by Hannele Ottschofski | 20 November 2020 |
Recently I came across a short story by L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942) called “The Strike at Putney.” The Women’s Foreign Mission Auxiliary of the Putney Presbyterian congregation invited Mrs. Cottrell, a returned missionary, to give an address on mission work before their society. As the classroom would be too small for the expected audience, they planned to hold the meeting in the church itself. When the elders of the church and the pastor heard of their plans they declared that no woman should occupy the pulpit of the Putney church. The women were indignant and called an extraordinary meeting of the Auxiliary. What should they do? They realized that there was no point in trying to convince the men. After a long discussion, finally one young woman came up with a solution. “I think,” she said, “that we must strike.”
On Sunday morning the men were conscious of a bare, deserted appearance in the church. There were no flowers anywhere… The floor was unswept. Dust lay thick on the pulpit Bible. The five men who were sitting in the choir realized that there were no sopranos or altos. The organist sat in her pew. To the question, “Aren’t you going to take the organ?” she replied, “No. You know, if a woman isn’t fit to speak in the church she can’t be fit to sing in it either.” Sunday School was a failure without the women. The women canceled all of their activities.
The men held out for two weeks. Finally the pastor announced that Mrs. Cottrell could occupy the pulpit on the evening appointed for her address. The women all over the church smiled broadly. The organist got up and went to the organ. Together the singing sounded much better. The strike in the Putney church was over.
A dozen women met in the reading circle of the Catholic parish of Heilig Kreuz in Münster in Germany in the spring of 2019 to talk about “Evangelii gaudium,” the first Apostolic Letter of Pope Francis. They also discussed their personal situation as women in the Church and their daily difficulties. Without women, nothing happens in the Catholic Church. But women have no voice within church structures. “We have to do something,” they said, “more than just talk about it.” They are active in parish councils and pastoral care, supervise the preparation of the communion and plan family worship services. But they are not allowed to baptize or receive confession. Only men who live in celibacy are allowed to do so. Even the first action – a week of strikes, during which the women held their own church services outside their churches in May 2019 – caused quite a stir. Thus the protest initiative “Maria 2.0” was born, which calls for a change in the structures of the Catholic Church. Word about the strike got around quickly, and this became a nationwide protest action in Germany and even in some other countries. The women did not enter a church during this time. The participation was much greater than expected. Even if the action does not seem to have had much effect on the church the women are not giving up.
Portraits of Women
One of the founders of the initiative, the painter Lisa Kötter, started painting portraits of women with their mouths taped shut. She created the symbol of the movement: the Madonna with her mouth shut up. Another founder, Andrea Voss-Frick, believes that the church as a moral authority must renew itself after the many cases of abuse and cover-ups if it is to be perceived as such again. This protest movement demands a new beginning for the Catholic Church, including the complete clarification of all cases of abuse; in addition, absolute gender justice up to the opening of ordained ministries for women. They want women to be allowed to preach instead of just cleaning the candlesticks. They have reached out to priests and bishops, hoping for support, but very few have dared to help them.
Why should this action be of interest to Seventh-day Adventists? As Adventist women we have many similarities with Catholic women. Many women are content to live out their faith according to traditional roles and nobody wants to take anything away from them. But other women see that a church in which women are denied access to leadership roles is missing out on at least half of the gifts God has bestowed upon his people. Thus it is interesting to compare how the Roman Catholic Church and the Seventh-day Adventist Church treat their women.
New Testament Times
The Bible is clear that Jesus had no problem with having women among his followers. Neither can the early church do away with the women among the believers. In fact, Jesus himself gave a woman, Mary of Magdala, the commission to tell the others that he had risen. After the ascension, “they all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14 NIV). The early church gathered together for prayer, and the Holy Spirit came down upon all who were in the room. “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place…. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:1, 3, 4 NIV, emphasis added).
Peter quoted the prophet Joel in the Old Testament, saying, “Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (verse 18). He stressed the fact that it was right for both men and women to preach, as they had all received the special gift of the Holy Spirit and were proclaiming the message in various languages. The idea had not yet come up that women should not be involved in the fledgling church. Now this experience of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all must have confirmed their calling. “All the believers were together and had everything in common… Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2: 44, 46-47 NIV). All the believers were together – men and women! Breaking bread in the homes certainly involved the women, as seen in the house churches Paul later mentions that were led by women such as Lydia and Priscilla.
