by J. David Newman

by J. David Newman, editor of Adventist Today and former editor of Ministry magazine, October 16, 2014

The debate on the ordination of women at the 2014 Annual Council of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination ended with a resounding whimper.  If this sounds a little harsh, hold your pique until you have read this analysis of what happened on Tuesday, October 14, 2014.

It has been almost forty years since the General Conference Executive Committee at their April Spring Meeting, 1975 voted, “To request the President's Executive Advisory to also arrange for further study of the election of women to local church offices which require ordination and that division committees exercise discretion in any special cases that may arise before a definitive position has been adopted.”[1]

Since then five divisions[2] have voted to allow unions and conferences to decide whether to ordain women as elders.  The other eight divisions do not allow women elders.   This decision to allow divisions to choose whether to ordain women elders has not caused dissension within the church.  It did not divide the church.

The issue over women’s ordination is not even biblical.  The office of pastor did not exist in the New Testament.  The General Conference executive committee appointed the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) with representatives from all divisions.  All points of view were represented on this committee.  One of their first tasks was to develop a consensus on a theology of ordination, which they did.  In that statement they agreed that “Aside from the unique role of the apostles, the New Testament identifies the following categories of ordained leaders: the elder/supervising elder (Acts 14:23; Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim 3:2-7; 4:14; 2 Tim 4:1-5; 1 Pet 5:1) and the deacon (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-10).”[3]

Those for and against women being ordained as pastors agreed that there were only two categories of ordained leaders in the New Testament—elders and deacons.   The church has agreed that women can be ordained as elders so why is there conflict over women being ordained as pastors?  It is clear that this issue is not theological, since pastors as we define them today did not exist in the New Testament.  The issue is ecclesiological; that is, it is simply a matter of church order and reflects the prevailing culture.  As culture changes, so can structure.  The problem is that we have made a structural problem into a theological problem.

The TOSC could not arrive at a consensus on whether women who serve as pastors can be ordained.  The Committee developed three options.  In brief here are the three options.  Option 1 argued against not only women being ordained but women serving as elders and pastors, based on what they called the Headship Principle.  Starting from creation, before Adam and Eve sinned God ordained that man should take the spiritual leadership of the family and the church.  Option 2 argued that women could be ordained as elders and pastors.  They based their argument on a theology of spiritual gifts.  God gives spiritual gifts to his people and there is no hint of any gender discrimination in the granting of these gifts (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-30; Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Peter 4:10-11).  Option 3 agreed that man is the head when it comes to spiritual matters but exceptions could be made as circumstances dictated, that under various circumstances women could be ordained as pastors.  None of the three options produced a majority on the Committee although those favoring ordination of women were in the majority.

The leaders of the General Conference now faced a dilemma: What report would they bring to the Annual Council?  Could they find a way to gain a consensus?  If they brought the three options listed by the TOSC they would find the same differences of opinion.

So the General Conference Leaders brought to the  Annual Council the following resolution.  “Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? Yes or No.”

The Annual Council was not asked to make a decision.  It was not even asked to make a recommendation to the General Conference Session in San Antonio next year.  The resolution simply asked that the delegates to the Session make the decision.  Elder Ted Wilson, the president of the General Conference, stated that a whole day had been spent with the thirteen division officers in discussing the best way to proceed.   This group (GCDO) is made up of the GC vice presidents, treasurers, and members of the secretariat.  Along with the three officers from each division this made up a group of about seventy individuals.  Wilson emphasized more than once that this recommendation to the Annual Council was unanimous.  He also stated that a “sweet spirit” had prevailed throughout the discussion.

Here is what was not stated:  It is clear that this group of officers could not agree on a recommendation concerning the ordination of women.  It is clear that they were just as split as the TOSC.   So they had to find a compromise.  But instead of finding a compromise that they could agree on they shifted the decision to the delegates at the General Conference Session.  They are wanting some 2,700 delegates to decide what they could not decide.  If 70 people could not find agreement, why would they think almost 3,000 people would find agreement?

In 1995 the North American Division sent to the GC Officers a request that the divisions be allowed to decide on women’s ordination.  This request came to Annual Council but no decision was made by the Council.  They simply passed this request on to the GC Session, where it was roundly defeated.  Why would they expect it to be any different this time?

Since only five of the thirteen divisions ordain women as elders it seems clear that a majority of the delegates would vote No on ordaining women as pastors.  The problem is that some unions have already begun to ordain women pastors.  In 2012, the Columbia Union Conference in the North American Division overwhelmingly voted to allow conferences to ordain women pastors.[4]  In the same year the Pacific Union Conference, one of the largest union conferences in North America, similarly voted to ordain women.[5]  Since that time, women have been ordained and Southeastern California Conference elected the first woman to serve as a conference president.[6]  Before the year was out, the Pacific Union Conference had approved fourteen women for ordination.[7]

Elder Wilson spoke at each of the union conferrence constituency meetings, pleading with the delegates not to go against church policy but they rejected his pleadings.  Why did these unions go against church policy?  It had become a moral issue.  What do I mean?

At the 1990 General Conference in Indianapolis, the Session confirmed that women could serve as pastors, associates in pastoral care.  Women pastors could perform essentially all the services that the male pastor could.[8]  So here we have women pastors performing the same rites and services as the male pastor, going through the same commissioning service with the laying on of hands but not allowed to receive the ordination credential.  This now becomes a matter of discrimination based on gender.  If women cannot be ordained, then they should not serve as pastors or elders.

I was a member of the Columbia Union Ad Hoc Committee on women’s ordination that brought a recommendation to the executive committee of the union.  We spent several sessions discussing the issue until one member raised this challenge.  He said that since it is clear that it is not function but gender that is preventing a woman from being ordained we now have a discrimination issue which is a moral issue.  Moral issues always trump policy issues.  Since the General Conference will not change its policy of discrimination, this Union Conference needs to take the high ground and ordain women based on the fact that the church has officially voted that they can serve as pastors.

At the 2014 Annual Council, Elder Wilson emphasized that the Holy Spirit would lead the delegates at the GC Session in 2015 to make the right decision.  He failed to explain why the Holy Spirit did not lead the church leaders to make the right decision.  He did not explain why the Annual Council made up of all the world church leaders was not led by the Holy Spirit to make the right decision.

We have here the sheep leading the shepherd, the Holy Spirit bypassing the leaders to guide the flock.  It is very likely, with no guidance from leaders, and with only five of the thirteen divisions ordaining women elders, that the delegates will again vote no, as they did in 1995 when the North American Division made its request to decide the issue locally.   Only this time Unions will continue to ordain women pastors, which will now start a new set of questions, one of which is, what exactly is the authority of the General Conference in Session?


[2]    North American, Inter America, Inter European, Trans European, South Pacific.
[3]   Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report June 2014, p. 20.
[8]  Richard W Schwarz and Floyd Greenleaf, Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Nampa: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2000), p.  497.