This document was sent to Adventist Today and is evidently being widely circulated among delegates to both the Columbia Union Conference and Pacific Union Conference constituency sessions coming up. The author is a Seventh-day Adventist minister of long experience. Adventist Today has agreed not to publish the name.
In an effort to improve ministry effectiveness, two unions in the North American Division have called special constituency meetings to approve or disapprove ordaining pastors solely on the basis of their qualifications and their divine call to ministry, without considering whether they are men or women.
Some people believe that in 2010 the world church voted to begin a study of the ordination of women and that, to preserve unity, the unions should wait for the study to be completed before taking any action. This paper will demonstrate that no committee was established in 2010 to study the ordination of women, and that if the unions wait until the completion of the study of the theology of ordination that was begun in 2012, ordination without regard to gender is likely to become much more divisive and difficult.
Part One: What Happened at the 2010 GC Session
In the June 30, 2010 issue of the Review is a story by Elizabeth Lechleitner entitled “Church Manual Revisions Clarify Women as Deacons.” Lechleitner reports that when delegates considered the revision calling for deaconesses to be ordained, there was heated discussion on the floor:
“[Some] regional delegates supported the proposed change as a necessary step forward in affirming women—especially young women—in ministry.
“[But] many delegates from the church's Southern African-Indian Ocean region objected to the motion, arguing that it was superfluous and speculating that it invited the ordination of women as pastors. 'It is my feeling that the Church Manual Committee has overstepped its limits,' said Stain Liyanda of the church's Southern African-Indian Ocean Division. Liyanda called the motion an 'ambush' of the Manual meant to give women's ordination an unprecedented foothold."
In the end, the change was adopted, as can be seen on page 78 of the current Church Manual. But according to Lechleitner,
"It was apparent that many were not pleased with the outcome. Some came to delegate microphones well after the vote, attempting to re-ignite the debate."
Delegates indicated during and after the session that they were shocked and angry after the vote because there had been so much confusion surrounding a motion to amend that many delegates voted in favor of ordaining deaconesses when they thought they were voting to not ordain deaconesses. Many insisted that ordaining deaconesses—or women ministers—was unacceptable in their part of the world and that they had been tricked into approving something they would never have knowingly voted for.
Finally, came the following motion, which was not voted but went automatically to the Steering Committee for consideration:
“Ray Hartwell [president of the Pennsylvania Conference]: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. As a delegate to Utrecht, to Toronto, to St. Louis, and also here, it appears to me that the world body needs some help in dealing in a united way with the question of ordination. I would like to suggest a motion that we ask the Steering Committee to consider bringing back to the body the request that I made earlier, and that the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University be commissioned to research and present a detailed theology of ordination based on the Holy Scriptures and the Spirit of Prophecy, with input from Adventist Bible scholars from all other parts of the world field. This theology of ordination would be presented to the General Conference Annual Council by the year 2013.”
The above discussion provides background to what happened at the start of the final business meeting of the 2010 session.
Friday, July 2, 2010, Michael L. Ryan chaired the business meeting, which began at 9:30 a.m. After a short devotional by Mark Finley, Ryan reviewed rules for conducting business and then said:
"I want to give you a report back from the Steering Committee."
He began by reporting that the steering committee wants "to pursue a greater involvement of women and young adults and youth in the business and the decision-making of the church." This comment was not about ordination, but was a response to frequent comments from delegates—whenever a nominating committee report was read—that there were too few women and young adults among both the nominees and the delegates.
Ryan proceeded to outline three rather standard steps to be taken to involve more women and young adults: the steering committee favored more training, more mentoring, and more involvement of women and young adults in mission and discipling endeavors of the church. "I am convinced," Ryan said, "from hearing the discussion this morning that we will begin to see change in this area."
Then Ryan said the following, which is all that was said at the 2010 GC Session about a committee to study ordination. Note that no form of the word "woman" is included:
"A second item was mentioned on the floor—this actually has been mentioned several times. This was regarding the subject of ordination, and someone had made a particular suggestion to the Steering Committee. This was discussed again, and I believe the leaders of the church are aware that this is an issue in the church. One could see the sincerity, the spirit of prayer, the seriousness with which that topic was discussed. I would just give this brief report, a reaction from the Steering Committee.
“The General Conference administration recognizes that the theology, the function, and practice of ordination is an important facet of church life. There is no one there who is saying, ‘This is insignificant. We are going to ignore it.’ I think all there recognized that this is an important facet. The General Conference administration commits to establishing a process to review the subject of ordination and will report back to an Annual Council during this quinquennium. I know some would like to see immediate reaction on the floor here, but there [are] a lot of voices on this subject, from many places around the world. There are many people who need to be brought into counsel on this. It is important that we make this commitment by responding to the voices of those who have spoken on the floor. We thank you for those comments, and you can look forward to seeing some progress."
