by AT News Team

In an unprecedented development, the officers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America have notified the members of their governing body that they will not publish a policy repeatedly voted by significant majorities over the past three years due to a ruling by the General Conference (GC) legal office that the body lacks the necessary authority. Adventist Today has previously reported that during its annual meeting in November the North American Division (NAD) Committee voted to retain a policy originally voted in 2009. It is called Working Policy E-60 and it permits both ordained ministers and commissioned ministers to serve as conference presidents.

Although the vote was 163 to 61, some GC officers privately stated strong criticism of the NAD action because the GC Working Policy provides that conference presidents can only be ordained ministers, a status which the denomination has denied to women in the 20th century except in China. Pastor Daniel Jackson, president of the denomination in North America, released a five-page document on December 8 carefully documenting the background to the vote and pointing out that several unattributed accusations were untrue.

Sources in the GC have told Adventist Today about a meeting late last year in which Jackson sat down with the GC officers and was pressed to rescind the action. The NAD was accused of “breaking the unity” of the denomination. Evidently the outcome of this discussion was a request for an opinion by the GC lawyers who provide the parliamentarians for both the NAD and GC governing bodies.

The letter received this week by NAD Committee members states that “in discussions held following the 2011 [NAD annual] Meeting it was brought to the NAD Administration’s attention that  … Divisions do not have the independent right to develop policies which are out of harmony with the General Conference Model Constitution or voted General Conference Working Policy. While all Divisions have the authority to develop and implement policies related to their field they may not act independently when it comes to voted General Conference policies.  The NAD Administration took this matter very seriously and requested legal counsel to undertake a review of the General Conference Constitution, General Conference Working Policy and the Church Manual in order to verify the governance role of the NAD in terms of its relationship to the General Conference. The results of this review were provided to us on January 3, 2012, and clearly support the opinion that the North American Division Executive Committee does not have the right to establish policies which are out of harmony with the General Conference Model Constitution or General Conference Working Policy.”

The letter announces that the NAD officers have concluded that “from 2009 through 2011 the North American Division Committee did not have the authority to vote a policy (E-60 – with the inclusion of the word ‘commissioned’) that was out of harmony with the General Conference E-60 Policy.” And, “The editors will be directed to omit the word ‘commissioned’ from the E-60 Policy contained in the 2011-2012 edition of the NAD Working Policy.”

Evidently anticipating that many of the committee members may react negatively to this decision made by a few individuals at the GC office complex in Silver Spring, Maryland, the letter also states that “We believe that all those who have participated in this discussion during the past three years have done so in good faith and with a good spirit. In all of the discussions of the E-60 Policy there has been no attempt to hide the potential discussions, withhold information [from the GC officers] or to subvert any point of view. Two NAD administrations as well as three NAD annual meetings (2009, 2010 and 2011) believed that they were taking up business that was appropriate to their delegated purview and were open in doing so. Each action of the NAD Committee throughout 2009 – 2011 was undertaken with the full knowledge of the two GC Presidents involved during this period of time and with the supervision of [GC] Officers … who were present at the time when the NAD Committee actions were taken.”

The letter also responded to “some of the concerns expressed to us in recent discussions,” stating that the NAD leaders “strongly assert that neither the NAD Administration nor the NAD Committee have 'rebelled' against any vote of the General Conference, nor has it been their intention to do so.” The vote by the 2011 NAD annual meeting to re-affirm its ‟previously voted E-60 Policy was not undertaken as a reaction to nor a rejection of the 2011 GC Annual Council's denial of the NAD request for a variance from the Model Constitution. On the contrary, the matter was taken up out of consideration for the Annual Council action. The discussion was engaged in as a response to motions proposed by members of the NAD Committee, and with respect for the GC and the unity in the worldwide church. The members of the NAD Committee were asked to review their vote of 2010 within the broader context of the actions of the 2011 Annual Council. At no point prior to or during the 2009 or 2010 NAD [annual] meetings, or prior to the 2011 [annual] meeting was any counsel given by anyone [in] the NAD Administration that the NAD Committee ‘did not have the authority’ to add the word 'commissioned' to the NAD E-60 Policy.”

This issue is clearly not finalized with this letter since it states that “during our 2012 … meeting we will provide time for questions and further explanation of this matter, if requested.” The NAD officers include in the letter an apology for the situation. Some observers note that this apology under pressure may, in the end, damage denominational unity to a greater degree than the policy votes by the NAD Committee.

It is likely that most members of the Adventist Church are unaware that there was ever a rule that prohibited women from serving as conference presidents. Since a woman—Ellen G. White—was the most influential of the founders of the denomination and served a lifetime as a preacher, leader and holder of credentials as an ordained minister, the current debate may seem somewhat arcane.

Despite a vote by a General Conference Session in the 1880s supporting the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, the issue has been debated since the 1970s. At the 1990 GC Session in Indianapolis the delegates voted not to move ahead, but to preserve the unity of the global movement not because there was a consensus that the Bible is against it. Five years later the GC Session in Utrecht, Holland, turned down a request from the NAD to be permitted to decide the issue within its territory. Since that time there has been no further action although some would like to use the situation to foreclose any future steps.

At the most recent GC Session in Atlanta in 2010, the newly-elected GC President Ted N. C. Wilson promised that an in-depth Bible study of the concept of ordination would be undertaken with a report back to the next session in 2015. The GC Annual Council has voted a step by step time-table for this study to be conducted in all parts of the world and the findings brought together.

Almost all Adventist bible scholars say that there is very little material in Scripture that deals directly with this topic. Ordination is a concept that is rooted largely in extra-biblical traditions. Only the Roman Catholic Church and some Anglican bishops argue today for a rule that excludes women from serving in top denominational leadership roles.

A copy of the complete letter can be downloaded here.