The Path to Unity in the Matter of Ordination: Simple, but Not Easy

The pathway to unity in regard to ordaining women who serve in ministerial roles is simple. But not easy. Why?

Intentional and carefully structured study groups commissioned by the church have repeatedly come to no consensus regarding a biblical mandate regarding the matter. Therefore, we as a global church have not taken a position that the Bible prohibits the ordination of women. So the question is not resolved theologically. That is exactly why it is not easy.

It is not easy because we do not like to admit that culture trumps theology. But culture has taken primacy over biblical positions among people of faith time and time again.

Can we simply (and humbly) admit our humanity? For many around our shared globe culture is a huge barrier in the question of ordaining women in ministry. For others it is a matter of moral conscience analogous to faithfulness and integrity. The pathway to unity requires us to acknowledge our humanity, recognize and respect variances in culture, and go on living in peace. For people relying on the grace of Jesus, we would wish that could be easy.

Would that mean we never discuss the matters that distinguish us? Of course not. But if we are to be a global church, and experience unity in the process, we need to act with respect for each other. That means we will listen, dialogue, study, and pray together. But to assert our cultural preference in matters of policy breaks that unity.

Yes, the church voted. And the doctrine of church authority comes into the discussion. My assertion here is that when the church asserts authority apart from a clear biblical position formed in consensus through prayer and study throughout the body it (the authority of the church) is weakened. A better path is to define unity around those matters that the scripture is clear on - not on cultural positions or decisions.

How do we go forward? Note variance to policy in audit reports. Where conferences or unions are out of compliance with the 2015 vote, their constituents should be reminded through those audit notations. But leave it there. Weak? Well, just how strong is a position that rests on culture rather than scripture? How strong are we when our security requires us to insist on global agreement on matters of culture?

Skip Bell is Professor of Church Leadership in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.

Image Credit: Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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Polygamy is anathema in the western world. Bigamy can be legally prosecuted in most western countries.

The Mormons are embarassed by their large polygamist communities in southern Utah.

However in Islam and in large swaths of Africa, polygamy is the norm.

Western Adventists compromised our values when we conceded a conciliation/accommodation that African Adventists would not have to divorce their multiple wives. This went against our cultural grain and value systems, but we swallowed hard, and " bit the bullet ".

More recently we westerns went out of our way to address demon possession in Africa – not a pervasive, prevalent, over arching cultural concern in our families and congregations.

The twenty two countries comprising the Trans European Union have had MULTIPLE female heads of state, both presidents and prime ministers, some countries experiencing successive female Chief Executives. All VOTED in by populations that were clearly egalitarian.

The fifty four countries comprising the African continent have had a SPARSE representation of ELECTED female politicians, compared to Europe.

This would imply a cultural mistrust/wariness of female authority figures in Africa.
This cultural misogyny carries over when it comes to female authority figures in our church.

You so eloquently state:

The crucial impediment for a YES vote on women’s ordination at San Antonio was a cultural one.

Since we westerners have compromised our values in accommodation/conciliation of African mores ( polygamy and demon posssion ) how long must we wait for an equal “give and take” on the part of our culturally misogynistic African brethren??

What "tired, worn out “. .” erroneous " arguments do you find “seriously wanting” ?

That polygamy is pervasive in Africa ?
That western Adventists have gone out of their way to accommodate a value system repugnant to them?
That VOTED, ELECTED, female politicians in Africa are SPARSE when compared to their European counterparts??

I spent twenty five years on the African continent.
How long have you lived there??


This is all helpful. However, the “theological” issues were never resolved in favor of women’s ordination (“no prohibition” is pretty weak) because it was never a biblical issue in the apostolic church to begin with. It only became an issue centuries later for the obvious cultural reasons. Those convinced the Bible supports women’s ordination as well as those equally certain it opposes WO are equally wrong. It’s a non-issue and those who insist it is start out trying to prove an assumption that is nonsensical and therefore unprovable. Imagine a dispute over whether or not the Bible opposes or supports the centrality of a physical “cross” in every Christian church’s sanctuary? In modern parlance it’s like “have you stopped beating your wife?”

It’s discouraging to think that we spent millions of dollars unnecessarily and fruitlessly, trying to theologically resolve a non-dispute with disputation.