So, that is it. There was no written proposal, no vote, no name given to the "review process," no suggestion that the topic would be the ordination of women, and no suggestion that the "review process" would report back to the next session. All we learn is that the GC administration would establish a process, that a report would be given at an annual council, that the review process would listen to the "many voices" of people from "many places around the world," and that there will be “some progress.”
When Ryan mentions that the administration made a commitment to respond "to the voices of those who have spoken on the floor," and that "you can look forward to seeing some progress," North Americans should remember that the most passionate voices on the floor were those of people from the southern hemisphere who were objecting to ordaining women, and that "some progress" in their eyes would be closing the door to further discussion of ordaining women. Nothing here suggests that "administration" was looking forward to any action that would enable the ordination of women in any part of the world.
Part Two: What Is Happening Now?
One year and three months later, the GC administration announced a timetable for the process. We should note in the release below that, again, no form of the word “woman” is used in this timetable. The phrase, “the theology of ordination,” now dominates the story, and in November of 2013 the various division reports are to be submitted to the GC administration’s own hand-picked committee, which now has a name: The Theology of Ordination Study Committee.
Ray Hartwell had suggested in his motion that the Andrews University Theological Seminary be commissioned to conduct this study, with input from Bible scholars from around the world. But that is not the GC administration’s plan, possibly because almost all Bible scholars at Andrews are on record as finding no biblical objection to ordaining women to ministry. The process outlined below avoids the possibility that the study will arrive at one “correct” biblical theology of ordination, instead giving more weight to local mission and customs.
Theology of Ordination
Move follows action at 2010 GC session to review ordination’s biblical origins
By Ansel Oliver, Adventist News Network
On October 10, 2011, church leaders announced a timetable for studying the theology of ordination over the next few years, the latest action following a promise at the 2010 General Conference session to study the issue.
Artur Stele, a world church vice president and director of the Biblical Research Institute, said the process would examine the foundation of ordination as well as its implications for church practices.
Leaders announced the plan during Annual Council, a yearly business meeting of the denomination’s Executive Committee.
The Biblical Research Institute at the world church headquarters will coordinate the process of studying ordination with corresponding biblical research committees in each of the church’s 13 world divisions, said church president Ted N. C. Wilson.
“This will be a very careful process,” Wilson said. “We’re letting you know how the world field will be involved.”
Each division is asked to request its biblical research committee to study the theology of ordination and its implications for church practices in that region.
Stele announced the timetable as follows:
• In November 2013 each division committee at their 2013 year-end meetings will review the study made by their division biblical research committee and recommend it to the Biblical Research Institute director for consideration by a theology of ordination study committee. The General Conference Administrative Committee will also appoint a theology of ordination study committee with appropriate division representation.
• From December 2013 to June 2014 the theology of ordination study committee will analyze the materials received from the divisions and prepare a combined report.
• In June 2014 the report will be reviewed by General Conference executive officers and later by the President’s Administrative Executive Council and the General Conference Administrative Committee.
• In October 2014 the General Conference administration will process the report for Annual Council, which will review the report and, if needed, take any appropriate action. If voted, material is to be placed on the 2015 General Conference session agenda, where it will be processed accordingly.
Part Three: What Next?
The results from the NAD’s Theology of Ordination Study Committee will be reviewed, discussed, perhaps edited and approved, by the NAD executive committee, and the some thing will happen in the other 12 divisions. This will ensure that each of the division reports will reflect not just biblical theology but also the ministry needs imposed by local cultures. Given the history of this discussion, it should not be difficult to predict the results. Three divisions will almost certainly report that there is no biblical justification for denying ordination to women, and that it should be embraced, giving careful consideration to local culture. The remaining 10 world divisions will report either that the Bible forbids the ordination of women or that, regardless of what the Bible permits, ordaining women pastors would not be acceptable in their cultures.
Then the reports from the 13 executive committees will be forwarded to the GC administration’s own handpicked Theology of Ordination Study Committee. This committee, we are informed, will include representation from all 13 divisions. The GC administration’s committee will read the 13 reports, then produce a new “combined” report that will replace the 13 individual reports in subsequent discussions of the issue. The new combined report will next pass through three groups of GC administrators, each group chaired by the GC president. Then the GC administrators will “process” the combined report. Then, if they choose to, GC administration will present a recommendation—one they wrote, reviewed three times, and processed—to Annual Council. From Annual Council the combined and processed recommendation may go to the 2015 GC session—if the GC administrators recommend it and the Annual Council agrees.
