Early this afternoon the General Conference issued an “Appeal for Unity in Respect to Ministerial Ordination Practices.” The Adventist News Network reports:
“The world leadership of the Seventh-day Adventists has issued a highly unusual ‘appeal for unity’ to regional administrative units of the church that have either taken or are considering independent action regarding the ordination of women to gospel ministry. The request comes in a statement issued today in response to actions by several union conferences, including two in North America.”
The appeal can be read in its entirety here. It calls for:
- “unity in respecting a global church action (i.e. the 1990 and 1995 General Conference Session decisions on ministerial ordination);”
- “each union executive committee to carefully review the far-reaching effects of pursuing a course of action that is contrary to the decisions of the General Conference in session; and”
- “each union to participate in the current study about the theology of ordination and its implication.”
According to the ANN report, the appeal “was prepared and unanimously accepted by consensus by the General Conference officers, a group of 40 senior leaders of the church, including the 13 division presidents who also serve as vice-presidents of the General Conference.” (Among the officers is NAD president Dan Jackson, marking a dramatic shift away from Jackson’s earlier statements.)
For each of the three appeals the document provides a page of justification and motivation.
Regarding “respecting the global decision of the church,” the statement makes the following claim: “The actions of certain unions indicate their desire to establish an alternative source of authority for a matter that already carries the authority of the world Church.” Any action towards the ordination of women, the statement repeatedly claims, is in opposition to the previous votes of the General Conference in Session of 1990 and 1995. Interestingly, this reading of the historical votes of the General Conference in Session seems to fall apart on closer investigation. The GC Session vote of 1990 comes the closest to the claim that the General Conference in Session has moved to prohibit unions from determining whether or not women should be ordained. Under consideration in the 1990 vote was a request to approve the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. The session voted overwhelmingly to not approve the ordination of women. The GC Session vote made no prohibitions whatsoever.1 The 1995 vote is even further from the GC statement’s claim, as it is no more than the failure of a provision proposed by the North American Division approving the ordination of women to pass (as described in the GC statement). A vote prohibiting women’s ordination has never been passed by the General Conference in Session. It is unclear if such a provision would ever pass if put to vote. In both instances cited by the GC appeal statement, the vote was a request for approval at the division level.
Indeed, there only could be discussions on the division level, as authority with respect to ordination rests at the union level rather than the division or General Conference level according to current church policy. This fact is explicitly clarified by a recent report of the General Conference Executive Committee1 and earlier by legal analysis performed at the behest of the North American Division. The fact of this church policy is in direct contradiction to the GC statement’s claim that women’s ordination is under the authority of the world Church. The GC statement anticipates objections to its argument based on this church policy:
“Some who would encourage unions to proceed with ministerial ordination for women draw attention to selected statements from a General Conference Executive Committee document. As used by these individuals, the statements would indicate that a union has final authority in matters relating to ministerial ordination. The intent of the document from which such statements have been taken is to emphasize the interconnectedness of Seventh-day Adventist denominational structure. The authority and responsibility entrusted to any entity of the Church is exercised within the context of beliefs, values, and policies of the entire Church. Being a part of the global Seventh-day Adventist Church obliges every organization to think and act for the good of the whole and to shun a spirit of autonomy and self-determination.”
The GC statement makes frequent reference to the ongoing study of the theology of ordination initiated at the 2010 GC Session: “Such actions [of support for women’s ordination], taken at the very time when the world Church is engaged in a study and discussion of the matter, pre-empt the process and any decision that might come from it. This creates widespread confusion, misunderstanding as well as erosion of trust and also nurtures doubt about these unions acting in good faith as members of the world-wide family.”
Whatever the conclusions of the current GC-sponsored study of the theology of ordination, one should note that the actions of the unions were in regard not to theology but the policy of ordination.
Church-sponsored studies of women’s ordination have a long and rich history within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, going back to 1950 (and possibly as far back as 1881).3 Study committees were formed at the request of the General Conference in 1950, 1968, 1970, 1972, and 1973. In the 1973 and 1974 Annual Council meetings, more study was called for. In 1975, thirteen scholars from the Biblical Research Institute produced a report in response to an earlier General Conference request for study which found no theological barrier to the ordination of women, but the scholarship was put under seal by the General Conference for nine years. In 1977 and 1984, promises were made that there would be new studies of the issue, but those promises were not kept. The 1985 General Conference Session in New Orleans voted for more study of women’s ordination. Commissions and councils voted for more study in 1988 and 1989. Then in 1990 General Conference president Robert H. Folkenberg put a moratorium on discussions of women’s ordination. (The history given here is nonexhaustive. See, for example,  for more information.)
The GC appeal statement acknowledges previous studies: “This study will be the most widespread and thorough study the Church has undertaken on this topic. Earlier studies have been conducted by commissions. This is the first time that a study of ministerial ordination engages the whole Church through the 13 divisions.” The appeal statement provided to the unions includes the following: “We also realize that the passage of time without finding satisfaction for the tensions on this question can give rise to frustration and the erosion of confidence that a timely and mutually satisfactory resolution can be found.”
1 “Session Actions”, p. 15, The Adventist Review, July 13, 1990. http://www.scribd.com/doc/98711591/Session-Actions-55th-GC-Session-July-….