Working side by side

The author shares his perspective on the role of women in church leadership.

Dan Day, Mdiv, is director of special projects, North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Working side by side

When a great and decisive work is to be done, God chooses men and women to do this work, and it will feel the loss if the talents of both are not combined.”1

With these words, Ellen G. White sets out a clear principle for how God’s work should be carried out in these final days: it is to be accomplished by men and women working side by side, with their energies and gifts combined. Ellen G. White had, actually, much to say on the role of women in ministry.2 She charged the church to find new ways in allowing the talents and gifts of women to serve the Lord’s needs, including women being unbound and allowed to grow, so that they could become effective agents in the hand of the Lord. She wrote,

We need to branch out more in our methods of labor. Not a hand should be bound, not a soul discouraged, not a voice should be hushed; let every individual labor, privately or publicly, to help forward this grand work. Place the burdens upon men and women of the church, that they may grow by reason of the exercise, and thus become effective agents in the hand of the Lord for the enlightenment of those who sit in darkness.3

In preparing this article, I was soon immersed in dozens of Web sites, blogs, printed articles, posi­tion papers, and even entire books on Adventist women in ministry.4 It is clear that the church—while somewhat divided on women’s ordination—has a fairly clear sense of the broad path we should be following in order to minister at full capacity in today’s complex world.

The ongoing “biblical” debate

Change is difficult for all of us, even when we claim openness to it. When we see it coming, we dodge and weave back and forth. It is OK for others to change (they probably need it), but we are convinced our ways are just fine. We struggle to welcome change as a friend and enabler, rather than a threat.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church was formed at a time when women were seen as occupying a particular role in society, and not one with great potential. As Kit Watts put it in a Ministry article:

At the dawn of the nineteenth century in the United States, women held approximately the same legal status as children and slaves. Married women gen­erally could not own property independent of their husbands. If they were employed, their wages could be appropriated by their husbands. Legal say about children resided entirely in the father’s hands.5

That was the soil in which Adventist women began laboring. The church was formed in a cultural context that defined the role of women in narrow, restricted terms. In 1889, Ellen G. White recalled that her own brother had begged her not to go public in ministry. He wrote to her, “I beg of you do not disgrace the family. I will do anything for you if you will not go out as a preacher.”6 For many women of her day, this would have been an obstacle too large to overcome. But Ellen wrote back, “Can it disgrace the family for me to preach Christ and Him cruci­fied! If you would give me all the gold your house could hold, I would not cease giving my testimony for God.”7

That position took courage and boldness. The church itself would need to show courage and boldness and come to grips with a female prophet among us, who was unwill­ing to hide her candle under a bushel or fail to deliver a clear and compel­ling witness to Jesus.

The theology behind the theology

Not all arguments can be resolved most successfully by pur­suing a straight line. While playing miniature golf, I found that no hole can be successfully approached in a straight line. You have to go around a corner, bounce off a wall, or go through a windmill. In the same way, you have to approach some aspects of church life by applying a few broader principles than you might otherwise be inclined to do.

For example, the apostle Paul provides three fundamental princi­ples for addressing complex issues.

First, always go from the general to the specific. We must ask, What does God’s larger plan look like, and how are the specific issues we face informed by the broader principles? For example, whether it’s women in leadership, speaking in tongues, or race relations, Paul wants us to understand God’s broad relationship with us, that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female” (Gal. 3:28, NLT). That’s the big idea that undergirds everything else. You cannot get to an understanding on complex and 

contentious issues simplistically or in a linear fashion; you have to start with the central issues and then see how these shape the specifics.

Second, be willing to be in spiritual submission. Whether wives being in submission to their husbands, all Christians being in submission to Christ, or Jesus being in submission to His Father, the core value that shapes our understanding of things is that we have to be willing to priori­tize. We have to understand that not everything is of equal significance or application, and we have to put our own interests up against what God attempts to do in the world. We are not only individuals; we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Third, make sharing the good news of Jesus central in our com­munities. The church is here to be a welcoming environment where God can bring into fellowship those He is saving. Nothing else that we want to debate or disagree about—whether it is drums in church, methods for evangelism, or women’s ordina­tion—can be allowed to dominate the conversation. The question shap­ing the debate is, Does it enable us to share Jesus or does it get in the way?

Those opposed to women in leadership justify their arguments by passages from the apostle Paul, such as, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak” (1 Cor. 14:34, KJV). If we do not use Paul’s three principles, going from the general to the specific, considering time and place, this passage alone would end the conversation.

