Monday, January 30, 2012

I Support Men's Commissioning

On October 10, 2011, church leaders announced a timetable for studying the theology of ordination over the next few years, the latest action following a promise at the 2010 General Conference session to study the issue.

Artur Stele, a world church vice president and director of the Biblical Research Institute, said the process would examine the foundation of ordination as well as its implications for church practices. (Adventist Review)

This is the latest in a series of debates, studies, and panels that have polarized the Seventh-day Adventist Church on the question of women's ordination since, by some accounts, the mid 1970s. (I've written previously on this topic here.) Opponents rest firm in the General Conference vote at Utrecht (1995), which shut down a move to allow the practice. Proponents continue to agitate for equality, most recently through the ONE (Ordain Now Equally) in Christ website.

Meanwhile, a proportionately small number of women continue to serve capably as Adventist pastors, and in some cases their ministry is exceptionally blessed. Rather than being ordained, these women are "commissioned," which affords them the authority to do almost everything an ordained (i.e. male) pastor does except ordain elders and deacons or organize and disband churches.

This state of affairs seems to me untenable. On its face, there is no biblical support, and it is morally disingenuous. Either women can be pastors, or they can't. Either women are allowed to have authority in the church, or they aren't. In the scripture there is no such thing in scripture as an under-shepherd who has partial authority in the flock.

I don't intend to rehash the arguments pro and con women's ordination here. For me it boils down to one issue: Spiritual gifts come with the authority to use them. If a woman has been equipped by the Holy Spirit for pastoral ministry, the church is poorer for not recognizing this.

For this reason I fully support equality of men and women at all levels of church ministry. But, I hasten to add, I do not support women's ordination.

I have come to the conclusion that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church the term "ordination" has changed into something other than a simple recognition of God's blessing on a pastor's ministry. Ordination is now a word that is used to either attain or maintain power.

Those opposed to women's ordination are focused of defending the term in a way that excludes women from power, and those in favor of women's ordination are focused on expanding the term in a way that gains women power. Both sides of the debate are in a power struggle.

Yet according to Jesus, in His Kingdom you don't gain power by fighting for it but by giving it away.

“The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.  Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. ... They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’

“But you shouldn’t be called Rabbi, because you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly.  Don’t be called teacher, because Christ is your one teacher.  But the one who is greatest among you will be your servant.  All who lift themselves up will be brought low. But all who make themselves low will be lifted up." (Matthew 23:2-3, 7-12, CEB)

“Do you know what I’ve done for you?  You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am.  If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet.  I have given you an example: just as I have done, you also must do. (John 13:12b-15, CEB)

“Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35b, CEB)

“You know that those who rule the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around.  But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant.  Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave—just as the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” (Matthew 20:25b-28, CEB)

Church offices and leadership structures are clearly necessary, as the apostolic church quickly discovered. But when an office or title becomes the focus of a power struggle, it's time to step back and recover Jesus' simple message of servant leadership: Instead of trying to elevate yourself, focus on elevating others. Instead of trying to be first, go serve those who are least. Instead of joining the race to the top, start a race to the bottom.

In that spirit, I propose the following: That Adventist pastors of both genders be, not "ordained," but "commissioned." After all, neither term is applied to pastors in the Bible, so we're free to change the terminology when warranted.

In fact, the term "ordained" comes from the Roman ordering of their society into plebs and patricians, the Gentile lords Jesus condemned. In the early Roman Catholic Church, ordination developed as the means by which a layman joins the elite order of the clergy.

On the other hand, "commissioned" carries, to my ear at least, the implication of "commissioned to serve," which is what a minister is supposed to do in the first place. Changing the term would also connote, in the context of the ordination debate, that Adventist pastors are less obsessed with their own power and position than they are with empowering and elevating others. It would signify that male ministers do not advance in God's upside-down Kingdom by allowing women to join them up on their level, but instead by moving down to a level where all can serve according to their gifts.

Therefore, I do not support women's ordination; I support men's commissioning.

Cross-posted to Adventist Today.


  1. "In fact, the term "ordained" comes from the Roman ordering of their society into plebs and patricians, the Gentile lords Jesus condemned. In the early Roman Catholic Church, ordination developed as the means by which a lay person joins the elite order of the clergy."

    Source for this idea?

  2. Good stuff man. I agree that we need to go one way or the other rather than standing really still and hoping the issue sniffs us and goes away. I like your idea about changing the whole terminology. I was honored to be ordained as a pastor in one sense because I saw it as a challenge to live a higher calling personally in order to be an example of how we should all life. At the same time I was ambivalent about the whole thing and couldnt help feeling that I was being "vested with power" which seems a bit foolish in light of Jesus' words you referenced. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post.

  3. In one church I know, no one would accept a position as an elder. So the church decided to split up the responsibilities of the elder and ask various people to fill one or a few of the required duties (but without the title, etc).

