19 January 2023 |
In our family album there’s a picture of the groundbreaking ceremony for my childhood church. I’m three years old in that photograph, dressed in a navy 1960s swing coat, with a prim hat and curled hair. My grandfather is holding the shovel while I, the youngest member of our congregation, press the blade into the earth with my patent leather Mary Janes. Our pastor and the visiting conference president look on with approving smiles.
Family lore holds that I was upset when the picture-taking ended and the shovel set aside. I had thought we were going to dig the entire foundation that afternoon. I was disappointed to learn my role was only ceremonial.
In a recent essay in Adventist Today, Jim Walters examines the tension between Ellen White’s humble beginnings and the inerrant prophetic role she has come to hold in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It’s an important topic, and although the debate about her authority existed even at the start of her ministry, fear of rocking our foundation still hinders meaningful discussion.
Walters highlights White’s humanity, and takes a novel approach by comparing the canonization of Mother Mary in the Catholic faith with the mantle of authority laid on Ellen White in Adventism. He offers that perhaps we can embrace Ellen White as a useful icon—that her special status might be a place to connect with new believers in the world church who, accustomed to a different type of authority, long for a mystical voice in Adventism.
Unanswered in this proposal is whether the canonization of Mary or Ellen, or the elevation of any church leader, is God’s will “done on earth as it is in heaven.”
A symbol of belonging
As a little girl, I was pleased that the founders of my church included a woman. Except for her slightly scandalous cameo choker, she reminded me of the religiously astute women in my family, where discussions about God and faith were frequent and valued. The grandfather who steadied the shovel at the groundbreaking told us that although we were young, this was “our church.” Our church would become what we invested in it. We could work to help it become more like Jesus, more responsive to the needs of God’s world.
In that vein, Ellen White became a symbol of belonging and service. Other churches may have been founded by men, but because Ellen White was among the prominent voices of the Advent movement, Clayton Curtis’s granddaughters had as great a stake and claim to this faith as his grandsons.
Years of seeing White’s words weaponized to rebuke and control gradually changed my view of her. In between those who embrace White as authoritative and verbally inspired, and those who reject her outright, stands a host of Adventists like myself who place her in a gray area. We try to shrug off what’s unkind or unhelpful, while still valuing aspects of her ministry. We value the reinstatement of the Sabbath connection with our Creator, the health focus that respects human bodies, her rejection of ever-burning hellfire, and the reminder that the second coming is as soon as our last breath, or God’s perfectly timed decision to return.
But for most of us, an honest conversation about White’s ministry and the nature of leadership in our church may be more helpful than suggesting we try to see her in a hallowed position.
I found how complex the conversation could be when I began church school. I was told that yes, Ellen White was a woman entrusted with the gift of prophecy, but it was only because two men had refused it first. Her gift was qualified: she was a woman chosen to shame cowardly men. She was a one-off—a condescension.
Thus, her potential as a model of female leadership in the church was rendered only ceremonial as well. As a phenomenon, it attached unique authority to her ministry. As her work was canonized into our standards of belief, we lost the young Ellen White enthusiastic for the return of Jesus, restored from her labors by Sabbath rest—a human Ellen inspired to search scripture and discard mere “traditions of men” for gospel truth.
A “gift of prophecy” proved by exceptional and phenomenal incidents widened the gap. In sermons and Sabbath school, less time was spent weighing her work than in elevating it and proving its authority. Accounts of her frail person holding heavy Bibles aloft, breath suspended, replaced the prophetic test of whether her teachings harmonized with the gospel. Sermons and Sabbath afternoon debates cited her polished writing despite her meager schooling as further proof.
Surely, this is evidence of the Lord’s special favor, we were told. Ellen White’s prophetic gift was an Adventist exclusive. She wasn’t just a prophetic voice among others. She was the mark proving we were The Remnant.
Both Millerite sons and daughters sought meaning after the Great Disappointment. Unified in aim, if not in approach, they felt uniquely poised to embody the real atmospheric conditions of the latter rain—specifically, Joel’s prophecy that the power of the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all ages, both males and females.
Their failure became the dichotomy of my lifetime in Adventism. Even as the church of my childhood prayed for the latter rain, the General Conference sessions of my adulthood voted to shut down the very channel of the latter rain’s outpouring. By limiting the ministerial role of women—by defining Ellen White’s ministry as unique, exceptional and ceremonial—we voted to block the latter-rain dreams and visions of women, young and old.
The cost of Ellen’s pedestal
Whatever nebulous worth a saintly Ellen White might provide as a handhold for those seeking saints, placing her on that pedestal has cost us more.
How many controversies surrounding her ministry might have been avoided had we not allowed her identity to be misrepresented and embellished? We might have better addressed the complications of mirrored and borrowed text and ideas in her writing. (We might have avoided it altogether if it had not been so important to cement her image as unique and special that some chose to heavily edit and process her words in the first place.)
Removed from the pedestal, her reluctant vegetarianism, her arguments with opponents and enemies, and her struggles with marriage and parenting might have been useful models of spiritual growth and conflict resolution. Instead, the revelation that God calls people of all abilities and identities has been diminished by editing her reality. Without her elevation to a unique status, full participation in the body of Christ, equal opportunities, might have been the norm.
