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Published Date: October 31, 2015

Published Date: October 31, 2015

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Great Disappointment 2015

For many Seventh-day Adventists (SDA), July 8, 2015, will go down in history as the Second Great Disappointment. For those not familiar with Seventh-day Adventist history, the first Great Disappointment occurred on October 22, 1844, when Jesus did not return, as some had predicted he would. This time, the issue was not the return of Jesus, but the culmination of a long, hard-fought campaign for equal treatment of women in the ministries of the denomination.

The vote was held in San Antonio, Texas, at the business meeting of the worldwide General Conference.1 While several issues were discussed, the issue of women in ministry was the most publicized and hardest fought. The vote followed two years of study by a committee appointed by the SDA General Conference known as the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC), which produced voluminous reports. There was vigorous campaigning by both those in favor and against—in pulpits, in print media, and on the Internet. The motion was not about whether women can be ordained, but whether the decision to do so should be vested in the divisions of the World Church. The debate leading up to the vote, however, was all about the role of women in the church.

Probably the greatest irony in the controversy surrounding the ordination of SDA women is that it was co-founded by a woman, Ellen Gould Harmon White. A document titled, “The Twenty-Eight Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists” includes an affirmation of the prophetic gift of Ellen White. While her works are not considered to have the same authority as scripture, they are relied upon for “comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction.”2

It is unlikely that anyone would dispute that White was a centrally influential leader in the denomination, from its founding in 1863 until her death in 1915. There is, however, much disagreement regarding White’s status as a minister and her opinion regarding the role women should play in gospel ministry. There is also a wide spectrum of opinion on the interpretation of scripture as it relates to the ordination of women.

This is not the first time the SDA Church has confronted the issue of women in ministry. It is remarkable, however, that 150 years after the church was founded, and 130 years after the church began studying the issue, the church still cannot decide whether God calls women to be pastors.

A brief history of the pre-Seventh-day Adventist era

The SDA Church was born in the United States. It arose out of the Millerite-Advent Movement of the early 1840s. Its adherents came primarily from American protestant churches, particularly Baptist, Methodist, and Christian Connection. Their common belief was the expectation that Jesus would return soon, and that the date of his return could be predicted based on prophecies in Daniel and Revelation. When Jesus did not return on October 22, 1844, as had been predicted, many followers left the Advent Movement and returned to their former churches. Some remained, continuing to study. One of these was Rachel Oakes, a Seventh-day Baptist, who introduced the observation of the seventh-day Sabbath. Other members of the movement, who became the founders of the SDA Church in 1863, were James White, Ellen Harmon White, and William Bates.3

Discussion about whether women may be ordained to gospel ministry in the SDA Church began in the press before the church was even formally organized. In 1849, the early Adventists began to publish. The first publication was known as Present Truth, and subsequently as The Adventist Review and Herald (now Adventist Review). Adherents to the movement were encouraged to use this journal as a newsletter. On the history page of its website, Adventist Review describes the function of its early journal as similar to present-day Facebook.4 Between 1857 and 1861, The Adventist Review and Herald ran eight articles, authored by those who would become the earliest leaders of the SDA Church: James White, David Hewitt, B. F. Robbins, S. C. Welcome, J. A. Mowatt, and one anonymous author.5 These articles strongly encouraged women to participate in ministry and to use their spiritual gifts. No corresponding articles or letters advocated restrictions on women’s preaching or public speaking.6

Women were fully engaged in the preaching, teaching, and educational mission of the Advent Movement. In a paper presented at the 2012 meeting of the Pacific Union Conference, called to consider the issue ordination of women, Beverly Beem and Ginger Hanks-Harwood summarized the position of early leadership as follows:

Movement leadership took a strong stand on the inclusive nature of spiritual gifts and the Christian obligation to exercise them in public assemblies and religious meetings. This was not a rhetorical discussion: women were involved in the preaching ministry of the church. Women traveled to evangelize, spoke in the churches and gatherings of believers, wrote theological, devotional, and scriptural articles, exhorted the believers, and exercised spiritual leadership.7

