by Loren Seibold, 2 November 2016

Another Year End Meeting has wrapped up, and I confess relief. The meeting had its interesting moments, but always much of it is routine business, departments telling us what they had been working on the past year, much of which (I’m sad to say) will never percolate down to congregations. The people at 12501 Old Columbia Pike are some of our most talented, but they suffer from the belief that they are at the center of the church, when in fact many have no more than vague memories of what is happening out in congregations. They seem to assume that if they create it, it will be discovered and used, which is not the case. (I will tell you soon about one thing that I think may have life outside the building, the Adventist Learning Community.)

Women’s ordination was a presence for a good part of the meeting. This was particularly true when talking about the Unity and Mission document, but even when it wasn’t being discussed, women’s ordination was the background hum. The question that kept popping into my mind was, why has this become so important here, now? At one time, like back when I was in college, it was of interest only to the most progressive of Seventh-day Adventists, men in academia, and women who were a bit bolder than made the average Seventh-day Adventist comfortable.

The reappearance of manipulative and autocratic leadership at the top of the church has disturbed this generation of leaders enough that they are willing to fight it, and women’s ordination is the symbol of that fight. To be blunt, Elder Wilson is the symbol of the old autocracy, the old dynasties, the manipulated processes, and in women’s ordination North American leaders have a biblically-defensible issue to stand against it.

Not any more. Now it may well be the NAD Seventh-day Adventist church’s most talked-about problem. But why? Of all the needs we can identify in and outside the church, why has this one thing become so central?

Certainly ordination for women stands on its own as matter of Biblical and moral behavior. I give credit to these leaders as men (still almost all men) who care about women. These are good, Godly men, men who have let the Holy Spirit increase their sensitivity to this matter over the past 40 years. Men who as pastors have seen women hurt by chauvinism. Men with wives, daughters, daughters-in-law and granddaughters who are heading out into the world, and who they want to see succeed as physicians, lawyers, businesswomen—and pastors.

Some are putting their credibility, and even their careers, on the line to say, “We love our sisters in Christ, and we believe they deserve a full place at this table.” Whether or not at this early stage they know quite what that’s going to mean down the line, that it may open the door to extraordinarily talented women who may displace some of us mediocre men—men who, in the past, might have been advanced just because we were men—is impossible to know. But let us give them credit. This push to ordain women is not without risk to them. Nor is it without risk to the entire church, as I’ve written: the fragility of the church is evident here.

I wish all who care about this issue would sit down and write a paper-and-pen thank-you note to their conference president who has put a woman on the clergy payroll of your conference.

But it seems to me the movement for women in ministry is supported by some other cultural changes, too. I suggest that women’s ordination is a sort marker for a lot of things that have changed and are changing in the Seventh-day Adventist church.

The gospel generation: The men who are leading the conferences and unions right now are my contemporaries. Our young adulthood in pastoral work was shaped by two things. First, the rigidity, the judgmentalism that we saw in our congregations and conferences. The way people were criticized or hounded or frightened out of the church. We watched an evangelism of fear create congregations filled with paranoia. We watched congregations turn inward, becoming frightened and protective rather than open. We presided over the exit of massive numbers of young people, not knowing what to do about it. As for our employment, some of our conference and union presidents back then were autocrats who railed about baptisms and ingathering, who cared nothing for pastors’ families and moved them (or fired them) on a whim. We didn’t want to be like them.

The second thing that shaped us was a rediscovery of the gospel. We seemed to be the first generation of Seventh-day Adventists to realize that Galatians and Romans meant what they said when they told us that we are saved by grace, not by perfect eating, pious Sabbath-keeping, and thinking ourselves superior to other Christians. Whether or not we agreed with Desmond Ford’s more controversial theories, we were affected by the way this scholar was treated as a pariah by people who didn’t understand him. We watched the declining importance in the church of the doctrines Des had correctly identified as weak, and the growth of his other central teaching: righteousness by faith in Christ alone.

We consciously placed Jesus into the center of our faith, not only as a personal savior, but as our example of how the church should act.

We consciously placed Jesus into the center of our faith, not only as a personal savior, but as our example of how the church should act. We were saddened when questioning became dangerous, and theological discussion had to be suppressed.

This generation of pastors became weary of exclusiveness and exclusion, of freezing out those who didn’t conform, of pushing sinners out of the church door when we knew perfectly well we were all sinners. We glimpsed the cliff we were heading toward: a church that would soon be so out of sync with the culture that it would be difficult for us to speak to it.

