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Ordination: The Gordian Knot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church


The Gordian Knot

In ancient Greece, an oracle decreed that the next man to enter the city of Phrygian on an ox-cart should become their king. That man was Gordias, a peasant farmer. According to legend, he was, therefore, declared king.

His son Midas gave the ox-cart to a Phrygian god and tied the cart to a post by an intricate knot. When Alexander the Great entered the city in the fourth century B.C., the myth has it that the ox-cart was still tied in the palace of the former kings of Phrygia. Sources from antiquity agree that Alexander was confronted with the challenge of the knot, but the manner in which he opened this knot is disputed.[i]

In the twenty-first century, ordination has become a sort of Gordian Knot for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Ordination: a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church

The words ordination and ordain have neither Greek nor Hebrew origin, but come from Latin. The concept was used in a secular context within the Roman Empire before the church started using the word.[ii] The late Latin word ordināre comes from the word ordo which means "order." '[iii] Gradually, this term came to be used in a Christian context.

…'ordination' was brought into the Christian tradition by the post-biblical, so-called apostolic church fathers, especially Tertullian (ca. A.D. 160-220) and Cyprian (ca. A.D. 205-258), and . . . it became integrated as a sacrament in the Roman-Catholic Church…[iv]

The word ordain was first used in English in the 13th century.[v] The term is currently used in the major part of Christendom but is understood somewhat differently from denomination to denomination.

Ordination: meaning beyond “originally implied

The following sentence in the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) Consensus Document, second paragraph, is worth noticing:

Over the course of Christian history the term ordination has acquired meanings beyond what these words originally implied.[vi]

As ordination is not a biblical term but an expression of the Roman world, the sentence from the Consensus Document is somewhat tricky to interpret. As a basis for understanding the sentence, one may assume that it is referring to several occasions in the New Testament (NT) when persons were appointed to various tasks. However, in Greek there are a number of different words which were used when someone was designated/appointed/elected to various tasks. This fact is reflected in most modern English translations that do not use the words ordination and ordain in any of the relevant texts at all. The New King James version typically uses appoint, and not ordain, in any of these texts.

King James Version: episcopal structure of the Church of England

King James 1 is relatively unknown as a political figure. His predecessor, Queen Elizabeth 1, is much better known. But King James’ name became renowned among Christians because of the Bible translation that came to carry his name. In the first year of his reign (1604), he commissioned translators to make a new English translation of the Bible.

The King James Version (KJV), also called The Authorized Version, has for centuries been the Bible translation that in many people's minds was the closest one could get to the rendering of the Hebrew and Greek texts. It was the Bible that was used in Ellen White’s time. It is the Bible that many Adventists still are using, despite the many new translations now available.

Based on the instructions given to the translators in 1604, it is not surprising that the word ordain is used several times in the KJV.

James gave the translators instructions intended to ensure that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy.[vii]

The fact that the KJV uses the word ordain is a contributing factor as to why the perceptions surrounding the word ordination are so emotionally entrenched among Adventists. This makes it difficult to take a step back to ask this: Have we as Adventists something embedded in our ordination practice and understanding that is not consistent with the practice that was in the Apostolic church or in accordance with the teachings of Jesus?

Clergy and laity

The concept of ordination has been instrumental in creating a distinction between the clergy and the laity, a distinction that was alien and unknown to the early church. The Adventist church historian Daniel Augsburger states:

The first generation of Christians knew nothing about an essential spiritual distinction between clergy and laypeople."[viii] As time passed by, the clergy formed a power structure within the church, a hierarchical structure with great influence both in the Church and in society at large.

To put it mildly: This clerical power factor harmonizes very poorly with the servant role that Jesus exemplified.

Chosen for different tasks, not into a privileged group

In the NT, we read that people were selected/appointed to various offices in the church. Bible texts in the NT clearly point to the need to select people who would perform various tasks. However, there is no example that indicates that someone was appointed to a privileged group, elevated above the rest of the congregation, except that they had a special mission/office. The appointments are task-oriented.

