The Adventist Ordination Debate–Separating the Issues

There’s a debate today in the Seventh-day Adventist Church about whether women should be ordained. At least, that’s how some people portray the issue. I believe, however, that the actual debate is over the meaning of ordination.

Dan Jackson, president of the North American Division, tweeted yesterday, “Out of 4,000 pastors in NAD, 107 are female.” They are serving as pastors, but they are not ordained (except for a few that have been ordained by local conferences in defiance of General Conference policy).

The real problem in Adventist theology and practice, I suggest, is that there is no connection between ordination and being a pastor. Women have served as pastors, even as senior pastors, without being ordained. This leads me to ask, “What’s the point of ordination?”

But I must confess, that’s not quite true. These women were ordained, just not as “pastors.” They were ordained as “elders.” And because they were ordained as “elders,” they are able to preach, and to baptize, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. But they can only do so in their own church or conference.

Adventism has a three-fold ordination. One is ordained a deacon (or deaconess). Deacons have responsibility for the building, have duties in caring for those in need, and they take up the offering.

One is ordained as a “local elder” (and women have been ordained as elders for maybe 30 years or more). Elders preach, can lead the Lord’s Supper, can baptize (with permission), are heads of ministries in local churches, and have responsibility with the pastor of leading the local church.

And one is ordained as a “pastor.” Pastors can preach, baptize, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper anywhere in the world, can ordain local elders and deacons, and can be elected as conference and higher president.

Here’s the kicker: We are one of the few Protestant churches that has reproduced the full model of deacon, presbyter, and bishop (without using the term) as laid out by Ignatius of Antioch.

“Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest” (Magnesians, 6:1).

Roman Catholicism built on this to create a sacramental system in which bishops have the “fulness” of “holy orders,” with a “sacred power” enabling them to ordain presbyters (priests) and deacons. Drawing upon Platonic thought (as we see in “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy” and “The Celestial Hierarchy” of Pseudo-Dionysius), these became increasing levels of sanctity, and represented a different state from that of the laity. Later Catholicism spoke of an “ontological change” that happens in ordination, which imparts an “indelible character” (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church). For Roman Catholics, you must be ordained a deacon first (Vatican 2 restored it as a permanent order, but retained the “transitional diaconate” which is a stepping stone to priesthood), then a presbyter, and then a bishop.

Adventists don’t view these offices as either 1) conferring a power or 2) as necessarily sequential. Elders don’t have to be deacons first. We see that these are separate callings. A pastor, nevertheless, will first have been ordained as a local elder (and probably at one point was ordained as a deacon, as a first step towards more involvement in the church). One serves as a deacon or an elder only in those years you are voted into office in the congregation–but if you are out of office, you do not get re-ordained when you get voted back in.)

Now I want to get to what I think is the heart of the issue. One can be a pastor in the Adventist church without being ordained as a pastor (or, “ordained to the gospel ministry”). You actually serve in the capacity of a minister, sometimes as sole pastor of a church, for several years before ordination. For most denominations, ordination is a setting apart for the ministry, and thus takes place at the beginning. Adventist pastors engage in ministry for the first few years as local elders, and are ordained as pastors as a kind of confirmation after the fact.

And a final odd thing. Adventists don’t restrict ordination as a pastor to pastors. They ordain school and conference treasurers, too, who don’t preach, don’t baptize, don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Thus, a male treasurer who never preaches can be ordained as a pastor, but we’re having a big debate about whether a woman who is serving as a pastor can get that final ordination.

That’s why I say that the issue isn’t women in ministry. The issue is a confused theology of ordination–and it hasn’t been solved by the final report of the Theology of Ordination committee.

Here are some steps I think we need to take to get back on track.

1. We need to stop ordaining as pastors those who are not pastors. There is no theological reason for ordaining a conference treasurer to “the gospel ministry.”

2. We need to stop putting people in office as pastors who are not ordained.

3. Conversely, we need to ordain people when they are called to serve as a pastor of a church–when they are called to “the gospel ministry.”

Ordination isn’t about recognizing human gifts, or about the ordinand proving something. It’s about God calling someone to ministry (through the instrumentality of the church), and gifting them for that purpose, as Paul said to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:6-9, ESV):

Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.

Let’s now turn to the issue of women in ministry. Our answer has to be found in Scripture. One can ask, What was the example of Jesus? Whom did he call? He called men. And he called and sent other men. If someone says that he was sexist, or captive to a patriarchal society, then they are stepping into a major Christological heresy, I think.

Paul speaks about equality in the Body of Christ (Galatians 3:28), but the same Paul said spoke of different roles for men and women in the family and in the church. I don’t think it legitimate to have Paul cancel out Paul. To base an interpretation of Corinthians or Timothy on a hypothetical reconstruction of what might have been going on is weak.

In these points, I think the “Minority Report” of the Theology of Ordination committee is closer to the mark.  I don’t think that is the end of the discussion, however.

Let’s go back a step. We ordain deacons, elders, and pastors (corresponding to the Biblical offices of deacon, presbyter, and episkopos). Where did these offices come from? Did Jesus spell them out in his instructions to the 12? Not that I can see. But we get a hint in Acts 6. There was a problem in the church. It was made up at that time of two groups–Hellenized Jews and non-Hellenized Jews. The latter looked down on the Greek-speakers, and the widows were neglected. People complained to the apostles, who said,

It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.  Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.  But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2-3).

The people made their selection, and then, verse 6: “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”

No theological study committee. No wondering whether it was right. They just made a decision to create a new office! They let the people pick them. They then acknowledged their call and set them apart, commissioned them, ordained them, through prayer and laying on of hands. As in Jethro’s advice to Moses (Exodus 18), it is a practical, sensible thing. Later writings talk about presbyters and episkopoi without mentioning the circumstances in which these offices arose–we can only assume that they developed as a church response to a need (e.g., who is in charge when the apostle moves on?).

Another example to consider is in Acts 15. Here the question is whether circumcision was essential to salvation. They debated for some time. Then Peter stood up and said, verse 7 ff:

“Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.  And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,  and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.”

So they learned through experience. And they saw that God was doing things they hadn’t expected–and that he hadn’t told them about in advance.

They didn’t stop and pray after Peter’s talk. They didn’t appoint another committee. “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas” (v. 22), and they sent with them a letter which said (v. 28):

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements:  that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.

“It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” They saw what the Holy Spirit had done. They were persuaded by Peter. And that was enough for them to make a revolutionary decision. No timetable. No implementation committee. They just said that if you do this, “you will do well. Farewell.”

So this to me is the answer to the question of ordination and offices: the church has freedom to create new offices. The church has freedom to call people to those offices it sees fit. The Holy Spirit does things even apart from our decisions, and we can step back and recognize that and change course.

But there is a danger. Liberal churches in ordaining women did so criticizing Scripture for patriarchy. That criticism of Scripture led the way to many abuses and errors. So I think the church is free to choose to ordain women for the gospel ministry if it seems right. But those women need to be held accountable to the same standard as men, “to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).