Women in the Church
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Four of the ten chapters can be accessed by clicking their titles below:

The Ministry of Women in the New Testament

Women and Church Office

The Role of the Pastor

Retrospect and Prospect

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Chapter 8


Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University

The preceding chapters have surveyed the religious role of women in the Old and New Testaments. We shall now review some of the main conclusions reached and then consider their implications for the role of women in the church today. Thus, the chapter divides into two parts: retrospect and prospect.



The underlying assumption of much of the literature surveyed seems to be that the only way a woman can realistically minister within the church is by being officially ordained as elder or pastor. This mistaken, unbiblical assumption must be regarded as the bitter fruit of the medieval clericalization of the church, which has traditionally limited the ministry within the church almost exclusively to ordained priests.

To correct this reprehensible situation, it is necessary to recover the Biblical vision of the church as the "body of Christ," consisting of different members, each fulfilling different but essential ministries (1 Cor 12:12-31; Eph 4:11-16). Our investigation has shown that while Scripture precludes the ordination of women to serve as priests in the Old Testament and as elders/pastors in the New Testament, it does provide ample support for their participation in the prophetic, liturgical, and social ministries of the church.

1. The Ministry of Women

Old Testament. We observed in Chapter 1 that women played a vital role in the private and public religious life of ancient Israel. As full members of the covenant community, women participated in the study and teaching of the law to their children, in offering prayers and vows to God, in ministering at the entrance of the sanctuary, in singing, and in the prophetic ministry of exhortation and guidance. The roles of Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah exemplify the important ministry that women fulfilled within the religious life of ancient Israel.

The religious roles of women, however, were different from those of men, since women were excluded from the priesthood. The reason for this exclusion was not, as is widely held, their frequent ritual impurity caused by their monthly menstrual flow. We have seen that the emission of semen defiled men with more frequency and with less predictability than the menstrual flow in women. Instead, the reason is to be found in the recognition of the headship role which man, as the "first-born" of the human family, was appointed by God to fulfill in the home and in public worship. This principle is implied in the creation story of Genesis 2 and is upheld in both the Old and New Testaments.

New Testament. We noted in Chapter 2 that the apostolic church stands in marked contrast to the restrictions imposed on women by Jewish culture. Contrary to prevailing prejudices against them, Jesus admitted women into His fellowship and taught them the truths of God’s kingdom. On their part, women responded positively to Christ. A group of them ministered to Christ’s physical needs, and followed Him during much of His travels, even to the very place of His crucifixion. Their devotion to Christ was rewarded by the risen Lord who first appeared to them and commissioned them to break the news of His resurrection to the disciples.

In spite of His revolutionary treatment of women, Jesus did not choose women as apostles nor did He commission them to preach the gospel. We have shown that the reason for this omission was not a concession on the part of Christ to the social conventions of His time, but rather compliance with the role distinctions for men and women established at creation.

The apostolic church followed the pattern established by Christ by including women as integral members in the life and expanding mission of the church. Women served with distinction within the church by organizing charitable service for the needy, by sharing their faith with others, by working as "fellow-workers" alongside the apostles and by sharing in the prophetic ministry of edification, encouragement and consolation. In spite of the various vital ministries women performed in the church, there are no indications in the New Testament that they were ever ordained to serve as elders/overseers/pastors.

2. The Ordination of Women

Why were women able to participate equally with men in various religious ministries and yet were excluded from the appointive roles of priest in the Old Testament and of elder/bishop/pastor in the New Testament? Our investigation has shown that the reasons were not socio-cultural but rather theological. For the sake of clarity we shall briefly summarize seven main reasons that have emerged in the course of our study for the exclusion of women from the priesthood or pastoral office.

Order of Creation. A first and fundamental reason is suggested by the order and manner of the creation of Adam and Eve which in Scripture are seen as typifying the distinctive, but complementary roles God assigned to men and women. We observed in Chapter 3 that though man and woman are equally created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), they are sexually different: male and female. The equality and difference is clarified in Genesis 2 in terms of sameness and subordination. Man and woman are essentially the same because they share the same human flesh and complement one another. Yet woman is functionally subordinated to man as indicated by the typological significance of the priority of Adam’s formation, the woman’s creation from and for man, the bearing by man of the name of mankind, and the naming by man of the animals and of the woman herself.

The headship role of man in the creation account of Genesis 2 is in no way intended to support a chauvinistic view of male superiority. Its intent is rather to explain that there is a basic difference between male and female which derives from the very order of creation. This difference is not merely sexual, but extends to the differing, though complementary, roles men and women are called to fulfill in the family and in the church. Thus the difference is functional, not ontological; that is, it is a matter of different roles and not of inferiority or superiority.

We have seen that Paul attaches fundamental importance to the order and manner of the creation of Adam and Eve, defending the functional submission of woman to the leadership of man both in the home and in the church (1 Tim 2:13; 1 Cor 11:8-9). He bases his instructions concerning the role of women in the church, not on the consequences of the Fall described in Genesis 3, but on the pre-Fall order of creation presented in Genesis 1 and 2.

