By Gary Patterson  |  29 February 2020  |

In preparation for the upcoming General Conference (GC) Session it is important that we have the facts straight.

Fact #1 – Ordination is not a biblical issue.

Fact #2 – The Ordination of Women to ministry is not now and never has been forbidden by Seventh-day Adventist doctrine or Church Policy.

Fact #3 – No one has violated the 2015 General Conference Session vote on ordination.

Fact #4 – The foolish word game being played about ordination and commissioned ministerial credentials is dishonest, and an embarrassment to the church.

Fact #5 – Union Conference Presidents, by definition, are to act in compliance with the vote of their constituency, and not the dictates of the General Conference administration.

Fact #6 – Actions by the General Conference to impose discrimination against women regarding ordination to ministry are non-compliant with both Fundamental Belief #14 and GC Policy #BA 60 05 and 10.

Fact #7 – Male headship is neither an Seventh-day Adventist doctrine nor a Fundamental Belief.

Given the heat and passion, as well as the bias, prejudice, misinformation and confusion that have accompanied the discussion of ordination and compliance in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for decades, it is incumbent on the continuation of the discussion to address the facts of the issue if it is to be pursued honestly. Part of the problem may be that misinformation on the subject has been passed on by some without knowing the actual facts. However, much more serious is the intentional spread of misinformation in an attempt to manipulate the discussion in order to reach a given end. If we are to proceed with this discussion to an honest and valid and conclusion, we need to address the facts as they are.

Fact #1 – Ordination is not a biblical issue.

Strange as this may seem – given both the time and intensity with which the Seventh-day Adventist church has addressed the matter in recent decades – the ordination of ministers is simply not a biblical issue.  Demonstrating this assertion is the fact that the word “ordain” is a loan word to the English language, derived from Latin. This being the case, it obviously does not occur in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages, which constitute the original languages of the Bible.

Granted, the words “ordain” and “ordained” do occur in English translations. But its usage in sacerdotal contexts does not occur until hundreds of years after the New Testament Church, under the influence of Latin used by the Church of Rome. And in addition, the words ordain and ordained which are found in English translations have multiple usages and definitions. For example, the King James Version (KJV), as listed in Youngs Analytical Concordance, uses these two words 35 times with various meanings such as appoint, set in order, establish, arrange, make ready, mark off, prepare, etc. In addition, these 35 uses are derived from 23 different original Greek and Hebrew words, none of which, obviously, are from Latin.

In general, these various words are used in the context of initiating something, or assigning someone to a position or responsibility, not the sacerdotal implications arising in the church of the Middle Ages. Rather than listing all 35 of these uses in the KJV, the following 12 will provide examples of the variety of issues, things and people “ordained” by the use of the word:

  • Burnt Offerings – Numbers 28:6
  • Feasts – I Kings 12:32
  • 212 Tabernacle Attendants – I Chronicles 9:22
  • A Place for Israel – I Chronicles 17:9
  • Musical Instruments – II Chronicles 29:27
  • Peace – Isaiah 26:12
  • Moon and Stars – Psalm 8:2
  • A Prophet – Psalm 81:5
  • Disciples to Preach – Mark 3:14
  • Gentile Believers – Acts 13:48
  • Elders in Every Church – Acts 14:23
  • Decrees of the Elders – Acts 16:4
  • Ungodly Men – Jude 4

As this sample demonstrates, the multiple use of the term “ordain” in English translations – with its various meanings and applications – plus the lack of the Latin word as the basis of any of them, eliminates scripture as providing information regarding the meaning of ministerial ordination in the church today. And attempting to use scripture to do so demonstrates dishonest hermeneutics and misrepresentation of scripture. It simply is not there.

