Do the Writings of Ellen White Authorize Female Ordination?

Having argued that the life of Ellen White does not authorize female ordination, I now discuss whether her writings authorize it. An article of this length can examine only a small fraction of relevant passages, so my goal is to describe categories of statements a reader will encounter in Ellen White's writings, and quote representative examples in each category.

A. The Husband/Father is the Head and Priest of the Home, and Successful Headship in the Home is a Prerequisite for Church Office

Although she had much to say against abuse of the husband/father's headship role in the family, Ellen White never denied that role. The woman being admonished in the following statement had a habit of publicly speaking to her husband in an imperious, un-submissive tone of voice; people noticed this tone, and the wrong attitude underlying it, and it diminished this sister's Christian influence:

“I have often noticed . . . a manner you have in speaking to John in rather a dictating manner, the tone of your voice sounding impatient. Mary, others notice this and have spoken to me. It hurts your influence. We women must remember that God has placed us subject to the husband. He is the head and our judgment and views and reasonings must agree with his if possible. If not, the preference in God’s Word is given to the husband where it is not a matter of conscience. We must yield to the head.” (6 Manuscript Releases Ch. 20, MR 366, p. 126).

The following is found in a section entitled “Family Religion,” and the context is that many women fail to do what is in their power to make their home happy and inviting for their husband:

The husband is the head of the family, even as Christ is the head of the church; and any course which the wife may pursue to lessen his influence and lead him to come down from this dignified, responsible position is displeasing to God. It is the duty of the wife to yield her wishes and will to her husband. Both should be yielding, but the Word of God gives preference to the judgment of the husband. And it will not detract from the dignity of the wife to yield to him whom she has chosen to be her counselor, adviser, and protector. The husband should maintain his position in his family with all meekness, yet with decision.” (1T 306).

In several passages, White speaks of the husband as being “the houseband,” meaning that his government and authority holds the family together:

“The father is to be the houseband of the family. This is his position, and if he is a Christian, he will maintain family government. In every respect his authority is to be recognized. In many families the father’s authority is never fully acknowledged, and a series of excuses are offered for the disobedience of the children.” (R&H, March 13, 1894).

In several passages, Ellen White wrote that the father is the priest of the home:

“All members of the family center in the father. He is the lawmaker, illustrating in his own manly bearing the sterner virtues: energy, integrity, honesty, patience diligence, and practical usefulness. The father is in one sense the priest of the household, laying upon the altar of God the morning and evening sacrifice. The wife and children should be encouraged to unite in this offering and also to engage in the song of praise. Morning and evening the father, as priest of the household, should confess to God the sins committed by himself and his children through the day.” (Adventist Home, p. 212).

The headship and priestly role of the father in the home is crucial to the debate on female ordination, because Scripture lists capable and successful leadership in the home as a requirement for a candidate for elder/overseer in the church. (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Titus 1:6) Ellen White confirms and amplifies what Scripture says on this topic:

“All parents should strive to make their families patterns of good works . . . But in pre-eminent degree is this the duty of those who minister in sacred things, and to whom the people look for instruction and guidance. The ministers of Christ are to be examples to the flock. He who fails to direct wisely his own household, is not qualified to guide the church of God.” (Signs of the Times, Nov. 10, 1881).

“If a man does not show wisdom in the management of the church in his own house, how can he show wisdom in the management of the larger church outside? How can he bear the responsibilities which mean so much, if he cannot govern his own children? . . . God's blessing will not rest upon the minister who neglects the education and training of his children.” (5 Manuscript Releases, Ch. 84, MR 343, p. 449).

“The family of the one suggested for office should be considered. Are they in subjection? Can the man rule his own house with honor? What character have his children? Will they do honor to the father's influence? If he has no tact, wisdom, or power of godliness at home in managing his own family, it is safe to conclude that the same defects will be carried to the church, and the same unsanctified management will be seen there.” (5T 618)

So Ellen White, in perfect harmony with the Scriptures, states that, (1) the man is the priest and head of the home, and (2) successful headship in the home is a requirement for the church office of elder/overseer, or what we today call the gospel minister. This is dispositive on the question of female ordination.