The early Seventh-day Adventist Church

The denomination was formally organized in 1863, with women continuing to play active roles in ministry. Women were, for example, among the first evangelists. In 1868, Sarah A. Hallock Lindsey and Ellen S. Edmonds Lane, along with their husbands, became evangelists. In 1872, Lindsey was licensed as a minister and “recognized for her effective evangelism.” Two other women were licensed as ministers in 1878 and 1879.8

Leaders of the early SDA Church apparently saw no biblical reason women should not work alongside men to carry out the mission of the church. John Nevins Andrews, for whom the flagship SDA university and seminary is named, published an exegesis of 1 Cor 14:31-36 and 1 Tim 2:12 in the Review and Herald in January, 1879. He explained that these texts were “not to be taken as directions to all Christian women in other churches and other times. . . .”9

In 1881, at a General Conference Session a motion was brought to ordain women: “Resolved, That females possessing the necessary qualifications to fill that position, may, with perfect propriety, be set apart by ordination to the work of the Christian ministry.”10 The motion was referred to a committee, but never voted upon. White was absent from this 1881 General Conference meeting; some have pointed to her absence as an indication of her disapproval, but others as her approval. She never commented on it in print. She had left the state, following the death of her husband on August 6, 1881, and it seems inappropriate to attach significance to her absence. White’s words and conduct, both before and after the 1881 General Conference, make her position clear.

Ellen White, ordination, and women in ministry

The 1884 Second SDA Yearbook lists several female licensed ministers. White is listed among those given ordination credentials.11 The Ellen G. White Estate has published at least six different ordination certificates for her.12 Opponents of women’s ordination have argued that, despite the issuance of ministerial credentials by the church, White was never officially ordained by church officials and never pastored a congregation or performed a marriage or baptism.

In 1911, the Review and Herald published a letter in which White stated, “In the city of Portland the Lord ordained me as his messenger, and here my first labors were given to the cause of present truth.”13 Whether or not she had an ordination ceremony conducted by denomination officials, the church validated White’s claim to be ordained by issuing her ministerial credentials, beginning in 1871, and by listing her with ordained ministers in its yearbooks.14 The fact that she did not pastor a congregation, conduct weddings, or perform baptisms reflects the focus of her ministry of service to the denomination as a whole, rather than to a particular congregation. Many attempts have been made to explain away the issuance of ordination credentials to White. One of the more interesting explanations, given by a representative of the Ellen G. White Estate, is the conjecture that “the church wished to recognize her contribution officially. It had no ‘prophet credentials, ’ so it gave her the highest credentials it had. . . .”15

White apparently believed that she held authority within the church, and that she was not required to submit to the authority of “the brethren.” In June, 1889, White wrote to the Elders of Battle Creek:

Two elders visited me on Sabbath morning, and I was asked by one what I was going to speak upon. I said, “Brethren, you leave that matter with the Lord and Sister White, for neither the Lord nor Sister White will be dictated to by the brethren as to what subject she will bring before them. I am at home in Battle Creek, on the ground we have broken through the strength of God, and we ask not permission to take the desk in the tabernacle. I take it as my rightful position accorded me of God.”16

Concerning whether White exercised authority over men, it can be argued that she not only exercised such authority during her lifetime, but that she still does so today. In a sermon given to the Annual Council on October 11, 2014, General Conference President Ted N. C. Wilson cited the writings of White almost twice as many times as he did the Bible!17

Throughout her lifetime, White encouraged women to engage in ministry. Her writings indicate that she believed that all church workers should serve as they were gifted by the Holy Spirit. “It is the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God.”18

White not only strongly encouraged women to participate in ministry, she insisted that they be paid. In an 1889 letter concerning married women gospel workers in Australia, she stated that she would not allow these women to go without pay, and that she would withhold money from her tithe to establish a fund to pay these workers.19 In 1895, White called for an ordination service for women. In 1900, Adventists began ordaining deaconesses.20

Going on without Ellen

With the death of White in 1915, the church lost a strong advocate for inclusion of women. The appointment of women to positions of responsibility within the church slowed. Cultural factors began to have greater influence over the roles women played in the church.

