Lecture outline


Denis Fortin

(This lecture is adapted from my chapter in the book Women in Ministry: Biblical and Historical Perspectives, ed. Nancy Vyhmeister  [Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1998], pp. 115-133.)


1. The simplicity of the ordination of the twelve apostles

In The Desire of Ages, Ellen White describes the simplicity of the ordination of the twelve apostles. Beneath the sheltering trees of a mountainside, not far from the Sea of Galilee, Jesus gathered privately his twelve apostles. He desired to teach them in the sanctuary of nature, away from confusion and disturbing noises. In this setting of natural beauty, the first step was taken in the organization of the church (DA 290-291).

"When Jesus had ended His instruction to the disciples, He gathered the little band close about Him, and kneeling in the midst of them, and laying His hands upon their heads, He offered a prayer dedicating them to His sacred work. Thus the Lord's disciples were ordained to the gospel ministry" (DA 296)

The simplicity of this first ordination service is startling given its impact upon the future of the gospel proclamation. There is no costly temple, no dazzling rituals, no dignified guests in attendance. The order of service is unadorned and straightforward.


2. The issue of ordination

Although the ordination service as performed in the Seventh-day Adventist church has kept some of the simplicity of this first service, the issue of ordination has become much more complex.  For many years the Seventh-day Adventist church has discussed the possibility of ordaining women to the gospel ministry. In the course of the numerous conversations and arguments, it has appeared to me that much confusion within our discussions stems from our vague understanding of what ordination is all about.  Hence our need to elaborate a Seventh-day Adventist theology of ordination.

As part of our construction of such a theology we need to turn to the writings of Ellen G. White. Since we affirm the prophetic role and doctrinal authority of Ellen White and we believe that her understanding of ordination can help us clarify our own theology of ordination. To this end we ask some questions:


How does Ellen White define ordination?

What does she say concerning the qualifications for ordination?

What is the theological context in which she discusses ordination? Is it connected with church authority?

And, who decides who is to be ordained?

My purpose in this lecture is to study Ellen White's writings on the subject of ordination, without addressing directly the issue of the ordination of women, and come to some conclusions as to what ordination meant for her. Since ordination has traditionally been part of the doctrine of the church, we will consider her thoughts on ordination in the context of her overall understanding of what the church is and how it functions.

I. The Church as representative of God on earth

One of Ellen White's basic theological notions regarding the church is that the church is the representative of God on earth (DA 290).

Within the context of the great controversy theme, she believed that Christians and the church are the instruments that God uses to witness to the universe that he is a God of love, mercy and justice (6T 12).


"God has made His church on the earth a channel of light, and through it He communicates His purposes and His will" (AA 163; cf 6T 9-13, AA 9-16).

In this context, her comments about the church emphasize the pragmatic functions of the church, its role and purpose, more than its ontological aspects.

Although ordained ministers, as servants of God and the church, are no doubt to act as God's representatives on earth (cf. AA 359-371), they are not the only ones. Every Christian has a role to play within the great controversy and is a representative of Christ. (7)

II. The priesthood of all believers


A. Formal ordination is not needed to serve God

While in the Old Testament only certain men ordained to the priesthood could minister within the earthly sanctuary (cf. PP 398-399), Ellen White believed that no one is ever restricted from serving God even though one is not an ordained priest or minister.  In her writings she indicated that all Christians (men and women), regardless of their walks of life, are servants of God.  Even though, in her published writings, she never mentioned it as such, she nonetheless affirmed the protestant concept of the priesthood of all believers.

Two passages of Scripture are foremost in her understanding of this concept.


1. 1 Peter 2:9: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (RSV).


Three centuries before Ellen White, Martin Luther also appealed to 1 Peter 2:9 to express his belief that every Christian is a priest for God. In a 1520 treatise, in which he invited the German princes to reform the church, he wrote, "The fact is that our baptism consecrates us all without exception, and makes us all priests" (An appeal to the ruling class of German nationality as to the amelioration of the state of Christendom in John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from his writings [New York: Doubleday, 1962], 408).

2. John 15:16: "Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in My name, He may give it you."

Many times she referred to or quoted parts of these passages in support of dedicated Christian service and to insist that all Christians are called, or commissioned, by God to serve him. (Concerning 1 Peter 2:9 see, for example, Testimonies to Ministers, 422, 441; Testimonies for the Church, 2:169; 6:123, 274. For John 15:16 see, Testimonies to Ministers, 212-213.)