Order of Redemption. A second reason for viewing the ordination of women as unbiblical is the implications of the order of redemption examined in Chapter 4. We observed that Christ’s coming has greatly affected the social relationship of men and women, but has not changed or eliminated role differences between them. Jesus’ teachings and attitude toward women brought about a significant change in their social status. This change made it possible for women to be treated with the same "brotherly love" as men and to participate actively in the life and mission of the church. There is no indication, however, that Jesus’ elevation of the human dignity and worth of women was ever intended to pave the way for their ordination as pastors of the flock. Christ’s exclusive choice of men as apostles indicates His respect for the role differences between men and women established at creation.

Like Christ, Paul was revolutionary in proclaiming the oneness and equality in Christ of all believers (Gal 3:28; Col 3:9-11; 1 Cor 12:12-13). Yet, like Christ, Paul did not eliminate the role distinctions of men and women established at creation. Our study of Galatians 3:28 has shown that Paul envisions all believers as being one in Christ, in whom all racial, social and gender distinctions no longer have any validity.

However, being one in Christ does not change a Jew into a Gentile or a man into a woman; rather it changes the way each of these relate to each other. Equality and oneness in Christ do not imply role-interchangeability, but rather mutual respect and support for the distinctive but complementary roles God has assigned to men and women. These roles are not nullified but clarified by Christ’s redemption and thus they should be reflected in the church. The order of redemption does not nullify, but sanctifies the order of creation.

Headship and Subordination. A third reason for excluding women from serving as elders/pastors is the principle of headship and subordination which we examined in Chapter 5. Ephesians 5:21-33 and 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 show that the principle of male headship in the home and in the church derives, not from illegitimate male efforts to dominate women, but from a legitimate order established by God. We have reached this conclusion first by ascertaining the meaning of "head," and then by examining Paul’s application of the principle of male headship in marriage (Eph 5:21-33) and in the church (1 Cor 11:2-16).

We have seen that Paul uses the term "head" with the meaning of "authority, head over" and not of "source, origin." In Ephesians 5:21-33 Paul affirms the headship of man in marriage by appealing not to cultural customs, but to the Christological model of the relationship between Christ and the church. By utilizing this model, Paul effectively clarifies the meaning of the husband’s headship as loving and sacrificial leadership and the meaning of the wife’s submission as willing response to a caring husband. For Paul, headship and subordination do not connote superiority or inferiority, but order-in-service. The authority to which a woman subordinates herself is not so much that of her husband as that of the divine order to which both are subject.

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Paul grounds the headship of man and the subordination of woman in the church on the creational distinctions between men and women, distinctions which must be respected within the church. These distinctions were being challenged by emancipated Corinthian women who had concluded that their new position in Christ (1 Cor 4:8-10) granted them freedom to stop wearing a sign of submission to their husbands (head covering), especially at times of prayer and charismatic expression in the church service. Paul counteracts this trend by emphasizing the importance of respecting a custom which in his time helped to maintain the creational role distinctions.

The headship between man and woman is correlated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 to the headship between God and Christ: "The head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God" (1 Cor 11:3). The latter refutes the charge that submission means inferiority because in the Trinity there is a headship among equals. Christ’s submission to the authority and headship of His Father did not stifle His personality, but was the secret of His wisdom, power, and success. Similarly, a woman who accepts the leadership of a mature and caring man in the family or in the church will not feel unfulfilled, but rather will find the needed protection and support to exercise her God-given ministries.

The Role of Women in the Church. A fourth reason why women should not be appointed to serve as elders/pastors is the clear Pauline instruction on the matter found in 1 Timothy 2:9-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36. Our examination of these two passages in Chapter 6 has shown that the application of the headship-subordination principle in the church requires that women not be appointed "to teach" (1 Tim 2:12) or "to speak" (1 Cor 14:34) authoritatively as the leader of the congregation. We have found that this Pauline instruction derives, not from the cultural conventions of his time which restricted the participation of women in public gathering, but rather from Paul’s understanding of the creational order of male headship and female subordination.

For Paul this creational order requires that women not be appointed to serve as representative shepherds of the flock. His reasons are not the women’s relative lack of education or their disorderly conduct, but rather the need to respect the distinctive roles for men and women established by God at creation. The theological nature of Paul’s arguments leaves no room to make his instructions of only local and time-bound application.

The exclusion of women from teaching or speaking as the leader of the church in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 must not be construed to mean that Paul prohibited women from actively participating in the public worship and mission of the church. On the contrary, we have seen in chapter 2 that Paul commends a significant number of women for their outstanding ministry in and for the church. For Paul (and for the rest of Scripture) the question is not, Should women be appointed to minister in the church?, but rather, To which ministry should women be appointed? The answer given by Paul and the rest of Scripture is: women should be appointed to any and all ministries which do not violate the creational role distinctions for men and women.

