Headship Theology: What Our Pioneers Believed

During the last five years certain doctrines and interpretations were spread and preached by several well-known SDA evangelists, among them Stephen Bohr and Doug Batchelor. This new theological current -which began in Calvinist circles in the 1970’s and was introduced within the Adventism a couple of decades ago by the prominent deceased theologian Samuel Bacchiocchi, as Gerry Chudleigh proved in one of his books[1]– has been the major argument against the ordination of women to the pastoral ministry. But this new theology also opposed the ordination of female elders to the local ministry, the commissioning of female pastors, and –if we want to be faithful to its premises- any kind of involvement of women in church leadership over male adults.

One of the main premises of this new theology is the idea of a God-given headship role for males not only within the home (the only place were Scripture may permit such a role), but also within the church. Since female cannot occupy a headship role within the church (which would be an act of “rebellion” against the hierarchy established by God), they cannot be elders or pastors.

This headship doctrine not only contradicts what the Holy Bible says on this subject, but also contradicts what our pioneers believed about the headship on the Body of Christ.

The Scripture says that Christ “is the head over every power and authority” (Colossians 2:10), and “he is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:8) and “over everything for the church” (Ephesians 1:22). Our Fundamental Beliefs reflects what that Bible says. We believe that “he church is the body of Christ, a community of faith of which Christ Himself is the Head”[2].

Ellen Gould White, considered by our Church as an inspired messenger from the Lord, also agrees. She wrote that “Christ is the only head of the church” (Manuscript Releases, vol. 21, p. 274).

She also wrote asserting that no man could fill the place of head of the church. “God has never given a hint in His word that He has appointed any man to be the head of the church” (The Great Controversy, p. 51), she penned in her most famous book. Even the pastors are not to be considered as the head of the church: “Christ, not the minister, is the head of the church” (Signs of the Times, January 27, 1890, p. 50).

Besides Ellen White, there were several other Adventist pioneers that fervently believed that Christ is the sole Head of the Church. Not the ministers, not any male, can fill the place that belongs only to Jesus Christ.

Alonzo T. Jones

Alonzo Jones, along with Ellet Waggoner, was the main advocator of the righteousness by faith during the controversial 1888 General Conference Session in Minneapolis. He also was a prolific writer, editor of Review and Herald and Signs of the Times and ardent advocator of religious freedom. Sadly he was expelled from the church in the beginnings of the XX century.

Jones strongly defended the doctrine of the sole headship of Jesus on the church, y stated that “the claim that any other than “Christ himself” is head of his body, is preposterous and supremely immoral” (American Sentinel, September 27, 1894, p. 297). And “that he and he alone is the foundation and head of the apostles and prophets and of the whole Church of Christ, and that “other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (American Sentinel, October 18, 1894, p. 321)

He claimed that no doctrine or philosophy that challenges the sole headship of Christ can be true:

“As no science, philosophy, or progress in the things of the earth and the world, can ever be true or safe that leaves out the Creation, the Fall, the Flood and the Peopling of the Earth, of the book of Genesis, so likewise no advancement or order of things in the church can be true or safe that leaves out the sole headship of Christ, and the sovereignty and reign of the Holy Spirit, in the book of Acts.” (The Medical Missionary, November 21, 1906, p. 172; emphasis added)

Some advocators of the headship theology usually claim that Jesus is still the head or the church, but His position is delegated to the ministers. Jones strongly attacked and mocked such an idea:

“In the Scriptures the church of Christ is described under the figure of the human body as God made it. The relationship between Christ and his church is shown and illustrated by the relationship that exists between the human body and its head: and the relationship between Christ and the members of his church is illustrated by the relationship between the members of the human body and the head of that body as God has placed it… And it is Christ Himself, too, who is head of this church. Not Christ by a representative; not Christ by a substitute, a vicar, or a regent; but Christ Himself, in His own proper person.” (The Present Truth, November 22, 1894, p. 741; emphasis added)

“In the place of that head, which God gave to that body, you put a “representative” head—a substitute head. In the place of the true head, which God set to that body, you put a “regency” head—another head to occupy the place in the absence of the true head—then what have you? Take away the head from a human body, and you have left only a dead body. This is the very first and only result of taking away the head. And even tho you set another head on this headless body, it is still only a dead body” (The Signs of the Times, March 25, 1897, p. 6)

Since only Jesus Christ is the Head of the church, Jones argued, all the members of His body are equal:

“With these instructions the apostles went forth under the great commission of Christ, preaching everywhere that with the Lord there is no respect of persons, but that all are equal before God. There is neither lordship nor overlordship among men in the church of Christ; but all are brethren. Christ only is the head of the church, and the head of every man in the church.” (The Great Empires of Prophecy, 1898, p. 397; emphasis added)

“In 1 Corinthian’s 11:12, Christ is head not only of the body, but every member of the body, every man. No man is the head of any other man, but Christ is head of everyone and all.” (The Topeka Daily Capital, May 8, 1889, p. 4)

Ellet J. Waggoner

Elder Waggoner was a remarkable preacher, writer and teacher, and also the editor of The Signs of the Times and The Present Truth. He was the “blood-brother” of Alonzo Jones and his co-worker during the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference Session and the precedent years.

