Does the life of Ellen White authorize female ordination?

Among many Adventists who have a high regard for the prophetic authority of Ellen White, there is an inchoate but strong feeling that the example of her life somehow did away with the pattern of male spiritual leadership found throughout Scripture.  This feeling is often expressed like this, “How can a church that was founded by a woman refuse to ordain female pastors to gospel ministry?”  

Ellen White was indeed tremendously influential in the founding and development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and through her writings she remains a guiding influence.

But Ellen White was not an ordained minister of the gospel, and does not serve as an example of a female ordained to gospel ministry.  Beginning in 1871, for various practical reasons, the church issued ministerial credentials to Sister White.  Some of these say “ordained minister,” but in at least one instance the word “ordained” was neatly struck through. The church had, and has, no credential for prophets, so it gave Ellen White its highest credentials—those of an ordained minister.  But no ceremony of ordination was ever performed on Ellen White.  She was not ordained (William A. Fagal, “Did Ellen White Support the Ordination of Women?” Ministry, February 1989, p. 6; see also Records Pertaining to Ellen G. White's Ministerial/Ordination Credentials).

Furthermore, there were no ordained women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ellen White's lifetime.  There were female preachers and evangelists who worked for the church, were paid a salary, and were issued ministerial “licenses” (the credential for non-ordained preachers), but there were no ordained women in the church. 

Some say, “Yes, we understand that Ellen White wasn't ordained but, as a prophet, she was much more important than any ordained minister; therefore, women should be able to serve as ordained ministers.”  The implicit logic is that if a woman could be a prophet, then women may serve in any other capacity.  But is this biblically correct?  

When we look closer, we find that women were prophets in both the Old and New Testaments, but could not serve as priests in the Old Testament, nor as elder/overseer in the Christian Church, which is the office most closely analogous to today's ordained gospel minister.  

It is crucial to understand that there are spiritual gifts and there are church offices, and they are not the same thing.  Offices and gifts can and often do overlap; for example, deacons and elders, in addition to holding a church office, will also have one or more spiritual gifts, but this overlap notwithstanding, gifts and offices are not the same thing.  

Offices have biblical criteria that must be met by a candidate seeking that biblical office.  For elders/overseers, the criteria are set out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.  For deacons, the criteria are set out in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.  When the church ordains someone to serve in the office of elder/overseer or deacon, the church is bound to follow and adhere to the biblically specified requirements for those offices.  If a candidate does  not meet all of the qualifications, the church is not at liberty to say, “Well, Sam has a gift for preaching, therefore, he should be ordained an elder.”

The office of elder/overseer is limited to men, a conclusion based upon the following factors:

  • The candidate must be the “husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6).
  • Immediately before listing the qualifications for elder, one of which is that the elder must be “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2), Paul forbids women to teach (1 Tim. 2:11-14; 1 Cor. 14:34-35), which bars women from serving as elders.
  • Elder are described as “ruling” (1 Tim. 5:17), an authoritative function, so if women may not usurp authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12), including their own husbands who will be attending the same church, women cannot be elders.  
  • The elder must have his own family in order, or else how can be govern the church (1 Tim. 3:4-5)?  In Scripture, men are always heads and rulers of their households; women are never in that role (Gen. 3:16; Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1), so an elder must be a man. 

In contrast to offices, every believer has at least one spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 4:7-8; 1 Peter 4:10).  One of the gifts is the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:10), and Scripture specifically states that there will be female prophets (Joel 2:28-29Acts 2:17-18; 1 Cor. 11:5).  

Not only does Scripture clearly state that women will prophesy, it supplies us with several examples of female prophets. There was Miriam (Ex. 15:20; Micah 6:4) Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and the Daughters of Phillip (Acts 21:8-9).  Scripture even makes reference to some women who were apparently false prophetesses (See, Neh. 6:14; Ezek. 13:17-23; Rev. 2:20).  There were also women who, although not prophetesses, were inspired to make prophetic statements, including Rachel (Gen. 30:24), Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10), Abigail (1 Sam. 25:28-31), Elisabeth (Luke 1:41-45), and Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46-55). In all but one of these cases, these women, in addition to being given prophetic truths, were miraculously enabled to have a male child. 