“After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31 NIV). Here, too, we see that ALL the believers were together and were filled with the Holy Spirit and preached boldly. “And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade” (Acts 5:12 NIV). “More and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (verse 14). The early church was a mixed gender group. The spirit-filled women were preaching as well as the men, and more people joined the church. It is interesting how many times Luke uses the word “all” in writing these first chapters in the history of the church. The apostle Paul also shows his appreciation of his co-workers in the cause in his greetings to the church in Rome, where in Romans 16 he mentions several women by name: Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae; Priscilla; Mary; Junia the apostle; Tryphena and Tryphosa; Persis; the mother of Rufus; Julia; the sister of Nereus.
There are numerous manuscripts that were not included in the Biblical canon which show that women served in leadership roles in the early church. This is also corroborated by artifacts from earliest times, where women are illustrated performing liturgical ceremonies, with hands lifted up in blessing or carrying the censer. Looking at the Catholic Church of our time we get the impression that liturgical authority was always reserved for male clergy, but historical research shows the contrary. Thus, our imagination of the past as a time when only men were apostles and church leaders is turned upside down. The depiction of the submissive Virgin Mary with hands folded and eyes cast down had yet to emerge in the course of the following centuries. The 5th-century image of a woman named Cerula, found in the catacomb of San Gennaro, Naples, in 1971 shows her surrounded by open, flaming Gospel books, which are symbolic of the role of a bishop. This discovery is evidence that women held senior roles in the early Christian church.
Today women in the Catholic Church do not use censers liturgically and it is often taken for granted that Christian women never did, but texts prove the opposite, with women in the early church preaching, teaching, healing, exorcising, and baptizing other people, just as the male apostles did. In fact, Roman and Greek writers of their time indicated that women leaders were in the majority in the Jesus movement. Pliny the Younger interrogated two women whom he called ministrae. The Greek philosopher Celsus listed founders of various Christian groups – and five of the seven were women – Helen, Marcellina, Salome, Mariamne and Martha. Some full narratives depict holy women preaching, teaching, healing, exorcising, and baptizing other people, just as the male apostles did. But things were changing. Redaction analysis shows that later extra-canonical manuscripts deleted and changed the portrayal until mention of these women practically disappeared.
In AD 494, in response to reports that women were serving at the altar in the south of Italy, Pope Gelasius I wrote a letter condemning female participation in the celebration of the Eucharist, arguing that those roles were exclusively reserved for men. At some point thereafter, the pope’s demands for such women to stop their work were obeyed and the memory of these ministering women were suppressed.
Many Church Fathers did not advocate for or permit the ordination of women. Clement of Rome taught that the apostles chose only men to succeed them. The First Council of Nicaea (325 AD) decreed that deaconesses were not ordained ministers because they did not receive the laying on of hands. The Council of Laodicea (363–364 AD) prohibited ordaining women to the presbyterate.
One of the reasons why the Catholic Church persecuted the group of Christians called the Poor of Lyon or Waldenses in the 12th century seems to have been the fact that men and women were both equally active in the proclamation of the Gospel. They challenged the authority of the church as the sole interpreter of Bible truth. 
In the period between the Reformation and the Second Vatican Council, mainstream theologians continued to oppose the priestly ordination of women, appealing to a mixture of scripture, Church tradition and natural law.
Pope Paul VI wrote in 1970: “The Church holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.” However, the Pontifical Biblical Commission studied the matter in 1976, and found nothing in Sacred Scripture that specifically barred women from accession to the priesthood.
