Why should the La Sierra University Church ordain women for gospel ministry?

La Sierra University Church
Riverside, California
November 1995

Prepared by a subcommittee of the La Sierra University Church Board

While loyal to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, we still firmly believe in the Biblical rightness of women's ordination."

— "A Statement of Commitment to Women in Gospel Ministry" issued by the union conference presidents of the North American Division October 13, 1995

With this statement the La Sierra University Church Board is in complete agreement. And we would go further. Because ordaining women is scripturally and morally right, and because the larger organizational structures of the church have chosen not to do so at this time, we believe our congregation should. The following pages express, in a question-and-answer format, the principal reasons why.

Why should women be ordained?

Ordaining women in ministry on the same basis as men is first of all a matter of mutuality and respect-living by Jesus' golden rule, "In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 7:12 NIV). In other words, treating others as we would like to be treated is not only the essence of fairness; it is also the essence of God's will for human relationships. Men who would not want to be excluded from ordination as ministers solely because they are male should not exclude women from ordination solely because they are not male.

Ordaining women is, furthermore, a matter of spiritual equality-putting into practice the New Testament principle that gender differences do not define a person's spiritual value, status, role, or function. As the Apostle put it, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). And it is a matter of recognizing and accepting the leading of the Spirit, calling both women and men to ministry in and for the church. "'In the last days,' God says, 'I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy'" (Acts 2:17-18, quoting Joel 2:28-29).

In short, ordaining women is a matter of wholehearted, Spirit-led faithfulness to Scripture and the gospel of Christ.

But doesn't the New Testament limit ordination to men?

It is often supposed that the New Testament limits ordination to men, but as a matter of fact, it doesn't. Indeed, there is no New Testament reference at all to the sort of ordination that occurs in modern Christian denominations, including ours. The prevailing practice today is a product of history, not Scripture. Through the centuries the word "ordain" has taken on special meanings which were not present in the original vocabulary of the New Testament.

It is true, of course, that there were no women among Jesus' twelve disciples. This is not at all surprising, given the inferior status and restricted role imposed on women by society at that time and place. And, for other historical reasons, there were no Gentiles among the twelve either. Just as the absence of Gentiles does not imply that Gentiles should never be ordained, so the absence of women does not imply that women should never be ordained.

It should also be noted that the role of women as spiritual leaders and active participants in the communication of the gospel is well attested in the New Testament. For example:

As Jesus "traveled about from one town and village to another," the twelve disciples were with him, "and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases." These included Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Cuza, Susanna, and "many others" who were helping to support Jesus and his disciples "out of their own means" (Luke 8:1-3).

After Jesus' resurrection, it was "Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them" who told the disciples and others about it (24:10).

When Priscilla and her husband Aquila heard the Jewish scholar Apollos speak about Jesus they recognized that his knowledge was incomplete, so "they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately" (Acts 18:26).

In a series of greetings at the end of his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul listed "Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchrea" (16:1); "Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus," who "risked their lives for me" (16:3-4; see also 1 Cor. 16:19), "Mary, who worked very hard for me" (Rom. 16:6); Junia, who was one of "my relatives who have been in prison with me" and who were "outstanding among the apostles" (16:7); and Tryphena and Tryphosa, "those women who work hard in the Lord," and "Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord" (16:12).

In pastoral concern Paul refers to Euodia and Syntyche as "these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel" (Phil. 4:3).

In a culture where women were regarded as inferior to men, the practice of the earliest Christians moved toward an actualization of spiritual oneness and equality in Christ. They may not have reached the goal, but their direction is clear.

Aren't women supposed to be silent?

It is often noted that in certain situations, Paul instructed women to take a secondary role in public worship. At one point he advised, "Women should remain silent in the churches" (1 Cor. 14:34). Later the counsel was that "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent" (1 Tim. 2:12). But these special instructions in specific circumstances did not undercut the deeper principle that in Christ, Gentiles and slaves and women were no longer to be subordinated, because the old categories of superiority and inferiority were to be eliminated.

To regard these particular cases as the "letter of the law" for every time, place, and situation is to disregard the spirit and teaching of the New Testament as a whole. This is not faithfulness to, but a misuse of, Scripture. It represents a literalism that is a radical departure from the historic Adventist interpretation of these very passages. In the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald of July 30, 1861, for example, Uriah Smith reprinted from an Irish publication a long extract entitled "Women as Preachers and Lecturers" (pp. 65-66) which addressed 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. It was, Smith said, a "triumphant vindication" of the role of women in religious services. In 1879, J. N. Andrews similarly decried the use of these passages to silence women ("May Women Speak in Meeting?" Jan. 2, p. 4).

