A great Adventist theologian, now deceased, once said that the greatest minds are those which “think profoundly but speak simply.” This is a trademark of Bible truth—deep enough to engross the study of the faithful throughout eternity, yet simple enough for a child to understand.
On the issue of spiritual male headship and the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, many thousands of pages have been penned on both sides of the controversy in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But when all is said and done, the clarity of the Bible and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy on this issue is found to be both simple and unassailable.
In our present context, in which church authority and unity are being challenged in various quarters of the denomination relative to the ordination question, it is imperative that our people understand the simple truths of God’s written counsel which undergird the thrice-rendered decision of the worldwide Adventist body on this subject.
Hence this brief essay.
The Bible’s Case Regarding Gender Authority
The apostle Paul is clear as to the reason for the primacy of male authority within the body of Christ in the following verses:
But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
For Adam was first formed, then Eve (I Tim. 2:12-13).
Some may wonder about this reference to silence, which is echoed in another statement from the same author relative to the public role of women in the church (I Cor. 14:33-34). But the context of the above passage from First Timothy helps explain what Paul means when he uses this word. In verses 1 and 2 of First Timothy 2, Paul writes regarding the relationship of Christians to the civil authorities:
I exhort therefore that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men;
For kings, and for all that are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
When the apostle uses the word “quiet” in this passage, he obviously isn’t saying that Christians should say nothing in their relationship to others in society, whether rulers or otherwise. Too many Biblical examples to the contrary—not to mention the Savior’s command to preach the gospel to the world (Matt. 24:14; 28:18-19; Mark 16:15)—do not allow such an understanding of the word “quiet.”
Rather, what the apostle is describing in these passages is a spirit of yielding and submission, not vocal silence. This is what he means in another passage where he exhorts the Christians in Thessalonica to “study to be quiet” (I Thess. 4:11). In context this has nothing to do with not talking, but rather refers to a spirit of respect and consideration for one’s brethren and sisters within the fellowship of faith.
The apostle Peter illustrates this same principle when in one passage he admonishes women to cultivate “a meek and quiet spirit” (I Peter 3:4), yet in this very context urges women to be subject even to unbelieving husbands, so that the latter might be “won by the conversation of the wives” (verse 1). Once again, the Bible is not telling women to shut up. Rather, the inspired pen is speaking of a spirit of yielding and submission on the part of women to men, whether in the context of the home or the church.
But returning to the passage in First Timothy, Paul’s reference to the original order of creation traces the spiritual primacy of the male gender back to a sinless world. This means that gender authority, like the seventh-day Sabbath (Gen. 2:1-3; Ex. 20:11; Mark 2:27), originated in pre-Fall Eden. Paul traces this order back even further in another passage, where he writes:
But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God (I Cor. 11:3).
In other words, the order of gender authority established in Scripture extends back to the order within the eternal Godhead Itself.
It is on the basis of this order that Adam, following his creation, is given ultimate responsibility for the care and maintenance of Eden and its inhabitants. It is Adam who is told to dress and keep the Garden (Gen. 2:15); it is to Adam that the instruction regarding which trees to partake of, and which to avoid, is given (verses 16-17). It is Adam who names the animals (verses 19-20), and it is Adam—both before and after the Fall (verse 23; Gen. 3:20), who names his wife.
Though Eve was the first to sin (Gen. 3:6), the consequences of sin were not experienced by either Adam or Eve until Adam transgressed (verse 7). And when the two of them sought to hide from the presence of the Lord, it is to Adam, not Eve, that the Lord called (verse 9).
This principle of creation headship explains the primacy of Adam so far as the issue of human sin and the resulting necessity of a Savior are concerned. Though, once again, it was Eve who sinned first, it is Adam who is identified in the New Testament as the one responsible for bringing sin and death to the world (Rom. 5:12-19; I Cor. 15:22), thus necessitating Adam’s replacement by Jesus as the new Head of humanity. The Second Person of the Godhead didn’t come to earth to be the Second Eve, but rather, the Second Adam.
As the home is the original building block of the faith community, the Bible is clear that spiritual headship in the home is reserved for men. In the words of the apostle Paul:
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church, and He is the Saviour of the body.
Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it (Eph. 5:22-25).
Some would have us believe that this order of gender authority was exclusively the result of the Fall, and that in Eden no such order existed. But Ellen White, like the Bible (I Tim. 2:12-13), is clear that the spiritual primacy of the male gender was part of God’s original design:
The relationship existing in the pure family of God in heaven was to exist in the family of God on earth. Under God, Adam was to stand at the head of the earthly family, to maintain the principles of the heavenly family. This would have brought peace and happiness (1).
This principle of spiritual male headship is reflected in God’s choice of spiritual leaders throughout both Old and New Testaments. The patriarchs, the elders, the priests, and the monarchs anointed by God to rule His Old Testament people were all men, as were the apostles, elders, and deacons of the New Testament. Ellen White states:
In the beginning, the head of each family was considered ruler and priest of his own household (2).
The argument some have advanced for an early Christian woman by the name of Phoebe being a deacon because the word for “servant” applied to her (Rom. 16:1) is the same one used for those elsewhere designated as holding the office of deacon (I Tim. 3:12), will not suffice, as inspired words can carry different meanings in different settings. Ellen White states, regarding inspired language, “Different meanings are expressed by the same word; there is not one word for each distinct idea” (3).
The fact that the word for “deacon” is the same as the word for “servant” no more implies that all servants of the early church held the designated office of deacon, any more than when we speak in general of church members being engaged in ministry, that this means the laity possess the same responsibility as ordained ministers.
