Analysis of the GC Letter to the Columbia Union by an Adventist Theologian
This document came to Adventist Today. It is being circulated among the delegates to the Columbia Union Conference constituency session tomorrow and evidently to delegates to the upcoming Pacific Union Conference constituency meeting. The author is a Seventh-day Adventist theologian. Adventist Today has agreed not to publish the name.
1. The letter as a whole is an argument that although the ordination of ministers without regard to gender is a matter of religious conviction for the officers and executive committee of the Columbia Union Conference (pp. 2, 5, 6), they should subordinate their convictionto church protocol. The letter disavows any need “to discuss the specific question of ministerial ordination or to express an opinion about it” (p. 1); instead, it changes the subject to ecclesiastical authority masquerading as denominational unity. Religious institutionalism prevails over spiritual integrity.
2. The letter is right that the Columbia Union Conference should participate in a denomination-wide discussion of ministerial ordination without regard to gender (pp. 1-2). This participation, however, does not require that it refrain from acting in harmony with what it sincerely believes to be its God-given duty.The Columbia Union Conference does not ask that any other part of the church follow its example; it simply claims the freedom to function according to its own conscience.
3. As the letter states (p. 2), the General Conference sessions of 1990 in Indianapolis and 1995 in Utrechtdid not authorize ministerial ordination without regard to gender; but they did not explicitly forbid such ordination, although the letter’s Appendix (p. 7) assumes that they did.
4. It is true that “as currently understood in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, ordination to the gospel ministry is ordination to serve the global Church” (p. 2). But this has never been interpreted to give an ordained minister the right to serve wherever one might wish; a minister must be called by a local conference to fill a specific need. Just as a competent conference administration would not call a minister to serve in place where one could not speak the local language, so it would not call a minister to serve in a place where one’s gender would be an obstacle to effective ministry. On examination the appeal to serving the global churchturns out to bea bogus argument.
5. The letter claims that “for one entity to express and demonstrate its reasoned dissent with a global decision of the Church might appear to some as a legitimate course of action. However, the implications of such an action are not limited to the one entity” (p. 3). This is an example of the notoriously fallacious “slippery slope” form of argument..
6. Repeated references to “unilateral action” (pp. 1, 2, 4) and “one entity” (pp. 3, 6) in contrast to “the rest of the church” (p. 2) ignore the fact that two other union conferences (Mid-America and Pacific) in the North American Division and one (Northern German) in the Euro-African Division have already acted similarly to the Columbia Union Conference. The truth is that a theological, spiritual, and moral commitment to ordination without regard to gender has for many years been a growing reality among Seventh-day Adventists in various parts of the world. In protest against the 1995 General Conference decision in Utrecht, in 1998 an international faculty committee at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary published Women in Minis–try: Biblical and Historical Perspectives, supporting the ordination of women.
7. The letter recognizes that the General Conference Session in 1883 resolved “that females possessing the necessary qualifications to fill that position, may, with perfect propriety, be set apart by ordination to the work of the Christian ministry” (Appendix, p. 7). What the letter does not note is that 90 years later, in 1973, a group of Bible scholars appointed by the General Conference met for the express purpose of examining the Biblical and theological implications of ministerial ordination without regard to gender. It concluded that there is no Biblical or theological objection.Nor does the letter note that in 1995, after their request for authorization to ordain women in ministry was denied by the General Conference Session in Utrecht, the union conference presidents of the North American Division jointly declared, “While loyal to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, we still firmly believe in the Biblical rightness of women’s ordination.” Surely these scholars and these union conference presidents, along with the Seminary faculty, are part of “the rest of the church.”
8. Although subsequent General Conference sessions have not implementedFundamental Belief #14, adopted by the 1980 General Conference session in Dallas, neither have theyrepealed or modifiedits clear language:“In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation” (emphasis supplied). There is no way that an “unbiased reading” (p. 5) canreasonably harmonize the denial of ministerial ordination to women with this explicit affirmation of an equally explicit New Testament principle (Gal. 3:28).
9. The claim that “unity is first of all a mutual commitment to how the Church functions” (p. 3) issimply wrong, based on a basic misunderstanding of the nature of unity. As a matter of fact, unity in the Church is first of all a spiritual matter of mutual trust,expressed in respect for differences of conviction or practice so long as those differences do not contradict the fundamental definition of the church. Since the Seventh-day Adventist Church organized itself in the 1860s, the exclusion of women from its ordained ministry has never been part of its self-definition; and, as the statement of Fundamental Beliefs makes clear, it does not do so now.
10. The proper role of the General Conference in this situation is to encourage mutual trust and respect in spite of the existing differences of conviction and practice, rather than trying to persuade a significant segment of the Church to refrain from living up to its spiritual and moral conscience. The Roman Catholic Church with its hierarchy of bishops and cardinals is not a proper model for the Seventh-day Adventist Church with its General Conference officers and division presidents (p. 6).The letter does not explain why the General Conference administration finds it necessary to oppose the ordination of ministers without regard to gender; but it is clear thatits argument rests not on sound Biblical and theological reasoning but on an alleged need for procedural uniformity in this regard.