On May 22, 1994, John Paul II promulgated Ordinatio sacerdotalis, where he states that the Church cannot confer priestly ordination on women: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
Seven women were ordained by a bishop as Catholic priests on a ship on the Danube in Austria in 2002. From this a world-wide female priest movement has evolved. Currently about 300 women on various continents serve as priests. Since 2002 Roman Catholic Womenpriests has conducted ordination ceremonies for women to become deacons, priests and bishops, saying that these ordinations are valid because the initial ordinations were conferred by a validly ordained Catholic male bishop (Romulo Antonio Braschi, who left the Roman Catholic Church in 1975) and therefore they are in the line of apostolic succession. However, the Catholic Church considers these ordinations to be invalid, and decreed excommunications for those involved in the ceremonies. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued and published on May 29, 2008, a decree signed by Cardinal William Levada, determining that women “priests” and the bishops who attempt to ordain them would incur excommunication latae sententiae.
Survival of the Church
Large numbers of believers leave the Roman Catholic church each year, raising the question of the future of the church. There are organizations and individuals who appeal for equality between men and women in ordination to the priesthood. In 2014, the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland stated that the Catholic Church must ordain women and allow priests to marry in order to survive. In Germany the bishops have set out on a “Synodal Way,” which is intended to make the church more relevant to modern society.
Pope Francis said “that door is closed,” regarding women’s priestly ordination, affirming the teachings of his predecessors. In a November 2016 informal statement he said: “On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the final word is clear. It was given by St. John Paul II and this remains.” Francis added that women are very important to the Church. In contrast to the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood, the ordination of women to the diaconate is being actively discussed by Catholic scholars and theologians, as well as senior clergy. In February 2020, Pope Francis seemed to reject the possibility of ordaining women deacons in the immediate term. However, in April he initiated a new ten-person commission to consider the issue in terms of practice.
Women today exercise many roles in the Church. They run catechetical programs in parishes, provide spiritual direction, serve as lectors and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and teach theology. Since 1994, girls and women are permitted to assist at Mass as altar servers. In August 2020, Pope Francis appointed a historic six women to the Vatican’s Council for the Economy. There are now more women serving as senior Vatican officials than there have ever been. It is part of his ongoing work to reform Vatican finances and find a way forward after a series of scandals. The highest position a woman has ever held in the Vatican is held by Italian lawyer Francesca Di Giovanni as undersecretary for multilateral affairs in the Secretariat of State. Pope Francis has doubled the number of women under-secretaries from two to four during his tenure. These moves are all seen as part of Pope Francis’s larger goals to see more women in positions of leadership in the Roman Catholic Church.
As this article is addressed to Adventists, the reader will be familiar with the development of the role of women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. A short summary can be found in the SDA archives, written by Alberto R. Timm, which I have used as a source. It is interesting to see how similar the approach of the Adventist church has been to what has been shown here from the history of the Catholic church.
Between 1878 and 1915 there were, in addition to Ellen White, 30 other Adventist women licensed to preach. Many women held positions of leadership in departments. J. N. Loughborough regularly ordained female elders and deacons. In the 1890s, while in Australia and New Zealand, W. C. White also ordained female deacons. From the early 1870s onward the leadership of the church granted Ellen White ministerial credentials, some of which retained the expression “ordained minister.” After Ellen White‘s death women were slowly ousted from leadership positions. This regression was reinforced by policies that linked leadership responsibilities to ordination.
At the 1881 General Conference Session, the following resolution was considered: “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.” This was discussed by J. O. Corliss, A. C. Bourdeau, E. R. Jones, D. H. Lamson, W. H. Littlejohn, A. S. Hutchins, D. M. Canright, and J. N. Loughborough, and referred to the General Conference Committee. Then the proposal was not heard of again.
Ellen White did not directly address the issue of women’s ordination, except perhaps in the following paragraph from her article “The Duty of the Minister and the People,” published in the Review of July 9, 1895: “Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time to the service of the Lord should be appointed to visit the sick, look after the young, and minister to the necessities of the poor. They should be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of hands.”
Study of Women’s Ordination
In 1968 the Northern European Division forwarded a request from the Finland Union to ordain women to the gospel ministry; but that request was not followed up. After the Council on the Role of Women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Camp Mohaven, Ohio, in 1973, the 1974 Annual Council voted (1) to reaffirm the emphasis on the priesthood of all believers for the rapid completion of the gospel commission; and (2) to deny the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. It was argued that the world church was not yet ready for ordaining women. A continuing study of the theological and practical implications of the ordination of women to the gospel ministry was started. By the early 1980s significant Adventist studies on the role of women and the theology of ordination had already been done but no final decision was made on women’s ordination, leaving the issue open to further discussions. The 1984 General Conference Annual Council allowed each division to decide whether to elect and ordain women as local church elders within its own territory.
