Unity? Policy? Flexibility? Where’s the Sweet Spot?

So, we have a situation.

In essence, the GC says, “Ordaining women is against policy. You must stop and conform.” The unions say, “By Church policy, ordination decisions are within our purview, and our constituents think ordaining women is the right thing to do as we pursue mission where we live.”

This is complicated stuff involving multiple factors. Policy. Church governance. Church legal structure. Authority. Power. Control. Maybe even personal feelings.

Each of these factors warrants full exploration, but this article focuses on one factor: Unity. Why? Because the current discussion has been framed by the GC as a call for unity. The implication of the GC’s posture is that we can’t be in unity unless we comply with policies uniformly across the world, regardless of culture or mission needs.

Please note that the current struggle is not about doctrine, belief or theology. The GC is not taking the position that the ordination of women is in violation of our doctrines, at least not openly. It is implied that the problem is lack of adherence to a policy.

My problem with universal uniformity and compliance is that even if achieved, the result is not necessarily unity. As a matter of fact, the quest for uniformity and compliance may be counter to unity. That has been true so far, and I predict it will continue to be true.

So what is this thing called “unity?” When are Christians truly in unity?

Permit me to tell a couple of personal stories.

I was in Romania on a mission trip with college and academy students. My responsibility was to make sure things ran well. On Friday afternoon, our leader, Bill, a university theology professor, said, “Oh, by the way, Ed. I need you to speak tomorrow for church.” Huh? I am not a preacher. My wife assures me I am definitely not a preacher! But a strange thing happened. Before Bill was through speaking, I knew what I would say the next day. It is the clearest experience in my life when I thought the Holy Spirit was speaking.

We were in Romania to build a new church building. There was already a nice, large church in town with a congregation of Romanians, Hungarians, and Gypsies. The troubled history between their nations is not conducive to good relationships between Hungarians and Romanians. And Gypsies are often not well accepted anywhere. So, three people groups with multiple troubled histories, all in one church. We were there to help the Hungarians build a new church so they could move out.

My few minutes of speaking the next day went something like this: Jesus said in John 13:35 that his people would be known because they loved each other. Why did Jesus pick that particular criterion? Because He knew the gospel would attract many different kinds of people into his infant church. Jews and Samaritans. Tax collectors and small businessmen. Blatantly ambitious people. Gentiles, Romans, Greeks, Asians, Ethiopians, Egyptians. There was bad history between the Jews and just about all those people. And yet Jesus said, “People will know you are my disciples because you love one another.”

I continued. If this hodgepodge of new Christians from all over the Mediterranean Basin could love each other in spite of their differences, their varying cultures, their troubled histories, it would say something remarkable about the power of the gospel! They would be a deviation from the norm. That would be real unity! Jesus was telling us that the power of love would be most obvious precisely when we have differences. His love holds us together, even in the face of differences of opinion or ancient hatreds...or different policies. So if it were obvious to their community that Hungarians, Romanians, and Gypsy Christians loved each other, it would be a powerful witness for Jesus.

I sat down. Somebody said something in either Hungarian or Romanian, and three people prayed. I didn’t understand what was going on. I noticed that the last man cried his way through his prayer. I learned later that a Romanian, a Hungarian, and a Gypsy were asked to pray. It was the Gypsy that openly wept during his prayer. It was the first time a Gypsy had ever been asked, or probably permitted, to speak in that church. A little unity had occurred.

Let me tell you another personal story.

I was sitting at a large table in a conference room at the old General Conference building in Takoma Park, Maryland. The meeting was not holding my attention. It was probably about some subject like insurance or retirement. I was an outsider, an executive with Adventist Health System/United States.

An object on the side of the conference table caught my attention. I checked it out. It was the handle of a drawer. I looked inside. There was a book, the General Conference Working Policy. I looked in front of my neighbor. Another handle to another drawer. After the meeting, I checked. Every chair at the table had a drawer in front of it and every drawer contained a Working Policy book. There must have been 20 chairs at the table. 20 Working Policy books.

I could just envision an internal GC meeting in that conference room. Some subject arises. 20 people pop open their drawers and whip out their Working Policy books, ready for action. Ready to appeal to the authority of last resort – the Working Policy. My next thought? I couldn’t work here! The ubiquity of those books added to my already growing sense that flexibility, creativity, and strategic thinking might not be valued in those premises as much as conformity. I thought the very presence of a Working Policy book for every attendee at a meeting spoke volumes about the GC’s work, its organizational culture, and its value system.

