by J. David Newman

With the vote of the Mid-America Union Conference regarding the ordination of women clergy and the resulting discussion, we are republishing an article by our editor. In this article he pointed out that the real issue is not whether women should be ordained but why are we ordaining men in the first place? The editor is retiring from his full-time role as senior pastor of New Hope Adventist Church on June 30 (2012) to begin a PhD program with the London Theological College at the University of Middlesex. The working title for his dissertation is “How the Adventist Practice of Ordination Came from the Catholic Church and Not from the New Testament.” It will trace the three-tiered ordination system the denomination currently follows back through the Methodist movement, the Anglican church, and the Lutheran church, to the Catholic Church. It will propose what our practice should be based on the New Testament if we are to faithful to the Adventist heritage.
 
The current argument in the Adventist Church over whether or not women can be ordained is asking the wrong question. The real question is: Why should men be ordained?
 
The Adventist Church voted at Annual Council in October 1991 a “Theology of Ordination.” In that statement we read: “the Scriptures distinguish three categories of ordained officers—(1) the gospel minister, whose role may be seen as preaching/ teaching, administering the ordinances, and pastoral care of souls and churches (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:1-5); (2) the elder (sometimes in Scripture called bishop), who exercises oversight of a local congregation, performing necessary pastoral functions as well (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Titus 1:5, 9; 1 Tim. 3:2, 5); and (3) the deacon, to whose care the poor and the benevolent work of the congregation are
entrusted (Phil. 1:1; Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:8-13).”
 
The statement then goes on to elevate the gospel ministry above the other two. “The gospel ministry: a special call. While elders and deacons are appointed on the basis of spiritual experience and ability … the gospel ministry, Seventh-day Adventists believe, is a special calling from God.” This suggests that being an elder or deacon is not a special calling from God.
 
The statement gives no biblical basis for the ranking of the three callings by the Adventist
Church. Being ordained as a deacon does not qualify a person to be an elder, even though the
Scriptural requirements are the same (1 Tim. 3:1-11). If a deacon is to become an elder, that person must experience a second ordination. And if an elder becomes a pastor, that individual now must go through a third ordination. There is absolutely no hint in the New Testament that there were three different ordination ceremonies.
 
What many Adventists don’t realize is that we inherited this practice from the Roman Catholic Church—which is ironic, given our preaching against so many positions of that church. The Catholics have deacon, priest, and bishop, each requiring an additional ordination.
 
What is even more fascinating is that “the word ‘ordain’ does not appear in the Greek New Testament. The word ‘ordain’ that appears in the King James Version actually translates from a number of Greek words, including poieou, ‘appointed’ (Mark 3:14); ginomai, ‘to become, select’ (Acts 1:22); titheumi, ‘appointed, place, set’ (1 Tim. 2:7); kathisteumi, ‘cause to be, appoint’ (Titus 1:5); and cheirotoneou, ‘stretch out the hand, appoint’ (Acts 14:23). The English word ‘ordain’ has a Latin root, ordinare, which derives from Roman law and conveys the idea of a special status or a group distinct from ordinary people. That is why most modern versions do not use the word ‘ordain’—it does not give an accurate translation of the original meaning.” (Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, article on “Ordination.”)
 
“The doctrine of spiritual gifts (as taught in Rom. 12:4–8; 1 Cor. 12:1–28; Eph. 4:8, 11–16; Acts 6:1–7; and 1 Peter 4:10, 11) teaches that God gives gifts for service to all without respect to race or gender. Included among those gifts are those of evangelist, prophet, teacher, and pastor.
 
“In harmony with the New Testament custom, Adventists appoint ministers, who, like the apostles and evangelists of the early church, look after the general interests of the church; and elders(also called “presbyters,” or “bishops” in the New Testament); and deacons, who, like their New Testament prototypes, look, respectively, after the spiritual and temporal interests of the local congregation to which they belong.” (Ibid.)
 
Adventists are extremely inconsistent when it comes to the issue of pastors and Adventists. At the 1974 Annual Council, the church for the first time allowed women to serve as local church elders.  No distinction was made between their ordination and the ordination of men. Both were ordained in the same way. This led many to say, “If we can ordain women to be local elders, why cannot we ordain them to be gospel ministers?”
 
Women had begun to serve in pastoral roles ordained as local elders but not as full gospel
ministers. This led to a push by some for women to be ordained the same as men. At the same time, others felt women should not be serving as pastors at all. At the 1990 General Conference Session in Indianapolis, a compromise was reached. It was voted that women could serve as pastors but not be ordained as full gospel ministers. In addition, to keep some kind of difference between them it was decided that women could marry, baptize, and lead the ordinances, but they could not ordain local elders, organize new churches, or unite churches!
 
I mentioned spiritual gifts earlier in this article. There are four main passages that speak
of spiritual gifts (Rom. 12: 6-8; 1 Cor. 12, the whole chapter; Ephesians 4:11-12; 1 Peter 4:10-11), and none of them limit any of the gifts to a particular gender. In fact, it is suggested that any gift is available to any person as God may decide (1 Cor. 12:7). Among those gifts is the gift of pastor.
 
Now I know there are passages that speak to the role of women in the early church, which lead some people to conclude that women cannot be ordained. But if these passages are truly followed without reference to context, then women could not serve as deacons, elders, pastors, teachers of men, or participants in worship services. However, this article does not address these issues. I am simply trying to show that it is time for the Adventist Church to reject its Catholic heritage when it comes to ordination. It should stop using the word “ordain,” which is not biblical and comes encrusted with overtones of privilege and separation. For example, the separation between laity and clergy with one group being superior to the other.
 
We should be like the early church. When we appoint leaders in the church, let us have a commissioning service with laying on of hands but give no grade to these ceremonies. The same ceremony is used for any church leader. There really is little difference between the pastor and elder except that one is full time, while the other is voluntary. The Church Manual indicates that in the absence of the pastor, the elder fulfills all the roles of the pastor even to the administering of the Lord’s Supper, and with the permission of the conference can baptize as well. If we give up ordaining men, we solve the problem of whether or not we should ordain women.
 
This article was originally published in the Winter 2009 print edition of Adventist Today.