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General Conference in Violation of Its Own Policy


In a document released by the General Conference on August 9, 2012 responding to the July 29, 2012 action of the Columbia Union it is stated that “It is not accurate to say that policy follows practice.” While this is recognized as true, unfortunately for the point of the August 9 document, this statement undermines its attempt to indicate that the Columbia Union action is against General Conference policy because of the fact that there is no such policy regarding ministerial ordination requiring that only males may be ordained or that females are forbidden from being ordained.

Ordination authority is clearly defined in General Conference policy. Regarding the approval of persons designated for ordination policy B 05 states, “decisions regarding the ordination of ministers are entrusted to the union conference….” Regarding such decisions the policy further states, “each level of organization exercises a realm of final authority and responsibility….” Thus, in the selection and authorization of such individuals, the General Conference has no authority over the union decisions as long as these decisions are in harmony with the criteria established for ordination by General Conference policy.

As the August 9 document indicates, the General Conference does establish “the criteria for ordination….” There are fifteen such criteria listed in policy L 50, none of which refer in any way to gender. If, therefore, any individual approved by the union meets these criteria, the General Conference authority has been satisfied. Given that there is no gender reference in these fifteen requirements, the union is acting within its authority as stated in policy B 05.

As indicated in the August 9 document, policy exercises the ultimate governance over practice. But in the case of gender issues in ordination, there is no policy. However, over a century of practice has created the perception that there is policy on this matter, and one hundred years of practice certainly does establish precedent. But it remains that policy is the issue in ordination, not practice, precedent nor perception.

The August 9 document indicates that “policy itself is based on Seventh-day Adventist principles found in Scripture and the writings of Ellen G. White.” This statement is in interesting contrast to one made in the June 29, 2012 letter of the General Conference Officers and Division Presidents addressed to the Officers and Executive Committee Members of the Columbia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. This letter states, “Decisions (1975, 1985, 1990, and 1995) to withhold ministerial ordination to women have been made on the basis of negative impact to unity rather than on the basis of compelling evidence from the Bible or the Spirit of Prophecy.”

The point here is that these actions are not policy, nor were they formed on what is the stated basis of policy, leaving one to wonder what they were based on – practice, precedent, perception, or perhaps prejudice? The question as to the authority on the General Conference to address these matters is raised in the August 9 document, and indeed the General Conference in session is free to address anything it wishes. But unless it changes its policy and takes away the authorization given in B 05 to other levels of governance such as the local church regarding membership, or the local conference regarding employment, or the union regarding ordination, it is not free to intrude in these areas. Thus its attempt to counter the union authority in the area of ordination is a violation of its own policy.

If the General Conference wishes to address the issue of gender in ordination to ministry, it may do so, but only by changing its policy to a straight forward requirement that ordination is male gender exclusive, forbidding the ordination of females. There is no such policy presently in existence, nor has there been in the history of the church. Practice, precedent, perception and even prejudice do not constitute a policy. Only straight forward, clearly articulated policy governs the issue of gender inclusive ordination.

There is a perception existing that the General Conference cannot violate policy, that whatever it does constitutes policy, but this is not so. The General Conference can violate policy just as well as any other level of the church if it acts contrary to the provisions of policy. Unless and until the General Conference changes policy by vote, any action contrary to policy is a violation. Thus, the unions are not out of policy on this matter of gender inclusiveness in the ordination of ministers, the General Conference itself is out of policy.

Gary B. Patterson, D.Min., is a retired Field Secretary of the General Conference. 

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