While the church may address the ordination of clergy issue if it chooses to do so, it should be done in the context from which the matter originated, the church of the Middle Ages. The notion of the Roman Church that the clergy possessed a superior power belonging to the ordained is the actual origin of the issue, not scripture. Such a notion was rejected by the early Adventist leaders, including Ellen White, who stated, “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.” (AA 162)

Ordination in the early days of the Adventist Church took place in the context of authorization for ministry by the institution, not sacerdotal superiority. The need for such authorization and protection of the church became apparent in the lack of church leaders and preachers as observed by Ellen White:  “Men of but small experience who have but little influence, can get up commonplace sermons…. There is nothing in the words, or arrangement of ideas, that melts and burns its way into the heart…. They make bad work.” (R&H January 5, 1869)

Again, 23 years later in 1892 she observes: “There are but a few preachers among us. And because the cause of God seemed to need help so much, some have been led to think that almost anyone claiming to be a minister would be acceptable. Some have thought that because persons could pray and exhort with a degree of freedom in meetings, they were qualified to go forth as laborers.” (Gospel Workers, p142)

Church meetings were apparently somewhat disorderly, with all who so desired feeling that they had a right to speak whenever they wished. As J. N. Loughborough observed: “In our assemblies in those early times when no restraint was upon anyone – when one had just as much right to occupy the time in our public meetings as another – we were greatly annoyed by turbulent spirited men.” (R&H July 9, 1901)

It was in this context of authorization to protect the church from discord that ordination was pursued and that ministerial credentials were provided, first by the local conference, and following the establishment of unions in 1901, that authorization was transferred to the unions where it has remained to this day.

Fact #2 – The Ordination of Women to ministry is not now and never has been forbidden by Seventh-day Adventist doctrine or church policy.

Ordination authority is clearly defined in General Conference policy. Regarding the approval of persons designated for ordination, policy B 05 states, “decisions regarding the ordination of ministers are entrusted to the union conference….” After having established this authority it goes on to say, “each level of organization exercises a realm of final authority and responsibility….” Thus, in the selection and authorization of such individuals, the General Conference has no authority over the union decisions, so long as these decisions are in harmony with the criteria established for ordination by General Conference policy.

There are fifteen such criteria listed in policy L 50, none of which refer to gender. If, therefore, any individual approved by the union meets these criteria, the General Conference authority has been satisfied. Given that there is no gender reference in these fifteen requirements, the union is acting within its authority to approve ordination as stated in policy B 05.

Policy exercises the ultimate governance over practice. But in the case of gender issues in ordination, there is no policy. However, over a century of practice has created the perception that there is policy on this matter, and one hundred years of practice certainly does establish precedent. But it remains that policy is the issue in ordination, not practice, precedent or perception.

Since ordination is, by General Conference policy, the purview of the union level of governance, the General Conference has overstepped its bounds in seeking to tell the unions that they may or may not ordain women to the gospel ministry. It is not within the authority of the General Conference to take such action, just the same as action regarding individual membership, the election of personnel for church offices, or the employment of pastors, is not in the purview of the General Conference. These actions belong to the constituent entities to which they are assigned by policy and may not be determined or overruled by other levels of the church structure.

An example of this overreach occurred in an action of the Spring Meeting of the GC Executive Committee, granting permission for churches to ordain women to the position of local church elder. Given that there is no existing action prohibiting such election or ordination of elders, or any other church office on the basis of gender, therefore, there was no cause for granting such permission from the General Conference. Church officer election is under the authority of the local church constituency and by policy, other entities are not allowed to interfere in this process.

The General, union, or local conference may not, for example, tell the local church whether it can elect a woman as treasurer or clerk of the church. Likewise, they also have no authority either to deny or give permission for women to be elected and ordained as elders. They may give advice and make suggestions on such matters, but it is not in their purview to dictate who may or may not be elected. With no action forbidding such gender choices, the church does not need permission to do as it sees fit.

Early in Adventist history, the General Conference took the following action:

  1. RESOLVED, That all candidates for license and ordination should be examined with reference to their intellectual and spiritual fitness for the successful discharge of the duties which will devolve upon them as licentiates and ordained ministers.
  2. RESOLVED, That females possessing the necessary qualifications to fill that position, may, with perfect propriety, be set apart by ordination to the work of Christian ministry.” (RH December 20, 1881).