I don’t know if they took that unusual conference table with them when they moved to the new GC building in Silver Spring. But why not? It was the perfect piece of GC furniture!

Obviously, I think each story describes different values.

The first story describes a state of mind that is very personal and is influenced by the Holy Spirit to bring about unity among people. It is about portraying the love of Jesus in the face of human differences. It is about the impact of Christian love on humans.

The second story describes an organization where policy adherence is the big deal.

At the GC, Working Policy seems nearly paramount to truth and doctrine. The “Unity” document seems to make no distinction between policy and theology. It refers repeatedly to “biblical principles as expressed in the Fundamental Beliefs or voted actions and policies…” I doubt most people see policy as expressing biblical principles in most cases. Most people put policy in a different category of human endeavor and importance.

The GC may value policy adherence more than almost anything because that is its only control mechanism. The GC has no real power or organizational control otherwise. The Church was intentionally set up that way in 1901 to avoid GC overreach.

I think the parties come to the table valuing different things. The GC says to the Pacific Union and the Columbia Union, “Get in line.” The unions say, “Our people have voted by large majorities what they think is in the best interest of our mission in the territories where we live.”

It doesn’t seem likely to me that the union conferences are going to change. For one thing, these were not decisions of union officers or committees. They were decisions by constituencies, members of the Church. Those members carry convictions, and are not likely to reverse course. And the GC is showing no signs of accommodation.

How do we get out of this impasse? Is a disruption inevitable? Perhaps the way forward means that we should look at a new flexibility in which different parts of the world have certain latitude in their approach to mission. In my mind, mission effectiveness wins over policy every time, assuming adherence to core beliefs and general good judgment. Different approaches to mission need to vary with culture and circumstances. It is quite clear our 376,000 brothers and sisters in the Pacific and Columbia Unions have a clear view of how mission will work best in their midst. Who am I, or anyone, to say “no” and try to force them into changing their view?

Let me be clear. I think tactics designed to force volunteer members of a religious organization into adherence to a non-theological policy is just nuts. And always remember, Headship Theology is not part of our belief system.

In the end, this whole thing is about members, not leaders. There may be 30 or so people (men) dealing with this matter, but they should not be so shortsighted as to think this is about them. It is about us, the members in the pews. We will ultimately react to these matters.

An appropriate measure of flexibility is the way forward. I can feel perfectly in unity in Christ with my brothers and sisters in South America and Africa if they don’t ordain women while other parts of the world do ordain women. Actually, I can feel in unity with my brothers and sisters in South America and Africa in spite of our differences. But when there is pressure for compulsory compliance with a disputed policy of the Church where there is no doctrinal issue, then unity begins to fray.

Unity is a state of mind toward each other, compelled by the love of Jesus. It is not uniformity. It is not organizational marching in lockstep.

Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant. He and his wife Janelle live in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Image Credit: FreeImages.com / B S K

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8168
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Evidently the apostles goofed at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.
Instead of decreeing the 4 laws, they should have just said “Let’s promote love for one another.”

Beautifully stated, Edward!

Your examples were wonderful ( my son-in-law is Romanian ).

Our Adventist adherents are so dramatically diverse in language/culture/abilities/class/gender/ethnicity, how can the GC expect cookie cutter conformity?

Especially, as you so cogently emphasize, that " the current struggle is not about doctrine, belief or theology. "

This WO issue is a "storm in a teacup " designed to divide, and is becoming a power struggle,to authenticate TW’'s dominance.

To Kevin Paulson:
The"reports of the various study committees " ( which wasted millions --. $$$$ ----and consumed decades ) were ambiguous and not doctrinally definitive!


The author of this article appears not to remember that the motion made in San Antonio invited a decision based upon Scripture, the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy, and the reports of the various study committees. It was therefore very much a theological decision.

Actually, the evidence produced by the study committees—one of which I was privileged to serve as a member—was quite definitive, though too many failed to realize it. For those wishing to adhere strictly to the self-explanatory evidence of Scripture—as opposed to the evidence of Scripture diluted by culture, scholarly speculation, and the vagaries of experience—the theological case for the decision rendered in San Antonio was clear.