Indicative of her thoughts on this is the following passage: "Brethren and sisters, how much work have you done for God during the past year? Do you think that it is those men only who have been ordained as gospel ministers that are to work for the uplifting of humanity?-- No, no! Every one who names the name of Christ is expected by God to engage in this work. The hands of ordination may not have been laid upon you, but you are none the less God's messengers. If you have tasted that the Lord is gracious, if you know his saving power, you can no more keep from telling this to some one else than you can keep the wind from blowing. You will have a word in season for him that is weary. You will guide the feet of the straying back to the fold. Your efforts to help others will be untiring, because God's Spirit is working in you" (RH November 24, 1904).


B. All Christians are servants of God

This concept of the priesthood of all believers underlies her understanding of both Christian service and ordination. Throughout her ministry, Ellen White made repeated appeals to church members to engage in wholehearted Christian service. For her it is a fatal mistake to believe that only ordained ministers are workers for God and to rely solely on them to accomplish the mission of the church (RH March 24, 1910).


"All who are ordained unto the life of Christ are ordained to work for the salvation of their fellow-men" (ST August 25, 1898).

"Those who stand as leaders in the church of God are to realize that the Saviour's commission is given to all who believe in His name. God will send forth into His vineyard many who have not been dedicated to the ministry by the laying on of hands" (AA 110).

Every Christian (regardless of gender) is thus a minister for God (cf. RH November 24, 1904).


C. All Christians receive a spiritual ordination for ministry from Christ

Consequently, every Christian is ordained by Christ.


"Have you tasted of the powers of the world to come? Have you been eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of God? Then, although ministerial hands may not have been laid upon you in ordination, Christ has laid His hands upon you and has said: `Ye are My witnesses'" (6AT 444).

"Many souls will be saved through the labors of men who have looked to Jesus for their ordination and orders" (RH April 21, 1903).

Formal church ordination, therefore, is not a prerequisite to serve God because it is the Holy Spirit who gives fitness for service to Christians who in faith are willing to serve (AA 40).

Humility and meekness are character traits that God looks for in his servants to qualify them for ministry; these are more necessary than eloquence or learning (2MR 32,33). In fact, as in the case of Paul and Barnabas, ordination from above precedes ordination done by the church (AA 160-161).


D. Ellen White's call and ordination to prophetic ministry

This is also, I believe, how she understood her own call to ministry. Although she was never ordained as a minister by the Seventh-day Adventist church, she believed, however, that God himself had ordained her to the prophetic ministry.

In her later years, while recalling her experience in the Millerite movement and her first vision, she declared, "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" (Letter 138, 1909 in 6Bio 211).


From these passages we can draw a few initial conclusions concerning Ellen White's underlying thoughts on ordination.


First, Ellen White's concept of the priesthood of all believers is the fundamental qualification for Christian service; every Christian is intrinsically a servant (priest) for God.

Second, in a spiritual sense, every Christian is ordained by God to this priesthood.

Third, church ordination is not a requirement to serve God.

III. What does Ellen G. White mean by "to ordain"?

In her published writings, this verb in its various forms appears close to a thousand times. Although it may refer to the Christian rite of appointing someone to a church office by means of a laying on of hands ceremony, ordain does not always refer to this ceremony.  The basic root meaning of the word is to order or organize.  The word may also mean to command or decree.  These various shades of meaning appear in her writings.

When, for example, she refers to John 15:16, as quoted above, to support a dedicated Christian service on the part of all believers, the verb ordain in the KJV does not seem to refer to a laying on of hands ceremony, but rather has the meaning of decree or command -- God decrees or commands that Christians should go and bring forth much fruit.

At the beginning of the chapter "A Consecrated Ministry" in Acts of the Apostles, she makes the statement that the "great Head of the church superintends His work through the instrumentality of men ordained by God to act as His representatives" (AA 360).  Although in this chapter she clearly discusses the work and influence of the ordained minister, nowhere else does she allude to ordination; the verb ordain is used only this once and refers to God appointing some men as his instruments. But, I believe her usage of the verb may include the spiritual ordination we have just discussed. Then, her intent may be to emphasize that a minister's ultimate ordination is not from men but from God himself.

