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A Response to the North American Division Ordination Request


© P. Gerard Damsteegt



The following is my response to the North American Division ordination request on July 5, 1995. I was asked by the General Conference President to speak on the topic "Why am I not in favor of the North American Division's request." Besides the oral presentation I prepared a printed graphic outline that was distributed to each of the delegates after the discussions. During my oral address I presented all my arguments with Scripture and Spirit of Prophecy quotations via computerized video projection to a large jumbo screen. Because all my references were projected, in my spoken presentation I did not give the exact reference to each of the Scriptural and Spirit of Prophecy quotations. The graphic outline that was passed out to all delegates also included full documentation along with a few additional points that were omitted because of the time restraints. (I had exactly 20 minutes allotted.) In the following presentation these items have been included so readers will have the benefit of the oral as well as the written materials that were shared with the delegates.


The General Conference Address

It is a privilege for me, brothers and sisters, to address you on this awesome occasion. Let us pray.

Lord, send Your Spirit. Touch our hearts. And whatever we do, may it be to Your glory, and may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord and Savior, our Redeemer. Amen.

Let me first of all state that I strongly support the involvement of women in God's work. Women have unique gifts needed to finish its mission. They have done a great work in the past and we need them even more today. They can reach people men can never reach. We must, therefore, develop new strategies to attract them to participate in the work of God.

The dilemma of the church

Even though I cannot agree with the North American Division (NAD) request, I truly and deeply sympathize with them. What is the dilemma the church is facing?

In 1989 the Annual Council voted that women ordained as elders can perform all the duties of ordained ministers. However, they cannot be ordained as ministers. Of course the result was a very unhappy situation. No one really likes this solution. Some accuse the church of unfairness, discrimination and injustice. Some threaten to ordain women with or without the church's permission. How can we now together solve this dilemma and preserve the unity of the church?

Two options were cited by the NAD president (Adventist Review, February 1995) 1. To go back and acknowledge that it was a mistake to begin ordaining women as elders. 2. To press on and request that each division have the freedom to ordain women as ministers. The NAD leadership has chosen the second option. They sincerely believe that this is the way to preserve unity and prevent open rebellion in certain areas.

Why can' t I support this request? It is conflicts with three of our biblical doctrines: the doctrine of the church, the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures, and the doctrine of unity in the body of Christ.

Implications of the request

To understand this fully we have to see the full implications of the NAD request. It's not simply a matter of laying on of hands. There is good counsel in the Spirit of Prophecy that women be ordained for a special work, and they could do a tremendous work. But the issue here is: ordination to what?

If the present request is approved it presents a major change in the structure of church leadership. It rejects the generally held SDA position that the Bible teaches clear differences in function between men and women within the church. It assumes that the Bible allows women to occupy positions of spiritual headship in the church such as head of a local church, conference president, union president, and General Conference president.

How to judge the request

What is the test for new doctrine or practice? The Bible clearly reveals in Isaiah 8:20: "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (NKJV). Now we, as Adventists, are very fortunate, because about 100 years ago, in 1888, we had a General Conference with lots of tensions. There the Lord revealed that "The Bible must be our standard for every doctrine and practice .... It is the word of the living God that is to decide all controversies" (Ellen White, 1888, pp. 44, 45).

The ordination issue that faces us here deals with a significant practice -- the practice of appointing ministerial leadership in Christ's church. It is clear that God's Word must be our focus. We are a Bible church.

The Scriptures are plain

The statement is often made that the Bible doesn't say anything about the ordination of women and therefore we can just go ahead with it. I would like to ask "Does the Bible speak to the question of the right of women to occupy positions of leadership with full ecclesiastical authority? I mention "full ecclesiastical authority" for that is a phrase that the Spirit of Prophecy uses to describe the result of the ordination to church leadership positions (Acts of the Apostles, 161).

Is there any light from Jesus on this question? Yes there is!

Let me illustrate this from the history of our church. Early Adventists were strongly reform-minded. During the second half of the 19th century there were three major reform movements: abolition of slavery, temperance, and women's rights. Ellen White strongly supported abolition of slavery and temperance. She, however, strongly opposed the movement for women's rights. One of her reasons for rejecting this movement was that it conflicted with Scripture. The prophet warned that "those who feel called out to join the movement in favor of woman's rights ... might as well sever all connection with the third angel's message. The spirit which attends the one cannot be in harmony with the other. The Scriptures are plain upon the relations and rights of men and women" (Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 421). So does the Bible address this issue? Very clearly it does. And so let us look how this request conflicts with three of our doctrines.

It conflicts with the doctrine of the church

The request is out of harmony with the statement in Fundamental Belief 11 that "The church derives its authority from Christ, who is the incarnate Word, and from the Scriptures, which are the written Word"

This doctrine deals with the question of authority in the church. Therefore we need to investigate what the Bible teaches on relations between men and women.

