Ellen White and the Role of Women in the Church


Part 3 : Ellen White’s View Of Woman’s Role In The Church

We have already seen that Ellen White made no explicit statement supporting (nor prohibiting) ordination for women. When she had opportunity to speak for it, as she did in response to the failure of the 1881 General Conference resolution that would have provided for it, she said nothing. When she could have called for it in connection with the pay issue for women, she did not do so. All the evidence that I have seen so far fails to substantiate support in her writings for ordaining women. EWRWC 17.3

Then what did she envisage as woman’s role in the church? That study is considerably broader than the one I have attempted here in examining the claims that she supported ordination. But the material that I have looked at, some of which has been quoted above, indicates that she saw women as able to do a great work for Christ in personal contacts, bringing the message for this hour into homes and families. And she recognized and cited important contributions they could make in various leadership responsibilities in the church, as well. EWRWC 17.4

For instance, during the same time period in which she made some of the strong appeals we have noted above, she called for training to be offered for women in our schools. Speaking of Avondale, the new school in Australia, she said, “The Lord designs that the school should also be a place where training may be gained in women’s work...” After enumerating certain domestic and educational training to be included, she adds, “They are to be qualified to take any post that may be offered—superintendents, Sabbath school teachers, Bible workers. They must be prepared to teach day schools for children.” 1 EWRWC 17.5

She saw an important mission for women: EWRWC 18.1

Wonderful is the mission of the wives and mothers and the younger women workers. If they will, they can exert an influence for good to all around them. By modesty in dress and circumspect deportment, they may bear witness to the truth in its simplicity. They may let their light so shine before all, that others will see their good works and glorify their Father which is in heaven. A truly converted woman will exert a powerful transforming influence for good. Connected with her husband, she may aid him in his work, and become the means of encouragement and blessing to him. When the will and way are brought into subjection to the Spirit of God, there is no limit to the good that can be accomplished 2

While there is surely an emphasis on a husband-wife ministry here, single women (“the younger women workers”) are also included. The type of work is not here designated, but would surely include the various lines of work Mrs. White specified that we have noted before. With modesty and propriety, women may let their light shine and may exert a limitless influence for good. Such will be the effect when the will and way are brought into subjection to God. EWRWC 18.2

A God-Appointed Sphere. Yet Mrs. White noted that not all would be willing to live in subjection to God. From our first parents, both men and women have shown that they have been unwilling to do so. Though the issue in the following passage is not specifically the role relations of men and women in the church, perhaps the principles may find some application there. EWRWC 18.3

Eve had been perfectly happy by her husband’s side in her Eden home; but, like restless modern Eves, she was flattered with the hope of entering a higher sphere than that which God had assigned her. In attempting to rise above her original position, she fell far below it. A similar result will be reached by all who are unwilling to take up cheerfully their life duties in accordance with God’s plan. In their efforts to reach positions for which He has not fitted them, many are leaving vacant the place where they might be a blessing. In their desire for a higher sphere, many have sacrificed true womanly dignity and nobility of character, and have left undone the very work that Heaven appointed them. 3 EWRWC 18.4

Clearly it is important in her view to operate within the sphere that God has assigned, for our own happiness, nobility and effectiveness. Defining that sphere is, of course, what this whole discussion is about in our church. While Ellen White will have some things to say that will help us sort matters out, she would be the first to say than we should go to the Bible for guidance on the matter of the role relationships of men and women “The Scriptures are plain upon the relations and rights of men and women.” 4 EWRWC 18.5

Spirit of the Times. She would also remind us of the dangers of imbibing the spirit of the times when that is out of harmony with our Scriptural duty. The statement just quoted comes from a passage that deals with a women’s rights movement in the 1860’s. A part of that movement was an attempt to bring about much-needed reform in the matter of women’s dress. But the alternative proposed to the abuses that had flourished consisted of a style that minimized the differences between the dress of men and of women. EWRWC 19.1

After addressing the Biblical call for a clear distinction in dress, Mrs. White commented on the spirit that attended the women’s rights movement: “Those who feel called out to join the movement in favor of woman’s rights and the so-called dress reform might as well sever all connection with the third angel’s message. The spirit which attends the one cannot be in harmony with the other. The Scriptures are plain upon the relations and rights of men and women.” 5 Was there a spirit of disaffection, of promotion of self? In the assertion of one’s rights, is there a spirit that comes not from above, and that would keep us from representing the character of Jesus, who did not think that equality was “a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6)? This statement seems to warn us of such dangers. EWRWC 19.2

Respect for Husband’s Leadership.And contrary to the positions taken by many feminists today, Mrs. White upheld, in both her practice and her teaching, the traditional understanding of the Bible’s statements on the headship of man in marriage. Arthur White writes, EWRWC 19.3

