Equality is firmly established as part of the Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “The church is one body with many members, called from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation” (Belief #14).
Building further on this position of equality, General Conference Policy opposes discrimination stating, “The church rejects any system or philosophy which discriminates against anyone on the basis of race, color, or gender. The Church bases its positions on principles clearly enunciated in the Bible, the writings of Ellen G White, and the official pronouncements of the General Conference” (BA 60 05). Not only is this position firmly stated here, but it is represented as being supported by both scripture and Ellen White, leaving little room for argument.
This strong position is continued in the following section, BA 60 10, which addresses specifically employment issues. “The world Church supports nondiscrimination in employment practices and policies and upholds the principle that both men and women, without regard to race and color, shall be given full and equal opportunity within the Church to develop the knowledge and skills needed for the building up of the Church.”
Up to this point, the position holds together. But the next sentence undermines and contradicts the stance that both Fundamental Belief #14 and the preceding portion of policy BA 60 has clearly made and authoritatively supported. It states, “Positions of service and responsibility (except those requiring ordination to the gospel ministry*) on all levels of church activity shall be open to all on the basis of the individual’s qualifications.”
This statement has been represented at times as prohibiting the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. However, it is not a policy forbidding such ordination. Rather it is a policy granting permission to exercise discrimination against certain classes of people. It is significant to note that the policy does not state which among the three listed groups – gender, race and color – may fall into this exception of allowable discrimination. Therefore, it could conceivably be equally applied to any of the three categories, wherever such discrimination is being practiced.
The underlying premise of this policy is one of granting permission to discriminate where such a practice exists, and thus it establishes that such a practice actually is discriminatory. As such, the onus is on those who practice discrimination, not on those who do not. This then leaves those who do not practice discrimination free to proceed in harmony with the policy of openness in employment as it reads. One can only imagine the uproar that would ensue if this permission to discriminate were applied to the categories of “race and color” listed in the policy. Yet it leaves open the permission to follow such an application.
The asterisk in policy BA 60 10 leads to a footnote which further demonstrates its contradictory nature. “The exception clause, and any other statement above, shall not be used to reinterpret the action already taken by the world Church authorizing the ordination of women as local church elders in divisions where the division executive committees have given their approval.” The prohibition of ordaining women to ministry, in contrast to the approval and defense of ordaining them as elders, makes neither biblical nor logical sense. Rather, it makes the church look foolish and inconsistent at best, or outright, intentionally discriminatory.
Making such distinctions between the ordination of elders and ministers has no biblical or early church basis. What the church today has come to recognize as “ordination” in the context of ministry, does not occur in scripture at all. Actually, the English word “ordain” is a Latin loanword which derives its meaning from practices of the church of the Middle Ages, long after the writing of Scripture.
How We Got Here
So how did we get to these confused and contradicting positions? For over a century, ordination policy in the Seventh-day Adventist Church remained mostly constant. Ministerial functions, such as baptisms, marriages, etc. were by policy to be performed only by Ordained Ministers who held such credentials. (GC Session Minutes, 1879). Licensed Ministers were excluded from administering such functions during the period of service prior to their ordination, which in general lasted about four years.
Without much question, this policy was accepted as being biblically and theologically founded. However, there is no such support for this stance. Rather, this stance was mostly a carry-over from the traditions of the Protestant churches from which the early Adventist believers had come. Furthermore, the ordination practice of these churches derived largely from the clergy practices of the Roman Church of the Middle Ages.
Then in the early 1980s, personal income tax as levied by the Internal Revenue Service of the United States forced the General Conference to address the distinction between these two differing categories of licensed and ordained ministerial service. Traditionally, the IRS placed ministers in the “Self Employed” category which provided a tax status known as the “Parsonage Allowance.” Ruling that unless one is performing essentially all the functions of ministry, he/she is not eligible to qualify for this provision and is to be classed as an employee, thus placing ordination policy in a quandary.
The tax matter has often been represented as a break for pastors. However, the supposed benefit was largely reversed by the self-employed classification which required the individual to pay full Social Security taxes with no matching funds from the employer. Thus, the motivation to address the matter was not so much a favor to the licensed minister as it was to the institution as employer which would have been be required to pay half of the of SS tax for those not qualified as fully ministers.
It was in the early 1980s when this issue began to be discussed and brought to the Annual Council. It was recommended that policy be changed to allow licensed ministers to administer baptisms and marriages prior to their ordination which would satisfy the IRS requirement regarding performance of ministerial functions. As the matter was being considered, Neil Wilson presented the idea that there was great need to open such functions to all pastors in order to make these services available in areas where licensed ministers were working alone without the assistance of ordained personnel nearby to help.
This appeared to be a rather flimsy excuse designed to resolve the tax issue, and I spoke to the matter saying that is seemed as though we were changing our theology of ordination – if indeed we had such a thing – in order to satisfy the IRS. This observation was not received with much favor, and the supposed need for pastoral services was repeated as being the issue.
The recommendation was voted, and following the vote, a leader of one of the divisions in Africa asked if this action applied to Licensed Ministers in his territory as well where often pastors had as many as fifteen or twenty churches spread over significant distance traveled by foot. In answer, it was firmly stated that the action applied only in the United States and not in other portions of the world field. I rose to speak again and said, “Thanks for making my point. It clearly is the IRS dictating our ordination policy.”
What this demonstrates is that the limitations regarding who may perform the functions and ordinances of the church, which we had assumed and accepted for decades, did not have a theological or biblical base. We did not have a theology of ordination which, given that it is not a biblical matter, was a reality. It is interesting, then, given the squishiness of our ordination policy, that the matter of the ordination of women would shortly become such a divisive issue.
What to Do With Women
It was about this same time that the ordination of women to ministry was beginning to significantly rise in discussion. Commission after commission, and study after study, indicated that it was neither a biblical nor theological matter. In addition, more and more women were preparing for and entering pastoral ministry. At the 1985 General Conference Session, Neil Wilson observed, “It became a little bit difficult to justify the difference between the credentials given to young women and those given to young men, all things being equal. This was a rather difficult and embarrassing situation for the church.” (July 5, 1985).
Five years passed while this discrepancy regarding credentials continued to be discussed. Then the action of the 1990 GC Session addressing the role of women in ministry stated that there was not “a consensus as to whether or not the scriptures and the writings of Ellen G White explicitly advocate or deny the ordination of women to pastoral ministry,” but it went on to say that “significant, wide ranging and continuing ministry for women is being expressed and will be evident in the varied and expanding gifts according to the infilling of the Holy Spirit” (July 11, 1990).
It was in this context that the matter was addressed, devising a new credential called “Commissioned Minister.” All this created a debate over what commissioned ministers are authorized to do in their ministerial functions. Again, the matter of the IRS and the Federal Government played into the issue. If women did not perform in substantially all the functions of ministry and receive the same pay for their service, we would be back in the same dilemma of tax matters as with licensed, but unordained, ministers.
This category allowed for basically the same ministerial functions but played a word game by making a distinction between “ordaining” and “commissioning” ministers, the former credential being for men and the latter for women. Yet allowing women to serve in exactly the same manner as men, while being given different credentials, was obviously nonsense. Thus, two functions of ordained ministers were restricted for commissioned ministers, the organizing of churches and the ordaining of church officers. This seemed to mollify some who objected to the ordination of women while satisfying the IRS.
Ordination Authority Assignment
Yet all this still does not address the matter of the authority in deciding who may be ordained as defined in General Conference policy. Regarding the approval of persons designated for ordination, policy B 05 states, “decisions regarding the ordination of ministers are entrusted to the union conference….” Regarding such decisions, the policy further states, “each level of organization exercises a realm of final authority and responsibility….” Thus, in the selection and authorization of such individuals, the General Conference has no authority over the union decisions as long as these decisions are in harmony with the criteria established for ordination by General Conference policy.
There are fifteen such criteria listed in policy L 50, none of which refer in any way to gender. If, therefore, any individual approved by the union meets these criteria, the General Conference authority has been satisfied. Given that there is no gender reference in these fifteen requirements, the union is acting within its authority as stated in policy B 05. Policy exercises the ultimate governance over practice, and in the case of gender issues in ordination, there is no policy. However, over a century of practice has created the perception that there is policy on this matter, and one hundred years of practice certainly does establish precedent. But it remains that policy is the issue in ordination, not practice, precedent nor perception.
The point here is that these actions over time are not policy, nor were they formed on what is the stated basis of policy. Unless the policy is changed, no other segment of the church institution has authority over such choices regardless of practice, precedent, or perception. Thus, any attempt to counter the union authority in the area of ordination is a violation of established policy.
If the General Conference wishes to address the issue of gender in ordination to ministry, it may do so, but only by changing its policy to a straightforward requirement that ordination is male gender exclusive, forbidding the ordination of females. There is no such policy presently in existence, nor has there been in the history of the church. Practice, precedent, perception and even prejudice do not constitute a policy. Only straightforward, clearly articulated policy governs the issue of gender inclusive ordination.
