Women In Ministry

Special Committee, SDA Theological Seminary - Nancy Vyhmeister,  editor 


So, what did we, the members of the Ad hoc Committee on Hermeneutics and Ordination, learn from our two-year study? Much, in every way! Short reflections on each of the five parts of this book condense our findings. 

Our Findings

Ministry in the Bible

After the Fall, worship was directed by the patriarchs, the leaders of families. At the Exodus, God declared that his covenant-keeping people should be a "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:5-6). He also designated religious leaders for the nation church: physically perfect, male priests, descendants of Aaron. In the New Testament, the Levitical priesthood disappears and Jesus is portrayed as the heavenly High Priest, with all Christians forming part of the royal priesthood of believers. Ministry is no longer in the hands of the few, but there are leaders. The gifts of the Spirit enable those who receive them--regardless of their race, gender, or age--to minister to the church and carry the glad tidings of salvation to the whole world.


The word is not used in the Bible, yet ceremonies of installation existed. Hands were laid upon apostles, elders, and deacons by the faithful in preparation for their specific ministries. Within three centuries the pattern changed to the ordination of church leaders by those in higher positions within the church hierarchy; this doctrine in time became known as "apostolic succession." In the mid-nineteenth century, pragmatic Adventism took over to a great extent the ordination patterns of the churches from which its leaders had come. Ellen White viewed ordination as a ceremony by which the church recognized the gifting of the Holy Spirit but which did not add "new grace." She proposed ordination for different types of ministers, both clergy and lay, including women who would spend time in home visitation. A biblical and Adventist view of ordination regards the ceremony as a recognition by the church and a setting apart for ministry, a doorway to service and spiritual leadership rather than to position and prestige.

Women in Ministry and Leadership

Even in the Old Testament, women occupied leadership positions. Sarah, Deborah, Hannah, and Huldah--to mention a few--could hardly be classified as submissive females. Jesus had women disciples; the first proclaimer of the resurrection was a woman. Paul mentions women among his coworkers, and goes so far as to call one an apostle and another a deacon. In Adventism, women have been active in preaching, teaching, healing, and leadership roles from the earliest times, in spite of nineteenth-century prejudices against such activities. Ellen White strongly supported women in ministry, even suggesting that they be paid from the tithe. In the late-nineteenth century, women were active in church leadership and ministry. After 1915 the number in leadership decreased dramatically. The last quarter of this century has seen an increase in the number of women in ministry and leadership; acceptance of these women has not been unanimous, leading at times to debate, centered especially on whether or not these women should receive ordination.

Perceived Impediments to Women in Pastoral Leadership

Arguments often used against ordination are considered and answered. "Headship" belongs to the husband-wife relationship, not to any male preponderance over all females; it is part of God's plan for fallen human beings rather than an original mandate for the sinless world. A study of the whole of Paul's writings, together with a careful exegesis of the specific passages often quoted as prohibiting women in leadership roles, shows that his passages requiring silence in church refer to specific situations and are not to be used as a blanket regulation for all times. However, the principles of order and appropriateness underlying his words do apply. Finally, the use of an Ellen White quotation to affirm that those who support women's ordination might as well abandon the three angels' messages is analyzed and found to refer to the use of the "American costume" and not at all to the question of ordination.

Other Considerations

While these three chapters might appear to be irrelevant to the main argument of this study, the Ad hoc Committee felt they were important and needed to be included. First, a study of the biblical hermeneutics and arguments of nineteenth-century American slaveholders in favor of the permanence and desirability of slavery showed a curious twisting of the Bible. Parallels with the argumentation of those who oppose the ordination of women to pastoral leadership were striking. Especially in the West, non-ordination of women who are performing the same tasks as men who are ordained is seen as injustice. And because God is the epitome of justice, this attitude would misrepresent the character of God. Finally, much as we cherish unity in the church, we are constrained to admit that there is diversity in the way we see life, the way we understand Scripture, the way we perceive God. Communication among members of this diverse yet united community demands listening to each other and to the Holy Spirit. 

Our Conclusions

Because of Calvary, men and women share equally in a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). While living in the world, they are not of the world (John 17:14). In mutual submission (Eph 5:21) and loving preference of others (Phil 2:3), the old distinctions--Black and White, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female--no longer count (Gal 3:28). The one Head of the church is Christ the Lord.

In this new community, each member of the body is gifted in a special way (Rom 12:4-8; 1 Cor 12:4-11). Paul pointed out that among these gifts were prophets, apostles, and teacher- pastors. Their function was--and is--to equip the saints and build up the body (Eph 4:11, 12), to minister reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18, 19) to those who are far from God, that they may become "citizens" of the kingdom (Eph 2:17-19).

In this body of the redeemed on earth, men and women together are called to exercise their gifts. While there are innate differences between men and women, a woman called and qualified by God to perform pastoral duties, whose labor builds the body, should be recognized as a full-fledged minister. There is no biblical impediment for a woman to minister in any capacity for which she is called and equipped. Neither is there biblical reason for ordination to be withheld because of her gender.

However, the church in all lands may not benefit from having women as pastors. "All things should be done decently and in order" (1 Cor 14:40), with consideration for the opinions of "outsiders" (Col 4:5; 1 Thess 4:12). Above all, care must be taken that tradition not speak louder than the Bible.

Change, although difficult, is possible. What happened at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) is instructive. At that time the believers debated vigorously and at length whether it was proper for Gentiles to become Christians without first being circumcised, as had been required for participation in the Old Testament covenant (Gen 17:9-14). God himself had given this sign and failure to circumcise his young son nearly cost Moses his life (Exodus  4:24), yet the Jerusalem Council decided to not require circumcision of those who came to faith (Acts 15:19). This change of opinion came after Paul and Barnabas rehearsed the wonders God had performed among the Gentiles. The phrase "it seemed good" appears in vv. 22, 25, and 28 to describe the agreement of apostles, elders, and believers, together with the Holy Spirit, on the new instructions. If circumcision, based on divine mandate, could be changed, how much more could patterns of ministry, which lack a clear "Thus says the Lord," be modified to suit the needs of a growing church?

The Seminary Ad Hoc Committee on Hermeneutics and Ordination has attempted to be faithful to Scripture, allowing the Spirit to lead us and work in us. Our conclusion is that ordination and women can go together, that "women in pastoral leadership" is not an oxymoron, but a manifestation of God's grace in the church. We view our work as a contribution to an ongoing dialog. We trust it will be accepted as such.

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