Robin, with due respect, the tired and worn out thinly veiled condescending (bordering on racist) erroneous arguments you reharsh had been weighed in the balance in past years and found seriously wanting. That’s why you’ll hardly find any senior church leader or theologian of note repeat them. That ship sailed years ago. You’ll do well to catch up and sail on it as well.

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Do we have the moral courage and theological capacity to find unity that unites us rather than divides and fractures the panoply of cultures? Does our church have respect for unity in the midst of our diversity and fellowship across lines of culture? There are many passages and theological doctrines in the Bible’s vision of unity of God s people even amidst differences. But the point is that the Bible—or at least significant portions of the Bible—offer a vision of human identity that acknowledges heterogeneous and significant social differences. And this is a good thing, for despite the fact that all humans obviously share some kind of common human existence, we are clearly different in many ways from each other: gender, race and ethnicity, culture, political views, theological commitments, wealth, profession, and social status. In other words, cultural, ethnic, status, and even some level of theological differences continue in Paul’s churches, but the fundamental feature of individual and ecclesial identity, and that which enables the church to see each other as family and friends, is our shared experience of respect for individuality and freedom to choose that we all have in the body of Christ. What was lost in the WO controversy was the fact that the process of HOW we arrived at a decision on this issue was just as important as whatever outcome ultimately prevailed. Is our church tied up with uniformity and sameness?

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this really is the bottom line…everyone took part in the vote, with the understanding that the outcome would mean something…but if the vote is disregarded, and openly flaunted, as it was recently with the ordination of beverly maravilla at la sierra university church, church authority becomes meaningless…what, then, is the point of having a GC with delegates who vote on church policy…more importantly, what is the point of pretending to be a world church…because the no vote in san antonio was driven largely by interests from the global south, the conclusion from someone looking on can only be that first world adventism works only when everyone shares first world culture…it isn’t big enough to accept, and genuinely love, those from a different culture when that means some sacrifice to ourselves, or some curtailing of the expression of our own culture…i don’t think this presents an open door of fellowship to those from a culture outside of first world culture…

one of the many things to ponder about san antonio, in terms of our world church context, is that explosive growth in the global south and the consequent delegate count have turned the tables on the presumed dominance of the global north, whose vastly greater economic clout has historically carried the day, in sitting GC sessions…but like it or not, this shift is now our reality…a disregard for the voice of our current world church speaking through the vote of san antonio will likely say to the global south that the global north is only enthused about being a world church when it, the global north, is in the driver’s seat…this in turn will arouse suspicions, or consolidate existing suspicions, that the north doesn’t regard the south as equals…because the church in the global north is still, by and large, associated with white adventism, while the church in the global south is associated with non-white adventism, this also involves a potential sociological obstacle tinged by race…as we all know, racism is a tinderbox that explodes beyond the reach of evidence and reason over the slightest provocation…it isn’t feasible to hope for unity in our church, on any level, when the embers of racism are given even a slight opportunity to be active…if, as a church, we cannot show that our religion lifts us above the racial conflicts that characterize secular america, alone, we might as well close up shop…nothing we can say about the love of god for fallen man is going to have any impact when people can see for themselves that we’re no better at handling issues of race than non-adventists…

i think it’s important to keep in mind that there are generally always increasing layers of negative consequences stemming from a wrong decision that aren’t necessarily, or even usually, perceived at the time, and that only come into focus afterwards, as time unfolds…this was certainly the case with adam and eve at the moment of the fall…but it is also true every time the people of god make a wrong move…in this situation with the vote in san antonio, a disregard for a GC vote may seem innocuous, but is it…all of us can think of good reasons to ignore this particular vote - enforcing a position based on something other than scripture is papal; do we have unity worth preserving if a forced uniformity is used to secure it - but is anyone skilled enough to see all the repercussions that will accrue over time if it is ignored…meanwhile, we know that abiding by the GC vote will certainly keep our church together, and that we will all learn through experience what it means to be a world church dominated, perhaps, by a culture outside of our own…it is also self-evident that, given the past trajectory of WO, it will certainly be adopted in some form the next time it is put to a vote…isn’t it better to ensure certainty when we have it in our hands, than to throw everything up in the air, and hope we’ll be happy when it hits the floor…

i don’t think this is a meaningful point…no-one is suggesting that a sitting GC session vote on something scripture is clear on…a GC vote, by definition, should be on a matter of urgent policy, outside of clear scripture, which the whole church will be expected to adopt…there is no other reason for a GC vote…in hindsight we can perhaps wish that the question of WO in san antonio, in any form, never made it to the floor…but this option is not open to us now…while we can certainly learn from this experience, and church administrators can perhaps be more careful in the future with the built-in delimits of questions put to delegates for a vote, all of this has no value in terms of the position we are in now…

i think non-compliance with the san antonio vote that hasn’t been dealt with through the exemption process annual council has provided for will force our GC’s hand…i don’t see how our world church can tolerate unauthorized deviation from what a worldwide, representative body has voted in a duly convened GC session…