The first resolution was put into practice, but the second apparently was not, though no action rescinding or refuting it was made. However, in 1895, Ellen White seems to attempt a re-start of this action, saying, “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.” (RH July 9, 1895) Again in 1901 she states, “It is the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God.” (RH January 15, 1901)

While it is often argued and misrepresented that the actions of the General Conference Sessions of 1990 and 1995 forbid the ordination of women, they do not. Both the motions in 1990 and 1995 were to authorize such ordination, and when they did not pass, they simply went away. The failure of a motion to authorize ordination does not create the opposite result of forbidding it. Rather it remains as it was before with no action.

Fact #3 – No one has violated the 2015 GC Session vote on ordination.

The result of the motion regarding ordination at the 2015 GC session has been misrepresented by many, including General Conference leadership. The vote was whether or not to allow divisions to choose to authorize the ordination of women in their own territory. And following the failure of this authorization, it has been widely spread and perceived that the action forbids such ordination. It does not. Following the failure of this authorization, the General Conference President stated that nothing had changed. Things remain as before.

Furthermore, the contention that this 2015 action has been violated is false. No division has authorized the ordination of women. Given that authorization for who is to be ordained is, by policy, given to unions, the motion at the 2015 GC Session to give this authorization to divisions, was itself out of compliance with existing policy. It is unfortunate enough that these actions are misunderstood. But far more serious is their intentional misrepresentation.

If the General Conference wishes to address the issue of gender in ordination to ministry, it may do so by changing its existing policy to a straightforward requirement that ordination to ministry is male gender exclusive, thus forbidding the ordination of females. There is no such policy presently in existence, nor has there ever been in the history of the church. Practice, precedent, perception and even prejudice do not constitute a policy. Only straightforward, clearly articulated policy statements govern the issue of gender inclusive ordination.

Fact #4 – The foolish word game being played between ordination and commissioned ministerial credentials is dishonest, and an embarrassment to the church.

The authorization to ordain women as elders, deacons/deaconess, while refusing to ordain women as ministers, is totally without biblical support. To make a distinction between these different ordained positions is arbitrary and non-biblical. Women in ministry since 1881 were given a ministerial license, but were not ordained, a practice that continued for over 100 years, until it was revoked in 1975.

Strange as it may seem, this change involved a conflict with the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) during the 1960’s, which places clergy in the “self-employed” category, thus freeing the church from paying a share of their Social Security and Medicare taxes and requiring the minister to pay these taxes on their own. It was the contention of the IRS that unless ministers were performing all the same ministerial functions, those who were not authorized to do so – precisely the non-ordained – were considered to be employees of the denomination instead of self-employed. This struggle with the IRS continued for years, until it became clear that the church would owe possibly millions of dollars in back taxes and experience seizures of property for violating these requirements. The issue with the IRS was about duties and functions, not titles.

It was in this setting that it was decided to grant the functions of ministry, such as performing baptisms, marriage ceremonies, etc., to non-ordained ministers, both male and female. This, however, complicated matters regarding which credentials and titles were to be granted to ministers. Thus, it was decided to create a new credential called the Commissioned Minister to be given to women in ministry. It was voted to grant the functions of an Ordained Minister to the Commissioned Minister, thus making peace with the IRS and preserving the prejudicial restrictions on ordination. Such a tawdry history of these credentials demeans the entire ordination process.

Fact #5 – Union Presidents are required to act in compliance with the Union Constitution and the vote of their constituency and executive committee, not the dictates of GC administration.

At the 2019 Annual Council of the GC Executive Committee, action was taken to warn the Presidents of the Columbia and Pacific union conferences that their unions were being accused of non-compliance in regard to the 2015 vote of the General Conference Session regarding permission for divisions to allow ordination of women. Even though this accusation is demonstrated to be false in Fact #3 above, yet further, this charge is out of order, given that Union Presidents are responsible to the Union Constituency, that they do not serve the General Conference leadership. In order to understand the responsibility of Union Presidents, it is important to know how the structure of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination functions and from whence its institutional authority is derived.

