Adventist Leaders Vote Statement, But No Sanctions on Ordination Changes
by AT News Team
After weeks of anticipation, the Seventh-day Adventist Church governing body finally saw the much-rumored response to three union conferences that voted earlier this year to discontinue gender discrimination in ordination to the gospel ministry. The carefully nuanced, not to say confused and contradictory statement was adopted by a secret ballot, 264 in favor and 25 opposed. Perhaps as many as 50 committee members abstained.
The official Adventist News Network (ANN) reported that the three hours of discussion were “respectful,” and “no sanctions are applied, or suggested, in the document.” Retired General Conference vice president and well-known evangelist Mark Finley was reported by ANN to have made an important speech describing how the early Christian church dealt with three conflicts in the Book of Acts. Adventist Today has been told that he played a key role behind the scenes in the days leading up to the meeting, negotiating an outcome more acceptable to the North American Division (NAD) leadership than what was originally under consideration by the GC officers.
“The essence of unity is not uniformity,” Finley said, according to ANN. “It is respecting one another enough to listen carefully, respond thoughtfully and decide together.” Rumors have suggested that before he got involved in the preparations for the meeting, there were proposals that would have sought to penalize the union conferences that have decided to ordain women to the gospel ministry. The final vote authorized only a “request” that division officers “engage” the union and conference administrators in “reviewing this statement.”
The four-page statement says that the GC “does not recognize actions of unions or conferences that have authorized or implemented ministerial ordination without regard to gender.” It does not define what that means. It does not say, for example, that the credentials issued to women under these actions are invalid nor does it rescind the ordinations that have occurred and are planned.
In fact, the statement specifically noted that “it does not address the question of ministerial ordination practices per se.” It acknowledges that “the role of women in ministry and leadership has been a long-standing question … that attracts strong yet differing convictions,” but also “specifically affirms the important roles that women fill in the life of the Church.”
The core argument of the statement is that the GC Session in 1990 voted not to permit the ordination of women to pastoral ministry and in 1995 turned down a request that the GC divisions be allowed to make separate decisions on the subject; and that this precludes the practice until a GC Session reverses that decision. It ignores the fact that the record is actually much more complicated than that. In 1990 the same delegates who adopted a study commission report blocking women’s ordination to pastoral ministry also voted to permit the ordination of women as local elders and for women to serve as pastors. The 1995 action was actually a non-action in which the delegates voted “no” on a recommendation and thus left no language on record at all.
The statement appeals for the unions and conferences to defer their decision to stop gender discrimination in ordination until the current study of the theology of ordination can be completed. A number of committee members spoke about their hope that this might a process where Adventists could come to a common understanding on the topic. Others told Adventist Today privately that they fear “we are painting ourselves into a corner.”
Dedrick Blue, a pastor from the Atlantic Union Conference, urged the committee, “Don’t get involved with process to the neglect of justice.” Max Torkelson II, president of the North Pacific Union Conference, told ANN he was concerned that younger Adventists will take away the wrong message from the decision. “I’m concerned that, particularly our younger church members have less patience” with the GC process. “We have been asking them for years to be patient, and now again we’re asking them to be patient. … I’m afraid we may disappoint them.”
The statement may not be a satisfying outcome for anyone in this debate. It does not make it more likely that a solution will be found that frees the church in North America and Europe from traditional notions about the role of women. It does not punish union conferences for implementing policies that differ from the wishes of the GC officers. It does not declare women’s ordination to be unbiblical. “Nothing has changed,” one church administrator told Adventist Today.