The Symbolic Role of the Pastor. A fifth reason why only some men and no women should be ordained to serve as elders or pastors is the dual representative role that a pastor fulfills in the church. We have shown in Chapter 7 that the New Testament envisions the church as an extended family of believers in which the elder/pastor represents both church members to God and God to church members.

Women cannot legitimately serve in such dual representative roles, not because they are any less capable than men of piety, zeal, learning, leadership or any other qualities needed to serve as a pastor, but simply because such roles are perceived in Scripture as being that of a spiritual father and not of a spiritual mother.

We have seen in Chapter 7 that a pastor fulfills a unique symbolic role in the church as representative of the heavenly Father, Shepherd, High Priest, and Head of the Church. A woman pastor cannot appro- priately fulfill such a symbolic role because her Scriptural role is not that of a father, shepherd, priest or head of the church. Thus, to ordain women to serve as elders/pastors means not only to violate a divine design, but also to adulterate the pastor’s symbolic representation of God.

Male Imagery of God. A sixth reason for viewing the ordination of women as unbiblical and unwise is the predominant male imagery used in Scripture to reveal God. Obviously, God transcends human sexual distinctions, yet He has chosen to reveal Himself in Scripture and through Jesus Christ in predominantly and unmistakably male terms and imagery.

We have seen in Chapter 7 that, contrary to the prevailing custom which out of reverence avoided mentioning the name of God, Jesus taught His disciples to address God not only "Father," but also "Abba," an Aramaic family term equivalent to our "daddy." The reason why God revealed Himself, especially and consistently through Jesus Christ, as our Father and not as our Mother, is primarily because Fatherhood preserves the Biblical principle of headship and subordination and thus best represents the role that God Himself sustains toward us His children, namely, the role of an almighty, just, and caring Father. This role functions as the foundational model for all forms of human fatherhood (Eph 3:14-15), whether it be that of the husband in the home or of the pastor in the church.

Feminist theologians have long recognized the enormous significance of the connection between the Fatherhood of God and the male headship role in the home and in the church. For them this connection rightly represents a formidable stumbling block to the ordination of women. Consequently, they have been actively engaged in revising the language of God through the introduction of impersonal or feminine names for God. However, to worship God as "Fire, Light, Divine Providence," or as "Mother, Daughter, Father-Mother, Son-Daughter," means not only to destroy the personal relationship provided by the revelation of God as our "Father," but also to fabricate a God who is totally different from the One of Biblical revelation.

No Principle, Precept or Example. A seventh reason for objecting to women’s ordination is the fact that Scripture, the church’s guide, provides no general principles, no specific precepts, and no examples that can support such a practice.

All the Biblical examples of ordination involve males. Scripture’s specific instructions, as we have seen in Chapter 7, unmistakably require that the overseer, elder, or priest be not merely a person but a man (Greek:aner—1 Tim 3:2; cf. Titus 1:6; Ex 29:8,9). And as noted in the course of our investigation, the Bible’s general principles preclude the ordination of women to serve as elders or pastors. Thus, the absence of biblical examples, precepts and principles for women’s ordination, should warn the church from venturing into this uncharted terrain.

Those who favor women’s ordination argue that women are just as competent and capable as men in the ministry. Few will dispute this assertion. But the issue, as we have seen, is not one of abilities or training, but one of God’s will as revealed in Scripture. Sometimes a woman might fulfill certain "fatherly" roles better than a particular man fulfills them, yet this does not change the fact that God has called women to be mothers and men to be fathers.

The real issue is not whether women are equally capable as men, but whether God has called women to serve as pastors, that is, as indicated by the meaning of the word, shepherds of a spiritual flock. The answer of Scripture, according to our investigation, is No, because the pastor’s role is perceived in the New Testament as being that of a spiritual father and not of a spiritual mother. This does not mean that the church does not need spiritual mothers. The contrary is true. As a home without a mother lacks that tender, loving care that only mothers can give, so a church without spiritual mothers lacks that warmth, care, and compassion that spiritual mothers can best give. The conclusion, then, is that men and women are equally called by God to minister in the home and in the church, but in different and yet complementary roles. We shall now consider some of the ministries women are uniquely qualified to fulfill within the church.



1. Pastor’s Headship Role

No Job Description. How should the principles delineated in the course of this study be applied to the concrete tasks men and women are to perform in the church? In seeking to formulate an answer note should be taken of the fact that the New Testament offers no detailed listing of what constitutes appropriate "men’s work" or "women’s work" within marriage or within the church. Instead, we have found that the New Testament emphasizes the importance of respecting the principle of male headship and female subordination in the home and in the church. This principle is derived from the order and manner of the creation of man and woman which typify the distinctive and yet complementary roles God has assigned to men and women.

