Facts About Equality in Ministry
by Alicia Hamlin
Does God discriminate in whom He calls to minister? Does He have a pastoral caste system with second-class citizens based on race or gender? Does He relegate them to the “back of the bus” when they want to share the Good News? Has He installed a glass ceiling in heaven? God said we are all one in Christ; there is no male or female. (Gal. 3:28) If God does not discriminate, should His church do so?
This summer the GC will decide whether it is “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?” We have been led to believe that it’s a theological issue about “male headship” or “women being silent” in church. But it’s actually a game of semantics and ecclesiastical politics. The underlying unwritten, unspoken implication is: God may not discriminate, but His church can.
There is no real theological issue about male headship precluding women in ministry. “Christ, not the minister, is the head of the church.” (E.G.W., Signs of the Times, Jan. 27, 1890). The pastor is not the head; “Christ is the head of the church, which is His body.” (Col. 1:18) Over 125 years ago Ellen White declared: “There are women who should labor in the gospel ministry…. The way is open for consecrated women.” (Manuscript 43a, 1898). Sis. White said the Holy Spirit “prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors.” (R&H Jan. 15, 1901; T6 p. 322) Proportionately, there were many more women pastors in Ellen White’s time than now.
“The refining, softening influence of Christian women is needed in the great work of preaching the truth.” (E.G.W., R&H, Jan. 2, 1879) “It is not always men who are best adapted to the successful management of a church.” (E.G.W., Pastoral Ministry, p. 36). The GC Session in November, 1887 “took action recommending those who should receive ministerial credentials. Ellen White’s name was among those voted to receive papers of the ordained ministers, although her ordination was [by God,] not by the laying on of hands by men.” (Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Lonely Years: 1876-1891 [vol. 3], p. 377). By 1884, Mrs. White was listed as an ordained minister in the GC Yearbook, and many female pastors served in her era, as early as 1872.
After a deep study of the Bible and the Pen of Inspiration, “Adventist scholars, in 1975, found no theological obstacles to ordaining women to gospel ministry.” (Adventist Review, March 7, 1985) The General Conference Biblical Research Institute concluded in 1976, “If God has called a woman, and her ministry is fruitful, why should the church withhold its standard act of recognition?” God said, on “both men and women, I will pour out My Spirit.” (Acts 2:18) And the General Conference approved commissioning women to the gospel ministry in 1990. For the past 25 years, this “commissioned minister” credential has allowed female pastors to do virtually anything an ordained minister can do.
We already have over 3,200 women pastors, including more than 140 in North America. These female ministers preach, pray, give Bible studies, hold evangelistic crusades, win souls, baptize, perform weddings and funerals, visit the sick, dedicate babies, conduct communion services and prayer meetings, chair church board meetings and business meetings, and lead the congregation. Some are even senior pastors and lead a cadre of associate pastors. (If that is “headship,” it’s time to stop arguing because they already have it under the official 1990 GC policy.)
So why aren’t they called “ordained”? The history of the terms “licensed,” “commissioned,” and “ordained” is tied to IRS rules for parsonage allowance tax deductions. According to church historian Mervyn Maxwell, the term “commissioned” was coined by the ever-helpful IRS. For political expediency, the term “commissioned” was used at the 1990 GC session to placate certain elements (largely oversees divisions) who thought women should not be ordained. (If your friend doesn’t like your horse, call it a cow.)
After all, everybody knows the “commissioned” credential is fine, but the “ordained” credential is evil. Haven’t you read that in the Bible? It’s explicitly stated in Hezekiah 3:16 (“Thou canst commission thy female pastors but verily thou shalt not ordain them, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”) (Other favorite verses include “God helps those who help themselves” [Hez. 3:2] and “Cleanliness is next to godliness” [Hez. 3:5].)
These women pastors are consecrated to the gospel ministry in a “commissioning service” complete with prayers, Scripture readings, a sermon, a charge, and even the laying on of hands. The ceremony has an eerie resemblance to an ordination ceremony. “But don’t worry,” overseas divisions, “it’s not the same thing.” (Sorry, Shakespeare, you were wrong about “a rose by any other name. . . .”)
Yes, Virginia, there really is a place for a woman in the ministry. She can serve as a pastor, as long as she doesn’t have an ordination certificate hanging in her office. Even the blind can see the logic in that! In fact, it’s just as logical as saying: “You can live with your fiancée but you can’t marry her.” Saying that a woman can be a pastor only if she doesn’t have an ordination certificate, is as silly as saying “She can be your wife only if she doesn’t have a marriage certificate.”
If the GC really wants to have any significant debate based on the “male headship” theory or the “women must be silent” theory, they should vote whether to have women pastors at all, or whether to recognize their ministerial calling at all. But they can’t have that debate because the issue was de facto settled 25 years ago. Now the only issue left to decide is whether to print “ordained” on the certificate instead of “commissioned.” God does not care which word they use. “Commissioned” and “ordained” are the same thing in His eyes, and the female pastor will do the same work regardless of which word is used.