I believe that the same nuances of meaning are present in her statement about her call to the prophetic ministry, "the Lord ordained me as his messenger." Here the verb ordained has a first meaning of "appointed to the office" but can readily include the meaning that God himself ordained her or laid his hands upon her.

I conclude from this that underlying Ellen White's use of the verb ordain, in her comments regarding the concept of the priesthood of all believers, is the thought that God is the one who first of all ordains (in the sense of appoints) one to be his servant and, consequently, it is also God who spiritually lays his hands upon this servant.

Because of these various shades of meaning, I have limited the rest of my study to references where Ellen White clearly used the verb in the context of a laying on of hands ceremony, a spiritual ordination done by God, or to the work of an ordained minister.


IV. Sacraments or Ordinances?


A. Difference between a sacrament and an ordinance.

A sacrament is a cause of grace, it is a sign by which God conveys grace to the recepient.

Catechism of the Catholic Church (#774): "the term sacramentum emphasizes the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation which was indicated by the term mysterium.  In this sense, Christ himself is the mystery of salvation. . . . The saving work of his holy and sanctifying humanity is the sacrament of salvation, which is revealed and active in the Church's sacraments. . . . The seven sacraments are signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is the Body."

In contrast, an ordinance is a rite of the Church commemorating an event of the life of Christ who commanded us to repeat it in remembrance of him. An ordinance is a symbol of Christ's work of salvation in the life of believers; as such it does not convey grace but is a sign that grace is given to those who have a saving relationship with Christ.


B. Seventh-day Adventist Ordinances.


    Lord's Supper

    Foot washing -- ordinance of humility or service


V. Principles of church organization

If all Christians (men and women) are servants (priests) and ministers for God, ordained by God to serve him, why is the church ordaining ministers, elders and deacons?

A look at how Ellen White perceived the development of our early Seventh-day Adventist church organization, or "gospel order" as it was called then, will provide some answers to this important question and will shed further light on her understanding of ordination.

Ordination is closely related to her concept of church organization.  For her the ordination of deacons and elders in the New Testament and the ordination of ministers in the early Adventist movement were answers, provided under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to meet the challenges of growth and moments of crisis.  Even though the early and elementary ecclesiastical structures of both movements (or lack thereof) did not provide, at first, for new ordained ministries, she believed that these structures were adaptable and allowed for the creation of new ministries (as in the case of the Seven in Acts 6).

These ordinations to ministry in the New Testament church and early Adventist movement, therefore, demonstrated the organizational principles of harmony and order, and adaptability.


A. Harmony and order

Soon after the Millerite disappointment, the little flock of Sabbatarian Adventists was confronted with many divergent views which threatened its very survival.

In a vision related in her 1854 Supplement to "Experience and Views", Ellen White inquired of an angel as to how harmony could be brought within the ranks of this new fledgling group and how the enemy with his errors could be driven back. The angel pointed to God's word and gospel order as the solution. These would bring the church into the unity of the faith and would secure the members from false teachers.  But how would early Adventists do this since they had no church organization? Scripture had the answer.  They were to follow the example of the early Christian church (cf. EW 100-101).

I saw that in the apostles' day the church was in danger of being deceived and imposed upon by false teachers. Therefore the brethren chose men who had given good evidence that they were capable of ruling well their own houses and preserving order in their own families, and who could enlighten those who were in darkness (EW 100-101).

Thus, as the early church and the apostles chose qualified men to serve as leaders and ordained them, so the early Adventist church was to proceed. The solution to false teachings and anarchy was the ordination of able men who would supervise and look after the interests of the people (EW 101).

Building upon the experience of the early church, and in the midst of much disorganization and lack of structure, she counseled the brethren that God desires his people to follow the New Testament model in the ordination of its first ministers.  Early Adventists were to select men "and set them apart to devote themselves entirely to His work. This act would show the sanction of the church to their going forth as messengers to carry the most solemn message ever given to men" (ibid., cf. AA 95-96).

Harmony and order could then be preserved in the Adventist movement through the ordination of ministers.


B. Adaptability

Also building upon this biblical model for the ordination of officers, Ellen White articulates that the structure of the church should be adaptable and at the service of the people.