The Great Depression of the 1930s brought new economic challenges. The church attempted to apportion church resources equitably by deciding that only one member of any family could be paid a full wage. Church institutions were thus reluctant to hire husbands and wives. Where circumstances required that they hire both, the policy was to pay the husband a full salary and the wife a much lower salary. This policy remained in place until challenged in the courts in the 1970s.21

During World War II, many jobs were available for women. Almost immediately after the end of the war, however, there was pressure for women to leave the workforce to make room for men returning from military service. This was true within the church as well. “By 1950, women had disappeared from positions of leadership in SDA departments.”22 The culture of the 1950s created and reinforced distinct gender roles for men and women.23 The expectation for women portrayed in the popular media was also reflected in the SDA press. Review and Herald authors blamed working women for the breakup of the home. “Adventist admonitions echoed popular secular rhetoric in claiming that women’s work outside the home was unnecessary and threatened the family, and therefore society.”24

In May, 1950, General Conference officers again discussed ordination, after a note from White was found which seemed “to provide for the ordination of certain sisters in church service.” Consistent with the cultural context of the post-war era, Conference officers recommended that a “small” committee be appointed. In 1970, twenty years later, the General Conference officers agreed to appoint an “adequate committee to consider this large topic.”25

In July, 1973, a study under the direction of the General Conference began in Camp Mohaven, Ohio. The recommendation was that women should be ordained as elders, with a pilot program leading to ordination of women minsters. The committee observed:

When God called Ellen White . . . in an era of considerable hostility toward women in religious roles . . . is there any way to suggest that a qualified, called, dedicated, humble woman should be denied the highest recognition that the church is able to place upon the calling of God’s Spirit to service, because she is a woman—especially in an age more favorable to the involvement of women in leadership roles?26

The Camp Mohaven report further found that there was “no theological objection to the ordination of women to church ministries, but recommended more study.”27 The results of the study were not released until 1984, nine years later.28

Promises, procrastination, and the fear of feminism

The denomination promised, however, that there would be “continuing study of the theological and practical implications of the ordination of women to the gospel ministry.”29

Another factor which stalled progress was the fear of feminism. The 1970s gave birth to the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution and the enormously influential court case Roe v. Wade, both of which were associated with feminist causes, and both of which raised concerns for conservative Christian denominations.30 The most direct threat to the SDA Church, however, was the lawsuit filed against Pacific Press, the SDA publishing house in California.

In the early 1970s, Merikay Silver (McLeod) and Lorna Tobler, along with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, filed a class-action lawsuit against Pacific Press for paying women forty percent less than male counterparts. Silver had become the sole wage-earner in her household, but Pacific Press refused to pay her as a head-of-household, continuing the practice of dual pay scales established during the Great Depression. She subsequently learned that her employer had never paid a woman as a head-of-household.31

This challenge of a long-established practice by SDA employers led many to fear that the feminist movement, an “ungodly feminist campaign,” would be responsible for closing down Adventist institutions.32 By the late 1980s, many Adventists viewed feminism as a threat to the mission and survival of the church.33 Because women’s ordination was also seen as a feminist issue, it became a threat as well.

Unity, a new mantra

In addition to the feminist “threat,” the 1970s brought another concern to the church—unity. The SDA Church was now a multi-cultural world church. Before the church had even released the findings of the Camp Mohaven study, finding no theological objections to the ordination of women, a new reason for procrastination surfaced.

The October, 1974, Annual Council reaffirmed the priesthood of all believers, and then denied the ordination of women in the interest of world unity, stating:

because the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a world church which includes in its fellowship peoples of all nations and cultures, and because a survey of its world divisions reveals that the time is not ripe nor opportune, therefore, in the interest of the world unity of the church, no move be made in the direction of ordaining women to the gospel ministry.34

In March, 1984, women pastors began baptizing in the North American Division, only to be told in October that they must stop. During the 1980s, the General Conference also asked Review and Herald and Pacific Press not to publish on women’s ordination.35

In 1989, at a meeting of church officers in Cohutta Springs, Georgia, it was decided that ordination of women would not “be welcomed or meet with approval in most of the world church.” This decision was affirmed at the Annual Council meeting that year and then taken to the General Conference in 1990, where delegates voted against the ordination of women pastors.36

Headship theology

The “headship principle,” discussed extensively by TOSC, “may be new truth or may be new heresy, but it is definitely new.”37 Although the theology of male headship has been embraced by many conservative Adventists, it was not part of historic Adventism and is not part of any official Adventist doctrinal statement today. Rather, it is the response of conservative Seventh-day Adventists to the threat of feminism.

