Viewpoint: The Challenge of Ellen White's Ongoing Spiritual Authority

Reflecting on the July 8 General Conference vote against allowing regional jurisdiction of ordination—and by implication, the apparent attempt to exclude women from formal ministry in the Church—it is worth taking another look at what is in fact a venerable “elephant” standing all too placidly in the historical and contemporary sanctums of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The essential question that insists on an honest answer is this: How can we square the most recent General Conference Session action against women’s ordination and ministry in the Church with the venerated and authoritative ministerial service of the woman, Ellen G. White?

On one hand we have the far-reaching and fully recognized authority, scope and character of Mrs. White’s ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church; including the way the Church values and extols that ministry. On the other we have the way all other women are being treated as, at best, second class in the church. As much as we’d like to deny the relevancy of gender in this state of affairs, it is impossible to do so honestly and coherently, without indulging in rationalization and even duplicity.

Mrs. White’s ministry and the Church’s unequivocal and official acceptance of it, asks us inescapable questions such as: Where was God and what was he about when in the 19th Century he chose a woman to take up a key role in the ongoing development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? How could he have called someone of the female gender to do such momentous things if he was indeed against women taking on significant leadership roles and exercising spiritual authority? Then there is the inevitable companion question: Where is God in the calling of women to Adventist ministry here and now? If God called a woman like Ellen G. White to ministry in the Church, why not call other women to similar ministries? In the light of these suggestive questions, it is disturbing to see how blithely we pass actions such as the one that was recently voted in San Antonio, without at least admitting a nod of discomfiture when it comes to the inconsistencies hiding in such actions.

Post San Antonio, the spiritual and ministerial phenomenon of Ellen White has, I think, a new look and feel to it. Her kingpin part in the overall theological and organizational development of the Church—both spiritual and structural—and the distinct “headship” role she continues to play in the guidance of the Church, calls all the more since San Antonio for honest and complete acknowledgement of our contradictory position, particularly as it relates to the present emerging role of women in the ministry of the Church. Even while we are preoccupied with reinforcing the “say” of this woman of God in the Church, many of the most avid supporters of Mrs. White’s ministry seem obsessed with finding ways to keep all other women from formal ministerial service.

We know that while ordination itself was contemplated for Mrs. White, it was not acted upon. However, the fact that Mrs. White was not ordained is all but irrelevant as one looks at the almost unbounded influence – and yes, power—our Church continues to grant her; whether she was ordained or not. This scenario has to puzzle the flawed theological theories of “male headship” that circulate in the Church. And it is interesting to note that more often than not, those whose dubious hermeneutical presuppositions put them against women in ministry are the ones most likely to quote the woman, Ellen White as a penultimate, or even an ultimate authority, as they seek to settle all kinds of theological, behavioral and organizational issues facing the Church today… including the over-strained question of whether or not women should be given the authority or standing that ordination accords the ordained minister of the Gospel in the in the Seventh-day Adventist Church; even though the authority accorded ordained women today might or would be less than that which Ellen White was given to carry out her ministry.

Thus in reality, God’s call to the woman Ellen G. White and our Church’s official recognition of his call to her, challenges any attempt to formulate a determinative theology prescribing an exclusively male ministry, even while it deals a decisive blow against the action taken in San Antonio last July.

It is also important to confirm that we simply cannot say with any rational or spiritual integrity—as some will no doubt want to say—that because Mrs. White’s ministry included an exceptional prophetic element, that that somehow places her call to ministry in a unique category of some kind, which allows us to ignore the significance of her gender. Ellen White’s ministerial calling by all means includes her unique prophetic gift, even though, at the same time, that ministry clearly stretches beyond this important role in a number of significant directions.

God called a woman to an authoritative office of ministry in our midst and we have officially and unswervingly insisted for more than a century (sometimes on pain of ecclesiastical dismemberment!) that she and her authority be explicitly recognized and honored. We have consistently maintained this as a Church, even tending to—controversially—make belief in her authority and ministry one of our “Fundamental Beliefs.” Yet we have now come to San Antonio and voted in effect to reject outright the reality that God does in fact call women to ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

As we observe all the features of Mrs. White’s far-reaching ministry and as we fully acknowledge its length, breadth, height and depth, we gladly note the prodigious prophetic gift she possessed (along with the human weaknesses that were hers). But we also see her gift of preaching and teaching (No, Mrs. White was not silent in the gathered fellowship of the Church!) and perhaps yet more, her gift of writing and its ongoing authoritative, directorial role among us.

