Few issues have caused as much personal anguish, vexed the Administrations of four of the last five consecutive General Conference Presidents, and culminated in increasingly close margin votes at General Conference Sessions in 1990, 1995, and 2015, than the question whether or not to ordain women to the Gospel Ministry.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church from its inception on May 21, 1863, has had a representative model of governance. Over the last 150 years, and most specifically during its first 40 years, the General Conference, and the ecclesiastical structure of the Church has undergone significant changes in size and the scope of authority which initially rested in the hands of a few individuals to a global body which is made up of lay members, clergy, and administrators who run the business of the Church.
The General Conference Session (GC Session) and its decisions, made by representatives gathered together from all parts of the world, is considered by Seventh-day Adventist Church members to be the highest authority, under God, on Earth. The GC Session occurs every five years, the last being in San Antonio Texas, in 2015. The GC Session Delegates, who are chosen through an open process that begins at the local church level, meet at the Session to deliberate and vote on a wide range of matters regarding faith, doctrine, leadership elections, and amend governing documents that guide Church in finishing the Work of God on Earth.
These governing documents are listed here:
“The governing documents of the Seventh-day Adventist Church have all been approved by either a GC Session or the GC Executive Committee. A common shorthand for these documents is “policy,” but they include more than just the General Conference’s Working Policy and Mission Statement, which were created by the GC Executive Committee, can be amended only by that body meeting in an Annual Council (or by a GC Session), and are published in an annually updated one-volume edition as General Conference Working Policy.
Other policy documents include the GC Constitution and Bylaws (included in the published Working Policy), which originated with and can only be changed by a GC Session; the constitutions and bylaws, or operating policies, of the GC’s member unions and their respective conferences and missions; the “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists” and the Church Manual (both of which also can only be amended by a GC Session); and several divisions’ own versions of Working Policy (applying and sometimes expanding the provisions of GC Working Policy to their contexts). Finally, statements or other actions approved by a GC Session or the GC Executive Committee are also considered an expression of Church policy.
The different documents apply to different spheres: the Fundamental Beliefs are
solely doctrinal; the Church Manual governs procedures and policies at the level of the local church (though sometimes with implications for broader policy and other levels of structure); the GC Constitution, Bylaws, and Working Policy deal with policies and procedures at the regional and global levels, and with the interrelationship of different levels of structure.”
The General Conference Executive Committee is the highest ecclesiastical authority of the Seventh-day Adventist Church between GC Sessions and it meets as needed but most often on a yearly basis, usually at the GC Global Corporate Offices, located at Silver Springs, Maryland, in the United States. This yearly business meeting is called the General Conference Annual Council (Annual Council).
The Annual Council, this year, will consider the impact the divergence from the GC Working Policy on the issue of ordination at various regional levels has had on the Church Governance and Unity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
In preparation for the upcoming Annual Council, the General Conference Secretariat has issued a 54 page Study Document titled “A Study of Church Governance and Unity,” outlining Biblical precedence, contextual guidance and commentary from Ellen G. White’s materials, decision points from Adventist Church History, relevant sections from the SDA Church Manual and the GC Working Policy along with an accompanying 17 page “Summary of the Document” to aid the delegates in their deliberations on this issue.
The document(s) and the ramifications of potential decisions have led some to declare that it demonizes many church entities and to fear that the General Conference may move to take over leadership some unions that support women’s ordination.
The issues of Church Governance and Unity, that are at stake, simultaneously affect and go deeper than the issue of ordination. To appreciate where we are, let us take a look at the journey that brought us to this point.
From the GC document’s first page, we find the a brief historical sketch and the crux of the issue at hand:
“Ever since the Seventh-day Adventist Church first established criteria for the ordination of ministers at the 18th GC Session in 1879, the world Church has set such criteria. Since 1930, the GC Executive Committee has delegated to unions responsibility for selecting candidates for ordination, based on the criteria set by the World Church.
Starting in 2012, however, a few unions, have in effect, claimed the right to set criteria for ordination, disregarding the 1990 GC Session action not to allow women to be ordained to the gospel ministry, and the decisions of the 1995 and 2015 Sessions not to allow variances from this policy. Since 2015 GC Session, some unions and conferences have diverged from GC Working Policy by discontinuing ordinations, and commissioning or licensing all new pastors; issuing ministerial licenses and/or commissioned-minister credentials or licenses to all pastors in their territories, including those previously ordained; and allowing commissioned or licensed ministers to function as ordained ministers.”
In 2015, Spectrum Magazine, an independent magazine, commenting on this ‘departure’ after at the Women’s Ordination Vote at the 2015 GC Session, declared 2015, to be the “Year of Regional Autonomy,”:
“A Yes vote would have given each of the divisions ownership of the issue of ordination within its territory. The no vote meant that the status quo prevailed: in most places, unions are in charge of granting credentials to candidates from the conferences in their territories. That continues to be the case after San Antonio.
The ironic outcome of the vote against regional autonomy was . . . greater regional autonomy. In the weeks and months following the San Antonio General Conference Session, territory after territory issued statements on ordination that responded specifically to the circumstances within their respective territories.
Most of the news was from Europe, though several North American Unions and Conferences had made earlier moves independent of General Conference-preferred policy. This increasing departure from centralized control of ordination practice toward regional autonomy is notable—it is a story in itself.”
The article went on to link to their previous coverage of decisions and the citing references from the GC Working Policy as the rationale for the decisions made by various Unions and Conferences either in anticipation or in response to the aftermath of the Majority No Vote at the 2015 GC Session.
The scope of this article is not to comment on the strength of the evidence supporting the rationale of the decisions made by these Conferences and Unions, it would however be of interest to the reader to note some general points:
1. Most of these decisions cite the GC Working Policy claiming that the ‘power’ to issue credentials resides with the Union Conferences.
2. Equality of both sexes is emphasized with various Biblical references to the Holy Spirit’s Power being poured out on both genders.
3. A plea for the GC to reconsider their respective division’s documents submitted to the Theology of Ordination Study Committee.
4. Asking the Division or GC to consider developing a new set of credentials that takes both sexes into consideration.
5. Setting aside ordination in favor of other ‘simpler’ practices.
6. Ordain without regard to gender citing gender inclusive sections in the GC Working
7. GC Working Policy is guided by foundational texts in the Bible and guiding statements from the writings of Ellen G. White. The architects of this variance in policy rely on their understanding and interpretation of foundational texts to fill in what they perceive as gaps in policy.
Most of the rationale cited for variances from established GC Policy on Ordination by the Union and Conferences is well articulated in “A Close Reading of General Conference Working Policy on Ordination” by a group, “One in Christ” whose website is now defunct.
The most important findings are listed here for the reader’s benefit (bold is their emphasis, underlined and italicized is mine):
“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.
In short, they argue that since there are sections that are gender inclusive and some sections while clearly pertaining to men only, do not have language that explicitly excludes women, thus the ambiguity allows these individuals and the Unions that relied or came up with similar findings to bypass the decisions made against women’s ordination in GC Session in 1990, against divisions deciding for themselves in GC Sessions 1995 and 2015.
Secure in their confidence that, while they may be going ahead of the Church, they are on the right side of history, and having made their argument from the ambiguities in policy and their understanding of foundational texts, they proceeded to craft their own policy variants all the while declaring fealty to the World Church.
The General Conference leadership strongly disagrees with their course of action and calls it a unilateral departure from what has been agreed by the World Church.
So who is right?
Is it the General Conference leadership? Or are these Unions and Conferences right in asserting their understanding of Scripture and the GC Working Policy, that their actions are not a departure but an expression of harmony with the World Church?
What happens if the two groups cannot come to an agreement on the issue of the scope of authority? What are the constitutional rights of the Conferences and Unions and that of the World Church? What happens to all the members, local churches, schools and other institutions that are under the care of these Conferences? Will this be settled in Courts of Law in the respective countries, or in the United States?
Will the GC take over the Unions as some are projecting that they may with a vote at the Annual Council?
In Part II: We will look at all these questions and analyze the options that the GC and the Unions & Conferences have to resolve this one way or the other.
Note: This article also appeared in Compass Magazine.