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On Culture, Change, and Conscience: A Reflection on Women in Ministry


"Change is glacial. Glacial!" Charles. E. Bradford's voice thundered through our living room, demanding attention from the pastors serving in southern Oregon gathered there. As president of the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist church, he had agreed to join us via telephone, pray with us, and provide conversation on issues important to us. The amplified speaker in the middle of the room served its purpose. One of the young pastors had asked about the continuing dialogue regarding ordaining women in ministry, and Bradford's response was memorable. Change takes time he asserted. Be patient. The year was 1979. 

Just Keep Talking?

Of course we should keep talking. But some are going to have to lead change. We need a perspective on the summer of 2015 to consider that assertion. Few expected the initiative to refer the ordination of women in ministry to various divisions to pass. Leading up to the vote there were significant hindrances to change, and they all could be observed. Talking alone will not finally resolve these.

First, people are people. We are from various cultures and hold beliefs formed within those cultures. Those beliefs include gender discrimination. It is not the mean-spirited kind, nor even recognized as discrimination where it exists. But it is discrimination just the same. That leads me to a second hindrance – culture trumps theology. Unfortunate. But true. Thus a third condition was apparent in San Antonio, the reality that the broad consensus and best work of our biblical scholars regarding the nature of ordination, of male headship, and of our theology of ministry was generally set aside. Fourth, there is the reality that the church is the church. It is a global organization, hierarchal, and led by humans. Those humans can take too much responsibility for influencing others. Further, the worldview of the majority populations in the church places a very high value on community. That is a strength, but it also translates into insistence that all do things in the same way as others. Otherwise community would be threatened, in the minds of these dominant cultures. That means a variance of policy is a threat to unity. Sensitivity to influence from the West is another very human factor. Perhaps more worrisome is the tendency of our historical view of plenary revelation to yield to popular biblical literalism, or what I see as an emerging brand of neo-fundamentalism. 

So I am not hopeful that the weight of these perspectives will change through talk alone. Of course we pray, and God works His will. I have always believed when we pray God expects us to act.

Gender discrimination in the church is simply wrong. It is a matter of conscience. Tolerance to this wrong can no longer be excused by pleas for patience. 

Searching Scripture Together

The conversation about affirming women in ministry has been long.1 The General Conference received a recommendation from its own resolution committee to ordain women to gospel ministry in 1881; the initiative was referred. In 1950 A. V. Olson indicated his wish for a study committee. Study committees were voted in 1970 and 1973. In 1973 the Council on the Role of Women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church met and recommended that women be ordained for gospel ministry by the year 1975. The Annual Council in 1975 voted, however, that continuing study be given. The General Conference Session of 1985 again voted to study the matter further. An action was considered in 1995 and failed. More recently, a study committee was established by the church at its 2011 annual council. And in 2015 positive action on the question was rejected.

A partial review of those studies may be helpful. In 1990 and 1992 Women Church God: A Socio-Biblical Study2 and A Woman’s Place: Seventh-day Adventist Women in Church and Society3 were published and affirmed the service of women. A group of scholars and pastors offered a pastoral appeal for inclusion of women in ordained ministry in their 1995 work, The Welcome Table.4 Their work contributed a historical account of 150 Adventist women in ministry from 1844 to 1994. 

An ad hoc committee of faculty from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in 1998 published Women in Ministry.5 Their work asserted the scriptures support the ordination of women who serve as elders and pastors. A differing group of Adventist biblical scholars countered with Prove All Things: A Response to Women in Ministry in 2000.6 Interestingly, they affirmed the hermeneutical approach of Women in Ministry, that men and women are equal as created by God, the need to see more women in the “service of the Lord,”7 that women are called to soul winning, that women are to utilize their spiritual gifts, that women are to receive equal treatment, and that ordination does not confer special grace, but differed with the contributors to Women in Ministry on the matter of women serving in the particular roles of elders or pastors based on an assertion that there was no precedent in scripture.8 

More recent works by biblical scholars include those of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary affirming that headship is not given to human beings over the church in matters of ecclesiology,9 and historical perspectives outlining the adoption of ordination from secular society as a means to distinguish clergy from members of the body, a practice that contradicts a biblical theology of ministry.10 Writing in Servants and Friends: A Biblical Theology of Leadership, a 2014 publication, Jo Ann Davidson, professor of Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, cites five Old Testament women called by God for significant leadership roles at a time when women were not empowered within their culture.11 

The 2012 Theology of Ordination Study Committee published its reflections within three varying viewpoints. The study committee did offer a consensus statement on ordination. That statement asserts; "…Seventh-day Adventists understand ordination, in a biblical sense, as the action of the Church in publicly recognizing those whom the Lord has called and equipped for local and global ministry."12 A vote was taken among the study committee members, asking them to indicate their preferences for three statements. Of the 94 votes registered, 62 favored statements authorizing denominational entities or organizational leaders in their respective territories to determine if women as well as men are to be ordained, while 32 of the 94 favored restricting ordination to males alone. It is apparent the consensus of those assembled views the scriptural record as not prohibiting ordaining women as the church may see fit in particular territories where doing so would not impede ministry due to cultural attitudes.13

The Scriptural Foundation

It is not the purpose of this writing to examine the biblical material. It may be helpful, however, to reference the foundation Adventist scholars recognize for the affirmation of both males and females in ministry. Doing so risks oversimplifying the biblical account, but provides a trajection of the biblical record.