She mentions in Acts of the Apostles that a moment of crisis in the New Testament church occurred as murmuring arose among Christians of Greek origin when they saw their widows neglected in the daily distribution of food (cf. Acts 6:1-6). As the rapid growth in membership brought increasingly heavy burdens upon those in charge,  "[no] one man, or even one set of men, could continue to bear these burdens alone, without imperiling the future prosperity of the church. There was necessity for a further distribution of the responsibilities which had been borne so faithfully by a few during the earlier days of the church. The apostles must now take an important step in the perfecting of gospel order in the church, by laying upon others some of the burdens thus far borne by themselves" (AA 88-89).

This perfecting of gospel order was accomplished when "the apostles were led by the Holy Spirit to outline a plan for the better organization of all the working forces of the church" (AA 89).  They gathered all the disciples together, explained to them the situation and then suggested that seven men be chosen to oversee the daily distribution of food.  This proposal pleased the whole assembly. They chose the seven [deacons] and presented them to the apostles who in turn ordained them to this new ministry.

Commenting on this service, Ellen White understands that


"[the] organization of the church at Jerusalem was to serve as a model for the organization of churches in every other place where messengers of truth should win converts to the gospel. . . . Later in the history of the early church, when in various parts of the world many groups of believers had been formed into churches, the organization of the church was further perfected, so that order and harmonious action might be maintained" (AA 91-92, italics supplied).

Her description of the events indicates that changes to the organizational structure of the church (as in the institution of a new ordained ministry) were made as the leadership realized that new needs required to be met. This, in some sense, meant the "perfecting" of the structure the apostles had inherited from Jesus; it also meant that the early organizational structure of the church had not achieved a static rigidity.

The earlier organizational structure could be modified or "perfected" if, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the membership and the leadership thought it needed to.  This understanding of the adaptability, or the further "perfecting", of the organizational structure of the church is an important clue to understanding how early Seventh-day Adventists viewed the development of their own model of church governance.

During the period of 1854-1860, as discussions occurred concerning the establishment of our early system of church organization, and even the choice of a name, James White concluded that "we should not be afraid of that system which is not opposed by the Bible, and is approved by sound sense" ("A Complaint," RH June 6, 1859, p. 28).

This comment from James White may seem difficult to understand from the leader of a movement which identified itself solely with scripture.  Yet Andrew Mustard argues that James White "had moved away, perhaps unconsciously, from the idea that the only valid principles of organization were those specifically indicated in the Bible, to a less restrictive view that any method of organization was acceptable if effective, provided that it was not specifically opposed by Scripture" (James White and SDA Organization: Historical Development, 1844-1881 [Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1987], 131).

Thus, some of our pioneers concluded, on the basis of the New Testament example, that the church organization is at the service of God's people on earth and not vice versa (cf. Mustard, 134, 171-172, 221-222, 231-232).

Consequently, with the theological understanding that church structures must reflect order and harmony and be adaptable to new needs, Seventh-day Adventists have been able, through the years, to set up new ministries and move forward solidly and unitedly in spreading the gospel.

We can also conclude from Ellen White's understanding of these two organizational principles, that the church can determine, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which ministries are beneficial and who is to function as an officer in the church.  Thus, as we will see, the ordination of officers becomes a function of the church.

VI. Ministries Within the Church


A. A Functional Ministry

Jesus himself instituted an ordained ministry first with the ordination of his twelve apostles and later in guiding the early church to ordain deacons and elders (DA 290; AA 160-161).

Although all Christians are priests and ministers at the service of God, some are especially chosen by God to occupy specific functions within the church.


Luther also understood the work of the ecclesiastical ministry in the same light: "Every one who has been baptized may claim that he has already been consecrated priest, bishop, or pope, even though it is not seemly for any particular person arbitrarily to exercise the office. Just because we are all priests of equal standing, no one must push himself forward and, without the consent and choice of the rest, presume to do that for which we all have equal authority. Only by the consent and command of the community should any individual person claim for himself what belongs equally to all. . . . It follows that the status of a priest among Christians is merely that of an office-bearer. . ." (An Appeal to the Ruling Class, in Dillenberger, 409).

The ordained ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist church has a God-ordained purpose (TM 52, 2T 615, 411). For this reason, Ellen White cautioned that individuals ordained to ministry in the church ought to be carefully selected.


B. A Word of Caution

Ellen White earnestly believed that a thorough investigation should be done before a person is ordained to the ministry, carefully following Paul's injunction to Timothy, "Lay hands suddenly on no man" (1 Tim. 5:22).

