approved Female Church Elders?” Adventist Today, June 13, 2018.

5. The Church Manual permits a local Elder at one church to be able to serve at another church even if the elder does not hold membership there if the churches agree and have taken counsel with the conference. Though not the intention of the policy, in theory could such a “commissioned” minister be accepted by independent vote of all the churches in a conference and therefore within policy have a de facto base for being a president of such a conference with just “commissioned” credentials? 

6. If it ever did, the Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Manual (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1992) no longer requires the commitment for wives to “obey” their husbands, even in the “traditional” version of the vows. p. 92. Wedding vows are completely mutual. The church has long become comfortable with women exercising real authority in the church and its institutions (most evident in hospitals, schools, and colleges when men take direction from women every day).

7. The story is related in Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, (New York: Random House, 2018) pp. 99, 100.


Gilbert M. Valentine lives and writes in Riverside, California. He is author of a scholarly biography on W. W. Prescott (2005), a history of the White Estate titled The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage (2006), a study of the political influence of Ellen White in The Prophet and the Presidents (2011), and coedited, with Woodrow Whidden, a Festschrift for George Knight entitled Adventist Maverick (2014).

Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash.


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