Reflections on an African Adventist Report on Ordination Issues


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The full report of the East-Central Africa Division of the General Conference (ECD) Biblical Research Committee (BRC) to the Theology of Ordination Study Committee has now been released online at the GC Archives and Statistics website.

This report provides an intriguing and well-articulated position statement on the ordination issues currently under global study. A careful consideration of this document, and in particular of the associated ECD Executive Committee Action, may well provide the reader with a greater understanding of their perspectives and their struggles. The global Adventist communion would do well to take into their reckoning these perspectives as they move toward a truly global consensus on issues of ordination.

The Central Recommendation of the East-Central Africa Division BRC

This body clearly stated their position with regard to the ordination of women. “NO, NOT YET.” (p.14). Yet they clearly envision that a new paradigm of ministry and ordination may yet be implemented in the Adventist communion. The necessary creation of this is the very valid reason for the requested delay. In the wake of this short and emphatic pronouncement they explain their decision well.

“ECD BRC still sees no light in ordaining women as pastors under the current praxis of understanding and practicing ordination. Our Committee decision is not conclusive and members are open and are urging further studies until the Church is convinced that ordaining under current modalities is biblical.” (p.14)

While the above Committee decision is inconclusive, their goal is well understood. They are searching for a new paradigm to replace the current theology and practice of ordination. Such a paradigm, they say, has to be formed and may even dispense with the term “ordination.” It will communicate full recognition as a servant leader regardless of their gender. Their clear implication is that the term “ordination” as it is understood presently “carries unhealthy nuances which need undoing in order to facilitate servant leadership for the Adventist Church.” (p.14).

Africans Awaken to the Issues in the Ordination Debate

According to the report, the great interest that was shown in the ordination of women debate at the 2013 ECD Executive Committee meetings was in real contrast to previous disinterest in the topic, in that part of the world. Because of the evident lack of information and the existence of so much disinformation surrounding these Executive Committee members the plea is made for further study and information sharing on the issues with such people. A theologically intelligent and responsible Church is vital. This is especially so for the delegates to the 2015 General Conference Session, the report concludes.

Critique of Scholarly Presentations made in the TOSC Process

The assertion is made that “many times those who are tasked to pursue studies with hopes to come up with clues to developing solutions, end up not listening to one another and thus hindering progress to lasting solutions.” (p.16). Here the report references specific Adventist scholars, who in their papers have advanced arguments that, “though logical still leave some of us as African Christian professionals unconvinced if not confused.” (p.12). An example of this is cited. “The appeal to the biblical narratives like Song of Songs which express or imply elevated views concerning male and female gender relations is not convincing.” (p.12,13).

The diatribe against some scholarly presentations on the topic continues. The blunt accusation is made that the “inclusivist,” (their term), is prone to “selectively scoop out information that is bent towards a pre-meditated goal.” (p.11). An example of this practice is given. “The argument that we … must move from the Fall to the redeemed status, as was the case in Eden are quite cogent. However, such good arguments need to be buttressed by adequate information which explains why Jesus, Paul, Peter and others including Ellen White did not immediately and practically illustrate what is implied by highlighting such insights.” (p.13).

Perhaps, such critiques would lose their force if the global Adventist communion encouraged more cross-cultural consultation between scholars and church leadership on these issues.

Unsettled Conclusions about Ordination

The report hints at the unease of the ECD BRC members, who on the one hand see sound exegetical reasons for a Pauline headship principle, yet on the other recognize the force of the Scriptural passages that “expressly or implicitly endorse women’s full participation in the ministry and mission of the church.” (p.11). Further, they question whether it is really correct to define leadership narrowly as a male domain, and so exclude women from those spheres.

This said, they equally fear the “inclusivists” who would “exert undue pressure on the Church to act without clear Biblical guidance.” (p.11). These African scholars, for the most part, still maintain that “the demand for women’s ordination as pastors is informed by the feminist movement or outside pressures.” (p.7). Further, it is maintained that issues of gender equality in relation to leadership are swept away by God’s sovereign choices of people to fill specific roles, without regard for any supposed gender superiority or special powers. With such conflicting ideas, the report pronounces many discussions between the incluvists and the exclusivists as a “dialogue of the deaf.” (p.11)

The question comes – Should Adventists intensify their consultations on these issues in the coming months? Or will Western Adventists be characterized by our theological smugness that we have studied these issues ad nauseum for years, thus denying others opportunities that have been ours? It is okay to suggest that women’s ordination need not be implanted in world regions till sufficient preparation is done. But perhaps African’s are unsatisfied with a second class ticket in the decision making on these issues. How would it be if the energy used in the PUC and CUC to achieve the ‘right’ outcome for themselves had instead been invested in consultation with people in other places, such as Africa? Perhaps study tours to these unions for field administrators/ pastors from Africa, to showcase the work of women pastors, could be organized! This would be a real exercise of unity in diversity!