Ed, with all due respect, go back and read the motion that was voted on in San Antonio. Whatever the motives of the delegates may have been, it stated:

"After your prayerful study on ordination from the Bible, the writings of Ellen G. White, and the reports of the study commissions . . . "

This was not a decision, in other words, exclusively based on policy. It was based on the teachings of the inspired writings. http://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/story2988-​gc-delegates-vote-‘no’-on-issue-of-women’s-ordination

The writings of Inspiration are self-explanatory and self-interpreting. This premise lies at the foundation of Seventh-day Adventist Bible study and doctrinal discourse. When we conduct evangelistic meetings, we don’t present the Bible as a document open to contrasting yet equally legitimate interpretations. Rather, we uphold the written Word as explaining its own statements and thus holding all accountable for their response to its teachings. Without an objective standard of right and wrong, the church has nothing authoritative to say to the world regarding any issue, in our society or elsewhere.

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Thanks Edward!

Kevin, it would be great if we could decide theology by vote! Adventists have rarely attempted to do so. And when we have it has ended in tears.

No Kevin, our theological positions must never be arrived at by one side of the argument trumping another side. Our theological positions must always be arrived at through allowing the Spirit and the Word to educate and thus build consensus. Until these processes of education and consensus building have arrived at their desired end we have no business voting a solution that will be no solution.

Truth is more powerful than error! Truth need not be upheld on the wings of political calculation and maneuvering.

There is much truth in Geo Knight’s expose of the evolving relationships between the Union Conferences and the General Conference. The facts are clear that Unions were created to provide a break on the exercise of kingly power, and to ensure that policy and other decisions could be made in a more appropriate local context that could be more flexible to local needs. In this way unity could be promoted without anticipating uniformity. The idea of Unions was first trialled in the Antipodes, with the creation of the Australasian Union Conference embracing Australia and New Zealand against the counsel of the GC brethren, yet supported by Ellen White, her son Willie White and A G Daniells. The idea of organizational departments of the church was trialled in colonial South Africa (at the time an important outpost of British civilization). Again, this was done against the counsel of the GC brethren.

However, one cannot escape the fact that the General Conference has always set the criteria for those whom the Union Conferences will approve for ordination. To believe differently is an act of self-deception.

It is imperative that the PUC and the CUC step back from the brink and suspend the operation of their policy of WO. Together with the NAD and the Inter-European Division they should begin a united effort with the South Pacific Division and the Trans-European Division to encourage further policy development on achieving true unity on this matter.

Adventists must first unite on a biblical and theological approach to the a,b, c’s of appointing our ecclesial leaders. We must unite on the theology of appointing, blessing and commissioning our leaders. Beyond that our policies for doing that may differ in the design and implementation of any associated rites.

My call for us to unite on our theological approach to appointing our leaders and also involve ourselves in policy development on this front is nothing more or less than that which Dr Lowell Cooper, retired GC VP and policy guru has called for recently. His paper at the London Unity Conference charts a course first laid out for us by the TED in 2015, and by the SPD in 2016. Presumably all or most of the GC Executive Committee members from these two divisions are in support.

Why don’t the NAD and the EUD and their respective Unions join them?

What prevents them from doing this? Muddle-headed thinking? Folly? Pride? A wish for a train-wreck?Stubbornness? Arrogance?

The Salvation Army until 1980 or thereabouts only ever commissioned their Officers. They did not do ‘ordination.’ Under the influence of clericalization and institutionalization they have begun to both commission and ordain officers of both genders. Curiously, this is done without the laying on of hands. Adventists would do well to roll back both of these neferious processes and encourage “the priesthood of all believers,” ie. Total Member Involvement. They could well do this by a process of policy development with the outcome that a new system of licences and credentials is developed for individuals of both genders, be they deacons or elders (voluntary or salaried).

I would be interested to correspond with you harrpa. Perhaps you are a fellow gmail subscriber. My handle is petersomerset.


Mr. Paulson, there was no request for a decision on theology. It was a vote on a possible policy change. I know you would like to make the case that it was a vote on theology, but it wasn’t. Who knows what the motivations of the voters was. You shouldn’t assume that delegates voted on the basis of theology.

And your comment on TOSC is almost comical. If I understand you, you are saying the evidence “was quite definitive” as long as people interpret things as you do. And those who don’t see things as you do just “failed.”