Her understanding of the proper relationship between husband and wife stands out in a letter written to a friend in her early married life: “We women must remember that God has placed us subject to the husband. He is the head and our judgment and views and reasonings must agree with his if possible. If not, the preference in God’s Word is given to the husband where it is not a matter of conscience. We must yield to the head” [Letter 5, 1861]. She would not stand in the pulpit to speak at the Sabbath morning worship service if James White was present. He would take the Sabbath morning service, and she would speak in the afternoon. Only when he was stricken with paralysis in 1865 and for some time could not take his place in public work did she depart from this procedure 6

Yet we. still have not answered fully the question of what Mrs. White’s concept of women’s work really was. She stressed the importance of working within one’s own sphere, and did so in the setting of the danger of leaving the very work to which God was calling, while seeking some supposedly higher sphere of labor. Her concern seems to have been not so much to deny this or that activity to anyone, but rather to encourage each to labor within his God-appointed sphere, where he could be most effective. EWRWC 19.4

Emphasis on Personal Ministry. It is clear that Ellen White did see a particular sphere of labor for women. In Testimonies, Volume 6, she. published a selection called, “Women to Be Gospel Workers.” 7 Since this was published during her lifetime (1900), under her supervision, one may presume that she took responsibility for the title and that the selection represents fairly what her view of women as “gospel workers” really entailed. EWRWC 19.5

And what do we find there? First is her own reworking of the material she had earlier sent to S. M. I. Henry, which Mrs. Henry published in the Review, 8 and to which I have already referred. The emphasis is on individual accountability to God to be involved in personal work for others. In addition to the statements from the Review article which I have quoted earlier, a few other statements will help to give the main thrust: EWRWC 20.1

The most successful toilers are those who cheerfully take up the work of serving God in little things. Every human being is to work with his life thread, weaving it into the fabric to help complete the pattern.

The work of Christ was largely made up of personal interviews. He had a faithful regard for the one-soul audience. From that one soul the intelligence received was carried to thousands.

We should educate the youth to help the youth; and as they seek to do this work they will gain an experience that will qualify them to become consecrated workers in a larger sphere. Thousands of hearts can be reached in the most simple, humble way.

...Nothing is to be allowed to keep the servant of God from his fellow men. The individual believer is to labor for the individual sinner. Each person has his own light to keep burning; and if the heavenly oil is emptied into these lamps through the golden pipes; if the vessels are emptied of self, and prepared to receive the holy oil, light will be shed on the sinner’s path to some purpose. More light will be shed on the pathway of the wanderer by one such lamp than by a whole procession of torchlights gotten up for a show. 9

Ministry to Families. Ellen White added some other material after the reworked paragraphs from her letter to Mrs. Henry, and they became part of this article in Testimonies, Volume 6. Here too she speaks specifically of the work that women are to do, after first speaking of what they are to be. EWRWC 20.2

The. Lord has a work for women as well as men to do. They may accomplish a good work for God if they will first learn in the school of Christ the precious, all-important lesson of meekness. They must not only bear the name of Christ, but possess His Spirit They must walk even as He walked, purifying their souls from everything that defiles. Then they will be able to benefit others by presenting the all-sufficiency of Jesus. EWRWC 20.3

Women may take their places in the work at this crisis, and the Lord will work through them. If they are imbued with a sense of their duty, and labor under the influence of the Spirit of God, they will have just the self-possession required for this time. The Saviour will reflect upon these self-sacrificing women the light of His countenance, and this will give them a power which will exceed that of men. They can do in families a work that men cannot do, a work that reaches the inner life. They can come close to the hearts of those men cannot reach. Their labor is needed. EWRWC 20.4

A direct necessity is being met by the work of women who have given themselves to the Lord and are reaching out to help a needy, sin-stricken people. Personal evangelistic work is to be done. The women who take up this work carry the gospel to the homes of the people in the highways and the byways. They read and explain the word to families, praying with them, caring for the sick, relieving their temporal necessities. They present before families and individuals the purifying, transforming influence of the truth. They show that the way to find peace and joy is to follow Jesus. 10 EWRWC 21.1

There is a bit more in the article, but the above statements will illustrate the perspective Mrs. White identifies with concerning women as gospel workers. She saw them involved in personal work, with women and in families. If done in the right spirit, under the influence of Christ, “the light of His countenance...will give them a power which will exceed that of men...Their labor is needed.” EWRWC 21.2

This is the very concern that we hear expressed today by those who would like to see women serving in the ordained ministry of the church or who urge their election as local elders—that their ministry is needed, especially to women and families. Clearly Ellen White shared that concern, but also it is quite clear that she envisioned this ministry being performed by women without reference to their serving as ordained elders or pastors. She said that such ministry is capable, when rightly done, of exhibiting a power greater than that of men. It is noble work, needed work. In defining women’s work in this way, she has in no way belittled it. 11 EWRWC 21.3