Christ commissioned His followers to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).  He promised the presence of the Spirit as the church sought to fulfill His purposes (John 14:16-17, Acts 1:8). The New Testament describes the universal priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5-9; Revelation 1:5, 6; 5:9, 10). He empowers every believer with spiritual gifts and calls them to minister accordingly (Romans 12:6-9; 1 Corinthians 12:6-11; Ephesians 4:7, 11-13; 2 Corinthians 5:20; 1 Peter 4:10). The New Testament contradicts a distinction of pastor from membership (Romans 12: 1-6, 1 Corinthians 7:7). Ministering gifts were not to be assigned for prestige or power over others, rather, all serve in humility (Matthew 23:8; Mark 9:33-35; Luke 22:24-27; John 13:14-17). The church is charged to recognize the gifts among followers of Christ (Ephesians 4:1-16). 

One must examine the post-biblical record to discover how ordination became a common practice distinguishing clergy centuries after Christ. The first clear account of a Christian ceremony of ordination appears in the Apostolic Tradition.14 The distinction between a New Testament theology of ministry and the nature of the priesthood found in the Apostolic Tradition is noted by Protestants and Catholics alike. The church, some four centuries after Christ, had reset ministry into a distinct priestly function including matters such as confessions and administering sacraments.15 The sixteenth-century Protestant reformers recognized this error and sought to correct it. The reforming process was partial, and the separation of clergy from laity has largely continued.  Seventh-day Adventists, among others, have called for a restoration of a biblical theology of the priesthood of every believer. We too, however, find it challenging to act on that renewal.

God's Affirmation

One fact is undeniable. Women have been serving as church planters, evangelists, and pastors, often providing remarkable contributions, throughout Adventist church history. We recognize the formative prophetic ministry of Ellen White. Other women led churches in the early days of the movement, like Maria Huntley who served as president of the Tract and Missionary Society (the future Publishing Department), and Louise Kleuser, a pastor and evangelist who became an associate in the General Conference Ministerial Association. There are many more. I have seen firsthand the lasting contribution in churches established or strengthened by the evangelistic and pastoral ministry of LuLu Wightman,16 Sarah Lindsey,17 and Mabel Vreeland18 in upstate New York in the early to mid 20th century. The ministry of women like Elsa Luukkanan, the Finnish evangelist and pastor, and Margarete Prange, the German evangelist and pastor are notable in other areas of the globe. Today in China, hundreds of women serve as pastors. In North America alone there are over 100 women serving as pastors, and many hundreds more serving as elders. There are churches throughout North America that would not exist were it not for God calling and gifting women to lead them. 

We humbly acknowledge God's sovereignty. So what are we to do? 

Following Christ

Change is hard. But it is inherent in following Christ. Disciples change.

We Adventists have of course changed our beliefs (we came to Christ and we left traditions behind), our lives, and our opinions. That has distinguished us as a movement rather than an institution. We are a people whom God can transform as we study scripture. Our early leaders drew back from ecclesiastical structures that might threaten dynamic openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Forming positions through study and prayerful conversation, Ellen White reminded nervous church leaders that change is part and parcel of following Christ. "Those who think they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have an occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed. As long as we hold to our own ideas and opinions with determined persistency, we cannot have the unity for which Christ prayed" (Ellen White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workersp.30). 

So why affirm the ministry of women? Simple obedience to God, who is affirming His calling of both men and women to ministry through the gifts of His Spirit, and calls us to affirm His grace, is enough reason. 

But I find a further compelling reason; hope. Hope for a better world where we respect the creative initiatives of God. Our young adults can discern when we are following the dictates of culture or tradition rather than the bidding of God's Spirit. And on this matter they clearly recognize our deference to institutional culture by our denying what God is doing. They hope for better.

There is arguably a still more compelling reason. We are a missionary movement. "When a great and decisive work is to be done, God chooses men and women to do this work, and it will feel the loss of the talents if both are not combined.19 As my pastor at Andrews University, Dwight Nelson, often reminds us along with a chorus of other voices, we need all hands on deck. We must today be about the Father's work without letting our past traditions hinder the assignment and affirmation of ministry. Ordination, which simply confirms God's grace filled calling, should be humbly and joyfully expressed to whom He calls, men or women.

Still another reason to change can be asserted. Love. Love embraces obedience. Though we sometimes are loathe to acknowledge it, the scripture confirms our primary reason to progress through change. "God is love." When we love, we change. That is why love has always been hard. To forgive sin, to submit to God, to change our lives; that is the language of love. Perhaps the most hopeful witness for God is that we do love, and that we do change.