The Bible teaches true equality of nature and worth before God. Regarding the equality in nature Genesis clearly reveals that men and women are created in "the image of God" (Gen 1:27). On the equality in worth the Jesus reveals that before God we are all exceedingly precious. God "shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34) because we are all "one in Christ Jesus." Therefore "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Gal 3: 28, NKJV). On this both sides of the ordination issue fully agree.

Are men and women the same in every sense? It is clear that the Bible affirms that they have the same value and standing before God, but it also teaches that men and women are different in their functional roles. The North American request overlooks this fundamental Biblical teaching. 1 Timothy and Titus clearly present this teaching which speaks directly to our situation. Unfortunately the Women's Study Commissions in Mohaven, Washington D.C. and Cohutta Springs never grappled in a focused way with this Biblical counsel. Therefore there is no better time to study it than at this time.

The message of 1 Timothy

Let us look at the message of 1 Timothy because it is a timeless message for the church. Timothy was instructed "to teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables ... which cause disputes rather than godly edification" (1 Tim 1: 3, 4, NKJV). And so the Lord provided counsel on how to preserve His church from heresy, confusion and divisions. Inspiration gave Timothy God's plan for the structure and operation of the church during the Christian era: "I am writing these instructions to you so that...you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:14, 15, RSV).

This book of the Bible reveals the principles of authority in the church. The early Christians had to face some of the same problems we are facing today. Certain women interpreted the freedom of the Gospel as freedom to exercise the spiritual headship role in the church. Paul's response was swift: "I do not permit a woman ... to have authority over a man" (1 Tim 2:12, NKJV). Was his reasoning based on culture? Women in the culture of that time served as priestesses. Why should they not have the same rights in the Christian religion?

The answer to these questions is found in what the Bible teaches about God's plan for spiritual headship. This plan is based on three biblical reasons. The first reason against women having spiritual authority over men Paul bases on the order Christ established before the fall into sin: "Adam was formed first, then Eve" (1 Tim 2:13, NKJV). What conclusion does Paul draw from this? Jesus wanted men to be the spiritual leaders. It is significant to notice that this creation order reflects Jesus' actions. It has nothing to do with culture.

The second reason against women having spiritual authority over men is based on Christ's order after the Fall. Alluding to the order of transgression, Paul states, "Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor" (1 Tim 2:14, RSV). After sin entered the world Jesus reaffirmed the role distinctions between men and women before the Fall (Gen. 3:16). Again we see that this has nothing to do with culture.

The third biblical reason is Christ's order after the cross. The previous role distinctions Jesus instituted are not canceled by His redemptive work at the cross. Many years after His resurrection God's Word proclaimed: "The head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God" (1 Cor 11:3, RSV). Thus the priestly headship of the man in the home and church is still in effect during the Christian era.

Biblical qualifications for the position of elder or overseer

Now let us investigate what the Bible has to say about the qualifications for an elder or overseer ( 1 Tim 3:1-7). What are the requirements for spiritual headship?

Immediately after his admonition that women are not to have the spiritual authority in the church Paul points to who is to have the spiritual headship role. It is the elder the church. What are his characteristics?

First, an elder must be blameless. Second, he must be the "husband of one wife" (I Tim 3:2, NKJV). It doesn't say spouse of a husband! He is to be of the male gender. Here the word "husband" in Greek is "aner" which is always a man, not a woman. To appoint a woman as elder is not Biblical. Third, he must have proven his leadership in the home. An elder must be "one who rules his house well, having his children in submission with all reverence" (1 Tim 3: 4). Why? "For if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?" (1 Tim 3: 5, NKJV).

The Spirit of Prophecy also emphasizes distinctive roles in family and church government (Adventist Home, p. 321). Men are to exercise a caring, sacrificial headship in home and church (Eph 5:22-24, 28; 1 Cor 11:3). Women are called to supportive leadership while respecting the headship of men. This is not as a cultural custom, but as a divinely ordained principle ("as to the Lord," Eph 5:22, NKJV).

If we would like to summarizing the structure of authority in the doctrine on the church we notice that Fundamental Belief 11 affirms that "the church derives its authority from Christ, who is the incarnate Word, and from the Scriptures, which are the written Word .... The church is the body of Christ, a community of faith of which Christ Himself is the Head." So the authority structure in the church is based on the Bible. How does this work? It's is very simple. Jesus as the head of the church delegates His authority to leaders of the church in harmony with the Bible. Then, in full harmony with His created order, Jesus has assigned the position of elder, or overseer, to men, not to women. Any change in this divine plan for His church will result in confusion, disunity, and derailment of a mission-driven church.


It conflicts with the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures

My second objection is that the request is in conflict with the Fundamental Belief of the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. This doctrine states that "The Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His will" and "the test of experience" (Fundamental Belief 1)

When one presents the teachings of 1 Timothy to object against the ordination of women as elder or minister ordination advocates frequently reply that Paul's advise was influenced by his culture and that his view merely reflects that of the society of his day. Was Paul's counsel culturally biased or is it God's truth?

