By Monte Sahlin, June 9, 2015: I agree with those who have predicted that in the short term, no matter which way the delegates vote at the General Conference Session in San Antonio, nothing will change. It is important to remember that the Annual Council set up the question on ordination as essentially an opinion poll. It does not amend the bylaws. It does not add anything to the Fundamental Beliefs. It does not change the Working Policy. And it will not change what most Adventists believe on the topic. Nor does it change what will happen in the long-term future.
This is why: Seventh-day Adventists have been taught that “the Bible and the Bible only” is to be the rule of faith, and that every believer can study for him or her self. Many Adventists have been through a process of changing their beliefs over time as they studied the Bible and were encouraged to act on what they saw in the Scriptures. They have already set aside the tradition of a religion in which they were raised and already decided to go with what they see in the Bible instead of the authority of a denominational hierarchy. And the rest of the Adventist movement grew up in a faith that they have been told from childhood is “against tradition” and follows what anyone can learn for themselves in the Bible.
Unfortunately, in the present moment different people see different things in the Bible. Some attempt to argue that their view is the Word of God and those who disagree with them are “against the Bible,” but everyone can easily see that is a dishonest argument. Those on each side of this debate about ordination are equally certain they see in the Bible the position they have taken. Those who believe that the places in the world where women pastors have already been ordained are doing what God wants are just as certain that the Bible supports their belief as are those who say that God’s will is for women to not serve in the role of spiritual leader of the flock “over” men.
There is no concise, simple “thus saith the Lord” proof text on either side. There are hints and “principles.” There are themes and details, but nowhere does the Bible absolutely settle this debate. In fact, that is precisely what the delegates to the General Conference in 1990 voted in part one of the item you can see in the published minutes of the Indianapolis Session.
There are sincere believers, articulate advocates and able Bible scholars on both sides of this issue. If it were to be determined by a majority vote of those who read the Bible in its original languages, then the report of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee clearly indicates that in those places where it will advance the mission of the church, there is nothing wrong with constituencies voting to move ahead with ordaining women. Just as voted by the delegates at the 1990 GC Session, the only reason not to do it is because of “unity.”
“Unity” is not a durable reason for anything in the Adventist movement. “Unity” is another word for tradition and, as I was taught from childhood, “we don’t believe in tradition.” Unless you can be comfortable in an Adventist denomination where there are others who disagree with you on this question, then what you mean by “unity” is the authority of Councils, not the authority of Scripture. And you do believe that tradition is more important than individual believers interpreting the Scripture as the Holy Spirit leads.
That is one reason why this whole discussion is so painful. It pulls off the nice covers that we like to think say who we are and what we stand for. We are forced to face reality. Do we really believe that the mission of Christ is the prime directive for the Remnant people? Do we really believe in the Bible and the Bible only? Do we really believe that the Holy Spirit brings together sisters and brothers who disagree with each other in matters of interpretation?
What Will Happen in the Long Term?
A generation or two from now it is unlikely that the role of women in the church will continue to be a big issue. In the 1980s the Adventists in China began to ordain women as pastors. In the 1990s the Adventists in North America began to “commission” women as pastors. (In the Bible these two words mean the same thing.) In the last few years, delegates to union conference sessions in North America and Europe voted to begin to ordain women in the same way that men are ordained. The trend will not change even if the majority of the delegates in San Antonio vote “No” on this question. The majority voted against it in 1990 and 1995 and no amount of voting “No” will change the long-term outcome unless you are willing to disfellowship entire cultures and generations. And, clearly, the majority of Adventists are not willing to go that far.
Some will point to this as a triumph of culture over Scripture, but remember for just a minute how history has unfolded to this point. When Jesus left the 120 in the upper room, women held a role in society somewhere between slaves and male children. They could not hold property and their husbands were permitted to punish them physically if they did not obey. Some had grandmothers who were in plural marriages. If we officially decide that somehow the Church must continue the cultural tradition relative to the role of women, is that not also a triumph of culture over Scripture?
And remember where we were when the Adventist movement began in the United States the 1850s and 1860s. Slavery still existed, with many conservative Christians teaching that the Bible mandated slavery because of various texts in both the Old and New Testament. Women still could not control their own property and were not allowed to vote. Was that a more “Biblical” time than today’s culture? Not according to Ellen and James White and the other founders of the Adventist Church! What is the arc of history? Is it against Scripture or in the direction of God’s will?
The reality is that my granddaughter will look back on this current debate and smile. Her daughters will participate routinely in the ordination of women as pastors, the election of women as conference presidents and may well not remember the present “crisis.” This is not a crisis unless you are willing to make it a crisis!
It is a wilderness experience. Since the 1970s, when the question was brought back to discussion (after having been largely ignored since 1881), our denomination has been like the Children of Israel going in circles on the far side of the River Jordan. Despite the fact that we are a movement in which the most important spiritual leader was a woman, we have wasted much time and energy on this side trip. I promise you, the next generation (or the next after that) will not make the same mistake.
God will wait patiently for His people to eventually find their way out of the immature concerns that engulf us at present. Whether you think it is “Biblical” or not, the day will come when women will serve as ordained ministers of the gospel in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The most important question at the moment is how long, O Lord, how long?
I grew up believing that Jesus would return before I was far into adulthood. I never dreamed I would become an old man and be retired. But it is God’s mercy and grace that gives Him such infinite patience with His people. We have wasted a generation on this question. It is time to get beyond it! Quit nit-picking everything and get comfortable with the fact that the Adventist people in China and elsewhere already have women as ordained ministers and the Adventist people in some nations and cultures will never ordain women. As a young couple, born on two different continents half a world apart, said to me recently, “When will they get over it?” Please, brothers and sisters, Get over it!
Monte Sahlin is executive director of the Adventist Today Foundation. He conducted his first evangelism campaign in 1966 in Glendale, California; started in the ministry in 1970 at the Voice of Prophecy radio ministry; and retired last year after 44 years as an Adventist minister, including service at all levels of the denomination.