There are four principal documents governing the church, and four constituent groups in its structure. The four documents are the Fundamental Beliefs, the Constitution and Bylaws, the Church Manual and the General Conference Working Policy. The four constituent groups are the local church, the local conference, the union conference and the General Conference. Divisions are not constituent organizations, but rather are segments of the General Conference, providing leadership and direction in defined geographic territories.

The Fundamental Beliefs, the Constitution and Bylaws, and the Church Manual are determined and modified by vote of the General Conference in session. The General Conference Working Policy is determined and modified by vote of the Annual Council of the General Conference Executive Committee.

The four constituent groups have authority over specific functions of the church that belong only to them and may not be taken or countered by the other constituent groups. The local church is the only constituent group which can take action regarding membership issues, church officer election, appointment and ordination of elders, deacons/deaconesses, local church budgets and finance and other such local church functions. The local conference is the only constituent level that can take action regarding the sisterhood of churches, its employees, institutions and finance.

It also votes to recommend individuals for ordination to the gospel ministry, passing this recommendation on to the union conference. But it does not have the power to authorize such ordination. This authority rests with the Union. As an exception to this ordination authority, the division and the General Conference may authorize ordination of their own employees, but they have no authority over those voted for ordination by the union.

Ordination is, by General Conference policy, the purview of union governance. This being the case, the General Conference has overstepped its bounds in seeking to tell the unions that they may or may not ordain women to the gospel ministry, given that action or policy prohibiting it exists. It is not within the authority of the General Conference to take such action, just the same as with actions regarding individual membership, the election of personnel for church offices, or employees of the local conference, and the sisterhood of churches. Such issues are not in the purview of the General Conference.

These actions belong to the constituent body to which they are assigned by policy and may not be either determined or overruled by other groups in the church structure. As stated in policy B 5 above, “each level of organization exercises a realm of final authority and responsibility….” in the matters assigned to them by policy. Thus, the attempt to force presidents to act out of compliance with the vote of their constituency regarding the ordination of women – which by the way are actually consistent with policy – violates the basic structure of the church in an attempt to make it a top-down organization. It is not a top-down organization. It is made up of four distinct constituent groups, and those who work for and in these groups are responsible to act in compliance with the will and action of those groups.

Fact #6 – Actions by the General Conference to impose discrimination against women regarding ordination to ministry is non-compliant with both Fundamental Belief #14 and GC Policy #BA 60 05 and 10.

Fundamental Belief #14, addressing discrimination, is titled “Unity in the Body of Christ” and it reads as follows: “The church is one body with many members, called from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation. Through the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures we share the same faith and hope, and reach out in one witness to all. This unity has its source in the oneness of the triune God, who has adopted us as His children.”

It seems strange that anyone could profess to believe and support this clear statement of equality and at the same time maintain that women may not be ordained to ministry. One can only imagine the protest and uproar that would ensue if any of the other groups mentioned in this statement were excluded from ordination based on race, culture or nationality. And the same uproar should be expected over the exclusion of women.

But if this appears to be strong condemnation of such action, consider the stringent statement of policy #B 60 05 and 10:  “The church rejects any system or philosophy which discriminates against anyone on the basis of race, color, or gender. The Church bases its positions on principles clearly enunciated in the Bible, the writings of Ellen G White, and the official pronouncements of the General Conference.”

Not only does this policy clearly state the rejection of discrimination, but it is represented as being supported by both scripture and Ellen White, leaving little room for argument. This strong position is continued in the following section, BA 60 10 which states: “The world Church supports nondiscrimination in employment practices and policies and upholds the principle that both men and women, without regard to race and color, shall be given full and equal opportunity within the Church to develop the knowledge and skills needed for the building up of the Church.”

Thus far, the policy holds together. But the next sentence undermines and contradicts the position that has been clearly made, and authoritatively supported. It states, “Positions of service and responsibility (except those requiring ordination to the gospel ministry*) on all levels of church activity shall be open to all on the basis of the individual’s qualifications.”