Throughout the history of Adventism, many women, beginning with Ellen White in December 1844, have been involved in public ministry. In 1868 two women evangelists-Sarah A. Hallock Lindsey and Ellen S. Edmonds Lane-began conducting public meetings with their husbands. Mrs. Lindsey received a ministerial license in 1872, Mrs. Lane in 1878, and another woman, Julia Owen, in 1879. The denominational yearbook for 1884 lists six women as licensed ministers-two each in Kansas, Michigan, and Minnesota. The passages so often cited as prohibiting the ordination of women do not refer to ordination at all, but to the way women were to function in specific communities. Adventists have never taken them to prohibit women serving as Sabbath School leaders, as teachers at any level, as principals of schools, as deans and presidents of colleges and universities, or as the prophetic messenger to lead and inspire the church. Since these passages are not applied literally and absolutely to the function of women (which is what they are talking about), they can hardly be used to prohibit the recognition and affirmation of their ministry by ordination (which they are not talking about).

What about the requirement of having a wife?

The New Testament says that a "bishop"-literally, an overseer or superintendent-"must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife" (1 Tim. 3:2). Similarly, an "elder" "must be blameless, the husband of but one wife," (Tit. 1: 6), and a "deacon" too "must be the husband of but one wife" (1 Tim. 3:12). These church leaders are obviously male. But if these texts were interpreted literally, in a way that would exclude women from ordination, they would at the same time exclude any men who are unmarried or widowed. Adventists in general have never interpreted them in this way.

And what about "male headship"?

The imagery of "headship" occurs twice in the New Testament. A discussion of the proper gender-specific attire for worship-head coverings and length of hair-includes the observation that "the head of the woman is man" (1 Cor. 11:3). In another discussion, the affirmation that "the husband is the head of the wife" and that therefore "wives should submit to their husbands in everything" (Eph. 5:23-24) comes in a description of proper household relationships, all of which fall under the general principle of mutual submission: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21).

In neither of these discussions does the subject of ministerial service in the church arise. Besides, the New Testament clearly affirms that it is Christ who is "the head of the church" (Eph. 5:23; compare Col. 1:18). Ordination as a minister is a recognition of God's call to service and servanthood, not a conferral of "headship" or any other status of superiority. Jesus said, "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve." (Mark 10:42-45; compare Matt. 20:25-28). Just as "headship" has nothing to do with the church, so ministry has nothing to do with "headship."

In the beginning, God created women as well as men in the divine image. "God created man [that is, humanity] in his own image, . . . male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27). This original equality was so badly damaged by sin that God said to the woman in the Garden of Eden, "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" (Gen. 3:16). Just as Christ liberated us from the power of death, so he liberated us from the distortion of gender distinctions into positions of superiority and inferiority. Life in the Kingdom of God is intended to overcome as far as possible all the consequences of sin.

The practice of ordaining only men in ministry is a result of the dominance of cultural influence and ecclesiastical tradition over the truth of the gospel. To continue the practice is a failure to live in the light of the gospel.

Isn't this a departure from historic Adventist practice?

Adventists have always recognized that revelation is progressive, leading to a growing understanding of spiritual truth. "Whenever the people of God are growing in grace," Ellen White wrote in 1889, "they will be constantly obtaining a clearer understanding of His Word. . . . This has been true in the history of the church in all ages, and thus it will continue to the end" (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 706).

The recognition of ever-advancing "present truth" was the foundation both of Adventist opposition to the practice of slavery in the nineteenth century and of Adventist affirmation of racial equality in the twentieth. This same recognition is the basis of the present conviction of many Adventists around the world that God's Spirit calls, leads, and blesses women in ministry.

We are committed to following our Lord, who told us, "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. . . . The Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you" (John 16:12-14). Jesus led the way in the recognition and affirmation of women in his own ministry, and by promising the Spirit, he opened up the way for further advances beyond his lifetime.

As the Spirit leads, new ways of seeing ancient texts are brought to light, and faithful Christians are called to follow, not being bound to the letter of old truths by human organizations and past practices.

How can we be sure this is the right thing to do?

Galatians 3:28 identifies three kinds of discrimination that are overcome in Christ: national origin (Jew/Greek), social status (slave/free), and gender (male/female). The issue of national origin was resolved by Christians in the first century and the issue of slavery in the nineteenth century. Now "present truth" is leading us to address the third issue by ending discrimination based on gender.

