Two years have passed since the majority of the delegates in San Antonio voted not to give the divisions the authority to decide within their own territories concerning women’s ordination. Is the no-vote in San Antonio a viable base for the Church in dealing with this matter? It is my claim that the vote concerning female ordination in San Antonio does not stand the test of a valid vote in a General Conference Session.
The 2017 General Conference Annual Council in October must seize the opportunity to accept that the concept of “ordination,” a word with Latin roots, must not be allowed to continue to be divisive among us. Starting a process of rewriting working policy seems to be the only option to save the Church from a serious schism.
The following areas of concern will be dealt with: 1. The calling of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit; 2. Acts 15 – the Jerusalem Council; 3. Testimonies from gifted Adventist female pastors not heard in San Antonio; 4. Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) – vital information not heard in San Antonio; 5. No clear saying in the Bible nor in the writings of Ellen White; 6. Not in harmony with the 28 Fundamental Beliefs; 7. Matter of conscience; 8. Headship theology; 9. Culture; 10. Collectivistic thinking; Conclusion: What can and should the 2017 GC Annual Council do?
1. The calling of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit
The calling of men and women to mission work is by Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The church has the responsibility of recognizing that a person is given the gift of pastoring by the Holy Spirit, and is called by Christ.
It was he [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up … [i]
Ellen White reminds us of the saying of the prophet Joel in her introduction to the Great Controversy:
In immediate connection with the scenes of the great day of God, the Lord by the prophet Joel has promised a special manifestation of His Spirit (Joel 2:28). This prophecy received a partial fulfillment in the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost; but it will reach its full accomplishment in the manifestation of divine grace which will attend the closing work of the gospel.[ii] (Emphasis added)
These are the words from Joel:
… I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.[iii]
The delegates in San Antonio were asked for their personal opinion. The fact that the Holy Spirit is equipping females with the gift of pastoring and that Christ is calling them to the work of the church as pastors were passed by in silence. How can human opinion overrule the calling of God? How can we say that we focus on mission while ignoring the pastoral gift given by the Holy Spirit to female pastors, and the fact that Christ has called them?
2. Acts 15: The Jerusalem Council
Possibly the most appropriate biblical illustration on how to deal with a major difference of opinion regarding a challenging religious based question is to be found in Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council:
… there are two major factors for the success of the decision at the Jerusalem Council. One factor was how the Holy Spirit lead to positions they previously held unthinkable as well as working mightily among Gentiles. In the council, Peter told how he was asked to visit Cornelius, and Paul and Barnabas witnessed concerning their work among gentiles. The second major factor was the apostles’ brave leadership of guiding the church into a totally new understanding of Scripture, making room for different practices in the church…
At the General Conference Session in San Antonio in 2015, the Seventh-day Adventist Church decided to deny the principle that guided the Jerusalem Council and made it a success. The work of the Holy Spirit through female pastors in China was not mentioned.[iv]
George R. Knight puts it this way:
The breakthrough in Acts 15 truly was based on process and came when Peter was able to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit made no distinction between Jews and Gentiles but came in the same way to both groups (Acts 15:8, 9). Without that evidence there would have been nothing but ongoing divisiveness. But with it there was healing and unity.[v]
3. Testimonies from gifted Adventist female pastors not heard in San Antonio
In the Jerusalem Council, the testimony of Peter first of all, and then Paul and Barnabas, changed the whole mentality of the council from being a heated discussion to an assembly ready to listen.
George R. Knight makes this comparison of the Jerusalem council and what could have happened in San Antonio:
What would have happened in San Antonio if the process utilized in Acts 15 had been used on the day of the vote? There would have been testimonies from people put on the program that demonstrated that the Holy Spirit fell upon the pastoral/evangelistic ministries of women in the same way as for men. Such testimonies were important in the final TOSC meeting and helped lead to a significant majority of the participants, despite their personal position on women’s ordination, to approve flexibility in the practice of ordaining women.[vi]
4. Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) – vital information not heard in San Antonio
Prior to the San Antonio session a large number of study documents were made available online to the delegates including the TOSC report. All these documents were, for the majority of the delegates, an overwhelming mass of information to deal with in a comparatively short time span. A great responsibility was left with the leadership in presenting the essential information during the GC Session.
