by AT News Team
The General Conference officers have issued an appeal designed to stop union conferences that have called constituency meetings where authorization for ordaining women to the gospel ministry will be considered. At least two union conferences in the North American Division of the denomination have called special sessions of delegates from their local conferences to review recommendations that they stop gender discrimination in their exercise of the authority given to them by the GC Working Policy to approve candidates for ordination.
If a union conference were to take such a step “it touches the very heart of how this Church functions as a global family,” the appeal document states. “The mutual commitment of all organizations to collective decision-making in matters affecting the whole family” is described as a “value” that if not maintained leaves “all other values that contribute to unity … seriously weakened.”
The appeal asks the union conferences to participate in the worldwide study of ordination that was authorized at the 2010 GC Session instead of ending gender discrimination with regard to ordination in their regions. It suggests that the GC officers would like to see a “mutually satisfactory resolution” to the debate on this topic that has continued since the 1970s. It acknowledges “that the passage of time without finding satisfaction for the tensions on this question can give rise to frustration and the erosion of confidence” in the denomination’s organizational processes.
The document specifically asks that “your union refrains from taking any action to implement ministerial ordination practices that are contrary to the 1990 and 1995 General Conference Session actions.” It notes that the 1990 session “approved that women should be given wide participation in all church activities, including … pastoral duties, but that ‘in view of the possible risk of disunity, dissension and diversion from the mission of the Church’ the session also approved the Annual Council recommendation that ordination of women to the gospel ministry not be authorized.” At that session in Indianapolis the Church Manual was amended to specifically allow for women to serve as ordained local elders.
In 1995 the GC Session in Utrecht denied a request from the North American Division for the world divisions to be permitted to decide the question within their own territories. At the same time it made no additional policy or doctrinal statements on the topic.
As a result of these decisions the denomination has been left with a situation in which women can be ordained as elders, but not as pastors. Adventist theologians have repeatedly pointed out that this is inconsistent and not rooted in Scripture.
Adventist Today has published the fact that at least 16 women in China have been ordained to the gospel ministry by Seventh-day Adventists there. In a footnote, the appeal document from the GC officers states that “these ordinations were not authorized or conducted according to the policies of the Church. Nor are these ordinations approved or recognized/endorsed by the Northern Asia-Pacific Division. The Seventh-day Adventist Church does not have an officially organized structure in China that is comparable to other areas of the world.” At the same time, it says, “ministerial ordination for women is acknowledged as a reality that has arisen in China.”
The document makes no mention of the vote by the 1881 GC Session approving the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. It also does not address the recently rediscovered statement by Ellen G. White that “it is the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God.” (Review & Herald, January 15, 1901)
A news story placed on the Adventist Review web site late in the day described the appeal as “highly unusual” and states that all 40 GC officers, including the 13 division presidents (who are considered vice presidents of the GC), “unanimously” approved the statement. The article stated that the appeal is being sent to all 119 union organizations, but Adventist Today has been told that two union conferences in North America were invited to a teleconference in the last few days in which the document was reviewed.
The conundrum that continues to face the leadership of the Adventist Church is the reality that much of its membership is in parts of the world where a traditional, secondary role for women is still well embedded in the local culture, while new generations of Adventists in North America, Europe and other industrialized nations see gender discrimination as unjust and unethical. Scripture and the writings of Ellen G. White provide no simple answer, as the delegates to the 1990 GC Session admitted in the first part of the action taken there. That part is not quoted in the appeal document.
Organizational unity has been a strong value in the Adventist denomination since the adoption of its present structure by the 1901 GC Session. A major feature of the reorganization adopted at the meeting was the creation of the union conference as a regional body that would exercise some independence of action. Ellen White and others advocated at that time the need for flexibility as the movement grew.
This appeal presents the officers of certain union conferences with a real dilemma. The union conference bylaws specify that the union executive committee has the authority to convene a constituency meeting. The GC officers do not appear to have authority to contravene this bylaw provision. If the constituency sessions are convened and the appeal is read to the assembled delegates, it is doubtful that it will change the outcome. This appeal may contribute more to disunity than to unity.
A retired GC officer pointed out to Adventist Today that the news story about this appeal published by the Adventist Review states that more than 30 million people now participate in the Church. “The larger the movement becomes the more flexibility is necessary in order to avoid cracks in the structure. Rigidity will bring it down under its own weight.” It is unclear whether the current GC officers who crafted this appeal fully understand that reality.