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Viewpoint: The Challenge of Ellen White’s Ongoing Spiritual Authority


Reflecting on the July 8 General Conference vote against allowing regional jurisdiction of ordinationand by implication, the apparent attempt to exclude women from formal ministry in the Churchit is worth taking another look at what is in fact a venerable “elephant” standing all too placidly in the historical and contemporary sanctums of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The essential question that insists on an honest answer is this:  How can we square the most recent General Conference Session action against women’s ordination and ministry in the Church with the venerated and authoritative ministerial service of the woman, Ellen G. White?   

On one hand we have the far-reaching and fully recognized authority, scope and character of Mrs. White’s ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church; including the way the Church values and extols that ministry. On the other we have the way all other women are being treated as, at best, second class in the church. As much as we’d like to deny the relevancy of gender in this state of affairs, it is impossible to do so honestly and coherently, without indulging in rationalization and even duplicity.   

Mrs. White’s ministry and the Church’s unequivocal and official acceptance of it, asks us inescapable questions such as: Where was God and what was he about when in the 19th Century he chose a woman to take up a key role in the ongoing development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? How could he have called someone of the female gender to do such momentous things if he was indeed against women taking on significant leadership roles and exercising spiritual authority? Then there is the inevitable companion question: Where is God in the calling of women to Adventist ministry here and now? If God called a woman like Ellen G. White to ministry in the Church, why not call other women to similar ministries? In the light of these suggestive questions, it is disturbing to see how blithely we pass actions such as the one that was recently voted in San Antonio, without at least admitting a nod of discomfiture when it comes to the inconsistencies hiding in such actions.

Post San Antonio, the spiritual and ministerial phenomenon of Ellen White has, I think, a new look and feel to it. Her kingpin part in the overall theological and organizational development of the Churchboth spiritual and structuraland the distinct “headship” role she continues to play in the guidance of the Church, calls all the more since San Antonio for honest and complete acknowledgement of our contradictory position, particularly as it relates to the present emerging role of women in the ministry of the Church.  Even while we are preoccupied with reinforcing the “say” of this woman of God in the Church, many of the most avid supporters of Mrs. White’s ministry seem obsessed with finding ways to keep all other women from formal ministerial service.

We know that while ordination itself was contemplated for Mrs. White, it was not acted upon. However, the fact that Mrs. White was not ordained is all but irrelevant as one looks at the almost unbounded influence – and yes, powerour Church continues to grant her; whether she was ordained or not. This scenario has to puzzle the flawed theological theories of “male headship” that circulate in the Church. And it is interesting to note that more often than not, those whose dubious hermeneutical presuppositions put them against women in ministry are the ones most likely to quote the woman, Ellen White as a penultimate, or even an ultimate authority, as they seek to settle all kinds of theological, behavioral and organizational issues facing the Church today… including the over-strained question of whether or not women should be given the authority or standing that ordination accords the ordained minister of the Gospel in the in the Seventh-day Adventist Church; even though the authority accorded ordained women today might or would be less than that which Ellen White was given to carry out her ministry.

Thus in reality, God’s call to the woman Ellen G. White and our Church’s official recognition of his call to her, challenges any attempt to formulate a determinative theology prescribing an exclusively male ministry, even while it deals a decisive blow against the action taken in San Antonio last July.  

It is also important to confirm that we simply cannot say with any rational or spiritual integrityas some will no doubt want to saythat because Mrs. White’s ministry included an exceptional prophetic element, that that somehow places her call to ministry in a unique category of some kind, which allows us to ignore the significance of her gender. Ellen White’s ministerial calling by all means includes her unique prophetic gift, even though, at the same time, that ministry clearly stretches beyond this important role in a number of significant directions.  

God called a woman to an authoritative office of ministry in our midst and we have officially and unswervingly insisted for more than a century (sometimes on pain of ecclesiastical dismemberment!) that she and her authority be explicitly recognized and honored. We have consistently maintained this as a Church, even tending tocontroversiallymake belief in her authority and ministry one of our “Fundamental Beliefs.” Yet we have now come to San Antonio and voted in effect to reject outright the reality that God does in fact call women to ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

As we observe all the features of Mrs. White’s far-reaching ministry and as we fully acknowledge its length, breadth, height and depth, we gladly note the prodigious prophetic gift she possessed (along with the human weaknesses that were hers). But we also see her gift of preaching and teaching (No, Mrs. White was not silent in the gathered fellowship of the Church!) and perhaps yet more, her gift of writing and its ongoing authoritative, directorial role among us.   

So, perhaps most significantly and surprisingly, along with all Mrs. White’s spiritual gifts, there was (and is) the very rich charisma of administrative wisdom and leadership that was so evident in this woman.  Her leadership and wisdom was lavishly demonstrated and embraced (however begrudgingly at times) as the Seventh-day Adventist Church moved through its formative and later years under her highly influential guidance to become the phenomenal, worldwide organization it has become.

Looking at these very significant and far-reaching aspects of Mrs. White’s ministry, one is tempted to claim that not only did Ellen G. White possess the gift of prophecy along with other charismata, but she also demonstrated the primary spiritual gift of apostleship.   

But regardless of whether or not we embrace that generous a view of Mrs. White’s ministry, it is crucial to confirm that If God so splendidly gifted a woman among us, calling her to such an illustrious, commanding and influential ministry, surely there can be no reason to preclude today’s called women from full participation in the Gospel ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.


Will Eva, D.Min, spent a decade at the General Conference as Editor of Ministry Magazine, five years as Senior Pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at Kettering (Ohio) and has served as Ministerial Secretary in the Potomac Conference and the Columbia Union.


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