[Those] who are about to enter upon the sacred work of teaching Bible truth to the world should be carefully examined by faithful, experienced persons. After these have had some experience, there is still another work to be done for them. They should be presented before the Lord in earnest prayer that He would indicate by His Holy Spirit if they are acceptable to Him. The apostle says: "Lay hands suddenly on no man." [1 Tim. 5:22.] In the days of the apostles the ministers of God did not dare to rely upon their own judgment in selecting or accepting men to take the solemn and sacred position of mouthpiece for God. They chose the men whom their judgment would accept, and then they placed them before the Lord to see if He would accept them to go forth as His representatives. No less than this should be done now (4T 406).

Throughout her ministry, she repeatedly sounded this caution regarding the ordination of new ministers (cf. DA 294, 5T 617).

Her major concern was to raise "the standard higher than we have done hitherto, when selecting and ordaining men for the sacred work of God" (RH October 21, 1890).

Haste in ordaining elders or ministers has brought grievous trouble upon the church when the chosen persons were "in no way fitted for the responsible work -- men who need to be converted, elevated, ennobled, and refined before they can serve the cause of God in any capacity" (5T 617-618).


C. Qualifications for Ministry 

The qualifications for the ordained ministry are both spiritual and practical.

Ellen White believed that those who bear responsibilities in the church must be trained for the work (5T 549).

They must be people whom God can teach and honor with wisdom and understanding, as he did Daniel. "They must be thinking men, men who bear God's impress and who are steadily progressing in holiness, in moral dignity, and in an understanding of their work. They must be praying men" (5T 549).

Ordained ministers and elders need spiritual discernment (RH May 14, 1895) and should be distrustful of self and should labor in humility (4T 407).

Beyond these spiritual qualifications, Ellen White considered just as important the practical ones.  Ministers must live out the truth they preach in the pulpit (5T 530).  In this respect she urged a thorough investigation of a future minister's behavior before ordination.

There are ministers who claim to be teaching the truth, whose ways are an offense to God. They preach, but do not practice the principles of the truth. Great care should be exercised in ordaining men for the ministry. There should be a close investigation of their experience. Do they know the truth, and practice its teachings? Have they a character of good repute? Do they indulge in lightness and trifling, jesting and joking? In prayer do they reveal the Spirit of God? Is their conversation holy, their conduct blameless? All these questions need to be answered before hands are laid upon any man to dedicate him to the work of the ministry (RH October 21, 1890).

She also commented on the practicing of the health reform as a prerequisite for ministry. "No man should be set apart as a teacher of the people while his own teaching or example contradicts the testimony God has given His servants to bear in regard to diet; for this will bring confusion" (7MR 338).


Ellen White advocated this strong advice on the basis that ministers speak to the people in Christ's stead and should therefore live according to the principles of the health reform. As the priests of Israel were required to make special ceremonial preparations before coming into the presence of God, she believed that ministers ought to remember "that the mighty God of Israel is still a God of cleanliness" (Counsels on Health, 82). 


VII. Ordination and authority

Another relevant and important question is whether ministers have authority in the church? And if so, where does this authority come from and how is it related to ordination?


A. Ecclesiastical authority

Roman Catholicism and other episcopal churches believe that "[by] the laying on of hands in the ceremony of ordination, the authority of the apostles has been transmitted down through history to the bishops of today. According to this theory, which is known as the theory of apostolic succession, modern bishops have the authority which the apostles had, authority which the apostles had in turn received from Christ" (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983-1985], 1071).

This view of apostolic succession closely associates ordination and authority. There is no ecclesiastical authority without ordination. Furthermore, ordination within the apostolic succession confers upon the recipient a sacramental power to perform the rites and ceremonies of the church. Without the proper ordination, the minister cannot perform efficaciously the sacraments of the church.

Ellen White's understanding of the purpose of ordination varies greatly from the episcopal model; her clearest comments on this are found in connection with the ordination of Paul and Barnabas (AA 160-162). These two apostles had seen their labors abundantly blessed by God during their early ministry in Antioch even though "neither of them had as yet been formally ordained to the gospel ministry" (AA 160. In my opinion, her use of the adverd 'formally' indicates that God had already ordained them to their ministry before the church at Antioch ordained them by the laying on of hands before sending them off on their first missionary journey).

