A Close Reading of General Conference Working Policy on Ordination


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A Response to Questions & Answers Regarding Current Issues of Unity Facing the Church

The principal issue for the General Conference (GC) in responding negatively to the actions of two union conferences to authorize the ordination of pastors without regard to gender and to the contemplated similar action of another union conference is the matter of central responsibility and control. In particular, the GC asserts that, although only union conferences have the distributed responsibility to approve the ordination recommendations submitted to them by local conferences, the GC alone has the right to determine the criteria for ordination and the qualifications of ordination candidates.

We disagree with this dissection of the distributed responsibility to union conferences regarding matters pertaining to ordination of pastors. We are convinced that union conferences have the right to approve ordination recommendations without regard to gender. However, even if one views this issue through the GC’s own lens and arguments, there is no reason for union conferences not to “legally” proceed with authorizing the ordination of pastors without regard to gender.

1. The constitutional relationship between union conferences and the General Conference.

According to the GC’s statement in “Questions & Answers Regarding Current Issues of Unity Facing the Church,” “Local churches, local conferences/missions/fields, union conferences/ missions, unions of churches, and institutions are, by vote of the appropriate constituency, and by actions of properly authorized executive committees, a part of the worldwide organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Whereas each has accepted the privilege and responsibility of representing the Church in its part of the world, each is therefore required to operate and minister in harmony with the teachings and policies of the Church, and the actions of the world Church in the General Conference Executive Committee or in General Conference Session. While individual units of the Church are given freedom to function in ways appropriate to their role and culture, no part of the worldwide organization of the Church has a unilateral right to secede.”

The current wording of the Bylaws of the Pacific Union Conference (PUCon) states, “All policies, purposes and procedures of this Union shall be in harmony with the working policies and procedures of the North American Division and the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.” Although the specific, legal purpose for the upcoming PUCon special constituency session is to change “All” to “In general, the” and “shall” to “will,” the operative phrase “in harmony” will remain.

Thus, both the GC policy and the PUCon Bylaws (current and proposed) require that the policies of the latter are to be “in harmony” with the former. The word harmony is a musical term that refers to the simultaneous occurrence of different sounds or notes that work well together to produce euphony. Difference is an essential ingredient of harmony, as is coordination or working well together. On one hand, noise or cacophony is not harmony. On the other hand, if there is no difference in the sounds, there is also no harmony. There is unison instead. Sopranos, altos, tenors, and bases together singing different parts can represent harmony. When only the altos are singing a single line of music there is unison, not harmony.

The constituents may vote to amend PUCon Bylaws for whatever reasons. However, the proposed amendment is not necessary to enable the union conference to authorize the ordination of pastors without regard to gender. Such an authorization is well within the current constitutional relationship between the PUCon Bylaws and the policies of the GC that is described by the phrase “in harmony.”

2. The policy of the General Conference on the ordination of pastors

Although the GC has formally considered and rejected proposals regarding the ordination of women at two GC sessions, there is no specific prohibition of such ordination in the General Conference Working Policy, the official, annually revised repository of GC policy. Accordingly, a union conference that votes to ordain pastors without regard to gender is not only “in harmony” with GC policy in some general sense but is also in unison with it literally. A principle of constitutional and policy considerations is that what is not specifically prohibited is permitted.

The Working Policy has two sections that are particularly relevant to this issue.

a. The first section is BA 60 Human Rights. It is worth quoting the entire section. [Underlined emphasis has been added.]

BA 60 Human Relations BA 60 05 Basic Principles—Seventh-day Adventists believe in the universal fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man and are dedicated to the proclamation of the message of Revelation 14:6-12 to all peoples of the earth. This philosophy and its resultant course of action has made theChurch multiracial, multiethnic, and gender inclusive. The Church is enriched by such membership and by the valuable contribution to its 102 / General Administrative Policies GC Working Policy 2005-2006 mission of both men and women of different nationalities and races as they serve as laypersons and employees at various levels of the Church. The Church rejects any system or philosophy which discriminatesagainst anyone on the basis of race, color, or gender. The Church basesits position on principles clearly enunciated in the Bible, the writingsof Ellen G White, and the official pronouncements of the GeneralConference.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there isneither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). “Christ came to this earth with a message of mercy and forgiveness. He laid the foundation for a religion by which Jew and Gentile, black and white, free and bond, are linked together in one common brotherhood, recognized as equal in the sight of God. The Saviour has a boundless love for every human being. In each one He sees capacity for improvement. With divine energy and hope He greets those for whom He has given His life. In His strength they can live a life rich in good works, filled with the power of the Spirit” (7T 225).