One reason this whole business is not theological is because the church does not have a doctrinal position supporting Male Headship. The GC can’t very well chastise unions based on the Church’s settled theology on the matter because there is no settled doctrine, as described in authoritative sources of our doctrinal beliefs. So theology is a very shaky proposition for claiming the Pacific and Columbia unions are in rebellion. Ergo, the focus is on policy.

Actually, I don’t think we have any doctrine which even addresses the subject. Perhaps the closest thing we have to settled doctrine is the Fundamental Belief which says we are equal in Christ.


I agree! The church wasted millions of dollars and three GC sessions in a failed attempt at imposing a non-doctrinal policy on the rest of the world while manifesting zero interest is solving a serious moral issue created by Ted Wilson’s dad when he allowed the church to profit from the murder of innocent unborn children in our Adventist hospitals in 1970.

I don’t understand this myopic vision about our mission. We decided to prohibit what is not prohibited in Scripture while allowing what is definitely forbidden in the Decalogue. This is sheer theological madness!

This is what is needed correction by the coming October Executive Committee meeting instead of WO.


The trouble is, sir, the “leaders” who would have to vote this through are ordained officers of the organization. They are NOT going to endanger, change, or dispose of ordination, their authorization of power.

The closest process we have in our church for changing policy involves constituency meetings. The unions who believe in the doctrine of the Priesthood of ALL Believers have overwhelmingly voted to “ordain” women since that’s how authorization to ministry works.

Good luck getting the men to vote themselves out of their ordination credentials.

Phillip Brantley,

Thank you for the concise list of male headship theory vs. Classic Adventism. This is so helpful. I’m saving it.


Most of our Seventh-day Adventist doctrines oppose male headship theory. The following is what we orthodox SDAs believe in contrast to what SDA male headship theorists believe:

  1. UNITY IN THE BODY OF CHRIST: Whereas we believe in equality as set forth in Galatians 3:28, they believe that equality does not extend to women.
  2. NATURE OF HUMANITY: Whereas we believe that men and women occupy the same sphere of humanity and share the same nature, SDA male headship theorists believe that women have been assigned a sphere that is lower than the sphere assigned to men and that the nature of women is fundamentally different than the nature of men.
  3. THE TRINITY: Whereas we believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, they believe in the anti-Trinitarian doctrine of Subordinationism, that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father.
  4. SALVATION: Whereas we believe that a woman standing alone at the Tree is capable of making a covenant with God, capable of accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior, they believe that the highly-confused and easily-deceived Eve is the paradigm of all women, so consequently, no woman standing alone at the Tree is capable of making a correct spiritual decision. Accordingly, SDA male headship theorists believe that a woman is saved not as a result of her making a covenant with God but vicariously by submitting to a man who does make a covenant with God. Vicarious salvation for women is further necessitated because Jesus as a man cannot function as the Substitute for women.
  5. SANCTIFICATION: Whereas we believe that a woman is sanctified by the grace of Jesus, who is her Example and Role Model, they believe that Jesus cannot function as the Example and Role Model for a woman because he is a man and because the roles for men and women are different. Furthermore, a woman cannot be transformed from a highly-confused and easily-deceived Eve into something else. She is forever a highly-confused and easily-deceived Eve.
  6. MARRIAGE: Whereas we believe that a woman possesses the biblically-permitted capacity to enter into a marriage contract with a man she loves, they believe that Scripture teaches that no woman standing alone at the Tree is capable of making such an important spiritual decision. Accordingly, male headship forms of marriage, such as (a) rape and forced marriage, (b) arranged marriage, © the purchasing of the woman from her father, etc., are regarded as preferred and biblical.
  7. SPIRITUAL GIFTS: Whereas we believe that the Holy Spirit dispenses gifts irrespective of gender and that we can discern spiritual giftedness by the fruit those gifts produce, SDA male headship theorists believe that spiritual giftedness is gender-based and that fruit is an extra-biblical criterion that Satan can use to deceive us. Accordingly, when a woman baptizes someone, plants a church, or exercises spiritual leadership, what we are in reality seeing is not the work of the Holy Spirit but the work of Satan.
  8. GIFT OF PROPHECY: Whereas we believe that Ellen White was ordained because God ordained her, they believe that she was not ordained because men did not ordain her. Whereas we believe her prophetic gift includes leadership authority over men, SDA male headship theorists do not, notwithstanding that she did exercise leadership authority over men throughout her entire ministry.
  9. CHRISTOLOGY: Whereas we believe that Jesus was sufficiently similar to women to serve as their Substitute, SDA male headship theorists believe that He could not possibly be so, and to say that He could would blur gender distinctions and promote androgyny.
  10. COMMUNION: Whereas we believe that every Christian is a representative of God, they believe that only ordained males are representative of God. Therefore, only ordained males may officiate at Communion.
  11. THE CHURCH: Whereas we believe that Jesus is the sole Head of the church, they believe that He has delegated his authority to ordained males, and only to ordained males, who act in His stead with His authority. Whereas we believe that women can be ordained as ministers, SDA male headship theorists believe that ordaining women would imperil the church, as allowing Eve standing alone at the Tree to make a spiritual decision allegedly imperiled the human race. Whereas we believe that the exercise of personal conscience is to be respected, they do not.
  12. THE GREAT CONTROVERSY: Whereas we believe that Satan lead Adam and Eve into sin, SDA male headship theorists believe that Eve lead Adam into sin.
  13. THE SANCTUARY: Whereas we believe that Christ is the typological fulfillment of the OT priesthood, they believe that the exclusively-male OT priesthood points to an exclusively-male church pastorate.
  14. THE NEW EARTH: Whereas we believe that in the New Earth, there will be no rankism, no power distinctions among men and women, SDA male headship theorists believe that in the New Earth men will lead and women will submit.