Meanwhile, several independent ministries advocated for women’s ordination: the Association of Adventist Women (AAW), the Adventist Women’s Institute (AWI), and the Time for Equality in Adventist Ministry (TEAM). Those opposing women’s ordination were also active. In 1987 the independent Adventists Affirm ministry came into existence.
The Commission on the Role of Women in the Church in Cohutta Springs, Georgia, July 12-18, 1989, developed the “Presidents’ Document,” concluding that (1) “a decision to ordain women as pastors would not be welcomed or meet with approval in most of the world church”; and (2) “the provisions of the Church Manual and the General Conference Working Policy which allow only for ordination to the gospel ministry on a world-wide (universal) basis have strong support by the divisions.” For these reasons the General Conference session in 1990 in Indianapolis voted not to ordain women.
The North American Division decided to request special permission from the worldwide church to ordain women for its own territory. Consequently, the 1994 Annual Council referred that request to the 1995 General Conference Session in Utrecht where it was rejected. In 1995, after the disappointment of the General Conference session, some local churches ordained female pastors to the gospel ministry but the worldwide church did not recognize such local church ordinations.
During Annual Council 2010 it was announced that there would be a Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) under the leadership of the Biblical Research Institute, including all 13 Divisions. The Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC 2012-2014) was not able to agree on what the Bible says about women’s ordination. There has not been a vote to deny or approve women’s ordination based on scriptural reasons.
The attempt by the North American Division (NAD) in 2010 to add the word commissioned to the prerequisites for a conference/mission president in the Working Policy backfired because the NAD president had to rescind the action, as the Division is part of the General Conference and has to be in harmony with the General Conference Working Policy.
In addition to voting not to ordain women to the gospel ministry, the 1990 General Conference session made a few significant changes in the Church Manual, opening the way for commissioned or licensed ministers to perform some functions allowed up to then only for ordained ministers. Another significant change in the Church Manual opened the door for deaconesses to be ordained. Although these policies are not practiced in all regions of the world, the Church has remained a single, worldwide organization. It has been shown that differences in opinion and practice on this issue do not constitute disunity in Christ nor in the Adventist Church.
In 2012, the North German Union Conference, Columbia Union Conference and Pacific Union Conference voted in their constituency meetings to authorize ordination to the gospel ministry without regard to gender. The General Conference strongly opposed these actions in a statement at the 2012 Annual Council. In spite of that the Columbia Union Conference and Pacific Union Conference ordained female pastors. The Southeastern California Conference elected Sandra E. Roberts as president of that conference on October 27, 2013, and she has since been re-elected. The General Conference ignores this, and the position is shown as vacant in the Yearbook.
Currently the General Conference has three female department directors for the following departments: Women’s Ministries, Education and Children’s Ministries. The highest position a woman has ever been elected to is general Vice-President of the GC, with Dr. Ella Simmons holding the office since 2005.
The vote taken at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio did not address the scriptural basis or theological merits (or lack thereof) of women’s ordination. The specific question asked was: “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? Yes or no.” The delegates voted with “no” by a margin of 1,381-977.
Warning and Reprimand
General Conference leaders created a system to deal with those entities that are considered “out of compliance,” and delegates to the 2018 Annual Council approved the “compliance document.” The General Conference Executive Committee voted warnings for six union conferences on October 15, 2019, because they ”have taken actions that are not in harmony with Working Policy and practices on credentials” or “actions that are not in harmony with voted actions of the General Conference Session and the General Conference Executive Committee, placing them in persistent non-compliance.”
