by Harald Giesebrecht, July 10, 2015: Over the last five years I have observed and been part of the process leading up to this summer’s vote on women’s ordination. This process has unfortunately undermined some of my trust in the General Conference. Here is why.
- Our General Conference leadership is guilty of acting divisively.
The question of women’s ordination is in and by itself not a divisive issue for our world church. I don’t spend much energy worrying about who does what in Argentina. And my guess is that they don’t lose any sleep over who does what in Norway. And we all celebrate who does what in China. Different views on ordination of female elders and the commissioning of female pastors has not divided us. Neither will women’s ordination. Practical solutions and acceptable adaptions to working policy will be found. But some of our General Conference leaders have instead made it their mission to make this a potentially church-splitting issue by acting very much as if it is. This has not only cost millions of dollars and caused great harm to parts of our church-family. It has also seriously undermined the influence of the General Conference in parts of the world. What reasons can possibly justify such a great cost to our system of governance?
- Our General Conference leadership has refused to lead the church to a solution to the problem they have created.
The Annual Council was pressured by General Conference executives to submit the motion to the delegates with no recommendation, even though the same GC executives knew perfectly well that a yes vote would solve the problem, whereas a no-vote would solve nothing at all. One can only speculate about what ideological considerations can cause our world leaders to think it is worth it to cause so much damage. Two sentences from Ted Wilson could have changed the vote in favor of a livable solution. Instead the ironic cost of using “democracy” to coerce the West is a loss of influence over the unions in Europe and North-America.
- Our theologians have not been allowed to provide theological leadership in this process.
The TOSC was not composed to reflect what our theologians actually think or teach. Instead it was deliberately put together with 50% for and against women’s ordination, with many participants having minimal relevant theological training. The deceptive impression was given that our theologians are split right down the middle, and that Headship Theology is a viable option along with the other positions. Had instead every Adventist university sent their top New Testament scholars to TOSC, the outcome would have been very different. What is the point of having theologians if they are not allowed to provide theological leadership? Why all this theological training when the views of the untrained are made to count just as much?
- The General Conference is showing signs of becoming a threat to our Adventist heritage.
This may sound a bit far out at first, but hear me out. If our theologians are not allowed to provide theological leadership and our General Conference leaders are allowed to put whatever they want to a vote by the delegates, the prospects are frightening indeed.
Did the arguments actually made against women’s ordination in this process demonstrate an awareness of our Adventist theological heritage beyond finding suitable Ellen White quotes? Did, for example, the proponents of Headship Theology show any awareness that their theology presupposes a Calvinistic view of God that is totally alien to the very core of Adventist theology? To be able to tout Calvinistic headship theology and Roman Catholic views of ordination as “true Adventism” one must either be ignorant or dishonest. With an ever increasing percentage of our global membership being first-generation Adventists, we should however not be surprised if future decisions are not rooted in “the way God has led us in the past.” One can only speculate what would have happened if delegates in San Antonio had been asked whether the church should adopt headship theology: Yes or No?
Adventism was from its outset immersed in what George Knight calls “the spirit of Anabaptism.” There were other strands that influenced us deeply, but Anabaptism and Restorationism freed us to develop a theology apart from mainline Protestant and Catholic tradition. This has, for example, launched us into the project of creating a Christian theology free from a Platonist (dualist) worldview. And it has decidedly freed us from the tyranny of Calvin’s God. Instead our cosmic conflict perspective emphasizes the love of the Creator and the goodness, freedom and responsibility of creation. When I see all this threatened by a haphazard influx of foreign and incompatible strands of theology that our theologians are not even allowed to correct, I am frightened indeed. As a fourth-generation Adventist, I had never dreamt that I should ever perceive the General Conference as a possible threat to the core of Adventism. But the process on women’s ordination has left me worried.
- Our General Conference leadership is asking us to yield our conscience to ecclesiastical authority.
I grew up with the Great Controversy (my mother would read it to me), and it has in many ways shaped my conception of what Adventism is all about. One of my favorite parts was the story of Luther, standing up for the Bible against an overwhelming opposition. In this he was a hero, along with a host of others who had been faithful to their calling and their conscience and refused to bow to ecclesiastical authority. They taught us how we should act should we face similar pressure. But the message from San Antonio is that I should do the opposite. I should yield my convictions and my conscience.
When I speculate on why Ted Wilson refused to recommend the yes-vote, I can think of no other acceptable reason than strongly held biblical convictions. He has been willing to pay a high price for his convictions. With regard to Europe and North America, he has gambled with the influence of the General Conference. He is, in a way, acting like a true Adventist who will “stand for truth though the heavens fall.” And yet he is asking Adventists all over Europe and North America to give up their convictions and act against their conscience. He is asking us to continue to denigrate women in the name of Jesus, even if we believe Jesus calls us to actively reverse this curse. Had he wanted to, he could have created space for all of us to follow our conscience. Women’s ordination is, after all, not a fundamental belief. Instead, he is asking us to yield to him?
I am sorry. I have to choose my conscience. I am a good Adventist too. But growing up, I never imagined I would hear the General Conference president ask me to betray such a sacred Adventist virtue for the sake of uniformity.
- Our structures give far too much power to one man.
Over the last five years I have watched my church become more sectarian, more totalitarian, more polarized and more divided… This has happened in spite of many of the vice presidents whom we know as people who would mourn this development. Our president’s polarizing language has translated into polarizing actions and divisive votes. For some reason there seems to be nothing and no one in our system of governance that is able to balance his zeal. His personal opinions now dominate everything that proceeds from the GC. How can they ask us to believe that the General Conference is the steward of divine authority, when its decisions so clearly are seen to be the extension of one man’s personality? Didn’t Ellen White worry about a similar scenario a little over a century ago?
But of course … she was never ordained.
Pastor Harald Giesebrecht is a father, church-planter, writer and Adventist minister currently serving as a pastor in Oslo, Norway. He is also the academic dean for the Norwegian Bible Correspondence School. He was part of the Trans-European Division Biblical Research Committee set up to study Women’s Ordination.