The question really is, "Can we fully trust the Bible writers?" Yes, because God is the author of the Bible, and therefore the Bible is "the infallible authority ... as a rule of faith and practice" (Great Controversy, p. 249). It is not affected "by human prejudice or human pride" (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 596). The Bible, therefore, is trustworthy and unbiased.

Now the question is "How should we interpret the Bible?" Simply follow the counsel of the prophet: "The Word of God is infallible; accept it as it reads" (Ellen White in Review and Herald, Feb. 11, 1896, p. 81). Ellen White strongly warned against the danger of modifying God's instructions. Said she: "The very beginning of the great apostasy was in seeking to supplement the authority of God by that of the church. Rome began by enjoining what God had not forbidden, and she ended by forbidding what He had explicitly enjoined" (Great Controversy, pp. 289-290). "True faith consists in doing just what God has enjoined, not manufacturing things He has not enjoined" (That I May Know Him, p. 226). Modifying God's instructions has devastating consequences because it undermines the authority of the Scriptures "as the infallible revelation of His will" (Fundamental Belief 1).

One of our greatest needs as SDAs is submission to the Word of God, not reinterpretation. We should repent of the unbiblical view that relegates Jesus' creation order to a bygone era, irrelevant for the Remnant church. We are the Remnant church, and that church is a movement at the end of time that still is to reveal the characteristics of the New Testament church, even in the authority structure of church leadership.

It conflicts with the doctrine of unity in the body of Christ

The doctrine of unity states that "Through the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures we share the same faith and hope, and reach out in one witness to all." (Fundamental Belief 13). This makes it clear that our unity of faith and evangelistic witness is rooted in the revelation of Jesus in the Scriptures. What would be the result of the approval of the request? It would seriously jeopardize the unity of the church. Why?

Approval of the request would allow the use of two conflicting methods of Biblical interpretation for Seventh-day Adventists. One method follows the NT church, the Protestant Reformation and the Advent pioneers, including Ellen White. This approach favors a plain meaning of the Bible and its regulations for church leadership. The other method follows the approach adopted by the fallen churches of Babylon since 1844. This new approach to the Bible is strongly influenced by the trends of today's western culture that has very little appreciation for male spiritual headship. It sees the Biblical passages on male headship as culturally conditioned. Thus the plain meaning of the text is not the norm for 1995.

What are the effects of those conflicting methods of Bible interpretation? It establishes two conflicting theologies of church leadership that will dominate specific geographical areas of the world. Consequently ordination will not have worldwide validity any longer. Some fields will not recognize the leadership from other fields. Approving conflicting theologies and practices leads toward division, not unity; toward national churches, not a world church; and ultimately toward congregationalism. For unity, therefore, Seventh-day Adventists must follow the Bible.

My personal response to the vote

The question may be asked "What will I do if the assembly votes for this proposal? I will always remember that God calls for unity in Christ. I, therefore, will stay with the church. Where else should I go? The Messenger of the Lord advised to stay with the ship, for it will go through. Although it may be heavily damaged, it will go through. I will stay with the ship, for there is no better place outside of it. The future is bright for Bible believing Seventh-day Adventists. Let me share with you a promise: "God will have a people upon the earth to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines and the basis of all reforms. The opinions of learned men, the deductions of science, the creeds or decisions of ecclesiastical councils, as numerous and discordant as are the churches which they represent, the voice of the majority--not one nor all of these should be regarded as evidence for or against any point of religious faith. Before accepting any doctrine or precept we should demand a plain 'Thus saith the Lord' in its support" (Great Controversy, p. 595).

Some arguments in favor of ordination

What about arguments in support of ordination one frequently hears? First, women's ordination is for the good of the church. It will preserve its unity. Reply: Friends, unity cannot be kept by a policy contrary to Scripture. It brings confusion and drives people to independent ministries.

Second, some women testify that they have a "call" or a spiritual gift to be a minister of a church. Reply: We must remember that not every call or gift comes from God. The Bible states, "Test the spirits to see whether they are of God" (1 John 4:1, RSV).

Third, allowing women to be ordained as ministers establishes fairness and justice in ministry. Reply: Remember the Bible must be our standard to judge what is fair and just. We must follow the Bible, not the standards of society.


And so in summary, why can I not support the NAD request? Because it is out of harmony with three Seventh-day Adventist Bible doctrines. First of all it conflicts with the doctrine of the church by instituting an unscriptural structure. Second, it violates the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures by not accepting Scripture as it plainly reads. And third, it destroys the doctrine of unity in the body of Christ by introducing a practice that violates the conscience of many and nullifies the worldwide validity of ordination.

Remember, friends, that we have always considered ourselves the continuity of the Protestant Reformation. Is this still so today? When Luther, the great reformer, was confronted with a choice between human opinions and the Bible he said, "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning--unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted ... I cannot and will not" change my views, "for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience." From their humble beginnings Seventh-day Adventists have had the same conviction. Will they still continue as successors of the Reformation and bring it to a grand and glorious climax? The actions of this afternoon will reveal the true spirit of the Reformation in our church. May God help us.

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