by AT News Team
Delegates to a special constituency meeting of the Columbia Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted Sunday afternoon (July 29) to authorize the union and the local conferences within its territory to ordain women to the gospel ministry. The historic vote came after four hours of prayer and discussion. It was taken by secret ballot. There were 209 votes in favor, 51 votes against and 11 delegates who abstained or turned in unmarked ballots.
The vote came after two presentations by General Conference (GC) officers urging the delegates not to approve the motion and two presentations by conference presidents presenting the reasons for the motion. A total of 38 of the delegates went to a microphone and made a speech about the motion, of these 24 made it clear that they were in favor of the motion and 10 stated they were against it. As the time came to vote, Elder Dave Weigley, the union conference president and chairman for the meeting, asked all of the delegates to join in a special season of prayer in addition to several occasions for prayer throughout the meeting.
Elder Ted Wilson, president of the GC, personally appealed to the delegates not to vote the action. “I care about matters of conscience and the unity of the church,” he stated. He said that when a matter of conscience is at odds with unity “we must turn to the Word of God” for a solution. He stressed his personal ties with the Columbia Union. He is a local church member in the Chesapeake Conference. He was born in Takoma Park at Washington Adventist Hospital and attended the Adventist schools in that community through his college graduation, and recalled waiting at the old union office next door to Sligo Church as a boy when his father was union conference president. “If Dad were alive today, he would be very concerned” about the action before the delegates.
“There will be very grave consequences if you vote the recommendation,” Wilson said. He made it clear that he did not want to debate women’s ordination. He appealed to the Columbia Union to wait for the theological study of ordination that the GC is conducting, promising that it will be “the most in-depth study to date” on the topic. He referred to the concern that after nearly 50 years of contemporary studies on this topic, the GC has not been able to bring resolution to it. “You cannot afford not to wait.”
Elder Lowell Cooper, a GC vice president, spoke to the issues that have been raised in the article by Gary Patterson, a retired GC officer, published by Adventist Today. Patterson points out that GC policy assigns union conferences the role of authorizing ordinations and that the 1990 GC Session is on record stating that there is no biblical or Spirit of Prophecy barrier to doing so. The votes taken in 1990 and 1995 which many Adventists think of prohibiting women’s ordination actually did not result in any doctrinal or policy statements. Cooper referred to “misleading impressions” and stated that “the idea that [union conferences] can operate independently” is out of line with the way in which the denomination functions. He referred to the corporate culture among denominational executives in which even clearly-specified authority is not exercised without consultation with GC officers if the action being taken is unprecedented.
Elder William Miller, president of the Potomac Conference, and Elder Raj Attiken, president of the Ohio Conference, spoke on behalf of the union conference executive committee and its recommendation. Both emphasized that they are loyal Seventh-day Adventists who were raised in the faith. They pointed out that there have been repeated discussions over the last half century and more than 30 major Bible studies completed. The GC Session in 1881 voted to authorize the ordination of women and Ellen White never once said or wrote anything negative. In fact, the denomination’s archives have no record of any opposition to that original decision.
Miller pointed out that 1972 the Columbia Union Conference voted to approve the ordination of women as local elders despite the fact that it was not the practice of the world church at the time. “Some said it would break the unity of the church and result in grave consequences.” The GC ended up approving the action and it is now part of the Church Manual and Working Policy. He continued, “In 1984 the Columbia Union Conference voted to allow women to become licensed ministers and to conduct baptisms and weddings. Again, there were those who said it would break the unity of the church and cause an earthquake, but the earthquake never came.” And now this is widely practiced.
Almost all of the speakers who came to the microphone, including several retired GC and union leaders, a number of pastors and lay members of conference executive committees, spoke to three themes. Many stated that they are ashamed of how the church continues its unfair practice toward women serving as pastors and how long it has taken to correct the situation. A few said they oppose the ordination of women, although only one stated the Southern Baptist position—because of Bible teaches “male headship”—and none of them mentioned the Catholic position—because Christ chose only males for the 12 apostles. The theme most often mentioned was concern about the worldwide unity of the Adventist movement.
No speaker indicated that he or she did not value unity. Many different views of “unity” were expressed. Some felt that nothing should be done which might offend Adventists in other parts of the world, even if it had to do with cultural and not theological issues. Others pointed out that women in North America and Europe are offended by the refusal of other parts of the world to permit ordination to go forward, and that also “breaks unity.” A number of speakers, including several who are immigrants from Latin America and Africa, stated that there is wide diversity in the worldwide Adventist family and that somehow we do stay together.
It is unclear what steps the conferences in the Columbia Union will take next. The Mountain View Conference seemed to be united against the action, while at least three conferences have women serving as pastors who could be candidates for ordination almost immediately. Adventist Today will continue to follow this story and report future developments.