This generation of pastors reads the Bible and Ellen White quite differently than our parents and grandparents did, taking culture into account in a way that previous generations of Adventists seemed unable to. Our gospel understanding has helped us to adapt to a church of astonishing cultural diversity. Men of many colors and languages are now our leaders. So why not women? We’re puzzled by a growing world church that wants us to understand their cultures, but seems unable to understand ours.

This generation of leaders knows that autocratic leadership isn’t a New Testament model and, more importantly, doesn’t work very well. Studies in Adventist church history showed that the church was, in fact, never quite as united as we were told it was. Theology and practice have evolved. Ellen White made a deliberate effort to eliminate autocratic power, to distribute leadership and decision-making. Many of us began to suspect that when we grow the authority at the top, we’re becoming disturbingly like our eschatological enemy, the papacy, and realized that overbearing, dictatorial leadership may be as much a marker of unfaithfulness as wrong doctrine.

The reappearance of manipulative and autocratic leadership at the top of the church has disturbed this generation of leaders enough that they are willing to fight it, and women’s ordination is the symbol of that fight. To be blunt, Elder Wilson is the symbol of the old autocracy, the old dynasties, the manipulated processes, and in women’s ordination North American leaders have a biblically-defensible issue to stand against it.

Though Elder Jackson never said a critical word against the General Conference or anyone in it, during this week he consciously defined the North American Division as an open-minded and consensual organization. “All are needed, all are wanted,” he placed on the screen. “We will not coerce,” he repeated. “Coercion is antithetical to the gospel.” And then his gracious apology to the youth of the church: “Jesus Christ is the most magnificent figure in all of history, and by the way we have acted we have made Him irrelevant to you.”

(A friend of mine, who was the chaperone of a group of university students at the meeting, told them in an end-of-day debriefing, “Notice, and never forget, the kind of leadership that you’ve seen by Elder Jackson this week. You will seldom see such an example of strong, thoughtful and moral church leadership in your lifetime.”)

A practical consideration: During a report on the Women in Ministry initiative (the program started a couple of years ago to double the women in Adventist ministry in the NAD), someone pointed out that 50% of the pastors in the NAD are eligible to retire within the next seven years. There is no queue of young men lined up in college ministerial studies departments to take their place. While students are still studying theology, you’ll find fewer interns seeking employment as parish pastors.

NAD leaders are worried about this. And they should be. Parish ministry isn’t the coveted job it once was: with the few exceptions of the congregations around institutions, most NAD congregations are weaker, poorer, older, more divided, and angrier than they used to be, and evangelism far more difficult.

Parish ministry isn’t the coveted job it once was: with the few exceptions of the congregations around institutions, most NAD congregations are weaker, poorer, older, more divided, and angrier than they used to be, and evangelism far more difficult.

Potential pastors have heard about the difficulty of shaping congregations, and they’re reluctant to plunge their families into the ministry goldfish bowl. Enough congregations will fold in the next decade that we’ll need fewer pastors—but not 50% fewer. And if not enough young men are matriculating for ministerial studies, then we’ll need to open the field to others to whom God may be calling. And, it appears, God is calling women.

Women’s ordination is an issue of its own, but I’m trying to make the point here that it is a symbol of other concerns about the future of the NAD church. Seventh-day Adventist congregations in North America, those not parented by institutions, are dying, like embers cast away from the fire. Youth are losing interest, and the church is becoming older and darker-skinned. Although we are thrilled that immigrants are keeping the church alive here, it reminds us that the kind of people who started this denomination are now abandoning it. We who have given our lives to the church wonder if it has any future at all on our home turf.

Some don’t think this is the right way to save the church: they believe we save the church by returning it to an imaginary 19th century blueprint, though now seasoned by fundamentalism and conservative evangelical politics. There’s an argument to be made that the Seventh-day Adventist church belongs to these, that that’s who we have been and always will be—in which case we would get rid of these pro-women, pro-diversity, pro-distributed leadership, pro-gospel, pro-freedom-in-Christ leaders who sat in the chapel in Silver Spring this week. But when you get rid of them, you’ll also eliminate many church members who won’t stick around to see their unions changed into missions run by the General Conference president.

We are in a shaky period in our church history, friends. Don’t be complacent. If you want to see these thoughtful NAD leaders succeed, you’ll have to stand behind them—or there may not be much left to stand behind.


Loren Seibold is the executive editor of Adventist Today