The Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America to Release Ordination Study Report
by Monte Sahlin
By Adventist Today News Team, October 30, 2013
Another step in the current study of ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination has been completed and the denomination's North American Division (NAD) will soon release a 240-page report from its ordination study committee. When the General Conference (GC) executive committee set up the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, it also authorized each of its 13 world divisions to pursue a similar study. At least five have done so.
"Divisions" are regional offices of the GC that, according to the GC bylaws, answer to the same constituency as the global organization. In fact, when the nominating committee functions at the GC session every five years it operates in separate caucuses for each of the divisions, each made up almost entirely of members from within the division. The executive committee for each division consists predominantly of members from the union conferences in that division and each has a Working Policy crafted to the needs and practices within its territory. The 13 divisions include three each in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe, and one for the South Pacific.
Potentially the Theology of Ordination Study Committee may have to integrate 13 reports like this one. It is generally agreed that under such a circumstance, the reports will contradict each other. Adventist Today has been told that Pastor Ted Wilson, the president of the GC, has asked the NAD officers to block the NAD executive committee, which begins its annual meeting on Thursday (October 31), from voting to approve or recommend the positions taken in this report. Sources say that he is fearful that if divisions take official, voted positions it will make it more difficult for the Theology of Ordination Study Committee to come to a solution that will maintain "unity" in the denomination.
The NAD report makes only two recommendations: (1) According to the Bible "ordination to gospel ministry" is to "be conferred by the church on men and women," although "because the Bible does not directly address the ordination of women, and because the principle-based evidence is neither complete nor irrefutable, it can be expected that differing conclusions may be drawn by equally sincere and competent students of God’s Word." (2) The NAD should seek "authorization of each division to consider, through prayer and under the direction of the Holy Spirit, its most appropriate approach to the ordination of women to gospel ministry."
This is essentially the same solution to the standoff on this topic that the NAD requested at the 1995 GC Session. At the time the majority of the delegates voted against the request. No further action was taken.
The report's introduction states that "the recommendations … represent the position of the overwhelming majority" of the study group, but "not all concur." In fact, two of the 14 members authored a minority report that is included in the document. There was "unanimous agreement" on one point: "We believe that an individual, as a Seventh-day Adventist in thorough commitment to the full authority of Scripture, may build a defensible case in favor of or in opposition to the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, although each of us views one position or the other as stronger and more compelling."
The NAD study group was chaired by Dr. Gordon Bietz, president of Southern Adventist University, and a religion faculty member from his institution, Dr. Edwin Reynolds, served as secretary. Nine of the 14 are Bible scholars familiar with the Scripture in its original languages, four are pastors and one is an officer of the NAD. Four are women and half are from ethnic minorities. A GC staff member, Dr. Clinton Wahlen from the Biblical Research Institute, served as a member of the study group. Reynolds and Wahlen authored the minority report.
The bulk of the report is made up of ten in-depth study papers, six authored by members of the group and four borrowed from the papers already released by the Theology of Ordination Study Committee. The report also reproduces the "Methods of Bible Study" paper voted by the GC in 1986. The group clearly states that it used standard, established Adventist hermeneutics in coming to its conclusions.
The group also explored at length the "headship" theology which argues that the Bible prohibits women from exercising spiritual leadership in the church. "Others believe that biblical headship does not apply to church leadership roles but is limited in application to the husband’s role as servant-leader in the home," the report states. "Still others contend that headship is not even a biblical concept, but rather a relatively modern term, and that the original Greek word for head (kephale), denotes source, not leader. These argue that hierarchical position is not the point, and that correct interpretation of these challenging passages is dependent on understanding the context in which they were written. The majority of the committee does not view the issue of headship as a barrier to ordaining women to pastoral ministry."
The report addresses the issue of "unity" with the observation that "unity must be differentiated from uniformity, which implies invariability." For the Seventh-day Adventist Church "our doctrines comprise the common ground upon which our Church denomination is organized [and] the 28 Fundamental Beliefs are the common doctrines. … Other issues not unequivocally outlined in Scripture are subject to varying interpretations. Because a scripturally based, reasonable case may be made in favor of or opposed to the ordination of women to pastoral ministry, a worldwide mandate is neither practical nor necessary."
The document points out that the GC "has established policies recognizing women in leadership roles: the ordination of deaconesses and elders and the commissioning of pastors" and "although these policies are not practiced in all regions of the world, the Church has remained a single, worldwide organization. It is the conclusion of the study committee that differences in opinion and practice on this issue do not constitute disunity in Christ nor in the Church." A number of union conferences in North America and Europe have already taken action to begin ordaining women serving as pastors, and Adventists in China have done so since the 1980s.
Several members of this NAD study group are also members of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, but it remains to be seen how much of the thinking expressed in this report will be included in the report of the GC executive committee next year. Because there are an estimated 30 million or more adherents worldwide and the Adventist Church operates in hundreds of languages and many more cultural contexts, it will likely not be possible to find a position that satisfies all Adventists.