“No distinction on account of nationality, race, or caste, is recognized by God. He is the Maker of all mankind. All men are of one family by creation, and all are one through redemption. Christ came to demolish every wall of partition, to throw open every compartment of the temple, that every soul may have free access to God . . . In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free. All are brought nigh by His precious blood” (COL 386).

BA 60 10 Official Position—The world Church supports nondiscriminationin employment practices and policies and upholds the principle thatboth men and women, without regard to race and color, shall be given fulland equal opportunity within the Church to develop the knowledge andskills needed for the building up of the Church. Positions of service andresponsibility (except those requiring ordination to the gospel ministry*)on all levels of church activity shall be open to all on the basis of theindividual’s qualifications. 1. Membership and office in the local church, and at various levels of administration, shall be available to anyone who qualifies, without regard to race, color, or gender. 2. The appointment of individuals to serve as Bible instructors orchaplains, or in departmental or pastoral responsibilities, shall not belimited by race or color. Neither shall these positions be limited by gender(except those requiring ordination to the gospel ministry*). 3. In educational institutions there shall be no bias on the basis of race, color, or gender in the employment of teachers or other personnel nor in the admission of students. 4. Hospitals and other health care institutions shall make no distinction on the basis of race, color, or gender in admitting patients or in making their facilities available to physicians, interns, residents, nurses, and administrators who meet the professional standards of the institution. 5. All organizations and institutions shall provide employment and advancement opportunities without regard to race, color, or gender to persons who qualify. 6. Employment opportunities, membership on committees and boards, and nomination to office shall not be limited by race or color. Neither shall these opportunities be limited by gender (except those requiring ordination to the gospel ministry*). 7. Where problems of race, color, or gender exist, workshops and seminars on human relations should be conducted. If advisable, conferences/missions/fields, unions and/or divisions may form a committee to address issues in human relations. 8. The commitment of the Church to fair and equal treatment of menand women, without regard to race or color, shall be reflected in employmentpractices and policies regarding hiring, layoff, discharge, trainingand promotions, and remuneration. Benefits and allowances forindividuals and families shall be established by each division based on theprinciple of fairness, and without gender bias. 9. Administrators, departmental directors, pastors, educators, localchurch officers, and others in positions of leadership in the Church shalluphold this position and support these principles as a part of the gospeland God’s special message for the world.

*The exception clause, and any other statement above, shall not be used toreinterpret the action already taken by the world Church authorizing the ordinationof women as local church elders in divisions where the division executivecommittees have given their approval.

The overwhelming tendency of this policy supports gender equality among other equalities. The foundational principle for this is rightly recognized to be Paul’s declaration in Galatians 3:28. Without explanation or justification, several of the paragraphs include the so-called “exception clause”—“except those requiring ordination to the gospel ministry.” The implication is that the declared equality in the paragraph for some unstated reason does not apply if the position requires “ordination to the gospel ministry.” This declaration is not sufficient as a statement of policy. Its ambiguity is even recognized by the drafters of this section. Therefore, they referenced this footnote each time: “The exception clause, and any other statement above, shall not be used to reinterpret the action already taken by the world Church authorizing the ordination of women as local church elders in divisions where the division executive committees have given their approval.” We should expect that major section on the ministry and its material on ordination to provide the explanation and rationale that is missing here.

It is particularly noteworthy here that the section ends with a strong statement of responsibility and accountability regarding this policy on gender and other equalities: “9. Administrators, departmental directors, pastors, educators, local church officers, and others in positions of leadership in the Church shall uphold this position and support these principles as a part of the gospel and God’s special message for the world.”

b. The second relevant section of the General Conference Working Policy is L The Ministry and Ministerial Training. We will look at some important parts of this sections. [Underlined emphasis supplied.]

Before turning to this section, it is worth noting two small items relating to Credentials and Licenses in section E Denominational Employees.

E 05 10 Ministerial Employees—Ordained, Commissioned, and Licensed—1. a. Ministerial Credential—To ministerial employees who have demonstrated a divine call to ministry and have been ordained to the Gospel ministry.

3. Licensed ministers are on the path toward ordination to the Gospel ministry. (See L 25.) It is not the normal practice to ordain an individual who has not been classified as a licensed minister. (See L 25 30 and L 35.) Commissioned ministers holding licenses or credentials are not normally on the path toward ordination to the gospel ministry.

These describe two of the three types of ministerial employees—those who are “ordained” or are “on the path toward ordination.” It is noteworthy that neither these descriptions nor that of the commissioned minister contains any reference to qualifications or exclusions based on gender.