    It is amazing to see that both men and women rose to the occasion and have taken on these various responsibilities. All are doing exceptionally well. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out in the long run. What is more interesting is that there is no more division because the title is not there to argue against.

    The point is this: It seems that we have gotten away from the simplicity of letting the Holy Spirit distribute the gifts severally as He will. But if we can break through our mental blocks and just let God show us...we may be surprised to see who He calls AND equips to perform certain duties within the church.

  4. Hey bro,

    I just thought I'd reply to your statement that "neither term is in the Bible." In fact, (at least according to, the word "commission" (or some derivative of it) is used at least 18 times in the NASB!

    In fact, I just mentioned to some of my female colleagues not that long ago that they are in good company (see Numbers 27:23, for e.g.).

    In Jesus

  5. Jerry,

    Good point! I'd only checked NT references. There's only one: Paul being commissioned to persecute Christians. Not the kind of example we want to compare our female colleagues to, eh!?

  6. Jeff,

    I was ordained this summer, too, and I don't want to disparage that experience, which was powerful. I took it as a pat on the back and a kick in the rear, but not as any kind of a status symbol. At least, I try to avoid the temptation to view it as such. That temptation will be there no matter what label we attach to office or position. I just think being "commissioned to serve" would help us deal with that temptation better.

  7. Anon 1,

    The short answer is etymology:

    The Catholic church adopted/adapted many elements of Roman society. The idea of an ordo clericorum and an ordo laicorum flows so neatly from the ordo patricius and the ordo plebis I find it implausible that the two systems are unrelated.

  8. This was a great reason to bring Apokalupto out from hibernation!

    I've found myself in a strange position, being a pastor and yet not able to really endorse so much of the arguments made in favor of women's ordination. Since our concept of ordination is unbiblical (sometimes even anti-biblical), since it's oriented as an position of power, since it's framed as an issue of rights, since only the "conservatives" argue with religious zeal (or so it seems at times)--- for all these reasons I can't get behind some of the pro-women's ordination arguments and movements.

    Thank you for publicly (read: repost-ably) writing this down.

    I'd rather not be ordained. I'd rather we all be commissioned, too!

  9. I find your article interesting.....I am with you, we are call to serve. My commissioning was very special, and if I could discribe it in one word, it would be "humbling." A person, human, able to be part of GOD'S word, is at times too much for me to grasp.

  10. I found your twist on Ordaining/Commissioning clever. However, as a commissioned officer in the US Army I interpret the word as a designation of authority, accountability and leadership. With either designation it is still the authority of a human institution delegated to a person to execute an office on behalf of the organization.

    I wonder if there is an inverse proportion of the manifestation of the Spirit to the empowerment of human agency. If Christ said, " . . . But that’s not the way it will be with you. . .", then perhaps we seek revival in Spirit where only the human spirit dwells. Perhaps it's time the Spirit worked in the priesthood of believers. If Christ disparaged the "leaders" while revealing the Spirit working in the people then we will not find revival in our leaders but in the least of us.

  11. David,

    I agree that commissioning carries a weight of authority, accountability, and leadership (I like the way you put that.), and I support the term for those reasons. The church has a duty to set up leadership structures that support ministry and growth (cf. Acts 6). The difference I see between commissioning and ordination is that, to me, in the Adventist Church the former carries a connotation of authority grounded in service; whereas the latter has come to connote authority grounded in class.

    I would strongly dispute the notion that the empowerment of the Spirit and the empowerment of human agency are necessarily inversely proportionate. True, the empowerment of the Spirit is independent of human agency. True, there is a present and historical temptation to substitute the empowerment of the Spirit with the empowerment of human agency. But the example of Acts 6 (a favorite passage of mine, as you can see) shows what I believe to be the ideal, empowerment by the Holy Spirit, followed by recognition by the church and subsequent empowerment by human agency to the work of service. How much more powerful would the church be if we had both kinds of empowerment working together!

  12. Kessia,

    You mentioned women's ordination being framed as an issue of rights. This is an angle I'm interested in, but don't feel respectful talking about, given my gender. I invite you to spill more ink (pixels?) on that topic here, if you're willing.

  13. Claudette,

    I believe you're the pastor whose commissioning picture I 'appropriated.' Thanks for being gracious about that. It looked like a beautiful service.

    May your pastoral service be even more so!

  14. David, challenge accepted! I'll send you a link to the blog post I've written on that.... after I write it! ;)

  15. Excellent post-I have always been bothered by the "Sanctity and Power" which we as a church place on ordination-I truly value understanding where something comes from and why we do it before deciding whether to move forward with the practice/tradition-for example-the reason why brides have bridesmaids and they are all dressed alike goes back to a tradition of "confusing the evil spirits" (here is a source: and many other wedding customs have their source in pagan customs.

    I think Acts of the Apostles-chapter 16- has one of the best discussions on ordination out there and clearly says the "Commissioning" came from the Lord and "In later years people attached too much importance to laying on of hands, as if power came instantly on those who received ordination."