Headship made its way into the Adventist church in earnest in the late 1980s through the writings of Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, a theologian at Andrews University who was strongly influenced by Wayne Grudem and James B. Hurley.38

Bacchiocchi . . . became so concerned about the threat of feminism and the possibility that the church might begin ordaining women, that he cancelled a major research project he had started and went looking for biblical arguments that would stop the Adventist church from voting to ordain women to ministry. . . . In 1987, Bacchiocchi self-published Women in the Church. This groundbreaking book imported the entire headship doctrine from those Evangelical Calvinist writers into the Adventist church.39

Prior to the most recent studies, the concerns about ordination of women in the SDA Church were centered on social and cultural issues, and the risk to unity. With the introduction of headship theology and the publishing of the TOSC Report, however, theology has moved to the forefront.


In 1995, the ordination of women was again brought to the General Conference in Utrecht, Holland, at the request of the North American Division which requested approval for ordination only within its own division. On July 5, 1995, the General Conference voted against the proposal.40

On August 3, 1995, the president of the North American Division suggested that “a commissioning or dedicatory service, even with the laying on of hands, is biblical and affirming to the call to ministry.” On September 23, 1995, the Columbia Union’s Sligo Church, in Takoma Park, Maryland, issued ministerial credentials and certificates of ordination to three women. The action was seen by some as rebellion and reported as such in newspapers, including the New York Times and The Washington Post, and on Wikipedia. The Maryland ordinations were followed by several women being ordained in southern California in 1995 and 1996. In 1995, the Pacific Union voted that “while being loyal to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, [we are] committed to the ordination of women to the gospel ministry and to working toward that day when that will happen.”41

New fire

Since the Pacific Union and Columbia Union began ordaining women in 1995, there has been significant attention to the issue of women’s ordination by the Adventist press, as well as in the pulpit and by the General Conference. The Internet has played a large role in promoting positions for and against the issue.42

In 2007, then General Conference President Jan Paulsen, commented, “Why don’t we ordain women to the ministry in the same way as we do men? You all know we’ve been around this one a few times. It’s just a question of ‘can we make this major change and still hold together as a global community?’”43 In 2009, he acknowledged that women are ordained in China and are recognized as such in the church records and yearbooks.

In 2010, however, Jan Paulsen retired, to be replaced by Ted N. C. Wilson, who ordered yet another study of women’s ordination, by the Biblical Research Institute, in order to prepare recommendations for the 2015 Annual Conference.44

In 2012, TOSC began working on a report. In that same year, both the Columbia Union and the Pacific Union adopted resolutions expressing commitments to ordain without regard to gender. Both unions maintain that the right to make decisions regarding who will be ordained belongs to the unions, not to the General Conference.45 The General Conference refuses to recognize the ordination of women in these conferences, stating:

The world Church cannot legitimize practices that clearly contradict the intent of General Conference Session actions. This applies to ordination decisions as well as to other matters in which a local organization may feel constrained not just to voice its disagreement with the world Church but to proceed along a pathway that directly conflicts with the expressed will of the worldwide Church. Accordingly, the world Church does not recognize actions authorizing or implementing ministerial ordination without regard to gender.46

On October 27, 2013, the Southeastern California Conference (part of Pacific Union), elected the first female conference president, Sandra Roberts.47 Her name has been conspicuously omitted from the list of conference presidents maintained by the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research. That list shows a blank line where her name should be.48

Theology of Ordination Study Committee

TOSC, appointed in 2012, was comprised of 106 members, including pastors, administrators, theologians, and lay members.49 In addition to input by committee members, the committee considered numerous position papers. The committee was unable to reach consensus on a single solution, but came up with three alternative recommendations for the General Conference, referred to as Positions 1-3. At the conclusion of the TOSC meetings, the members were polled, and sixty-three percent favored Position 2 or 3, either of which would permit ordination of women based on regional needs.50

