Will credentialing policies be refined at Annual Council? Two world Divisions of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists recently recommended such changes. Dr. Lowell Cooper, retired General Conference Vice President has also called for this. Would some such change help Adventists toward a resolution of the continuing debate about such matters? Would a debate about such issues at Annual Council end with all Adventist pastoral leaders being equally affirmed, blessed, and commissioned for their individual roles in Christ’s ministry and mission to the world? Could such debate aid in restoring the perception of a real and enduring collegiality among Adventist leaders, who may truly be characterized by a bottom-up approach to leadership?
The 2015 San Antonio General Conference Session defeated the proposal to make each of the world Divisions responsible for deciding whether or not to ordain women to the gospel ministry in their respective territories. Many Adventists imagined that this vote would bring discussion and unrest concerning this issue to an end, regardless of which way the vote went. Many appeals have been made to this end. Perhaps, if the vote had authorized the ordination of women in Divisions wishing to do so, there would have been as much discussion and unrest as there is now. What Adventists need more than ever is for the General Conference Executive Committee to revisit the issue once more!
Personally, I believe we can honor the 2015 San Antonio General Conference Session vote concerning ordination while at the same time refining the existing credentialing policies. The Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) presented Adventists with a Consensus Statement on the Theology of Ordination. Adventists can refine our policies building on this agreed biblical approach. There is little to be gained by adopting regional credentialing policies before attempting to refine our global policies. Intransigence and inflexibility are characteristics of those who want to create unauthorized regional policy as much as of those who may wish to inflict grave consequences and who have determined that the last word on such policies has been spoken. There are a host of Unions in our global communion who wait patiently for our leaders to create gender equality within our credentialing policies. Yet these Unions may not wait indefinitely! Adventist credentialing policies are at their heart missional in nature. Continuing debate about them is distracting from the mission of the church and also damaging the image of the church. Adventist leaders may yet address them within a refined policy framework at any Annual Council!
Specific Requests for General Conference Consideration
From the South Pacific Division Executive Committee
At the Year-End Meetings of the South Pacific Division Executive Committee in November 2016, the following formal request was made to the General Conference:
In harmony with our statement of fundamental beliefs #7, #14, and #17, and recognising that the General Conference has affirmed the call of God to both men and women in ministry through the conferring of both ordination and commissioned credentials, the members of the executive committee of the South Pacific Division respectfully request the General Conference that consideration be given to changing policy to allow commissioned ministers to fulfil all duties, privileges and responsibilities as those entitled to ordained ministers.
This request was formalized following a period of discussion of issues of concern that were not on the formal agenda of the Year-End meeting. The South Pacific Division leadership have long had a de-facto ruling that there will be little or no discussion of the ordination of women in any official regional Adventist media or in any official regional forums. Neither have Unions and Conferences in the South Pacific Division sought to depart from the policies adopted by the denomination. Yet this doesn’t mean that Adventist leaders and thoughtful Adventists have no convictions on these matters.
From the Trans-European Division Executive Committee
In an extraordinary meeting of the Trans-European Division Executive Committee in mid-February 2017 that was called to discuss this issue, the following strong request was voted unanimously:
Recognising that the current system of ministerial credentials (ordained) and commissioned credentials function for most of the church, and wanting to respect the decision made by the General Conference in Session in San Antonio, we would request that consideration be given to:
A single ministerial credential which is issued to all who are engaged in pastoral ministry, so bringing Working Policy in line with Fundamental Belief 14. This would entail amending Working Policy by deleting the parenthesis and footnote to BA 60 10 and/or amending/deleting E 60 to reflect a single credential.
An alternative suggestion was also made that the system of existing credentials be amended to make them more inclusive (much as the South Pacific Division had requested). This request followed months of careful consultation, listening, and prayer. Note as well that the preamble to the request included a commitment to respect and uphold decisions of the General Conference in Session while at the same time recognizing that such decisions will be implemented within a local context.