It is not accurate to say that the Bible gives no directions as to how females should be treated, and therefore how to extrapolate, from Biblical practice, their fitness/unfitness for top ministerial leadership in a church community. What surprises me is the persistent , and gentle forbearance of women in the “Western Church” in the matter of their struggle, as it were, to be recognised as ordained leaders in the SDA Church in this the 21st century. In the Bible the position of women could hardly be worse. From the priests given permission to return during the exile and who wrote Genesis, Eve was targeted as a betrayer and the prime cause of a split with the Godhead. Polygamy, (and beating/ murder of women) was the order of the day among the most revered Bible writers and heroes,Isaac, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon,and Samuel even advocated that Amalekite women be run through with swords even if supposedly pregnant, and so on. In the New Testament, the misogynist Paul advocated that they shut up and let men control the services of the church. Very, very Bad examples , and so very different from the example of Jesus , who surrounded himself with women , and even chose a bride who had tendencies toward zealotry. So the issue of WO is complex and depends on the prevailing culture to a large extent. But even God did something to indicate how men should act. He had child with an earth woman , when he could just as well have sent a Messiah from the realms of heaven. There was indeed a time, anthropologists opine, when women were in charge and matriarchical arrangements prevailed. Women were in charege of the(" godess-headed") religions and a man usually moved into the household of the mother of his bride after marriage. It is presumed that the great change in gender relations came after the flood when, due to the very hard work of recovery, by means of widespread agriculture and the muscular power thereby needed, men took charge of providing food to sustain the family and built granaries to store the surplus. The SDA church is now considering what to do about WO, but it seems clear that the weight of opinion is on the side of women in the Western democracies. In African societies, different traditions still exist, perhaps nearer to Bible traditions in gender relations, but that is another matter for now.

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You are correct! The continuing practice of WO by PUC and CUC must not continue! It is this practice that will invite grave consequences!!

I also would welcome a common biblical foundation that is flexible enough to embrace diverse practices while obeying the same Bible.

So here is my suggestion.

  1. Let the PUC and the CUC suspend the operation of their policies on WO.
  2. Let them invite the GC to consider the recommendations that have come from the South Pacific Division, from the Trans-European Division and from Dr Lowell Cooper, former VP of the GC to engage in a process of policy development that gives serious consideration to a model of credentialling all senior Adventist pastoral leadership, thus dispensing with the rite of ordination.
  3. Let the North American Division and the Inter-European Division join with the South Pacific Division and the Trans-European Division and all the Unions within their respective territories also give this same invitation to the General Conference Executive Committee in Annual Council.
  4. Let a small global taskforce be tasked to report to the 2018 Annual Council on the viability of such a proposal, having regard to the consensus statement on the nature of ordination; and if such a proposal is found to be viable, let a corresponding policy be drafted in conjunction with the GC secretariat and put to the vote at the 2018 Annual Council.

This proposed solution to the present conundrum need not be seen in conflict with the San Antonio vote which voted down the proposal to allow Divisions the responsibility of deciding either for or against WO.

The WO policies of the PUC and the CUC have served their important purpose of highlighting the need for a satisfying resolution to the equitable credentialling of women. Yet to maintain an intransigent stance that may work locally but doesn’t progress the global agenda, but rather hinders it, is self-defeating in the extreme.

What Adventists around the world now need to embrace in this matter is a unified and uniform biblical approach to the equitable credentialling of women and men which allows some degree of flexibility in the design and implementation of rites that affirm, bless and commission our authorized pastoral leadership.

The matter of church authority is relevant to this discussion. Here is my question. If I have studied the Scriptures faithfully, with prayer and dialogue with other Christians, and have arrived at a place of conscience regarding a position based on scripture, does the action of a church council hold primacy? If it does, should I be assured that the action is based on a biblical consensus? If the action is not based on a scriptural consensus, can I follow the convictions I have from scripture and at the same time respect those who see it differently? I would hope so. I value my church and believe God leads. I am also a Protestant.