Position 1

Position 1 opposes ordination of women as pastors or elders under any circumstances. It gives three primary reasons: the church must be Bible-based in all matters of faith and practice; an elder must be the husband of one wife; allowing competing methods of interpreting scripture brings disunity. Specifically, this position rejects the “principle-based, contextual, linguistic and historical-cultural method of interpretation,”51 and asserts that the Bible must be taken “as it reads.”52

Position 1 rests primarily on Gen 1-3, 1 Tim 2:13-14, 1 Tim 3:2, and 1 Cor 11. Position 1 accepts these texts as absolute, applicable to all times, and not to be interpreted based on culture or context. Headship of males is interpreted as applicable in both the home and the church.

Angel Manuel Rodriguez, a member of TOSC, critiqued Position 1 as follows:

Their interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:2 is at the very heart of their case. According to them, the phrase, “the husband of but one wife” (NIV) needs no interpretation because its meaning is plain. . . . Based on 1 Corinthians 11:2-10 they, first, trace headship back to the pre-fall condition of Adam and Eve and, second, they find support for the eternal headship of God over Christ. These two details lead them to conclude that headship belongs to the inter-Trinitarian relationships and that it plays a fundamental role in the order of the cosmic kingdom of God and in His church on earth.53

Position 2

Position 2 is the most pro-ordination, finding no theological impediment to the ordination of women. This position argues that context must be considered in interpretation.54 It relies on Gen 1:27, that both man and woman are made in the image of God,55 and discusses the leadership roles that women served in Israel and in the NT.56 It rejects the doctrine of headship, as it applies to the church.57

With respect to husband/wife relationships, Position 2 asserts that Eph 5:21-23 is “not about the unconditional obedience of the wife to the husband and much less about coerced submission. The reference to the husband being the ‘head’ of the wife (v. 23) must be understood in relation to the nature of Christ’s headship described in the same verse.”58

Position 3

Position 3 takes a middle-ground. It states that male ecclesiastical leadership is preferred, but denies that men have general headship in the church. It leaves room for local jurisdictions to ordain women, if necessary to carry out the mission of the church. Position 3 asserts that men and women had complementary, non-hierarchical roles before the fall, and that male headship existed in the family, after the fall, but does not exist in the church. It also differentiates between gifts and offices in the church.59 Position 3 further asserts that God makes accommodations to his divine plan and that we can rely on study and guidance by the Holy Spirit to determine when such variances are indicated.60

One concern about Positions 1 and 3 is that they both contain elements of male headship which are not currently in SDA doctrine. Now that headship has been made the subject of substantial study and attention, there is the possibility that it may find its way into official doctrine, especially considering that the greatest growth in the church is occurring among more conservative cultures.

Shortly after the TOSC report was released in June, 2015, the faculty of Andrews University released its seven-page theological study, “The Unique Headship of Christ in the Church,” which addresses headship theology. The Andrews University study addresses several aspects of Position 1, which are based on male headship. First, it affirms the view of the Trinity expressed in the “Twenty-eight Fundamental Beliefs” as follows:

Scripture affirms that the Son is eternally equal with the Father and the Spirit. . . . Scripture also affirms the temporary voluntary functional subordination of Christ the Son in order to accomplish the salvation of humanity. . . . The interpersonal relationships within the Trinity provide the ultimate model of love and self-sacrifice for us. As such, they do not furnish a model for a top-down governmental structure for human leadership within the Church.61

The Andrews University study further refutes Position 1 by stating that “No inspired writer teaches the headship of man over woman at the Creation. Rather Genesis 1 teaches us that male and female participate equally in the image of God, with no hint of pre-fall subordination of one to the other.”62 The study also affirms SDA belief fourteen, which states, in part: “In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation. . . . In sum, any form of headship claimed by a mere human, whether male or female, usurps the sole headship of Christ over the Church.”63

From extreme to absurd

Women’s ordination has not only become a polarizing issue, but an intensely emotional one as well, especially from the independent “Adventist” ministries.64 Opposition to women’s ordination has generated some extreme responses. The examples below represent what many Adventists, as well as the public, are seeing in the independent Adventist media.

