October 27, 2013, Sunday afternoon, Dr. Sandra Roberts was confirmed as Southeastern California Conference’s (SECC) next president. She becomes the first Adventist woman to assume this responsibility. The history-making vote (567 “yes” to 219 “no” or 72% to 28%) overwhelmingly affirmed the conference nominating committee’s recommendation despite a cautionary message from General Conference president Ted N. C. Wilson.
On Tuesday morning, October 31, 2013, Seventh-day Adventist world church officials released a statement regarding the SECC vote, declaring that SECC’s newly elected president is not recognized by the world church as an ordained minister. And ordination is one of the criteria for being a conference president. The GC statement, “Moving Forward Together. A response from the General Conference to recent actions in North America”, bases its argument on some biblical texts on unity and mission plus a particular hermeneutic of the Adventist Working Policy.
At about 1:50 pm that Tuesday afternoon the North American Division (NAD), at their Year-end Meeting. welcomed Sandra Roberts into their fraternity.
Friday, November 1, 2013. General Conference president Ted N. C. Wilson took the pulpit that evening at the NAD Year-end Meeting laying out again the key components of his presidential vision. Elder Wilson's sermon was as notable for what he said as for what he did not say. In fact he didn’t make any allusion to the pastoral women’s ordination issue.
Monday, November 4, 2013. The attendees of the NAD Year-end Meeting, after several hours of reports from the North American Division Theology of Ordination Study Committee and lengthy discussion, voted 182 in favour of ordaining women, 31 opposed, and three abstaining. There were no cheers this time. North American Division president Daniel Jackson had adjured delegates to refrain from applauding in deference to the sensitivity of the subject. Tuesday morning, November 5, Daniel Jackson issued a statement of clarification. He sought to set the record straight by reiterating that the vote did not signal a change in policy. Instead, it only approved the recommendation of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee.
From November 1 to 5, 80 representatives from the main European countries met as the executive committee of the Inter-European Division (EUD), in Madrid, Spain. On Tuesday, November 12 they published their report, voted unanimously,and became the second world Division to recommend the ordination of women to pastoral ministry, taking into consideration the possibility of applying it according to the needs of the fields. There were no abstentions. The Inter-European Division recommends to the Seventh-day Adventist world church’s Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) that there is room for the church to ordain women to pastoral ministry.
The recommendation follows study of the papers presented at the division’s Biblical Research Committee as well as those prepared for the Theology of Ordination Study Committee earlier this year (January 15 – 17, July 22 – 24). The Inter-European Division’s recommendation stems from six points:
1. The Bible does not specifically define what ordination for pastoral ministry is.
2. There are no direct statements in the Bible either commanding or prohibiting women’s ordination.
3. As the church felt free to develop its organizational structure to further its mission based on biblical principles, division BRC members consider ordination not a doctrinal or biblical issue, but something that must be handled at an administrative level.
4. There are no clear biblical principles that would require or guide the application of the principle of headship in the family or the church.
5. The Old Testament priesthood has its fulfillment in the unique priesthood of Christ, which is the basis for the priesthood of all believers.
6. The BRC members were unclear over why ordination should require a differentiation between genders that doesn’t exist in other levels of ministry or service, such as teachers, deacons, prophets and leaders.
Wednesday, November 13. A third division voted to recommend that the General Conference not discriminate by gender when ordaining pastors. The South Pacific Division vote, taken during year-end meetings held in Wahroonga, New South Wales, Australia, follows similar votes taken by the Inter-European Division and the North American Division. The Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific has unanimously affirmed a report from its Biblical Research Committee that “does not see any scriptural principle which would be an impediment to women being ordained”. The report, based on lengthy deliberations and seven research papers on the theology of ordination prepared by academics from around the South Pacific Division (SPD), concludes that “the calling of the Holy Spirit needs to be recognised for both men and women. There is a sense of injustice that needs to be addressed.” The vote at the Division’s year-end executive committee meeting does not imply a change of working policy within the South Pacific at this stage, but it does signal a clear message to the world church’s Theology of Ordination Study Committee ahead of the 2015 General Conference (GC) meetings, when the issue of the full ordination of women pastors will be discussed.
These listed events that followed the election of Sandra Roberts as SECC’s first women president likely won’t stop here. They will keep coming and it is not clear the real outcome they will have. But whatever will happen there are three important theological considerations I would like to outline and suggest to keep in mind for securing the best development, growth and maturation of the Adventist church.
The first concerns the need for “de-theologizing” the issue of women pastoral ordination. Lay believers and trained theologians alike take religion and faith seriously, thus they tend to link everything to strong biblical and theological principles and convictions. While this is a good attitude it also needs to be maintained soberly and with some measure of relaxation. The bible teaches this principle. There were too many alleluias, amens and invocations to the Trinity after Dr. Sandra Roberts’ election. This is not a religious crusade and a reasonable religious attitude is to somewhat “de-theologize” the currently enflamed debate. NAD president Daniel Jackson appropriately and wisely exhorted the delegates to not cheer and applaud their vote. This reflects a sound and sober theology we need today in our Adventist community. A healthy theology is always thoughtful and humble, particularly in its deepest convictions and conclusions.
Second, a sound theology is always “pluralistic”, complex and heterogeneous. The bible also teaches this. It would have been simpler and more natural to arrive at this pluralistic and differentiated theological situation facilitated by the General Conference itself. Unfortunately we have arrived here not only without GC leadership but instead with GC opposition. The three division votes in favour of women’s ministerial ordination (NAD, EUD, SPD) are all based on local theological committees (BRC) that break with the GC’s theologically unitarian and excessively homogeneous view of Adventism for this issue. One question now is to see how the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) will position itself on this issue. They should work not as the theological “military” extension of the GC but rather as a mediator to dialogue with the various division realities and advise the GC about the inescapable socio-cultural differences. To question other people’s spirituality and convictions, as the GC “Moving Forward Together” document implicitly does, is not a model of fine and noble theology, even though church unity is invoked as guiding principle.
Third, a sound theology does not always start a change but at least follows, facilitates and orients it. Some big theological revolutions have not started from a theological enterprise but rather by non-theological lay initiatives or even secular events. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It now is crystal-clear that in some regions of the world, reality, history and experience has gone forward while Adventist theology has been left behind. But even so this does not have to be a major problem. It becomes one when theology, due to some ideological obsessions, is reluctant to catch up to reality.
As was noted last month in our first column on ordination, while biblical reference is necessary in this issue it is not necessarily the one we are using now. “Beyond the biblical claim”, was the title of the first column. The same can be said here of the theological claim. We must go toward a theology that structurally includes these three important characteristics of a sound theological enterprise in this ordination issue: soberness, plurality and dialogical attitude.
Hanz Gutierrez, “Villa Aurora” Florence, Italy
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5638