The struggle over the meaning of true discipleship led the earliest Christians into undreamed-of pathways. Christ's message shattered all their assumptions about the established order of relations between Jews and non-Jews, slaves and free men, men and women. In their time, the focal point of the struggle was the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Because this issue was settled so long ago, we have lost sight of the wrenching challenge which the first Christians had to confront if they were to be faithful to the leading of the Spirit. We can catch some hint of its trauma and depth when we remember that the central metaphor for these experiences was the breaking down of the barrier between clean and unclean foods (Acts 10). What God was asking of these first Christians was almost incomprehensible to them.

But the Spirit was out in front of the organized church. Acts 10 and 11 reflect in a brief, condensed form a struggle that went on for years throughout the Christian community. Consistently they were "astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles" (Acts 10:45). Just as consistently, they took as their key criterion the one overriding fact that God's Spirit was indeed at work. How could they do other than try to follow? "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have" (v. 47).

Simple as the issue was, the decisions were extremely difficult. Against all their intuitive assumptions, against all the conventional certainties about how God wanted things to be in this world, local clusters of Christians found themselves being stretched beyond their imagination in order to follow the Spirit's leading. Their responses did not represent some cheap or careless brand of Christianity. Their action not only went beyond their own deeply-held values; it also invited sharper persecution from Jewish authorities and even opened up rifts within the Christian community itself.

The ecclesiastical decision, coming only after deep and intense wrestling, in the end could only ratify the astonishing breakthrough. The church as a whole was humble enough to acknowledge that "God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them [the Gentiles] by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:8-9). Even when it is difficult, the church should be leading the world in justice, equality, and fairness, not lagging behind.

Why is this a moral issue?

Withholding ordination from a whole group of ministers solely because they are not male-disregarding their ability, education, experience and effectiveness, and ignoring the leading of the Holy Spirit in their life and work-is obvious gender discrimination and therefore morally wrong. Gender inclusiveness and equality in ministry are the same kind of moral issue that civil rights and racial equality were thirty years ago. Women should be ordained as ministers because it is morally right.

Moreover, to refuse to ordain women solely because they are not male, even though they successfully do the work of ministers, inflicts professional and psychological damage. It makes their work as ministers more difficult and less effective-as every woman minister can testify. It says to them, to the church, and to the world that they are inferior to men and unworthy to be ordained. After preparing a group of school children for baptism, a woman pastor overheard two of them talking. One asked the other if he was going to be baptized by this woman. "No," was the reply, "I want to be baptized by a real minister."

Because ordaining women is the right thing to do, we must do it. As our senior pastor said in a Sabbath sermon, there are times when it is not enough to hope for justice or even to pray for justice; we must do justice. This is why, since the larger structures of our denominational organization have not done it, the congregation must do it-not from a desire to usurp the role of the larger structures, but from a conviction that justice must be done. If others choose not to do it, then the moral responsibility to "do justice" falls on us. The decisions of others do not relieve us of our own responsibility.

But why do we need to act now?

In 1881 (114 years ago) the General Conference in session in Battle Creek, Michigan, discussed a resolution approving the ordination of women in ministry and referred it to the General Conference Committee for further consideration. But the resolution was never heard of again.

In 1973 (92 years later, 22 years ago) a group of Adventist scholars appointed by the General Conference met at Camp Mohaven in Ohio to examine the Scriptural and theological implications of ordaining women in ministry. They concluded that there was no theological objection to the ordination of women. But again there was no action.

Now, as we approach the beginning of the twenty-first century, both the spirit and the reputation of the church as a whole are suffering because it does not treat women fairly. The refusal to allow women to be treated equally undermines the moral credibility of the whole church, weakening its ability to speak with moral authority on any subject. It has also made it more difficult for ethically sensitive persons-both men and women, and especially college and university students-to identify with Adventism as their spiritual home.

It can always be said, of course, that we should wait for a better time. We have been waiting for the church as a whole to do the right thing, but it is farther from doing it now than it was 114 years ago, or 22 years ago. The time to do justice for Adventist women in ministry is now. And it is not just for the women in ministry; it is for the moral and spiritual health of the whole church.

Can we ignore the decision of the General Conference?

Certainly not. As an expression of the largest organizational structure in the church that is our spiritual home, a decision by a General Conference session must always be taken seriously and given great respect. Our response to such a decision, however, is subject to the teaching of the whole Word of God and the spirit of the gospel of Christ. If there is a divergence we find impossible to reconcile, we must live in accordance with the Word and the gospel.

Painfully aware that our action may be interpreted by some as disloyalty, we nevertheless must act with integrity. The principle that guided the earliest Christians should guide us now: "We must obey God rather than men!" (Acts 5:29).

