Here is a vision for how the 2016 GC Annual Council could achieve consensus concerning Adventist ordination and credentialing policy. Adventists globally can embrace a dynamic and Spirit-led model of mission and ministry that incorporates a renewed and revitalizing ordination and credentialing policy as a vital element of the overall mission. Such a vision will require an intentional strategy. I suggest the following:
A clarification of what the phrase “the General Conference is the highest authority that God has upon the earth” means in our contemporary context would be helpful. Its use can sound arrogant and dismissive of all other church bodies. I believe that it is intended to serve a far more helpful purpose. The clarification might involve the statement that in matters of Adventist mission and church policy the buck stops with the delegates of the GC Session. This is because that forum is the most representative body within the denomination. And further, God’s speaks through His people as they seek to understand and implement His will in their united mission to the world. It must also be understood that the original statement refers to our denominational context only.
The prioritization of the principles of religious freedom and freedom of conscience above that of any denominational policy is urgently needed. Deeply held principles of conscience concerning the equitable treatment of women and men must be upheld in our formulation of church policy. Religious freedom will always be prioritized over majoritarian conviction in matters of conscience. Adventists dare not champion religious freedom for others while denying it to our own people!
Clarification of ordination and credentialing policy is needed. Is it wholly a matter for theological determination? Or does the substance of such policies also cross into the realm of social practice, thereby necessitating a degree of unity in diversity in these policy matters? After all, if the role of women in society is not solely a theological matter but also a matter of social practice, why should we think the role of women in the church is any different.
Rationale for mandating global uniformity of Adventist ordination and credentialing practices and policy would be helpful. GC leaders have championed “unity in diversity” for other policy matters. Further, what evidence is there that some degree of global diversity will effectively disrupt denominational unity? We may be hard pressed to show how the ordination of women as elders in some places has brought disunity!
A further consensus-building process in search of a more satisfying ordination and credentialing policy platform is merited. Yes, the 2015 GC Session rejected the proposal that the selection criteria for those ordained to gospel ministry should be designed by each of the Divisions. But the defeat of such a proposal is not to be regarded as the final end to our consensus-building attempts. Other policy proposals abound. The timely paper, “A Study of Church Governance and Unity” produced by the 2016 GC Annual Council by the GC Secretariat in September 2016, speaks eloquently of “our system of representative, consultative, consensus-based decision-making” might yet be used to design ordination and credentialing policies that allow “diversity of practice where there is consensus.” (Study, 6). One such set of proposals has been made by Bertil Wiklander, former GC VP and President of the Trans-European Division. These proposals are an appendix to his book, Ordination Reconsidered: The Biblical Vision of Men and Women as Servants of God, (Newbold Academic Press: Bracknell, Berkshire, UK, 2015), 439-442. Another brief set of proposals was put forward by Alden Thompson in the Ministry magazine, October 1997, in an article titled “Utrecht: A Providential Detour?” Thompson here asserts that God gave us an opportunity to reconsider and refine our ordination policies in the wake of the 1995 GC Session not to allow regional variation in our ordination policies. It seems that these proposals lie buried in the Ministry archives.
I offer my own proposals below. I am amazed at the degree of similarity between all of these proposals even though they were created in vastly different contexts in Europe, America, and Australia.
Study of Adventist hermeneutical principles is apropos here. The request for this study voted by the 2015 GC Session was made because of an evident and growing pluralism in the hermeneutical principles used by Adventists to arrive at a helpful understanding of the ordination issue. It is extremely self-defeating to think that such study will not result in a more unified understanding of ordination. Such a study is not an optional “extra” but an important strategy by which the church can maintain its unity in this as well as other matters.
A careful examination of the two foundational ecclesiological principles on which the ordination and credentialing policies are built is called for. These principles were enunciated in the 1930s and early 1940s and enshrined in the GC Working Policy. They appear to be accepted without question, even at a time of great unease concerning the policies. Yet, if it can be shown that both foundational principles have problems, then the policies that are built on their foundations may well merit revision also. Below, I summarize and critique these two foundational principles.
