An Open Letter to the General Conference Delegates from Africa

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Dear Delegates from the Motherland:

In about two weeks, our church will be voting on a motion regarding the acceptability of division executive committees in each territory ordaining women to the gospel ministry. And somehow, all eyes are on the delegates from our part of the world, because there is a growing sense that our three divisions, comprising roughly 23% of the delegates to San Antonio, will determine whether the motion is accepted or rejected. Ordinarily, to be in this position is a cause for celebration, but not this time. So how did we get here?

We are here because, during the years’ long Theology of Ordination Study Committees (TOSC) deliberations, it became clear that, unlike the transparent and thoughtful discussions that were characteristic of the TOSC meetings in other divisions, the discussions in the TOSC gatherings in all three African divisions were notable by their inaccessibility. Yet when the final documents were released, all divisions were unanimous in their opposition against ordaining women in the church.  Also conspicuous about the three African divisions has been the eerie public silence of individual church members, pastors and theologians--on speaking, preaching, or writing papers, in favor of women ordination. What happened to the typing fingers of all the budding young Adventist theologians on the continent? Is there such clarity on this issue that a continent of almost seven million Adventists cannot spare a single discordant voice in support of women’s ordination (WO)?

I am perplexed by this unprecedented show of agreement by the church apparatus and the seeming acquiescence by the membership at large, because this behavior goes against our very nature as Africans. We are not ones for matching in concert as though headed or minded. We are a disputing bunch. Ordinarily we take every opportunity to speak our mind, and often do so just because someone else is advocating our preferred position. But on this issue, an issue that speaks to fairness or the lack of it; suddenly, strangely, all our talking drums are peeling a cacophonic monotone as though all the drummers are hamstrung and have lost their improvising instincts and are only awkwardly going along with a non-native scripter’s orchestration. What has happened to us?

Yes, we’ve been told that we are the “saviors” of the world church from the “decadent” west. That the Lord is entrusting the future of His enterprise to us, and us alone, to steer to port. That WO is a Trojan horse that will usher into the church other more terrible things if we don’t stand firm against it. When I hear this I am reminded of an incident I witnessed in the fall of 1984 during my first year as a college instructor.  I was teaching at the Adventist Seminary of West Africa, Nigeria, now Babcock University.  The school was at the time affiliated with Andrews University, so every year, three or four Andrews University professors descended on the campus for affiliation evaluation meetings. Every year, on Sabbath during the visits, the head of the delegation preached during divine service. This arrangement had gone on for years. It turned out that in the year in question, the head of the delegation was Dean Ogden, a woman. This was first time during this arrangement when the leader was a woman. So what to do? Well, after a lot of hand ringing on the side of the local school and church officials, the decision was made to break the tradition of not allowing women to preach from the pulpit on Sabbath. Dean Ogden preached a delicious sermon based on Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”. When she finished there was a thunderous affirmation of amens. The sky did not collapse on us. And a year later, women were accompanying men to the pulpit on Sabbaths, and have been preaching from there since 1986. That was a long digression, I know, but it speaks to fears about change that often never materialize.

What we have not discussed among ourselves, because our leaders have shirked that responsibility of preparing us, is that what is happening regarding the WO debate is the normal process of change. Change in any form is almost always difficult. As a block, we lean “conservative” in social outlook compared to our fellow Adventists from the West, and consequently are more likely to view any impactful change with both suspicion and apprehension. But the Bible is littered with enough examples to guide us in approaching change, especially the kind of change that has the potential to further the Lord’s work.

The Bible might not have actively promoted slavery in some distant past, for example, but it certainly tolerated and regulated the dehumanizing practice.  After the accounts leading to the proclamation of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, the highlight in Exodus 21 is negotiating the rules about what is allowed and what is not when we sell our daughters into sexual slavery.  Paul would advise Onesimus to go back to his master, Philemon, and for Philemon to take him back, Onesimus still a slave.  When Samuel told the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites, including women and children, he spoke at God’s command. Today we will take any leader who does this, God’s command or not, to The Hague and charge them for the crime of genocide.

The point I am making here is that at some point in time, as the Bible attests, a lot of objectionable things were routinely done in the name of God. But over time we as a community of humans, Christians and non-Christians alike decided such actions can no longer be justified or condoned. Neither in the case of slavery nor genocide do we conclude that we humans are better than our God. What these examples and others like them in the Bible illustrate is that over time, as humans become well exposed to the Christ ethic, we come to understand God better than our forebears and champion God’s higher causes in our different generations.  A William Wilberforce comes around and notices the incongruence of a God of love and one that justifies slavery and concludes that the God Jesus reveals in the Bible would not condone slavery and so he goes about fighting against slavery.  Similarly a Martin Luther King sees the injustice of Jim Crow around him, and armed with the same Bible his distractors used to decry his “agitation”, did something about it. Every generation is presented with the opportunity to right some long enduring wrong or injustice, and it is that generation’s response to this opportunity that defines it.

My teenage children often ask me with genuine puzzlement when we have conversations about such past issues as criminalization of interracial marriages, fights in favor of desegregation, or the massive undertaking to preserve Jim Crow: why? And no matter how often they ask, I always get stumped by that question. Because from their perspective, aided by what has happened since these events were “resolved”, it all seem such a waste of resources devoted to things that in hindsight is so plain to them.

As you vote on the issue of WO next month in San Antonio, think about the future generations of African Adventists who in 30 years may be looking at this history and asking why? Why did they think voting against the ordination of women to gospel ministry was advancing the ministry of God? Our debt to our children and our children’s children requires of us to give careful consideration to this question recognizing that, voting to deny other divisions the ability to ordain women in their territories would not stop unions from churches in the West from continuing to ordain women in their field. That ship has sailed and will not be recalled to port. What you can control is how history will evaluate your vote.

Sincerely,

Matthew J. Quartey, PhD
Berrien Springs, MI