B. Ministers are to be Men

Ellen White makes a number of statements that implicitly indicate her acceptance of the fact that the gospel ministry is restricted to men:

“The primary object of our college was to afford young men an opportunity to study for the ministry and to prepare young persons of both sexes to become workers in the various branches of the cause. . . . Young men moved upon by the Spirit of God to give themselves to the ministry have come to the college for this purpose and have been disappointed.” (5T 60).

Note that young men were to prepare for gospel ministry, but persons of both sexes were to prepare for work in various branches of the cause.

“Young men must soon bear the burdens older ones have borne. We have lost time in neglecting to bring young men to the front and give them a higher, more solid education” (5T 582).

“Those whom God calls must be men of deep experience, tried and proved, men of sound judgment, men who will dare to reprove sin in the spirit of meekness, men who understand how to feed the flock” (1T 209).

C. Women Called to a Shepherding/Nurturing Ministry of Home Visitation

Often cited by proponents of female ordination is the statement that the canvassing work “prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God”:

All who desire an opportunity for true ministry, and who will give themselves unreservedly to God, will find in the canvassing work opportunities to speak upon many things pertaining to the future, immortal life. The experience thus gained will be of the greatest value to those who are fitting themselves for the ministry. 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. As they cherish the thought that Christ is their Companion, a holy awe, a sacred joy, will be felt by them amid all their trying experiences and all their tests. They will learn how to pray as they work. They will be educated in patience, kindness, affability, and helpfulness. (6T 322)

The term “pastor” (Greek = poimen, meaning “shepherd”) is not a church office but a spiritual gift (Eph. 4:11). Although we often refer to our ordained gospel ministers as “pastors,” in both the Bible and in Ellen White, pastoring is a spiritual gift.  A pastor is anyone who has the spiritual gift of shepherding or nurturing the church. And just as the gift of prophecy can be bestowed upon either sex, the gift of shepherding the flock of God can be given to either sex. It is in this sense that Ellen White speaks of the canvassing work as preparing women to be “pastors to the flock of God.”

To women, and especially to the wives of ordained ministers, Ellen White recommended a pastoral ministry of visitation from house-to-house. Those who engage in this ministry full time should be paid just as their husbands are paid for full time work:

“Some matters have been presented to me in regard to the laborers who are seeking to do all in their power to win souls to Jesus Christ. . . . The ministers are paid for their work, and this is well. And if the Lord gives the wife, as well as the husband, the burden of labor, and if she devotes her time and her strength to visiting from family to family, opening the Scriptures to them, although the hands of ordination have not been laid upon her, she is accomplishing a work that is in the line of ministry. Some women are now teaching young women to work successfully as visitors and Bible readers. . . . This is the grand and noble work that the minister and his wife may qualify themselves to do as faithful shepherds and guardians of the flock” (5 Manuscript Releases, Ch. 71, MR 330, p. 323).

The woman's ministry contemplated in these passages does not include having “the hands of ordination laid upon her.” Obviously, Ellen White is not advocating female ordination when she encourages pastors wives and other women to perform this pastoral house-to-house ministry.

Later in this same manuscript release (on “Women as Workers in the Cause”) White states that if God has not naturally brought children into a ministerial marriage, the minister's wife should not adopt a child, who will then be the sole focus of her nurturing instincts, but rather she should shepherd the whole flock of God by taking up house-to-house visitation and Bible work. (5 MR Ch. 71, MR 330, p. 325) Again, it should be noted that the women are to paid for their labor, just as the men:

Women, as well as men, are needed in the work that must be done. Those women who give themselves to the service of the Lord, who labor for the salvation of others by doing house-to-house work, which is as taxing as, and more taxing than standing before a congregation, should receive payment for their labor. If a man is worthy of his hire, so also is a woman.” (1 Manuscript Releases, Ch. 46, MR 62, p. 263).

