By Monte Sahlin, Feb. 11, 2015: As Elder Ted Wilson, president of the General Conference, approaches what will likely be the make-or-break GC Session of his career, will his thoughts turn to his father’s role in the issues related to ordination and the role of women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church? A research assistant reminded me this morning of a document from the fall of 1977 which reveals the views of Elder Neal C. Wilson, then president of the North American Division.
On October 25, 1977, Elder Neal Wilson spoke at Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Takoma Park. Many of the GC staff were members of that congregation at the time. He spoke about the role of women and the ordination issue, and he answered questions during an open forum. A record of the event and his presentation was published in the November-October issue of Sligoscope, the church newsletter.
“Among the theologians and scholars upon whom the church generally relies for Old and New Testament exegesis, I have yet to find one who takes the position that the Scriptures or Ellen White forbid the ordination of women,” Elder Wilson said. He stated that he had been told that there were Adventist Bible scholars who opposed the ordination of women but none had come forward with such a view.
Elder Wilson went on to say that the denomination’s leaders were not promoting or pushing the ordination of women, but see no reason to forbid it. “We must leave room for the Holy Spirit to work among us.”
Elder Wilson said he has discovered that people commonly in levels of sacredness attached to ordination. “They tend to think that being ordained as a deacon is introductory; becoming an elder is extra special; and finally, you reach the zenith with a special holiness and a certain portion of God’s character when you’re ordained a gospel minister. But the Scripture indicates no such differences. Seventh-day Adventists have never taken the position that ordination is a sacrament that adds certain mystical powers to the one ordained.”
Elder Wilson stated that the reason the GC had not voted to ordain women to the gospel ministry was recognition of sociocultural considerations, not theology. He noted that Ellen White seems to recommend an ordination with laying on of hands for women in certain kinds of ministry. Asked if a local church must wait for the GC to vote something to ordain women as deaconesses, Elder Wilson said that they did not need to wait. “The matter is open. A local church would violate nothing by going ahead.”
He announced that the 1977 Autumn Council (the annual meeting of the GC executive committee) had decided to authorize five scholarships at the seminary to encourage women students who want to prepare for the ministry. He admitted that women hired as “associates in pastoral care” were not paid at the same level as men doing equivalent work. (I saw him in the 1995 NAD Year-end Meeting nearly two decades later when we both voted in favor of a policy change that would assure the same pay for men and women clergy.)
During the question-and-answer time at the October 1977 meeting at Sligo Church, Elder Wilson was asked why many people speak of “God’s original plan for women,” but ignore “God’s original plan for men.” In response, Elder Wilson said that the question pinpointed some spiritual short-sightedness. “We’ve created roles for men which God never intended.”
A man in the audience asked where all the discussion about the role of women in the church had started. “The same question was once asked about black people,” Wilson said. “Asking the question shows us the problem. The heart of it is that if we have something to give blacks or women, then we must realize we also have something we can take away. There must be no major and minor stockholders in the church.” He also noted that women held many more leadership positions in the Adventist Church a few decades ago than they currently do.
A Different Meeting in 1989
I can give first-hand testimony as to another meeting where Elder Wilson expressed his views along the same lines. In the fall of 1989 he asked me, along with my good friend Bruce Campbell Moyer, to present a paper to the Global Strategy Committee on the growing urbanization of the world and what that would mean for Adventist missions. This committee met at Cohutta Springs, Georgia, the week following the meeting of the Commission on the Role of Women that crafted the recommendation ultimately voted at the 1990 GC Session the following summer in Indianapolis. In fact, a number of key individuals served on both committees.
As Bruce and I were waiting for the meeting to get started, when most of the members were present we sat near the chairman (Elder Wilson). Dr. Gottfried Oosterwal, a veteran missionary with a PhD in anthropology and chairman of the department of world mission in the seminary at Andrews University, asked for the chairman’s indulgence before the committee got started. He stated that since the committee the previous week had come to some conclusions on the role of women in the church he felt that a similar commission was needed on some other issues. He listed a number of issues all rooted in cultural differences; the use of drums in worship, how to deal with people in polygamous marriages who wanted to be baptized, etc.
Elder Wilson responded very firmly. No, there would be no such commission. “The divisions and unions will have to resolve those issues.” At the moment, I did not know the outcome of the meeting in the previous week, but I remember clearly being aware of Elder Wilson’s body language and tone of voice which indicated that he was not entirely pleased with the result. He did not want to go down that road again.
What Does This Mean?
You are certainly free to draw your own conclusions, but to me it is clear that Elder Wilson sensed that on issues where cultural differences outweighed the extent of Scripture guidance it could spell shipwreck for a global denomination of such diversity as the Adventist Church. After one attempt to settle such an issue in 1988-89, he was ready to use the decentralized structures of the denomination to deal with future issues.
When the issue of ordination for women was first studied by the leaders of the Adventist movement, both in 1881 and again in the 1970s there were no voices claiming that the Bible restricted ordination to one gender. These did not emerge until later, after the Southern Baptist Convention and other Evangelicals had fleshed out their doctrine of male headship. Why should this view be given more consideration now? Would Elder Neal Wilson think it a good idea to do so?
Monte Sahlin is executive editor of Adventist Today. He served for more than 40 years as a pastor, urban missionary and administrator in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He is the author of 22 books, 117 research monographs and many magazine articles. He retired from denominational employment last year.