In 2015, I was in San Antonio for the General Conference meeting. The hot topic was if women should be ordained to the ministry.
On July 8, 2015, the answer was given in newspapers across the country: “Seventh-day Adventists vote against female ordination.” The opening sentence of The Washington Post described it succinctly: “Seventh-day Adventists voted Wednesday that individual regions of the 18 million-member Protestant denomination cannot choose to ordain female ministers.”1
As I observed the voting process in person, I could feel the tension in the air. It wasn’t a spirit of unity; it was a spirit of competition, rivalry and division. The tension was palpable when Jan Paulsen, former General Conference president, got up to the microphone to address the attendees.
Paulsen was “booed from the floor by delegates who were furious that he spoke in favor of ordaining women. Though everyone was asked numerous times not to clap, when the decision not to ordain women was read loud cheering and shouts broke out all around.”2
This was my first year as a full-time pastor, and I went away from these meetings disheartened. Jesus said we should be known by our spiritual fruit and love, but the fruit of the Spirit was not apparent to me in the Alamodome in 2015. Adventists were not known for our love that day. Instead, we were known in headlines across the country for denying women the right to be ordained as pastors.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, “That is because the Bible denies ordination to women. We are simply being faithful to the Bible.” I hear you. I once believed that and I blame no one for following their biblical convictions. If you believe this way, you are not alone.
Some of our most famous evangelists have echoed this conviction. Notably, one such pastor declared, "It is easier to support from the New Testament that God has ordained that only men should be pastors and elders than it is to support the Sabbath. It’s easy to support the Sabbath. Anyone who does not come to the conclusion that there is a distinction from Adam through Revelation in the roles of men and women in the church has to go through phenomenal mind-bending gymnastics to escape the plain truth."3
For Adventists who see the Sabbath as anchored in creation, the fourth commandment and the life and teaching of Jesus, those are very strong words. The issue of ordination and this issue of the Sabbath are not comparable. Belief about ordination is not a fundamental teaching of our church.
Fast-forward 12 years, and the same pastor who made it a keystone of his ministry to speak out against the ordination of women said, “It’s not a hill I am willing to die on.”4
However, if God is in favor of the equality of all believers, could it be that this is a hill worth dying on? Could it be that God is looking for reconciliation and repentance from a history of misogyny in the church?
Imagine the healing that would come with acknowledging how often limited and sometimes biased interpretations of scripture have hurt the church. Imagine if, at the next General Conference, we had a Jerusalem Council moment similar to Acts 15 acknowledging the fact that God’s spirit is poured out through female pastors just as it is through males. Imagine what a public apology would mean to all the women who have been shamed and discriminated against for trying to be faithful to their call.
For years, the church has been praying for revival and reconciliation. What if the path forward is through institutional repentance for the harm that has been done? What if denying women the opportunity to preach and teach is not a hill worth dying on, but standing up for equality, fidelity and mission is?
One of the Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church establishes the equality of all believers. Fundamental Belief 14 states, “The church is one body with many members, called from every nation, kindred, tongue and people. In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. 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.”5
Furthermore, the official General Conference working policy opposes discrimination, stating, “The church rejects any system or philosophy which discriminates against anyone on the basis of race, color or gender. The church bases its positions on principles clearly enunciated in the Bible, the writings of Ellen G. White and the official pronouncements of the General Conference” (BA 60 05).
The policy goes on to address issues of employment stating, “The world church supports nondiscrimination in employment practices and policies and upholds the principle that both men and women, without regard to race and color, shall be given full and equal opportunity within the church to develop the knowledge and skills needed for the building up of the church.”
So far so good, right? But the next sentence undermines and contradicts everything. It states, “Positions of service and responsibility (except those requiring ordination to the gospel ministry*) on all levels of church activity shall be open to all on the basis of the individual’s qualifications” (BA 60 10). Fundamental Belief 14 should come with a clear disclaimer that says we believe in the equality of all believers, except when it comes to women in ministry.
My appeal to the church is to follow the Spirit’s leading, listen to female pastors and ordain them. Denying the full equality of women is not a hill worth dying on.
There are fewer thoughts wiser than "I could be wrong." Religious certainty that masquerades as faith is dangerous. Good people will often disagree. There is a danger in thinking, "I hold the biblical view. If you don’t believe like me, you are not following the Holy Spirit." It could be that what we think of as the “biblical view” is wrong.
We are on dangerous ground if we establish tradition above the present truth and movement of God. Many of the religious rulers thought that Christ and his followers were apostate heretics. Is it possible that religious rulers today could speak against the movement of God in the name of misunderstood tradition?
Beth Allison Barr explained, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing Christians that oppression is godly. That God ordained some people, simply because of their sex or skin color (or both), as belonging under the power of other people. That women’s subordination is central to the gospel of Christ."6
Some of the best colleagues I have had as a pastor are female. They have been called by God. The evidence is in the miracles God has done and is doing through female pastors around the world.
Many of my female colleagues went through seminary at the same time I did, but are unable to pastor in most locations because of their gender. Gender profiling is no more acceptable than racial profiling. It is unethical to take tuition funds while simultaneously denying opportunities for a job.
However, I am encouraged because real Christianity doesn't depend upon faulty institutions, any more than being truly Jewish depended on being circumcised. Being a male isn't what makes somebody a great leader. Real leadership is exemplified by our character, not our genitalia.
In part two of this series, I will share why I changed my mind about women in ministry. Just as God showed Peter the equality of the Gentiles; I believe God may be showing us that both men and women are called to be pastors.
1 Boorstein, M. (2015, July 8). Seventh-day Adventists vote against female ordination. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/seventh-day-adventists-vote-against-female-ordination/2015/07/08/42920f7e-25c8-11e5-b77f-eb13a215f593_story.html
2 Williams, A. (2015, October 22). THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT OF 2015: THE DE-VALUING OF WOMEN. Spectrum Magazine. https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2015/10/22/great-disappointment-2015-de-valuing-women
3 DOUG BATCHELOR’S 28 FUNDAMENTALIST ARGUMENTS AGAINST WOMEN MINISTERS. (2010, March 19). Spectrum Magazine. https://spectrummagazine.org/article/jared-wright/2010/03/19/doug-batchelors-28-fundamental-arguments-against-women-ministers?fbclid=IwAR1Ln4VjFzh78Uwfku2RJkRdpEzIbVFYb0DzTbjcLkrKHzlz868dnIlu_Dw
4 For citation start listening around the 14:50 minute mark of the podcast https://www.seekingsda.com/episodes/dougbatchelor?fbclid=IwAR3pcDNL-QPW4L-OzgLwGFv6IyHkqhfskCEEvMjRNTvF1CKzaSDvydkXfdY
6 Beth Allison Barr. (2021). Making Of Biblical Womanhood How The Subjugation Of Women Became Gospel Truth. Grand Rapids, Michigan Brazos Press, A Division Of Baker Publishing Group.
Editor's Note: The views expressed are those of the writer and may not fully reflect those of the North Pacific Union or its leadership. Respond to any Gleaner topic by emailing email@example.com or nwadventists.com/talk.