Ellen White and the ordination of Paul and Barnabas

Ellen White uses the different forms of the verb ordain “close to a thousand times” in her published writings.[ix] One of the important instances where she uses both ordain as a verb and the noun ordination is in connection with the appointment of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13 as they were sent out from Antioch on their missionary journey. She points out that ordination was closely connected to the “office”/”the specific work” they were appointed to:

It was an acknowledged form of designation to an appointed office and a recognition of one’s authority in that office [, and] . . . by that action, [they] asked God to bestow His blessing upon the chosen apostles in their devotion to the specific work to which they had been appointed.[x] (emphasis added)

As the KJV was the Bible translation in use in the time of Ellen G. White, it is no surprise that she uses the word ordination. But she was fully aware of the fact that ordination had been greatly misused in giving the clergy an elevated position:

At a later date the rite of ordination by the laying on of hands was greatly abused; unwarrantable importance was attached to the act, as if a power came at once upon those who received such ordination, which immediately qualified them for any and all ministerial work. But in the setting apart of these two apostles, there is no record indicating that any virtue was imparted by the mere act of laying on of hands. There is only the simple record of their ordination and of the bearing that it had on their future work.[xi]

Ordination of pastors in the Seventh-day Adventist Church

Ordination of pastors in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a one-time action. That "one time" ordination is sufficient, whether to serve as a pastor, Conference president, Union president, General Conference president, or any other ministry-related tasks. In this way it is the individual’s entrance to the clergy that has come to be the focus of the ordination rather than the person’s “devotion to the specific work.”  .[xii] This has contributed in creating an elevated group within the Adventist Church, a class distinction that was unknown in the early Christian church. A fresh look at this Adventist tradition should be called for.

Ordination and authority

The question of authority has possibly been the top concern for many who are opposed to opening up for ordination of female pastors. According to the Church Manual and the GC Working Policy, hardly any authority is granted by ordination in itself. Authority to function as an ordained pastor requires either election or a pastoral employment, and in both cases, the additional required voted credentials.

Being appointed/selected for an assignment as Conference president, Union president, Departmental director generally takes place in a Conference or Union session. The tasks are defined geographically to the area that the conference/union session has jurisdiction over. The time period the appointment applies for is stated clearly in the minutes of the session.

The same kind of thinking is also largely the case when a pastor is employed and given the task of pastoring one or more local churches. By voting the required credential, the Executive Committee gives the pastor a specific authority to work as a pastor in a specified geographical area until a new situation arises when a different task is given to the pastor in question.

An additional point that we need to be reminded of is that authority seems to be of a secondary importance in the thinking of Jesus. He came to demonstrate a totally new form of leadership that must be the model for leaders in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Repeatedly, in his meeting with the scribes and the apostles, servant leadership was his focus:

Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.[xiii]

The right to have and to exercise authority must be earned and come as a result of having the attitude of a servant. Being voted a leader may give formal authority. Real authority comes by being a humble servant.

What are the roots of the current understanding of ordination?

What is the origin of the current concept of ordination? What is the background of granting the pastor entrance into a specific group of persons with a worldwide recognition for the rest of the pastor’s life?

Daniel Augsburger gives us a hint in this comment:

There is no support in early Christian history for an ordination attached to the person of the minister rather than to his mission. Thus Adventist ordination that is valid worldwide reflects a later, Augustinian concept of ordination.[xiv]

Pastor, elder and deacon: Ellen White’s use of ordain/ordination

At the Adventist ordination service, a pastor is set apart for pastoral work with no specific references to geographical area or any timeframe of service. Deacons and elders, the other two categories of tasks/offices that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has chosen to ordain, are also a one-time action, but each is clearly connected to an elected task/office.[xv] However, limiting ordination to these three groups of ministries seems somewhat arbitrary. Ellen White is concerned about church order and supports that there should be a special service of setting apart for those who “devote themselves entirely to His work”:

Brethren of experience and of sound minds should assemble, and following the Word of God and the sanction of the Holy Spirit, should, with fervent prayer, lay hands upon those who have given full proof that they have received their commission of God, and set them apart to devote themselves entirely to His work. This act would show the sanction of the church to their going forth as messengers to carry the most solemn message ever given to men.[xvi]

But in her writings, the concept of ordination is not limited to the three mentioned categories. She used the word ordination in a much wider and inclusive way: “many souls will be saved through the labors of men who have looked to Jesus for their ordination and orders.”[xvii] “All who are ordained unto the life of Christ are ordained to work for the salvation of their fellow-men.”[xviii]

The fact that the Church in the 21st century has developed considerably since the middle of the 1st century seems to have been overlooked by limiting ordination to pastors, elders, and deacons/deaconesses. Many functions and offices in the Adventist Church of the 21st century should be just as applicable for a service of appointment or laying on of hands, as the three categories currently reserved for this. The task of a pastor is quite different to that of a Conference or Union president. Would it not be just as appropriate to perform a setting apart service when Conference presidents, Union presidents, or departmental directors are voted into office? Would it not be an opportunity for the constituency meeting to unite in asking God to bestow His blessing upon the chosen persons in their devotion to the specific work to which they have been appointed?

By connecting the setting apart/ordination to the occasion when a person is appointed to a specific task/office, there will be no doubt concerning which Executive Committee should rescind a person’s ordination to a specific task in case of a moral fall.