This statement has been represented by some as prohibiting the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. However, it is not a policy forbidding ordination. Rather it is a policy granting permission to exercise discrimination against certain classes of people. It is significant to note that the policy does not state who might fall into this category. It has been clearly stated in the policy that “race, color, or gender” are the issues being addressed, but it does not say which of these categories might be affected by this discrimination. Therefore, it could conceivably be equally applied to any of the three categories, wherever such discrimination is being practiced.

The underlying premise of the policy is one of granting permission to discriminate. Thus, the onus is on those who seek to discriminate in their territory, not on those who do not, leaving them to proceed in harmony with the policy as it reads: “The world Church supports nondiscrimination in employment practices and policies and upholds the principle that both men and women, without regard to race and color, shall be given full and equal opportunity within the Church to develop the knowledge and skills needed for the building up of the Church.”

Furthermore, the part of the policy allowing for discrimination is undermined by the establishment of Commissioned Ministerial credentials, which makes void the contention that ordination is “required” in order to perform gospel ministry. Having sold out to IRS pressure, as demonstrated in Fact #4, this excuse for discrimination against the ordination of women falls into the category of the silly word game of distinction between ordination and commissioning. If indeed the functions of ministry are granted to, and performed by, both ordained and commissioned ministers, then the notion of a position “requiring ordination to the gospel ministry” is destroyed, as this distinction no longer exists. As the ancient saying goes, “What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

Fact # 7 – Male headship is neither an Seventh-day Adventist doctrine nor a Fundamental Belief.

To hold a position that women cannot have authority over men is incomprehensible in a church which has a woman as one if its primary founders, and looks to her as a major authority. The twisted mental and theological gymnastics required to maintain such a tortured and contradictory dichotomy are at best puzzling, if not downright intellectually dishonest, demonstrating a failed hermeneutical process designed to perpetuate prejudice, rather than to discover the truth. Truth is derived not by moving from specific texts to rigid positions. Rather, truth is found by moving from the overall direction of scripture to the interpretation of specifics.

In addressing the issue of male headship, it is good to start at the beginning – the creation narrative. The foundation point of the male headship notion is built on creation order with the idea that Adam was created before Eve. Therefore, he has primacy and superiority over her. However, this notion is fraught with difficulty, the first being that on creation day six, the animals were created first before mankind, and out of the same material – the dust of the earth. Thus, Adam is not the first created on that day, but second – or even further down the line, depending on how many animals are counted.

It also might be posited that the last being created was the crowning act of creation, after which God rested from his creative activity, having reached its peak. And, of course, that would be Eve, not Adam who was created neither first nor last on that day. Such speculation is irrelevant, however, given that the creation narrative gives no credence to either line of reasoning, but says that God created both Adam and Eve in his own image, neither being superior to the other.

In expounding on this creation narrative, Ellen White clearly states that Adam and Eve were equal in all ways: “Among all the creatures that God had made on the earth, there was not one equal to man. And God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.’ Man was not made to dwell in solitude; he was to be a social being. Without companionship the beautiful scenes and delightful employments of Eden would have failed to yield perfect happiness. Even communion with angels could not have satisfied his desire for sympathy and companionship. There was none of the same nature to love and to be loved.

“God Himself gave Adam a companion. He provided ‘an help meet for him’–a helper corresponding to him–one who was fitted to be his companion, and who could be one with him in love and sympathy. Eve was created from a rib taken from the side of Adam, signifying that she was not to control him as the head, nor to be trampled under his feet as an inferior, but to stand by his side as an equal, to be loved and protected by him. A part of man, bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh, she was his second self, showing the close union and the affectionate attachment that should exist in this relation.” (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp 45 & 46)

There is no room for a headship role here, for either Adam or Eve. Neither is to be the head or under the feet of the other. Neither is superior or inferior to the other. They are to stand side by side as equals.

It is obvious that scripture was written in an era of male dominance, and its language and behavior reflect that dominance. But before we take a given biblical behavior as an indication of how life is to be lived, it would be wise to learn from the adage, “Be careful what you wish for,” as male headship has a host of strange and tawdry behavior bedfellows which we would be loath to endorse.