We have noted that the New Testament defines the headship-subordination principle in terms of the relationship between Christ and the church. This model does not spell out the specific tasks that headship and subordination entail. It only suggests that male headship entails sacrificial, caring leadership and female subordination willing response. The specific tasks associated with each role in the home and in the church will vary in different cultures. Consequently, we must be wary of "canonizing" certain job descriptions as exclusively male or female when Scripture does not do so. The most we can attempt to do is to submit some general guidelines.

Exercise of Headship. Before considering the supportive roles of women in the church, brief attention should be given to what the headship role of a pastor entails. We observed in Chapter 5 that the biblical understanding of headship is leadership for the sake of building up others and not for self-advancement. Christ defines leadership as willingness to serve others (Matt 20:27). This model of leadership as servanthood has profound implications for the role of a pastor. It means, for example, that a pastor best exercises his leadership authority by delegating authority and responsibilities to men and women willing and competent to serve in any needed area.

Pastoral headship modelled after Christ will take into account the abilities of those who are called with the pastor to minister to the different physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs of the congregation. This means that if a pastor is fortunate enough to have on his staff women—whether employed by the church or on a voluntary basis—able and willing to serve as health educators, Bible instructors, family counselors, treasurers, and directors of the various departments of the church (choir, Sabbath school, personal ministries, youth, community services, deaconess work, church school boards), he will foster their full and free use of their gifts. This should be seen not as abdication of a pastor’s responsibilities but an effective fulfillment of his headship role in the church. In the body of Christ, the head motivates and activates all the members of the body (Eph 4:16).

2. Application of Women’s Passages

Two Extremes. There is considerable confusion about what women can and cannot do in the church. The confusion is largely the result of two extreme interpretations and applications of those biblical passages which refer to the role of women in the church (1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33-36; 1 Tim 2:11-14). On the one hand, some churches interpret these passages in the most restrictive way, making them forbid more than what they actually do. The result, as Susan Foh brings out, is that

some denominations have no female directors of Christian education or choir directors; and some individuals maintain that women cannot teach in colleges or hold any position, ecclesiastical or secular, where men obey their orders. Most of these churches have not compared women’s silence in the church with singing in the choir; if it is brought to their attention, they may forbid women to sing.1

On the other hand, there are churches, as we have observed in the course of our study, which explain away these same passages as culturally conditioned and time-bound, thus appointing women to serve in any capacity within the church, including the office of priest, elder or pastor.

Balanced Application. What is needed is a balanced understanding and application of the relevant passages (1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33-36; 1 Tim 2:11-14), in the context of the overall teaching of Scripture on the role of women in the church. Our study has shown that the intent of these passages is not to exclude women from active participation in the public worship and mission of the church, but only from the representative and authoritative role of leader (elder/overseer/pastor) of the congregation. Paul derives this restriction, not from the cultural conventions of his time, but from the distinctive roles for men and women established by God at creation. This restriction must not obscure the fact that Paul commends a considerable number of women who "labored side by side with [him] in the gospel" (Phil 4:3; cf. Rom 16:1-6, 12).

As in the apostolic church, so today women are called to serve within the church in many supportive roles which do not violate the creational role distinction. These supportive roles are vital to the healthy growth of the church and to the successful fulfillment of its mission. The few examples we shall now consider should be seen as illustrative rather than exhaustive.

3. Women’s Supportive Roles

Bible Instructors. The primary mission of the church is to communicate the Gospel in order to bring men and women into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ (Mark 16:15-16). From the inception of Christianity countless women through the centuries have shared in the mission of the church by laboring side by side with pastors "in the gospel" (Phil 4:3; cf. Rom 16:12). Like Priscilla (Acts 18:26), they have expounded on a personal basis the truths of the Gospel to earnest people. Only the records of heaven will one day tell the whole story of what a contribution dedicated women have made to the church through their gospel ministry.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has been especially blessed by women who have answered God’s call by devoting their lives to imparting the knowledge of Scripture to groups, families and single persons, both at home and overseas. These women were called "Bible workers" until 1942 and since then "Bible Instructors."2

Much of the credit for the outstanding contribution that female Bible workers have made in the Adventist church goes to Ellen White, a woman who over a period of seventy years of prophetic ministry guided the growth, administration, and mission of the church. Her vision for the ministry of women as Bible workers was revolutionary. Repeatedly she challenged women to dedicate themselves to the gospel ministry, by teaching the truths of Scripture to women and in families where the visit of men could give the appearance of evil. She writes, for example,

There are women who should labor in the gospel ministry. In many respects they would do more good than the ministers who neglect to visit the flock of God. . . . In many respects a woman can impart knowledge to her sisters that a man cannot. The cause would suffer great loss without this kind of labor. . . .3 There are women who are especially adapted for the work of giving Bible readings, and they are very successful in presenting the Word of God in its simplicity to others. . . .4 Women also should be chosen who can present the truth in a clear, intelligent, straightforward manner.5