First Foundational Principle Supporting Adventist Ordination Policies
“‘Any shadow of uncertainty in the matter of what ministerial credentials stand for in one field reflects a shadow upon all credentials, and is a matter of general denominational concern.’ Where there is any question about policy provisions, then the GC Executive Committee is obliged to take an interest and reach a verdict.” ("A Study of Church Governance and Unity," Secretariat, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, September, 2016), 36.
I would only urge that in such cases of uncertainty and questions about policy provisions study be given to the adequacy of the policy provisions as well as to potential action to ensure compliance. This surely is obvious.
Second Foundational Principle Supporting the Adventist Ordination Paradigm
I have unpacked and critiqued this principle in two parts:
ONE: The rite of ordination and the sacred status conferred is qualitatively different from the status conferred by commissioning, credentialing, or licencing. It is stated as follows, “Ordination in Adventist ecclesiology and practice undoubtedly is for life, except in wholly unusual circumstances. Ministerial credentials are not necessarily held for life.” (Ibid, 36).
I am very much in favor of pastors believing that God has called them for a lifetime of service in gospel ministry, as God leads and as circumstances allow.
Three objections to this principle follow. First, I believe that this principle, unwittingly perhaps, seeks to impart a sacramental status to the individual. Such thinking is, I believe, theologically inadequate, even dangerous. God calls; individuals answer! This begins with the inner calling of God to the individual to serve His people and the world. This is incomplete without the outer calling of the church of God through a representative body. Ordination is no more or less than the affirmation and blessing of this inner calling of a servant leader. The specific credential offered is a pledge by the denomination to use the individual in service. Thus, both ordination and credentialing reflect the dual nature of that calling. Thus, they do not have a qualitatively different character. Both of these blessings equip the individual for service. They are two sides of the same coin.
God works with individuals as they transition through a lifetime of service using and developing the various gifts He has given. The body of Christ must do the same. The role of the individual in ministry may change. This doesn’t mean that ordination and credentialing are somehow qualitatively different. Taken together, they form a whole. Our theology and practice must reflect this.
Second, ordination for life invites an unseemly feeling of entitlement and of being beyond reproach in their calling. It breeds a lack of accountability. Unfortunately, there are some who do not live worthy of their calling. Often, these are waiting for their retirement or just living from pay check to pay check.
Third, why must Adventists affirm that once ordained, always ordained? After all, we don’t believe in once saved always saved! To me, ordination for life is an echo of the Roman Catholic teaching that the ordained clergy class has been sealed with the dominicus character, a special seal for life, which cannot be undone, though one live in unbelief. Such a sealing elevates the priest to enjoy a special status with God, where one is enabled to re-enact Christ’s sacrifice for his congregation and to act as a mediator between God and man. In this way, ordination for life reflects a sacramental and an elitist view of gospel ministry, creating an incipient hierarchy.
TWO: “Gospel ministry” is qualitatively different from “administrative service.” Gospel ministry is always to be prioritized over administrative service in that the first is one’s primary calling, the second is a secondary and temporary calling. (See Ibid).
Of course, we honor Adventist administrators who happily return to congregational ministry after a period of time in administration. But is there only one path in fulfilment of gospel ministry. Does one style and size of ministry really fit all?
Two objections can be made to such a principle. First, this principle appears to imply that Adventist administrators really have departed from their original high calling to gospel ministry by accepting a call into administrative service. Is this how the gifts and calling of God really operate? Romans 12: 6-8 indicates that if an individual has a specific gift and the church of God calls him or her to use it, he/she should. The gifts and the calling of God are not to be set up in opposition to each other as if a positive response to serve in administrative service is to defer the performance of God’s primary calling to that individual.
Second, is it true that congregational ministry and evangelism are the core functions of those called to lead the body of Christ? Should gospel ministry be conceived of as the administrator’s primary calling? Should administrative service always be regarded as an administrator’s secondary and temporary calling? And is this model of primary and secondary callings to be applied to the multitude of ministry specialists who work in tandem with our congregations? Here I am thinking of those working in youth ministries, health ministries, chaplaincy, personal ministries, media ministries such as editing, or indeed our Bible scholars and theologians who are equally involved in the ministry of the Word. Must they also be prepared to slot into congregational ministry and direct evangelism when called to do so even when their gifts don’t fit them for this? Such an understanding of the nature of gospel ministry certainly needs revision!
