A short history of women’s ordination


The Seventh-day Adventist Church is currently engaged in a global discussion on the practice and parameters of ordination. As part of this discussion, the General Conference has constituted an ordination study process to make recommendations in the lead-up to the 2015 General Conference Session.

Our community was founded on deep Bible study and thoughtful discussion in the pages of our early publications; RECORD aims to continue in that tradition. Hence, as our Church discusses the issue of ordination, the RECORD will endeavour to provide not only current news as it develops, but also thoughtful analysis from a variety of perspectives. The first in our series on ordination was Kent Kingston’s article (“Back to Basics”, October 20) that explored where our concepts of ordination originated and how they relate to the biblical precedents. The second is this history of ordination practice in the Adventist community. At record.net.au we welcome your analysis, reactions, perspectives and insights as our community examines these complex questions with maturity and grace.

How we treat each other through the crisis, and how we support the disappointed, are much more an indication of our Christ-likeness than decisions made.

More than 130 years after the ordination of women in ministry was first discussed at the General Conference, it’s firmly back on the agenda. Back then (1881) a resolution was “presented for discussion”: “That females possessing the necessary qualifications to fill that position, may, with perfect propriety, be set apart by ordination to the work of the Christian ministry.” It’s not known if it was ever discussed further.

Currently the Church’s various Biblical Research Committees have been asked to study the issue. A Theology of Ordination Committee is being formed to bring a report to the General Conference’s Annual Council in 2014 to determine what recommendation, “if any”, should go to the 2015 General Conference session. While this seems more extensive than previous studies on the topic, it’s the fifth since 1950. 

A more pressing matter though comes from a couple of unions (Pacific Union Conference and Columbia Union Conference in the United States) that have held special constituency meetings where, by more than a two-to-one majority, they decided to ordain “without regard to gender”. Several women are now approved for ordination. 

The argument from these unions is that because they hold the right to ordain church pastors they can. Just as local churches have the authority to decide who can be ordained as elders, the unions are the ones who decide who should be ordained as pastors. The policies unions work under are not specific about gender. 

Problems in interpretation

In 1984, when one study group was formed, a former General Conference president, Robert H Pierson, made an “earnest appeal” that those who studied the issue would “stay by what the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy have said, not by what other churches have done”. 

The next year the study group of 66 came back with two recommendations. The first supported the ordination of women as local church elders “as each division may see its way clear to proceed”. That was accepted.

The then-president, Neal C Wilson, reported, “On the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, however, no clear consensus emerged. Although a slight majority supported the concept, most of them did not think it wise to act on the matter now.” Further study was required. 

This illustrates a core issue—the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy are not as helpful in clarifying the ordination position as we would want. Some, of course, claim that the Bible and Ellen White’s writings are quite clear on the issue. But, like the 66, there are those who disagree. It seems that each study group has had the same problem.

Commissioning—almost ordained?

Commissioning of female pastors was adopted after discussion at the General Conference Annual Council at the end of 1989. This gave women pastors the rights of male pastors—except to officially form a church, to unite churches or to ordain church elders and deacons. 

At the time, several saw this recommendation as an attempt to please both sides of the argument. “This is not a clear decision but a compromise,” said one delegate. Another said, “The document is consistent with the inconsistency of the Church’s position on women’s ordination over the past 15 years.”

General Conference president Neal C Wilson argued for commissioning in this way, “Ordination should be a global endorsement. . . . We have stated that we wanted women in ministry even though we have said it is not wise to ordain women. Also we didn’t feel comfortable with continuing to discriminate between unordained men and women in ministry.” 

That ordination and commissioning are almost the same is also found in The Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook where it lists ordination and commissioning services together, and adds: “In divisions in which women receive commissioning to ministry, the same order of service [as for ordination] may be used for the commissioning service, or the ordination and commissioning service may occur in the same service.” 

One more thing

The current “crisis” will be settled with time one way or the other. How we treat each other through the crisis, and how we support the disappointed, are much more an indication of our Christ-likeness than decisions made. Let’s pray for those who have to make the call on this thorny issue.

Pastor Bruce Manners is senior pastor of Lilydale church, Victoria.