Response to General Conference Opinion Paper
By Gary Patterson, August 26, 2015: The General Conference Secretariat has produced an opinion paper titled “Unions and Ordination to the Gospel Ministry.” This paper is a helpful and thorough review of the history of ordination policy and procedure in the church as it has been practiced and as it has morphed into the present practice. As one would expect, it takes the General Conference authority line in its arguments and conclusion.
Regarding the paper, there are several facts that the authors choose to ignore. First, there is nothing in the 15 criteria for ordination that addresses gender. While it is true that male gender wording is used twice in point 1 of the policy L 50, it is not used at all in the list of criteria or the remainder of the policy. This language is a matter of precedent, not policy. While it is true that no females were ordained in past years, this failure to do so does not make it a policy. The fact is that the Working Policy was filled with male gender language until the late 1980’s when it was decided to change its wording to gender neutral. An editorial group was assigned the task, and made the changes. The fact that they changed all the rest of the document, but not the wording in the ordination section does not constitute a policy, unless it is listed in the criteria for ordination, which it notably is not.
Regarding the notion of the ordination of ministers for the world church being an obstacle, the same is true for the ordination of elders. Once an elder is ordained anywhere in the world, that ordination is valid anywhere else. One does not need to be re-ordained in another church in order to serve there. To use that argument for ordained ministers and not for ordained elders is specious. Thus a woman ordained as an elder in North America is eligible to be an elder in Africa, for example. If we give divisions an exception on this issue, as the footnote to policy BA 60 10 does, the same should apply to ministers as well. There is no basis to apply this reasoning in one case of ordination and not the other. Yet in San Antonio it was stated that the vote on ordination did not apply to elders, a blatant inconsistency.
Furthermore, if we want to play the gender exclusive wording game, then the 10th Commandment does not apply to women. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” would apply only to men. Likewise, in the message to the seven churches, “To him that overcometh” would not apply to women. There is a host of other texts where this would also be true if allusion to gender becomes determinative. Failure to change language to gender inclusiveness is a weak and foolish argument indeed.
Precedent, practice and prejudice do not constitute policy. The provision for ordination authorization, made in accord with the 15 criteria of policy L 50, is clearly within the authority of the union conference, just as pastoral assignment is in the authority of the local conference and membership is in the authority of the local church. When these decisions are made in the context of the criteria established in policy, the General Conference has no business dealing with them.
If the Annual Council chooses to make a policy forbidding the ordination of women it may do so. But until it is made a criteria for ordination that only males may be ordained, there is no policy forbidding the ordination of females. And when or if it does so, it will be a blatant and illogical contradiction of it being permitted to ordain women as elders, but not as ministers, with divisions being allowed to opt in or out of the process as they choose.
The Secretariat document indicates that policy B 05.6 “is not a specific policy of ordination but rather is given as an example of church structure.” This is a curious excuse and an attempt to diminish the authority of the policy. Either it is policy, or it is not. Being an example in no way reduces its authority. If that were the case, other matters listed in B 05.6 including membership issues at the local church level, pastoral assignment issues at the local conference level, as well doctrinal issues at the General Conference level, would likewise be merely examples and not policy. Such an attempt at logic makes no sense. Either these are policy, or they are not. Furthermore, listing them as examples, rather than diminishing their authority, serves to emphasize them by the fact that these were the prime and obvious examples of policy selected to represent the authority of the various levels to which they are assigned.
That Secretariat has authority to express an opinion on this issue is valid. In fact, it has a responsibility to express opinions on issues. However, they are just that, opinions. These opinions are neither rules nor policies. They may be correct, or they may be in error, just the same as anyone else who expresses opinions. Without question the opinions of the Secretariat are weighty, but that does not make them necessarily accurate, nor does it prevent other opinions from being expressed. Unless and until this issue is made into a specific policy it remains in the zone of opinion. If the Annual Council wished to do so in its authority to make policy, it should make the exclusive gender nature of ordination the first point in policy L 50 in the qualifications for ministry. At least then it will be honest as to what it is attempting to say regarding discrimination. It is of interest that the Secretariat paper, in its attempt to diminish the authority of the union conferences, does not address the impact of the language in policy B 05.6 which emphatically states, “Thus each level of organization exercises a realm of final authority which may have implications for other levels of organization.”
Policy L 45.4 reinforces the assignment of ordination to the union conference level. If it were not such a strong assignment, there would be no need to make an exception to the policy allowing division and General Conference executive committees to approve their own ordination candidates. The existence of this exception proves the intent of policy to assign the responsibility to the union level.
On the issue of women’s ordination, the General Conference officers, which includes the Secretariat, have expressed themselves in recent years. In a letter of June 29, 2012, addressed to the Columbia Union Conference officers and executive committee it is stated, “Decisions (1975, 1985, 1990 and 1995) to withhold ordination to women have been based on perceived negative impact on the unity of the World Church rather than on the basis of compelling evidence from the Bible or the Spirit of Prophecy.” Given that the ordination issue is not one of the Fundamental Beliefs of the church, and given that the actions regarding female ordination have not been based on either biblical or Ellen White authority, this should not be an issue for the World Church to address, which allows the customs of one area of the world to be imposed on another.
Regarding the Fundamental Beliefs, however, allowing discrimination does violate belief number 14. It is unfortunate that a policy exists that not only allows such discrimination, but shamefully identifies it. Policy BA 60 10 states, “The world church supports nondiscrimination in employment practices and policies and upholds the principle that both men and women, without regard to race and color, shall be given full and equal opportunity within the Church to develop the knowledge and skills needed for the building up of the Church. Positions of service and responsibility (except those requiring ordination to the gospel ministry) on all levels of church activity shall be open to all on the basis of the individual’s qualifications.” Thus refusal to allow ordination is defined as a discriminatory act contrary to a fundamental belief.
As helpful as the Secretariat opinion paper 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.