by Raj Attiken, May 28, 2015: The Adventist Church has again picked up the ball regarding women’s ordination that it has fumbled many times over the years and is running with it. But which goal line is it running towards this time?
In my opinion, it is superfluous to ask General Conference Session delegates whether it is “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.”[i] The reason should be obvious. General Conference Sessions do not regulate what issues Division Executive Committees address or do not address.[ii] No authorizing action at a General Conference Session is needed for a Division to consider any matter of significance to its territory. Even as some local Conferences and Union Conferences have already addressed the issue of ordination, so can Division executive committees, should they so choose. A “yes” vote in San Antonio will not obligate every Division executive committee to take up this matter for their regions. Nor will a “no” vote prevent all Division committees from addressing the issue.
A further irony regarding the wording of the question to be placed before the delegates in San Antonio is that it implies an acknowledgement of the appropriateness of ordaining women to the gospel ministry. For surely the Church would not be asking whether a practice should be adopted regionally if, from the outset, the practice was recognized to be unacceptable on biblical, theological, ethical, moral or any other basis! It appears to me, therefore, that even the option of a “no” vote has a deeper “yes” embedded in it.
Unless the motion that is presented to delegates on July 8 is markedly different from the action proposed by the published question forwarded from the 2014 Annual Council, the delegates will not be asked to vote in favor of, or in opposition to, the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. This is a rather startling reality, given the intense focus on the theology of ordination in recent years! I am not aware if the wording of the published question represents a strategic intent or if it is an inadvertent misstep. By framing the issue as it has, the Church has resisted the temptation –at least in this one instance — to act as if it is God’s official question-answering machine churning out definitive resolutions by majority vote on any given divisive issue. This is sensible, since the world is not hanging with bated breath on our answers to this question! Nor are most Adventists!
It certainly is possible that the Chairperson at the Session could invoke a parliamentary procedural maneuver that allows him to introduce for a vote an alternate concept that is disparate from the originally published question. Or the Chair could permit a delegate to initiate such an action from the floor. In either case, such maneuvers – even if preceded by prayer — will demonstrate a lapse in ethical integrity, and would tarnish the significance or validity of the decisions made.
For some time now we have been treated to a good deal of heavy breathing and earnest handwringing about the issue of women’s ordination. Much serious study, deliberation, and prayer have also occurred. Although a great deal of time has been invested by many people, and the costs to convene meetings and publish reports have been considerable, the exercise has been good for the Church on many fronts. It has confirmed for the Church that the issue of ordaining women to the gospel ministry is not directly addressed in the Bible. It has allowed us to weigh the merits of varying and opposing perspectives and interpretations. It has helped us understand that the Church’s unity is in Christ and not in the uniformity of its practices, policies, rituals or programs. It has assured us that the practice of ordaining women is compatible with well-grounded biblical and theological principles. It has animated us to the possibility that the Church, at long last, could witness the unfolding of the “kingdom” ideal in this regard, where women and men are equally valued, equally called, recognized as equally gifted, equally needed, and equally mobilized in mission and ministry. In my biased opinion, these are all positive outcomes.
In two previous columns I opined that the issue of women’s ordination to the gospel ministry does not belong on a General Conference Session agenda and that regardless of the vote on the proposed question to be placed before the delegates, women will increasingly be ordained in various parts of the world. I argued that the primary impact the vote in San Antonio will have would be on the speed at which the practice becomes more widely adopted. Although both of these notions ascribe a diminished significance to the vote in San Antonio, I here advocate for doing what Hall of Fame philosopher Yogi Berra proposed: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” If a vote is to be taken at all, the reasons for a “yes” vote are both compelling and persuasive (as many have presented in this and other forums with logical, well-articulated commentary and analysis).
A hymn sung at the Commencement exercises at a theological seminary over the past weekend led me to think about the flurry of current activity in the Church in anticipation of the General Conference session. The lyrics, written by Thomas H. Troeger, included these lines: “May our learning curb the error which unthinking faith can breed, lest we justify some terror with an antiquated creed.”[iii]
It is time we curbed the error of denying ordination to qualified women pastors. It is time we acknowledged that diversity of practice in this matter does not impinge on the faith-content of Adventism but that it is an ecclesiastical reality that merits celebration and affirmation. That’s my take!
[i] The full text of the question that delegates will be asked to vote on July 8 is as follows: 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 of 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”; 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.”
[ii] The boards and executive committees of each organizational level of the church have the authority to independently determine what is placed on their respective meeting agendas. Unlike Unions and Conferences, which have their own constituencies, Divisions are “divisions” of the General Conference. As such, they do not have their own constituencies, but operate through their elected executive committees. Division presidents are vice presidents of the General Conference.
[iii] “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning,” by Thomas H. Troeger, Oxford University Press, 1987.