Equality Not the Issue
One point in this regard is imperative to understand. This is not an issue of equality. Different roles have nothing to do with greater and lesser value. Especially is this true relative to salvation, as Scripture is clear that no distinctions of ethnicity or gender exist with God so far as the opportunity for eternal redemption is concerned (Gal. 3:28).
The roles of a father and a mother are equally essential and important to the prosperity of a successful home. But these roles are neither identical nor interchangeable. The same is true within the body of Christ.
Ellen White, elaborating on Biblical gender role distinctions, writes as follows:
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, courage, 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 (4).
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, advisor, and protector. The husband should maintain his position in his family with all meekness, yet with decision (5).
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. In many families the daily life is one of variance, full of the counterworking of the father against the mother and the mother against the father. The mother thinks the father unnecessarily severe and exacting. Why?—Because the children do not acknowledge and reverence the father, who, if he is a Christian, represents the divine authority of God, whose vicegerent he is. The father is to carry out the gracious designs of God, and establish his family in upright principles, that they may have virtuous and well-balanced characters (6).
Equally important for us to recognize is that the doctrine of spiritual male headship is just that—a spiritual doctrine. The primacy of the male gender so far as home and church leadership is concerned does not exclude women from a host of professional opportunities identical and interchangeable with opportunities available to men. For example, chief executive offices in business, education, and secular politics are not positions involving spiritual leadership, and the Christian has no divine mandate to impose a uniquely spiritual order on a culturally and religiously pluralistic society. It behooves us to remember our Lord’s declaration, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
The Image of God in Humanity
Those in contemporary Adventism who would dismiss or marginalize the importance of this issue have failed to consider its bottom line—the fact that the complementary interaction of gender roles as God designed them is what constitutes the image of God in humanity. The book of Genesis underscores the male/female components of the divine image in the original creation story:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them (Gen. 1:26-27).
When we compare this verse to the one we saw in First Corinthians 11, it becomes clear as to how divine roles of headship and submission within the Godhead in heaven are to be reflected in the spiritual relationships between men and women on earth:
But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God (I Cor. 11:3).
The submission of the woman to the man in the context of spiritual leadership, whether in the home (Eph. 5:22-25) or the church (I Tim. 2:12-13), is thus a mirror of the submission of the Son to the Father within the Godhead in heaven, and a symbol of the intimate relationship between Christ and His church (Jer. 6:2; II Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:23; Rev. 19:7). The fact that these roles are neither identical nor interchangeable is clear from the simple fact that Christ is the Head of the church and not the other way around.
This is the reason the Bible condemns homosexual practice (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; I Cor. 6:9-10; I Tim. 1:10)—not because an arbitrary God forbids it, but because the divine image of headship and submission cannot be reflected in an intimate relationship between two men or two women. God made the two genders different because they represent the varying yet complementary roles revealed in the work of the Father and the Son, and in the relationship of Christ to His earthly community. Any departure from this model is a distortion of God’s image, and therefore an abomination.
It is not without cause that those Christian bodies that have accepted homosexual practice as a legitimate Christian lifestyle have first permitted the distinction between male and female spiritual roles to be blurred and diluted. The following statement a few years ago from a Time magazine article bears this out:
For many evangelicals, the marriage debate isn’t really about marriage or families or sex—it is about the Bible itself. And that makes many evangelicals all the more uncompromising. The roots of the conflict are deeply theological. . . .
And there is another, just as fundamental, obstacle. So far no Christian tradition has been able to embrace the LGBT community without first changing its views about women. The same reasoning that concludes that homosexuality is sin is also behind the traditional evangelical view that husbands are the spiritual leaders of marriages and men are the leaders in churches. . . .
“It is not an accident that the women’s-liberation movement preceded the gay-liberation movement,” [Episcopal Bishop Eugene] Robinson says.
“Discriminatory attitudes and treatment of LGBT people is rooted in patriarchy, and in order to embrace and affirm gays, evangelicals will have to address their own patriarchy and sexism, not just their condemnation of LGBT people” (7).
The modern prophet is clear that the restoration of the image of God in humanity is in fact the purpose of the plan of redemption:
To restore in man the image of His Maker, to bring him back to the perfection in which he was created, to promote the development of body, mind, and soul, that the divine purpose in his creation might be realized—this was to be the work of redemption (8).
The very image of God is to be reproduced in humanity. The honor of God, the honor of Christ, is involved in the perfection of the character of His people (9).
In order for this reproduction of God’s image to occur in humanity, the varying yet complementary roles of men and women as defined by the inspired pen must be kept distinct yet harmonious. This is the reason, at the bottom line, why the ordination controversy matters, and why God’s end-time church must hold the line against compromise so far as this issue is concerned, irrespective of pain or cost. Again, in the words of God’s end-time messenger:
We cannot purchase peace and unity by sacrificing the truth. The conflict may be long and painful, but at any cost we must hold fast to the Word of God (10).
1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 236.
2. ----Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 1, p. 53.
3. ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 20.
4. ----The Adventist Home, p. 212.
5. ----Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 307-308.
6. ----Review and Herald, March 13, 1894.
7. Elizabeth Dias, “A Change of Heart: Inside the evangelical war over gay marriage,” Time, Jan. 26, 2015, pp. 47-48.
8. White, Education, pp. 15-16.
9. ----The Desire of Ages, p. 671.
10. ----Historical Sketches, p. 197.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.