There is a perception existing that the General Conference cannot violate policy, that whatever it does constitutes policy, but this is not so. The General Conference can violate policy just as well as any other level of the church if it acts contrary to the provisions of policy. Unless and until the General Conference changes policy by vote, which it has not done, any action contrary to policy is a violation. Thus, the unions are not out of policy on this matter of gender inclusiveness in the ordination of ministers, the General Conference itself is out of policy.
The Unity Argument
A cornerstone of the argument against the ordination of women has been the requirement for the entire world field to stay together in unity in the matter of ordination, but policy itself demonstrates that this premise is a fallacy based on two seemingly unrelated matters.
The first is the ordination of women as local church elders. In the 1970s, several leading churches in North America began the practice of electing and ordaining women to serve as elders. There was no policy preventing such choices, however precedent and practice during the preceding century of the church caused some consternation over the idea of women being ordained for such service. While it may have been a good idea for the General Conference to give counsel regarding this matter, it is an invasion into the territory of local church authority to officially grant permission for churches to do what was already in its purview.
Suppose it was proposed that the General Conference take an action to allow women to serve as church treasurer, or church clerk, or Sabbath School teacher, or director of the children’s Sabbath School Division. Such suggestions would likely be dismissed as irrelevant, given that there is no policy prohibiting such an appointment. Likewise, the granting of permission to ordain women as elders was an unneeded invasion of church authority.
Further, in the context of this action, divisions resistant to implementing this idea were granted a variance, allowing them to ignore the policy if they so chose. Thus, the notion of divisions needing to stay together in actions regarding the ordination of women is shown to be irrelevant. When this argument for unity is used to prevent variance regarding ordination to ministry, but is ignored for those who do not wish to ordain women as elders, the inconsistency is obvious. Likewise, the argument regarding ordination to ministry for the world church is also spurious, in that ordination as an elder is also for the world church. One ordained as either an elder or minister is eligible to serve in any church world-wide, where they are invited or assigned to do so, on the basis of the prior ordination.
Demonstrating this inconsistency, as previously noted, is the footnote to policy BA 60 10. “The exception clause, and any other statement above, shall not be used to reinterpret the action already taken by the world Church authorizing the ordination of women as local church elders in divisions where the division executive committees have given their approval.” It is distinctly stated here that divisions may go their separate ways on this issue, destroying any argument that they must all stay together on ordination matters.
The second is the opening of the performance of ministerial functions to Licensed Ministers. As noted above, this change in long-standing policy and procedure was dictated by the IRS. But again it is clear that this change is addressed differently in the divisions. As Wilson stated when the action was taken, it only applied to the United States. Since that time, the application has been extended but in limited fashion.
Policy L 25 05 states, “The authority for extending this responsibility belongs to the division committee which shall clearly outline for its territory the ministerial functions which may be delegated to licensed ministers….” Curiously, this provision has been applied in North America for over thirty years where broad coverage of Ordained Ministers is available, but the policy goes on to say that divisions should take into account “the needs of the fields in its territory, taking into consideration the distribution of membership, the number of churches, and the ministerial help available.”
It stands to reason then, that if ordination policy is subject to variation from time to time, as well as from division to division, and if such matters as territory and governmental requirements make possible a different application of these policies in different locations, then insisting on uniformity in the matter of ordination of women to ministry is invalid. The argument of unity fails to apply in the light of actual denominational decisions and policies. Furthermore, while it is valid for the church as an institution to establish criteria for its operation, it must be remembered that such actions are decisions of the institutional church, not biblical mandates.
Regarding institutional policies on the performance of ministerial functions, these decisions are not designated in scripture. The administering of baptism is not a function of deacons in GC Policy, yet in scripture Philip, a deacon, baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch. Likewise, Apollos, of whom there is scant reference in the New Testament, is recorded as baptizing members of the church in Corinth. In addition, the celebration of the communion service is in no way restricted to ordained personnel as it is GC Policy. Such requirements are not biblical.
The words of Wilson at the 1985 General Conference Session remain unfortunately true yet today. “It became a little bit difficult to justify the difference between the credentials given to young women and those given to young men, all things being equal. This was a rather difficult and embarrassing situation for the church.” Sadly, rather than correcting and alleviating that injustice and embarrassment over discrimination, church policy went on not only to permit but even to codify it.
The words of policy thus explicitly and embarrassingly establish that discriminatory behavior is acceptable. Justifying such bigotry and prejudice in the name of sacred services would seem to be the wildest of conundrums.
Gary Patterson is a retired field secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He served as senior pastor of some of the largest congregations in the denomination, a conference president in two conferences, and assistant to the president of the North American Division.
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