After all the years of discussing whether women can or cannot be ordained as pastors, I am convinced that we need to start over. The issue of women’s ordination, currently debated in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is not a new one. According to some sources, even prior to the official establishing of the Adventist Church in 1863, this issue had been debated in the context of the influence of Ellen White, by virtue of her gift of prophecy. This issue has resurfaced more than once since. The recent debate, prior to the vote during the last General Conference Session in San Antonio, and the ongoing debate since, is just the last chapter. I am convinced that we, as a church, should have started debating this issue by focusing on a different aspect of ordination. The issue we should have been debating is not whether women can or cannot be ordained but what is the meaning of ordination and whether the current practice of ordination in the Adventist Church follows biblical examples. I believe that understanding the biblical pattern of ordination is a prerequisite to discuss whether women can or cannot be ordained.
The analysis of descriptions of ordination found in the Adventist Church Manual shows several aspects of how the Church practices ordination. Each of these aspects should be considered in light of the biblical record. I would like to suggest five distinct features of ordination as described in the Church Manual:
1. Ordination sets ordained individuals apart from other members. “The only way one may be qualified for serving the Church at large is by ordination to the gospel ministry.”1
2. Ordination is performed by laying on of hands. “…the ordained pastor, assisted by other ordained pastors and/or local elders who are participating in the service, will ordain the elders by prayer and the laying on of hands.”1
3. The laying on of hands is done by an ordained minister, though others may be invited to join in this rite. “The sacred rite of ordination should be simply performed in the presence of the church and may include a brief outline of the office of elder, the qualities required, and the principal duties the elder will be authorized to perform. After the exhortation, the ordained pastor, assisted by other ordained pastors and/or local elders who are participating in the service, will ordain the elders by prayer and the laying on of hands.”
4. Ministerial ordination gives a license to ordained pastors to perform rites and ordinances, performance of which other members of the church are not authorized, and at least some of these rites ordained elders or deacons are not authorized to perform. “By virtue of ordination, the pastor is qualified to function in all rites and ceremonies.”
5. Ordination is equated with having a lifelong license to perform rites and ordinances.
Before I examine how, in my understanding, each of the above-mentioned aspects of ordination square up with the biblical record, I want to emphasize that the Bible does not describe the ordination of pastors. Biblical record of ordination includes setting apart evangelists/missionaries (e.g. Paul and Barnabas), elders (Gr. Presbyteros, e.g. ordination of elders mentioned in 1 Timothy and in Titus), and deacons (e.g. setting apart deacons in Acts 6).
Clearly, in the Bible, ordination sets people apart to lead, serve, preach the gospel, and govern/rule. This is evidence from the description of ordaining Paul and Barnabas: “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2).
In the Bible, not all members who were set apart were described as being set apart by having hands laid on them. We have no description of Jesus ever laying on of His hands on his disciples. Jesus simply “appointed twelve” (Mark 3:14) or “He chose twelve” (Luke 6:13). The same is true of other disciples of Jesus, as stated in the following passage: “After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go” (Luke 10:1). Setting apart elders seems to have been a common practice in the first Christian church, though not always the practice of laying on of hands is mentioned (“So when they had appointed elders in every church…” Acts 14:23).
The advice of the Apostle Paul to Timothy to “not lay hands on anyone hastily,” (1 Timothy 5:22) clearly indicates that Timothy was authorized to ordain. However, as indicated in Timothy 4:14, “Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership,” Timothy was not ordained by an Apostle or ordained minister but by elders (Gr. Presbyterion). In Acts 13:2-3 we find a description of Barnabas and Saul being ordained “for the work which I have ordained them to do.” Barnabas and Saul were separated to this ministry after fasting, prayer, and “laying hands on them,” though it is not exactly clear who laid hands on them.