When threatened with disciplinary actions, some European Unions tried to find a way to comply with the General Conference policies and remain true to their conviction of gender equality. They stopped ordaining and began commissioning all pastors, giving them the same credentials as commissioned ministers. The GC leadership still threatened them with warning and public shaming, considering them non-compliant. When the question at the 2019 Annual Council was asked as to where the Working Policy stipulates mandatory ordination for male pastors, the General Conference president answered, “This is our historical understanding: The ministry has been built upon ordained ministers. It may not specifically say that ministers must be ordained. It certainly is implied.” It is implied. According to the president, that is how it has always been done. And so Adventist tradition became the basis for disciplinary actions. It would be good for him to look back to the beginning of our church and see that this was not always our understanding. In the early years women were encouraged to use their spiritual gifts in the proclamation of the gospel. In the Catholic Church doctrine and tradition are both important elements. The Adventist church has in recent years been moving toward elevating policy to an equal level with doctrine, and now tradition also enters the picture. General Conference leadership is also moving more and more toward a hierarchical approach, where the president imposes his will on other leaders. This reminds us of the similarities between the two churches compared here.
Although Pope John Paul II wrote that “the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them,” women feel discriminated against. Pope Francis may say that women are very important to the Church but how does the Church show that? Unequal treatment of men and women hurts, be it in the Catholic or Adventist church. There are differences but also many similarities. Our Catholic sisters in Germany have not given up their struggle for justice, and neither will Adventist women be reduced to inaction.
I have often thought about what would happen if Adventist women were to join a church strike and leave their offices and honorary posts vacant as in the short story mentioned at the beginning or like the Catholic women of the Maria 2.0 initiative.
It is not that the tasks usually done by women cannot be done by men. But conversely, women could take on many of the tasks traditionally held by men. A church should see itself as a unity in which all see themselves as children of God. If women did not volunteer as nurses, accountants, secretaries, home educators, authors, teachers, Bible study leaders, children’s Sabbath school leaders and musicians, how long would the church continue to exist as we know it today?
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NIV). God needs you, whether you are a man or a woman. Only together can the work succeed. This is not about a power struggle, but about a successful coexistence. But it cannot be done without the participation of women in the Church, which often brings a new perspective and different approach.
Ellen White wrote: “When a great and decisive work is to be done, God chooses men and women to do this work, and it will see the loss if the talents of both are not combined.” —Evangelism, 469
Just as the women of the early church are being rediscovered, many Adventist women are being rediscovered who have made a significant contribution to the history of the Adventist church. The list of these women is long, and the history of our church would have been very different without their ministry. It’s a mistake to ignore history and hinder women today from fully exercising their God-given vocation. And yet women today cannot be dissuaded from doing their service with love, dedication and distinction, whether it is recognized or not.
Time to act
The Church has been studying the question of ordination now for too long without doing anything about it. So what should we do? It might be time to look at it from a completely new perspective. Ordination such as it is practiced in our church is a relic of the Catholic sacraments, dividing clergy from laics. The laying on of hands is a Biblical concept, but nowhere does the Bible call it ordination. As the concept of commissioning seems to be something all can agree with, why not just use that word for all laying on of hands? All could work together in ministering and proclaiming the gospel without arguing about ordination. It would be so easy to solve the problem. The root of the problem is not ordaining women but who has power in the church. And as long as people are striving for power instead of love and respect towards all in Christ we are far from being the church God wants us to be. The distance between having power and abusing power is very short, and great strength of character is needed for those in power to avoid the abuse. The General Conference is becoming irrelevant for many church members. Why should we care about what positions they are defending? In order for the church to survive it needs to become relevant for the modern world.
The psalmist wrote, “The Lord announces the word, and the women who proclaim it are a mighty throng” (Psalm 68:11 NIV). This is, I think, very clear and this text has always been in the Bible in this feminine form. Let the church support and respect women so they can fulfill their mission and use the gifts God has given them. Let the mighty throng move forward!
- Lucy Maud Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables Stories: 12 Books, 142 Short Stories, … Chronicles and More (English Kindle Edition) . ↑
- Capital letters inserted by me ↑
- Mary and Early Christian Women : Hidden Leadership by Kateusz, Ally (Kindle) ↑
- Gabriel Audisio: Die Waldenser, Weltbild Verlag 2001 ↑
- https://www.adventistarchives.org/seventh-day-adventists-on-womens-ordination-a-brief-historical-overview.pdf ↑
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordination_of_women_and_the_Catholic_Church ↑
Hannele Ottschofski writes from Hechingen, Germany.