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You are making a logical assumption that dooms your line of thought in its intended conclusion.
Better yet conceive of it this way,
If you have studied the Scriptures faithfully, with prayer and dialogue with other Christians, and have arrived at a place of conscience regarding a position based on scripture, and everyone else has done the same…does only your vote on WO hold primacy?


Ellen in the Book Education put in print this –
We need Men [and Women] who will STAND FOR THE RIGHT Even though the Heavens are Falling around them.
It IS RIGHT Not to DISCRIMINATE just because one has the WRONG Body Parts, or WRONG Chromosomal Make up – XX instead of XY.
NO! PUC, CUC, and Any Other Union should STAND FOR THE RIGHT because IT IS RIGHT!
It IS RIGHT to Acknowledge the Call of the Spirit in individuals. The Spirit has NEVER made a call based on Reflections of naked bodies in mirrors, NOR of XX or XY chromosomes.

I NEVER said the Vote was “Sinful”. I am just saying the RIGHT thing to do is NOT DISCRIMINATE against the Holy Spirit when the Holy Spirit calls someone to a task – no matter who the GENDER.


Skip, thank you for a thoughtful and practical solution. Do you remember back in our committee days hearing Dr. Carl George lecture on his experiences as a church growth consultant working with many Adventist churches? I will never forget something that he said that struck me as SO true. It was,“The reason why Adventists have such a difficult time making decisions is because you refuse to acknowledge that many of your problems are cultural problems and you insist on seeking theological answers to cultural issues. Then you wonder why it doesn’t work.” Wow he really had us pegged! When you use a bad process you almost never get a good result and we have now come to a point where this fatal flaw in our process is threatening disaster. If two unions are disbanded the only winners will be the very high priced lawyers who will get paid from our tithe dollars to sort out the whole mess of who owns what in entities that own institutions incorporated in many states and have differing constitutions aand bylaws. May God help us!


Hi Susan! Yes, I remember many lessons learned from years past. We need to remember. We (Adventist Christians around our globe) need to remember that we are a global mission movement. We need to remember that scripture, and scripture alone, provides our creed. We need to remember that our community thrives when we focus on what is good, what is right, and what advances the Gospel.

We can do that. We can celebrate what makes us one - our shared vision for Christ, His Word, and His salvation. We can proclaim and persuade as we share the good news of His return. We will always have cultural differences. But there is no room to vilify those we disagree with who sincerely must follow their carefully formed values from scripture where the scripture has not provided a clear and broad consensus in belief.

Yes we voted in San Antonio, and yes, many in the global movement will remain true to their conscience, and may decide they must vary from policy. It does and will pain them to have to do so. In such cases we will be noted as out of compliance. But to be vilified as unfit? No.

Scripture is primary. Church authority is a poor substitute for scripture.


You realize, Skip, that the recent vote in SA was a “heads I win, tails you lose” coin, right?
If the power had been given to the Divisions, in effect, hierarchical to the GC itself, would the Divisions actually have gotten away with enacting co-ordination? And how soon before another proscriptive ultimatum/edict from above?

The vote was not whether ordination was a to be denied women-despite the way its being played now by all the too-willing anti-wo surrogates.

But beneath all that-there is no policy now, or ever was, prohibiting women from serving in any capacity in church administrative roles or gospel ministry. That being the case, how can any any Union or local conference be out of compliance?


Steve, I am sorry to tell you you are doing precisely what @susansickler described in her comment[quote=“susansickler, post:14, topic:14246”]
seeking theological answers to cultural issues

Your are using your cultural position and preferences to deteremine Right from Wrong, and sowing disunity with your proposed approach on how “PUC, CUC, and any other Union” should proceed. You are also totally taking EGW’s writing out of context and doing harm to the point she makes, unless of course you feel that the SA vote on WO ordination is equivalent to sin, and the GC leaders sinful on this subject.

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I am repelled and appalled by church “leadership” that can refuse to even acknowledge repeated pleas for dialogue on a question of conscience. Where is the evidence of basic human decency and respect–not to mention spiritual leadership–in such un-Christlike behavior? Some have seemingly forgotten that God alone can know the conscience. How ironic that acceding to one man’s demand for conformity can supercede the invitation of the gentle Jesus to seek Him in a personal relationship.

Who did Jesus threaten?

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