Given the discussion that has gone on in previous GC sessions and meetings, and given the stated positions of many of those involved in the study process, it seems likely that the recommendation will say something like the report on women’s ordination voted at the 1990 session (with possible additions underlined):
commission Theology of Ordination Study Committee does not have a consensus as to whether or not the Scriptures and the writings of Ellen G. White explicitly advocate or deny the ordination of women to pastoral ministry, it concludes unanimously that these sources affirm a significant, wide-ranging, and continuing ministry for women, which is being expressed and will be evidenced in the varied and expanding gifts according to the infilling of the Holy Spirit.
2. Further, in view of the widespread lack of support for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry in the world church and in view of the possible risk of disunity, dissension, and diversion from the mission of the church, we do not approve ordination of women to the gospel ministry—in any division, union or local conference in the world, until approved by the General Conference in session.
How can we predict that the combined report will take this approach?
First, when a committee recommended at GC session in 1990 in Indianapolis that women not be ordained as pastors, delegates from around the world approved that recommendation by a vote of 1,173 to 377. In 1995, in Utrecht, a similar proposal, to let the divisions decide whom to ordain, was denied by about the same margin. In January 2010, 15 years after the Utrecht vote, then GC president Jan Paulsen polled the 13 divisions and found that only three would be willing to accept a GC policy that allowed ordination of women, with eight stating that such a policy would negatively impact their church membership. As a result, the issue of the ordination of women was not brought directly to the delegates in 2010.
But the discussion on the floor at the 2010 session made it clear that ordaining women to ministry was passionately opposed in the same parts of the world that opposed it in 1990 and 1995.
With this in mind, we have to remind ourselves that President Wilson did not say that the GC would establish a blue-ribbon committee under the direction of the Biblical Research Institute and Andrews University, that this committee of scholars would determine the true biblical theology of ordination, or that he would champion their findings at the next GC session. Exactly that kind of study was commissioned by the General Conference in 1973, under the direction of the Biblical Research Institute (at Camp Mohaven). That 27-member committee reported to the GC at Annual Council that fall that “we see no significant theological objection to the ordination of women to church ministries.”
Perhaps recognizing that this report would not be well accepted in some parts of the world church, the GC voted to “receive” the report without endorsing the theological statement or the recommendations, to provide the recommendations and certain papers to the world divisions for their study, sequestered the Mohaven papers for ten years, and promised to study the subject more in the future.
President Wilson has made it clear in the timeline announced that GC administration is not going to let that happen again. This time the whole world will participate from the beginning and the General Conference administration will superintend every step of the process and every word of the combined, reviewed, and processed report.
Second, no GC president in the recent history of the church has been more careful than the current president to avoid the appearance that he endorses or recognizes women serving as pastors. We see that carefulness in his promises at the 2010 GC session and in the above outline of the study process. It is also evident in reports of his visits in other divisions. For example, the June 2012 Adventist World magazine includes a 2-page story about the president’s visit to an amazing church in China. From a few people meeting in a house, the church has grown to 3,000 members at the home church, plus another 7,000 members in satellite churches. One hundred “young people” are preparing to be pastors there. But no mention is made of the fact that all this has happened under the Spirit-filled leadership of a senior pastor who is a woman.
In 2010 and 2011, during the NAD and GC meetings, President Wilson spoke strongly against allowing women to serve as presidents of conferences or unions. And in 2012, he published a now-much-quoted paper showing that the divisions are really just departments of the GC—in order to prevent divisions from permitting the ordination of women or allowing conferences or unions to elect women as conference, union, or division presidents.
No doubt President Wilson is a godly man and a passionate leader. But he has never represented himself as a champion of women’s ordination or of women serving as pastors or presidents. He has represented himself as a champion of the views and needs of all divisions of the church, with special attention to the needs of the fast-growing, non-western divisions. And he has given no indication that he plans to change that stance.
Third, and probably most important, North American leaders have recognized in the last 20-plus years that it will never be possible (or expedient, as Paul would say) to deal with women in ministry on the basis of one worldwide policy. President Wilson is correct in insisting that the need of the NAD to affirm women in ministry in our part of the world can never be allowed to trump the need of much of the rest of the world church to not use women as leaders in ways that will hinder the work of God there.
NAD leaders have realized that our impasse regarding ordination is not that we don’t know enough about the theology of ordination; the impasse is that we have been trying to resolve the issue through a worldwide policy. No matter how much we learn about theology, a worldwide policy—whether forbidding or allowing the ordination of women—will be a detriment to the work of God somewhere in the world. It does not appear that the situation will change in the next few years, if ever.
There is strong biblical support for a more adaptive approach—and this in no way threatens the unity of the church as it relates to mission or fundamental teachings.