Right to Be Paid. Ellen White not only inspired women to serve as Bible workers, but also championed their right to be paid out of the tithe like ministers: "The tithe should go to those who labor in word and doctrine, be they men or women. . . . This question is not for men to settle. The Lord has settled it."6

Apparently this question was not easily settled in the mind of church administrators, since Ellen White renewed her plea years later.7 When her plea was unheeded, as in the case of some ministers’ wives who received nothing for their full time service as Bible workers, she made the following statement: "These women give their whole time, and we are told that they receive nothing for their labors because their husbands receive wages. . . I will feel it my duty to create a fund from my tithe money to pay these women who are accomplishing just as essential work as the ministers are doing."8

The challenge, counsel and example given by Ellen White have resulted in hundreds of women who, like Mary Walsh, Louise Kleuser and Ellen Curran, have made and are making an outstanding contribution to the growth of the church at home and abroad. None of these women, including Ellen White herself, were ever ordained as pastors. In fact, though Ellen White championed the right of women gospel workers to be paid by the church, she never championed their right to be ordained as pastors.9

Urgent Need Today. In spite of the outstanding contribution that female Bible Instructors have made to the growth of the Seventh-day Adventist church, their number has decreased in recent years. Currently, they represent less than 10% of the ministerial personnel of most conferences.10 Some of the causes for this decrease are examined by Rosalie Lee in Chapter 9. This trend should be of concern to church administrators responsible for the hiring of ministerial personnel, for three reasons. First, most pastors welcome a woman assistant who can help them both in the visitation of church members and in the preparation of new converts for baptism.

Second, with the increasing number of divorces, women can minister better than men in homes with women as a single parent. Third, the recent trend in church growth through small-groups, workshops, and a seminar-type of evangelism, requires professionally trained women more than ever before. They can lead out in discussion groups, in developing ideas for personal, spiritual growth and problem solving, and in training lay persons on how to conduct a seminar or to share Bible truths with others. Women who serve in this capacity, such as Bible Instructors or Associates in Pastoral Care in the Seventh-day Adventist church, do not violate the male headship principle delineated above, since they serve in a supportive role and not as the represen- tative head, the pastor of the church.

Counseling Ministry. Another vital supportive ministry which women can legitimately and effectively fulfill within the church may be called "counseling ministry." The increasing numbers of divorced women, unwed mothers, abused children, drug-addicted teenagers, and emotionally distressed persons, are challenging the church to offer a healing ministry through competent counselors. In some cases a woman trained in counseling skills can offer such counseling ministry. There are cases, however, which require specialized help. In such instances, women who have been professionally trained both theologically and psychologically can offer an invaluable ministry to the hurting people within and without the church.

Already in her time, before the added social problems caused by the sexual and drug revolution of our generation, Ellen White deeply felt the need for trained women counselors. She wrote: "I have so longed for women who could be educated to help our sisters rise from their discouragement and feel that they could do a work for the Lord."11

Women have been especially gifted by God with a greater sensitivity to human pain. A hurting child will more readily call for mother than for father. Blessed is the church that can count upon the supportive counseling ministry of a competent and mature spiritual mother who has ears to listen and a heart to feel the hurt of its members, and who ministers to them the healing balm of the grace of Christ.

Teaching Ministry. One of the most important supportive ministries in which women have served and are serving with distinction in the Seventh-day Adventist church is the teaching ministry. This ministry assumes many forms, from teaching cradle roll Sabbath School classes in a small local church, to teaching graduate classes at the university. All forms of Christian teaching, whether done in Sabbath School classes or university classes, should be seen as part of the ministry of the church to restore the image of God in human beings.

Though women have served and are serving with distinction in the various phases of the teaching ministry of the Adventist Church, there is an urgent need today for some women to enter into a specialized teaching ministry within the church. Such widespread problems today as stress, marital tensions, chemical dependency, eating disorders, and neglected children, require the special teaching ministry of qualified women who can teach how to live a healthy, happy and balanced life by God’s grace. Since only very few large churches can hire professionally trained Christian health educators, marriage counselors, or dietitians, in most cases churches must rely on the voluntary service of the local talent.

It may not appear prestigious for a competent and mature woman to visit and help a young mother who is having problems training her children, or relating to her husband, or cooking nutritious meals, or simply keeping her home in order. Yet this teaching ministry by dedicated Christian women is not only urgently needed, but is of as great a value in the sight of God as the delivery of a sermon. Ellen White emphasizes the need for this kind of ministry:

We greatly need consecrated women who, as messengers of mercy, shall visit the mothers and the children in their homes, and help them in the everyday household duties, if need be, before beginning to talk to them regarding the truth for this time. You will find that by this method you will have souls as the result of your ministry.12

4. Women in the Worship Service

Lord’s Supper and Baptism. The New Testament presents no detailed instructions regarding the conduct of public worship. We observed that the only information it provides is that women participated in the worship assembly by praying and prophesying (1 Cor 11:4-5; Acts 21:9), but were excluded from serving as the representative head teachers and leaders of the congregation (1 Tim 2:11-14; 1 Cor 14:33-36). The headship function of the pastoral office involves the shepherding of the flock through the proclamation of the Word ("preach the word"—2 Tim 4:2; cf. 1 Tim 5:17) and the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt 28: 19-20; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24).

