By Monte Sahlin, November 12, 2016:    

In response to a number of articles that Adventist Today published in the late summer and fall of 2015 on the topic of ordination and gender discrimination, one of our readers wrote, “The world church has decided. It is time for the issue to just go away.”

The widespread reaction to the vote in favor of the Unity and Mission document by the General Conference executive committee in October, a document that threatens punishment to “rebellious” unions that ordain women, again demonstrates that it will not “just go away.”

That is, unless you want the Western church to just go away.

Women’s ordination will not “just go away”—that is, unless you want the Western church to just go away.  

The Technical Change

The technical side of this vote, and all the discussion over the last thirty days, has to do with a change that is being made in the way the GC relates to policy.

Up to this point it has been understood that in various places around the world the GC Working Policy would be ignored in some particulars due to local realities. Denominational leaders would work with union conference administrators to make sure that “the principle involved” was adhered to as much as possible, but the specifics were at times disregarded because a policy simply would not work in a particular context. If anyone with significant experience in denominational administration tells you otherwise, they were either oblivious to what was going on around them or they are not being honest with you.

Perhaps the adoption for the first time of a specific process for dealing with policy differences is a good thing. The denomination needs a “judicial branch.” The real test of the integrity of the current leadership of the GC will come as the undefined part at the end of the resolution (“Recommendation 2”) is developed. Will it include an independent judiciary or will it simply give more substance to the “kingly power” that Ellen White said was not be centralized in a small group or an individual top officer?

The Bigger Issue

The larger issue, beyond specifics of policies and denominational process, is whether or not the Adventist movement can hold onto its own sons and daughters.

Adventists believe in education: in fact, there is discussion underway to possibly add a 29th doctrine that states this. The new converts to the Adventist faith in all parts of the world tend to be people with relatively little education but definite aspirations toward upward mobility. When we teach them to work hard, avoid alcohol and drugs, lead healthy lives and budget their money so they can tithe, they become more productive than the average person no matter what level they start at or how their lives develop. Of course there are exceptions, but that is the larger reality.

The more education people get, the more they are introduced to values that stress the immorality of discrimination on the basis of things people are born with or have no control over, such as race, ethnicity, disability and gender. A membership with college and post-college education, especially if religion courses are required of all students in Adventist college and universities, include more and more people who can read the Bible in its original languages or use the reference tools to examine the original text.

Every time there is a serious study of the Bible on this topic, the vast majority of the people doing the study come back with the same outcome: There is no prohibition in the Bible of equality in ordination for both men and women, all races and ethnicities, all kinds of people.

That we have twisted and turned again and again since the 1970s on this topic, appointing first one committee of Bible scholars and then another to study it, is largely due to leaders who did not have the courage to simply accept what the Bible scholars have said: There is no Bible basis to prohibit the ordination of women to the gospel ministry.

That we have twisted and turned again and again since the 1970s on this topic, appointing first one committee of Bible scholars and then another to study it, is largely due to leaders who did not have the courage to simply accept what the Bible scholars have said: There is no Bible basis to prohibit the ordination of women to the gospel ministry.

Since the great debacle at the 1922 GC Session in San Francisco, the leadership of the denomination has allowed very conservative traditionalists to determine the forward path of the Adventist movement. And it has not got us “over the Jordan and into the promised land” despite the massive growth of the denomination from a few thousand to probably 35 million if you count unbaptized children in Adventist families and people who tell the census and independent pollsters they are Adventists even though we don’t have them on our official list.

One possibility, if we don’t soon find a solution to the present stalemate, is that “second generation” Adventists (our sons and daughters) will begin dropping out at an even faster rate. The last really accurate measurement showed that about 55 percent of the children from Adventist homes drop out by their mid-20s. If this rate edges up even by a few percentage points per year, we can imagine a time when nine out of ten drop out.

It is easy for people ignorant of social processes to assure that this is not going to happen and bring out some young adults who honestly express absolute loyalty to the most traditional, ultraconservative type of Adventist faith. But “a few birds do not make a spring.” The law of large numbers is alive and active in the world God created and gave free will. These larger realities exist whether you like it or not. They will operate even if your ignore them.

I have tracked these statistics for decades. The reality is that the dropout rate of educated young adults who grew up in Adventist families is higher among the native-born population than it is among the immigrant population. When I directed the first international survey of church members in 1994 for the GC we discovered that this was true in many nations around the world.

This has continued to develop in the most highly developed nations on the globe; Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, areas labeled “the Western church.” The reality, which must be addressed, is that this part of the church is made up largely of old people and immigrants.

Why This is So Crucial

Why is the issue of women’s ordination so crucial to the dynamics of holding onto the second generation Adventists in the Western church?

First, because it creates tremendous dissonance to ask educated young professionals to do something that is generally believed to be immoral, simply on the basis of tradition. The Adventist denomination in its Statement of Fundamental Beliefs has already take a position against gender discrimination across the board. Belief 14 says “In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning and nationality, and differences between … male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ.” If this is the doctrine of the Adventist faith, why is there any room for anything that bars people from ordination based on gender?