An Illustrative Policy Development Proposal from Dr. Lowell Cooper, retired Vice-President of the General Conference
Dr. Lowell Cooper, a noted Adventist policy specialist, presented a paper titled “General Conference Working Policy – The Challenge of Enforcement and the Opportunity for Development” to the Adventist Unity Conference, June 2017 in London, UK. This conference was sponsored by ten union conferences from the Trans-European, the Inter-European, the South Pacific, and the North American Divisions. It searched for a way forward from the present policy standoff concerning ordination, having respect for church unity, denominational structure and authority, and the inviolability of individual conscience.
The above-mentioned paper clarified the role of policy in church unity and in the organizational mechanics of Adventism. It also presented a very helpful illustration of policy development with respect to ministerial ordination. Its objective was to illustrate that such policy development can function as a conflict resolution methodology, given our present predicament. Cooper presented his policy proposals as follows:
1. Discontinue the practice of ordination altogether. Replace the current ordination service practices with a commissioning service for ministers, elders, deacons and deaconesses, and perhaps other leaders (Sabbath School teachers) in the local church. Doing this would be fully consistent with the theology of ordination while avoiding the unbiblical connotations that have become attached to the term “ordination.”
2. Suspend the issuance of ministerial licenses and credentials. In their place use the Commissioned Minister License and Commissioned Minister Credential. Revise policy language concerning the role and leadership functions of individuals holding Commissioned Minister Credentials.
3. Amend gender-specific language in General Conference Working Policy, section L 45 10 and L 50.
4. Clarify the territorial authorization associated with Commissioned Minister Credentials. Approve the world-wide validity of the commissioning service for deacons/deaconesses/elders and those holding Commissioned Minister Licenses/Credentials while re-emphasizing the safeguards that protect the world Church from individual abuse of privilege.
5. Revise Church Manual and General Conference Working Policy credential requirements for a local mission/local conference president. In a similar manner, revise the General Conference Constitution and Bylaws, Model Constitutions and Bylaws, and Model Operating Policies to indicate that the president shall be a “Commissioned Minister of experience.”
6. Amend other policies whose language limits ministerial duties to males.
7. Recognize that permission for women to serve without restriction in ministerial roles does not constitute obligation to do so. The normal selection processes for any employee give discretion to the employing unit. The permissive stance for the ordination of women as local church elders can serve as a pattern for the commissioning of women as pastors.
Cooper, in the introduction to his paper, emphasizes his enthusiasm about Adventist mission, his protectiveness of its global structure, his devotion to its polity and organizational ethos, and his firm convictions regarding ordination.
Needed, a Willingness to Find a Workable Global Solution
Each of the above three policy proposals differs in their details. They have arisen from different quarters of the Adventist world. Interestingly, they all fit well within the TOSC Consensus Statement on the Theology of Ordination and each of them proposes a more refined and inclusive credentialing policy. All that is needed is a willingness to debate such proposals and identify the most workable solution for all parts of our global communion!
An Excursus Exploring the Foundations and Nature of Commissioning in the Salvation Army
The Salvation Army paradoxically has both an intentionally anti-clerical mindset and a highly visible hierarchical structure which have impacted mission, ecclesiology, and leadership. From 1888 to 1978 Salvation Army Officers of both genders were commissioned. Since 1978, all newly inducted Officers have been both commissioned and ordained, though hands are not laid on such people. The history of these practices is rooted in several theological principles. The changes that have been made to these practices illustrate subtle changes in their theology which have invited much discussion and debate in Salvation Army circles. I believe that Seventh-day Adventists may learn much from these principles.
William and Catherine Booth founded the Salvation Army on a few centrally held principles. Several of these principles are examined below since in their approach to both “female ministry” and lay ministry they have charted a unique course. For many reasons Adventists should find these principles easy to emulate and also biblical.
Principle One: Women are to have an Equal Share in Ministry with Men
William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, was married to Catherine who was often known as the Army Mother. Her influence on the development of the ethos of the Army was very pervasive. Only once before their marriage did William dare to express the popular understanding of mid-nineteenth century Britain that women were less endowed intellectually and spiritually than men. In response, Catherine insisted that he perceive the issue of women’s equality as she did, or they would have little prospect of a life together.
