Church Leaders Address Ordination Challenges
September 26, 2016: Differences over ordination and gender continue to be viewed differently by Adventists in various denominational units around the world and this has led to two new documents released over the weekend by the denomination’s General Conference (GC) secretariat. Labeled “Church Governance and Unity,” one document is a 50-page study from the Bible, the writings of Adventist cofounder Ellen G. White, and Adventist history. The other document is a 17-page statement which will be discussed at the annual meeting of the denomination’s governing body October 5-12. That meeting is called the Annual Council of the GC executive committee.
Both documents were published yesterday on the web site of the GC Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, which assisted in the research for the documents. The GC secretariat oversees the GC Working Policy.
The documents are a response to union conferences in Europe and North America that have tried to find ways to deal with two realities that threaten to tear the denomination apart in their cultures. On the one hand, there is a growing consensus among educated, younger, urbanized Adventists that there is no Biblical basis to discriminate against women in ordaining clergy. On the other hand, the 2015 GC Session again refused to allow the international regional units of the denomination (“divisions”) to deal with the issue in the context of the needs in their territory. It was first refused at the 1995 GC Session.
“We plan to discuss how best to address divergence from the current policy,” Dr. G.T. Ng, executive secretary of the GC, said Friday in an Email to members of the GC executive committee. “Please prayerfully review these documents as they provide a foundation for these discussions.” Ng attached PDF copies of the two documents to the e-mail.
GC policy assigns to the union conferences the decisions about which individuals to ordain as clergy. Employing organizations within the denomination (such as local conferences and institutions) screen candidates for ordination and recommend them to the union conferences where the executive committee votes who to ordain. Some union conferences had ended gender discrimination for ordination before the 2015 GC Session, although it is unclear if any have continued the practice since last summer’s vote. Other union conferences have tried to find a middle ground by using the Commissioned Minister credential for all clergy, which GC policy opens to both men and women. There is also the Adventist church in China which has ordained women pastors since the 1980s, but the GC officers have taken the position that they cannot control that segment of the Adventist movement.
These documents suggest that the GC leadership will now attempt to get the Annual Council to take a position against any deviation from the hard-line position against women serving as Adventist ministers anywhere in the world. “This statement brings together references from the Bible, the Spirit of Prophecy, and Seventh-day Adventist history for the purpose of informing and guiding the Church in relation to policies concerning the ordination and credentialing of Seventh-day Adventist pastors,” the shorter document begins.
The document is evidently intended as a proposed statement for the Annual Council to discuss, amend, revise and eventually vote. It also suggests there will continue to be room for discussion and different views among the denomination’s leaders. The introductory paragraph continues; “It also contributes to the discussion about unity in light of the vote at the 2015 General Conference (GC) Session not to allow divisions to decide on the matter of women’s ordination in their territories. It is expected this ongoing discussion will help to clarify what the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy have to say about unity. As we move forward, there will continue to be dialogue at administrative levels regarding the issue of compliance.”
The document starts with a “Biblical Doctrine of Unity” built largely on John 17, Christ’s high-priestly prayer. This is an interesting development in Adventist theology because this is precisely the “doctrine” which is much valued by ecumenical groups which Adventists have usually refused to join, at least as full members.
The document attempts to prevent the criticism that it is making organizational policies too rigid and authoritative. It states that the purpose of GC policy “is not to produce a perfect bureaucratic system but to promote mission and unity.” And, “Most important are our shared beliefs and our common mission.”
It suggests that there will continue to be some flexibility even if the policy about ordination is tightened up. “Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy reveal that unity can flourish in diversity,” it states. And, “In the Bible, diversity is a positive quality, not a negative one.” It is unclear on why there is so much concern about diversity on this particular topic, while there are many areas of policy where much greater divergence is never discussed.
