When writing my last article suggesting how the General Conference should deal with the issue of women’s ordination, I had an uneasy feeling that my recommendations were not the best approach to the problem. The real issue is whether such a matter should even be determined by the General Conference at all. After some deliberation, I’ve concluded that such matters should not be the prerogative of the General Conference. That belongs to the unions and conferences. The reasons for this are the following:
1. The Council on the Role of Women held at Camp Mohaven in Ohio (1974) with the participation of the church’s leading scholars overwhelmingly concluded that there was no scriptural evidence forbidding the ordination of women. This means that this is not a biblical issue. Currently we have to wait to know what the present committee decides. If it decides otherwise, it would be an affront to those scholars who participated back then and ironically probably taught some of the present group.
2. What criteria should be used to determine whether an issue is one which the General Conference should settle or not? This question implies that there are matters which individual churches, conferences, unions, divisions can decide and they do. With a present (June 30, 2011) membership of 17,214,683 in 209 countries and 13 divisions, one can expect a lot of differences between these bodies of people from various cultures and geographic regions. In other words, uniformity in Adventism is a myth. The only question is how much diversity can we allow before we lose our distinctiveness.
Lots of differences exist on the proper way to keep the Sabbath, how to dress for worship (for example, in South Africa in a black church where I worshipped, women all wore hats and men all wore suits, in Hawaii even some preach in aloha shirts and people come to church with sandals, in Japan no shoes are worn in church, etc.), what kinds of music or musical instruments can be used, even how Adventist teachings are understood (in Japan people cannot understand how the Catholic Church can be such a prominent adversary in the end when it is only part of the one percent of the population and I’m sure such questions can be raised also in China, or in predominantly Muslim and Hindu countries). One division at least has a union without conferences. We have in this country regional conferences in unions but not in all unions. And in one regional conference not all churches are black. But regional conferences are not a regular part of unions throughout the world. We cannot talk about uniformity when it comes to Adventist practice and teachings. Diversity is the norm.
So we should be very careful about what things should be settled by the General Conference. They should be matters where we can be sure we can have uniformity throughout the world. Where we cannot have uniformity, we need to allow a certain amount of diversity. I think we can agree that the most important area of uniformity must be in our doctrines though even here there will be differences. It is difficult to see that the Sabbath School lesson on the 2300 days will be the same at Andrews University and in a jungle class in New Guinea. Matters of organization and finances should have some general agreement.
The question of whether women should be ordained as ministers has a lot of ramifications. However we look at it, it is obvious that it is intimately connected with how we view the social status of women. If we consider women as inferior as many societies and some religions still do, obviously such societies and countries would find it difficult to consider the ordination of women especially as they apply Pauline passages regarding the subordinate role women must play. Obviously in light of this, if this topic is brought up for discussion or decision at the General Conference level it would be opposed by a good segment of the General Conference especially if such a vote means that these societies would be forced to ordain women. Even if such a vote would exempt them from doing so, they would find it difficult to vote for because of the implications, i.e., if it’s all right for the North American Division it must be all right.
3. Let us look at another parallel issue. Take the issue of slavery. If this was the issue and some countries abolished slavery and most did not and this issue was brought before the General Conference, the same results would follow as followed the issue of women’s ordination. Some societies would not be ready to free slaves and, therefore, they would not vote for it on the General Conference level. The solution, obviously, is not to bring it before the General Conference but let each division determine it according to their readiness. This is the same situation today. We should let each division determine what it should do and not let it become a General Conference issue.
4. In fact, this is what we have already done with the issue of the role of women. Loma Linda University and Andrews University Theological Seminary are both General Conference institutions. Yet a woman president was installed at LLU without being brought before the General Conference and without any apparent opposition. The same was true with the appointment of women professors at the Seminary. There are seven women professors in fields such as Religious Education, Ministry, Theology, World Mission, Archaeology and Old Testament, New Testament, and Homiletics. If ordaining women as pastors is a matter to be determined by the General Conference, then surely appointing women as professors at the Seminary should at least have had approval by the world church. It is paradoxical that women are not allowed to be ordained because women should have a subordinate role to men and yet women are approved to be Seminary professors and teach men who are already ordained or will soon be.
5. One of the leading arguments against ordaining women is that ordination is recognized around the world. This is an argument Robert Pierson and Neal Wilson used earlier and Ted Wilson employed recently when this matter was discussed in dealing with the disapproval of the unions that had voted to ordain women. As I have argued in the past, while this is true, in fact, when a woman is ordained in the Southeastern Conference of the Pacific Union, her being ordained has no practical effect beyond that territory. The conferences, unions, and divisions abroad and locally can block any calls of ordained women to their fields. If this argument is valid, why did the conferences in the Pacific Union that were not in favor of women’s ordination use this argument to stop the ordination of women in their union. This is more relevant than an overseas division being affected by what happens in conferences in the North American Division. This is also true with regard to unions here. Obviously, some unions are opposed to women’s ordination in this division and yet they did not block the unions which were in favor of women’s ordination by this argument that ordination has worldwide implications when it obviously has unionwide implications.
6. In the his article, “Six Points on the Ordination of Women Issue,” published in the Columbia Union Visitor (2012 Special Constituency Issue), Gary Patterson states that we need to understand the church structure. There are four administrative units in the Adventist Church: the local church, the local conference, the union, and the General Conference. These groups have authority over specific functions that belong only to them. “The local church is the only constituent level which can take action regarding membership issues, church officer election, appointment and ordination of elders, deacons and deaconesses, local church budgets and finance and other local church functions. The local conference is the only constituent that can take action regarding the sisterhood of churches, its employees, institutions and finance. It also votes to recommend individuals for ordination to the gospel ministry, to the union conference. But it does not have the power to authorize such ordination, this authority rests with the Union. The division and General Conference may authorize ordination of their employees, but has no authority over those voted by the union.”
He concludes that since ordination comes under the purview of the unions, “the General Conference has overstepped its bounds in seeking to tell the unions that they may or may not ordain women to the gospel ministry. It is not within the authority of the General Conference to take such action, just the same as if the taking of such action regarding individual membership, the election of personnel for church offices, or the sisterhood of churches issues is not the purview of the General Conference Session.” This may be the strongest reason for letting the unions decide this issue rather than the General Conference.
For all of these reasons, the matter of women’s ordination is the domain of the union to decide, not the General Conference. This means that to preserve unity in regards to this matter, the General Conference should let the administrative unit that has authority in this area function and stop attempting to usurp the authority of the unions.
Another important point to consider as we deal with this issue of whether the General Conference or the unions should decide this issue is the question of unity that the General Conference has brought forth as a reason why the unions should not proceed on this issue. This has constantly been brought forth to keep this division from moving forward by Ted Wilson and previously by his father Neal. But we do not need to theorize on this matter because we can actually see what happens when one unit, conference or union, proceeds without unanimity. We have not see the Pacific Union or the Columbia Union split up because all their conferences were not unanimous on this issue. The conferences in the Pacific and Columbia Unions which did not vote to ordain women did not opppose it on the basis of unity or has there been serious divisions because only certain conferences voted this. This has been true on the union level. Not all unions in the North American Division have voted for women’s ordination but there is no lack of unity among the unions in the NAD. When this is true on this most intimate level (conferences in the same union and unions in the same division), it should be much more so on the division level. In other words, the cry for unity by uniformity on this issue is a scare tactic. Like crying wolf, the more they repeat the phrase, the less effect it will have.