But it does not. A literal­ist approach to Scripture is one Adventists formally rejected long ago. Adventist theologians and historians, over and over, have integrated these words with other passages of Scripture—including stories that show women leading out in significant ways, both in the Old and New Testaments—that reveal God’s eagerness to break down all social barriers. Some of us in the church today still divide ourselves into “literalists,” who would apply Scripture with no reflection on time and place, and those who would apply the “principle” behind the words. And then, of course, we castigate one another for failing to be “sufficiently biblical” (by which we mean that “you do not interpret things as I do”). It is not really the theology of the thing (the specific interpretations), so much as the theology behind the theology.

Reaching today’s world for Jesus

We live in distinctive cultures, with many contrasting or even competing values. If our views and beliefs are to be seen as relevant and meaningful, we must speak in ways that make sense to our listen­ers. The apostle Paul put it most urgently when he wrote, “Let your conversation be always gracious, and never insipid; study how best to talk with each person you meet” (Col. 4:6, NEB). The Message Bible paraphrase puts it in even more dramatic form: “Use your heads as you live and work among outsiders. Don’t miss a trick. Make the most of every opportunity. Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out” (vv. 5, 6).

Clearly, we need to find ways to communicate with others in their terms, using language that makes sense to them, in their cultural setting.

The elephant in the room

The conversation about women in ministry, about which some con­sensus exists, is often squashed by “the elephant in the room.” You may find it ironic that in a denomination whose history was hugely shaped by a woman, the church finds itself struggling internally over the role of women in leadership.8 This is, of course, part of a larger conver­sation that touches on women’s ordination—a battle that has been going on in the church for genera­tions. This is part of an even more fundamental conversation about the priesthood of all believers, touching on the core issue of what ordination means to us as a denomination (which is not precisely what it means to some other groups).

Currently, the debate about women’s ordination lies in a waiting period due to contrasting views in various parts of the world. There can be no escaping the heat on both sides of the issue, with passionate advocates and opponents. Each side feels they are not only right, but that they stand on the high moral ground.

The current status of women’s ordination was presented with some clarity by our former General Conference president, Jan Paulsen. He stated that the issue was not theological or biblical but a function of maintaining unity in the world church. In communicating with young people, he said, “For Seventh-day Adventists, ordination to the gospel ministry means ordination to serve the entire world church anywhere the minister is called. Within many countries and cultures, women are excluded from exercis­ing leadership, whether political, religious, or social.”9 He went on to add, The Adventist Church has placed a high value on unity and world­wide consensus on this issue, and at the 1990 General Confer­ence in Session it voted that women would not be ordained to the gospel ministry in our denomination. The issue was revisited at the 1995 General Conference session and this approach was confirmed. Again, it was a matter of the global Adventist Church saying, in the interest of unity, “No—at least not now.”10

Paulsen knows of no biblical rea­son why women cannot be ordained and given leadership in ministry.11 The issue is keeping a state of bal­ance among constituencies, waiting for a more receptive environment.

The role of women in leadership

Our focus in this article is not the debate over the ordination of women but enabling women and men to work side by side. There was a fairly rapid expansion of Adventist women in leadership positions dur­ing the years leading up to the death of Ellen G. White, and then a sharp decline afterwards.12 There were many reasons for this change, most of which are sociological. One factor was the desire to protect jobs for men during the Great Depression, which was accelerated at the end of World War II when the men came back from war. Today, the process of welcoming women into ministry is once again reversing itself. In North America, in particular, an increasing number of women are again serving as pastors and conference leaders. This includes the significant shift of women studying at the seminary to become pastors.

Thus, with a full awareness of these historical patterns, we turn to the broader issue of the women in leadership today. Adventists have always struggled to find a casual middle ground on the issue, given our passion for people. Indeed, it is part of a larger concept of social engagement that was dramatically characteristic of the early Adventist believers.

Early Adventists understood Paul’s prophetic words in Gala­tians 3:28 that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is nei­ther male nor female; for you are all one in Christ” (NKJV) as the seed of many reforms that led to the abolition of social evils like slavery, class distinctions based on birth rights, and gender exclusion in society and church. Early Adventists were thus abo­litionists, social democrats, and republicans in government.13

Adventists have never been mere reflectors of social trends. We have always brought our social awareness to the conversation, along with a desire to dig into the deeper teach­ings of Scripture. For example, in resisting the traditional view that the Bible prohibits women from speaking in church, there were four articles in church publications between the 1860s and 1870s on the theme of women in ministry, including some by J. H. Waggoner and J. N. Andrews.