Which brings us to the heart of the bad news about pedestals: they clash with all Jesus taught, and (more importantly) modeled, about leadership. Leaders are not elevated in the kingdom, but become servants instead. They touch outcasts, mingle with sinners, cast over the tables of oppressors, visit prisoners, heal the sick, cook and bless meals for the hungry, and wash the feet of their followers.
They do not lord their authority over others. They resist violent responses and turn the cheek in a pacifist response to physical assault. They do not seek to be first, because in the end, in the kingdom, even the last laborer in the field gets paid the same.
Many male pastors have humbly and genuinely served. But others—often those who fight the hardest to keep women from wielding the shovel of service—have raised whole institutions unto themselves. They’ve been keen to be featured with the glamor and allure of media stars, and have enjoyed the view from the pedestal. Their feverish efforts to preserve their status and to make exclusion seem biblical, is the indictment of how thoroughly the elevation of a human being can rot the commitment to follow Jesus.
Here’s the place where the sainthood of Ellen White reveals the shadow of pride, ego, and the embrace of an old dispensation. We’ve rehung the curtain between the holy and most-holy place in the model of leadership we’ve chosen.
We’ve built a church that suggests contact with God is rare, and filtered only through exceptional people.
Those uncomfortable with what leadership has become must ask some tough questions. Did the power trip of church leadership gain impetus from the authority given to Ellen White? Or did the problems with Ellen White stem in large part from the way we view and elevate authority in leadership?
To reject the pedestal, to acknowledge and embrace the humanity of Ellen White, is a more faithful following of the leadership Jesus describes. A life of constant contact with God brought Jesus to the day where humility and truth would draw the fatal wrath of the powerful. The veil would be torn from those who abused their calling, and the priesthood would be opened to all believers. Our connection to God was restored not by fame, might, or force, but by God’s descending to live an ordinary human life without seeking power or even self-preservation, submitting himself instead to the suffering and death all humans experience.
This new covenant in Jesus finds no favorites or exceptions, no Jew or Greek, free or slave, male or female. No person—not even church leaders—is more special or holy than any other, because Jesus has shown that all are equally redeemed and beloved.
If there is good news about the pedestal, it is that it is an uncomfortable, perilous place to remain. Status, promotion, and the limelight of celebrity is a costly, compromised position. It is unfair to pastors, to their spouses, and most especially to their children. It demands impossibly perfect behavior. Adoring and depending upon the person on the pedestal also robs church members of the joys and responsibilities of their own spiritual growth.
Requests from women to join in full expression of their ministerial calling are ironically criticized as power-seeking or political ambition. If any women have such motives, it is only because that is the exact edifice of leadership we have built.
One radical insight women in ministry can personify is that humility and service are paths of fulfillment, purpose, and joy. Serving without regard for rank and status, so often demanded of women in ministry today, might become the mantle they pass to all if servant leadership becomes the norm.
Progress is hard to see. The pedestal is ponderous and ages-old, but tiny fissures are forming. The trickle of women declaring a theology major on our campuses has become a stream. Despite intentional roadblocks from world church leadership, women are chosen as district pastors, senior pastors, executive secretaries, vice presidents, and presidents, filling positions once held only by men. The bad news for administrators omitting women’s names and denying them seats on the platform is that these actions make it very clear who is preserving the pedestal by boycotting those whom God has called.
The same may be said about the pressure and threats made to keep male leaders and pastors atop the pedestal despite their better judgment. When individual pastors relinquished their ordination status for a commission, they aligned themselves with servant-leaders to whom full participation had been closed.
In response, General Conference administrators formed an official compliance committee. The attempt to use committees, warning letters, and the 2019 General Conference Administrative and Executive Committees to censure and shame regional leaders is the equivalent of telling pastors, “Retain your ordination, stay up on the pedestal, or else!” Insisting that pastors disregard the leading of their conscience is a perplexing demand from those who claim our church follows the leading of the Holy Spirit.
We can start dismantling this false and crumbling foundation with frank, sometimes painful, conversations about Ellen White. We can begin by discussing how inspiration works and what it is. We can honestly examine the way in which Ellen White’s writings have been assembled and used. As the air clears, and Jesus is restored as the head of the church body, these conversations enable us to return to the primacy of the scriptures. We are reconnecting to the gospel teachings of Jesus, who calls us to lead responsively, inclusively, and without force and fear.
What does it say to the world— to little Adventist girls grown, holding unused shovels— that the ingrained ministry of the church looks so little like the actual ministry of Jesus? Are they to remain concessions, tokens, ceremonial symbols rather than fellow workers? What is the hope for the fifth, sixth, and seventh generation of females and other disenfranchised believers who are blocked from a body where there were to be no inferior or superior parts?
We are reminded of the same truth our founders once claimed. The church can change—indeed, must change—if God is leading it. God is not still, not stagnant, not hindered by the things we devise or “the way things have always been done.” God’s story is alive with beginnings.
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18-19, NIV).
Shelley Curtis Weaver lives in coastal Washington state. She is a clay-artist, writer, wife, mother, grandmother, and a frequenter of Columbia River crossings. She has edited and contributed to The Journey to Wholeness Addiction Recovery curriculum from Advent Source.