D. Women Are to work as Deaconesses in a Social Welfare Ministry

A closely related ministry that Ellen White recommends for women is the social welfare ministry of the deacon:

“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. Not a hand should be bound, not a soul discouraged, not a voice should be hushed; let every individual labor, privately or publicly, to help forward this grand work. Place the burdens upon men and women of the church, that they may grow by reason of the exercise, and thus become effective agents in the hand of the Lord for the enlightenment of those who sit in darkness” (R&H, July 9, 1895, par. 8).

It is obvious from the phrase, “they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister,” that Ellen White is not here recommending that women fill the role of the ordained gospel minister. Rather, she is urging women to do the original work of the deacon.

Today, we think of deacons as taking up the offering, tidying up the sanctuary, etc., but the first deacons were appointed to relieve the disciples from the burden of operating the church's food distribution system, so that the disciples could concentrate on teaching and preaching the word. (Acts 6:1-6) The first deacons were appointed to take care of people—to minister to the practical needs of the poor, the widowed, the elderly, etc. Ellen White believed that there was still a need for a social welfare ministry in the Adventist Church, that we needed to “branch out” and meet that need. Women, who are naturally more nurturing and solicitous of the needs of other women, the young, the weak, and the defenseless, are well fitted for this social welfare work.

There is no obstacle to ordaining women as deaconesses. In listing the criteria for the office of deacon, Paul mentions women, stating that deaconesses must be “worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (1 Tim. 3:11). Dorcas/Tabitha provides a biblical example of a woman doing social welfare work (Acts 9:36), and Paul also recommends this work for women in 1 Tim. 5:10.

Ellen White approved of female deaconesses. While she was living in Australia—including in 1895, when she wrote the words quoted above—she attended services where elders, deacons, and deaconesses were set apart by the laying on of hands. In a letter to A.T. Jones, she mentioned another reason deaconesses are necessary: “When a woman comes to you with her troubles, tell her plainly to go to her sisters, to tell her troubles to the deaconesses of the church” (21 Manuscript Releases, Ch. 20, MR 1520, p. 97). It is inappropriate and unseemly for a woman to privately confide her marital problems to a male elder or minister; the intimacy thus created can too easily take a sinful turn. Older women who are spiritually mature are thus needed to be “teachers of the ideal” (kalodidaskalos) to younger women (Titus 2:3-5).

When we read Ellen White in context, she confirms what Scripture teaches. Men are the heads and priests of their families, and that headship role carries over into the church, to the male office of elder/overseer. Ellen White does not contradict Scripture on the roles of the sexes in the church, but rather fleshes them out, suggesting ways that women should be involved in a ministry that will complement the ministry of the male elders/overseers. She strongly recommended for women a house-to-house ministry of shepherding and Bible work, and also the social welfare/nurturing ministry of the deacon. She encourages women to enter these lines of ministry and urges that they be paid fairly for their work. But she never encouraged women to try to usurp the headship offices of the church.

As this material was rehearsed at the TOSC meetings, I was struck by how poorly our church has followed Ellen White's instructions. We are not strong on the social welfare ministry that Ellen White encouraged women to pursue. The Catholic Church enjoys a well deserved reputation for welfare and good works for the poor, whereas our church does not. This is not to our credit. I could speculate on possible reasons for this (e.g., various differences in culture between Protestantism and Catholicism, the "Protestant work ethic," attitudes toward poverty and extreme differences in material condition, etc.), but our failure is nevertheless without excuse. Had we followed Ellen White's recommended course of placing women in paid ministry in house-to-house visitation and social welfare work, we would thereby have established complementary pastoral roles for the sexes, and might not now be facing possible schism over the unbiblical attempt to erase all sex roles in the church.