The apostle Paul described an adaptive approach he followed in the conduct of his ministry: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22 NKJV).
In the mid-19th century, Ellen White urged adaptation to local culture when evangelizing black and white people in the American southern states: "We are to avoid entering into contention over the problem of the color line. If this question is much agitated, difficulties will arise that will consume much precious time to adjust. We cannot lay down a definite line to be followed in dealing with this subject. In different places and under varying circumstances, the subject will need to be handled differently. In the South, where race prejudice is so strong, we could do nothing in presenting the truth were we to deal with the color line question as we can deal with it in some places in the North” (Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 9, p. 213)
From the Great Disappointment in 1844 until about the 1920s, Seventh-day Adventist men and women worked side by side in the church’s various forms of evangelism. During those years, the official church papers published articles every few months or years defending women preachers as a sign of the last day remnant church. In the 1890s Ellen White, the church’s most authoritative pioneer, declared that the women working beside men—or even without men—in pastoral ministry should be paid from tithe, should be paid the same amount as men, and should be “set apart by the laying on of hands.” In 1881 a “resolution” was considered at GC session to ordain women ministers the same as men. The resolution was referred to a committee, and that is the last ever heard of it.
The world has changed a lot since then, but with the rise of Islam and fundamentalism around the world, the conflicts surrounding the place of women remain, with women enjoying unrestricted opportunities in some parts of the world and living in culturally approved subjection to men in others.
In the face of this diversity, the church has struggled in vain to find one policy that will fit the whole world. In 2012 the Pacific Union and Columbia Union conferences are suggesting that the solution to the problem is the one voiced by the apostle Paul and by Ellen White: to employ whatever serves the preaching of the gospel best in each part of God’s vineyard.
Neither the current study committees nor any future study committees are likely to discover a new Bible text that will make it appropriate to follow one ordination policy in all parts of the world. In fact, many of the 13 divisions, too, cover a broad range of cultures that will make division-wide policies equally impossible.
The only workable solution is the one supported by the church’s current policies on the distribution of authority: let the local conferences choose individuals who demonstrate a call to ministry, who meet the qualifications for pastors described in church policy, and who are suitable for ministry in their area, then let the unions approve those ordinations according to local needs. If world leaders continue to try to enforce one policy for the whole world “difficulties will arise that will consume much precious time,” to borrow Ellen White’s words.
The actions being considered by the Pacific and Columbia would not require a similar policy for the world church, the North American Division, or even for all the conferences or local churches in the two unions. The change would only mean that when conferences select called and qualified ministers for ordination to ministry, the union could affirm their selections.
If unions do not take action to affirm women in ministry before the current GC ordination study is completed, it seems likely that their task will become much more difficult.
At GC Session in 2010, the administration set a goal of “progress” during the next five years. We have already seen that it is extremely unlikely that the world church will resolve the issue in 2015 by voting to approve the ordination of women. The majority of divisions are on record as opposing any move in that direction.
But the GC administration could take a resolution to GC session in 2015 forbidding ordinations anywhere in the world until the GC votes otherwise. That resolution would almost certainly pass. If, in 2015, no unions in the world are ordaining women, a worldwide ban would seem like an easy and reasonable thing to do, no matter how much a few divisions objected.
But blocking the ordination of women would not resolve anything in 2015 if several unions, or even one or two, were already approving women pastors for ordination. If that were the case, one world policy would not look like such an easy solution. The world church would then have to either develop a policy that recognized the validity of different approaches for different areas, or they could produce a “theology of ordination” that didn’t mention men or women. They could choose to say nothing about what the unions choose to do.
If this scenario is realistic, then it appears that the unions are currently facing a brief opportunity to take a step forward with minimal stress. But to do that, the unions have to act soon. If they wait for the combined and processed report of the GC administration’s Theology of Ordination Study Committee and wait to see what unifying action is taken at GC in 2015, they will most likely not then be able to do anything without a higher level of stress to the fabric of the church structure.
Everything appears to be on course to close the door to ordaining women in the NAD—if the unions wait to see what happens.
Before the union delegates vote to delay action until the process is complete, President Wilson should describe very clearly how delaying this important step now will enable the unions to ordain ministers without regard to gender in the future.
And the unions in the NAD should ask themselves, if we delay our action until 2015 and the GC in session votes that no conference or union can approve the ordination of women, what effect will that action have on our church and our mission? Will the NAD say, “Well, okay then, that settles it”? Probably not. Uniformity is very unlikely to preserve unity.
And what effect will delay, perhaps a permanent delay, have on our children, our grandchildren and today’s youth and young adults whom the church would like to welcome into fellowship in the years ahead?