James and Marsha Frost graduated together from their church's seminary in 1981, with Marsha winning the highest honors in the class.

The couple served together for two years as associate pastors of the Capital Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington, and moved on as a team to be copastors of churches in Northern Virginia.

But the togetherness ended when it came time for James to be ordained as a full-fledged minister last October. Though Marsha had received the same theological training as her husband and had completed the same internship required by church law as the prerequisite to ordination, there was one requirement she couldn't meet.

She is not a man.

Even though the 122-year-old Seventh-day Adventist Church was established by a woman, Ellen White -- who continues to be revered by 4.3 million Adventists worldwide -- the church does not ordain women to its ministry.

Last month, a special commission of 66 Adventists from all over the world emerged from three days of intense debate on the issue and recommended that the church study the question for three years. The church's General Conference last week adopted the study recommendation, the second on the issue of women in the church to be undertaken by Adventists in 12 years.

It is a measure of the conservatism of the church, which has its world headquarters in Takoma Park, that Adventist leaders, including those who favor women as clerics, viewed the decision as a positive step.

"We're not saying 'no'; we're not saying 'never'; we're not saying 'yes.' We're going to look at it," said church spokesman Robert Nixon. "We view this as progress."

One reason the approval for the three-year study was viewed positively, Nixon explained, was the widespread belief that if the issue were presented for an up-or-down vote to the church's worldwide gathering in New Orleans next June, it would be soundly rejected.

Differences over interpreting Bible passages is a factor in SDA arguments over ordination of women. "Basically both sides argue Scripture," Nixon said. "It's how they interpret them that's the problem."

But for Adventists, the question of women clerics is fundamentally an issue of church unity. Almost 85 percent of church membership is outside North America, some of it in "cultures where women are not even supposed to consider religious ideas," let alone assume leadership roles, Nixon said.

Though growing numbers of this country's Adventists -- influenced by more-liberal Biblical scholarship and the acceptance of women's ordination in most of Protestantism -- have been pressing their church to open ministerial ranks to women, they have been frustrated by opposition from overseas.

The recommendations of the 1973 study that serious consideration be given to ordaining women in "areas receptive to such action" were overridden by a 1974 church council that ruled that "in the interest of the world unity of the church, no move be made in the direction of ordaining women . . . . "

"When the chips are down, it's primarily a unity issue," Nixon said. "The unity of the church is very, very important."

For more than a decade, the church in this country has allowed women to study for the ministry alongside men in its Berrien Springs, Mich., seminary. Over the years, the handful of women graduates have found employment in the church's more sympathetic jurisdictions, including the Washington area's Potomac Conference.

The church's North American division even created a special category for the women -- "associates in pastoral care" -- and issued them special "commissioned minister" licenses, in lieu of the ministerial license given male seminary graduates on the track to ordination.

"That means we're not allowed to baptize or perform marriages and we don't get certain breaks with IRS" that a licensed or ordained minister would get, said Jan Daffern, associate pastor at Sligo Church in Takoma Park.

The calling of the special commission to consider the question of ordaining women was inadvertantly precipitated by the actions of Washington-area leaders. They thought they had found a way within present church regulations to permit women to perform the same ecclesiastical functions as their male colleagues, even though women could not have formal ordination.

Early last year, The Potomac Conference's executive committee, after intensive consultation with leaders at the Takoma Park world headquarters, had given limited authorization to the three women serving churches in this area to baptize persons whose commitment to the church they had won.

The baptisms Daffern and Marsha Frost conducted were well received in their respective congregations. Daffern said she got about 15 letters of support and only one negative comment. Her senior pastor at Sligo, the Rev. James Londis, called the event "a positive thing, a powerful symbol." Some women in the congregation came to him in tears of joy after the service, he said.

But it was a different story for Francis Wiegand, who serves the Beltsville Adventist Church, where executives from the church's world headquarters in the congregation protested that the Potomac Conference had overstepped its authority in authorizing the women to baptize.

Throughout much of last year the controversy continued to escalate, from local church to regional conference and finally, to the Annual Council of the worldwide church last October.

That gathering, after extensive debate, mandated the special study commission of representatives from around the world, which met last month and called for a new theological study of the issue.

Jan Daffern said that the interest and enthusiasm the 1973 study generated had encouraged her to go to seminary. "When I was in college in the '70s, it was very much on the agenda of the church. . . . I had copies of all the papers from the study and I felt very positive" about the possibility of ordination, she said.

She was so hopeful that she paid her own expenses to go to the seminary, where her male classmates were subsidized by the church.

But she admits there was "no real education of the ministers or the educators or the lay people" about the issue. And, in the meantime, "we've had the whole conservative trend" in the country, she added.

Daffern, Marsha Frost and Weigand remain in their ecclesiastical limbo, even though they have by now more than completed their church's norms for ordination. But the study commission made a recommendation that may resolve their situation without waiting for the results of the projected three-year study to filter down.

The commission proposed that this controversy be removed from the concerns over uniformity of the world church and referred to the North American division, "where it should have been all along," said Ronald Wisby, president of the Potomac Conference.

"My prediction is that a solution will be found that will permit the women to perform the same [church] functions that men are doing," but without ordination, said Nixon.