Ordination: The Ongoing Search for Understanding

How do you condense 700 pages of meticulous research into a one hour lecture? On Tuesday, 10 September, Dr Bertil Wiklander, President of the Trans-European Division (TED) made a valiant attempt as he shared the results of his two-year search for the biblical roots of ordination.

What the audience of 90 at the Newbold College Diversity Seminar heard was not so much his role as administrator, politician, and academic, though there were elements of all three. Instead, here was a Bible student and a conscientious pastor, concerned to teach and guide his people.

Dr Wiklander began his lecture by explaining the latest round in the process which the global Seventh-day Adventist Church is going through, as it struggles once again to decide whether to ordain women to the gospel ministry. He described the appointment by the General Conference of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) and his co-operation with Newbold College theologians and other TED leaders in the Division's own Biblical Research Committee with a brief to report to TOSC. He made clear how central to the whole process is a developed view of exegesis and interpretation, and he listed clearly the principles his committee had agreed on.

Dr Wiklander went on to describe his biblical findings. He described a variety of processes of 'imposition of hands' in the Bible. Laying on of hands was used to transmit virtue but also, as in the scapegoat ceremony, to pass on responsibility for sin. Laid on hands could dispense blessing, healing and baptism. Certain patterns of Jewish scribal ordination in the Old Testament might have influenced the early church to lay hands on deacons – a practice neither recommended nor repeated in the rest of the New Testament. Jesus did not ordain but He made or appointed apostles and warned them not to be like the scribes but to follow the servant model of leadership. There is no general command to the Christian church to ordain anyone to a leadership position. The concept of ordination is not found in the Bible and emerges in the second and third-century as the Roman church mirrored what was done in the Roman Empire's legal and civic system. This Roman Catholic concept was not fully challenged during the Protestant Reformation and unbiblical practices remained. "In the New Testament", said Dr Wiklander, "there is no term for ordination as a process of induction to church leadership. It is a pagan practice."

After focusing on the Reformation, the lecture moved on to look at early Adventist history. Dr Wiklander had researched in depth the ecclesiastical heritage of James White and many other Adventist pioneers. They brought with them into the Adventist Church from their previous group ‒ Christian Connection ‒ the three orders of ministry: pastor, elder, and deacon. The idea of apostolic succession – that only ordained ministers could ordain ministers – took hold but, "it has no biblical root", Dr Wiklander insisted.

Finally the audience was treated to a whistle-stop tour of an extensive list of church leadership tasks which Ellen White told the church leadership in 1901 that women should take and for which they should be paid by the tithe. "And she said this", said Dr Wiklander, "at a time when women were not even allowed the vote in political life."

After an hour, Dr Wiklander concluded the lecture on a personal note. "I become quite emotional when I speak about this", he said. "The research has given me a big question. I believe we should bring men and women into the ministry on equal terms."

As usual, the question and answer session brought more fascinating insights. "I've been ordained...so I feel a bit pagan now!" said one pastor. "If ordination is a pagan not a biblical practice, should we ordain at all?" Dr Wiklander admitted that he had considered that possibility but rejected it. "We need to have a way of ensuring that we are led by educated and appropriate church leaders and we need a practical way of doing that. There are a lot of traces of paganism in our lives, praying with our hands together, Christmas trees, and the names of the days of the week. Our significant concern needs to be what meaning we assign to ordination. I believe we need a deep reform to make our practices of ordination more biblical."

Questions explored the possibility both of what might happen in the church if women's ordination is agreed and if it is not. People shared concerns about submitting to a vote rather than to the voice of scripture. Dr Wiklander explored the worst possible scenario ‒a massive schism in which people go their own way and the tithe system is threatened. Some will be unhappy whatever is decided and research needs to be in place as a basis for our teaching. Either way, we need to have a big reform of ordination in our Church and in relations between clergy and laity so that members do not feel the status of pastors separates them from lay people. We can only go forward together if we are all together as servants.

Finally, the President gave more personal commitments to his belief in the ordination of women. "I am converted completely to what I said tonight. I would die for it."

Newbold's pastor, Patrick Johnson, was impressed. "There was a great deal for pastors to think about in this lecture", he said. "I've heard Bertil speak many times but I've never heard him speak with such passion and conviction."

This article was originally published by BUC News September 12, 2013, and is republished with permission.

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Sat, 09/13/2014 | San Diego Adventist Forum
Terrie Dopp Aamodt, PhD

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