Most Christian churches have acted on the principle that the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper belong together and consequently, as a general rule, they should be performed only by an ordained elder or pastor.13 The Seventh-day Adventist Church has upheld the same view. Referring to the elders of the apostolic church, Ellen White writes: "Having received the commission from God and having the approbation of the church, they went forth baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and administering the ordinances of the Lord’s house."14

The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual clearly establishes that both baptism and "the communion services must always be conducted by an ordained minister or by the elder himself. Only ordained ministers or ordained elders holding office are qualified to do this."15 The reason for this policy, though not stated in the Church Manual, is that the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are seen as pertaining to the distinctive functions of the elder/pastor’s office.

Women and Church Ordinances. Should a woman administer the ordinance of baptism and of the Lord’s Supper? Until recently the answer in the Seventh-day Adventist church has been No, because women could not be ordained as local elders or pastors. However, the situation has changed as a result of the action taken in 1975 by the General Conference Committee which allows local churches to ordain women as local elders. This action, which authorized women ordained as local elders to preside at the Lord’s Supper celebration, has been interpreted as supporting also the performance of baptism. In actual fact only in a few instances have ordained women performed baptisms.

About a year and a half after the first such baptisms occurred, the North American Division Committee adopted a new policy which specifically excludes baptizing and solemnizing marriages from the category of "authorized ministerial functions" for women in pastoral positions.16 That same year (1985), the General Conference Annual Council voted to counsel the North American Division to await a process of study and review, scheduled to culminate at the 1990 General Conference Session, before introducing any significant changes in policies affecting ministerial functions which relate to women.17 This policy has been respected by Seventh-day Adventist churches, with the exception of isolated cases.18

In light of this investigation we must regretfully admit that the 1975 General Conference action to allow for the ordination of women as local elders—notwithstanding its well-meaning intent—represents a clear violation of the Biblical principle which permits the appointment to the eldership of a church only to some men and to no women. We have found that this principle is grounded not on cultural conventions but on the creational role distinctions for men and women. No church or Christian committed to the normative authority of Scripture has the right to blur, eliminate, or reverse such role distinctions. As no church has the right to ordain a woman to be a father instead of a mother in a family, so she has no right to ordain a woman to be an elder, that is a spiritual father in the extended family of believers, the household of God (1 Tim 3:15).

Reasons for Hope. Three factors give the present writer reason to hope that the Seventh-day Adventist church will eventually rescind the action taken at the 1975 Spring Meeting of the General Conference Committee, pertaining to the ordination of women as local elders.

First, such an action was based on an inadequate understanding of crucial Biblical passages and principles. Recent studies produced since 1975 by such evangelical scholars as James B. Hurley, Wayne Grudem, Susan Foh, Stephen Clark and Douglas Moo, in addition to the present one, provide a basis for a fuller Biblical understanding of the role of women in the church.

Second, the Biblical Research Institute, upon request of the General Conference, has commissioned a number of Adventist scholars to prepare papers on crucial aspects of this subject. This new investigation promises to help the Adventist church come to a clearer understanding of the Scriptural principles that should determine the role of women in the church.

Third, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is deeply committed to the normative authority of Scripture for defining beliefs and practices. Contrary to some churches which interpret the creation story as a mythological or allegorical expression of a creative process which extended over millions of years, the Seventh-day Adventist Church accepts as factual the account of the six days of creation. The observance of the Sabbath commandment is seen as a perpetual memorial to the perfection of God’s original creation which included the formation of man and woman as equal in being and subordinate in function.

Since the ordination of women rests largely on the so-called "partnership paradigm" or "role interchangeability model" which negates the creational role distinctions of men and women, it is hard for the present writer to imagine that the Seventh-day Adventist Church would knowingly abandon her fundamental commitment to the integrity of the order of creation. The action taken in 1975 to allow local Adventist churches to ordain women as elders was influenced more by sociological than theological considerations, as indicated by the papers prepared for and published by the Biblical Research Institute under the title Symposium on the Role of Women in the Church. Only 15 of the 190 pages of this symposium are devoted to an analysis of the Pauline passages19 and of the 15 only 5 pages deal even summarily with 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 1 Corinthians 14:33-36.20 The new ongoing investigation promises to give greater attention to these crucial passages.

Scripture Reading, Praying, Singing. While Scripture excludes women from the office of elder/pastor which entails the responsibility for the proclamation of the Word and the administration of church ordinances, it does not exclude them from praying, reading, or singing in public worship. We have seen that Paul presumes that women participated in public worship by praying and offering prophetic exhortations (1 Cor 11:5). The reading of the Scriptures belongs to the priesthood of every believer, men and women.