So, perhaps most significantly and surprisingly, along with all Mrs. White’s spiritual gifts, there was (and is) the very rich charisma of administrative wisdom and leadership that was so evident in this woman. Her leadership and wisdom was lavishly demonstrated and embraced (however begrudgingly at times) as the Seventh-day Adventist Church moved through its formative and later years under her highly influential guidance to become the phenomenal, worldwide organization it has become.

Looking at these very significant and far-reaching aspects of Mrs. White’s ministry, one is tempted to claim that not only did Ellen G. White possess the gift of prophecy along with other charismata, but she also demonstrated the primary spiritual gift of apostleship.

But regardless of whether or not we embrace that generous a view of Mrs. White’s ministry, it is crucial to confirm that If God so splendidly gifted a woman among us, calling her to such an illustrious, commanding and influential ministry, surely there can be no reason to preclude today’s called women from full participation in the Gospel ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Will Eva, D.Min, spent a decade at the General Conference as Editor of Ministry Magazine, five years as Senior Pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at Kettering (Ohio) and has served as Ministerial Secretary in the Potomac Conference and the Columbia Union.

If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7113
1 Like

That puts the issue front and center. The proposition is unassailable. But this generation of leaders has neither eyes or ears let alone heart and mind. I think the European Union will carry the day. Leadeship resistance to WO is only a symptom of egocentric dogma. The sad point is it infects all other actions. A serious enough affliction to cause a serious fracture of the institution. Donold Trumpism seems to be pandemic. Tom Z

7 Likes

It has always, at least since I was aware as a kid, for the Church to act “Schizophrenic” in a lot of areas. This is just one that has been around for at least 40 years. But was diagnosed by Aunt Ellen way back in the 1880s. She prescribed treatment, but no one would take it. And it still continues to be passed on from generation to generation ever since.
And NOW, it is our General Conference Policy that everyone who is a Seventh day Adventist church member has to be “Schizophrenic” in this area.
In our Delusions Of Grandeur we have told God — You May Choose ONE Woman, and ONLY ONE Woman to lead out in the Seventh day Adventist church." God, you did. It is YOUR fault that you chose one in 1846. You made YOUR choice. So now, YOU cannot choose any more women to lead out in the Seventh day Adventist church denomination." LIVE WITH IT!"

EDIT-- Genesis 1:27 [the Elohists group of writers] God created man [man-kind, humans] in His own image. Some he gave male apparatuses, some he gave female apparatuses. BOTH were created in the Image of God. Both Equal – Both in the Image of Himself.
[Genesis 2 was written by Yahwehists group of writers].

EDIT-- Jewelry. 5 years before I was born my parents became SDAs. They were taught about no jewelry, including wedding bands/rings. So my dad and mom along with the others baptized at the same time placed their wedding bands/rings into the offering plate.
In 2015, if they were baptized no such sacrifice would be made of them. They could still own and wear their gold wedding band, diamond ring. Actually married couples in 2015 may have a double-ring ceremony in the SDA church officiated by the SDA Pastor who is wearing HIS wedding ring. Many Conference officials and their wives sport wedding rings, diamond rings. And it is OK today, but a church fellowship issue back then.
“Schizophrenia”. Delusions of Grandeur back then, today. Telling God what it is OK and not OK to require in order to be a member of His household.

EDIT-- Jennifer made it possible for us to read Pastor Bohr’s rather long, detailed, educational history of the process of women elders, women deaconesses, commissioned women as it traveled through various and sundry committees and voting. He is somewhat negative about women’s roles in the church, but this has not influenced the excellent researched article. It is well worth the read.

EDIT-- If one does a CRITICAL read of Aunt Ellen, beginning with Steps to Christ and Desire of Ages, one will find two [2] things, at least.

  1. Spiritual Formation. [a no-no for Adventists]
  2. Contemplation Activities promoted [a no-no for Adventists]
    BOTH of these were YES-YES for her back in the 1890s, 1900.
    Then read the closing chapters of Ministry of Healing, the section titled, The Worker’s Need.
    Ministry of Healing came out in 1905 [same year as Loma Linda, one year after Madison], so it was probably written and completed somewhere around 1903, 1904. It was the culmination of her over 50 years of her Spiritual Growth and Maturation.
    [As an aside, if it hadnt been for Madison - Nashville Agriculture and Normal Institute, there would not have been a Loma Linda that we know today.]
13 Likes

“How can we square the most recent General Conference Session action against women’s ordination and ministry in the Church with the venerated and authoritative ministerial service of the woman, Ellen G. White?”