Thank you, Phil. Great stuff.

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Wow. It might be rather nice to live in a male headship fantasy, what with all that power over women. However, I think my wife might object, she being a fully formed human.

One wonders what sort of angry, insecure, impotent, and basically violent man would operate in this way and what sort of woman would stand for it. Probably not people I would choose to spend time with.

Seriously, thanks very much for this list. I’d be great if you wrote an article here that expanded on your case.


“When I was a kid, I said to my father one afternoon ‘Daddy will you take me to the zoo’ He answered ‘If the zoo wants you, let them come and get you.’.”— by Jerry Lewis
Jerry Lewis died a few hours ago but the wisdom of this simple story makes an important point clear. Be careful what you ask for. If we ask for unity, let us be clear what we are uniting for. Unity is NOT sameness. It is not the result of implementing outmoded policies that prevent gender inclusiveness. Forced artificial unity extracted from a group as diverse as the Adventist church is never going to work for anyone.
As an example of a current false call to unity is the slogan “AMERICA FIRST”
No more, declares the current President: “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First.” “America First” was the name of the organization led by Charles Lindbergh that bitterly fought FDR before U.S. entry into World War II — right through the Battle of Britain — to keep America neutral between Churchill’s Britain and Hitler’s Reich. Imagine how this resonates abroad. Not that our President was consciously imitating Lindbergh. I doubt he was even aware of the reference. The phrase is a call for American’s to unite under the banner of nationalism and self-interest. This call for unity is being repudiated and ultimately divides us as a nation. The same peril awaits our church if we unify under policies that do not respect the right of women to be ordained as ministers. The President liked the phrase and has kept using in a misguided attempt for unity. But I can assure you that in London and in every world capital they are aware of the antecedent and the intimations of a new American isolationism. The President gave them good reason to think so, going on to note “the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” America included.
“Daddy can we talk about where we might go as a family?”

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TW, by failing to master his symbolic castration anxiety and develop his own psychological spine to the extent of being able to stand up to his father’s follies and say “enough is enough,” is compelled to follow in his father’s footsteps. He is thereby united with his father. There is no other choice and for this reason, he demands that the church be united as he is with his father. But for us who have successfully negotiated the fear of being diminished, we will have none of it.

In this matter, there is no shade of spiritual influence but the trappings of mental maturity.

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Mr. Paulson’s insistance on making the San Antonio vote one about a biblical issue is - how shall I put it, without being impolite…

Please provide the Bible text that deals with Divisions of the SDA Church.
Please provide the Bible text that deals with SDA Church policy of ministerial credentials.
In fact … please provide the Bible text that uses the term “ordination”.

We are going round in circles on this issue. Now, obviously, anything we do and vote on (by the way - is voting “biblical”?) should be prayerfully considered and compared with Scripture. But the study of Scripture on the issue has lead to the same conclusions again and again - and was ignored again and again. Even with a rigged TOSC, set up from the start towards opposing views, by including non-scholars, known for their attitudes, the outcome was leaning far more in favour of acknowledging God’s calling than against it.

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