If women could prophesy in public worship, they should also have been able to read the message of the prophets. Moreover, since believers are exhorted to "admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Col 3:16), we can presume that both men and women participated in the worship service not only by praying and reading but also by singing. It is important to remember that singing the psalms was a form of reading them in the apostolic church. Since praying, reading the Scriptures and singing belongs not to the office of the elder/pastor but to the priesthood of every believer, women can legitimately perform these activities in public worship.

Addressing the Congregation. Should a woman be allowed to preach or lecture to the congregation on a particular subject in which she is an expert? The answer to this question, on the basis of our interpretation of the Pauline passages, is Yes, as long as the preaching or speaking in question does not place the woman in the office of the pastor. We have shown that Paul does not forbid all speaking or teaching by women, but only such teaching that would place a woman in a position of leader-teacher of the congregation.

There are women in the church who through their fine education and rich spiritual experience have much to contribute to the upbuilding of the church. They should be encouraged on appropriate occasions to present a message of guidance, encouragement, and exhortation to the congregation. Care should be taken, however, not to give the impression that a woman who speaks on some occasions from the pulpit is functioning as the appointive and representative pastor of the congregation. If this should happen, then she would be assuming a role which, as we have shown, is not in harmony with Scripture.

Teaching Adult Sabbath School Class. The same principle applies to the question of whether a woman should teach a regular adult Sabbath School class which includes men. In this case the role of the teacher, whether male or female, should be seen not as that of an official pastor, but rather as that of a leader or coodinator of a study group where believers are engaged in a mutual sharing and teaching (Col 3:16). Directing and participating in a Bible study group falls within the bounds of the priesthood of all believers.

The major difference between what the Sabbath School teacher does and what the pastor does is the authority behind it. The pastor stands before the congregation as the one ordained to serve as the representative head and shepherd of the congregation; the Sabbath School teacher stands before the class as the one elected to lead out in the study and discussion of the lesson. To argue that the teaching done by a Sabbath School teacher in a class is the same as the preaching done by a pastor from the pulpit fails to recognize that the pastor, as we observed in Chapter 7, speaks officially as the appointed representative of the church and of God to the church, while the Sabbath School teacher speaks unofficially as a believer to believers. On account of this difference a woman can legitimately serve as a Sabbath School teacher but not as a pastor.

5. Final Recommendations

The conclusion of this investigation is that Scripture provides ample examples and indications both for the participation of women in the various vital ministries of the church and for their exclusion from the appointive, representative role of elder/pastor. The reason for this exclusion is based not on cultural conventions but on the theological truth that at creation God assigned distinctive and yet complementary roles to men and women in their relation to each other. These roles are not nullified but clarified by Christ’s redemption and thus they should be reflected in the home and in the church. In light of this conclusion, we wish to respectfully submit for consideration the following seven recommendations:

(l) Moratorium on Ordination of Women Elders. The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists should suspend the present policy which allows for the ordination of women as local church elders. The longer the present policy is allowed to remain in effect, the more difficult it will be to rectify it. Some feel that it is already too late for the Adventist church to stop the practice.

(2) Training of Bible Instructors. The Religion Departments of Seventh-day Adventist Colleges should develop a program particularly suited for the training of women as Bible Instructors since there is a most urgent need today for their ministry.21 The primary objective of such a program should be to develop skills in imparting the knowledge of the Word of God to individuals or groups and in counseling persons with problems. Those women who wish to develop their Bible teaching and counseling skills more fully by attending the Theological Seminary should be encouraged to do so. On its part the Seminary should develop a program that can adequately meet this very objective.

(3) Hiring of Bible Instructors. Seventh-day Adventist conference administrators should budget each year for the hiring of a representative number of women Bible Instructors. Their personal ministry of Bible teaching and counseling in homes can be a key factor in the growth and nurture of the church. If the present failure of conferences to hire a representative number of Bible Instructors persists, the result will be a greater push for women’s ordination as the only way for them to enter into the professional ministry of the church.

(4) Recognition of Ministry of Women. The church must recognize and encourage the vital ministries which women are fulfilling in the church as Sabbath School teachers, deaconesses, treasurers, welfare and youth leaders, Bible Instructors, musicians, missionaires, health educators, and counselors. All too often these and other vital ministries women render to the church are taken for granted. The only ministry that seems to count at times is that of the pastor. This mistaken perception needs to be corrected by encouraging a greater recognition of and appreciation for the various and vital ministries of women within the church.

