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General Conference

What Do the Bible and Ellen White Say About Ordination Theology?

Marcos Blanco, Ph.D. in Theology and editor-in-chief for the South American Spanish Publishing House, clarifies the matter

Brazil | Felipe Lemos

In July 2021, the Plenary Board of Directors of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South America approved the report produced by a special committee on strengthening the activity of elders. Among the nominations was the authorization for Adventist congregations to recommend the ordination of women to serve as elders.

The historical record shows at least 16 votes from the General Conference and North American Division regarding ordination. The first is dated 1881, from the General Conference session. In 1984, the Annual Council at the Adventist world headquarters reaffirmed a 1975 vote on the topic and assured that women can be ordained elders at local churches in the divisions that decide to do it this way.

To address the biblical and present-in-text aspects of Ellen White's theology of ordination, the South American Adventist News Agency (ASN) spoke with Pastor Marcos Blanco. He holds a Ph.D. in Theology, director of the Adventist World in Spanish, and editorial manager for the Asociación Casa Editora Sudamericana (ACES). During the vote on the document on strengthening elders, Blanco made a presentation on this topic.

About Ordering

What is the basic concept of ordination according to the Bible? 

The Adventist Church understands that the Christian, by joining the church through baptism, is born into a new life and becomes part of a royal priesthood whose mission is to announce “the praises of Him who called [them] out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9, NKJV). Thus, all believers receive this ministry of reconciliation (see 2 Corinthians 5:18–20) and are called and empowered by the power of the Spirit and the gifts He gives them to fulfill the gospel commission (see Matthew 28:18–-20) .

Now, although all believers are called to use their spiritual gifts for ministry, the Bible mentions that some leadership positions were publicly supported (see Numbers 11:16, 17; Acts 6:1–6; 13:1–3; 14:23; 1 Timothy 3:1–12; Titus 1:5–9). On some occasions, this support was given through the “laying on of hands,” as in the case of the deacons (see Acts 6:6) [and] Barnabas and Paul (see Acts 13:3).

However, it is necessary to take into account that ordination has varied its theological and ecclesiastical meaning over time. There are Christians who understand ordination transfers some special power or grace. Despite this, Adventists understand biblical ordination is the church's action that publicly recognizes those the Lord has called and empowered for local and global church ministry. In this sense, ordination does not impart special qualities to ordained persons or introduce a royal hierarchy within the community of faith, but confers representative authority for the specific work of the ministry to which they have been appointed (see Acts 6:1–3; 13:1–3; 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 2:15).

From this point of view, we could say ordination is a qualification for service and representing the church, proclaiming the gospel, administering Holy Communion and baptism, planting and organizing churches, guiding and instructing members, opposing false teachings, and generally serving the congregation (see Acts 6:3; 20:28, 29; 1 Timothy 3:2, 4, 5; 2 Timothy 1:13, 14; 2:2; 4:5; Titus 1:5, 9).

Superiority of Men? 

Does the Bible present a concept of non-superiority of men over women in terms of leadership or not?

This is a broad theme that deserves some analysis. In the account of the creation of human beings that Genesis presents to us, Adam and Eve were created equal: both receive the image and likeness of God since they share the same nature; both are given the function of governing the rest of creation; and both receive the same blessing: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). There is sex (gender) differentiation because they have complementary differences, but neither is put under the subject of the other. Only as a consequence of the fall is the woman placed under the subjection of her husband. Ellen White makes it clear:

“In creation God had made [Eve] the equal of Adam. Had they remained obedient to God—in harmony with His great law of love—they would ever have been in harmony with each other; but sin had brought discord, and now their union could be maintained and harmony preserved only by submission on the part of the one or the other.… Had the principles enjoined in the law of God been cherished by the fallen race, this sentence, though growing out of the results of sin, would have proved a blessing to them; but man’s abuse of the supremacy thus given him has to often rendered the lot of woman very bitter and made her life a burden” (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 58, 59).

If we pay attention, the new agreement was necessary because sin brought discord in the husband-wife relationship. There is no indication in the biblical text or Ellen White’s writings that women thereafter would be submissive to men in general. This order is restricted to the home. The submission of women to their husbands after the fall does not close the possibility that a woman would occupy important positions of leadership outside the home, in society, and among God's people.

