A Very Surprising (and Interesting) History About Women's Ordination *
By C. Mervyn Maxwell, PhD
Former Professor of Church History, SDA Theological Seminary
Author, God Cares
As you read this story, do remember that administrators are human, like the rest of us, and need our prayers. Remember too that the money they attempted to save at a crucial point in this story was God's tithe; it was not their own money.
It is a story that shows how the NAD [North American Division] leadership came to the position that (a) ordination is merely a matter of church policy, not of sacred obligation, and (b) commissioning is equivalent to ordination.
In order to move meaningfully into the story, it is needful for us, for a few moments, to flash back a couple of hundred years.
Development of the Parsonage Allowance
When America was young, many churches provided rent-free residences for their pastors. These residences were known as parsonages (or as manses, vicarages, and so on). Because they belonged to their respective churches, the law stipulated that these parsonages (or whatever they were called) were tax-free. Thus the custom arose under which ministers lived in houses that were both rent-free and tax-free. As times changed, more and more churches began paying their pastors a parsonage allowance, allowing the men to find their own housing at church expense. Because this new custom was a modification of the older custom, the churches persuaded the government to treat the parsonage allowance as tax-free.
Not being required to pay income tax on income used for rent, mortgage, and utilities is obviously a plus for pastors, but because most pastors have been underpaid, few people have seemed to be jealous. Indeed, the advantage has been considerably undercut with the growth of Social Security since 1950. The American government requires employers to pay one half of the Social Security (pension) tax on their regular employees, leaving employees with the burden of paying only the other half. Ministers, however, by some quirk of the law, are considered self-employed and are thus required to meet the entire Social Security obligation. Even so, most ministers in America pay somewhat lower taxes than other people do who have similar incomes.
The Complaint of the IRS
Now, in 1965 the United States tax people (the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS) began to complain that young Seventh-day Adventist ministers who had been designated licensed ministers and hadn't yet been ordained were not really ministers and so were not eligible for the parsonage allowance.
But if the licensed ministers were to be classed legally as ordinary employees rather than as self-employed persons (like ministers), the church would have to pay half of their Social Security obligation. With about 850 licensed ministers at the time, the total cost to the church in the United States loomed large.
For twelve years denominational leadership stalled the IRS, hiring lawyers to persuade the government to change its mind so the church could save all this offering money. Eventually, when it became evident even to the lawyers that the IRS was not going to change its mind and was, in fact, about to seize conference properties in lieu of taxes and penalties, the leaders asked the IRS what they could do to convince the government that licensed ministers really were ministers (and so were eligible for the parsonage allowance and self-employment status).
The IRS answered that if the denomination voted that licensed ministers were authorized to perform weddings, the IRS would be satisfied. So the denominational leadership voted (1976) that in the NAD licensed ministers were empowered to do what they had never been empowered to do, namely, to perform weddings and baptisms, provided only that they were ordained as local elders and that their conference committees approved.
This decision to make licensed ministers virtually equal to fully ordained ones was not voted without protest. In particular, some of the General Conference treasurers, the men most particularly concerned about finances, argued that it was wrong to reduce the value of ordination merely in order to save money, even to save offering money. Speaking for himself and for some of his associates, Robert Osborn, as assistant General Conference treasurer, wrote earnestly to the NAD leadership: There is a definite detected feeling that it is hardly becoming to alter our attitude toward our licensed ministers for tax considerations in a particular country [the U.S.A. ].
But the response of the top leadership was that the difference between the functions of the licensed and ordained ministry is not a moral or theological issue, but a matter of church policy, and that the process by which the church trains its ministers obviously is not a matter of theology nor doctrine, but one of methodology, policy.
In this way, for the sake of saving money, the denomination deprived ordination of much of its distinctiveness. No longer did the General Conference look on ordination as a calling whose nature was determined by Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy. No longer was the work of the ordained minister a matter for theological study; instead, it was a matter for committee action and administrative policy. And this view appears to be the reflected in the NAD's official position today in regard to the role of women.
Enter Term, Commissioned
Now it is of significance that when the IRS said (in 1978) that it would accept a licensed minister as equivalent to an ordained minister, it used a word that had little meaning in our denomination at the time. The IRS said that if the person were allowed to perform marriages, it would accept the person as equivalent to as ordained minister whether the person had been licensed, ordained, or commissioned. Here was a new word, commissioned. As we shall see, it was pregnant with meaning for the future.
Through the years many treasurers, departmental directors/secretaries, and institutional managers had been given ministerial licenses and later ordained. These licensees were individuals, mostly men, who had manifested what might be called specialized ministries, but though they were scarcely ministers in the ordinary sense, some of them at least were considered eligible for the parsonage allowance. But in the mid-1970s a reaction against the practice set in. At the very time when the General Conference and the NAD were defining ordination as merely a policy item, many Seventh-day Adventists at all levels were complaining that ordaining treasurers and departmental directors/secretaries and institutional managers just so they could get the parsonage allowance was wrong and seriously diluted the grand significance of ordination to the Gospel ministry. Thus many officers who might in previous years have qualified for the parsonage allowance found themselves no longer eligible.
Then someone came up with a novel type of recognition: what about commissioning such people, calling them commissioned ministers, and giving them the right to perform weddings and baptisms? The IRS had promised that is would let such people receive the parsonage allowance. Further, if such men were not ordained, the church members would stop complaining.
