Post 17, The Ordination of Women: Toward an Historical Perspective

With Adventist Review, Adventist Today and other official and unofficial news services reporting the recent General Conference and North American Division discussions about the role of women, we may need a tidy historical perspective. Thus I am posting this presentation that I made last year, in hope that it may provide useful background for the contemporary conversation.

F.D. Nichol contends that Seventh-day Adventism, as “a distinct religious body,” was born on the morning of 23 October 1844. If so, in 2011 we celebrated our 167th birthday. That is a long time for the church to fail to fully engage the spiritual gifts of the majority of the its membership in its life and mission. Put bluntly, of our 16 million members, about nine million are blocked from full participation in the affairs and witness of the church. We Adventists say only ordained persons are eligible for certain roles and, in the same breath, we acknowledge we do not officially ordain women as ministers.

On 28 June 2010, our lack of gender inclusiveness was expressed clearly during the Seventh Business Meeting of the Fifty-ninth General Conference session, by delegate, Jurrien den Hollander:

Mr Chairman, I appreciate the work of the Nomination Committee because it is a huge task to get all the work done. Yet with regard to the names that have been presented to us as a body, I have noticed something that worries me greatly. In past division officer groups that have been elected and approved by the body, there were few women. And now again I hear 16 names being mentioned, and it appears to me that 14 of the 16 persons are men.

I believe that in a church where 60 percent of the members are women, there should be a better representation of women in the leadership. This means, Mr Chairman, that if I should consider only this list, with 16 names, nine of them should be women. Therefore, Mr Chairman, I move to refer this list back to the Nominating Committee.

Jurrien den Hollander’s motion was lost but his concern is shared by large numbers of Adventists, especially those in several world divisions who asked (in vain) for the ordination of women to be an agenda item at the 2010 world session of the General Conference. On 29 June 2010, at the said session, an Adventist Today reporter noted that three women activists concerned with the issue of the ordination of women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) briefly hung a banner over the wall of a lower level of the arena during a session designed for SDA clergy. Evidently the banner read “The Greatest Want of the World is the Want of Men Who Still Stand for Right and Equality in Adventist Ministry Even If Negatively Impacted.” It stayed up approximately eight minutes before it was taken down voluntarily when a delegate asked the group to “take it down.”

Those close to the group said the banner was intended to call attention to the refusal of the church’s leadership to permit the issue of women’s ordination to be brought up during the General Conference Session. They have also pointed out that while the denomination was cofounded by a woman, Ellen G. White in the 1840s, women are not acknowledged as eligible for the church’s formal authorisation for full ministerial service.

Elizabeth Lechleitner, reporting the world session for the Adventist News Network, stated:

The Seventh-day Adventist Church July 2 committed itself to further study the biblical theology behind the practice of ordination. The action followed a specific request for an official survey of the matter during the just-concluded General Conference session, the highest governing body of the denomination. Delegate Ray Hartwell, president of the Pennsylvania Conference, called for a church-conducted reexamination of ordination from the floor of the Georgia Dome during the session. In comments to session delegates July 2, world church general vice president Michael L. Ryan said the session Steering Committee is “committed” to bringing a comprehensive report on ordination to a church business meeting within the next five years. The report is expected to survey the biblical motivation behind the model of ordination. Ryan said adequate time is needed to deliver a thoughtful, well-researched report with input from each region.

Therefore, it is evident the church we love and serve has problems with the status and role of women that have plagued it for a very long time. Fifty-two years ago, at the marriage altar, my cherished wife revealed her attitude when she promised to “love and honour” me, but refused to permit inclusion of a promise to “obey” me. It is time for millions of women and men to similarly make public their convictions about the vexed issue of womens’ rightful place in our community of faith.

How May We Understand the History of the Problem?

Adventists started rather well, remembering as they did a contested but significant level of participation by women as heralds of “the Advent near” within Millerism, between 1831 and 1844. Their attitudes were helped by the ministry and witness of Ellen Gould Harmon White, best known as a writer, but also a prolific speaker in every form of Adventist gathering from 1844 until near the time of her death in 1915. Of countless events that deserve mention from those seventy years, we shall notice only three.

Uriah Smith, the longest-serving editor of the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, wrote a telling statement about womens’ place in the church as early as 30 July 1861. Smith was clearly of similar mind to other pioneers like James White and J.N. Andrews.

The 1881 General Conference in session discussed with energy the role of women before it Resolved, that females possessing the necessary qualifications to fill that position, may, with perfect propriety, be set apart by ordination to the work of the Christian ministry.

Near the end of the nineteenth-century in Australia, ministers such as William Clarence White, Ellen White’s son and most important interpreter, ordained women as deaconesses in the Sydney church at Ashfield. These practices seemed to accord with the growing clarity of Ellen White’s insistence that the spiritual gifts of women should be recognised with just wages, prayer, and the laying on of hands.

It seems to me that we might profile 167 years of Adventism along the following lines:

1844-1915: cautious inclusion of women in the life and witness of the church.

1915-1970: progressive exclusion of women from the life and witness of the church. Perhaps the patterns of the period from Ellen White’s death until the 1970s are best explained by two powerful realities: Adventism’s retreat into Fundamentalism and Americas’s idealisation of female subservience.

1970 to 2010: commendable study about the status and role of women but the continued partial exclusion of women from the life and witness of the church. We noted above some of the instances that highlighted this reality at the 2010 General Conference session.

Our understanding will potentially be enriched by the proposed study of ordination that is now under way, not least by evidence that may bring a deepened conviction that ordination is the church’s recognition of God’s spiritual gifts poured upon his children. The initiative is Divine, the recognition is human. If we could disentangle our Adventist thinking and doing from twenty centuries during which apostolic succession and sacramentalism were so much cherished by the Christian church, perhaps we would better perceive our sacred responsibility to recognise that when God pours out spiritual gifts upon His people, they are not gender specific.

Conclusion

It is my humble but considered opinion that since the 1970s, Adventists have well explored almost every biblical, historical, theological and sociological fact about the ordination of women. One of the finest of these explorations is reported in the volume Women in Ministry: Biblical and Historical Perspectives. Our church remains essentially at the same point as it was when Jennifer Knight and Gwen Wilkinson edited “Perspectives of Women in the Church: All We’re Meant to Be,” reporting the Namaroo Conference Centre discussion of 20 April 1986. Seventh-day Adventism has well maintained many aspects of its reformist stance, to do with slavery, health and education, for instance. One of its pressing duties is to fulfil the promise of its heritage and the implications of Scripture by the full inclusion of women in its life and witness–by ordination.

Arthur Patrick, summary of a presentation at the College Church Educational Event on the ordination of women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, co-sponsored by Sydney Adventist Forum, Ladies Chapel, Avondale College of Higher Education, 14 August 2010, edited and posted 5 November 2011

About adventiststudies

Arthur Nelson Patrick, DMin, PhD, is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Avondale College of Higher Education, New South Wales, Australia
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