The statement says that the Adventist denomination “encourages and maintains diversity in three ways: (1) by assigning authority to different levels of structure, (2) by prescribing policy only when necessary, and (3) by allowing diversity of practice where there is consensus.” This is precisely why some union conferences feel they are not in any way disloyal or divergent or encouraging disunity by including women in the clergy. Adventist Today has published articles by Dr. Gary Patterson, a retired GC officer, describing in detail why these practices are within GC policy despite the attitude of some denominational leaders.
The statement admits that “in the period 1891-1901” Ellen White “several times, explicitly denies that the GC was the voice of God.” And it also states that “Unilateral action on important matters is contrary to the biblical model and to longstanding Adventist practice. Significant decisions should be made after prior consultation with other levels of church structure and be in harmony with decisions already taken by the wider body of believers. This approach helps retain unity in church life and an emphasis on mission.” It is clearly an attempt to weave together two threads of thinking that may not be in total agreement.
The bottom line for the statement is found in two paragraphs near the end. A paragraph labeled “Invalid Ordinations,” states: “Criteria for ordination have always been set by the world Church. The 1990 GC Session considered at length whether or not to permit female pastors to be ordained and took a definite action: ‘we do not approve ordination of women to the gospel ministry.’ Proposals came to both the 1995 and 2015 GC Sessions to allow regional variation at the division or union level of the gender-limited policy, but both were rejected. It is incorrect to assert that there is nothing in denominational policy to stop unions from ordaining females to gospel ministry. Such ordinations have been explicitly disallowed by a GC Session action, a decision reinforced by two other GC Session votes.”
In fact, the minutes from the 1995 and 2015 GC sessions do not mention union conferences at all. The minutes mention only divisions. The careful history of policy by Patterson which Adventist Today published last year clearly documents this reality. The minutes of both the 1995 and 2015 GC sessions are also available online for anyone to search.
The second relevant paragraph at the end of the statement is labeled “Credentialing Practices.” It states; “GC Working Policy stipulates that the ministerial credential will be ‘Issued to ministerial employees who have demonstrated a divine call to ministry and have been ordained to the gospel ministry’ (E 5 10, paragraph 1. a.). GC Working Policy further mandates that a commissioned minister credential be issued to certain types of church workers ‘unless they hold ministerial credentials’ (E 5 10, paragraph 2. a.), which means that workers holding ministerial credentials are not to receive commissioned minister credentials; and it also states: ‘Licensed ministers are on the path toward ordination to the gospel ministry’ (E 05 10, paragraph 3.), which invalidates the award of a ministerial license to one who has been ordained.”
This paragraph is evidently designed to prohibit two things that have been done in protest against the repeated refusal to provide any accommodation to those Adventist leaders who believe that it is immoral for gender discrimination to be required in ordination. A number of ordained ministers have asked to have their credential exchanged for a Commissioned Minister credential. Some union conferences have decided to issue only Commissioned Minister credentials and stop using the [ordained] Ministerial Credential. In both cases those involved are actually attempting to remain in unity with the GC leadership while not sacrificing their conscience. It is unclear why it is important to challenge these individuals and union conferences.
In fact, the statement goes so far as to argue that there is a “foundational principle … that ordination in Adventist ecclesiology and practice is undoubtedly for life,” and therefore an ordained minister cannot become a Commissioned Minister. “This is an unprecedented mimicking of papal reasoning and totally unnecessary,” a retired scholar told Adventist Today. “I am ashamed for my brethren.”
The document does not explain why this particular issue is important to draw the line on. In fact, the Adventist denomination has never adopted a doctrine of male-only ordination and all of the official panels that have been assigned to study the issue, starting in the 1970s, have found that there are no teachings in the Bible or the Adventist heritage (including the writings of Ellen G. White) that would not permit the ordination of both men and women on an equal basis.
The documents can be downloaded as PDFs at these links:
The 50-page study is here. https://www.adventistarchives.org/a-study-of-church-governance-and-unity.pdf
Original story at the Adventist News Network (ANN), the official news service of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.