Years ago, I knew of a person in pastoral ministry who was taken out of denominational employ by people who had determined that he did indeed was more gifted for tertiary teaching than for pastoral ministry, among his other gifts. Unfortunately, conference leaders only gave themselves a very limited window of opportunity to find a more specialized ministry role where he could serve. That individual was very willing to be flexible in the transition process. All he wanted from them was some recognition that the gifts and calling of God did not require that one size fit all. The Conference President once laughed in his face when he had previously suggested that he would happily step into a more specialized role. Alas, the conference leadership were committing this very category error big time. Categorization of people often destroys people and their usefulness. Adventist leaders are not immune from this!
It is for reasons such as these that I am attracted to a paradigm of appointment to Adventist leadership that doesn’t categorize people into hierarchies. I pray for the day when Adventists will adopt a system where their leaders are fitted into an overarching scheme of lateral categories as I explain below.
Re-envisioning a New Paradigm of Appointment to Adventist Leadership, Mission, and Ministry
The following steps are necessary in order to create such a scheme:
Adopt a more united Adventist hermeneutic to help us as we seek to understand Scripture together. Darius Jankiewicz recently authored a paper in the Journal of Adventist Mission Studies that well illustrates the consequences of both helpful and unhelpful hermeneutical principles. See Jankiewicz, Darius (2016) "Hermeneutics of Slavery: A “Bible-Alone” Faith and the Problem of Human Enslavement," Journal of Adventist Mission Studies: Vol. 12: No. 1, 47-73. Available here.
Re-envision the Adventist communion as a divine vehicle in the fulfilment of God’s kingdom mission in our world. All believers are called by God to serve Him by continuing the ministry of Jesus in our world through the blessing of the Spirit of God whom Jesus sends for this purpose. Adventist leaders are called to exercise their gift of leadership.
Study, understand, and more accurately define the role of deacon, elder, and pastor within our global communion.
Affirm and appoint biblically qualified individuals of both genders to specific leadership roles by the laying on of hands for the purpose of committing them to their present role. Such rites could be simple occasions and designed to be culturally sensitive and gender appropriate. Such rites would benefit from having the approval of the representative global body and be conducted at various transition points in the life and career of the individual. Procedures such as these would cultivate global unity while not demanding uniformity.
Authorized credentials containing a specific role description for present responsibilities could be offered to every deacon, elder, pastor, ministry specialist, educationalist, and institutional administrator, whether employed or voluntary. Such credentials would be globally endorsed and would need to be reissued as the individual undertakes new roles within the global communion. This global endorsement of the various lateral categories of service across the breadth of the various leadership ministries would create a united global scheme. It would ensure a reasonable degree of global standardization but not absolute uniformity within the plethora of lateral categories. The present scheme where the service of one tightly knit global, Adventist-ordained class could then be dispensed with.
The global system of interlocking Adventist entities would be preserved, and the free movement of individuals according to the needs of the field would be facilitated.
Adventists are caught in the midst of competing solutions to bring the present unease with regard to ordination to a satisfying conclusion. We still have a unique opportunity to adopt a theology of ordination and associated practical guidelines that seek to embrace all and promote unity among all. This could yet be a dynamic and Spirit-led model of mission and ministry such as the early Christians had. Adventist pioneers, following on from the work of the Protestant Reformers and their heirs, built their polity and gospel order in pragmatic fashion. For the most part, this has served us well.
However, the almost inevitable drift toward institutionalisation and clericalisation may well have created subtle, yet sinful changes, in attitude and modes of operation that are best addressed by a studied renewal and reformation. Cool heads and warm hearts must prevail at Annual Council 2016. Please Lord, help us to this end!
Image Credit: Brent Hardinghe / Adventist News Network
Peter Marks served in the Adventist ministry in Australia and New Zealand (1983-1995). He was a professor of English at Sunchon National University (2005 - 2007) and Sahmyook University (2008-2009). Both these universities are in Korea. He has an MA (Religion) degree from the Newbold College Campus of Andrews University (1989) and a Master of Information Management - Librarianship degree from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia (1998).
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