In good conscience we cannot, by a failure to speak and act, accept and participate in a continuing discrimination against women in ministry when their lives and service demonstrate the validity of their calling and the leading of the Holy Spirit. It is theologically, spiritually, and morally imperative for us to recognize and affirm their ministry as fully equal to that of their male colleagues.

Isn't the General Conference "the voice of God"?

In 1875, Ellen White described the General Conference as "the highest authority that God has upon the earth" (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3, p. 492). But in 1901 she wrote, "We hear that the voice of the [General] Conference is the voice of God. Every time I have heard this, I have thought it was almost blasphemy. . . . [To be the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be-that is past" (Ms. 37, Apr. 1, 1901).

In 1877 General Conference session recognized an exception to the general principle "that the highest authority under God among Seventh-day Adventists is found in the will of the body of that people, as expressed in the decisions of the General Conference when acting within its proper jurisdiction." The exception occurs when decisions "can be shown to conflict with the word of God and the rights of individual conscience" (Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 1990 ed., p. 17). The continuing relevance of both the principle and the exception is indicated by the fact that this statement is reprinted in each new edition of the Church Manual.

As the preceding discussion has demonstrated, the decision against allowing equality for women in ministry can indeed "be shown to conflict with the word of God" as it has been historically understood by Seventh-day Adventists, and with "the rights of individual conscience." It is also in conflict with the current Statement of Fundamental Beliefs, which was adopted at the General Conference session of 1980. Referring to "differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female," the Statement says, "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" (paragraph 13).

So there is a system of "checks and balances." The General Conference deserves great respect, but not the absolute allegiance which belongs only to God. Sometimes not all of the decisions of the General Conference are consistent with each other, and a person, a congregation, or a conference must decide which decision takes priority.

A General Conference policy that denies elemental fairness and justice, ignores the teachings of Jesus, violates the New Testament principle of oneness and equality in Christ, contradicts the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs, and is spiritually and psychologically damaging, is not a valid basis for procedures or practices.

Shouldn't the whole church move ahead together?

Yes. It would certainly be ideal if the whole church were united on this issue. But, as the recent discussion and vote at the General Conference session in Utrecht vividly demonstrate, there continue to be deep differences of cultural perspective, Biblical interpretation, and theological conviction.

If it were simply a question of church policy, it could be properly settled by a decision of the General Conference. But because it is a matter of spiritual and moral integrity, our action must be guided by our own consciences, informed by our study of Scripture. We remember the charge we have been given: "Allow no one to be brains for you, allow no one to do your thinking, your investigating, and your praying" (Ellen G. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 307).

Because unity in the church is also a moral concern, we profoundly regret that we cannot follow the decision of the General Conference. Our action in behalf of equality for women is an act of "loyal opposition" within the fellowship of the church as a whole. It is an act of moral responsibility in and for the church, not an act of rebellion against the church. The question before us is not whether we are loyal to the church as a whole, but how we will express that loyalty.

Every interesting moral dilemma involves a conflict of moral values. In such a situation, the crucial question is: Which value should take precedence? The example of Jesus shows that if unity and moral integrity conflict, moral integrity must come first. There are some principles that cannot be compromised.

The unity of the church is not the same as the authority of the General Conference; the former is spiritual and the latter is ecclesiastical. The church is different from the General Conference just as a nation is different from its government. And even the church is not infallible. As Ellen White said, "God and heaven alone are infallible" (Review and Herald, July 26, 1892).

Paul the Apostle once deviated from a conscientiously held position for the sake of church unity, and the results were disastrous. As Ellen White describes it:

When we think of Paul's great desire to be in harmony with his brethren, his tenderness toward the weak in faith . . . and his purpose to become all things to all men so far as he could without sacrificing principle-when we think of all this, it is less surprising that he was constrained to deviate from the firm, decided course that he had hitherto followed. But instead of accomplishing the desired object, his efforts for conciliation only precipitated the crisis, hastened his predicted sufferings, and resulted in separating him from his brethren, depriving the church of one of its strongest pillars, and bringing sorrow to Christian hearts in every land (The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 405-6).

True unity in the church is a unity of spirit-mutual trust, concern, and commitment, even when understandings, interpretations, and convictions differ. Within this kind of unity we respect the right of our brothers and sisters to differ with us, even as we do what we are called by God's Spirit to do to end injustice against women in ministry.

Do we really need to do this?

Our Adventist heritage has taught us to "call sin by its right name" and to "stand for the right though the heavens fall" (Ellen G. White, Education, p. 57). This same heritage now calls the La Sierra University Church to act with moral courage.

