History of Women in Ministry

The discussion about ‘women in ministry’ is not something new, it has been doing the rounds for a long time. The first time that the General Conference discussed this was in 1881. At that time the church was not prepared to install women as pastors with the same status as men. Later – as in many other Christian denominations, the discussion of this issue erupted in earnest – it became apparent that the Adventists needed to address the issue more intensively.

Since the inception of the Advent movement, women have played a pivotal role. There were already female pastors during the Millerite movement. When the Adventist church was organised, many very important functions for women were immediately available. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a woman – Adelia P. van Horn – was treasurer for the growing world church.

One of the founders of the Adventist church was a woman: Ellen G. White. Even though she was never formally ordained by the laying on of hands, she did throughout much of her life, receive official certificates that she was an ordained minister. Again and again she emphasised in her writings that both men and women are needed to fulfil the mission of the church. For example, in 1895 she wrote that the church must appoint women as deaconesses and consecrate their appointment by the laying on of hands. (Review and Herald, 9 July, 1895)

Even so it was only in the seventies and eighties of the previous century that the ordination of women for various appointments would become an important point on the church agenda. The first decision to ordain female elders and deaconesses was taken in 1975, but this was not widely practiced. In 1984 the General Conference endorsed the decision regarding the ordination of female elders, and in later years this became evident for deaconesses as well. In the 2000 edition of the Church Manual, an ordination service for deaconesses is mentioned for the first time.

The ordination of female pastors turned out to be a long road. Repeatedly study committees and church congresses have wrestled with it. It is remarkable that in most cases, the majority of the members of these committees and boards found that there were actually no significant theological objections against such a step. Generally, the biggest problem was the cultural differences between the various regions of the world church. They were fearful that especially the non-western part of the church would have difficulty with women being granted equal rights as men.

During the General Conference that took place in Utrecht in 1995, a proposal was put to the vote, making it possible for each division (or union) to independently decide on this matter. After intense discussion it was rejected by nearly 69% of the delegates.

The decision, however, did not bring an end to the discussions. The opposite. Especially in some parts of North America and in certain European countries, the idea took root that female ordination is not primarily a biblical-theological problem, neither an issue of the unity of the church, but above all a moral principle. How can a church which in its basic Fundamental Beliefs (belief 14), acknowledges complete equality between men and women, discriminate against female pastors (which subsequently have increased astronomically worldwide)?

Between 2010 and 2015 the General Conference organised a discussion and study initiative to once again tackle this controversial problem. An international committee of more than a hundred persons, met several times, made dozens of reports, which they listened to and discussed for many hours, yet still did not reach the hoped-for consensus. There were three final reports, with ultimately more supporters than opponents of women’s ordination. There was also a small group in the middle, who agreed despite their reservations.

The result of this study, and many other reports (including ones from individual divisions) was not presented to the General Conference recently held in San Antonio. The administrative leadership of the church decided to repeat the question asked in 1995: Can the delegates agree that the issue may be organised regionally? But as in Utrecht, the answer was once again negative. However, the number of votes for the motion, compared to 1995, was significantly higher.

Once again this decision has not brought an end to the discussion. In recent years, a number of unions proceeded to ordain female pastors. In these (and probably many other) unions, the question has to be answered whether one in good conscience can change their standpoint, or if one, with all the loyalty that one has towards the world church, unfortunately must deviate from the rules on this point.

A theological division remains concerning the role of women in the church. But the fact the the General Conference wanted to delegate a decision for the ordination of women to the divisions, shows that what is at stake here is not a bible principle/theological matter, but it concerns a subject which eventually might be viewed differently by the world.

There is tension in the church of 2015. Hopefully the church will find ways to emphasise and keep its unity in diversity.