The terms “commissioned” and “ordained” are used interchangeably in the writings of Ellen White. Ministers receive “their commission from God Himself, and the ceremony of the laying on of hands [ordination] added no new grace or virtual qualification.” (EGW, Acts of the Apostles, p. 161)
Do you see the duplicity of some GC leaders in resisting women’s ordination by making those theological arguments, when the GC already decided 25 years ago to allow women pastors to be “commissioned” (and thus to exercise that dreaded female “headship” in the church)? Obviously the GC is not going to backtrack and vote to stop having female pastors or stop “commissioning” them. And that question is not even on the agenda.
Moreover, a minister does not wield headship. The real meaning of “minister” is “to give service, care, or aid.” A pastor is a shepherd and servant. “Christ is the head of the church …. [and] the church is subject unto Christ.” (Eph. 5:23-24) “Christ is the only Head of the church.” (E.G.W. 21MR-274) So ordination of pastors is simply not an issue of theological headship. (With apologies to Tina Turner, I would sing, “What’s theology got to do, got to do with it?”) All that really matters now is terminology: what word to print on the certificate that female pastors receive after the ceremony where the conference leaders lay hands on them and pray to consecrate them to ministry: will we continue calling women “commissioned,” or can we call them “ordained”?
And the decision as to which word to print on the certificate, depends on politics. The ballot asks whether to let each division decide independently, and it’s common knowledge that North America tends to favor using the term “ordination,” whereas some overseas divisions prefer to continue “commissioning.” If the ballot is approved this summer, and the individual divisions then proceed to vote separately, their only real options will be to keep the term “commissioned” or change it to “ordained.”
The divisions will not back-track on the 1990 policy and quit commissioning women as ministers or abolish female pastorates based on a “male headship” theory. The real debate here is not about whether to have female pastors or what their duties should be; the crux of the San Antonio vote is what to call these women. Female pastorates will exist regardless. It’s just an issue of terminology.
Some argue that the Bible does not condone women’s ordination. The truth is, it does not prescribe any ordination for anyone. Ordination is not a biblical concept. It was a ceremony invented by the Roman Catholic Church based on Roman government ceremonies, long after Bible times. “The practice of ‘ordaining’ people is of Catholic origin. It has no basis in the Greek text of the New Testament.” “The Greek text indicates that in each town, the believers elected a number of mature and respected local believers, as elders.” Ordination is not evil, but “the [Greek] New Testament does not contain any mention or instruction regarding laying of hands on those who were elected as elders.” www.biblepages.net/eea021.htm.
Biblical or not, the GC already gave its blessing to women’s ordination (under the code name “commissioning”) 25 years ago. We already have “commissioned” female senior pastors and conference departmental leaders. So why play a word game? If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is an ordained duck. Why not call a spade a “spade” and ordain them? The real issue for this summer is which label to use. It’s a game of semantics.
But it’s a game with a consequences, because the powers that be have decided that only an “ordained” minister can become a conference president. They apparently base this rule on Hezekiah 3:17, which allegedly says:
Since we already have female senior pastors with the GC’s blessing, the core issue for San Antonio is to determine whether to let the various divisions make their own decisions about whether to call these pastors “ordained” instead of “commissioned” (which could also be one of the qualifications to potentially serve as a conference president).
We already know some overseas divisions are dead-set against it. I’m sure they will all be brushing up on Hezekiah 3:18 before the vote: “Thou shalt not let thy female species become qualified to serve as a conference president, for lo, in the day thou doest so, there shall be a great pestilence and thou shalt surely slide upon thy belly like a slug.”
After all, Paul said it’s a sin for females to talk in church. So obviously they have to “be silent” in Conference meetings, too. (Psst . . . uh-oh, we have a problem: Ellen White not only spoke and preached in churches, she also preached at General Conference sessions. In this photo, she is speaking at the 1901 GC Session in Battle Creek. Better keep that a secret!)
Sorry, Virginia, you can be anything you want to be, except a conference president. You can be a “commissioned” senior pastor, or even a conference treasurer or conference secretary. (You can even be the president of a corporation or a nation. Or even a prophetess!) But you can’t be a conference president. You’ll have to wait until heaven to be equal . . . in ecclesiastical matters. (Equality in ministry? Equality, shmequality. God does not discriminate, but His church can! That pesky verse, “there is no male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” is just poetry!)
Perhaps the deeper fear is: if a woman gets qualified to become a conference president, there’s a potential that she could eventually become the General Conference president. Oh horrors! That would be the ultimate abomination. . . . “For now we see through a glass [ceiling], darkly.”
By the way, here’s another good site about rational religion: GodSeesTheHeart.com. It was an eye-opener for me.