Section L is a comprehensive discussion of the gospel ministry—training, appointment, internship, ordination, and integrity. Near the beginning is the following:

L 05 05 General Provisions—The educational requirement for entrance into the ministry shall be completion of the Ministerial Training Course as prescribed by the division committee. Candidates for the ministry who, because of age or unusual circumstances, have not completed the Ministerial Training Course as prescribed by the division and who are considered for employment as ministers, shall be referred for consideration to the respective union committee for careful study. This statement recognizes that ministerial training requirements will not be the same for all parts of the world Church. It also implies that union conferences have the responsibility to interpret the application of division Ministerial Training Course requirements to individual candidates.

The policy includes an important section on Ministerial Internship, which begins:

L 10 Ministerial Internship L 10 05 Purpose of Plan—The Ministerial Internship is intended to stimulate interest in the work of the gospel minister and to coordinate the work of the union and local conferences/missions/fields in selecting, training, and placing recruits for evangelistic service.*

L 10 10 Definition of Term “Ministerial Internship”—Ministerial Internship” as here used designates a period of service spent in practical ministerial training, to be entered upon after the completion of the prescribed Ministerial Training Course, this training period to be served under supervision in a local conference/mission/field, at a limited wage, for the purpose of proving the divine call to the ministry.

These introductory materials have no references to gender as a qualification or exclusion. That these policies and provisions pertain equally to men and women is clear in subsequent sections, for example:

L 15 05 Length of Internship—The length of the Ministerial Internship shall be two years except in those cases where advanced training is included by division committee action. The intern shall be appointed for twelve months of full-time service, and if judged to have done successful work during that period he/she shall be appointed for a second period of twelve months.

Although this material is not always specifically gender inclusive, there are other important examples in sections like the following:

3. During the period of his/her internship and preferably in his/her final year opportunity shall be given him/her to lead out in an evangelistic effort for which he/she shall be held personally responsible. 4. In accepting an intern for ministerial work, it is understood that the conference/mission/field intends to continue the individual as a regular employee. A report is to be furnished to the division committee at the close of the first and of the second year’s service stating either that the intern gives promise of development in ministerial lines or that he/she has failed to make good and is recommended to be dropped.

It is significant that in defining the eligibility of candidates for “Ministerial Internship,” i.e., those to be accepted into gospel ministry apprenticeships make no mention of gender:

L 15 45 Qualifications of Candidates—1. Eligibility to these internships shall include: a. A living Christian experience. b. Completion of the prescribed Ministerial Training Course. c. Recommendation from the faculty of the school attended as to religious attitude and experience, studiousness, and industry. d. Literary qualifications such as to dignify the sacred calling of the ministry and at the same time provide adequate general educational background to compare favorably with attainments in other professions. e. Recommendations by the local and union conference/mission/field committees for acceptance by the division committee. f. Reasonable practical experience, including if possible, medical training, or a useful trade. g. Adaptability and willingness to work. h. Aptitude for public speaking and labor. 374 / The Ministry GC Working Policy 2005-2006 i. Reasonable health and freedom from serious physical handicaps or speech impediment. j. Three months or 350 hours of experience as a literature evangelist. (Exceptions should be allowed only after careful study of the individual case and should be very few.)

L 15 45 on qualifications continues with the following:

2. The Ministerial Internship Plan shall not include men whose years of experience or service in other lines of denominational work qualify them to enter the ministry with a reasonable assurance of success, and for whom such a period of training is impractical. 3. The primary aim is to secure young people under thirty years of age to benefit by the plan, though in exceptional cases they may be accepted up to thirty-five years of age. Men who have not completed their preparatory training and who knowingly plan to return to school for further work shall not be eligible for internship; only those qualify who have finished their preparatory work and present themselves as candidates for continuous service. However, one who entered denominational service in some line other than the ministry before age thirty-five, and who later completes the prescribed ministerial training course, may be accepted as a ministerial intern.

This is likely the product of incomplete editing of this section at the time Ministerial Internship was opened to women. Otherwise, the references to “men” must be taken to be exclusionary in a gender sense, i.e., only “men” are excluded in 2. and 3.

The sections on appointing and calling ministerial interns has no references to gender and does not use any form of the third person singular masculine or feminine pronouns.

The next major unit concerns the role of seminary education in preparation for the gospel ministry. Like the section on the Ministerial Internship, this one is clearly gender inclusive, assuming that both men and women will be involved.

L 20 Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary 1. The purpose of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary is to provide, in harmony with the educational principles of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, professional education for the gospel ministry and opportunity for such graduate study and research as will contribute to the advancement of sound scholarship in the fields of Bible and religious history. To this end the Seminary offers courses in the various fields of theological study leading to the Master of Divinity degree. These courses are given in six departments—Old Testament, New Testament, Theology and Christian Philosophy, Church History, Christian Ministry, and World Mission. The general plan is that young people take the full Master of Divinity curriculum, although it is recognized that God does call men and women from various professions or vocations into the work of the ministry. This curriculum is open to those who have earned a Bachelor of Arts or comparable degree, preferably with a concentration in religion or theology, and who are recommended as candidates for the ministry.