(5) Uphold Role Distinctions. The Seventh-day Adventist Church should be committed to upholding the creational role distinctions for men and women not only in the church and in the home, but also in the social order. Underlying the issue of the ordination of women are efforts to radically change the structure of male and female relationships in the home, the church, and society at large. Adventists as well as Christians in general must be aware of the greater implications of the issue discussed. Eliminating role distinctions in the church means encouraging a restructuring of family life and of society according to an unbiblical, humanistic model, since the church illuminates society with its moral influence and principles. Stephen Clark emphasizes the wider implications of the ordination of women:

A given rule, like that for the ordination of women, is part of a wider pattern of interlocking elements that have to do with how marriages are contracted, how families are formed, how boys and girls are taught to be men and women, how careers are pursued, and many other things. Changing one element in the pattern, such as sex roles, affects other elements in an adverse way because of the interlocking relationship among the elements.22

(6) Encourage Jobs that Affirm Role Distinctions. The Seventh-day Adventist Church should encourage its members to look for jobs that affirm their roles as men and women. The tendency of our technological society is to assign jobs according to functional specifi- cations rather than according to gender distinctions. For example, if a woman has good physical strength, she can be hired to load and unload baggage in airports (a common sight in the USA) or to dump garbage containers in a garbage truck. While circumstances may sometimes force a woman to take a job that requires her to compete with men in physical strength, in principle Christian women should seek occupa- tions that affirm their femininity and womanly roles. This does not mean that Christians should become heavily involved in promoting men-women differences in the job market, but rather to encourage in a quiet way (1 Thess 4:11) whatever appropriate role differences can be maintained within our indiscriminating technological society.

(7) Resist Secular Pressures. Seventh-day Adventists must retain their commitment to the normative authority of Scripture by resisting those secular pressures which tend to undermine and eliminate Biblical principles and structures, such as the role relationship between men and women. To do otherwise can only lead to a gradual erosion of confidence in the authority of Scripture and in the unique mission of the church.


This chapter has reviewed the findings of our study of the Biblical teachings on the role of women in the church and has considered the application of our conclusions to the present role of women, especially within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Seven specific recommen- dations have been submitted for consideration by Adventist scholars, administrators and church members. While the applications and recommendations were addressed to the specific concerns of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it is our hope that Christians of other churches may find some of these applicable to their own communions.

The nature of the subject has required that considerable attention be given to the principle of headship-subordination in the man/woman relationship. This important principle should not be seen as an end in itself, but rather as a divine plan designed to ensure unity in diversity: "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Cor 12:12-13). The reason why God gave different gifts and functions to men and women is not so that we may spend our time arguing about who is the greatest in the kingdom. Rather, the reason is that men and women, as joint heirs of the gift of eternal life, may use their different gifts to build up the body of Christ and bring human beings with their many differences into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

This book has been written with the fervent hope and prayer that a clearer understanding of the Biblical teachings on the distinctive and yet complementary roles God has assigned to men and women will help not only Seventh-day Adventists, but all Christians committed to the authority of the Word of God, to become effective workers in the service of Christ who calls Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female to be one in His service.


1. Susan T. Foh, Women and the Word of God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 1979), p. 247.

2. This clarification is found in a note on page 456 of Evangelism by Ellen G. White (Washington, D.C., 1946).

3. Ellen G. White, Manuscript 43a, 1898, (Manuscript Release #330).

4. Ellen G. White (n.2), p. 469.

5. Ibid., p. 472.

6. Ibid., pp. 492-493.

7. Ibid., p. 492. See also the discussions by Rosalie H. Lee and William Fagal in Chapters 9 and 10.

8. Ellen G. White, Letter 137, 1898 (Manuscript Release #959), pp. 1-2.

9. For a penetrating analysis of those statements adduced by some to argue for Ellen White’s endorsement of women’s ordination, see William Fagal, "Ellen White and the Role of Women in the Church," in Chapter 10 of this book.

10. The 1985 statistical report of the Lake Union Conference, which includes Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and Lake Region Conferences, lists only 32 Bible Instructors.

11. Ellen G. White (n. 2), p. 461.

12. Ibid., p. 459.

13. See L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1974), p. 631.

14. Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington, D.C., 1945), p. 101.

15. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, issued by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Revised 1986, p. 59.

16. 1985 Annual Meeting, Actions Pertaining to the North American Division (Washington, D.C., October 13-17, 1985), p. 72.

17. Ibid., p. 26.

18. One case involves two persons baptized on December 20, 1986 at the Loma Linda University Church, by Margaret Hempe, Associate of Pastoral Care. The report which appeared in The Sun (December 27) quotes the pastoral staff as saying that the act was not intended to be "a radical challenge" to the policy of the Adventist church. Whatever the intent may have been, the fact remains that the act does represent a clear violation of an existing policy in the Adventist church. See, Steve Cooper, "First Baptism Brings Fulfillment to Woman Pastor," The Sun (December 27, 1986). Since then, several other women have baptized and solemnized marriages.

19. Symposium on the Role of Women in the Church, distributed by the Biblical Research Institute Committee, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (Washington, D.C., 1984), pp. 97-106 and pp. 129-135.

20. Ibid., pp. 129-134.

21. The program for Bible Instructors developed and offered at Atlantic Union College might serve as a model for other colleges.

22. Stephen B. Clark, "Social Order and Women’s Ordination," America 134, 2 (January 17, 1976): 33.

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