The pursuit of diversity has been a challenge for our church. During the past half century, North American culture had made huge strides toward inclusivity regarding ethnicity, age and gender. Although inclusivity is a core value of New Testament teaching, the church has struggled to keep pace with secular society in achieving it.

Sadly, the church had to be shamed into ethnic inclusiveness, scared (by attrition) into age inclusiveness, and sued into gender equality—but only in terms of fair pay for female employees. Yet many Adventists still oppose having women in official church leadership positions–even if they obviously have the spiritual gift and calling of leadership. May we not be guilty of  systemic chauvinism, forbidden by such Scriptures as Galatians 3:28-29.

An adventure in diversity

I recall an experience in the mid-1990s while working on a staff that facilitated the training and resourcing of pastors within a particular church organization (not the Mid-America Union). We were asked to coordinate a Communion service for the entire headquarters group. The head of our ministerial department expressed his commitment that this Communion should represent the diversity of the body of Christ in terms of ethnicity, age and gender.

To be inclusive of women, we decided to invite trusted and beloved “mothers in Israel” among the headquarters staff to participate, along with responsible younger women. They would serve Communion emblems to the entire headquarters family. When we checked with our administrative representative, however, a frustrating discussion ensued. As I recall, the answer about including women in the Communion service came back as an unqualified No.

Why? Ordained deacons—exclusively males—bore the solemn responsibility of distributing the emblems, Women as unordained deaconesses could bake the wafers, set the tables and clean up afterwards. But female participation in the service itself was not permissible.

So it was back to the planning table for our ministerial department. We fell into a discussion of the difficult question: Where does the New Testament distinguish between male and female deacons (traditionally called “deaconesses”). Suddenly the head of our department leaned back with a smile. “I’ve got it! No need to settle the matter about deacons—how about this? It’s true we don’t ordain women as deacons—but we do ordain them as local elders! So let’s involve our women who are ordained elders in local churches in distributing the emblems—that ought to satisfy any concerns, since elders trump deacons in ecclesiastical hierarchy.”

We all smiled and praised the Lord. “What a God-given strategy!” We were going to make history for gender diversity!

Our smiles faded when our plan was announced to the president’s representative. It’s fair to say he didn’t share our enthusiasm. No reason was given for gender exclusion—just a statement like “this has never been done before.” (Tradition rests on precedence, not principle.)

We also were advised not to make this an issue of controversy. Never mind that those who still clung to the past—refusing to accept women being ordained even as local church elders—freely promoted their partisan views in opposition to voted church policy. They got away with it, because they had two forces on their side: lots of money and political power. But we, the headquarters ministerial staff, had no such freedom of facilitating public discussion.

Ellen White was a woman

An even greater conundrum is the ongoing partisan usage of Ellen G. White to oppose installing women in positions of church leadership. While many things regarding the interpretation of EGW are discussable, one thing is beyond dispute: she was a woman—a woman fully engulfed in ministry!

It is for church historians to debate whether the famous ordination document with Ellen White’s name on it is valid or not. In practical terms, she not only had ministerial authority on a global level—she wielded more leadership power than any Adventist male who ever lived.

Actually, the Bible doesn’t specifically address the matter of women being ordained. The NT discussion focuses on women not teaching men and being silent in church (as mandated by both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture). But Ellen White was anything but silent! She instructed and rebuked entire assemblies of (male) church leaders.

As we ponder that undeniable fact of church history, please consider two other issues of contradiction to resolve regarding our present ordination policy. 1) the NT makes no distinction between the ordination of local church leaders and regional church leaders; 2) there is therefore no biblical warrant for allowing women into one ordination while forbidding them the other.

A stumbling block

It’s a lot easier for older, veteran members to navigate such inconsistency than it is for our own young adults (which is one reason our churches are losing so many of them). This is not only true for our young women; many of our most thoughtful and conscientious sons are failing to bond with a church that unbiblically deprives official leadership from their wives, sisters and moms. What does this portend for the future of the Adventist Church?

Looking beyond our own denominational circle, what effect does our lack of gender inclusivity have upon evangelism? Neighbors and workplace associates don’t care how much we know about the Bible until they know how much we care about people—including women. Proving the Sabbath means little if they visit our churches and see that women are excluded from the most important local leadership positions—that of a fully ordained pastor (an issue unfortunately taken off the table) and a regional president.

Have we polluted our pure truth with dysfunctional applications that are chauvinistic . . . unbiblical . . . inconsistent . . . unreasonable . . . exclusivist . . . pro-attrition . . . anti-evangelistic? How much is lost when we shut women out of church leadership! That’s a huge issue in itself that gets worse when we consider the inevitable effect of leadership chauvinism upon our current quest for revival and reformation.

Quenching the Spirit

At the core of revival is praying for the Spirit. Any emphasis on prayer is laudable, but of course not as an end in itself, which would amount to a religion that is heavenly minded but of no earthly good. There is a practical purpose in experiencing the Spirit: to edify (build up) the church qualitatively and quantitatively through the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit.

Our continuing shortage of love, joy and peace is a study in itself. In reference to our current discussion, our policies toward women limit our experience in the gifts of the Spirit. We cherish one historic woman who had the gift of prophecy, but what about the many women called to leadership?

Consider dramatic church growth in the most populous nation of the world—China. We all know it is Adventist women in leadership, locally and regionally, who facilitate and oversee that growth. One might say, “Well, that goes to show that you don’t need to make women official leaders in order for them to function.”

Perhaps a better response to gender exclusivism might be the same as the early church Jewish elders being taught to abandon racial limitations: “So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” (Acts 11:17).

The application for us seems obvious: Since God is blessing women in leadership, how can we withhold our official installation of them in those roles?