For starters, consider slavery. Indeed, it was practiced throughout biblical history and is acknowledged in no less a document than the 4th and 10th commandments, which refer to manservants and maidservants. Furthermore, Exodus 21, following the ten commandments, gives extensive rules for the ownership and treatment of slaves/servants. And as difficult as this behavior is for us to accept today, the New Testament does not help us out much with Paul telling slaves to obey their masters (Col 3:22) and approving of the slavery, which is the subject of the letter to Philemon.

Then consider polygamy, a practice engaged in by no less than the Patriarch Abraham (Genesis 16:1-4). And for tawdry family relationships, observe the multiple mother figures in the genealogy of the sons of Israel. Or consider Solomon who is reputed to have had 300 wives and 700 concubines, as if this demonstrated his greatness. And once again, the New Testament does not help out as much as we would like. Although the practice of polygamy appears to have lessened by this time, Paul tacitly recognizes its existence in his direction that elders and deacons should be “the husband of one wife” which assumes that such a requirement does not apply to others in the church.

But before we get too rigid and judgmental on this issue, remember that polygamy, which is illegal in the United States, is still practiced by some religious bodies, and it is regularly practiced in some parts of the world. The complication of this situation has caused the Adventist church in Africa to make exception for converts to maintain support and connection for such families, in order to avoid turning wives and children out into poverty and disrepute. Yet all this does not dismiss the repugnance of the practice.

For sheer corrupt behavior, little compares to the story of Judah and Tamar, including prostitution, deception, failure to provide for posterity, and requiring even a child to sire offspring with the widow of an older brother when he reaches the age to be able to do so, all in the name of continuing the genealogical line (Genesis 38). And the point of the story is not the condemnation of deceit or prostitution, paid for by a goat, but rather the failure of Judah to force the marriage of a woman to his young grandson. These all are totally unacceptable in today’s morality. However, they are clearly biblical recorded behavior, which are assumed to be acceptable among the patriarchs.

A most repugnant tale of male dominance is the story of Lot’s offering his two daughters to the crazed mob outside his door (Genesis 19:40), and his drunken incestuous actions designed to preserve the inheritance line after leaving Sodom (Genesis 20:30-36). Such behavior is not only disapproved today, but deemed illegal with major punishment. And the list of unacceptable behavior goes on.

Consider genocide at the instruction of the Lord. “The Lord said to me, ‘See, I have begun to deliver Sihon and his country over to you. Now begin to conquer and possess his land.’ When Sihon and all his army came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz, the Lord our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army. At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them — men, women and children. We left no survivors. But the livestock and the plunder from the towns we had captured we carried off for ourselves.” (Deuteronomy 2:31-35; also see 20:10-15)

Consider segregation and tribalism (Numbers 26:7-9). Consider, retribution and execution – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – (Exodus 21 to 23). Consider gender discrimination in the exclusion from the priesthood of all women, let alone the tribalism which makes it open to only the Levites (Numbers 3:5-10). Consider execution for various violations, including adultery and Sabbath breaking (Exodus 35:1-3 and Leviticus 20:10).

And the list could go on. Thus, it is clear that merely because a given behavior is practiced in scripture, even with apparent approval at specific times, it is far from a validation of that behavior as a model for a doctrine or policy of the church today. Such practices that are not only accepted, but actually advocated in biblical times, are not necessarily models for our behavior. And male headship is one of them, along with this list of strange bedfellows.

Male headship is neither a Seventh-day Adventist doctrine nor a Fundamental Belief. However, gender equality is both a Fundamental Belief and a General Conference Policy. It is a basic principle of Christian living. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).

Dr. Gary Patterson served as a General Conference field secretary, assistant to the president of the North American Division, a conference president in more than one local conference and a pastor of several large churches during his long career as an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. As a member of the GC Executive Committee for many years, he had direct involvement in the development of policy and first-hand knowledge of the discussions.

To comment, click/tap here.