Theological Introduction to Ellen White’s Counsel on an Inclusive Church [footnote 1]
by Cindy Tutsch
How does Ellen White’s example and counsel help us sift through conflicting claims in the increasingly divergent multi-cultural Seventh-day Adventist church? First, I note that Ellen White herself embodies an essential leadership concept– cultural position, wealth, power, education, gender, and physical appeal are no predictors or limitations to God’s leadership calling.1 Next, I present an illustration of Ellen White’s progressive social voice that helps clarify her egalitarian and inclusive empowerment of the body of Christ.
Ellen White’s clarion call is that God would have His human creation work to restore the image of God to humanity.3 This imago dei motif is threaded throughout her counsels to educators, administrators, parents, pastors and teachers, in short, to all who lead or influence others. In Ellen White’s view, this restoration begins with character development—the human mind becoming sanctified, by His grace, into the likeness of the mind of God.4 To extrapolate that motif into today’s context, when the mind of humanity becomes one with the mind of God, leaders will seek restoration of the Edenic plan of male/female relationships.
Additionally, leaders will seek restoration of God’s plan for relationships between people groups and ethnicities, as well as the restoration of Earth to its original Garden state, to the best of limited human ability.
In a discussion of the original Eden state, Joseph Coleson states, “Genesis 1:27 states very clearly that women and men are created equally in the image of God. . . Females are in God’s image. Males are in God’s image. Neither is more nor less in God’s image than the other.”5 Concurring with Coleson, Phyllis Trible says “Sexual differentiation does not mean hierarchy.”6 Hierarchy is sometimes used to deprive women of opportunities to find joy in participation in the area of church life for which they are best suited.
Ellen White also took the position of equality at Creation. “Women should fill the position which God originally designed for her, as her husband’s equal.”7
Thus, it seems evident from the Genesis account that male and female were created by God as equals, with no hierarchical system inherent. Those who oppose women in leadership and ministry may believe, however, that God put Eve in subjection to Adam as part of the consequence of her sin.
Two key words in this study are “sin” and “redemption.” Sin is the cause of female subjection. Hayter states “Man and woman have disrupted their relationship with God. This sin leads to a disruption in their relationship with all creation, including one another.”8
For Adventist Christians, the great hope, the good news, is the redemption theme, the restoration in humanity of the image of God. If God’s original creation included equality between the sexes, I could extrapolate from that pattern the premise that it is His will that equal opportunities to evangelize be extended in our present culture. I should then press on toward that ideal as part of my reception of the gospel.
“It is,” after all, “human sinfulness which initiates and maintains prejudice and inequality between the sexes.”9 Ellen White also decries the arbitrary exercise of authority by leaders, declaring such domination as in opposition to God’s plan for His redeemed people.10
Since Jesus’ and Paul’s own teaching and practice were radically egalitarian, male dominance and female subjection in the structure of the Christian church are post-apostolic, not apostolic. Further, if man and woman were created fully equal, fully autonomous, yet interacting in complement physically, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually, the words of God in Genesis 3:16 are more of an announcement, i.e. descriptive, not causative or prescriptive.
Biblically-based11 feminism attempts a critique of the oppressive structures of society and the church. Ellen White’s counsel to leaders is not in opposition to Christian feminism, if that feminism is about independence, family balance, education, competence, and call to mission—in contrast to class, social maneuvering, hustling for jobs with sexuality, and whining about petty incidents (when many women within ecclesiastical structures are in real danger of abuse and oppression). Militant feminist activism has caused some to regard the goal of feminism to be the ascendancy of women, but biblically-predicated feminism is primarily striving toward human equality in which oppressed and oppressor, aged and youth, black and white, reconcile in a unified return to the prioritization of personal evangelism. The inclusive body of Christ united for a mission worthy of His church is a concept which Ellen White repeatedly affirms.12
It is my view that if the Seventh-day Adventist church is to be true to its calling in Christ, if leaders of the church consider that the prophetic voice of Ellen White carries authority, those leaders must teach and practice the biblical equality of men and women predicated in the Creation story and demonstrated existentially in the New Testament practices of Christ and Paul. Additionally, leaders who find Ellen White’s voice authoritative must motivate and equip the church to evangelize cross-generationally and make joyful, intentional provision for diversity.
We are still in the midst of a war—the war which Ellen White called “the Great Controversy.” Men and women are presented with God’s offer of eternal life, surrounded by an enemy who doesn’t want them to understand or accept it. We are living in the final stages of this war. And when we see our lives in that context, it is easier to understand the urgency behind Ellen White’s statements on the roles of women. Today the call to a gender-inclusive church to give its energies for God is greater than at any time in earth’s history.13
Is it possible that Jesus is waiting for the church to recognize God’s call to women and empower each person to use the talents God has given? Perhaps the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Latter Rain power will not come until we are united in our understanding of the inclusive events described in Joel 2.
Maybe God is longing to help us get past our long-held prejudices so that Jesus can come and bring the family of God home at last.
1Text in this blog is largely drawn from Cindy Tutsch’s book Ellen White on Leadership: Guidance for Those who Influence Others (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2008).
2Skip Bell, 18 April 2005, personal email (18 April 2006).
31 Cor 11:7; Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1903, 1952), 15-16.
4Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 2:16.
5Joseph Coleson, Ezer Cenegdo: A Power Like Him, Facing Him as Equal (Wesleyan/Holiness Women Clergy, 1996), 6.
6Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 23.
7The Adventist Home (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980), 231.
8Mary Hayter, The New Eve in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 96-97.
10Letter to O. A. Olsen. Letter 55, 1895 written at Norfolk Villa, Prospect St., Granville, Australia, 19 September 1895. Archived at the Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD.
12The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911), 600; The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1898, 1940), 822.
13Cindy Tutsch and Laura Wibberding, Ellen White and the Roles of Women, 20 September 2004, (PowerPoint workshop prepared for the Department of Women’s Ministries, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists).