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Searching the Scriptures

The New Testament teaches that Christ Himself instituted the church and gave it its constitution and officers, thereby clothing them with divine authority to speak and act in His name (Matt 16:18-19; Luke 24:47; John 20:21-23; 14:13; 15:16; 16:23; Eph 4:11-12; Matt 10:1). Thus the church is a divine institution, unlike any other voluntary organization.

The authority invested in elders and pastors through ordination is not "power" to dominate, control, or subjugate people within or without the church. Neither does ordination confer upon a person some special (magical) powers of the Holy Spirit. What is the nature of ministerial authority, and what is the purpose of ordination?

Ministerial Authority

The authority of elders and pastors is authority from Christ, delegated to them by the entire church--all the believers who "are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus" (1 Cor 5:4 NIV). Therefore, it must be exercised within the limits imposed by Christ, the church's Head, and by Scripture, the church's only rule of faith. Ministerial authority has at least four characteristics:

1. Delegated Authority. Jesus Christ is the Head of the church and the source of all the church's authority. He defines the purpose of the church's existence, and He provides the spiritual resources necessary for the church to perform its mission (Eph 4:7-13; 1 Cor 12; Rom 12:3-8). Through His Holy Spirit Christ remains present and active in the church, exercising His authority and rule over it (John 14:16ff.; 16:7ff.; Matt 28:17-20; 18:20; 23:8, 10; Eph 1:20-23; 5:23-24).

So the authority of the church which ordained elders and pastors exercise on its behalf is a delegated authority from Jesus Christ. Elders and ministers can legitimately exercise their authority only "in His name" (Mark 16:17; 1 Cor 1:13; 2 Cor 4:5). Any exercise of church authority apart from Christ and His will constitutes a usurpation of Christ's delegated authority.

2. Declarative Authority. The authority of the church is declarative, not enactive; that is, the church cannot use its own wisdom and discretion to leg-

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islate (enact) for itself doctrines, practices or policies that conflict with previously uttered words of Christ in Scripture. When Jesus commissioned the Twelve, the nucleus of the New Testament church, saying, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (John 20:21 RSV), He was mandating them to communicate (declare) His teaching to the church accurately. Scriptural authority, consisting of the Old Testament writings and the writings of the commissioned apostles, was to be normative in the church through all ages (2 Thess 2:15; 3:4, 6, 14; 2 Cor 10:8; 11:4; 13:10; 1 Cor 2:13; 1 Thess 1:5; 2:13; 5:27; Col 4:16; 2 Pet 3:15-16; 1 Tim 5:17-18; cf. Luke 10:7).

Since the Scriptures clearly express the authority and will of Christ, the church's Head, the authority which the ordained ministry exercises on the church's behalf must always stay within the bounds set by Christ Himself in His written Word. In every situation and on every issue, the church must always defer the final decision to Him who authorizes it and whom it must simply serve. This means that the Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures must ever remain the only normative source of authority in the church. Whenever the church enacts doctrines and practices in conflict with the Scriptures, the exercise of such authority by elders or ministers constitutes a usurpation of the authority of Christ.

3. Spiritual Authority. The New Testament teaches that church authority is intended primarily for those within the church. The church is empowered to organize the members for Christian fellowship, worship, and exhortation, to administer divine ordinances, and to proclaim the gospel. This authority is to be exercised to ensure that the members of the church are built up into the image of Christ their Head. [1] Beyond its own members, the church has a responsibility to the world to witness for God by faithfully declaring the gospel of Christ (Matt 28:18-20).

Because the church exists to glorify God and save souls for His kingdom, and because the means to accomplish this mission is spiritual, the church's authority is spiritual, not civil or temporal. At His trial before Pilate, Christ proclaimed clearly that His kingdom was not of this world. It could not be upheld by the sword but only by the authority and force of truth (Jn 18:36-37). Consequently, He instructed His disciples not to exercise their authority in the same way as temporal authorities do (Matt 20:20-28).

From the above passages, we gather that the authority of the church, invested in elders and pastors through ordination, is a spiritual authority. It is grounded in the truth which Jesus came to reveal. Whenever elders or ministers become lords or slaves of any temporal authority (political, ideological, cultural, etc.), they have usurped Christ's authority.

4. Edifying Authority. Ministerial authority is to be exercised for the sole purpose of building up those within the church, the believers who "are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus" (1 Cor 5:4 NIV).

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In 2 Corinthians 10:8, and again in chapter 13:10, Paul stated that the authority which the Lord gave him in the church is "for building you up, not for tearing you down" (NIV). Ministerial authority is therefore edifying, intended to build up the church. Church authority, at whatever level, is for the express purpose of accomplishing the redemptive work of Christ in the lives of church members. It is intended to promote the spiritual good of the people; its end is salvation. [2]

In addition to church authority's being for the "edification" of the church, Paul added that it is "notfor tearing you down." This second expression is a most emphatic protest against the abuse of church authority. Whenever elders or ministers exercise authority in a domineering, despotic, coercive, or dictatorial manner so that they frustrate the saving ministry of Christ in His church, their actions constitute a usurpation of Christ's authority.

The Issue At Hand. The issue which now confronts us regarding the ordination of women is this: Who is qualified to exercise the authority of the ministerial office? Specifically, may women be ordained as elders and pastors? Does the church have authority to authorize the ordination of women to the office of elder or pastor? These questions call for searching the Sciptures to understand the nature and purpose of ordination.

Ordination to the Gospel Ministry

The New Testament teaches that the act of ordination, as such, does not confer any special grace or holiness upon the one ordained. Ordination does not bestow some special magical powers of the Holy Spirit; neither does it confer upon the elder or pastor some special character which sets the person apart as a "priest." Before Paul's ordination, he already possessed the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17; 13:3). The same can be said of the seven deacons (Acts 6:3-6; cf. 1 Tim 4:14). Though Christ is the true High Priest (Heb 4:15; 7:24-25; 8:1), all believers in Him constitute a "holy priesthood," a "royal priesthood," and are called to be "kings and priests unto God" (1 Pet 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6). Thus ordination, per se, does not make anyone spiritual, holy or Spirit-filled. Why then is ordination necessary?

The Necessity of Ordination. The New Testament attaches special importance to ordination. Paul wrote that the reason he left Titus in Crete was that Titus might "set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city" (Titus 1:5). Again in Asia Minor, Paul and Barnabas "ordained them elders in every church" (Acts 14:23). Evidently elders were to be ordained in all the New Testament churches. Writing to the many churches that were "scattered abroad," the apostle James urged the sick to "call for the elders of the church" (James 1:1; 5:14). In his letter to "the strangers [converted Gentiles] scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia," the apostle Peter wrote, "The elders which are among you I exhort" (1 Pet 1:1; 5:1).

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Apparently ordination of ministers was essential to the existence of the church. Though ministers were to be ordained in every church and city, their ordination was to be done with great caution and discretion. Paul counseled Timothy, himself an ordained minister, to "lay hands suddenly on no man" (1 Tim 5:22).

The Importance of Ordination. What is the purpose of ordination? Several Greek words in the New Testament are translated "ordain" (KJV); they convey such meanings as to "choose," "appoint," or "set apart." [3] Thus, ordination is the act of the church in choosing, appointing, and setting apart through the laying on of hands certain individuals to perform specific functions on behalf of the church.

By ordination, elders and ministers are authoritatively commissioned to declare the gospel of salvation. In Romans 10:14-15, having stated that faith comes through the hearing of the word proclaimed by the preacher, Paul asked rhetorically, "How shall they preach except they be sent?" The church has to send or commission someone to proclaim the message authoritatively. Again, writing to Timothy, Paul declared, "The things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also" (2 Tim 2:2). A person possessing ability to teach, who is faithful to Christ, and who meets the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 may be commissioned authoritatively to perform the duties of elder or pastor.

This was the practice in the New Testament church. Apart from the twelve apostles who were chosen and ordained by Christ Himself, all others apparently were ordained by elders of the church. For a person to be an elder or minister, then, the church must express its approval by recognizing and commissioning that individual for the ministerial task. Even Paul had to be ordained by the church after he received his call from Christ (Acts 13:1-3). through ordination, setting one apart by the laying on of hands, the church authorizes elders or pastors to counteract false teaching and teachers (1 Tim 1:3; 4:1; Titus 1:9, 10) and to safeguard the sound doctrine that has been entrusted to the church's keeping. [4]

Thus, our Minister's Manual (1992) rightly recognizes that "Seventh-day Adventists do not believe that ordination is sacramental in the sense of conferring some indelible character or special powers or the ability to formulate right doctrine. It adds 'no new grace or virtual qualification'" (p. 77). "Ordination, an act of commission, acknowledges God's call, sets the individual apart, and appoints that person to serve the church in a special capacity. Ordination endorses the individuals thus set apart as authorized representatives of the church. By this act, the church delegates its authority to its ministers to proclaim the gospel publicly, to administer its ordinances, to organize new congregations, and, within the parameters established by God's Word, to give direction to the believers (Matt. 16:19; Heb. 13:17)" (pp. 76-77).

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Ellen G. White captured this meaning and importance of ordination: "Before being sent forth as missionaries to the heathen world, these apostles [Barnabas and Paul] were solemnly dedicated to God by fasting and prayer and the laying on of hands. Thus they were authorized by the church, not only to teach the truth, but to perform the rite of baptism and to organize churches, being invested with full ecclesiastical authority." "God foresaw the difficulties that His servants would be called to meet, and, in order that their work should be above challenge, He instructed the church by revelation to set them apart publicly to the work of the ministry. Their ordination was a public recognition of their divine appointment to bear to the Gentiles the glad tidings of the gospel" ( The Acts of the Apostles , p. 161, emphasis added).

The understanding that ordination, setting one apart by the laying on of hands, is the church'srecognition and authoritative commissioning of individuals to perform certain functions for the church suggests that, within the guidelines set by Scripture, both men and women may be set apart by the laying on of hands to perform certain functions. "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" (Ellen G. WhiteThe Advent Review and Sabbath Herald , July 9, 1895, p. 434). [5] Though this statement has often been taken out of context and misused to claim Ellen White's support for ordaining women as elders or pastors of the church, [6] it does illustrate the legitimacy of the church recognizing and commissioning chosen individuals through an act of consecration/dedication ("laying on of hands") to perform designated functions. Within the guidelines of Scripture, the church may do this for both men and women.

The Issue At Hand. Since both male and female, through an act of dedication ("the laying on of hands"), can be commissioned to perform certain specific functions, the debate over women's ordination is not whether women can or cannot be ordained in this sense; the Bible, confirmed by the Spirit of Prophecy, suggests that both men and women may be commissioned to do certain assigned tasks on behalf of the church. The key issue to be addressed is whether, among the varied ministries of the church, women may legitimately be commissioned through ordination to perform the leadership functions of elders or pastors. [7] Addressing this question will require searching the Scriptures to clarify (1) what the crucial issues are and what they are not, and (2) the basis upon which these issues are to be resolved.


[1] Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1988), pp. 144-145.
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[2] Thus, when Paul admonished the Corinthians to exercise their authority in disfellowshiping a member, his hope was that such an action might result in the individual's being "saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor 5:5).

[3] For example, Jesus "ordained (poieo) twelve" (Mark 3:14); Paul himself was "ordained (tithemi) a preacher and an apostle" (1 Tim 2:7; cf., 4:14; 5:22); Titus was urged to "ordain (kathistemi) elders in every city" (Titus 1:5). Each of these three Greek words carries the sense of "appoint," "place," or "establish." Another word used in the New Testament for the act of ordination ischeirotoneo, which can mean "to stretch forth the hand," or "elect" or "appoint." Thus Paul and Barnabas "ordained them elders in every church" (Acts 14:23); and when Titus was appointed by the churches to travel with Paul to Jerusalem, we are told that he was "chosen of the churches" (2 Cor 8:19). The compound form of the word, procheirotoneo, appears in Acts 10:41, where it describes God's prior appointment of the apostles.

[4] In his pastoral epistles, Paul frequently referred to the "sound words" (1 Tim 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; cf. 2 Tim 2:15), or "the faith" (1 Tim 3:9; 4:1, 6; 5:8; 6:10, 12, 21; 2 Tim 3:8; 4:7; Titus 1:13; 2:2), or "that which has been entrusted" (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:12, 14), and "sound teaching/doctrine" (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1; cf. 1 Tim 4:6, 16; 6:1, 3; 2 Tim 2:2; Titus 2:10).

[5] For a biblical, theological and historical inquiry into ordination and its relevance, see V. Norskov Olsen, "Called to be a Minister," Ministry, April 1995, pp. 11-17, 28. For an excellent discussion of the theology of ordination, see Raoul Dederen, "A Theology of Ordination," Supplement toMinistry, February 1978, pp. 24K-24P. While Dederen maintained that "there is no conclusive theological argument to deny the ordination of women to the gospel ministry," he added, "I wonder whether it is wise to pass over too quickly the question as to whether the time is ripe for such an action. Would such a change be desirable while the church, as a whole, sensitive as it is to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has not recognized God's leading in that direction?" (See his "The Ministry of Women," ibid., p. 24O.)

[6] Evidence that this statement may not be applied to ordination of women as pastors or elders may be found within the passage itself. (1) This is a part-time ministry, not a calling to a lifework. "Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time . . . ." (2) The work is not that of a minister or a church officer. "In some cases they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister." Evidently this work is not that of an elder or minister. (3) It was a ministry different from what we were already doing. The portion quoted here is followed immediately by, "This is another means of strengthening and building up the church. We need to branch out more in our methods of labor." (4) It appears in an article entitled, "The Duty of the Minister and the People," which called upon ministers to allow and encourage the church members to use their talents for the Lord. The last sentence of the quoted paragraph reflects this thrust: "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."

This is the only statement from Mrs. White addressing laying on of hands for women. The statement and its context clearly indicate that these women were being dedicated to a specific lay ministry.

[7] The concluding paragraph of Dederen's article (n. 5 above) is worth pondering: "A closer look at our theology of ordination may mean hard work and reciprocal understanding, for beneath the scriptural data we are often dealing with prejudice and self-interest--from all sides--as well as established patterns and deep-rooted habits. Yet the theology of ordination and its implications, summarily evoked in these pages, is without doubt one to which

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our church must address itself sooner or later. The task is indispensable. As a theologian, I would hope that a great many will participate in this study, making their individual contribution, so that God's people, as a whole, will find a sound solution to pressing problems of our time" (see Dederen, "A Theology of Ordination," p. 24O). Since the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White suggest that both men and women may be commissioned to perform certain specific functions, the real issue requiring a biblical response is whether women may legitimately be ordained to perform the headship functions of elder or pastor.

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