Interestingly enough, none of these articles attempted to make the case that Ellen G. White should be allowed a distinctive pass or dispensa­tion from traditional thinking because she was a prophet. These articles, as we saw that Paul suggests, went from the general to the specific.

The debate on the role of women in ministry has been a continuing part of our internal dialogue. In the 1881 General Conference Session, a resolution was offered to ordain women: “Resolved, 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.”14 The resolution was referred to a three man General Conference committee, where it died,15 but even then it was part of the larger conversation about women in ministry.

Virtually the entire church acknowledges that the topic of women in leadership is a complex, demanding ongoing study. The larger issue, though, is not political or even sociological. Instead, it is pragmatic, based on Paul’s third principle. It is about what we need to do to facili­tate God’s work with the greatest likelihood of success—in each place where the gospel is carried out. In some cultures, the concept of men and women working side by side is not only acceptable but expected, and even required (sometimes by law). A desire for uniform practices in all parts of the world should never be allowed to impede the work in one place in order to avoid challenges in another. Instead, a line of logic that supports the application of differing congregational practices based on differing cultural realities has to be stated clearly and boldly—and then defended vigorously. In other words, we have to assert Paul’s three principles with vigor and tenacity.

Finally, as we discuss the role of women in leadership, we must see that Paul’s call to open wide the doors of ministry is shaped by the driving value of love. Jesus told His disciples that the world will inevitably evaluate us on the basis of whether or not what we do is driven by love (John 13:35). Any other value gets in the way. We all need to be celebrat­ing the contributions of Adventist women in leadership and working to expand opportunities for women everywhere.


1 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 469.

2 I would recommend, as a convenient place to access this, the appendix on what Ellen White had to say on the topic, found in Patricia Habada and Rebecca Frost Brillhart, eds., The Welcome Table (Langley Park, MD: Team Press, 1995), beginning on page 301.

3 Ellen G. White, “The Duty of the Minister and the People,” Review and Herald, July 9, 1895.

4 For example, Nancy Vyhmeister, ed., Women in Ministry: Biblical & Historical Perspectives (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1998) is a comprehensive scholarly book put out by the Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and written by an impressive list of theologians and historians.

5 Lorna Tobler, “A More Faithful Witness” (paper, West Coast Religion Teacher’s Conference, n.p., May 2–4, 1985), 2–6, quoted in Kitt Watts, “The Rise and Fall of Adventist Women in Leadership,” Ministry, April 1995, 6.

6 Ellen G. White, “Looking for That Blessed Hope,” Signs of the Times, June 24, 1889. (Ellen G. White preached this sermon in Washington, DC, on January 26, 1889.)

7 Ibid.

8 The recent 2011 Annual Council decision by the General Conference not to approve the request from the North American Division to accommodate the cultural realities in North America by allowing women and others on nonordained tracks (such as treasurers) to serve as conference presidents, serves to illustrate this divergence of opinion: 41.9 percent of the Annual Council delegates supported the NAD request; 58.1 percent did not approve the request. Thus, at the present time, a woman can serve as a conference secretary (the next highest office), but cannot—by policy—advance into the presidency.

9 This quote from Jan Paulsen was from written material in a Q & A section on the Let’s Talk Web site, a forum for Adventist youth. However the original source no longer exists as this Web site was retired in 2010.

10 Ibid.

11 Per correspondence with Jan Paulsen, August 22, 2012.

12 Watts, “The Rise and Fall of Adventist Women,” 6–10. “In 1905, for example, women held 20 out of 60 conference treasurer positions. The number of women heading conference departments was even more remarkable. In 1915 approximately two thirds of the 60 educational department leaders and more than 50 of the 60 Sabbath school department leaders were women.” Ibid., 8.

13 Denis Fortin, “What Did Early Adventist Pioneers Think About Women in Ministry?” Memory, Meaning & Faith (blog), April 8, 2012, accessed August 20, 2012, www -women-ministry.html#more.

14 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, “Business Proceedings: Fifth Meeting, Dec. 5, 10 a.m.,” Review and Herald, December 20, 1881, 392. See also Helen Ward Thompson, “Questions and Answers About Women’s Ordination and the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” quoted in Habada and Brillhart, eds., The Welcome Table. Also discussed in Bert Haloviak, “Ellen White and the Ordination of Women” (sermon, Sligo, Maryland, Seventh-day Adventist Church, October 15, 1988), www.camelback

15 Stephen Haskell, George Butler, and Uriah Smith.

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Dan Day, Mdiv, is director of special projects, North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

October 2012

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