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Kevin D. Paulson
Many in the church are not aware that the language of certain recent compilations from the writings of Ellen White has been altered so as to make it “gender-inclusive.” This lack of awareness—and lack of resulting controversy, thus far—might be ascribed to the fact that perhaps few who read these writings take the time to read the forewords, introductions, or other comments made in these books by the compilers. Whatever the reason, due to the use of a particular statement from one of these compilations by a leading Adventist scholar promoting the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, the church in general and the Ellen White Estate in particular will likely be forced to confront the problematic nature of this recent doctoring of inspired language.
My own concern over this development traces back to its origin in the compilation and release of the Ellen White devotional titled Christ Triumphant. Soon after the publication of this book in 1999, I eagerly obtained a copy. Some of my most cherished volumes among the Ellen G. White writings have been such daily devotionals as In Heavenly Places, Sons and Daughters of God, Our High Calling, and many more. At times I have even suggested that the Ellen G. White Estate consider publishing these books for the non-Adventist public, as most of them consist entirely of strictly biblical material. I will always remember an occasion when, as a teenager, a Catholic neighbor stopped at our home while we were having worship as a family, reading the book In Heavenly Places. The Catholic lady was so moved by the book’s content that she spoke aloud of her wish that she could have books like this one with which to start the day.
Very soon, after obtaining Christ Triumphant, I read the book’s foreword. While doing so, I encountered the following statement by the White Estate Trustees, which disturbed me greatly:
Like the Bible writers, Ellen White used the language of her day. However, writing styles change, as do meanings of words. . . . In her time, words such as ‘he,’ ‘man,’ ‘men,’ and ‘mankind’ were accepted as generic terms that included both men and women. Today, this is not so common. Thus, without making any change in Ellen White’s thought, this devotional book uses gender-inclusive language (1).
Thus, on the title page of Christ Triumphant, the book is declared to be an “inclusive language edition,” and the reader is directed to the foreword for the explanation cited above (2).
In subsequent years, two additional Ellen White devotionals have been published in which the compilers admit to taking similar liberties with the original wording (3).
The above statement from the foreword to Christ Triumphant alarmed me, as I was unaware at the time—and am still unaware today—of any similar adjustment of Ellen White language in the compiling and publication of her writings since her death. Being a close observer and participant in many denominational controversies since my academy days, I had long been familiar with claims from across the Adventist spectrum of alleged tampering and concealment by the White Estate with regard to Ellen White’s writings, and had never found such claims to be credible.
I was equally familiar with efforts by the National Council of Churches and other theologically liberal groups in the Christian world, in preparing Bible versions which eliminated male gender references to the Deity. When one such version was produced, many even among moderates and liberals were concerned, declaring that “the Bible must be preserved as a historical text, however it might be interpreted today” (4). One New Testament scholar rightly asked at the time, “Is it the role of the translator to be a leader in social action?” (5).
Deeply concerned, I addressed a letter to Elder Kenneth H. Wood, who at the time was chairman of the board of the Ellen G. White Estate. He replied as follows:
Let me assure you that the trustees of the White Estate would never ‘tamper’ with Mrs. White’s writings. The dictionary defines ‘tamper with’ as ‘1. To make secret, illegal arrangements with, as by bribing. 2. To interfere with or meddle with, esp. so as to damage, corrupt, etc.’ The decisions of the trustees are made only after much prayer and discussion, and no effort is ever made to conceal those decisions or their results. The open statement in Christ Triumphant is an example of this. If no statement had been made, it is likely that neither you nor anyone else would ever have noticed that gender inclusive language had been used in the book (6).
Elder Wood continued by saying:
Today only people who are completely out of step with current trends still use terms such as firemen, policemen, garbage men, newsmen, etc. More accurate, inclusive terms have been substituted—firefighters, law enforcement agents, garbage collectors, newscasters. In no case has the thought been changed or ‘tampered with.’ Only people who unconsciously (or consciously) believe in verbal inspiration would find these changes objectionable. . . . so far as our church is concerned, the question of thought-inspiration versus verbal-inspiration was settled in 1883. As a result, Ellen White changed various wordings, sentences, and chapters in her books; Edson produced Christ Our Saviour; The Story of Redemption was ‘translated’ for the hearing impaired, using a vocabulary that enables them to capture thoughts that otherwise would be misunderstood or lost entirely; and Steps to Jesus was prepared for people whose second language was English, thus enabling them to enjoy the inspired message of Steps to Christ.
In view of this history, I think it is safe to say that the White Estate trustees did not break new ground in using gender inclusive language in Christ Triumphant (7).
In a follow-up letter several months later, Elder Wood elaborated further on points made in his earlier communication:
I simply want to protest that by using inclusive language we are not becoming ‘captive to societal pressures’; we are aiming for accuracy while applying the Golden Rule. Further, we are not altering anything that God wants to sound ‘male-authoritative.’ Note, for example, the May 14 reading in Christ Triumphant. The first sentence of paragraph 2 begins, ‘God has given minds and talents to mortals only in trust, on trial, . . . ‘ The original uses ‘men’ instead of ‘mortals.’ Surely God has given minds and talents to women as well as men. The new wording does not lessen the male role but it does express the author’s idea more accurately.
In your letter you say that it is concepts, not words, that are the issue. Agreed. We will never change concepts. That would do violence to the text and misrepresent the author (8).
I greatly appreciated Elder Kenneth Wood, who now rests from his labors. He demonstrated outstanding theological clarity and courage while serving as editor of the Review and Herald, which on his watch became the Adventist Review. We first communicated with each other when I was in the academy, as the Desmond Ford controversy was just getting started.