In the Bible, being ordained does not equate with having a license to perform otherwise unauthorized rites and ordinances. In the Book of Acts 6, Philip was one of seven chosen to be ordained as a deacon. In Acts 8, Philip clearly violated a precept found in the Adventist Church Manual, in a section called “Deacons Not Authorized to Preside.” According to the Adventist Church’s decree, “The deacon is not authorized to preside at any of the ordinances of the church, nor can he perform the marriage ceremony…” Yet, Philip “commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him” (Acts 8:38). Additionally, though we have no description of Jesus ever laying on of His hands on his disciples, according to the Bible, they have performed baptism: “Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples.” (John 4:2)
In the Adventist Church, an ordination is a one-time deal: once ordained, always ordained, at least in case of individuals who have been lawful members of the church. The Book of Acts seems to indicate that ordination was not a one-time rite to give a lifetime license to ministry. In Acts 13:2-3 Saul and Barnabas were ordained to a ministry, which, according to Acts 14:26, ended upon their return from their missionary journey. “From there they sailed to Antioch where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had completed.” Acts 15:40 seems to imply that Paul was set apart (or ordained) for the second time: “…but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God.” The author of the Book of Acts is using the phrase “commended to the grace of God” to mean being ordained, as evident from a comparison of Acts 13:2 and Acts 14:26. Thus, Paul was ordained prior to his first and subsequent missionary journeys. These descriptions seem to indicate that ordination was not a one-time, lifelong license to perform rites and ordinances, but rather being dedicated or committed to a specific function.
The example of ordination of Barnabas is an interesting one. Acts 13:1 states that, “in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas …” According to this text, Barnabas had a function (he was either a prophet or a teacher) at the church in Antioch and thus, must have been set apart to that function. Furthermore, in Acts 14:14, both Barnabas and Paul are called the apostles: “But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard this …” Yet, Barnabas was set apart to go with Paul on a missionary journey. This seem to strengthen the argument that ordination practiced in the first Christian church was a dedication to a function. To use the example of Barnabas, he may have been ordained as a prophet or a teacher and subsequently, as a missionary. Consistently with this description, an ordained pastor who is elected to a different function (e.g. to be an editor of an official Adventist publication, Director of Adventist World Radio, or who is to switch a job from working at a church to holding an office at a conference, union, etc.) should be ordained to this new function. This understanding also questions the biblical support for utilizing retired ordained pastors whose ordination, by virtue of their retirement, has ended.
If ordination is not a license to perform certain rites and ordinances, and if it is not a one-time deal of giving a lifelong license to perform such services but rather a church dedication and petition that God bestows His blessing on a member who was set apart to a specific function, anyone the church choses can be set apart. This idea is consistent with a statement found in the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, which states:
God bestows upon all members of His church in every age spiritual gifts which each member is to employ in loving ministry for the common good of the church and of humanity. Given by the agency of the Holy Spirit, who apportions to each member as He wills, the gifts provide all apportions and ministries needed by the church to fulfill its divinely ordained functions. According to the Scriptures, these gifts include such ministries as faith, healing, prophecy, proclamation, teaching, administration, reconciliation, compassion, and self-sacrificing service and charity for the help and encouragement of people. Some members are called of God and endowed by the Sprit for functions recognized by the church in pastoral, evangelistic, apostolic, and teaching ministries particularly needed to equip the members for service, to build up the church to spiritual maturity, and to foster unity of the faith and knowledge of God. When members employ these spiritual gifts as faithful stewards of God’s varied grace, the church is protected from the destructive influence of false doctrine, grows with a growth that is from God, and is built up in faith and love.2
Another reason why it seems evident that the last aspect of the ordination described above is most relevant is because of the nature of the opposition to ordaining women as pastors. Though several objections regarding ordination of women have been raised, including leadership, whether women can teach men, the fact that there is no mentioning of women pastors or women’s ordination in the Scriptures, a closer look at the issue shows that there is only one reason why women are not allowed to be ordained as pastors: being able to perform church rites and ordinances.
Women have been holding leadership position in the Adventist Church from its beginning. Currently, women hold leadership positions in all aspects of Church life, from being Sabbath School teachers and superintendents, school teachers and principals, college/university instructors, professors and deans, journal and magazine editors, deacons/deaconesses, elders, conference, union, and division office holders, including department directors, which includes department directors and associate directors at the General Conference. This includes an Associate Ministerial Secretary in the Ministerial Department of the General Conference.