The issue before us is whether it is better to adhere strictly to the current denominational policy and thereby continue to discriminate against women ministers, or to go a little way beyond the limits of current denominational policy and actually do what we, along with the union conference presidents in North American, believe is Biblically and morally right, and thus help to lead the way for the whole church.

In short: do we regard denominational policy as more compelling than our Biblical and moral obligation to be fair and just? If so, we will affirm and announce this priority by deciding not to ordain women ministers. If, on the other hand, we regard fairness and justice as more important, we will demonstrate our conviction by deciding to end the present discrimination and ordain women ministers.

Our actual priorities will be shown by our decision. It is both illogical and hypocritical to claim otherwise, and no amount of explanation will be persuasive to thoughtful persons inside and outside of the congregation-especially high school and college students and other young adults.

To put the issue in another way: have we experienced the Spirit's ministry to us through the ministry of women? Has their calling, like Paul's, through changed lives and growth in Christ? Do these women, through their spiritual gifts, reveal the nurturing grace and sound guidance we look for in the ministry of men?

If so, are we willing to recognize and affirm the leading of the Spirit? Are we willing to say with Peter, who confronted the issue of equality for Gentile Christians, "If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God" (Acts 11:17)?

Other questions fall aside before this confrontation with God's grace and our discipleship. Questions of prejudice, of traditional practice, and even of denominational policy rightly recede in the presence of principles that have to do with the meaning of the Cross, with the character of God, and with our moral and spiritual integrity.

Isn't there some alternative way to solve the problem?

We all would like to "have it both ways"-to end the discrimination against women in ministry while cooperating with current denominational policy. This is, unfortunately, impossible, because the current policy requires us to deny ordination to women because they are not male, and the denial of ordination solely on the basis of gender constitutes discrimination. Equal pay is right and good, but it is not a proper substitute for ordination.

Fully recognizing and authorizing the service of women in ministry as equal to that of men requires a formal ordination. Only an ordained minister is regarded as a real minister and can function accordingly. Since Adventist men have been ordained for 140 years, anything other than ordination for women inescapably symbolizes an inferior role.

Given the meaning of ordination in the history of Christianity and in Adventism, any symbolism other than ordination-such as "affirmation" or "commissioning"-is, to use a metaphor familiar from the civil rights movement, simply leaving the women in the back of the bus. And for men in ministry to return their ordination credentials and request the same status as women is a powerful personal statement, but it simply means joining the women in the back of the bus. The only morally adequate and acceptable solution is to bring the women to the front of the bus; and this requires ordination.

Until we actually ordain the women who are successfully serving as ministers, the meaning of ordination is reduced to a certification of maleness. Conversely, ordaining women will restore the historic meaning of ordination.

Can it be a real ordination?

Yes. Ordination is a public recognition and affirmation that God has called a person to ministry, and it is also a commitment to encourage and support the continuing ministry of that person. It is an act by a group of people who are following the leading of God's Spirit.

In the most profound sense, it is God who ordains and empowers a minister. Like Lincoln at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, we recognize that what we do in an ordination service is dependent for its meaning on what has already happened. The symbolism of ordination is thus a response to God's own initiative and action.

When God calls someone to the gospel ministry, there is a threefold response. First of all there is the minister's own spiritual response, personally accepting the vocation of ministry. Then, secondly, there is the public recognition, affirmation, and commitment by the people among whom the minister serves, symbolized by the ordination service. Thirdly there is acknowledgment by the larger community of faith and by the world at large that a person is indeed ordained to the gospel ministry. Among Seventh-day Adventists, this has traditionally involved the issuance of conference credentials.

The reality and validity of the earlier responses do not depend on the later responses. A person's own genuine response to God's call to ministry is real and valid whether or not that response is confirmed by public ordination. Likewise, an ordination is real and valid whether or not it is acknowledged by conference credentials.

The Pacific Union Conference and the Southeastern California Conference have, for ecclesiastical rather than Biblical or theological reasons, not yet authorized the ordination of women. We have asked them to do so, and we continue to hope they will soon. In the meantime, a substantial majority of the La Sierra University Church Board believes that it is our duty to recognize the leading of God's Spirit and ordain the qualified women ministers who serve among us.

As a congregation of believing, worshipping Christians, we accept this responsibility before God, the church, and the world. By the act of ordination we say, as clearly and emphatically as we can, that the ministry of women is spiritually equal to that of men. In faithfulness to Scripture, to the gospel of Christ, and to our Adventist heritage and faith, we do what we can to practice this equality. Therefore we affirm by ordination the ministry of women among us. In good conscience and by God's grace, we can do no less.