Gender Issue Key Item at Annual Meeting of Adventist Church in North America
by Atoday News Team
Seemingly small agenda items can sometimes become big issues in a meeting. That is what happened this week during the annual meeting of the governing body of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.
The issue is gender equity. It has troubled the Adventist movement for decades now despite the fact that the General Conference in Session ruled on it definitively some 130 years ago and one of the cofounders of the denomination was a woman who played a distinctive leadership role.
This time around the issue was Working Policy E-60. Two years ago the North American Division (NAD) Committee — the governing body for the denomination in the U.S., Canada and Bermuda — revised this policy so it allowed for both ordained and commissioned ministers to serve as conference presidents. Women are not permitted to be ordained ministers except in the People’s Republic of China, but they are permitted to be commissioned ministers, a parallel credential used in North America, Europe and some other parts of the world.
Three weeks ago at the Annual Council of the world-wide Adventist governing body voted to deny a request from two of its regional divisions to grant a ‘variance’ allowing just such a policy. This created a need for the NAD Committee to either revise its policy in line with the world church decision or stand its ground. It voted 162 to 61 to stick with a non-discriminatory policy.
Not since the 1995 General Conference (GC) Session in Utrecht has the line been so clearly drawn on this issue. Many, but not all, church leaders in the southern hemisphere seem stuck on maintaining some kind of status difference between men and women in the Church, while those from the industrialized nations see the need to open the ministry to both men and women.
The Adventist News Network (ANN), the official news operation of the General Conference, described the NAD decision as, “a carefully balanced pair of actions,” linking the vote against a policy of gender discrimination with a vote to, “fully participate in the world church’s recently launched study of the theology of ordination.” The NAD news and information office released the full text of the resolution voted by the NAD Committee.
The North American leadership went out of its way to affirm the unity of the denomination, noting that the NAD, “is an integral part of the World Church and respects and values the position of the General Conference,” and explicitly its desire for, “compatibility in all policies” including those “that deal with women in leadership.” Yet due to the principle of equality and “the unique needs of our field…we vote to affirm” the policy allowing women as well as men to serve as conference presidents. The resolution makes the point that gender equity is ‘not acting in any way contrary to the Bible nor the Spirit of Prophecy.’
Pastor Dan Jackson, president of the Adventist Church in North America, very carefully handled this divisive issue. He allowed ample time for members on both sides to speak and encouraged them to say what was on their hearts and minds. He led the committee in the hymn, ‘Have Thine Own Way Lord’ and prayed for the Holy Spirit to lead in the proceedings. Time was also spent in prayer bands. “My desire,” he told the group, “is that at the end of this discussion everyone present says in their own mind, ‘I was in the presence of the Spirit of God.’”
The Adventist denomination may now be at a juncture where it must find some way to meet the needs of both the Western church that wishes to give women an equal role in church leadership and the Southern Hemisphere church which still has large pockets of those who do not. This issue has played itself out for some time around the question of extending ordination to women who serve as pastors, and the vote on Working Policy E-60 is simply a proxy for that larger issue.
Ellen White exercised the role of prophet in the denomination from its formative days in the late 1840s until her death in 1915. She was clearly the most respected leader in the denomination and for most of her life was issued the credentials of an ordained minister. Some point out that there is no record of a laying-on-of-hands ceremony, but it is also true that there was none for her husband or any of the others in the first generation of Seventh-day Adventist ministers.
Ellen White’s role as a preacher and leader was repeatedly criticized by others during the early days of the denomination and defended in a number of articles in its journal, The Review & Herald. A significant number of other women served as preachers and evangelists in the emerging denomination and in 1881 the General Conference Session voted to approve the concept that women could be ordained. Although a number of women were issued ministerial licenses, the first step toward ordination, none of them were ever actually ordained, perhaps because of the death of James White the same year.
The issue did not surface again until the 1970s when a request from Europe caused the GC to appoint a special committee for in-depth study of the topic in the Bible, Ellen White’s writings and church history. These studies reported that nothing could be found that prohibits women from being ordained as pastors.
Throughout the 1980s there was further discussion and steps were taken in the direction of ordaining women. A number of women were hired as pastors and permission was given for women to be ordained as local elders. At the 1990 GC Session a two-part resolution was voted by the delegates. Number one, it was recognized that there was no consensus among Adventist Bible scholars and theologians either for or against the practice. Number two, it was decided not to move ahead in order to maintain unity in the church.
At the next GC Session in 1995, the NAD presented a request for the divisions of the GC to be able to decide the matter on their own. This simple plea became the occasion for an emotional debate and the delegates voted to refuse the NAD request. Consequently, no further action had been taken up to the latest GC Session last year.
Much of the theology that opposes ordaining women comes out of Roman Catholic tradition and there are no explicit Bible texts giving instruction on who to ordain. Despite those facts many of the Adventists who argue against the ordination of women claim to do so on ‘biblical’ principle. Privately many church leaders who have voted against the issue say they do not believe it is unbiblical, they just do not want to create schism in the Church. In some nations large numbers of local churches have left the denomination over something as small as the creation of a Department of Women’s Ministries.
One solution to the problem in North America has been the creation of an Ordained or Commissioned Minister credential seeking to downplay the differences between the two parallel statuses. Some theologians have questioned the whole idea of ‘ordination’ since it is not explicitly taught as a mandate in the New Testament and is steeped in extra-biblical tradition of the type that Adventists have historically eschewed. When Ted Wilson was elected GC president in the summer of 2010 he responded to questions from delegates with a promise to commission a study of the topic.
This week the NAD Committee voted to appoint a NAD Biblical Research Committee alongside those in the other world divisions. This will be the primary vehicle for the NAD’s participation in the process that the GC has initiated. It also raises questions about the role of the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) at the GC. The GC and the NAD have always had one Biblical research group that served both North America and the world headquarters.
Although gender roles is a highly visible, even symbolic issue, the annual meeting did have other important business to conduct:
By a relatively close vote (109 to 76) the committee voted to give a 2.35% salary increase to pastors, teachers and other denominational employees after three years with no increases. Implementation was delayed until September 1, 2012.
A new strategy for the media ministries sponsored by the denomination in North America was presented. Work began on this framework in May at a ‘media summit’ in California. It addresses the image and identity of the Adventist Church, vision and values for media ministry, how to encourage innovation, production quality and standards, recognition, training, distribution channels and access by pastors and local churches to media tools.
A committee is planning for the Mission to the Cities initiative in North America. It is currently focusing on New York City. Each of the nine union conferences in the NAD will be asked to develop plans for major cities in their territory.
A travel warning was announced advising against mission trips and similar projects in Mexico because of the drug war and thousands of ‘indiscriminate’ killings there. Essential travel must get special approval at the GC and conform to the U.S. State Department requirements.