God bestows the gift of prophecy on whom He will, and He sometimes selects women to be prophets. He has told us He would do that, and He has done it several times in Bible history.  Another female prophet simply confirms that divine pattern. But when the church fills the office of elder/bishop/overseer, it must select a candidate who meets the qualifications that God has set out through His apostles, and those qualifications exclude women (1 Tim. 2:11—3:7).  

Does anyone really believe that Paul was not aware of the female prophets in Bible history when he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to limit the office of elder/overseer to men? Obviously, Paul was well aware of the existence of female prophets, not only in the past but also in his own day.  In the same passage in which he sets out the principle of male spiritual headship, he also notes that women will sometimes prophesy in church:

But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.  Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head.  But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head . . .” (1 Cor. 11:3-5) 

Here, we have the principle of male spiritual headship mentioned in the same breath with the fact that females will prophesy.  Clearly, the fact that there were, are, and probably will be female prophets does not change the normal gospel order that God has specified for His church on earth.

Some say, “Yes, we understand that Ellen White was not the first female prophet, but she was far more than a prophet, she was the leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and thus is an example of female headship or leadership.”  

But Ellen White never held a formal office in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  She was never a conference, union, or General Conference president. She did not have administrative responsibilities for the day-to-day operation of the church.  She did not have the power to hire and fire pastors. With the sole exception of serving on the board of directors of Madison College, whose site she selected after having been shown it in a dream, she did not serve on governing boards or executive committees.  

Some say, “We understand that Ellen White never held a formal administrative office of leadership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but informally, she was always the leader of the church.”  

Not according to Ellen White: 

No one has ever heard me claim the position of leader of the denomination . . . He has not provided that the burden of leadership shall rest upon a few men. Responsibilities are distributed among a large number of competent men. . . Every member of the church has a voice in choosing officers of the church. The church chooses the officers of the state conferences. Delegates chosen by the state conferences choose the officers of the union conferences, and delegates chosen by the union conferences choose the officers of the General Conference. By this arrangement every conference, every institution, every church, and every individual, either directly or through representatives, has a voice in the election of the men who bear the chief responsibilities in the General Conference . . . neither then [when the work was just starting] nor since the work has grown to large proportions, during which time responsibilities have been widely distributed, has anyone heard me claiming the leadership of this people” (8T 236-237).

Here, Ellen White is plainly saying that the leaders of the church are the officers (all men) who are elected by the constituencies through the normal processes, and that she has never claimed to be one of those leaders.

Some say, “Yes, we understand that Ellen White was not the formal or informal leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but she exercised authority over men, so it is okay for women to be ordained to headship roles in the Church.”

But Ellen White did not exercise authority over men. In her capacity as a prophetess, she often delivered divine rebukes to both men and women, including the male leaders of the SDA Church.  But she was not in direct administrative authority over them; she did not have the power to hire and fire. Those who were rebuked by her in her capacity as a prophet were free to heed her counsel, or not. And in several notable cases—far too many—they did not.

In fact, Ellen White herself submitted to the regularly constituted male authority of the church, as in the case of her nine-year sojourn in Australia. She did not move to Australia on her own initiative or based upon a prophetic prompting from God.  In a letter to General Conference President Ole A. Olsen, she wrote, “The Lord was not in our leaving America. He did not reveal that it was His will that I should leave Battle Creek. The Lord did not plan this, but He let you all move after your own imaginings.”

In other words, even though she had no prophetic light on the matter, she followed the call of the male leaders of the General Conference:

At times before leaving America, I thought that the Lord did not require me to go to a country so far away, at my age and when I was prostrated by overwork. But I followed the voice of the Conference, as I have ever tried to do at times when I had no clear light myself.” (July 10th 1892, Manuscript Releases 21, emphasis added)

There is nothing in the life of Ellen White that overturns God's order for His church, nor should we expect to find such a thing.  Long before Ellen White was a prophet, God had chosen to speak through several other female prophets, but the priesthood was always reserved for men, the disciples whom Christ ordained were men, the apostles were men, and the New Testament clearly restricts the headship office of elder/bishop/overseer to men.  Ellen White did not, by the example of her life, disrupt this pattern in any way.