Hints at an Emerging African Consensus on Women’s Ordination

For the most part these hints come from the future study topics the report identifies as essential. Some of these topics highlight the different perspectives from which the Western mind and the African mind look at issues. Several of these topics are especially significant.

  1. Cultural sensitivity is needed as Adventists approach the implementation of new policy measures designed to address perceived deficiencies in Adventist mission and ministry. Part of this is a willingness to inform people at the grass roots levels of the proposed changes and their intentions and not create a crisis of authority. Clear implementation guidelines need to be provided. Adventist family values need to be enshrined in proactive policies. The calling of women to church leadership must not militate against her high calling as a wife and mother. The negative fallout arising from the poor implementation of measures establishing the women’s ministries department in some parts of Africa is a case in point. In some parts of Africa this resulted in Adventist churches and members becoming unsettled and disaffected.
  2. According to the report, ordination is viewed in a specific way in the traditional African worldview. These notions are not always helpful. Study is needed, resulting in a dislodging of these ideas. In an African context, ordination is often seen as a male “spiritual rite of passage.” (p.19) Second, ordination as it is currently practiced can serve to reinforce the traditional understanding that male/ female roles are fixed. Third, many in Africa view the ordination of women as “an attempt to defeminize her.” (p. 20). This is unthinkable. Fourth, Africans are still tempted to think of ordination as a concept and practice that is “intended to perpetuate male domination even in the church.” (p.19). Further, the original concept of ordination from the early centuries conveys the meaning of rank and class.

“In short, notions of hierarchy and patriarchy must not be reinforced by the current paradigm of ordination, as often happens. Two strategies for building a new paradigm are canvassed in the report, and for dismantling the present paradigm. First, the TOSC Consensus Statement on the Theology of Ordination is “very useful in clarifying the real church’s position [on ordination].” (p.19). Second, the report calls for “consideration of redefinition of ordination,” in which case “if possible, a new term may have to be found.” (p19).

“In an interesting throw-away line, the assertion is made that God didn’t bypass cultural norms when He communicated His messages. The Church, likewise, would do well to be sensitive to cultural norms when designing ordination services for men and women. It may well be that this calls for a distinct difference in ordination services for men on the one hand, and women on the other. Put simply, “Creativity is called for to help people move forward comfortably with God’s agenda.” (p.20).

Conclusion

The recommendations for a new paradigm of ordination - that potentially incorporates the ordination of women - and also for further study are enlightening and challenging. Though Biblical dimensions are surveyed, the real surprise is that the cultural dimensions are in large focus. All this has enabled me to see issues of great concern to me from fresh perspectives. The cogent reasons given for their particular stance are most welcome, as is their openness to moving forward creatively with God’s agenda.

But the real bottom line of this report is that the global Adventist communion must take seriously the African request for further study, consultation and dialogue. Will Adventists make this a priority before the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas? Or shall Adventists rest satisfied with the real progress in consensus building achieved thus far, and not reach out to our brothers and sisters around the globe on this issue?

To conclude, one could do no better than to review an important statement in the report under consideration.

BRC members are aware of the fact that the global Church of God is one, and that whatever affects others elsewhere in the world will impact ECD also, in one way or another. We are also aware that the ECD region is part of the world church, and may not attain to God mandated maturity in Christ, unless it is rooted and anchored on sound biblical foundations and a sound theological platform. BRC members, therefore, are keen to engage in pertinent theological conversations and they [want to engage] seriously and prayerfully in developing a theology of ordination which will enable the world church to effectively carry on the mission of the church. (p.2).

Peter S Marks, MA (Religion), MIM –Librarianship, has taken early retirement after a career as an Adventist pastor in Australia & New Zealand ; and as an English professor at Suncheon National University and Sahmyook University in Korea. He is a qualified librarian and is currently a graduate research student in theology at Avondale College of Higher Education, Australia.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5802