Just like Jones, Waggoner also strongly defended the sole headship of Jesus Christ. He wrote that “Christ then, as now, was the head of the church. The true church has not and never has had any other than an invisible head” (The Everlasting Covenant, 1900, p. 195; emphasis added).

Waggoner also wrote about the relation between the headship and the authority within the church. He claimed that since Jesus is the head His is the authority over the church:

“To be assembled in the name of Jesus, therefore, is to be assembled in humble subjection to Him as the only Head of the church, and the only one having authority to issue commands to it. (The Present Truth [UK], May 30, 1895, p. 339)

“For instruction and government, as well as for the bestowal and sustaining of life spiritual and eternal, Christ is the sole Head of the church.” (The Present Truth [UK], April 12, 1894, p. 228)

The sole-headship of Christ over the Christ has profound implications in the practical life of the Christian church. Waggoner stated that we are all representatives of Christ (not only the ministers), therefore we are all equals and must to “each esteem other better” than us, and we must subject “one to another”:

“Christ is the only Superior. The command, “Let each esteem other better than themselves,” applies to those who have great gifts, as well as to those of less ability. Each member sees in every other one the representative of Christ, and esteems him accordingly. This mutual esteem is not brought about, however, by vote, nor by resolution, nor by the signing of any articles, but by the same Spirit of God dwelling in each.” (The Present Truth [UK], August 31, 1893, p. 340)

“Christ is the only Head of the Church, and all the life of the church must be that which is received from Him. The church is useful only as each member “holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.” Col. ii. 19. There is perfect independence, because the members of the church are built upon Christ, and not on one another; and there is also perfect unity, and subjection one to another, because all are filled by one Spirit and one mind,-the Spirit and mind of Christ.” (The Present Truth [UK], August 31, 1893, p. 340)

There is no place for female submission to men within the church in his teachings.

William W. Prescott

Elder Prescott was an outstanding educator and scholar that served as president of several educative institutions. He also served as Vice-President of the General Conference and editor of the Review and Herald.

Prescott wrote several articles on church organization in the General Conference Bulletin. He complained of “those who have put Jesus Christ out of his place as head of the church, and have put a man in his place as head of the church” and declared that Jesus is the “infallible head of the church” and he have not “abdicated his place, and do not think that he has assigned the duty of representing him in the earth to any living being, but that he, himself, is still the visible head of the church” (General Conference Bulletin, February 25, 1895, p. 326)

In another article he repeatedly stated that “Christ is the head of every individual” (General Conference Bulletin, February 27, 1895, p. 383). But when “they come together, Christ is not only the head of each individual, but he is the head of all associated together. That is to say, he is the head of the church.” (Ibid., p. 386)

Prescott also claimed that when men “put man in place of God, and put a human head upon the church instead of the divine head… the authority of the church is despised” (General Conference Bulletin, March 1, 1895, p. 405). He also stated that “when Jesus Christ is given his place indeed as head of the church, and the church is built upon the true foundation, and follows closely the instruction given by inspiration concerning the church, there is authority in the church… there will be a power in the church, and the church will be something whose membership will be prized and desired… but always on the foundation that Jesus Christ himself, and no other one, is the living head of the church” (Ibid., p. 406; emphasis added)

Joseph H. Waggoner

Father of the famous Ellet J. Waggoner, he also was a SDA pastor, writer and eloquent speaker. He wrote with clarity and precision about the headship of Jesus Christ. He believed “that it is God’s plan to have but one head upon one body. Jesus Christ is to be the head of the church in all things.” (The Perpetuity of the Seven-Day Sabbath, 1859, p. 85).

Elder Waggoner wrote that Jesus was the “only head” of the Christian Church “without a rival, with ‘all authority” (A Written Discussion… Upon the Sabbath, 1859, p. 81)

James S. White

We cannot end this article without mentioning one of the most important pioneers of our Church. James White was president of the General Conference in three different times, a prolific writer and editor of the most important denominational review, the Review and Herald.

Elder White specifically addressed the subject of the headship of Jesus, writing to his fellow Adventist ministers, reminding them that only Jesus is the head of the Church, not them:

“In the words of the Master we would here appeal to our brethren in the ministry, “One is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren.” Matt.23:8. Jesus addressed these words to the twelve, in the hearing of the multitude. And while they were a rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees, who were striving for the mastery, they were also designed to impress the disciples with the great truth, which should be felt in all coming time, that Christ is the only head of the church. (Life Sketches, 1880, p. 402)


Those supporting the headship theology will have a tough time trying to explain why not only the Bible but also the Adventist pioneers rejected this doctrine and uplifted Christ as the only head of the church.


[1] See Gerry Chudleigh,  A Short History of the Headship Doctrine in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/433232

[2] http://www.adventist.org/en/beliefs/church/the-church/

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