Doug Batchelor, SDA evangelist and pastor, has been a noted opponent of women’s ordination. He and Dwight Hall published Strange Fire, a book distributed in SDA congregations, in which he warns about the dangers of departing from God’s divine plan. In one example he likens a woman wanting to serve outside of her divinely assigned role to the aspirations of Lucifer.

What happens when men and women take it upon themselves to change their roles and do their own thing? There are plenty of Bible examples, but, significantly, the first case involved neither a man nor a woman. Instead, it was the highest of the angels. Lucifer—now called the devil and Satan—was not happy with his role . . . from that one issue, sin was born, and from there things have just kept going downhill.65

In another example from Strange Fire, Batchelor and Hall state, regarding the complaints of Aaron and Miriam in Num 12:1-15, “It is also worthy to note that only Miriam—and not Aaron—became leprous. She was trying to change God’s divine order.”66

In 2015, Daniel Mesa, another opponent of women’s ordination, posted the following on the AdVindicate website:

Christ represents the Husband, and the church represents the bride. They are expected to be symbolically intimate one with another…. If the local pastor represents Christ, and the local church represents the bride, then what would it mean if we took the male pastor out of his position to place a female pastor there? It would mean we are giving a symbolic representation of homosexuality (See 1 Cor 6:9).67

San Antonio and beyond

By the time the 2015 General Conference session began, it was apparent that the struggle for equality of women in the church would likely face yet another defeat. A full day of debate preceded the vote, with emotions running high at times. One of the first speakers made a motion for the General Conference to deal with the disobedience of those conferences which had already ordained women. The motion was not allowed to proceed.68 Both President Wilson and past president Paulsen addressed the delegates. One of the more disturbing moments came when Paulsen issued a plea to the delegates of the Global South to allow North America and Europe to do what they discern is best in their own divisions, even though it might differ from what is acceptable elsewhere. The plea was met with booing and hissing from some! There has been a strong reaction around the world from Adventists who are offended by the disrespect shown to this exemplary servant leader.69

Although the vote resulted in an acute disappointment, few were surprised. “The official ballot count was 977 yes and 1,381 no  . . . a significantly greater yes vote than the last time the idea was put forward, in 1995 at the session in Utrecht, Holland.”70

What does defeat of this motion mean to those striving for gender equality in the Seventh-day Adventist Church? President Wilson says that nothing has changed. Women can still serve as “commissioned” pastors and as ordained local church elders and deaconesses. They cannot, however, have the title of “ordained pastor,” which would allow them to hold certain church offices, such as General Conference president.71 There is a logical gap in this thinking. If one believes the theological arguments advanced by those in opposition to women’s ordination, then women should not be serving in any leadership capacity whatsoever. To say that women can do the work, as long as they are classified differently and prevented from advancing, is not a theological decision, but just plain discrimination.

Women were seen at the conference embracing and weeping after the result was announced. The Danish delegation marched in the Parade of Nations on July 11—wearing all black. Women and men from around the world posted pictures in social media of themselves dressed in black. Some have vowed to continue to wear black to church. Some have said they are leaving the denomination. Others have said they will remain and work for change and will not be silent. The response by some organizations has been immediate. The Adventist Church in the Netherlands, for example, announced the day after the vote that it would continue ordaining women.72

Probably the greatest ongoing obstacle to achieving equality is the change in the demographics of the SDA Church. At the first General Conference in 1863, the church had 3500 members, mostly in North America.73 Now the church has over eighteen million members. Over ninety-one percent of its membership, and ninety-seven percent of its baptisms, are in the Global South, where equality for women is not favored.74 While some take encouragement from the closer vote at the recent conference, optimism has to be balanced against rapid growth in the Global South. Furthermore, “Women and young adults continue to be greatly under-represented in the decision-making process. Women make up 57% of the membership of the SDA Church. At the General Conference only 17% of the voting delegates were women, and only 16% of the delegates were under 40.”75