But they had reached a point in their ministry when God desired to entrust them with the carrying of the gospel message to the Gentiles. For this purpose, and to meet the challenges of the task, "they would need every advantage that could be obtained through the agency of the church" (ibid.).

Here Ellen White's concept of ordination suggests a close relationship between God and his church. As we have already seen, God commissions and ordains all Christians to ministry first, then, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church sets its seal of approval upon the work of God through the laying on of hands on some chosen individuals. "The circumstances connected with the separation of Paul and Barnabas by the Holy Spirit to a definite line of service, show clearly that the Lord works through appointed agencies in His organized church" (AA 162).  Before being sent forth as missionaries, Paul and Barnabas were dedicated to God by the church at Antioch which, in this case, became God's instrument in the formal appointment of the apostles to their God-given mission.

According to Ellen White's description of this event, the ordination of Paul and Barnabas fulfilled five inter-related purposes.


First, the church invested them with full church authority to teach the truth, perform baptisms and organize churches (Redemption, or the teachings of Paul and his mission to the Gentiles, 5).

Second, foreseeing the difficulties and the opposition ahead of them, God wished for their work to be above challenge and, thus, receive the sanction of the church (ibid., 6).

Third, the ordination was a public recognition to the church at large that they had been chosen by the Holy Spirit for a special work to the Gentiles (ibid.).

Fourth, "the ceremony of laying on of hands added no new grace or virtual qualification", it was the action of the church setting its seal of approval upon the work of God (ibid., 7).

Fifth, hands were laid upon the apostles to ask "God to bestow his blessing upon them" (ibid.).

Thus we see that Ellen White's definition of ordination is altogether pragmatic: it is a public recognition of divine appointment and an "acknowledged form of designation to an appointed office" (ibid., 6-7).

What is the relationship between ordination and authority?

For Ellen White, the church grants authority to the ordained minister to preach the gospel, and to act in its stead in the organization of churches and all its ministries.  As far as the performance of some church rites is concerned, her comments imply that only the church can authorize an individual to perform these rites.  Therefore, the church does confer authority upon some chosen individuals through the ordination ceremony.  Here we find that the laying on of hands is a ceremony to serve the purpose of the church.  It is also the church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which ultimately decides who is to be given authority through ordination.


B. Divine Authority

Yet, our understanding of the relationship of authority to ordination would be incomplete if we were to consider only the church authority conferred upon a minister at ordination. Ellen White presented also another aspect of authority which is shared by all Christians, in general, and by ordained ministers, in particular.

As a Christian, an ordained minister not only possesses ecclesiastical authority to perform his duties for the church, but possesses also divine authority to preach the gospel and serve as an ambassador of God. This divine authority is, I believe, more fundamentally related to the priesthood of all believers.

Speaking about ordained ministers as Christ's ambassadors on earth, she affirms that from "Christ's ascension to the present day, men ordained of God, deriving their authority from Him, have become teachers of the faith. . . . Thus the position of those who labor in word and doctrine becomes very important" (4T 393 italics supplied).

Elsewhere, again speaking about ordained ministers, she adds, "He has ordained that there should be a succession of men who derive authority from the first teachers of the faith for the continual preaching of Christ and Him crucified. The Great Teacher has delegated power to His servants. . ." (4T 529 italics supplied).

Although, at first glance, the phrase "a succession of men who derive authority from the first teachers of the faith" may seem to validate a belief in episcopal apostolic succession, Ellen White did not say that ordained ministers receive their authority directly from Peter, through a direct succession of laying on of hands ceremonies. Rather, she affirmed that the authority of God's servants is derived from God and the first teachers of the faith. This derivation of authority is based upon faithfulness to the Word of God and to truth.

Her comments in The Desire of Ages concerning the apostolic succession are explicit.  "Descent from Abraham was proved, not by name and lineage, but by likeness of character. So the apostolic succession rests not upon the transmission of ecclesiastical authority, but upon spiritual relationship. A life actuated by the apostles' spirit, the belief and teaching of the truth they taught, this is the true evidence of apostolic succession. This is what constitutes men the successors of the first teachers of the gospel" (DA 467).

