Recently, a leading Adventist pastor in California spoke in opposition to women in pastoral ministry. Such a position is not new in Adventism, particularly in the last three decades or so. But this position is not the long-standing traditional Adventist position regarding the contributions women can make to all aspects of ministry.
Early Adventists understood Paul's prophetic words in Galatians 3:28 that there is "neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ" (NKJV) as the seed of many reforms that led to the abolition of social evils like slavery, class distinctions based on birth rights, and gender exclusion in society and church. Early Adventists were thus abolitionists, social democrats and republicans in government.
Ellen White's Ministry Challenged
Let me illustrate my thought with one anecdote from Ellen White’s ministry. In a letter to her husband, James White, written on April 1st, 1880, Ellen White recounted some of the activities she and other colleagues had been involved in recently near Oakland, California. Among many things, she told James the following.
Elder Haskell talked in the afternoon and his labors were well received. I had in the evening, it was stated, the largest congregation that had ever assembled at Arbuckle. The house was full. Many came from five to ten and twelve miles. The Lord gave me special power in speaking. The congregation listened as if spell-bound. Not one left the house although I talked above one hour. Before I commenced talking, Elder Haskell had a bit [piece] of paper that was handed (him) in quoting [a] certain text prohibiting women speaking in public. He took up the matter in a brief manner and very clearly expressed the meaning of the apostles words. I understand it was a Cambelite [sic] who wrote the objection and it had been well circulated [among the audience] before it reached the desk; but Elder Haskell made it all plain before the people.
(Ellen G. White to James White, April 1 [Letter 17a], 1880; Manuscript Releases Vol. Ten, 70)
Ellen White referred to a note from a “Cambelite,” that is a member from the Church of Christ of the Stone-Campbell movement, who had written a note quoting a certain text of scripture about women being prohibited from speaking in public. This text was either 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 or 1 Timothy 2:12. Ellen White also mentioned to James that Elder Haskell responded briefly to this objection he received and very clearly expressed the meaning of the apostles words. And it is obvious from the context that Ellen White concurred with this explanation.
After reading this anecdotal event, I found myself curious to know what Stephen Haskell had said to this audience in response to this note he had received. What was his belief on this subject of women speaking in church or in public, of women doing ministry? What was his explanation that Ellen White agreed with? A little research in the articles published Review and Herald and Signs of the Times during the few years before this event uncovers some interesting things.
Through the 1860s and 1870s, a number of articles appeared in our church publications on this topic of women speaking in church. Having a woman prophet in the church who spoke regularly in church assemblies and in public meetings was bound to raise some questions in regards to these two key texts in the New Testament. Four articles on this subject were published in the two years leading to this anecdote in Ellen White’s ministry.
In December 1878, as resident editor of the Signs of the Times, Joseph H. Waggoner wrote a short response to a question he had received. To the question “Is it right for women to speak in meeting?” he responded by doing an analysis of the context of "certain texts … quoted to prove the negative". Waggoner explained that Paul gave these instructions in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 regarding women not speaking in church because he cared about proper decorum in the church and that all words spoken in assemblies ought to be done without creating confusion. Furthermore, he referred to many women who held important roles in the New Testament to indicate that for Paul the labors of women were not confined only to some activities. Paul “refers to prayers, and also speaks of certain women who ‘labored in the Lord,’ [Philippians 4:3] an expression which could only refer to the work of the gospel.” Waggoner concluded his comments by affirming women in ministry. "We sincerely believe that, according to the Scriptures, women, as a right may, and as a duty ought to, engage in these exercises."
A few days later, in January 1879, J. N. Andrews also published a short article on women speaking in church in the Review and Herald. In this article, Andrews seeks to explain the two main texts used to prohibit women from speaking in church. His purpose is to show that a careful study of these texts cannot support this conclusion.
In reference to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, he explained that Paul’s intent was to avoid confusion in the church and to urge women to stop chatting between themselves during the worship service. Hence, “what the apostle says to women in such a church as this, and in such a state of things, is not to be taken as directions to all Christian women in other churches and in other times, when and where such disorders do not exist.” In regards to 1 Timothy 2:12, Andrews understands “this text to give Paul’s general rule with regard to women as public teachers. But there are some exceptions to this general rule to be drawn even from Paul’s writings, and from other scriptures.” In fact, the evidence Andrews goes on to give indicates that this general rule is rather the exception and that women are free to labor in ministry.
A few months later that same year, Andrews again published a small article on this subject, this time in Signs of the Times. In response to an article he had read in another paper which stated that women were not allowed to speak in the early Christian church, he explained that such a position did not concur with the testimony of the New Testament.
The number of women of whom honorable mention is made for their labors in the gospel is not small. Now, in view of these facts, how can any man in this age of Bibles say that the Bible does not notice women, or give them a place in the work of God? The Lord chooses his own workers, and he does not judge as man judges. Man looks at the appearance; God judges the heart, and he never makes mistakes.(J. N. Andrews, “Women in the Bible,” Signs of the Times, October 30, 1879, p. 324)
One last article I found published shortly before Ellen White’s anecdotal event in California, is an article published by her husband in the Review and Herald. While explaining the text in 1 Corinthians 14, James White conceded that Paul may have referred to women participating in church business meetings but he took the firm position that this text did not refer to a prohibition for women to participate in worship services. Rather “Paul … places men and women side by side in the position and work of teaching and praying in the church of Christ.” As we have seen in other articles published by his colleagues, White also gave numerous examples of women who ministered for God in the Old and New Testaments to show that there is no such prohibition for women to labor for the gospel or to speak in church assemblies.
Pioneers: Paul Referred to Particular Situations
Most of the articles published in that period took the position that what Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 had to do with particular situations in the local churches of his time. Paul's counsel regarding these situations was not applicable to all church congregations. Our pioneers understood that what Paul was prohibiting had nothing to do with a general and universal ban on women in ministry.
Most of these articles also referred to many of Paul's female co-workers to state the obvious conclusion that Paul was therefore not speaking against women in ministry. Furthermore, none of these articles used the argument that a woman prophet (i.e. Ellen White) has a special dispensation from God to speak in church—an argument that is repeatedly used today to circumvent the misunderstood prohibition and to argue that women without a prophetic call from God should not be in the pulpit.
Somehow the history of our interpretation of these passages has been forgotten. Many seem to have forgotten also that one of our church founders was a woman, that she spoke extensively in congregations, and that she invited other women to join her in all aspects of ministry to win souls for Christ. If this was the position taken by our church founders 130 years ago in an era when women did not have social equality, I believe they would certainly favor women in ministry today and would see no reason to not include women in pastoral and parish ministry.
Denis Fortin is dean and professor of theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Prior to coming to Andrews, Fortin served as a pastor in the Quebec Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He earned a doctorate in theology from the Université Laval, Quebec, in 1995. His dissertation was titled: "Adventism in the Eastern Townships of Quebec: Implantation and Institutionalization in the 19th Century."
This post is available in Swedish: Vad menade de första adventisterna om kvinnor i församlingens tjänst?
In his next post, Denis Fortin addresses the question, Was Phoebe A Deacon, A Servant Or A Minister?