George R. Knight has made this observation:
The results of TOSC were never clearly presented to the General Conference Session at the time of the vote... Thus the 2015 delegates were not informed that a super majority of 2/3 (62 for and 32 opposed) of the members of TOSC were in favor of allowing divisions to make the choice on whether to ordain female pastors. In addition, the delegates were not informed that at least nine of the 13 Divisions of the church in their TOSC reports were favorable toward letting each division make its own decision on female ordination. Nor did the final TOSC report present that data.[vii]
5. No clear saying in the Bible nor in the writings of Ellen White
In a document voted by the GC Annual Council in 2014 this statement appears:
WHEREAS, Various groups appointed by the General Conference and its divisions have carefully studied the Bible and Ellen G White writings with respect to the ordination of women and have not arrived at consensus as to whether ministerial ordination for women is unilaterally affirmed or denied…[viii]
That neither Ellen White nor the Bible has any conclusive saying on the matter of ordination of women has more or less been the conclusion of all commissions looking into this matter. Neal C. Wilson in his summary from the 1990 GC Session possibly points out the major reason for this:
The word ordination doesn’t even appear in the Bible. A more appropriate word is appointed, rather than ordained. [ix]
The discussion is in a way a discussion on semantics. Ordination and commission - two words with more or less identical meaning - are in Adventist usage given a marked difference.
George R. Knight makes this comment:
The word “ordination” as Adventists use it is not a biblical teaching but one that finds its roots in the early and early-medieval church. From that perspective, the distinction between ordaining and commissioning is a word game of no biblical substance.[x]
The difference of meaning imposed on these two words eliminates women from leadership roles in the church organization, while at the same time the top leadership position of Andrews University has been given to a woman.
6. Not in harmony with the 28 Fundamental Beliefs
Equal treatment of male and female pastors within the Adventist Church has a solid base in Fundamental Belief no. 14 UNITY IN THE BODY OF CHRIST:
… In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation… (Emphasis added)[xi]
When it comes to the skills necessary for the mission of the Church, the Holy Spirit enables each individual “as He wills.” According to Fundamental Belief no. 17 SPIRITUAL GIFTS AND MINISTRIES:
God bestows upon all members of His church in every age spiritual gifts that each member is to employ in loving ministry … Given by the agency of the Holy Spirit, who apportions to each member as He wills …. Some members are called of God and endowed by the Spirit for functions recognized by the church in pastoral, evangelistic, and teaching ministries ... When members employ these spiritual gifts as faithful stewards of God’s varied grace, the church is protected … and is built up in faith and love. (Emphasis added)[xii]
None of the spiritual gifts are reserved for men only, neither according to Fundamental Belief no. 17 nor the Bible.
7. Matter of conscience
The church has invited women to take the necessary education required of a pastor, and have hired them as pastors and permitted them “to perform essentially the same functions as an ordained pastor” to use the words of Neal Wilson in 1990.[xiii] That brings the current practice of inequality of male and female pastors into conflict with a value and a basic principle of the Adventist church as expressed in the GC Working Policy:
BA 60 05 Basic Principles— …
The Church rejects any system or philosophy which discriminates against anyone on the basis of race, color, or gender.[xiv]
The Adventist Church has been heading the fight for religious liberty. Since 1906 Liberty Magazine has been published and supported by the church. Part of the declaration of principles is worded like this:
Religious liberty entails freedom of conscience: to worship or not to worship; to profess, practice and promulgate religious beliefs or to change them. In exercising these rights, however, one must respect the equivalent rights of all others.[xv]
Although Liberty’s main concern has been separation of church and state, the rights of individuals up against group-thinking that does not respect equal rights, is part of this declaration of principles.
The question posed to the delegates in San Antonio was a question with deep implications concerning a voted value of the Church. An attempt to decide on what thinking a person should have concerning what is morally right or wrong, cannot be achieve by a majority vote, without a firm basis in an accepted principle, particularly in view of Fundamental Beliefs 14 and 17.
8. Headship theology
The publishing of the Mohaven Papers by the GC in 1986 created a stir in some people’s minds. The GC sponsored committee had done its work more than ten years earlier.
That GC committee reported that there was no biblical reason to not ordain women to ministry and recommended that the church begin actively finding ways to incorporate more women into ministry.
Andrews University professor Samuele Bacchiocchi … went looking for biblical arguments that would stop the Adventist church from voting to ordain women to ministry. His bibliography reveals that he found those arguments in the teachings of a few Calvinist Bible teachers who were at that time developing headship theology. In 1987, Bacchiocchi self-published Women in the Church. This groundbreaking book imported the entire headship doctrine from those Evangelical Calvinist writers into the Adventist church.[xvi]
A careful look through the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the Adventist Church, will reveal that this headship theology is not in harmony with the Fundamental Beliefs. Notice particularly numbers 6, 7, 12, 14, 17, 22 and 23. That Headship theology forms the basis of position summary 1 in the TOSC report is alarming in view of the total lack of support in the 28 Fundamental Beliefs.
Gender-based discrimination is a global challenge. “Gender inequalities are still deep-rooted in every society” is the claim of the United Nations.[xvii] The majority of the delegates to a GC Session come from “tribal and Roman Catholic cultures”[xviii] with long traditions of gender inequalities.