The answer: “As much as we’d like to deny the relevancy of gender in this state of affairs, it is impossible to do so honestly and coherently, without indulging in rationalization and even duplicity.”

These are glaringly inconsistent, even contradictory positions that the institutional church has chosen: It decided at San Antonio that majority votes dictate positions, even doctrines. This is affirming the “headship position” that is no where found in the BIble as the position that should be followed; but whether stated or enacted, it has become the current policy.

Have members’ votes always dictated church positions in the past? Even with the controversy in the early church, the Holy Spirit did not force a majority vote of the Jews on the new Gentile Christians.

Today, when the world is seeing the terrible effects of headship and patriarchal systems in many areas of the world; a time when Adventist Christians should be in the forefront of recognizing the full equality of all human; the Adventist church is taking a very backward step in adopting the system of much of the world in enslaving its women, relegating them to second class members.

Why is the church moving backward rather than showing the world that Adventists believe in the full equality for all God’s children?

8 Likes

That Ellen G White is 100% biblical is the source of her spiritual authority not her sex.

The fact that Notable advocates of Male Headship without reservation does in fact Lift up EGW has biblical and a prophet chosen by God " for these last days", proves the argument that headship advocates hate women is false.

Ellen G White continued spiritual authority as a beloved prophet by male and female advocates who believe the bible teaches male headship, is indeed a problem for the false claims of discrimination. I have been considering this position each time I hear the accusations of hatred of women has the cause for the world church voting no. Some see Gender has absolutely equal but different. Given the level of controversy over this issue I am more convince of the spiritual implications / relevance as well. There are Godly women currently working in the SDA church and non of them are second class citizens.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
Gen 1:27

3 Likes

Thank you for a very clear picture of the dichotomy that presently exists in our church. No doubt it was a good thing that Ellen White was called to her work in the middle of the 19th century. If she had been called in 2015 the present leadership of the church would probably have rejected her in favour of “male headship”.

14 Likes

It would be interesting to find out about the delegates in San Antonio, which of those against Wo. were actually able to make a real argument without throwing out Ellen White with the “bathwater”. My guess would be: not a single one. So most if not all of the opponents were actually very far away from true Adventism. But what is even worse: why didn’t the leaders point that out very clearly?

6 Likes

Human effort, with God’s power and leading , is a successful formula for the church. Joshua 1:8 worked for Joshua and should also work for the challenges of the SDA church today. God will not remove the task of decision-making from human beings. Men and women must do their part, while God does His. God encourages people with sufficient light to make right choices, always providing, when asked, the wisdom to make the right choice and the power to act. When correct decisions are made, God has His special way of endorsing those decisions.

A bureaucratic organization, such as the General Conference, has major weakness: They tend to hire people who accept and support the established routine. A General Conference leader recently said to colleagues in the West Coast, after the SA meetings, at a social event, that he felt “trapped” in a “bureaucratic maze” and he feels that he is “going through the motions until I can retire” Speaking of the current administration of which he is a part, of he said, “Too often the GC allows irrelevant criteria (longevity with the organization, being related to the boss or whoever is in charge, institutional loyalty, et cetera) to outweigh ability or qualifications, in crucial decision making.” He went on to say that that what has happened at the General Conference in the last five years is “It has lost it’s organizational vitality, creativity, and awareness of the need to change.”

The decision of how to move forward after the WO disaster is only a symptom of systemic problems. There is very little open and honest peer review at the highest levels of the church. Without new insights, the General Conference cannot respond effectively to current trends or needs. A closed system of thought tends to become self-serving. The top persons in leadership become defensive, closed to the outside world. They will listen only to those who support them specifically. This precludes new insights even before crucial decisions are made.

The problem with the Adventist Church in the 1890s and early 1900s is exactly the same problem we are having today. It can be understood in terms of rapid growth and of long-time leaders who are not used to a multiplicity of challenges, not only in numbers but in variety. The charges of “kingly power” and sluggish decision-making were all too accurate. (Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 233; Schwarz, “The Perils of Growth, 1886-1905,” in Land, Adventism in America, pp. 123-125.)

