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The African Church Leadership and the GC President: An Unhealthy Relationship

Ted Wilson, the General Conference President, wants to take over unions that continue to ordain women. During last year’s Annual Council meeting he acquiesced, reluctantly, to a one-year delay to give the recalcitrant unions opportunity to pray their way out of error. The year is up, and Elder Wilson wants to make good on his threat and rein in those unions he deems uncompliant with the San Antonio directive.  In San Antonio he had been masterful in engineering a vote he thought would settle the Women’s Ordination (WO) question forever in his favor.  However, in the aftermath it is increasingly apparent that San Antonio was a pyrrhic victory.

But we did not need a seer to predict that the North American and European unions who had voted to ordain women before San Antonio would not rescind their actions.  Fighting against WO is inherently unwinnable. It advocates for inequality and disenfranchisement, notions that have been litigated and rejected before and which seem alien to our youth, the church’s future. 

Elder Wilson may be well intentioned and believe sincerely in his cause, but so were many well-intentioned and sincere casualties who swam against the tide of egalitarianism and social justice. There is much to be disappointed in Wilson’s leadership in this ginned-up crisis, but my greatest displeasure is reserved for those leaders from the three African divisions who have indiscriminately, and some may say blindly, supported Wilson in his anti-WO crusade.   

To be clear, the three African divisions are not the only world church regions where leadership has betrayed their responsibility to be transformative. Many other division leaders have been equally guilty. I choose to highlight the failings of our African leaders because I am a son of this continent and, consequently, bristle at the way our leaders’ pack alliance with the GC President has fed into the prevailing, silly narrative that African leaders are easily manipulated. Let those from other divisions take their leaders to task as they see fit.  My duty, as an African Adventist, is to hold our leaders in the motherland to a higher standard. 

There is no getting around this: the leaders from the three African divisions are President Wilson’s most ardent backers in his campaign against women’s ordination. Without the near unanimous African “No” vote in San Antonio, we would not be here.  Recall our leaders’ eerie silence when African delegates booed the former GC President, Jan Paulsen.  This is the same Jan Paulsen who was a missionary teacher in Africa before air-conditioned offices and chauffeur-driven administrators was normative. He was booed because he dared to advocate a “Yes” vote.

The optics were awful. Jan Paulsen was jeered in a public forum by our overzealous contingents, and not a single leader from our delegation stood up to disavow that shameful breach of propriety. Our leaders allowed that appalling spectacle to fester in our collective consciences, thus ensuring that it was tethered to us in perpetuity. Never mind that no leaders in the assembly—not the current president or any of his executives—intervened to renounce this most shameful abdication of Christian etiquette. We should have known better. From our perspective, what happened was wrong on many levels. African communities honor longevity, wisdom, and position—in that order. Jan Paulsen had all three, yet we dishonored him, contrary to our cultural upbringing. Why? Because we had been whipped into such a frenzy that we forgot Christian courtesy, the very shortcoming for which we often fault the West.

It has been two years since that disgraceful incident, and to my knowledge, none of our leaders have apologized, in print or an open forum, to Dr. Paulsen. I am not an official leader in the African church, but I want to offer a belated apology to President Paulsen on behalf of the millions of ordinary Adventists on the continent for what was done in our name.

The question is this: Why do our African leaders walk in such lock-step with President Wilson, not only against WO, but also in favor of his one-size-fits-all approach to governance? The church has always made good faith accommodations for regionally specific “problems.”  Consider two instances when the Western church and divisions from other territories bent over backward to accommodate African-specific issues.

Many in the West are unaware that, when we went from 27 to 28 Fundamental Beliefs, the new addition was a nod to a real issue repeatedly encountered by African pastors in their ministry. Fundamental Belief #11, “Growing in Christ,” deals with “demonic spirits,” “evil forces that seek to possess,” “evil powers,” and the assurance that Christ has overcome such forces. There was no Western pastoral clamor for a definitive statement on this subject in aid of parishioners who lived in mortal fear of such dark forces. Yet, when we appealed, a committee was set up resulting in a newly minted belief that continues to serve the African church well.

