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Women and Equality: Theological Challenges for the Adventist Church

The most recent Annual Council meeting has renewed discussions about whether women should be ordained to ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

I am reminded of the number of reasons why people object to ordaining women. “Headship theology” argues that it would distort the so-called natural order attributed to passages in 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5. Interpretations of these passages depend heavily on how “head” is translated from the original language, as well as depending on what a person is “looking for” or expects from the text. There is also the objection based on assumptions about a woman’s ability to be in a leadership position, that women are not intellectually or emotionally fit for these kinds of roles. This bias was seen at its worse, I dare say, in a sermon given by one Adventist minister in 2010, where he described women as having lower IQ’s than men, unruly, and physically weak.[1] A third objection to ordination, one that is perhaps a softer though still troubling one, is the argument that ordination of women is theologically permissible but will divide the world church. This prioritizes preserving the status quo over and against recognizing the full personhood of sixty percent of church members.

Even women pastors are reluctant to broach the issue. Some rationalize ordination as theologically unimportant. This is fair. Perhaps we should ask whether men ought to be ordained as well. Other women pastors avoid talking about ordination for a more telling reason. They feel they can’t bring it up out of self-preservation. It’s hard enough for women to be pastors in a church that doesn’t want to accept them. Adding a label like “feminist” or speaking up for herself could make things even more difficult. On the other hand, this presents us with a reason to ordain women—it would promote acceptance of women pastors in local congregations and provide a sense of legitimacy to their ministries.

Finally, I’ve heard a number of people question what the big deal is. They ask, if women can serve in conferences in California and elsewhere, where they can even receive ordained-commissioned credentials, then why do we need to continue hammering away at the issue?

I want to remark on connections I find between the questions of whether women should be ordained with relevant theoretical and theological factors. There was an important remark made at Annual Council on October 9, 2011 in the discussion period that preceded the vote taken over similar requests submitted by the North American Division and the Trans-European Division.[2] The requests sought to allow the growing number of women and men with “ordained/commissioned” credentials to be elected president of a conference. The measure failed to pass.

President of the NAD, Elder Dan Jackson, remarked, “It is not about women’s ordination. It is about governance and leadership.” His comment implies that we need to ordain women because they will help fulfill the mission and vision of the church in ministerial and administrative positions. Early Adventists and Ellen G. White also argued for ordination from a practical point of view.

There should be selected for the work wise, consecrated men who can do a good work in reaching souls. Women also should be chosen who can present the truth in a clear, intelligent, straight-forward manner.” (Ellen G. White, Evangelism, p. 471)


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…This is another means of strengthening and building up the church…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. (Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, (7-9-1895), p. 271)

Arguing for ordination as it pertains to governance, leadership, and church polity is an important piece of the discussion. I’m very glad that Elder Dan Jackson said what he did at Annual Council. However, this route does not directly allow us to deal with what I think lies at the foundation of the problem.

Governance and leadership tell us one reason why we should absolutely ordain women, but it doesn’t say what has prevented us from doing so all this time. Questions about polity, furthering the mission of the church, and governance are important. But they don’t quite force us to realize the issue—what it is about women that supposedly disqualifies them from ministry and administration in the minds of so many people, all those who voted down the measure at Annual Council. What happens when we continue to frame ordination of women as an issue of polity is that it makes secondary the fact that we take for granted what we mean by “woman” and the ways these assumptions feed into our theology and practices as a church. The practical/polity/governance route doesn’t bring up questions like how Adventism understands what it means to be a woman and investigate the kinds of norms and biases that shape what we mean when we talk about women as a category.

We can’t increase the number of women serving as pastors and administrators and expect the patriarchal undercurrents to go away. An important piece that we need to explore is what we as a church think it means to be sexed and gendered within our cultural contexts. I mean that we as a church need to expose the deep assumptions that we don’t even realize we harbor. We need to ask what it is about the way women are understood—the things that we’re taught—that makes it okay to treat us like second-class or worse. What, instead, can we teach in order to have women affirmed and treated as full human beings?

I suggest a couple challenges for Adventists to address.

Firstly, the church needs to differentiate between women’s ordination as an issue of polity in the church and address it as an issue of the unity of humans, justice, and equality.

Secondly, women need to have a major voice in the development of a theology of ordination. Seventh-day Adventist theology currently teaches that ordination is an affirmation of the ministry that a person is already doing, that it’s not a division that does away with our claim for the priesthood of all believers. Otherwise non-ordained ministries are implicitly understood as secondary to what ordained men do. This is significant given the fact that Adventists have long viewed ordination as a public recognition of a divine appointment. There are important practical reasons to ordain men and women. Women need to be involved in theological developments about ordination.

Finally, we need to challenge the church to understand that women’s issues are not fringe topics. “Theology and church have to be liberated and humanized if they are to serve people and not oppress them,” argues Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.[3] The church is meant to extend God’s grace and redemption into the world, not oppress people. The equality and full humanity of women falls under redemption. The gospel is not just about salvation in a futural sense.

Adventists affirm that God cares about every part of our lives. This comes out of our anthropology when we describe what it means to be human and made in God’s image—male and female were made in God’s image. Seventh-day Adventists promote the full healing of the gospel when we engage in the work of health ministry and education. Adventists care about the physical body because we believe that it, not just the soul, is fundamental to being human. Likewise, the church as the body of Christ needs to fully heal itself by practicing and teaching that women’s issues, recognizing the full humanity of women, are also part of gospel healing.

Crossposted from the Women’s Resource Center blog.



[3] Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 63.

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