The church cannot continue to devalue and discriminate against fifty-seven percent of its membership and hope to maintain support for its leadership. Many Adventists have become open in their criticism of the General Conference and its leaders. Two days after the vote on women’s ordination, Adventist Today published an article entitled, “Six reasons why I no longer trust the General Conference.” Among the reasons listed: “The General Conference is showing signs of becoming a threat to our Adventist heritage” and “Our General Conference leadership is asking us to yield our conscience to ecclesiastical authority.”76

What is the future of women in the SDA Church? There is no question that this issue has deeply divided the denomination and polarized its members throughout the world. The vote, however, has not ended the struggle. Those deeply and optimistically committed to equality have already begun to prepare for the next General Conference in 2020, where possible changes in church administration could create a more favorable climate for ordination of women. One interim goal is developing strategies for educating those who may not have had an opportunity to study the issue prior to the vote in San Antonio. Only time will tell whether the Global South, which now controls the SDA Church, will make room for those who are committed to equality.


  1. A brief overview of the structure of the church will be helpful throughout this article. A worldwide General Conference governs the SDA Church. Issues of importance to the entire church are decided by the General Conference, which meets every five years. Decisions are made by a vote of delegates representing each of the divisions, major church institutions (such as universities), and members of the church administration. In between sessions of the General Conference, the Annual Council meets to decide some issues and to set others on the agenda of the General Conference. The church governance structure is as follows: local congregations make up a conference; several conferences constitute a union; unions are organized into divisions; and the thirteen divisions constitute the worldwide General Conference. See “Organizational Structure,” Seventh-day Adventist Church, North American Division website,….
  2. “28 Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists,” SDAnet, At Issue, Fundamental Belief 18, “The Gift of Prophecy,” says, “One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White. As the Lord’s messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested. (Joel 2:28, 29; Acts 2:14-21; Heb. 1:1-3; Rev. 12:17; 19:10.)”
  3. “History,” The Seventh-day Adventist Church website,
  4. “Our Roots and Mission,” Adventist Review,
  5. Beverly Beem and Ginger Hanks-Harwood, “Your Daughters Shall Prophesy,” Pacific Union Conference Session website,
  6. Beem and Hanks-Harwood, “Your Daughters Shall Prophesy,” 3.
  7. 7.  Beem and Hanks-Harwood, “Your Daughters Shall Prophesy,” 2.
  8. Kit Watts, “An Outline of the History of Seventh-day Adventists and the Ordination of Women,” SDAnet, At Issue, “Women in Ministry,” appendix 5.
  9. Quoted in Denis Fortin, “What Did Early Adventist Pioneers Think about Women in Ministry,” Memory, Meaning and Faith (Apr 8, 2010),….
  10. Alberto R. Timm, “Seventh-day Adventists on Women’s Ordination, a Brief Historical Overview, Theology of Ordination Study Committee, January 21-25, 2014,” Adventist Archives, 4,….
  11. Watts, “Outline of the History,” 2.
  12. Ellen G. White Estate, “Records Pertaining to Ellen G. White’s Ministerial/Ordination Credentials,”
  13. Ellen G. White, “An Appeal to Our Churches Throughout the United States,” The Review and Herald (May 18, 1911),….
  14. White Estate, “Records Pertaining.”
  15. Letter by William Fagal, Associate Director, Ellen G. White Estate, published on Adventist Media Response and Conversation, May 9, 2009,
  16. Ellen G. White, Writings: Manuscript Releases, vol. 16, nos. 1186-1235, 215.
  17. Ted N. C. Wilson, “God’s Prophetic Movement, Message, and Mission and Their Attempted Neutralization by the Devil,” sermon at 2014 Annual Council, Oct 11, 2014, Adventist Review (Oct 14, 2014),….
  18. Ellen G. White, Writings: Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 323,….