6 Likes

I am not sure that anymore of these kinds of articles do much for the WO issue. It’s another opinion upon which the anti WO camp will simply say that she was a prophet, not the head of a church. She wasn’t a pastor. For the anti-WO that is the final point: the office of pastor-teacher isn’t available for women as ordained ministers to the church. Yes, it makes zero sense, and it is for certain a rationalization, but that is where we are at in this debate.

We need to share that the vote in SA was simply misguided and the wrong course of action to take. Four years of TOSC and a few million dollars were simply ignored by the leadership to offer us another simple majority vote by the “church in session.” The outcome was already anticipated to be “no” and that is just what it was.

Now we lob back and forth our opinions of what went wrong or right, depending upon the side you are on, and all the time we are absolutely no closer to resolving this issue than we were when we first took the vote in 1990. But perhaps there will be something of significance that can move us toward resolution this coming Autumn Council. We have two European, though small, unions that have voted to not ordain any pastors as a way around the inconsistent Working Policy.

What would be nice to see is a discussion on how addressing the Working Policy can be done in light of TOSC, the statement on ordination, and the recent decisions in Europe. I am weary of the theological/philosophical articles that do nothing to address our real problem: the Working Policy that says it isn’t discriminatory, yet when it comes to pastors being ordained only males allowed.

4 Likes

The problem with the WO issue is the intelligence of the people voting at the GC. These people stated they had trouble figuring out how to press 1 for yes and 2 for no. These are the folks who decide what you and I believe.

12 Likes

Boy. That’s going around the mountain the long way. Wouldn’t a more insightful position be, Wow! Look at all she accomplished without worrying what anybody thought, said, or worried about her credentials!

4 Likes

I very much believe in women’s ordination. However, when I read this article I asked myself, “why write about this now”. The debate closed after the vote in San Antonio, IMHO. And I believe there will be a time for renewed debate. But, I feel articles such as this are counterproductive right now.

I also want to point out that Ellen White was not without significant opposition to her work during her life. She did not voluntarily move to Australia for 10 years. She was sent there by people who wanted her out of their way (banished?). There were church administrators who resented her involvement in the functioning of their duties and administration of the church.

2 Likes

Wrong.

EGW is not an authority, the GC is not an authority, the whole concept of one group of people having authority over another is simply human politics imposing itself on a voluntary convenient alliance of God’s people.

7 Likes

The fact that Ellen White co-founded the Seventh-day Adventist Church renders silly the GC’s ecclesiastical policy that no woman may organize a church.

13 Likes

That should end all debate. She derives her authority from God, not from man. Unlike the priesthood or the office of elder, the gift of prophecy was never restricted to any gender or age group.

2 Likes

Who were the other co-founders?

This post was flagged by the community and is temporarily hidden.

2 Likes

request denied…

headship proponents don’t own the church…the reality is they’ve inflicted themselves onto the church…they’ve rebelled against venerable leaders in our church, and ignored a majority of our biblical experts…don’t think what was pulled off in san antonio is going to be forgotten, or that the church is going to be left in peace over this issue…headship is a grievous wrong that won’t be allowed to stand…

24 Likes

As in “cognitive behavioral therapy,” the church needs a modern day prophet to confront the GC leadership with their perception, interpretation and behavioral inconsistencies. The final task is to identify and challenge the validity of their maladaptive core beliefs and to replace them with more adaptive beliefs to achieve enduring change in their problematic perceptions, interpretations and behavior.

Talk is cheap and behaviors always betray verbal expressions.

12 Likes

This article points out in high profile the glaring ridiculousness of the SA WO policy vote. Unlike other denominations, who we might be excused if they had voted such a discriminatory policy, the SDA Church cannot escape because of the fact that it was founded by a woman. That fact alone will not allow the SDA Church to dodge ongoing criticism on this issue. AND trust me it will only increase due to this 900lbs. gorilla in the room. How can you possibly realistically expect anybody to believe your testimony as a church body when you have such a glaring contradiction. If it were not so sad it would be laughable.

Adventists live in a closed spiritual environment for the most part and have a group think mindset, so many have deluded themselves into thinking that discrimination against women makes perfect sense even though EGW was a woman. HELLO SOMEBODY, this is nonsense and will never stand. In the real world this is craziness. It will not hold up for very long. This is going to be millstone around the SDA Churchs’ neck until it casts it off. And I think it will be sooner rather than later.

12 Likes