An usher distributes secret ballot voting cards during the afternoon business session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Tuesday, October 16, 2012. Photo by Edwin Manuel Garcia/courtesy Adventist News Network

An usher distributes secret ballot voting cards during the afternoon business session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Oct. 16, 2012. Photo by Edwin Manuel Garcia/courtesy Adventist News Network


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(RNS) First, three U.S. regional groups of the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted in 2012 for women to be ordained.

Then, the church’s Southeastern California Conference elected its first female president, a historic move for the global church.

Now, four of the church’s 13 worldwide divisions have approved theological reviews suggesting that women’s ordination should be widely accepted; one has said it should not.

As one of the fastest-growing religious groups in the U.S. and across the world, Seventh-day Adventists could potentially influence other denominations — particularly conservative Christians — on the issue of women in leadership.

For now, statements from church headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., focus less on gender and more on concern that regional church bodies have forged ahead with their own decisions without consensus from the wider denomination.

“It’s a controversy that has been brewing in Adventism for decades that church administrators can’t ignore and haven’t ignored,” said Laura Vance, a sociologist at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., who has studied women within Adventism.

“What’s coming to a head now is that some Adventists are moving ahead and ordaining women in violation of church policy.”

Despite what appears to be a steady move toward affirming women’s ordination, leaders on both sides of the debate say the jury is still out on a final verdict. World leaders of the church, which is best known for its Saturday observance of the Sabbath, will review the 13 division recommendations, possibly at the church’s 2015 General Conference.

Sandra Roberts, President of Southeastern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Photo by Enno Mueller, courtesy Southeastern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists

Sandra Roberts, president of the Southeastern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Photo by Enno Mueller, courtesy of Southeastern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists


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Sandra Roberts, the newly elected president of the Southeastern California Conference, said she is “cautiously optimistic” after the church’s North American Division signaled approval of female clergy.

But she adds: “I don’t know where it will all lead.”

Executive officers of the worldwide church, which was co-founded by a woman, Ellen White, issued a statement after Roberts’ Oct. 27 election, calling it “troubling” that “personal convictions” were placed ahead of “collective policy.”

“It deeply concerns the world leadership of the church that recently a local conference constituency elected as a conference president an individual who is not recognized by the world church as an ordained minister,” the officers said.

Holding a Bible in his left hand, SDA President Ted N.C. Wilson cautioned against “worldly influences” and “the danger of disunity” in a recent “State of the Church” video.

In an official response to the Pacific Union, Seventh-day Adventist Church President Ted N.C. Wilson (pictured here) and other officers cited those previous decisions and said world church leaders “will carefully review the situation and determine how to respond,” possibly at an October meeting. RNS photo courtesy Pacific Union Recorder/Jim Paliungus

Seventh-day Adventist Church President Ted N.C. Wilson cautioned against “worldly influences” and “the danger of disunity” in a recent “State of the Church” video. RNS photo courtesy Pacific Union Recorder/Jim Paliungus


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“To discard or ignore these mutual agreements violates a sacred trust and creates unnecessary discord,” he said.

Vance, author of a forthcoming book on women in new religious movements that includes a chapter on Adventists, said Adventists have, for now, struck a kind of compromise: “The position of the church leadership has been to allow women to move in the direction of doing everything that ordained ministers do without allowing them to be ordained.”

Ordained in January in the California-based Pacific Union Conference, Pastor Courtney Ray is an interim senior pastor of a church in Compton, Calif. She previously chose not to take the “commissioned” credential, which women pastors have held without being ordained.

Pastor Courtney Ray, who serves as an associate pastor at a church in Compton, Calif., called the Pacific Union decision “long overdue.” She chose not to be “commissioned” and now looks forward to an ordination ceremony if an executive committee approves her for ordination. Photo courtesy Courtney Ray

Pastor Courtney Ray, who serves as an interim senior pastor of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Compton, Calif., chose not to be “commissioned” and now is ordained. Photo courtesy of Courtney Ray


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“The Adventist Church is a worldwide church and I think that if you wait for everyone to feel comfortable doing … everything at the same time, that slows down progress in every aspect,” she said. “I think that unity is important, but I think that unity does not mean uniformity.”

Finding that balance is key for a faith group that has studied this issue for decades and previously concluded “the time is not right or opportune” for ordaining women.

“The challenge right now is how to do this in a way that respects the conscience of other cultures and just provide unity with maybe not uniformity,” said Beverly Beem, an English professor at Adventist-related Walla Walla University who has written on women and Adventism.

Some wonder if the church’s British-based Trans-European Division, which recommended inclusive ministry “where it is culturally appropriate,” might be an example to follow.

In the U.S., 19 female pastors have been ordained or had their credentials updated in the SDA’s mid-Atlantic Columbia Union Conference since that regional group approved women’s ordination in July 2012. The Pacific Union Conference estimates it has 25 to 30 ordained women.

The SDA’s Nebraska-based Mid-America Union Conference also approved women’s ordination in 2012, but no women in its nine-state territory have been recommended for ordination.

Despite the advances by some women, critics say the Bible remains clear on women in leadership, and the church should, too.