  19. 19. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 12 (1990), 160,….
  20. Watts, “Outline of the History,” 2.
  21. Laura Vance, Women in New Religions (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 1241.
  22. Vance, Women in New Religions, 1264.
  23. “Women and Work after World War II,” American Experience,….
  24. Vance, Women in New Religions, 1262.
  25. Office of Archives Statistics and Research, “Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report, June, 2014,”
  26. Quoted in “Pacific Union Timeline: Women in Adventist Ministry,” Pacific Union Conference Session website,
  27. Quoted in “Pacific Union Timeline.”
  28. Watts, “Outline of the History.”
  29. Watts, “Outline of the History.”
  30. Colleen Curran, “Preservation of Tradition: The Emergence of the Religious Right in the 1970s and 1980s,” History Scene (Sept 20, 2013),
  31. “A Woman’s Place in Reforming Adventism,” (Aug 31, 2012), Facebook,….
  32. Gerry Chudleigh, A Short History of the Headship Doctrine in the Seventh–day Adventist Church (2014), n.p.,
  33. Chudleigh, Short History of the Headship Doctrine, n.p.
  34. Quoted in Timm, Brief Historical Overview, 8.
  35. Watts, “Outline of the History,” 8-17.
  36. Watts, “Outline of the History,” 8-17.
  37. Chudleigh, Short History of the Headship Doctrine, n.p.
  38. Chudleigh, Short History of the Headship Doctrine, n.p.
  39. Chudleigh, Short History of the Headship Doctrine, n.p.
  40. “Pacific Union Timeline.”
  41. “Pacific Union Timeline.”
  42. Unofficial Adventist pro-women’s ordination websites include and Sites opposing women’s ordination include,, and Such websites give a sense of how polarized the discussion has become. See Timm, “Brief Historical Overview,” 20.
  43. “Pacific Union Timeline.”
  44. Timm, “Brief Historical Overview,” 21.
  45. “Pacific Union Timeline.”
  46. Timm, “Brief Historical Overview,” 29.
  47. Southeastern California Conference, “Sandra Roberts Elected President of Southeastern California Conference” News Release (Oct 27, 2013),
  48. Office of Archives, Statistics and Research, “Southeastern California Conference,”
  49. “History of TOSC.”
  50. “History of TOSC.”
  51. Office of Archives Statistics and Research, “Position Summary #1,” TOSC Report (June, 2014), 29,
  52. “Position Summary #1,” 31.
  53. Angel Manuel Rodriguez, “Evaluation of the Arguments Used by Those Opposing the Ordination of Women to the Ministry” (Jan 2014), 2,….
  54. TOSC, 66.
  55. TOSC, 69.
  56. TOSC, 72, 80-86.
  57. TOSC, 73.
  58. TOSC, 73.
  59. Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, “Position Summary #2,” TOSC Report (June 2014), 100-101,
  60. Office of Archives Statistics and Research, “Position Summary #3,” TOSC Report (June 2014), 113,
  61. Andrews Theological Seminary, “On the Unique Headship of Christ in the Church, A Statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary,”4,, emphasis added.
  62. Andrews, “On the Unique Headship,” 5.
  63. Andrews, “On the Unique Headship,” 6.
  64. These ministries are not part of the official Seventh-day Adventist Church organization, although they do not always make that clear to readers and viewers. Many of these ministries have large followings within the denomination and are influential in shaping the opinions of some church members.
  65. Doug Batchelor and Dwight Hall, Strange Fire: Understanding the Hot Topic of Women’s Ordination (n.p.: Remnant, 2014), 342-44.
  66. Batchelor and Hall, Strange Fire, 347-51.
  67. 67. Daniel Mesa, “Symbolism Matters,”
  68. “Vote on Ordination, Majority says ‘No’ to Women as Adventist Ministers,” Adventist Today (July 9, 2015),….
  69. “Majority says ‘No.’”
  70. “Majority says ‘No.’”
  71. ANN Staff, “GC President Says Ordination Vote Doesn’t Change Current Policy,” Adventist Review (July 10, 2015),
  72. 72.  “Adventist Church in the Netherlands Unchanged by Ordination Vote,” Spectrum (July 9, 2015),….
  73. “Full Text: 2015 GC Session Secretary’s Report,”….
  74. “Full Text: 2015 GC Session Secretary’s Report.”
  75. “InfoGraphics: A Full Breakdown of General Conference Delegates by Division, Gender and Age,” Spectrum Media (June 4, 2015),….
  76. Harald Giesebrecht, “ Six reasons why I no longer trust the General Conference,” Adventist Today (July 10, 2015),….