Furthermore, I would like to clarify that, according to the apostle Paul, the submission between spouses must be mutual (“Subject yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ” [Ephesians 5:21, NASB]), and this means the husband must love his wife “as Christ also loved the church” (v. 25).

Women in the Old Testament 

In your studies, what have you noticed about the role of Old Testament prophetesses and Christian church leaders in the first century of the Christian Era, as recorded in the New Testament? Can you talk about women called to act as leaders? 

It is evident that women were not subordinated to men in intellectual, mental, emotional and other spheres. A woman could participate on equal terms with a man in the public life of ancient Israel. We know important women from the earliest to the last period of Israel's history. Miriam, for example, served as a government advisor (see Exodus 2:4, 7, 8; 15:20, 21) and was a prophetess.

We have Deborah, this Israeli heroine who served as judge like the other judges and was also a prophetess (see Judges 4; 5). Athaliah ruled as queen over Judah for six years (see 2 Kings 11). The king's ministers consulted Huldah, the prophetess (see 2 Kings 22:14). Isaiah's wife was also a prophetess (see Isaiah 8:3). In another context, the book of Esther tells how a woman saved the nation. Importantly, in the Old Testament, both men and women could take the Nazarite vow and be dedicated and set apart for God (see Numbers 6:2).

In this way, the Old Testament provides ample evidence that God chose women for spiritual and political leadership, considering them capable of carrying out such tasks.

What about the New Testament?

When we go into the New Testament, leadership was exercised through the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit gives for the benefit of the church and the fulfillment of mission (see Romans 12; Ephesians 4). Every follower of Christ, without exception, has a special and unique contribution to make to the well-being and mission of the church, according to the gift given to him or her. Now, as an Adventist Church, we consider the gifts of the Spirit are not bestowed on the basis of gender. Spiritual gifts related to leadership are not unique to man, but the Holy Spirit bestows gifts as He believes to be necessary, regardless of gender.

The New Testament contains many examples of godly women who lead, preach, teach, and disciple: Priscilla instructs Apollo (see Acts 18:24–26); the apostle Paul sends greetings to Mary and Junias, “very respected among the apostles” (Romans 16:6, 7); he mentions Phoebe as a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae (see Romans 16:1); Lydia was a powerful woman in the community, head of the household, and caring for Paul and Silas (see Acts 16:14, 15); Nymph is described as the leader of the church that met in her home (see Colossians 4:15); and Paul mentions, among his “colleagues” or “coworkers” (Greek sunergos), Timothy (see 1 Thessalonians 3:2), Titus (see 2 Corinthians 8:23), Epaphroditus (see Philippians 2:25), Clement (4:3) and Philemon (see Philemon 1), but also to women like Priscilla (see Romans 16:3) and Euodia and Syntyche (see Philippians 4:2, 3).

Opposing Arguments

Those who are against the ordination of women, whether as elders or for the ministry, argue, for example, that ecclesiastical leadership is the prerogative of men, since women have always acted as a complement. How do you see this argument? 

It is true we see a strong male presence in Old Testament leadership. On the other hand, I have already mentioned several examples where women have held positions of spiritual leadership, as well as in other areas. When Genesis mentions Eve was created as “a suitable helper,” it points out that a woman would be a suitable counterpart on the same level of equality.

There are some who think that because the husband is the “head of the wife” or the “head of the home,” then he has to be the “head of the wife” within the church. According to them, this would disqualify women from exercising leadership positions. However, according to Scripture, Christ is the sole Head of the church, while the human members of Christ's church collectively (male and female) form the body of Christ (see Ephesians 1:22, 23; 5:23; Colossians 1:18; 2:19; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:3; Colossians 2:10).

Likewise, Ellen White states, "Christ, not the minister, is the head of the church" (The Signs of the Times, Jan. 27, 1890), and "Christ is the only Head of the church" (Manuscript Releases, vol. 21, p. 274). Neither Scripture nor Ellen White's writings apply the expression “head leadership” in the church to anyone but Christ. Furthermore, neither the Scriptures nor the writings of Ellen White support any transfer of the head function in the home to functions within the church body.

This article was originally published on the South American Division’s Portuguese news site