And so it was formally voted, and at least some treasurers, departmental directors/secretaries, and institutional managers again found themselves privileged when the American income tax time came around on April 15 each year. Bible workers also began to be commissioned for the first time, and people felt it was right that these hard-working Gospel workers should receive special recognition. Then came the idea of commissioning church school teachers, not as ministers but as commissioned teachers, and again people felt it was right to recognize these often-unsung champions.
The Commissioning of Women Pastors
It had long been understood that granting a person a ministerial license implied that unless something went seriously amiss, the person within a few years would be ordained to the Gospel ministry; in other words, persons granted ministerial licenses were considered to be on the path toward ordination (or more popularly, on track for ordination). The few women who had been granted ministerial licenses over the years had not been viewed as on the path to ordination for the reason that the church was following the obvious Bible instruction that elders should be men.
In 1975 the practice of granting ministerial licenses to women was discontinued, but at the same time the Annual Council of the General Conference voted thatif great caution were exercisedselected women might be ordained as local elders. You should know that this surprising turn of events came about at the insistent urging of a relatively small group of articulate promoters.
Two years later (1977), women were allowed to serve as associates in pastoral care. The language was chosen carefully. Women were not to be known as assistant pastors. Many leaders were uneasy about allowing women to serve as pastors.
The Battle Heats Up
In 1984 a young woman elder serving as a pastor in the Potomac Conference baptized someone with the backing of her local conference but without authorization from the Church Manual . In 1985 the Annual Council of the General Conference forbade any more baptisms by women eldersbut in 1986 the Southeastern California Conference voted to let women baptize anyway. The General Conference promised to work harder on ordaining women to the Gospel ministry and persuaded Southeastern California to back away. The California conference did back away for a while, but in doing so it stepped up the rhetoric. We now began to hear terms like discrimination, gender inclusiveness, affirmative action, and justice! Many Adventist felt aggrieved that the language of politics and radical feminism was invading our church.
A Difficult Choice
In 1989, in preparation for the 1990 Indianapolis General Conference session, leadership thrust upon a large study group called the Women's Commission the choice of voting Yes or No on a double-barreled recommendation. This recommendation, which was to be sent on to the Annual Council of the General Conference for further action, offered that (1) women could not now be ordained as ministers but that (2) if they met certain specifications, they could perform essentially all the functions of an ordained minister in their local churches.
Many members of the women's commission regarded the choice as unfair, for in order to vote Yes on (1) not allowing women to be ordained as ministers, it was unavoidable to vote Yes also on (2) allowing women to function essentially like ordained ministers. Most of the people on the women's commission voted Yes, which meant both that women could not become ordained ministers but that they could behave almost like ordained ministers in divisions that wanted them to. This recommendation went to the Annual Council and from there to the 1990 General Conference.
The two provisions were divided up for the 1990 Indianapolis General Conference, and the vote on Wednesday went overwhelmingly against ordaining women ministers. When the other matter came up on Thursday, many overseas delegates, feeling that the big vote was in the past, were out of their places, apparently sightseeing and shopping. The main argument offered by the NAD speakers was addressed to those overseas delegates who were present. It was this: Yesterday we voted with you for what you wanted; we ask you to vote with us today, taking into account America 's cultural needs. There was no appeal to Scripture. This time the vote went in favor, although by a considerable smaller margin than on Wednesday.
We all know that five years later the question of ordaining women as ministers was brought up again, though in a different fashion. This time the North American Division asked for the right to ordain women ministers to Gospel ministry within its own territory . Four speakers were appointed by the NAD to persuade people to vote Yes, and only one speaker was appointed to persuade them to vote No. The No speaker presented a strong well-organized Bible study, and, as we have already reminded ourselves, the delegates voted 1,481 to 673 that No, North America should not be authorized to go its own way.
The Push Continues
Within weeks after this vote was taken, the Sligo church, located only a few miles from General Conference headquarters, ordained some women pastors, and a little later, the La Sierra University church followed suit.
As we have observed elsewhere, within three months the NAD appointed a commission to seek ways to enlarge the scope of women as pastors. At about the same time, the idea arose of conducting commissioning services for women pastors.
The Commissioning Service
Thus far, the conference treasurers, departmental directors/secretaries, and institutional managers who had been granted commissioned status had merely received notification in the mail.
Suddenly, such privacy seemed inadequate. Urgent voices insisted that the appointment of women to commissioned minister status should be made more public; more like, well, more like an ordination service. Thus the commissioning service was developed, complete with prayers, Scripture readings, a sermon, a charge, and the laying on of hands, all expanded to fill perhaps a whole hour at a large gathering, like a camp meeting.
In this way a process that began with a plan to reduce income taxes (a) produced the concept that ordination is merely a matter of church policy, and (b) developed into the concept that commissioned women ministers are equivalent to ordained male ministers.
When they learn about it, many Seventh-day Adventists consider it a very surprising (and interestingand saddening) history.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: At the close of this article as originally published in ADVENTISTS AFFIRM, a note from the editorial board indicated that factual material had been derived from phone calls to administrators at all levels of the church, from materials written by Bert Haloviak, Kit Watts, Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, from additional research, and from the experience of the editors.]