In Paul’s thinking, adaptation to culture was basic in his missionary work:
… To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. … I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. [xix]
To differentiate between the advice that must be understood as global principles above cultural norms, and advice given on the principle of cultural adaptation, has been a challenge. Paul’s saying concerning the need for ladies to wear hats did make a great impact even among Adventists years ago:
If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off ...[xx]
It took Adventists decades, even generations, to realize that this was one example of Paul’s cultural adaptations. His comments on women not to speak in church is still challenging.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church recognizes the need for cultural adaptation. One cannot deal with people in Asia the same way as with Europeans. The Mission Institute prepares Adventist missionaries for the impact of cultural differences.
The question posed to the delegates in San Antonio required good cultural understanding. The delegates were not educated concerning the importance of setting their cultural biases aside, neither concerning Paul’s teaching on cultural adaptation.
10. Collectivistic thinking
Individualistic and collectivistic thinking have an impact in decision making. Brett Rutledge has given this description:
In individualist cultures, individual uniqueness and self-determination is valued... Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, expect people to identify with and work well in groups which protect them in exchange for loyalty and compliance.[xxi]
In the lecture “Does EVERYONE Trust You?,” the Adventist scholar Dr. Ann Gibson pointed out some of the challenges of the collectivistic cultures, and how a leader may influence decisions.
… Some people are seen as outside the boundaries where moral considerations and fairness apply. The mind-set is: Influenced by culture; included in language; spread through stereotypes.[xxii]
The Church Manual points out the absolute requirement of individual thinking of delegates to a conference session:
Duty of Delegates—Delegates to a conference session … should view the work as a whole, remembering their responsibility for the welfare of the worldwide work of the Church. It is not permissible for church or conference delegations to organize or attempt to direct their votes as a unit… Each delegate should be susceptible to the direction of the Holy Spirit and vote according to personal convictions. (Emphasis added)[xxiii]
Disturbing testimonies point in the direction that the collectivistic thinking rather than following personal convictions was influencing some of the delegates in San Antonio to vote no.
CONCLUSION - What can and should the 2017 GC Annual Council do?
Allowing the Church to experience a serious schism over the understanding of the concept of ordination, a word that does not have its roots in the Bible, but rather from the early and early-medieval church, does not make sense at all. The GC leadership has the responsibility for solving this critical situation and not allowing it to develop further!
What are the options for the 2017 GC Annual Council?
- Accept that the vote in San Antonio was not done in a way that fulfills the requirements of a valid vote according to the Adventist standards.
- Accept that in Adventist policy the term “ordination” has acquired meanings beyond what can be substantiated from the New Testament or the writings of Ellen White.
- Accept that the basic meaning of “ordination” and “commissioning” in fact is identical, and that support for a distinction between them cannot be found in the Bible.
- Accept that the worldwide validity of ordination within the Adventist Church as it is described in GC Working Policy must be terminated in order to come out of the present deadlock. (See my article in Spectrum on April 7, 2017: Ordination: The Gordian Knot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.)
- Vote to support that the GC Secretariat start rewriting policy in view of the previous mentioned facts.
Finn F. Eckhoff is Executive Secretary of the Norwegian Union.
Image Credit: North American Division / James Bokovoy
Notes & References:
[ii] Ellen White, The Great Controversy, p. ix
[iv]NORUC, A response to A Study of Church Governance and Unity, 2016 10 04 p. 2, http://www.adventist.no/Media/Adventist/Images/2016/September-2016/A-response-to-A-Study-of-Church-Governance-and-Unity
[v]George R. Knight, Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle Over Authority + 9.5 Theses, p. 27
[vii]George R. Knight, Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle Over Authority + 9.5 Theses, p. 24, 25
[viii] Voted document 2014 GC Annual Council: Theology and Practice of Ministerial Ordination, The 2015 General Conference Session agenda and support material p. 68
[ix]Neal C. Wilson, General Conference Bulletin 1990-07, p. 12
[x]George R. Knight, Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle Over Authority + 9.5 Theses, p. 6
[xi]Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual 19th edition, revised 2015, updated 2016, p. 167
[xiii]Neal C. Wilson, General Conference Bulletin 1990-07, p. 11
[xiv]Working Policy of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2016-2017 Edition, p. 129
[xvi] Gerry Chudleigh, A Short History of the Headship Doctrine In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, p. 13
[xviii]George R. Knight, Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle Over Authority + 9.5 Theses, p. 25
[xxii]Ann Gibson, PhD, CPA, Andrews University, Does EVERYONE Trust You? Global Issues in Trust, Transparency and Team-Building, Presentation for the TED Year-End Meetings, November 14, 2016
[xxiii]Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual 19th edition, revised 2015, updated 2016, pp. 114, 115
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