Open Letter to the Theology Ordination Study Committee Members
by Eric Webster
WHICH WAY NOW FOR THE THEOLOGY ORDINATION STUDY COMMITTEE?
by Eric Webster, May 28, 2014
The time has come for this important Committee to make its recommendations to the Annual Council for its consideration. Much time and effort and thousands of dollars have been invested in this enterprise. No doubt those responsible for framing the final statements have a clear sense of the importance of their work and are praying earnestly for the special guidance of the Holy Spirit as they bring their work to completion. I am sure that thousands of our members around the world are also praying for them.
I thought I would endeavor to put myself in the place of the members of the TOSC, and ask myself what I would do if I were in their shoes.
I sense that there are really only 3 basic ways to go. Those three are:
- To maintain the status quo. This would mean retaining the practice of appointing women as local church elders where it is felt advisable and also maintaining the practice of appointing qualified women as commissioned pastors. However, as at present, the path to women’s ordination would remain closed.
- To take a backward step and decree that no women would be appointed in the future as either local church elders or as commissioned pastors. This step would require an action of the General Conference in session to rescind the previous actions along these lines.
- A forward move. The way would remain open for women to serve as local church elders where that is desired, and the way would also be opened for qualified women called clearly by the Holy Spirit to be ordained as church pastors where the local union conference deems it appropriate for the furtherance of the mission of the church in that particular area of the field.
Let us look more closely at each one of the three options.
1The Status Quo
– Quite clearly the status quo is not a viable or permanent solution for the church. It does not seem wise to have spent five years studying the subject and spending all the time and money on the effort to simply remain where we are. It is quite clear that there are forces pulling the church in different directions. Some want the church to step back; some wish the church to take a forward step.
– If I were a member of the TOSC, I would strongly advise against simply maintaining the status quo. I sense that the Seventh-day Adventist church is still the Great Advent Movement, and that some type of movement is called for. This is especially so in view of the times in which we are living and the winds of change blowing as a result of the mighty working of the Holy Spirit.
2. A Backward Move
- What would a backward move look like? Undoubtedly, there are gradations in the form that this backward step would take. Looking at Paul’s injunctions in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, as well as in 1 Timothy 2, some would insist on following Paul’s counsel that women in church cover their heads with hats or appropriate veils; very few would go all the way in following Paul’s counsel that women remain silent in Sabbath school and church and only ask their questions of their husbands at home after the service.
- 1 Timothy 2:12 contains two injunctions, “I do not permit a woman:
- a) “to teach”
- b) “to have authority over a man”
Some want to follow a) and not allow a woman to teach the Word in a Sabbath school class or from the pulpit. Others are less radical and would allow women to teach the Word in the Sabbath school and even the pulpit. Some do not even object to a woman’s becoming an assistant pastor of a church, so long as she concentrates on women and children and does not become the senior pastor of the church. It would be somewhat similar to the following scenario in the medical field: It’s all right for a woman who has graduated from medical school to practice medicine in a hospital, as long as she concentrates on women and children, and provided she never becomes the senior doctor of the hospital and never received an official certificate indicating that she was a full-fledged medical doctor.
There is more uniformity as to what b) might mean. Most who favor a backward step see this injunction as forbidding a woman to be a local church elder or ordained pastor. They see these offices as opening the door for women to exercise authority over men, which is forbidden. Wouldn’t this stance logically call for its advocates to reexamine the composition of the church board? That’s where the real authority of the church lies, and women who serve on the board can be considered to be exercising authority over men.
A backward move would clearly call for:
a) Rescinding the General Conference session vote to allow women to be appointed as local church elders.
b) Rescinding the provision for women to become commissioned ministers. This provision appears to set the stage for women to desire the final step of full recognition to the gospel ministry, which should be discouraged. This provision would need to be rescinded at a General Conference session.
c) Closing the door at all our colleges, universities and seminaries for women to take the theology course. The theology course simply arouses the interest of some women in entering the ministry. While the seminary should be closed to women, our colleges could provide a restructured course that would open the way for women to become Bible workers in the homes.
Taking this backward step might sound easy on paper. Many policies seem innocent and innocuous, and their consequences are only discovered when the policies are actually implemented.
If we take these backward steps, these would be the results:
1) Not only would no new women elders be appointed; hundreds of functioning women elders around the world would have to be defrocked. Only heaven knows how many hearts would be wounded, how many mission opportunities would be missed, and how many churches would be weakened.
I know of women local elders who have served as efficiently and effectively as any male elders. And God has also added his blessing in the service of many of these women elders.
2) Women would no longer serve the church as commissioned ministers; all functioning female pastors would be defrocked.
Think what this would mean to our work in China, where ordained women have effectively pastored large congregations. All over the world, women serving as commissioned or ordained ministers would have to be defrocked.
Again, such an action could only be written in tears, in broken hearts, in diminished mission outreach, and in resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit who has visited male and female servants with His special presence in these latter days (see Joel 2:28-32).
3) Such a step would guarantee disunity in the church. Thousands of members around the world honestly believe that Scripture does not prohibit women from becoming local elders or church pastors. An action of this nature would not provide opportunity for such members to do what they now believe is a moral imperative. Because it is a moral issue to many, such actions will continue around the world, and the official church will look upon such events as rebellion.
4) We would also have to seriously question the validity of our Religious Liberty Association. If the denomination cannot provide religious liberty for members within its ranks who see this as a moral issue, why continue to fund such an Association?
