by Monte Sahlin

By AT News Team, October 15, 2014

At the end of the day Tuesday (October 14) the governing body of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination placed the ongoing debate about gender equality in clergy ordination in the same place that it was in 1995. Delegates to the top decision-making body which meets only once every five years will be asked next summer to permit continental units of the denomination to decide on their own about extending ordination to women serving as pastors.

The denomination's General Conference (GC) will convene in San Antonio, Texas, in July 2015 and the group's executive committee decided yesterday to put on the agenda an item very similar to one it faced in 1995 when it met in Utrecht, the Netherlands. After two decades of debate on an issue that has threatened to divide the Adventist movement, delegates will again be asked to allow a decision to be made on a regional basis rather than a once-for-all global decision.

Unlike most Protestant bodies, the Adventist denomination has a more centralized organization that includes the entire world. The issue of extending ordination to women in the Adventist clergy sets the more culturally conservative developing world against the more culturally progressive developed world. In recent decades the Adventist faith has grown at a rapid rate in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia, while growth has slowed in North America, Europe, Australia and Japan.

Adventist judicatories called "union conferences" have already begun to ordain women employed as pastors in parts of the United States and have voted to do so in a number of countries in Europe. And Adventists in China, where the government prevents the denomination from exercising administrative control, have been ordaining women pastors since the 1980s.

Over the last two years Bible scholars have been engaged in a careful study on the topic commissioned by the GC. Although the majority of the denomination's scholars do not see any scriptural or theological reasons to prohibit the ordination of women clergy, the study committee presented a report describing three alternative positions instead of a single recommendation. The decision yesterday is to place "Position 3" before the delegates next July in the hopes that it will provide a middle ground where schism can be avoided.

In the GC executive committee yesterday there were 243 votes in favor and 44 against placing this item on the agenda of the 2015 GC Session:

"Whereas, The unity for which Jesus prayed is vitally important to the witness of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and;

"Whereas, The Seventh-day Adventist Church seeks to engage every member in its worldwide mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ among people from every nation, culture and ethnicity, and;

"Whereas, Various groups appointed by the General Conference and its divisions have carefully studied the Bible and Ellen G. White writings with respect to the ordination of women and have not arrived at consensus as to whether ministerial ordination for women is unilaterally affirmed or denied, and;

"Whereas, The Seventh-day Adventist Church affirms that “God has ordained that the representatives of His Church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference Session, shall have authority” [quoting White]

"Therefore, The General Conference Executive Committee requests delegates in their sacred responsibility to God at the 2015 General Conference Session to respond to the following question:

"After your prayerful study on ordination from the Bible, the writings of Ellen G White, and the reports of the study commissions, and;

"After your careful consideration of what is best for the Church and the fulfillment of its mission,

"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"[.]

If a simple majority of the delegates next summer vote Yes on this item, then leaders in each of the denomination’s 13 world divisions would be able to decide whether to ordain women serving as pastors in their territory. A release from the denomination's official news service stated that this plan "was brought … as a recommendation from the Church’s top officials and could be considered a creative way of dealing with a thorny issue by taking a neutral-leaning stance.”

Some proponents of women’s ordination voted in favor of the motion but expressed strong concerns that it lacked a formal recommendation for or against ordination. These proponents fear the issue will carry less weight when the question comes up at the GC Session next July. “I think this body needs to give direction to the world church,” said Pastor David Weigley, president of the Columbia Union Conference in North America. “We are missing a golden opportunity to give direction. Leaders lead, they give direction,” he said.

“Based on what I see from the history of this particular issue, it seems that [this body] has always played a very prominent role in what is passed on to the GC Session,” said Heather-Dawn Small, director of women’s ministries director for the GC. “I’ve seen from the past that what this [body] decides influences the GC Session.”

More than 20 people spoke on varying sides of the issue. Pastor Alberto C. Gulfan Jr., president of the Southern Asia-Pacific Division, said he appreciates the contribution of female evangelists, but that his region’s constituency “is not ready to move towards the ordination of women pastors.” He added: “We are also supporting this recommendation to bring this to the General Conference in Session and let the world decide on the issue once and for all.”

Pastor Ted Wilson, the GC president who has opposed recent moves for women's ordination, did not express his opinion yesterday, but indicated before the discussion began that he would be willing to adjust his stance. “If this body accepts the recommendation to place a question before the General Conference Session and that Session … votes something,” Wilson announced, “I pledge to you I will follow what the General Conference votes. I want to ask each of you to do the same.”

The discussion among Adventists of ordination for women clergy began more than 130 years ago and returned in the 1970s, especially in the United States, Europe and the South Pacific. The GC Sessions in 1990 voted to acknowledge that there was no agreement among the denomination's Bible scholars that there were any barriers to the practice, but not to do so out of respect for "unity" in the movement. In 1995 it voted not to grant a request for the decision to be made by the "divisions."

At the 2010 Session in Atlanta, Georgia, a delegate from the U.S. state of Pennsylvania asked denominational leaders, if women can’t be ordained as ministers, then what is the denomination’s theology on ordination? That question led to a commitment from GC leaders to open the discussion again and appoint a special study committee. The 106-member Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) was asked to conduct an in-depth analysis of ordination and provide information to help the denomination decide how to handle the matter. TOSC’s response was a 127-page report that was the basis for Tuesday’s discussion.

The report acknowledged that committee members—who hailed from around the world and met four times, for several days each time—were unable to come to agreement on whether to support or oppose women’s ordination. Instead, it included three separate statements to summarize members’ viewpoints. Yesterday those positions were explained by three different scholars.

One position, labeled Statement No. 1, said that only men could be ordained throughout the world church. Statement No. 2 said that entities responsible for hiring pastors should be able to make their own decisions on whether to ordain female ministers. Statement No. 3 said the decision should be left to the leadership “at a proper level” to determine whether ordination “may be appropriate for their area or region.”

The leadership of the GC expressed the hope yesterday that a vote by the GC Session will settle the matter once and for all. But, the outcome is far from certain. The nearly 2,600 voting delegates may decide to adopt, reject, or amend the proposal approved yesterday. If the proposal is adopted, it will move the debate to different bodies within the denomination, but it will not end discussion. If the proposal is rejected, it will not end the need for some kind of gender equality in the Adventist clergy in North America, Europe and other developed nations. For example, Dr. J. David Newman, the editor of Adventist Today, has proposed that ordination be abandoned by Adventists and that the denomination use the Commissioned Minister option which was added to its policies in the 1990s. Others have expressed the fear that Adventists in some parts of the world may ignore the decisions of the GC or even separate from the denomination and organize an alternative body.