The issue is not whether women should be teaching men. By virtue of having prophetesses mentioned in the Bible and having a woman prophet of the Adventist Church, this issue is simply not a valid one. In the Bible, a prophet is someone who speaks forth, someone who speaks for someone else (e.g. God). One of the functions of biblical prophets had to do with instructing and leading God’s people. This surely was the primary function of Ellen White, who spoke and preached at several General Conference Sessions to thousands of male delegates, has written guidelines to church ministers, colporteurs, educators, etc. Women have been main speakers in our church events, such as camp meetings and seminars, and they are featured in our media as writers, presenters (including preachers), and counselors.
It is not about competency or qualifications as many women have the education and experience to make them very competent and qualified. In fact, where education and experience are concerned, it must be concluded that many women are more qualified than many men are.
It is not about a man being the head of a woman. If we really understand the passage from 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 as universally applied to all members in all times, why is the church not taking a stand against women covering their heads, especially during prayer (“But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered” (1 Corinthians 11:6)), and wearing only long hair as these are mentioned in the same passage (“But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering” (1 Corinthians 11:15))? Nor is it about the requirement of women being quiet in a church (“Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak…” (1 Corinthians 14:34-38)). There is not a single church in America or most other countries where such requirement is imposed on women.
It seems that the issue of whether women can or cannot be ordained hangs only on one thing: having a license to perform certain rites and ordinances, such as baptism, Lord’s supper or a wedding. “By virtue of ordination, the pastor is qualified to function in all rites and ceremonies.” Similarly, a description of ordination of elders confirms that, according to the Church Manual, the act of ordination gives some mysterious power: “Election to the office of elder does not in itself qualify one as an elder. Ordination is required before an elder has authority to function. Between election and ordination, the elected elder may function as church leader but not administer the ordinances of the church.”
So, those who raise their voices in the women’s ordination debate, before they deal with the issue of whether women can or cannot be ordained, should ask themselves at least the following question: What is special about the handful of rites/ordinances that are exclusively given for men to be performed? I do not believe that, as Adventists, we believe that a given rite or ordinance has mysterious powers, as is the case of sacraments in the Catholic Church. What is it about these rites and ordinances that one has to be on a spiritually higher level (be an ordained pastor) to perform them, a practice clearly contrary to biblical example as described above in the case of Philip, being (just) an ordained deacon baptizing an Ethiopian man and Jesus’ disciples baptizing people? I am convinced that I would not find a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who would agree that we have different classes of believers or a hierarchical structure in the church. Yet, the practice of ordination as a license to perform rites and ordinances seems to create two different classes among members.
Yet another issue to consider is the language that is being used to describe the role of women in the church. While women in the church hold varies positions which include pastors (licensed or credentialed pastors), the church maintains that women should not be “ordained to gospel ministry.” This language is very unfortunate, as ministry, any ministry, any member’s ministry, by its nature, is a gospel ministry. Any member of the church, whether a greeter at the door, deacon, Sabbath School teacher, evangelist, etc. by engaging in a ministry does so to move the preaching of the gospel forward so “they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” The distinction between being a “gospel minister” and being just a “licensed minister” seems very unfortunate.
Consistently with biblical examples, electing members (men or women) to different church functions should be followed by setting them apart by ordination to that function, as was the case with the seven deacons from Acts 6, who were chosen by members of the church (“Therefore, brethren, seek out …” (Acts 6:3)). Thus, newly elected church board members, Sabbath School elders, deacons, Sabbath School teachers, greeters, and pastors, should be ordained to perform their ministry/function after their election is confirmed by the church.
Notes & References:
1. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual. Pacific Press. Idaho. 19th Edition. 2016.
2. Seventh-day Adventists Believe… A Biblical Exposition of 27 Fundamental Doctrines. Review and Herald Publishing Association. Maryland. 1988.
Roman Pawlak, Ph.D, RDN is a member of the Greenville North Seventh-day Adventist Church and a graduate of the Polish Spiritual Seminary in Podkowa Lesna, Poland. He worked as a licensed pastor for three years between 1992 and 1995 in the Polish Union. He is ordained as a church elder at his current church, though he does not currently hold any church office.
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