by Laura Ochs Wibberding, June 29, 2015: At this year’s long-anticipated General Conference session in San Antonio, delegates will vote on whether each Division may decide for themselves whether to ordain women. With all of the hype, the Internet war, and the mass mailings, it may help to step back and consider whether we are asking the right question. While all of the church is swept up in the argument over Divisions deciding for themselves, perhaps we need to ask, whose decision is it, really?
The vote in San Antonio is based on a broad, and studiously unquestioned, assumption. The assumption is that this issue–whether gender ought to be a requirement for ordination–is the prerogative of the world church. The vote presumes that the General Conference (GC) has custody of this decision and may choose to relinquish it, or not. Not only is this unproven, but it is likely untrue. And to know that for certain would take, not a vote of the GC, but a careful survey of church policy.
In 2012, the church was ignited into controversy when the Columbia and Pacific Unions both voted to ordain without regard to gender. In the months that followed, local conferences, in the US and in Europe, followed in kind. The word “rebellion” was bandied about cyberspace. But was it rebellion? It was certainly done over objection. In both cases the GC president personally urged the constituents not to vote the action, saying they must let the GC decide. But were they acting outside their authority? Were they violating church policy? If not, then the word rebellion is a gross injustice. And if the Unions were not in rebellion, then we already have a solution, one which does not take 2,600 GC delegates to make happen.
So let’s consider the Union votes. Let us consider, first, the question of policy. Did these votes put the Unions outside of world church policy? We can almost guess from the response. When the North American Division voted the (later-rescinded) E-60 policy, allowing a Commissioned minister (and thereby a woman) to serve as Conference president, the GC answered with lawyers. They made a case that the policy voted was invalid, as the Division had no proper constituency. By contrast, when the Union votes were taken, the response was not lawyers, but words. At the Autumn Council that year, a voted statement denounced the actions and refused to recognize them. Official statements said the Unions were “out of harmony” with the world church, implying a policy violation without exactly saying so. The implication was convincing. Even Adventist News Network, reporting on the events, mistakenly declared that church policy forbids the ordination of women.
Church policy does not. In fact, the votes were actually redundant. No policy change is needed to ordain a woman. No rule of the church prevents it. A careful reading of the GC Working Policy will give one nothing stronger to stand on than inference. In the qualifications for ordination, the policy mentions no gender requirement. There are only two evidences one may claim for a requirement. The first is that the language is not gender-inclusive. The policy book uses “he” and “his” for the candidate, and refers to the candidate’s wife. The second evidence may be claimed from the anti-discrimination policy. This policy insists that the church does not discriminate for employment on the basis of race or gender, but it allows an exception for positions which require ordination. That is, the policy is written in such a way that it cannot be used to prove women must be ordained to prevent gender discrimination. Both examples tell us it has been the church’s practice to ordain only men. Neither of them is an instruction, or a policy to ordain only men. One may make an inference from a text of scripture (such as Paul’s “husband of one wife”) and read it as proof of a not-actually-stated rule, but legal documents such as organizational policy allow no such casual hermeneutic.
But what of the 1990 and 1995 votes? They are the evidence used to claim the Unions are “out of harmony” with the church. Many, if not most, Adventists have been told those votes expressly forbid the church generally (1990) and the NAD specifically (1995) to ordain women. They were, in fact, something much less decisive. In 1990, the GC in session rejected a movement to officially endorse the ordination of women. The reason given was cultural, because it would not be well-received in all parts of the world, and included the words “at this time.” Church policy was unchanged.
But is this splitting straws? Can we say that the Unions may do what the GC has, by vote, declined to do? That brings us to the second issue, the authority of the Unions. Did they overstep their authority? What is their authority, and how does it relate to the General Conference? The union conferences were created during the 1901 reorganization for the express purpose of distributing the GC’s decision-making authority into the field.* There were practical advantages, of course, but the intent was also certainly to decentralize power in the church. The 1901 reorganization also, temporarily, replaced the General Conference president with a small committee.
This division of responsibility is seen in today’s Working Policy, as well. In section B 05, it states that “decisions regarding the ordination of ministers is entrusted to the union conference/mission; and the definition of denominational beliefs are entrusted to the General Conference in session.” So if ordaining women is a theological issue, then it should be decided by the General Conference in session. If it is a policy issue, it might be solved on any level, but the best case can be made for the Union. One may say that the Unions have authority only in approving specific candidates, and not over the rules for ordination. But this is a moot point. The church has never made a gender qualification for ordination, and decades of church-sponsored research on the theology (the area where the General Conference has final authority) have found no prohibition, It follows then, that Unions are free to consider women as well as men. And thus, the votes taken were within the bounds of union-designated authority.
Some have speculated on what will happen if a “No” vote comes out of San Antonio. It is possible that administration may seek punitive measures against the Unions which have voted to ordain without regard to gender. At the least, the threat of such measures, combined with the weight of a recent vote, would be useful in pressuring them to rescind their decisions. The accusation will be made that if they do not back down, they will be splitting the church. But if the Unions votes were legitimate, and not in violation of church policy, then it is not those votes, but the response to them which has created our problems.
We are in a debate without a reasonable expectation of consensus. No amount of Bible study has created consensus. No vote of the General Conference will create it, either. Conviction is not created by a vote or dictated from the top. In 1990, the General Conference declined to endorse women’s ordination because not all the church was ready for it. A yes vote would offend the convictions of many of its members. The same would be true of a world-wide “no.” This question cannot have a single answer for the world church.
But it does have an answer. Unions and Conferences have begun to answer it. We can move forward if we have help from two sources. The first is lawyers–not to lodge suits against each other, but to mediate. Our policies and procedures are only as good as our commitment to following them. We can see that Union votes have not been regarded carefully enough.
But most of all, we need the help of Christ. It is Christ who binds us together as a community, not our uniformity. And it is a lack of grace, not a lack of agreement, which can split us.
Although San Antonio will certainly impact this issue in our church, it will not resolve it. We will still disagree, but I also believe we have no need to divide. We can solve this problem. We have, right now, all the tools we need.
* “This, it will be plainly seen, will distribute the responsibilities of the General Conference, placing them more fully and definitely on those who are upon the ground where the work is to be done and the issues to be met. . . A thousand details will be transferred from the General Conference Committee to those whom the Lord has called to His work and whom He has placed in the field where the details are to be worked out.” (1901 GC session bulletin, pp. 513, 514)
Bio–Laura Ochs Wibberding holds an MA in Religion from Andrews University Theological Seminary, with an emphasis in Church History.