August 26, 2015: An unprecedented opinion document from the General Conference Secretariat of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination may have played a role in a decision last week by the denomination’s North Pacific Union Conference to cancel an upcoming constituency meeting. Last Wednesday (August 19) the union conference executive committee voted not to go ahead with the meeting of delegates from its six local conferences in the northwestern region of the United States.
“We do not believe that convening a special constituency meeting about the ordination of women as pastors would be productive at this time,” states the item voted to rescind an earlier action. At the same time the committee also voted to affirm its commitment to support women who are serving as clergy, including “the appropriateness s and value of women serving as elders [and] as pastors.”
The same vote put the committee on record in favor of extending ordination to women, stating “we believe that there is no biblical or theological barrier to the ordination of women for professional ministry” and including language against the alternate “male headship” theology. “We affirm Christ as the sole Head of the church and the priesthood of all believers.”
The vote also set a goal for the North Pacific Union Conference “to grow the number of women in professional ministry and to value, affirm and foster their leadership gifts.” A number of individuals in that region have pointed out that the action is an attempt to give something to both sides on this issue and reveals the ambivalence of the union conference leadership.
Seattle Pastor John McLarty has launched a petition among constituency delegates. The constitution of the union conference states that if 20 percent of the delegates sign such a petition, then a constituency meeting must be convened. There are between 200 and 250 delegates, so “if we get 50 of them to sign a call for a special session, that would override the executive committee.”
The document that may have caused the change of heart among the leaders of the North Pacific Union Conference is entitled “Unions and Ordination to the Gospel Ministry: Brief Summary and Comprehensive Working Policy Explanation” and is eight pages in length. It is dated “August 2015” and identified as from “General Conference Secretariat,” although no names of individuals are noted. Sources have indicated to Adventist Today that this document was available prior to the August 19 meeting.
The document argues that union conferences do not have authority to extend ordination to women clergy despite specific statements in the General Conference Working Policy assigning the responsibility for approving ordinations to the union conferences and the history and Ellen G. White statements advocating decentralized authority for the union conferences. “GC WP B 05, no. 6 is not a specific policy on ordination but rather is given as an example of church structure,” the document states.
“The authority given to the unions is not only delegated, but also limited,” the document continues. “Unions have the power to select those to be ordained … who meet the criteria set by the World Church. Authority to determine the criteria has never been delegated from the General Conference to any other organization. … The church’s policy and practice do not permit women to be ordained, since section L [of the Working Policy], which governs ordination, is the only section in GC WP with language that is masculine gender-specific.”
Two pages of the document reiterate “historical practice,” starting with an 1879 vote by the GC Session. It does not discuss prior history, when Adventists began to have leaders recognized as “ordained ministers” even prior to the founding session of the GC in 1963. It refers to one action on ordination voted at the 1881 GC Session without mentioning the fact that another action at the same session actually extended ordination to women specifically. (An action never fully implemented despite the preparatory step of issuing ministerial licenses to women pastors and evangelists.) It ignores the fact that Ellen White throughout much of her life was recognized with the credentials of an ordained minister voted by repeated GC Sessions.
Much of the “historical practice” is from 1925 through 1977, before the current discussion of women’s ordination began. It makes no reference to the extensive studies that that the GC commissioned on this question over the last four decades; material that now totals thousands of pages of careful, professional Bible study, review of White’s writings, history and theology.
Dr. Gary Patterson, a retired GC officer, was asked by Adventist Today to review the secretariat document. He concluded that “as helpful [it] is in presenting the history of the ordination issue, it errs regarding the authority of the union conferences, and it supports discrimination as clearly defined by policy BA 60 10. Since this decision on ordination is not derived from the authority of either Scripture or Ellen White, nor is it a doctrine of the church, and since such an ordination would not violate any of the Fundamental Beliefs, thus, continuing the practice of such refusal as advocated in this opinion of Secretariat, is recognized as institutionalized discrimination and a violation of the Fundamental Beliefs.” His full analysis is published in the Opinion section of Adventist Today.
It remains to be seen how other union conferences will respond to this document. It is unclear as to its origin. Did a union conference request guidance? Did a committee or officer at the GC direct the production of this document? What is its status and standing? It clearly does not have the same authority as the Fundamental Beliefs document or the GC Working Policy. What is the purpose of this document? How does it contribute to denominational unity at a time when Adventists in some parts of the world are feeling discriminated against by the vote in San Antonio?