How the IRS Affected Women’s Ordination

Before we begin…
This subject is very complex and the full story is quite lengthy involving the IRS, a U.S. Tax Court judge, and an Adventist Congressman on the House Ways and Means Committee who dies in a plane crash in the middle of this decade-long saga. So, although this rundown may seem a little lengthier than others, we’re still only scratching the surface for you.

Back in the day...
Since the 1870’s (think: Rockefeller is just forming Standard Oil, blue jeans and the telephone are invented, and Congress’ 14th amendment gives former slaves voting rights), women in the Adventist Church had been granted ministerial licenses. They would train, following the same path as men (even being examined by EGW in the early days), and then head off to get more experience in a “testing phase” of sorts. If there weren’t problems, the next step after licensing would be ordination...except that the “testing phase” wasn’t ending for women.

A new challenger approaches!
In the 1960s, the IRS informed the NAD that licensed ministers must be able to do everything an ordained minister could do if they were to be eligible for tax benefits like parsonage. Since this was not the case, the denomination would have to pay over $5 million for 850 licensed ministers in back taxes (equivalent to about $32 million today). For the next decade, the NAD and IRS would go back and forth trying to work out a solution (with the NAD trying to claim the two positions were basically the same and the IRS saying, “No they’re not…$5 million please).

Meanwhile, back at the camp...
Major discussions/investigations had begun regarding moving women from being “licensed” to being “ordained.” In 1973, the denomination began an in-depth discussion on Women’s Ordination for pastoral ministry. The GC sponsored the creation of the “Council on the Role of Women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church”. The Council included 14 women, the GC Vice-President (as Chairman), and a representative from the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) (as Secretary). This group created a document that suggested four things:

  1. The equality of all believers was established by creation and is being restored through redemption in Jesus Christ.

  2. There is “no significant theological objection to the ordination of women to Church ministries.” (i.e. The Bible doesn’t say women can’t.)

  3. “A pilot program for women in pastoral and evangelistic roles” should be established in receptive fields “on a two-year basis, with the expectation of renewal upon evaluation. (i.e. Let’s give it a try for 2 years.)

  4. An interim report of the pilot program should be presented for the 1974 Annual Council, as “a basis for any recommendations concerning the ordination of women to the gospel ministry which would require consideration by the 1975 General Conference session.” (i.e. Let’s check in after a year and see where we’re at.)

The Annual Council obstacle
The document was sent through the 1973 and 1974 Annual Councils where both emphasized the priesthood of all believers, but ultimately denied the ordination of women to the gospel ministry on the grounds that the church was not ready for such an action and it would threaten the unity of the church. In addition to this, it was requested that the President’s Executive Advisory arrange for a continuing study of the “theological and practical implications of the ordination of women to the gospel ministry.” In the words of President Wilson, “the process by which the church trains its ministers obviously is not a matter of theology or doctrine, but one of methodology, policy.”

Ok...but, we still owe a ton of money.
As far as the IRS was concerned, because the Adventist Church still hadn’t resolved anything, they continued to owe back taxes. To put the pressure on the Church, they began sending several conferences “final notice before seizure” of SDA property. The Church had three options:

  1. Concede that ordained pastors and licensed pastors are different...and pay the IRS millions.

  2. Make ordination and licensing the same - automatically ordaining women in the process.

  3. Make ordination and licensing the same, but take women’s licenses away so they wouldn’t be ordained (and maintain unity).

Option one wasn’t going to happen. The 1974 decision meant option two wasn’t going to happen, either, so...

Droppin’ a new track
In 1975, it was resolved that women “with suitable qualifications and experience are able to fill ministerial roles [and will] be assigned as assistant pastors, their credentials being missionary license or missionary credential.” Women were no longer eligible to receive the ministerial licenses they’d held for the last 100 years, and were no longer on track towards ordination. Instead, they were on a new track of “Associates in Pastoral Care.”

Post credits scene
The next year, the IRS modified its policy to say that if licensed or commissioned ministers were basically the same as ordained ones...they could both receive the same tax benefits ( read that right. The very thing that started this all, the IRS changed its mind on). So, the next year, the church decided to allow women to "perform essentially the ministerial functions of an ordained minister of the gospel in the churches to which they are assigned" in order to receive the tax benefits. In the end women still had the tax benefits, but were no longer on the path to ordination.

Context and the Differences Between Licensing, Commission, and Ordination

1989 Commission on the Role of Women in the Church