In contrast, the section on the Licensed Minister (L 25) is written entirely with the assumption that only males occupy this position. However, this is not specifically stated as a condition, nor is there any stated exclusion of females. For some responsibilities, the licensed minister must be an ordained local elder. Of course, women can be ordained local elders. This section concludes with the following:

L 25 30 Ordination—The licensed minister is ordinarily ordained to the gospel ministry after he has satisfactorily fulfilled a period of pastoral/evangelistic service during which time he has given evidence of his call to the ministry. The spiritual rite of ordination constitutes the official recognition by the Seventh-day Adventist Church of his divine call to the ministry as a life commitment, and is his endorsement to serve as a minister of the gospel in any part of the world.

The section on ministers from other denominations (L 30) has the same unstated assumptions as the above and the same lack of stated exclusion of females.

L 35 is entitled “Qualifications for Ordination to the Ministry.” This, like L 25, is written entirely with the assumption that only males occupy this position. However, this is not specifically stated as a condition, nor is there any stated exclusion of females. The same is true of sections L 45 Procedure in Authorizing Ordination and L 50 Examination of Candidates for Ordination. L 55 Ordination Service refers only to “the candidate.”

The final section under “The Ministry” is L 60 Safeguarding Credentials—The Integrity of the Ministry. The opening material is as follows:

L 60 05 Union Responsibility—The union and local conferences/ missions/fields share the responsibility for safeguarding the integrity of the ministry and are required by denominational action and practice to assure that credentials issued within their respective territories shall indeed certify that the holders are in good and unquestioned standing, properly subject to invitation to any other field of service.

The entire section concerns the behavioral integrity of ministers and procedures for dealing with those who lack such integrity. Therefore, the reference to the responsibility of “union and local conferences” and to potential “invitation to any other field of service” pertains only to the certification of a minister’s behavioral integrity and not to any particular cultural or gender characteristic of the minister. The section includes the following:

L 60 25 Steps in Discipline of Ministers—When discipline must be administered in the case of a minister, four aspects of the minister’s relationship to the Church may be affected: his/her credential/license, his ordination, his/her church membership and his/her denominational employment. The discipline and corresponding procedure for administering such discipline in relation to each of these aspects is as follows: [What follows is a discussion of each potential effect.]

We may note simply that ministerial ordination is assumed to be limited to males but with no statement of exclusion of females. Of course, a literal reading of this could be taken to mean that it is only the ordination of errant male ministers that is made void by a “moral fall”[!] or apostasy.

Section L on The Ministry is the comprehensive, defining policy concerning the Adventist ministry. Certainly, it is a policy with which the GC expects union conferences to be “in harmony.” The policy explicitly includes men and women in the Ministerial Internship program and in the principal training component at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. The language used in the sections on the licensed minister, ministers from other denominations, ordination, and ministerial integrity assumes that only males occupy this position. However, this is not specifically stated as a condition, nor is there any stated exclusion of females, notwithstanding the votes of GC sessions in 1990 and 1995.

We conclude that even according to the GC’s own policy the union conferences need only to be “in harmony” with GC policies. Harmony, as opposed to unison, requires differences, albeit those which work well together. Union conferences may legitimately have policies that differ from those of the GC.

We further conclude that the GC policies on human relations require the application of gender equality in the hiring, authorization, and promotion of Adventist employees and hold internal organizations and their administrators responsible for the application of this policy. Union conferences are expected to implement this policy of gender equality. This is the overwhelming implication of the policy, notwithstanding the exception clause regarding positions that require ordination to the gospel ministry. This declaration is not sufficient as a statement of policy. It is ambiguous and without justification. The positive statement of gender equality, the invocation of Galatians 3:28 as the foundational principle in this regard, and the essential consistence of the section trumps the undefined and unexplained exception clause pertaining to ordination to the gospel ministry.

We finally conclude that the specific policy that defines the gospel ministry within the Adventist Church provides for the appointment, internship, and training of Adventist ministers without regard to gender, specifically alluding to the including of men and women. In those parts of the policy were it is assumed that only males occupy this role, including the section on ordination, there is no specifically stated male-only condition, nor is there any statement of the exclusion of females. On the principles that in such statements of policy conditions must be clearly stated and what is not prohibited is permitted, union conferences are free to authorize the ordination of pastors in their territories without regard to gender.

ONE in Christ is a group comprised of Adventist theologians, ministers, administrators and lecturers who advocate ordination equality. Their website is www.one-in-christ.com


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4667