by Alvin Masarira, Johannesburg (South Africa), October 9, 2017         

The General Conference Executive Committee of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is made up of representatives of all the divisions, General Conference personnel, some church institutions, and the presidents of all the union conferences and union missions. It meets twice a year, but the so-called Annual Council meeting (happening right now) is convened in October, where it usually considers major items affecting the world church.

The 2017 Annual Council proceedings were always going to be followed by many in the global church, because among the many items on its “to do list” would be the elephant in the room, namely, the matter of what to do with union conferences which continued to ordain female pastors even after the General Conference 2015 Session vote. The 2015 GC Session effectively meant the status quo remained—i.e. the Adventist Church does not ordain female pastors. Those union conferences that had already ordained female pastors before that session were likely expected to revoke these ordinations and rescind any decisions taken at their local executive committees or constituency meetings on the matter.

In September 2016, the General Conference Secretariat released a “Statement on Church Governance and Unity”. The core of the document was to link the adherence to church policy and church unity. The statement implied, in essence, that those union conferences that defied church policy were causing disunity in the world wide church. Another document “Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation” was also published, whose objective was to outline the procedure that would be followed in dealing with the strained relationships between the world church (read: General Conference) and those union conferences that ignored the church’s position on the ordination of female pastors.  These documents raised concerns, and some aggressive responses from a number of union conferences across the world.

The fundamental issue at stake: how should the church deal with entities that violate its policy?

A lot of time and energy has been expended, especially since the General Conference Session of 2015, on the question of alleged policy violation by those Union Conferences who have ordained (or at least made resolutions to ordain) female ministers. This has created the impression that this is the first and only case of apparent policy violation by a church entity or institution or administrative level.  However when one takes a closer look, one notices that Adventist church policy is violated all the time across the world.

The Ordination of Deaconesses

One area where there has been disregard of church policy on a worldwide scale has to do with the ordination of deaconesses our denomination (since the 1890s) about whether deaconesses should be ordained or not.

In “The Duty of the Minister and the People,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 9, 1895, par. 8., Ellen White wrote “Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time to the service of the Lord should be appointed to visit the sick, look after the young, and minister to the necessities of the poor. They should be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of hands. In some cases they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister; but if they are devoted women, maintaining a vital connection with God, they will be a power for good in the church.”

While those in favour of ordaining female ministers sometimes use this statement to bolster their argument, those opposed at least agree that this would be referring to deaconesses.  This led to the inclusion of the matter in the Church Manual (2015 Edition).  On Page 37 it says: “The nominating committee brings in nominations to fill the various church offices. When these have been elected, the elders should be ordained, unless they have already been ordained as elders. A similar but shorter service should take place for ordination of deacons and deaconesses”. In the same edition, on Page 80, it states “Ordination Service for Deaconesses — such a service, like the ordination of deacons, would be carried out by an ordained pastor currently credentialed by the conference. The ordination service should be characterized by simplicity and performed in the presence of the church”

Unlike the appointment of female elders, which a local church can avoid, by simply nominating and electing only male elders, having deaconesses in a local church cannot be easily avoided. Since churches have deaconesses, they would need to be ordained (as per The Church Manual). This would also be in line with the principle of equality and non-discrimination, as described in Fundamental Belief #14

“The church is one body with many members, called from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. 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”.

The General Conference Working Policy opposes discrimination:

“The church rejects any system or philosophy which discriminates against anyone on the basis of race, colour, or gender. The Church bases its positions on principles clearly enunciated in the Bible, the writings of Ellen G White, and the official pronouncements of the General Conference” (BA 60 05).

There are a lot of local Adventist congregations and pastors across the world (definitely in Africa) that refuse to ordain deaconesses. Their refusal to ordain deaconesses is in line with their opposition to ordaining females in general. Yet this is in clear violation of church policy.

There are a lot of local Adventist congregations and pastors across the world (definitely in Africa) that refuse to ordain deaconesses. Their refusal to ordain deaconesses is in line with their opposition to ordaining females in general. Yet this is in clear violation of church policy.

Although we tend to think in categories of minor and major policy violation, the non-intervention (by church leadership) in cases of the so-called minor violations can set bad precedence. Church policy, for example, says that the local church should remit tithes to the conference office. If a local church were to violate this policy, they would quickly get a visit from Conference leaders. But the non-ordination of deaconesses tends not to be seen in the same dim light.

Elder Wilson on Deaconesses

The General Conference President Ted Wilson presented, in my opinion, an unfortunate (and misleading) opinion in his online response to a question on whether “deaconesses must be ordained.”

A local church elder from South Africa asked the question “I’m the head elder of a local church, and we are facing confusion on whether ordination of deaconesses at the local church is mandatory, or if it’s something that local churches are permitted to do if the conditions don’t threaten church unity”

Part of Elder Ted Wilson’s response says “While there is sometimes confusion about this, it would be best if local churches would not feel pressured to ordain deaconesses if the local church is not ready to do this.”  

This gives the impression that a local church (and maybe local conference, union conference, church institution or even church member) can decide which policy to abide by, depending on whether one is ready or not. Could this response be a result of his opposition to the ordination of women in general, whether as pastors or elders, or even as deaconesses?

Elder Wilson’s response could be interpreted to mean that a local church business meeting can decide, for example, not to remit tithes to the local conference until the church is ready.

There are many policy violations at many levels within the worldwide Adventist Church, and it is clear that some policy violations go either unnoticed or unpunished depending on the inclinations of whoever is in leadership and has the authority to punish policy violators.

Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is now a Structural Engineering Consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.

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