A second example is the tacit allowance by the rest of the world church to our ongoing approaches in dealing with polygamous new converts. Unlike many Western societies with established prohibition to polygamy, the practice is legal and common in many sub-Saharan countries. When the early Adventist missionaries to West Africa encountered converts from polygamous families, their initial solution was to direct the man to keep his first wife and let the others go. Over time African pastors realized this solution was at best simplistic and, at worst, disruptive, especially for the children who went adrift without a “two-parents” presence.

While the original directive remains on the books, there are now several “experiments” by different African church communities that attempt to minimize the ensuing commotion when wives are dismissed. Some churches advocate admitting the wives into fellowship, minus the man. Others follow the honor system where the entire family lives together and is accepted into church fellowship with the promise of no conjugal relationship between the man and the later wives. These attempts, though imperfect, show that many church leaders in Africa are not averse to compromise to make the church function better locally.

But we are not the only church territory with unique concerns. The Western church is greying and, at the same, time hemorrhaging its youth. This is a deadly combination if left uncorrected. While women’s ordination is not the only reason young people are leaving the Western church, their perception that our church endorses discrimination is not helping stem the tide. For the West, therefore, correcting this long-accepted wrong is a survival and ethical imperative.

So, if the African leaders understand the importance of addressing local issues that impede ministry and have so acted in their territories, why is it that on WO these same leaders are marching only to the drum beat of the GC President in denying others the same opportunity? As I interact with African division leaders on this issue, what keeps coming up is umbrage that the Western church, as one African academic put it, “is trying to ram WO down our unwilling throats”. You get the sense that the leaders are taking a negative stance on WO not necessarily because of its shortcomings but because they hold a grudge against the West for some ill-defined slight. A “No” vote was their opportunity to exercise a power they rarely get to wield in high church politics.

We do live in a world where alternative reality and false truth are in vogue, but the idea that the West is attempting to force WO on the world church is incredible.  The pivotal San Antonio vote was not to authorize ordination of women everywhere. The central question was this: “Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, Yes or No?”

As is inherent in the question’s phrasing, our church makes provision for geographic contingencies. The question allowed each division a large berth to ordain women into gospel ministry at their own pace or not at all. There was no insistence that every division executive committee should allow women to be ordained.

Consequently, those who voted "No" were the ones who advocate a straight-jacketed approach that forces uniformity on every territory. All three African divisions voted overwhelmingly that it was unacceptable for other divisions to consider alternatives. And yet, two years removed from this unfortunate vote, our leaders’ self-justifying rallying cry is that the West was, and continues to be, dictatorial on WO.  We must correct this self-serving mischaracterization of the record; the West is not forcing its views regarding WO on us. If anything, it is we who are forcing our position on them.

Elder Wilson has made a religion of his quest to prevent women from being ordained to gospel ministry. History will not be kind to the Wilson administration on this subject, just as history has not been kind to Southern church leaders who opposed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggles for equality. Our church did not take a stand when it mattered against the racist apartheid South African regime. We should have learned from this. Perpetuation of inequality or injustice in any form, regardless of the source, should never be normalized.

Let us not forget that the issue of women’s ordination is not a fundamental belief. It is nowhere among the 28, yet some in our leadership have treated it as if it pertains to our salvation. Elder Wilson has staked his tenure on his opposition to WO and is intent on risking a church schism.  But in the greater scheme of things, the opposition to this issue is time limited. It is tied too much to Elder Wilson’s personality, and when he leaves office, whether in three years or eight, this opposition may largely go with him.

This should be clear to our African leaders: On women’s ordination, there is no going back. While it may take a bit longer to get firm traction on the continent, the younger generation gets it. They are the promise keepers. And when they come of age and write the history of their elders’ unimaginative WO response, their verdict will be deservedly scathing. This Fall Council presents another opportunity to change that verdict. Whether they awake from the Wilson hypnosis is anyone’s guess.


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.

Image Credit: Rohann Wellington/NAD


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