After reading this anecdotal event [see “The Campbellite and Mrs. White"], I found myself curious to know what Stephen Haskell said to this audience. This text was either 1 Cor. 14:34-35 or 1 Tim. 2:12. What was his belief on women speaking in church or in public, and of women doing ministry? What was his explanation that Ellen White agreed with?
Through the 1860s and 1870s, a number of articles appeared in our church publications on this topic. Having a woman prophet who spoke regularly in church assemblies and in public was bound to raise some questions in regards to these two key texts. Four articles on this subject were published in the two years leading to this anecdote.
In December 1878, as resident editor of Signs of the Times, Joseph H. Waggoner wrote a short response to the question: “Is it right for women to speak in meeting?” Waggoner explained that Paul cared about proper decorum and instructed that all words spoken in assemblies ought to be done without creating confusion. For Paul, the labors of women were not confined only to some activities. Paul “refers to prayers, and also speaks of certain women who ‘labored in the Lord,’ [Phil. 4:3] an expression which could only refer to the work of the gospel.” Waggoner concluded: "We sincerely believe that, according to the Scriptures, women, as a right may, and as a duty ought to, engage in these exercises" (“Woman’s Place in the Gospel,” Signs of the Times, Dec. 19, 1878, p. 380).
In January 1879, J. N. Andrews also published a short article in the Review and Herald on women speaking in church. In this article, Andrews explains the two main texts used to prohibit women from speaking in church. His purpose is to show that a careful study of these texts cannot support this conclusion.
Regarding 1 Cor. 14:34-35, he explained that Paul’s intent was to avoid confusion in the church and to urge women to stop chatting between themselves during the worship service. Hence, “what the apostle says to women in such a church as this, and in such a state of things, is not to be taken as directions to all Christian women in other churches and in other times, when and where such disorders do not exist.” In regards to 1 Tim. 2:12, Andrews understands “this text to give Paul’s general rule with regard to women as public teachers. But there are some exceptions to this general rule to be drawn even from Paul’s writings, and from other scriptures.” In fact, the evidence Andrews gives indicates that this rule is rather the exception and that women are free to labor in ministry (“May Women Speak in Meeting?” Review and Herald, January 2, 1879, p. 4).
A few months later, Andrews again published a small article on this subject, this time in Signs of the Times. In response to an article he had read in another paper, which stated that women were not allowed to speak in the early Christian church, he explained that such a position did not concur with the New Testament.
“The number of women of whom honorable mention is made for their labors in the gospel is not small. Now, in view of these facts, how can any man in this age of Bibles say that the Bible does not notice women, or give them a place in the work of God? The Lord chooses his own workers, and he does not judge as man judges. Man looks at the appearance; God judges the heart, and he never makes mistakes” (“Women in the Bible,” Signs of the Times, Oct. 30, 1879, p. 324).
One last article I found, published shortly before Ellen White’s event in California, was published by her husband in the Review and Herald. While explaining 1 Cor. 14, James White conceded that Paul may have referred to women participating in church business meetings, but he took the firm position that this text did not refer to a prohibition for women to participate in worship services. Rather “Paul … places men and women side by side in the position and work of teaching and praying in the church of Christ.” As we see in other articles published by his colleagues, White gave numerous examples of women who ministered for God in the Old and New Testaments to show that there is no prohibition for women to labor for the gospel or to speak in church assemblies (“Women in the Church,” Review and Herald, May 29, 1879, p. 172).
Pioneers: Paul referred to particular situations
Most of the articles published in that period took the position that what Paul referred to in 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 had to do with particular situations in the local churches of his time. Paul's counsel regarding these situations was not applicable to all church congregations. Our pioneers understood that what Paul was prohibiting had nothing to do with a general and universal ban on women in ministry.
Most of these articles also referred to Paul's female co-workers to state the obvious conclusion that Paul was not speaking against women in ministry. Furthermore, none of these articles used the argument that a woman prophet (i.e. Ellen White) has a special dispensation from God to speak in church — an argument that is used today to argue that women without a prophetic call from God should not be in the pulpit.
If this was the position taken by our church founders 130 years ago in an era when women did not have social equality, I believe they would certainly favor women in ministry today and would see no reason to not include women in pastoral and parish ministry.
Denis Fortin is dean and professor of theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Condensed from “What Did Early Adventist Pioneers Think About Women in Ministry?”