By Loren Seibold, October 3, 2017:      

When in 2015 the word came through that the delegates in San Antonio had turned down the motion to let divisions decide whether ordination of women would take place within their territories, Adventist media, both social and the press, lit up with contrasting responses. Those who had been opposed to women’s ordination thought the issue had finally been put to rest: that now women would be stripped of church leadership and allowed to retreat back to children’s Sabbath School and heating up potluck dishes, letting the men reoccupy center stage. The other side insisted that nothing had changed: that the unions still held the authority to ordain in their territories.

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Neither was exactly correct. Elder Ted Wilson came to the microphone to remind the San Antonio delegates that the vote did not disallow women’s commissioning or ordaining women as local elders. As for the other interpretation, it’s true that union conferences approve ordinations in their territory, but the General Conference says those decisions are made under their policies. The union conferences that ordained female pastors have held on to the interpretation that ordination belongs to them, not to the General Conference. Remember, though, that most people in San Antonio were quite sure they were voting on women’s ordination, not on who gets to decide—despite that not being what the motion actually said.

In case you’ve been casting about to understand the terms of this argument, perhaps supposing it was about theology and the interpretation of the Bible and Ellen White, I hope this will clarify it for you. The theology has been studied to distraction. The creek across which the war is currently being waged is whether the General Conference or the union conferences have authority over how ministers are chosen. On one side is the Silver Spring tribe, who hold gender to be a matter of such importance  that only they and the delegates to GC sessions can decide if women can be ordained pastors. On the other are union conferences, who believe that women being ordained is a decision where we can afford some cultural flexibility, in deference to local needs.

Please remember this as we go through these meetings. The theology of women in ministry is debatable, depending on your weltanschauung: the case for ordaining women or not ordaining women has been made from the very same source materials. Both sides come to the battle armed with arguments, but the fight behind the fight is whether authority to make this decision (and, by extension, other decisions—more on that later) is at the very top of the church, as it is in the Roman Catholic religion, or somewhat more locally, such as at our union conference or local conference or even the congregational level.

What is clear is that the union conferences that had already decided to ordain women did not accept the San Antonio decision as most who voted for it understood it. Some continued to ordain. Others stopped ordaining all together. None have done what the GC delegates believed they’d decided: to ordain men, while taking ordination away from women and never again bringing it up as a possibility.

October 2016

This is where things stood just a year ago, when the brethren (with but the usual small smattering of sistren) met for the 2016 Annual  Council of the General Conference Executive Committee (GCEC), the women’s ordination question hanging in the air like the stench of burned lentil roast. The first address to it was a rather sprawling 50-page document (bylined only “secretariat”) entitled “A Study of Church Governance and Unity”. It restates the argument that church unity means uniting around the policies and leadership of the General Conference, as demonstrated biblically by the Jerusalem Council and advocated by Ellen White in her several “highest authority of God on earth” statements.

This wasn’t regarded by some on the GCEC as an actionable paper, though, and when more committee members arrived for the pre-meetings, a shorter document was offered. The heart of “Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation,” is a Matthew 18ish procedure whose first phase commences with “Listen and pray,” then moves on to “Consultation with wider groups,” then “Write pastoral [read ‘warning’] letters,” and ends with “Listen and pray again.” Phase two says that if the “above process of prayer and consultation does not resolve the matter, the executive committee of the next higher organization” will loop back through these steps, after which “the General Conference will become involved”.

When this document was presented, at least one church leader on the dais claimed that it had nothing whatsoever to do with women’s ordination—that it was only a general-purpose conflict-resolution procedure. The susurrus in the room (GCEC members are far too nice to snicker aloud, so I can only attest to a rising buzz) made me think few believed that. Actually, there isn’t much in this document that is either surprising or scary. We all believe in the Matthew 18 process. But everyone knew that because of what occasioned it, it represented more than it said. After a lot of discussion, almost all of which was about women’s ordination (see? I told you) the document was approved by a fairly small margin, and mostly along the lines of the West vs. the developing world.

This put in motion a process between the General Conference and union conferences that we assume has been proceeding over the past year. Most people consider phase one to have been completed, and we are now in the final part of phase two: getting the General Conference involved.

So What Will Happen Now?

I don’t know. But, like all the overweight recliner-bound fans you hear phoning sports call-in shows across the AM dial, my lack of knowledge and participation won’t stop me from discussing the possibilities and giving my opinions.

Something big. Likelihood: low. The rumor about the GC’s intention to take over naughty union conferences, make them into missions and install new leadership, has been repeated so often that it’s almost become a prophecy. But recently Pastor Dan Jackson, the NAD president, stated that Elder Ted Wilson wouldn’t resort to that “nuclear” option. My sources tell me that there are church leaders who would like the General Conference to step in and take over non-compliant union conferences. It has been discussed, and even urged, but right now isn’t gaining traction. And I can also tell you there are other statements with potentially punitive phase two consequences being discussed at this moment. It remains to be seen whether any of these will make it to the business session of the GCEC.

For several reasons—chief among them that it could backfire—I don’t think there will be takeovers. All of the union conference presidents on the GCEC who voted for the church reconciliation procedure last year might think twice about voting fellow union conferences out of existence, realizing that they too could be voted out of existence should they step over a line.

Nothing at all. Likelihood: low. A few have hoped that the topic would just never come up again, like the dozens of unasked-for resources GC departments trot out each year at these meetings that disappear and are never heard of. That’s unlikely. This particular church president, like his father (who once described himself as “the first minister” of the whole denomination) is by nature an authoritarian. He is the church’s chief theologian, visionary, patriarch, and disciplinarian. In contrast to the servant leadership of Dr. Jan Paulsen, this president seems to want to win at almost any cost to the church and its mission. The GCEC may kick parts of this farther down the road, but it won’t just fade away on Elder Wilson’s watch.

Some action to keep the pressure on. Likelihood: high. When you run the system, you discover ways to use the system to get your own way. Like how the Theology of Ordination Study Committee was going to decide about women’s ordination until it rendered a decision that didn’t agree with the GC officers’ view, at which point it became as if it never was. How those on the dais control information and motions. How the General Conference president steps down from the platform and speaks at a microphone on the floor, where he pretends he needn’t be a neutral meeting chair.

Here’s where the General Conference officers have excelled: using their executive role and procedures, combined with authority over church workers (who compose a large majority  of the GCEC), to muddle about with policy and keep everyone a little off-balance.  

What might that be? Too early to say. I have been told by a reliable source that there are those who want to craft a statement that includes consequences for the disobedient union conferences. How punitive might that be? If they manage to do it, we may find out about it next week.

The End of the Church as We Know It?

An ecclesiastical apocalypse—that the church as we know it is about to shatter—has been predicted by some for this annual meeting. Elder Wilson himself said that he sees the current conflict as part of the end-time shaking Ellen White predicted—though that’s not kept him from stirring the pot.

The denomination isn’t going to fall apart next week. Still, this is a dangerous moment in the life of our beloved Seventh-day Adventist Church. No matter what is decided now, the “bring on the shaking!” attitude is diminishing our ability to work together on our common mission. The church won’t disintegrate, but our inability to negotiate cultural and theological differences with one another won’t help the Western church to thrive.

Part Two:  Who’s holds the high ground?

Loren Seibold is a pastor in Ohio, and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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