3. The Forward Move
The Forward move would encompass:
1) Maintaining the present position on the opportunity for qualified and spiritual women to be appointed as local church elders. This would only be done where the pastor and the congregation involved are clear that this would be in harmony with the mission of the church and would have the support of the congregation.
The beauty of the existing policy is that no minister or congregation is forced to take this step if they are not in harmony with it, or if it is felt that the church in question is not ready for this step.
This is certainly the path of religious liberty for the pastor and the congregation.
2) Allowing unions to ordain, not commission, qualified women ministers who are recommended by their employing organization.
Arguments have been presented by our scholars on both sides of this topic. Each side should respect the other and acknowledge that capable and sincere men and women have taken their stand on opposite sides of the debate. It would probably take a very long time for all to take their stand on the same side. Should religious liberty, precious to Adventists, not allow both views to find expression within the church until the time comes when one view might prevail?
The forward move allows for this. When a duly appointed union session comes to a decision to open the door for women’s ordination, this opportunity is given to those conferences that are clear on the matter. No conference would be forced to move in this direction unless it is clear on the issue. For example, even though the Southeastern California Conference sponsors the ordination of qualified female pastors, other conferences within the Pacific Union do not at present ordain their female ministers.
There certainly is sufficient support for women’s ordination from significant segments of the world church, backed by a strong group of sincere Adventist scholarly input. This is not to say that there is not also a significant group of scholars on the other side of the ordination debate. It would be an act of Christian grace for those opposed, to allow Divisions the right to make their own decision either in favor of this step or against.
It would also be an act of Christian grace for a Division to make certain that their action is not blocking one or two unions within their territory from making a forward movement.
At present it seems that the following Divisions are ready for the forward movement:
North American Division
South Pacific Division
Northern Asia-Pacific Division
Inter-European Division – in some sections of this Division, the mission of the church would be enhanced by allowing women’s ordination, while in other sections, it would not.
Some Divisions would either be willing to follow the action of the Church in plenary session on ordination of women or would allow other Divisions to follow this path, even though they might not yet be ready for such a step. They do not wish this topic to continue to disrupt the unity of the church. They sense that there can be true unity in diversity. These Divisions are:
Southern Asia Division
Southern Asia-Pacific Division
West Central African Division
The following Division does not appear clear on the issue and believes that more study is needed before a decision can be made:
East-Central Africa Division
At present the Euro-Asia Division discourages the practice of ordaining women to the pastoral ministry. The South American Division believes that women should not be ordained to the pastoral ministry. The Southern Africa – Indian Ocean Division’s report has come out against women in pastoral ministry, and doesn’t think women should even be local elders.
The South African Union is an integral part of that Division, though, and it has serious questions about the report they put out. Questions have been raised as to how this report was put together and whether the various views of the Union were sufficiently canvassed. After all, this Union supports Helderberg College, where women are admitted to the theology course, and its female graduates are called and placed in evangelistic and pastoral fields.
The wisest course for the TOSC is to recommend to the Annual Council that the church move forward on this matter. If that is their advice it would certainly be unethical for the General Conference leadership to attempt to change the direction of that action.
The Backward move would lock everyone into one mold. Any departure from that position would be viewed as rebellion. This would be the surest recipe for disunity in the Seventh-day Adventist church.
It’s highly immature for anyone to think that it’s worthwhile to split the denomination over this issue. Of course, local congregations have already been split over smaller issues, such as whether to allow instrumental music in the church or not. And if we choose to split over this larger issue we are actually really splitting over whether we can kneel and pray and place hands on the head of a woman in dedication for service.
Ordination is simply a word; for Adventists, it certainly does not carry the same significance as in the Roman Catholic Church, which inducts men into the order of the priesthood. In the Adventist church there are no priests, whether men or women. There is only one Priest, and that is Jesus Christ. All members of the church are members of the priesthood, and some amongst them are set aside as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and/or teachers. All of those spiritual offices are open to men and women.
Ellen White spoke of women’s being paid from the tithe, and of laying hands on certain women. She stated that in some cases women are better equipped to be in charge of a church than are some men. She was speaking in the days before we had opened our theological courses to women. How much stronger would her words be today!
The Forward move would open the way for those who feel ready to embrace women in all aspects of gospel work to do this. Many parts of the world field would be blessed by this step. Yet there would be place for those who do not feel that women should be elders or pastors to express this view in their local church or Conference. No one would be forced to do what he or she feels is not in harmony with his or her beliefs. This would be the path of true religious liberty within the Adventist church.
If the church decides to move forward at the next General Conference session, there is no need to punish those unions who have already moved forward. Nor does action need to be taken against a Conference who appointed a woman as its President. Such actions would be small and petty. Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves the church membership in a certain direction and only later does the world church catch up in its policies to what the Lord has already been doing in the field.
In considering the Backward move or the Forward move, I cannot but help think of the 12 spies who returned with their report after surveying the promised land. Only two believed they could move forward; the other 10 were not prepared for such a move. As a result of rejecting the Forward move, the children of Israel spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness.
Today there are many more than two spies out of 13 (Divisions) who are prepared to move forward in faith. If the church does not move forward on this issue of spiritual gifts, I am afraid that the church (like Israel of old) will spend another 40 years wandering in the wilderness of this world.
Let us move forward, prayerfully granting religious liberty to all members and giving the opportunity for all, both men and women, to use their gifts for the finishing of the work and the establishment of God’s kingdom of glory.