What We Can Do

Women should continue to respond to God’s calling, and to prepare for their service. And institutions of the church that support them in doing so need significant recognition and affirmation. Those who find their way to ordain them deserve our respect.

Men in ministry should find ways to express equality. Many are. I, and 8 other faculty on their own initiative at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, have requested a commissioned ministers credential rather than a ministerial credential for that reason. True, such actions are symbolic, but symbols are meaningful. I took that step for the following five reasons; 1) our shared theology of ministry enlists every believer in Christ into ministry regardless of station in life, nationality, race, or gender, 2) ordination as practiced by the church has drifted away from a biblical understanding of affirming ministry to the present practice of the church distinguishing position or status, 3) in the context of the credential category of “commissioned minister” as distinct from “ministerial” we (the Adventist church) have institutionalized gender discrimination,  4) as a matter of conscience I can no longer, after sufficient decades of protracted biblical study, contradict biblical teaching and Christ like relationships in favor of church policy, and 5) male headship is not affirmed by the best and prevailing work of biblical scholars in our movement, nor is such a notion a fundamental belief. 

Organizations within the church such as conferences or unions that take steps toward equality in ordination practice should be seen as faithful and hopeful expressions of the church. We need to affirm them, and peacefully express our support for the courage of their conscience.

Some suggest it would be wiser to keep silent, and to simply encourage continued study. Those who do not keep silent open themselves to criticism. But this is a matter of conscience. The church is not well served when we ignore matters of conscience for our own political gain. Then should we leave the church, or resign ministry, in protest? No. That would concede the opportunity for an ongoing demonstration of conscience.


What happens as we follow Christ, as we allow our life and practice to be conformed to His leading? Change. We are blessed in that process, though it is difficult. 

What will happen when we ordain women to ministry in some parts of the world in this global movement? We will continue to experience the blessing men and women provide as they dedicate gifts and talents in service. We will be giving evidence that we are an authentic biblical movement of disciples. We will be expressing the nature of a global church. In a world where God gracefully reaches our various cultures, unity means willingness to be led in our context and to be patient with the distinctions in the way the church works out its life in various other cultures. 

Change is inherent in renewal, mission, and new life. We all recognize that. It is in the heart of who we are. We are disciples of Christ. We have been willing to change. We have a conscience.

  1. For documentation of the several initiatives to set up study committees or consider ordination of women ministry see Alberto R. Timm Seventh-day Adventists on Women’s Ordination: A Brief Historical Overview, a paper presented to the Biblical Research Committee of the Inter-European Division in Italy in 2012, and the work of Banks, Habada, Brillhart, Rosado, and Vyhmeister referenced in this work.
  2. Caleb Rosado, Women Church God: A Socio-Biblical Study (Riverside, CA: Loma Linda University Press, 1990)
  3. Rosa Taylor Banks, editor, A Woman’s Place: Seventh-day Adventist Women in Church and Society  (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1992)
  4. Patricia A. Habada and Rebecca Frost Brillhart, The Welcome Table: Setting a Place for Ordained Women (Langley Park, MD: TEAMPress, 1995)
  5. Nancy Vyhmeister, Women in Ministry: Biblical and Historical Perspectives (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1998)
  6. Mercedes Dyer, editor, Prove All Things: A Response to Women in Ministry (Berrien Springs, MI: Adventists Affirm, 2000)
  7. Dyer, p.8.
  8. Dyer, pp.8-9.
  9. On the Unique Headship of Christ in the Church: A Statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Website, 2014)
  10. For an examination of the formation of ordination practices in early church history see Darius Jankiewicz, The History of Ordination, (Memory, Meaning, and Faith, a blog maintained by the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary: Berrien Springs, Michigan, April – June, 2013)
  11. Skip Bell, editor, Servants and Friends: A Biblical Theology of Leadership (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2014), pp. 259-276.
  12. General Conference Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report June 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD, 2014, p. 21
  13. The reader is encouraged to read: General Conference Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report (General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD, June 2014)
  14. See Paul Bradshaw, Maxwell E. Johnson, and L. Edwards Philips, The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary. Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), pp. 26-37, 55-66, regarding material from the Apostolic Tradition on the practice of ordination of the bishop and of presbyters and deacons in the church.
  15. For a discussion of the historical pattern of priestly and ordination function see Darius Jankiewicz…
  16. For an insightful examination of Lulu Wightman's evangelistic ministry in New York see Josephine Benton, Called by God, (Smithsburg, MD: Blackberry Hill Publishers, 1990), chapter 3.
  17. See Brian Strayer, Adventist Heritage, Sarah A. H. Lindsey: Advent Preacher on the Southern Tier Fall 1986 Vol 11, Nu 2, pp. 16-25.
  18. Benton, chapter 8.
  19. Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1946), p. 469.


Skip Bell is Professor of Church Leadership and Director of the Doctor of Ministry program, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.

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