As long as a servant of God (not only an ordained minister) is faithful to God and his word, this person has divine authority to "labor in word and doctrine". This ties in with what we have seen in regard to the priesthood of all believers. This is what the church acknowledges when ordaining a person to ministry. The authority of an ordained minister is, consequently, first, derived from God and, secondly, conferred by the church. The first gives authority to teach the faith, while the second to act on behalf of the church.
VIII. A diversity of ordained ministries

Within the theological perspective I have outlined thus far, one that is founded on the priesthood of all believers and that sees the organizational structure of the church as adaptable to new needs, we can understand why Ellen White allowed for the church to decide whether some people, other than ministers, should be ordained or set apart by the laying on of hands in other ministries.

She earnestly believed that the ordained ministry alone was not sufficient to fulfill God's gospel commission, that God is calling Christians of all professions to dedicate their lives to his service (MM 248-249).

Since the church can branch out into different kinds of ministries to meet the needs of the people, she favored, for instance, the ordination of medical missionaries and women ministers.


A. Ordained Medical Missionaries

Ellen White considered the work of the medical profession as a great means of proclaiming the gospel and, for this reason, she believed medical missionaries ought to be ordained to God's service.


"The work of the true medical missionary is largely a spiritual work. It includes prayer and the laying on of hands; he therefore should be as sacredly set apart for his work as is the minister of the gospel. Those who are selected to act the part of missionary physicians, are to be set apart as such. This will strengthen them against the temptation to withdraw from the sanitarium work to engage in private practice" (Ev 546). 

In this passage Ellen White drew a parallel between the setting apart of the medical missionary and the minister of the gospel. To sacredly set apart a medical missionary is viewed as a form of ordination in which the church acknowledges the blessings of God upon the chosen individual and serves as a means of strengthening the dedication of the worker in his service for God.


B. Ordained Women Ministers

Ellen White also favored women as laborers in the gospel ministry.

In 1898, while in Australia, she recalled how God had impressed her with the injustice that had been done to some women, wives of ordained ministers. Some ministers' wives had been very active in gospel ministry, visiting families and giving Bible studies, yet without receiving any due recognition nor financial compensation. She understood that these women "are recognized by God as being as necessary to the work of ministry as their husbands" (5MR 323). And, consequently, in agreement with the priesthood of all believers, she approved women laboring in the gospel ministry (5MR 325).

In a similar context, she favored that women in gospel ministry be also set apart or ordained.


"Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time to the service of the Lord should be appointed to visit the sick, look after the young, and minister to the necessities of the poor. They should be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of hands. In some cases they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister; but if they are devoted women, maintaining a vital connection with God, they will be a power for good in the church. This is another means of strengthening and building up the church. We need to branch out more in our methods of labor" (RH July 9, 1895 italics supplied).

Ellen White's basic reason for supporting the setting apart of women and medical missionaries concurs also with what we have already seen on the adaptability of church structures to meet new needs. Under the guidance of God, the church can and should branch out in its methods of labor by setting apart in ordination people serving in various ministries. But more importantly, I believe, Ellen White implied here that God is leading the church in this direction, that it is God's will for the church to branch out, to be strengthened and built up by ordaining women to ministry.

Ellen White's concept of ordination can best be described within her understanding of God's purpose for the church and the priesthood of all believers. She supported the concept that all Christians, regardless of gender, are ministers of God, ordained by God (John 15:16) into the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9) to demonstrate to the world the mercy and love of God.

In the organized church, some Christians are appointed to functionally different kinds of ministry such as ordained ministers or church administrators. Church ordination, far from being sacramental, is a means of publicly recognizing God's will and call for an individual.

Since the ordained minister is the foremost representative of God and his church, ordination to ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist church is a serious matter and its ministers are to be carefully selected according to spiritual and practical qualifications.

Furthermore, Ellen White's theological understanding of ordination is related to her understanding of church organization and how she perceives the function of the church as the representative of God on earth.

During the early developments of the Seventh-day Adventist church organization she counseled the believers to follow the example of the New Testament church and to draw from it principles needed to establish the proper gospel order. In that context, ordination to ministry was needed to keep order and harmony in the church and demonstrated the adaptability of the church structures to meet the needs of the people.

Thus, to better fulfill its mission, Ellen White believed the church needs to branch out in its methods of evangelism, allowing every Christian to have a part in it. Where the church sees fit, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, ministries can be established and people ordained by laying on of hands to these ministries. Thus ordination in Ellen White's thought is a means used by the church to acknowledge God's will for his church and for individual Christians, both women and men.