October 22, 2015: A number of leading Adventist pastors in the United States and seminary faculty at Andrews University have requested that their credentials as ordained ministers be exchanged for commissioned minister credentials. This is happening because the denomination’s General Conference (GC) Session voted against allowing its 13 global divisions to allow the ordination of women serving as pastors.
“I can’t make them equal with me by ordaining them,” Pastor Mike Speegle, senior pastor at New Hope Adventist Church in the suburbs of Washington DC near GC headquarters, told Religion News Service (RNS), speaking of women serving as his associate pastors. “But I can make myself equal with them by taking the commissioned [credential], which is exactly what they have.” New Hope is one of the largest Adventist congregations.
Many Adventists feel that gender discrimination in ordination is unjust and unethical, a violation of the New Testament teaching on spiritual gifts and their own denominational heritage in which a woman, Ellen G. White, is the most important of the founders of the faith and was issued credentials as an ordained minister by the GC for most of her life. Other Adventists have adopted the “male headship” theology of the Southern Baptist Convention in recent decades and believe that women most not hold any church office that involves spiritual leadership over men.
The question presented to the delegates at the every-five-year GC Session in July was if it was appropriate for this question to be settled separately in different parts of the world. Adventists who want to end gender discrimination in ordination are largely from Europe and North America, although the denomination in China ended it in the 1980s. Adventists in Africa and Latin America are more likely to support “male headship” theology. A third segment is made up of those Adventists who are afraid that this conflict will cause schism in the faith which has more than 18 million members and perhaps as many as 30 million adherents.
Two leading pastors of historically African American congregations in the denomination’s South Central Conference also told RNS last week that they have taken a stand similar to Speegle’s. Pastor Kymone Hinds from Memphis and Pastor Furman Fordham from Nashville (both in Tennessee) said they wanted to stand in solidarity with the women in ministry.
Rumors about a group of seminary faculty at the denomination’s leading university taking a similar stand have been circulated on social media for about ten days. Adventist Today talked with several of the faculty members involved about three weeks ago and has not published anything to date for two reasons. (1) It has been impossible to determine how many have taken this step because several are still thinking about it and it is a personal step, not a public statement. (2) Some of the reports published by other sources have been less than entirely accurate.
The sources who have talked to Adventist Today have requested anonymity. “I am not sure if this is the right time to publicize these decisions,” one professor stated. “These were deeply personal decisions for each one of us.” Another source said, “Some of the professors who made those decisions are very conservative and may feel that someone betrayed their trust by providing information to the media.”
At least nine male faculty members at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University have evidently made a personal request to the GC to re-issue their ministerial credentials as commissioned minister credentials. “There is very broad support for women’s ordination” among the seminary faculty, Adventist Today was told. “Except for a small handful.” In fact, the seminary faculty have issued a consensus statement with a critique of “male headship” theology as less than biblical and published an entire volume of scholarly papers entitled Women and Ordination: Biblical and Historical Studies earlier this year at the denomination’s Pacific Press.
A total of 16 scholars contributed papers to the book, including the current and former dean of the seminary and the highly respected historian of the Adventist denomination, Dr. George Knight, a retired faculty member. Several seminary faculty were members of the denomination’s Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) which conducted a careful review of the topic over the past several years with the majority reporting no Bible reason to prohibit the ordination of women clergy. Seminary faculty have also been involved in several previous volumes of Bible studies on the topic and previous official study groups, going back to the 1970s. Their findings have been consistent through the decades of debate.
What is the practical difference between holding credentials as an Ordained Minister or a Commissioned Minister in the Adventist denomination? In fact, very little. There is no difference in pay scale. The differences in authorized functions all revolve around the role of conference president, which the GC insists must continue to be limited to Ordained Ministers.
Effectively, by making the difference between ordained and commissioned ministers center on the role of conference president, the denomination has created an episcopal order within its ministry. Those who are not ordained are excluded from it. Some of the protests are as much against this development in Adventist organizational concepts as it as about the role of women in the ministry.
“We have never believed in bishops or a higher order of clergy,” one veteran theologian told Adventist Today. “Are we in danger of backing into something we have always thought of a not biblical simply to avoid taking the step of removing gender discrimination from ordination?”
How many more ordained ministers may request a change in their credentials is unknown. A spokesman for the denomination’s North American Division told RNS it was “not a lot … so far,” but also pointed out any change in credentials occurs at the local conference level in most cases and the denomination really has not system to track it.