Nevertheless, I am constrained to differ with his assurances regarding the gender-inclusive adjustment of Ellen White’s writings. In the first place, this has nothing to do with verbal versus thought-inspiration. This is about ideas, not merely words. For those who hold to the doctrine of spiritual male headship on the basis of Scripture, the leadership of the male gender in the inspired description of humanity and human beings is not merely cultural; it is God’s own design. Altering this language to make it more inclusive involves more than simply using words more familiar to contemporary readers. As the example we will shortly cite from Christ Triumphant demonstrates, such language inserted in Ellen White’s writings is definitely exerting an impact in a debate over ideas and practices—not just words.
What is more, this cannot be compared with such inclusive language in our contemporary culture as “firefighters” as distinct from “firemen,” etc. None of these designations are spiritual. The biblical debate over male headship is a spiritual issue. Equally troubling is the comparison made between those changes in Ellen White’s writings undertaken by White herself and those close to her, while she was present to supervise the process, as distinct from those changes being made today when she cannot offer guidance. Particularly is this troublesome when one considers the volatility of the continuing dispute over gender roles in ministry in the denomination, and the naïve assumption—in the midst of this controversy—that such changes in her language carry no implications for the church on the subject of gender relations.
I am sure Elder Wood meant every word when he declared, “We will never change concepts.” I am sure the White Estate trustees were sincere in declaring to the church that they made these adjustments “without making any change in Mrs. White’s thought” (9). Yet this is precisely the effect that the public use by a leading Adventist scholar of a statement found in Christ Triumphant is having.
In the recent summary by Dr. Angel Rodriguez, in which he responds to the principal arguments used by opponents of women’s ordination, the following statement from Christ Triumphant is quoted:
Those placed in positions of responsibility should be men and women who fear God, who realize that they are humans only, not God. They should be people who will rule under God and for Him. Will they give expression to the will of God for His people? Do they allow selfishness to tarnish word and action? Do they, after obtaining the confidence of the people as leaders of wisdom who fear God and keep His commandments, belittle the exalted position that the people of God should occupy in these days of peril? Will they through self-confidence become false guideposts, pointing the way to friendship with the world instead of the way to heaven? (10).
Just prior to quoting this statement, Rodriguez writes:
Ellen White supports the idea of placing women in high administrative positions. After a discussion of the enthronement of David and the instructions God gave him, she applies the narrative to church leaders (11).
After quoting the above statement, he writes:
The statement is important in that it makes clear that a woman can be placed in positions of responsibility that would require from them to ‘rule under God and with him’ and to teach God’s will to the people (12).
Rodriguez obviously assumes that the gender-inclusive language found in this statement was in fact written by Ellen White herself. But if one consults the original statement, from the unpublished manuscript cited in this compilation, gender-inclusive language is entirely absent. Here is what the statement says in its original form:
Those placed in positions of responsibility should be men who fear God, who realize that they are men only, not God. They should be men who will rule under God and for Him. Will they give expression to the will of God for His people? Do they allow selfishness to tarnish word and action? Do they, after obtaining the confidence of the people as men of wisdom, who fear God and keep His commandments, belittle the exalted position that the people of God should occupy in these days of peril? Will they through self-confidence become false guide-posts, pointing the way to friendship with the world, instead of the way to heaven? (13).
Here we see very clear evidence that the contemporary altering of Ellen White’s language so as to make it “gender-inclusive,” is being urged in the present controversy as if it represents the thought of Ellen White, when the original wording is in fact gender-specific.
It is not the purpose of this paper to assign motives to the persons who adjusted Ellen White’s language in these devotionals. But whatever the intent, it is clear that in at least one prominent instance in a major denominational controversy, this adjusted language is being mistaken for Ellen White’s original wording. How many others might similarly misunderstand Ellen White’s thought because of this alteration, one can only speculate.
It is time to bring an end to this “gender-inclusive” adjustment in the preparation of new Ellen White releases. A reversal should be initiated with regard to the new Ellen White paraphrases, where liberties with the language might also have serious conceptual implications. It is best to leave inspired language as it is, and to cease deluding ourselves that the wording found in Ellen White’s original writings is somehow in need of “translating” for the sake of “relevance” in our contemporary culture. Despite assumptions to the contrary, most contemporary Adventist youth and young adults have no problem understanding Ellen White’s meaning, and the growing interest among young Adventists in the recovery of our distinctive teachings has not found the language of Ellen White’s original works an obstacle either to understanding or the enrichment and guidance of their walk with the Lord.
- Ellen G. White, Christ Triumphant (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1999), p. 6.
- Ibid., p. 3.
- ________, To Be Like Jesus (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 2004), p. 5; From the Heart (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 2010), p. 4.
- Richard N. Ostling, “O God Our [Mother] and Father,” Time, Oct. 24, 1983, p. 57.
- Letter Kenneth H. Wood to Kevin Paulson, Feb. 22, 2000, p. 1.
- Ibid., pp. 1-2.
- Letter Wood to Paulson, May 16, 2000, p. 1.
- Foreword to Christ Triumphant, p. 6; foreword to To Be Like Jesus, p. 5.
- White, Manuscript 163, 1902, Christ Triumphant, p. 146, quoted by Angel Manuel Rodriguez, “Evaluation of the Arguments Used By Those Opposing the Ordination of Women to the Ministry,” p. 66, http://www.adventistarchives.org/evaluation-of-the-arguments-used-by-those-opposing-the-ordination-of-women-to-the-ministry.pdf.
- Ibid., pp. 66, 67.
- White, Manuscript 163, 1902.