The vote cast in San Antonio

In San Antonio, the delegates were asked to say "yes" or "no" to this question:

Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry?

Had the result been "yes," the Church would have had to rethink and change the policy of the worldwide recognition of pastoral ordination.[xix] The GC Autumn Council has the authority to change policy. The responsibility to show the way out of the current deadlock is with the GC leadership and the GC Executive Committee and not the GC Session.


A few lines from the study document on ordination prepared by the Bible Committee of the Trans-European Division pinpoints the cul-de-sac the Church has entered:

The central conclusion of our review of ordination in the history of the Christian church is that Christian tradition after the New Testament has deviated from the teachings of the Bible. Ordination in the Bible has not been understood, taught, or heeded. A reform of ordination that brings it closer to the teaching of particularly the New Testament and is informed and guided by the theme of the Bible as a whole will assist Seventh-day Adventists in living up to its creed: the Bible, and the Bible alone.[xx]

To be in harmony with the NT model and the way Ellen White commented on the appointing/ordination of Paul and Barnabas, ordination/setting aside for ministerial work should be closely connected to the devotion of a person to a specific work. Ordination as it has developed in the Seventh-day Adventist Church has turned into a ceremony of including a person into a clerical group, a requirement for a number of possible tasks in the Church. The old thinking behind being part of an aristocracy has in this way been adopted by the Church. Changing the GC Working Policy and connecting ordination more closely to the appointment to a specified pastoral or elected task/office and thereby discontinuing the present worldwide system of elevating pastors into the class of the clergy might be the beginning of opening this Gordian Knot for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The GC Annual Council has the necessary authority to change the Working Policy.

Hopefully, this will lead to an acceptance of the fact that the appointing of pastors truly is a regional matter, as is the case in electing a Conference president and filling all other regional positions in the Church. The issue of ordination of female pastors will then hopefully be taken off the agenda of the General Conference Session. The current wording of the Church Manual that has opened for regional acceptance of female commissioned pastors/elders might be the opening that can move the Seventh-day Adventist Church to accept that the Holy Spirit gives the gift of pastoring as He decides, regardless of gender, in harmony with Joel 2:29: “Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (NIV).

On the day of Pentecost, Peter stood up and quoted the words of Joel, explaining that what people saw and heard in Jerusalem on that day was the work of the Holy Spirit equipping the Church for mission. "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”[xxi]

I believe we are living “in the last days” and, therefore, must expect that the Holy Spirit will be poured upon both male and female servants within the Church in a variety of ways. Are we ready to let the Holy Spirit work and guide us?

[i]Wikipedia, (26 May 2016)

[ii]Trans European Bible Committee, The Mission of God through the Ministry of the Church: A Biblical Theology of Ordination – With Particular Attention to the Ordination of Women, 2013 p 111 (TED BTO)

[iii]Collins English Dictionary, June 2016) (Collins)

[iv]TED BTO p 111


[vi]The Theology of Ordination Study Committee" (TOSC) voted 23 July 2013 a 1 ¼ A4 page Consensus Document, published in the General Conference Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report June 2014, pp 21-22

[vii]Wikipedia,– based on: Daniell, David (2003). The Bible in English: its history and influence. (New Haven, Conn:Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09930-4.) (26 May 2016)

[viii]Editor, Nancy Vyhmeister, Women in Ministry Biblical & Historical Perspectives, Daniel Augsburger, “Clerical Authority and Ordination in the Early Christian Church”, p 95 f, (Berrien Springs, MI, Andrews University Press,1998) (Women in Ministry)

[ix]Toward a Theology Of Ordination, Silver Spring, MD, January 2013, p 26.

[x]Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, p 162, (Mountain View, California, Pacific Press Publishing Association, Copyright 1911 by Mrs. Ellen G. White)



[xiii]Luke 22:25-26 NIV. For other relevant references see: Matt 18:4; 23:8-12; Mark 9:34; Luke 9:46; 11:43; 14:8; 20:46; 22:24-27; John 13:12-15.

[xiv]Women in Ministry,p 96

[xv]The New Testament nowhere explicitly states that church elders, pastors, and deacons should be ordained.» Toward a Theology Of Ordination, p 45.

[xvi]Toward a Theology Of Ordination, p. 40

[xvii]“Words to Our Workers,” Review and Herald, April 21, 1903

[xviii]“Our Work,” Signs of the Times, August 25, 1898

[xx]TED BTO, p 44

[xxi]Acts 2:17 (NIV)


Finn F. Eckhoff serves as Executive Secretary of The Norwegian Union.


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