Pastor Doug Batchelor leads a church in Sacramento, Calif. and is a member of the worldwide church’s Theology of Ordination Study Committee. Photo courtesy Teri Fode Photography

Pastor Doug Batchelor leads a church in Sacramento, Calif., and is a member of the worldwide church’s Theology of Ordination Study Committee. Photo courtesy Teri Fode Photography


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“I feel like the Bible hasn’t changed while our culture has, and so if I’m going to be a Bible Christian, then the traditional understanding that there’s a distinction between men and women is still unchanged,” said Pastor Doug Batchelor, who leads a church in Sacramento, Calif., and is a member of the worldwide church’s Theology of Ordination Study Committee.

Duke Divinity School scholar Mark Chaves sees a link between women’s ordination and broader embracing of modernity.

“Acceptance of women’s leadership is continuing to increase in American Christianity, even among conservatives,” said Chaves, who is working on the third wave of the National Congregations Study and has seen a slight increase in congregations’ allowance of women leaders between 2006 and 2012.

The Pacific Union Conference, which includes California and four other Western states, voted 79 percent to 21 percent at a special session on Aug. 19 to “approve ordinations to the gospel ministry without regard to gender.” Photo courtesy Pacific Union Recorder/Jim Paliungus

The Pacific Union Conference, which includes California and four other Western states, voted 79 percent to 21 percent at a special session on Aug. 19 to “approve ordinations to the gospel ministry without regard to gender.” Photo courtesy Pacific Union Recorder/Jim Paliungus


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Garrett Caldwell, spokesman for the world church, said the deliberative process will come down to a single question: “Does the Bible have a theology of ordination that says yes or no about this issue?”

He said the Trans-European Division’s “culturally appropriate” compromise could be one answer, as well as either blanket permission or a continued churchwide ban on ordained women.

“I hope that there will be a good resolution to this one way or another,” said Roberts, the denomination’s only woman conference president. “Even if it’s that each division is allowed to do what the division wishes to do. That may be the best possible outcome.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church may not serve as senior pastors.

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16 Comments

  1. The bible is clear on this issue.The point of conflict here is whether to remain obedient to the plain provisions of the Holy Scriptures or get swallowed up in modernism which elevates human opinion above the Word of God.I choose to stand by His Word~Everything can fail, but His Word endures forever!!
    #Women have their role and men too have theirs#

  2. ““I feel like the Bible hasn’t changed while our culture has, and so if I’m going to be a Bible Christian, then the traditional understanding that there’s a distinction between men and women is still unchanged,” said Pastor Doug Batchelor”

    Amen…..

  3. We may allow confusion on everything else, but not women ordination. There is no evidence that our pioneer Ellen G. White was ordained? But she did some tremendous work, why now are we pushing worldliness into our beautiful church? Whoever is propagating this lacks the spirit & peace Christ.

  4. I was raised as a SDA, felt no freedom and left at age 13. Became a leading British Communist and married the daughter of a leading British Communist. With my wife always at my side we re-joined the SDA for 10 years, during which we adopted our son, who we called Daniel. After 10 more years I felt no spiritual improvement and left to join and become a highest level Scientologist. 10 more years and I left that to integrate my entire life experiences. Now I am back talking to SDA pastors about what I felt was missing and what I have discovered. Apart from its on-going refusal to update in a Christ like manner to allow women to be ordained, all my original problems with the church have vanished. For others they observably still remain.The SDA seriously needs a makeover, to let go completely of its subservience to Old and New Testament laws that need to be monitored against each individuals Christ aided love of God, love of themselves and love of their God Created neighbours. I am happy to communicate with anyone.

  5. “Thus says the Lord”……according to Scriptures. It is made clear and undeniable. Therefore, no concession can be made. If it IS made by the SDA Church to ordain women, then I, as well as many followers, will find the church as compromising to societal pressure and not adhering to the Scriptures. I pray it not be so.

  6. All these comments stating why females should not be ordained and I have yet to see one backed up by Scripture. Even so, a verse taken out of context loses all meaning. For example:
    John 11:35 “Jesus wept.” Jesus wept for his people who though it a crime to ordain women.
    Realise how foolish that sounds, realise how uneducated you sound, read your Bible, then come back and say something.
    Thank You.

  7. wilfriedBruggemann

    In my opinion the issue is not of ” leadership “! We have many women in leadership positions.The issue is ordination. as pastors and elders.The Bible is clear so it comes down to: What do we want to follow or our own wishes and aspirations or Scripture. It is interesting that that the issue of women`s ordinationi is only forged forward in western cultures like Europe and North America.I guess it is seen as more ènlightened than the rest of the world. Sure not a sign of unityon such an all important issue.

  8. The Bible and the Spirit of Prophesy are silent about women ordination to become Pastor.The Bible is silent also, about “emancipation of slavery”, in the U.S.and worldwide.The pioneers and leaders of this church stand firmly united against ‘slavery.’In the Bible, we could not deny that the practice of slavery was prohibited,even during the time of Paul.My point if the Holy Spirit would guide the SDA Church which I believe would benefit and made the it more dynamic in nurturing and evangelism…why not accept women must be ordained in the ministry as Pastors.Anyway,the SDA CHURCH had been ordaining women as Deaconess in the local congregation which is really the church.

  9. The Scriptures are NOT silent about this. 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which reads, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” At its face, this passage is abundantly clear. God, through the apostle Paul, restricts women from serving in roles of teaching and/or having spiritual authority over men. This precludes women from serving as pastors over men, which definitely includes preaching to them, teaching them publicly, and exercising spiritual authority over them.

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