Raj Attiken, August 26, 2015:    The recent release by the General Conference Secretariat of a document entitled “Unions and the Ordination to the Gospel Ministry: Brief Summary and Comprehensive Working Policy Explanation” dated August 2015[i], has bemused some who have been involved in, or observant of, the months-and-years-long saga of the ordination debate. At the heart of this document is the question of whether or not Union Conferences have the authority to authorize the ordination of qualified women in their territories to the gospel ministry. The eight-page document seeks to establish that while Unions can determine who, in their territories, should be ordained, they cannot decide the criteria for ordination, specifically gender inclusion. The document appeals to General Conference Working Policy and interpretation of policy, to make its case. It cites policies to describe the position of the General Conference regarding discrimination: the church does not discriminate based on gender except when it discriminates against women who are called by God to ministry!

Policies are general guidelines that regulate actions within an organization. As such, they are an important mechanism to shape the internal culture of an organization.  Policies do not exist in isolation: they impact people. There are moral and ethical values at stake in the enforcement of policy. Policies that guide the church should reflect the highest and noblest of moral and ethical values – derived from Scriptures – if people are to adhere to them with a clear conscience. In hierarchical corporate structures it is also generally true that authority and control flow from the top to the “lower” levels of the organization. In the church, however, the flow of authority is far more complex. Referring to the misuse of authority in the world, Jesus declared that “among you it will be different” (Matthew 20:26). He claimed that he has “been given all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). Any authority that is enjoyed by people – the church – is, therefore, derived from him and variously distributed within the church community.

Policies are least helpful when they are called on to support organizational actions that do not fit the standards of “the highest and noblest of moral and ethical values.” It is generally the case in such situations that when an organization has to “throw the book” at an individual or group of individuals in order to control or coerce, that very act is indicative of heightened anxiety and desperation within the system. Appealing to policy here is akin to producing the marriage certificate as the source of authority to compel a married couple to treat each other with love, respect, and dignity. Just as in marriage so also in church relationships: the enforcement paradigm is a flawed paradigm.

The timing of the release of this “Explanation” document is not without significance. For, no longer can the church claim that women should not be ordained to the gospel ministry on grounds that the Bible forbids it. The years-long Theology of Ordination Study process, launched by the General Conference, has definitively concluded that the Bible does not explicitly or implicitly forbid such ordinations. Second, no longer can it be claimed that ordaining women to ministry will cause disunity in the church. Women have been ordained in various places, and the church continues, just as it did prior to these ordinations. Third, no longer can it be claimed that women cannot fulfill the demands of pastoral ministry. Women pastors have put this myth to rest effectively and convincingly.

Since none of these reasons for the exclusion of women from the privilege of ordination have been shown to hold merit, the help of the 700-plus-page “black book” — the General Conference Working Policy – has now been enlisted. Through an appeal to history and various sections of policy and its interpretation, the August 2015 document attempts to squelch any challenge to the ultimate authority of the General Conference.   Authority, and particularly the absolute authority of the General Conference, is a dominant theme of the document. Accordingly, any authority that the Unions have is said to be derivative and always subject to the General Conference’s final authority. Reading the document leaves one realizing that Ellen White’s “kingly power” metaphor regarding the General Conference is being given new life for our times.

The appeal to policy, perhaps as a last resort, to clamp down on the ordination of women, raises several issues. One, of course, is the place of control-by-policy leadership in the church on matters of moral significance such as acknowledging or denying the God-ordained role of men and women in the church.   Another is the relationship of General Conference Working Policy to the governing documents of Unions – namely the Constitutions, Bylaws, and Regulations — and the authority these documents assign to a Union. A third issue is what, in fact, the policy says about the authority that the various levels of the organization possess in light of the direction in which authority is to flow in the organizational model of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. A fourth is whether a policy on discrimination should trump a policy on non-discrimination, especially in a hierarchy of values. A fifth issue relates to the contemporary veracity of policies established some thirty-five to eighty-five years ago (in 1930, 1944, 1977) in determining actions in 2015.

Does the release of the “Explanation” document of August 2015 signal a shift in the General Conference’s approach to relating to the individuals and to those church entities that have already moved, or will move, ahead with ordaining women as pastors? Is the “stick” of working policy being brought out to enforce compliance? What scenarios might result if this is, in fact, the intent?

In reality, the use of this “stick” is not without its own challenges. When it comes to Unions that are deemed, by interpretation, to be in violation of General Conference policy, the available mechanisms to enforce compliance are limited. The General Conference does not have authority to terminate the employment of, or otherwise discipline, the Union officers since their respective constituencies elect them. The General Conference does not have the authority to replace Union executive committees since they, too, are elected by their constituencies. What recourse, then, does the General Conference have to keep in check a Union that is seen to be in violation of working policy?

When Conferences and Unions are audited by General Conference Auditing Service (GCAS), included in the audit process is a policy audit. If an entity is deemed to be in violation of a policy, reference to this violation is included in the audit report presented to the entity’s governing board. It is then up to the governing body to take any remedial or punitive action, if it so chooses. In the instance of ordination, since the constituencies of these Unions overwhelming voted favorably on this matter, the audit report should be of no surprise.

The General Conference could call for a special meeting of a Union Constituency in order to discipline or replace its officers, or dismiss or replace its executive committee. In either case, this option is loaded with risks. A General Conference-called Union constituency session can do business only if there is a quorum of delegates present. It is feasible that delegates will decide not to attend such a meeting, in which case the meeting cannot be called to order for a lack of a quorum. Even if there is a quorum in attendance, it is unlikely that these Union constituencies that earlier voted – by up to 80% majority – in favor of ordaining women would discipline their officers or executive committees for implementing an action they authorized. It is also unlikely that they can be persuaded to rescind their previous actions. Trying to achieve its objectives via a Union constituency session is, therefore, fraught with potential risks and complications.

As an alternate, but extreme, approach to enforcing its will, the General Conference Executive Committee could withdraw membership status of a non-compliant Union (a fact that is referenced in the August 2015 document). Whether the executive committee can be persuaded to take such an action is debatable. The implications are enormous.   Disbanding the China Union Mission because of the number of ordained women pastors there (who give leadership to some of the largest Adventist churches in mainland China or anywhere in the world) is likely to have no appreciable impact on the church in China! In contrast, disbanding a couple of the largest Unions in the North American Division can have a crippling effect on both the Division and the General Conference. The consequences – especially the unintended and unforeseeable ones – could be enormous.

It could well be that the release of the “Explanation” document does not signal the intention of General Conference leadership to go down the road of policy enforcement on this matter.   But, highlighting policy in the manner it has done suggests that the Adventist Church is well into the Aristocracy or Bureaucracy stage in its life cycle – stages when its administrative systems, policies, precedents, rules and guidelines dominate behavior. The pathologies of these stages do not portend well for the organization.

The use of policy to influence or enforce compliance on moral issues is a telling admission of the state of affairs in the church’s governance circles. An enforcement paradigm is a bankrupt paradigm. It unmasks severe angst in the halls of leadership. To claim non-discrimination while acting in a discriminatory way is not to match words with actions. In a world where religious teachings are frequently met with healthy skepticism or open hostility, any hint of hypocrisy is quickly seized upon as reason for rejection. Brandishing church policy as justification for discrimination is morally and ethically wrong. That’s my take!


[i] https://www.scribd.com/doc/275068499/Unions-and-Ordination-to-the-Gospel-Ministry