Second, the prohibition of women in the ordained clergy makes the Adventist faith appear to be so out of touch with the contemporary reality in the Western world today as to make it seem irrelevant. “If this is the bottom line that is so essential to the leaders of Adventism,” a young adult wrote to me earlier this year, “then what difference does it make? Why am I here? I can be faithful to Jesus and keep the Sabbath in other places.” The Adventist faith has been a counter-cultural faith, but over time we have made it one in which the most visible counter-cultural element is laughable, not heroic or principled in any defensible way.

There are a number of splinter groups that say that the prohibition of women pastors is vitally important. They stake their faith on the faulty Biblical scholarship of a few conservative writers, and genuinely believe that God has ordained a certain ancient social structure as eternal. Why they do not include slavery and polygamy in their believe system is not clear, because that is certainly present in the same Bible background that is used as proof texts for their position regarding gender roles.

Some say that because in most Protestant denominations in the Western church there are many times more women than men who participate, the church needs to put women in a defined space to make room for more men. No one has actually demonstrated on a sustained, widely distributed basis how this would work in reality. It also ignores that most of the leadership positions in most Protestant congregations are already visibly held by men. Why has that not attracted a larger influx of men? This is speculative theory at best.

Some simply put more faith in holding onto tradition than they do in trusting that God will lead us into new territory. They oppose any and every change in the church, no matter how small and no matter why it is needed. Right now they are advocating “respect” and “loyalty” for the GC. Not so long ago many of them were upset with the GC for encouraging change in certain programs and activities, even purchasing Sabbath School materials and evangelism supplies from independent sources. In reality, they are more faithful to tradition than they are to the Adventist faith.

Another Alternative

There is another alternative, and it could be the most likely outcome. The most visible example of this alternative is found in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church teaches that it is sin to use birth control, but the vast majority of young adult Catholics in the Western world simply disagree privately and go ahead and use birth control anyway. Their pastors know that unless they assure them that God still loves them and their souls are not in danger, they have no ministry with second generation Catholics.

Some large local congregations in the Adventist denomination have ordained women pastors locally without going through denominational channels. Many of these women have fully function as clergy throughout their careers or are serving now.

Some union and local conferences in Europe and North America have decided to use only the “Commissioned Minister” credential that GC policy does permit for both men and women. They sidestep the conflict altogether and end gender discrimination in the clergy. A commissioning service looks exactly like an ordination service.

It remains to be seen if the GC leadership will actually attempt to force a union conference that has started to ordain women clergy to stop doing so. It is unclear how they would do that if more than 80 percent of the constituency delegates have voted for women’s ordination. How many fights at how many levels do they want to create? I find it hard to believe that there will continue to be support for a forceful intervention. Generating conflicts is not what most of the top leaders have signed up for.

The educated young professionals who will remain faithful to the Adventist movement in the Western church will simply ignore all this and privately believe that women can function as ordained clergy, that the Holy Spirit will lead some women into the ministry and find ways to bless those women without regard to GC policy or documents or processes. If their conference administrators do not support them in this view of things, they will vote for new administrators who do.

With the adoption of the Unity and Mission document, the 2016 General Conference Committee has reached what is most likely its most narrow-minded, regressive point since the death of Ellen White in 1915.

They will not fight or leave or split the church, as much as they will hold onto those aspects of the Adventist faith that nurture their lives and are important to them. They will be loyal Adventists who just happen to think that on some issues the top leadership of the denomination is out of touch with reality. They will find clergy who will meet their needs and understand their situation, and those networks will become the real church for them. It may be a congregation where they are members. It may be a network that they meet with less often because of distances. It may be an online group or an informal, local group that meets in homes on Sabbaths or other available spaces.

There are a large number of Adventists who will not be convinced by the kind of documents and arguments that have been presented 2016’s Annual Council. Their personal faith, their vision of the Adventist faith, is not in loyalty to rules, traditions, policies, etc. It is built on a larger, more powerful set of ideas and a personal journey with God. Their path is the only way the Western church has any future.

With the adoption of the Unity and Mission document, the 2016 General Conference Committee has reached what is most likely its most narrow-minded, regressive point since the death of Ellen White in 1915. Yet it is wrong to see that as the whole story. The church survives not on the will of a few leaders or majority votes heavily influenced by cultural differences and unbalanced numbers, but on the vision and relationships and spiritual experience of the people. Jesus continues to talk to those deeply troubled and deeply wounded by such dysfunctional, unproductive decisions. Christ continues to call His people to something other than the contrivances of men in councils.

There are many people who will continue to embrace the Adventist faith no matter what the denominational organization does. Many of these will continue to work together through a variety of agencies and institutions that are doing the mission of Jesus in the world. Some will find fellowship in congregations connected with the denomination, others through family networks, small groups and informal fellowships. Those who look forward to the return of Christ and feel a part (large or small, strong or weak) of the Adventist movement, will continue to follow the leading of the Spirit in their lives, will continue to be the body of Christ, even when they disagree with voted policies that they feel are wrong.

But the issue will not simply “go away” as some would like. That is reality—whether you like it not.

Monte head shot 2012




Monte Sahlin is a sociologist, author, retired pastor, and the President of Adventist Today.