October 12, 2015:    As the annual meeting of the Adventist denomination’s governing body got down to business yesterday, a statement from the organization’s top officers was read appealing for “all entities to respect the decision” about clergy ordination voted in July at a General Conference Session held only once every five years. The vote was against the idea that the ongoing debate about women in the ordained clergy could be settled separately in different regions of the world.

The statement began by acknowledging the conflict. “There are times … when committed Christians have differences [and] these instances necessitate mutual respect, thoughtful listening, heartfelt understanding and submission to the Holy Spirit’s leading. … This is certainly true regarding the vote on July 8, 2015, on the subject of ordination at the General Conference Session in San Antonio.”

The statement also reaffirmed “that the Holy Spirit imparts gifts on all believers,” including women. “The vote taken in San Antonio does not change … the role of women in the life, mission and practice of the church,” the statement continued.” It referenced specifically “General Conference and division working policies” summarizing these policies in a summary that both sides can hopefully accept; “Godly, Spirit-filled women are powerfully witnessing for Christ and being used by the Holy Spirit to make major contributions for the advancement of His kingdom.”

Those who oppose the ordination of women pastors as clergy interpret the vote in San Antonio as prohibiting the practice, while those who have ended gender exclusion in some judicatories in China, the United States and Europe point out that the vote did not authorize any policy changes. In 1901, under the leadership of Ellen G. White, the General Conference (GC) Session voted to create Union Conferences with the specific purpose of decentralizing authority in the denomination and decreasing the direct powers of the GC itself. The working policies assign Union Conferences authority over ordination.

Many leaders in the denomination are caught in the middle on this controversy. They fear what the statement refers to as “unilateral and independent action” because it could result in “fracture and fragmentation,” although they do not accept the argument of hard-liners that permitting women to lead congregations or conferences is unbiblical. The statement recognizes the role of women as ordained elders in local congregations and commissioned ministers employed as pastors while seeking restraint on those organizations that have begun to ordain women as clergy.

“It is ironic that this has become such a big issue among Adventists,” a historian of religion told Adventist Today. White is the most important founder of the denomination and she was issued credential as an ordained minister by the GC for most of her life. At an 1881 GC Session the delegate supported a resolution authorizing the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, although it was never fully implemented. In the 1970s and 1980s the GC studied the topic and took steps toward full inclusion of women pastors in clergy ordination. But at 1990 and 1995 GC Sessions, as well as the one last summer, a shrinking majority of delegates voted against allowing the practice to be decided on separately by major sections of the worldwide denomination.

“The vote at the GC Session was supposed to bring closure to this discussion by allowing the issue to be addressed closer to the local level and allowing for cultural differences,” a retired denominational officer told Adventist Today. “Some in leadership pointed out more than a year ahead of time that this was probably a mistake; that it would not bring healing; that it would be better to address the issue in the body that makes policy for the denomination. Now we are back where we were.”