    Returning to the roots of all spiritual gifts being given by the Holy Spirit and the commissioning (for women AND men) to go to share God's Word with others takes all of us back to the origins of our call-and the fact that according to Matthew 28:19-20 every person is commissioned to take the gospel to the entire world-baptizing and then teaching people all that Jesus shared through His words and example.

    I believe connecting ordination to power within the Adventist church and such things as a pay raise/vacation allowance increase/"Free agent status"/entry for consideration for elite church positions (like division or GC president) takes away from the true meaning of commissioning and what the early believers meant when they laid hands on the apostles to dedicate them to God for the teaching of the gospel and the organizing of churches.

    It seems to me if we could all focus on the blessings of God rather than the traditions of men, a lot of the angry arguments and divisive grand-standing could be avoided-then we could All move forward with sharing the message of our Risen and Soon Coming Savior with the world.

    ****For the pastors and other dedicated employees of our church-I do think it is good to have a point where they are recognized as "vested" as church employees and eligible for advanced positions/pay raises/ free agent status/special additional church privileges. But, this can be a "civil service" which means they have met certain criteria (for example completed a 2 year mentorship, worked as an associate pastor, worked for the church for 5 years, set up at least 5000 campmeeting chairs, put on 6 weeks of prayers, told 200 children's stories, attended 736 meetings....etc...) which show their total commitment to the Adventist church. This is something like the marriage license part of a wedding which is separate from the spiritual ceremony. The recognition of faithful service can be done in a totally separate time/place without any gender requirements/issues/considerations-it is merely a demonstration of acceptance of their faithfulness in serving the Adventist church as paid representatives and the churches commitment of faith/trust back to these individuals.***

  16. Hi David - this is a topic that gets me quite emotional and I"m glad you have chosen to talk about it. We will need many more male ordained pastors like you to see change come about. I feel quite uncomfortable that our church openly discriminates against women. I also feel a little bit uncomfortable with your statement " Those opposed to women's ordination are focused of defending the term in a way that excludes women from power, and those in favor of women's ordination are focused on expanding the term in a way that gains women power. Both sides of the debate are in a power struggle." I agree with the first statement but disagree with the second. As it stands the higher church offices cannot be held by a woman and thus the power is 'lorded' over her. I also think that women pastors who would like to see the opportunity to rise to higher leadership positions could be termed "power hungry" or have their intentions misinterpreted. This is turn would definitely detract from their ministry. So as a "lay person" I think I'm in a better position to push for equality as I have no personal goal of becoming a GC president (or the like).

    I like what Julie had to say about it. There needs to be a "civil service" to show appreciation for church workers.

    I do like how you've written that male and females should be commissioned just as long as there are equal opportunities, equal benefits and equal recognition.

    In your last paragraph you wrote: "It would signify that male ministers do not advance in God's upside-down Kingdom by allowing women to join them up on their level, but instead by moving down to a level where all can serve according to their gifts." These sentence appears to say that being commissioned is a step down for ordained pastors. What about leveling out the differences, commissioning all church pastors and empowering all pastors (male or female) to use their gifts in ANY capacity in the church organization?

    I'm glad you're back blogging too!

  17. Heather,

    I think you're highlighting the essence of where "men's commissioning" solution differs from "women's ordination." While I believe equality in service is a good thing, I view the "push for equality" as power struggle. Power struggles are very common when one class lords it over another.

    I'm offering men's commissioning as an alternate solution to the power struggle in part to guard against the danger that if women were to be ordained, they would use that position to do to others as the men have done unto them. This is the sense in which I believe the title of ordination has been contaminated by the power struggle.

    This is not to say the women are power hungry any more than men are. The problem lies in the constant temptation of those in positions of authority to lord their power over others. I offer men's commissioning as a resolution to the question of equality in ministry to help ministers guard against that temptation.

    Of course, men's commissioning would be a symbolic step down. The male ministers would retain their authorities and female ministers would have full-authority as ministers. It's just that we would move away from a term that has been so contested that it has come to signify power more than service.

  18. Since 1977 the Biblical Research has postulated the Doctrine of Ordaining Women, but the men of the church have refused to accept this biblically based doctrine. Primarily because women are kept as 2nd class citizens in 3rd world countries by their Sevent-day Adventist husbands. Since this is a world church, women in North America and Europe have to also be kept 2nd class citizens by all the men in the Seventh-day Adventist church, and hence, they are unable to fulfill their calls by the Holy Spirit. This seems to me to be a HUGE sin against the Holy Spirit. Revival and Reformation is being called by Pastor Wilson. Will the brethren be willing to accept the unintended consequences of this action? Or will they attempt to remain stubborn in the acceptance of the equal call of God upon ALL believers and recognize as did Paul, there is NO male or female in the preaching of the Word, and making (baptizing) disciples.