Throughout their lives together William trusted her judgment implicitly and knew her to be the more theologically astute. She developed as one of the best-known preachers of her generation. Together, they recruited women for the ministry, and often placed them in leading roles. The Salvation Army took that name in 1878 and from the very beginning the role of women to undertake any ministry task for which they had been gifted was firmly established. All except one of their three boys and five girls developed into remarkable Salvation Army leaders and gifted preachers.
In 1895, William Booth drafted Orders and Regulations for Staff Officers, including the following:
One of the leading principles upon which the Army is based is the right of women … to an equal share with men in the great work of publishing Salvation to the world…. She may hold any position of authority or power in the Army from that of a Local Officer to that of General…. Women must be treated as equal with men in all the intellectual and social relationships of life. –Quoted in Paul A Rader & Kay F Rader, “Lest We Lose our Legacy: Officer Women in the Salvation Army,” Priscilla Papers, Vol 22, No 3 (Summer 2008), 19.
In the 1959 Salvation Army Year Book, Salvation Army General Frederick Coutts wrote concerning the ordination of women,
In the economy of the kingdom, God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts. In vain do men debar those servants whom He employs…. Seeing that the grace of God and the gift of the office of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher has been – and are undeniably granted to women as well as to men … who are we to withstand God.” –Ibid.
Principle Two: The Salvation Army was about a Mass Mobilization in which there was No Distinction between Clergy and Laity, and No Ordination or Priestly Caste
The soldiery of the Salvation Army is to be a comprehensive whole, composed of full-time members who were commissioned as officers and volunteer members who served as regular soldiers. The historic status of Salvation Army officers as non-ordained persons of both genders has often been in question because of its uniqueness. Both the world outside expected these people to be the equivalent of clergy, and the officers themselves have often preferred to think of themselves in those terms. Yet, from the beginning it was not so.
Florence Booth, wife of the Army’s second General, Bramwell Booth, was in 1928 moved to protest such pressure to claim clerical status in the following words:
The kingdom of Satan and sin will never be overthrown by a body of officers, as officers only…. The churches have erred by shutting out the laity and making God’s work depend on the leaders only, and the Army was raised up as a protest against this very mistake. Do not ape the parson. Do not imitate the church. –A transcript of “But What Shall We Do,” on Earshot, Radio National, Australian Broadcasting Commission
Retired Salvation Army Commissioner Phillip Needham, a past Territorial Commander in the USA, spelled out the negative impact on Christian ministry and mission of moving to such an alien theology:
To move into ordination theology, exclusively reserved for a priestly caste, if you like is to undermine the priesthood of all believers. It’s to encourage our soldiery, our members to become more passive and to take less ownership of, and initiative in our ministry and mission. –Ibid
Dr. Harold Hill, retired New Zealand Salvation Army Officer, authored the book entitled Leadership in The Salvation Army: A Case Study in Clericalisation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2006). Hill makes the case that the Salvation Army has institutionalized, and as a by-product of that it has engaged in a process of clericalisation or religious specialization. Through this process, a separate ministerial caste has been developing. The universal duty of serving others, with wide differentiation of functions may thus be forgotten in the pursuit of status. The fellowship of all believers, and indeed the collegiality of all believers, and the equality of status easily gives way to the collegiality of a special ministry within the whole community. Thus the division between “clergy” and “laity” becomes a reality. The adoption of the term “ordination” in association with the commissioning of The Salvation Army Officers in 1978 well illustrates this tendency.
Adventist believers may well have followed a similar trajectory to that of the Salvation Army. I believe that human nature tends toward an almost inevitable drift toward seeking for status. This will happen both in terms of relegating one gender to an inferior status, and also in seeking to exchange the collegiality of all believers for a two-tiered division within the whole people of God. And so, the old structures of power and domination seek a successful re-conquest of the new community of believers.
The adoption by the General Conference Executive Committee of some more inclusive policy settings, such as have been outlined above or similar, could challenge and even reverse this almost inevitable drift. It could challenge the subtle, even sinful changes in attitude and in our theology and produce much needed renewal and reformation. I am praying for this!
Peter Marks has taken early retirement from a lifetime of denominational service in Australia, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea as a pastor/evangelist and as an English Professor. He is a graduate of Avondale College of Higher Education (BA Theology), of Newbold College (MA Religion), and the University of New South Wales (Master of Information Management – Librarianship).
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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