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An Open Letter to the GC Officers Concerning Ordination


The last 20 years of discussion and debate concerning ordination have been a time of deep spiritual reflection and maturing conviction for me. This period started when I was in full-time Adventist ministry in New Zealand, continued with my teaching Sahmyook University and concludes with my early retirement in Australia, where I am  engaged in graduate theological research. In the last 32 years I have lived and worked in Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Korea. I have travelled in large parts of the Adventist world, in all its diversity. 

Many good things continue to flow from the TOSC process. Praise the Lord for that! The future seems bright with both promise and danger. So what have we learned?

What’s wrong with ordination as Adventists practice it?

  1. It does not see ordination in the big picture of God’s mission in this world, and the story of God as related in the united story of Scripture. Such a perspective would revive the teaching of the “priesthood of all believers” and call into play a thoroughly biblical theology of mission, church and service. (See Summary of the TED Ordination Study Report to TOSC, 3).
  2. It seeks to build a theology of appointment to Adventist leadership without first building an adequate theology of the whole people of God. In this “whole” theology, all believers are called by their various spiritual gifts to serve, while some are called by their various “leadership gifts” to fill leadership roles. 
  3. It promotes the insidious process of elitism and clericalization in which the idea is adopted that the ordained are a separate and more elevated class than those of the rest of the laos, the people of God, to which they belong. (Ibid). 
  4. It creates room for the last vestiges of sacramentalism and ritualism attached to the practice of ordination to flourish, when the Bible knows nothing of ordination as a sacrament. (See Wendy A. Jackson, Should Ordination Be Considered a Sacrament in the Seventh-day Adventist Church? An Evaluation in the Light of the Biblical Data. A paper prepared for the SPD BRC).
  5. It allows the maintenance of an incipient Adventist hierarchy in which there is a three-tiered hierarchy of the ordained: pastor, elder and deacon. In this system only the pastor receives the call of God, but all are ordained for their sacred duties. 
  6. It adapts itself to many traditional worldviews which are unbiblical. Take, for example, the African traditional worldview in which ordination is seen as “a male ‘spiritual rite of passage,’ ie. the creation of a churchly chief.” (Ordination of Women as Pastors: A Report to TOSC by the ECD BRC, 19).

Calls for Adventists to adopt a more biblical model of ordination

It is interesting that the Division Reports from the Trans European Division and also from the East-Cental Africa Division of the General Conference both explicitly call for a radical change in the model of ordination. Both revised models deal with gender issues, but in different ways. But their revisions are deeper and more far-reaching than this.

The TED recommendations, among other things, call for:

  1. a new hermeneutical context in which to view “the entire matter of ordination.” To this end, Jan Barna, one of two delegates from the Trans European Division to TOSC, makes a specific proposal for hermeneutical dialogue that firmly builds on Ellen White’s hermeneutical vision. Such a vision seeks to advance beyond the present hermeneutical battles within contemporary Adventism. (See Jan Barna, Ordination of Women and the Two Ways to Unity: Ecclesiastical and Biblical; A paper presented for the ASRS, November 2013).  
  2. The removal of the existing distance between clergy and laity, and most especially the removal of the idea that “the ordained clergy forms a separate class … elevated to a ‘higher’ and more ‘consecrated’ status than other members of the priesthood of all believers.” (See Summary of the TED Ordination Study Report to the TOSC, 3).
  3. The removal of the levels of ordination to be replaced by a united concept of ‘Servanthood under God’ where distinctions of duties would be documented in credentials. This also extends to the removal of “the intricate differences between various levels of ministry,” ie the ordained ministry, the licensed ministry and the elder ministry. (Ibid).
  4. “honestly admitting that there is no biblical command to ordain anyone by the imposition of hands and that there is no consistent biblical instruction on how a leader is inducted to office.” (Ibid).
  5. An inclusive, gender-neutral ministry in unions and divisions requesting such permission. (Ibid).
  6. Education of members with regard to the theology and practice of ordination because the ignorance of Adventists about ordination produces a situation where ordination is understood through the lens of local worldviews and their associated biases. (Ibid).

The ECD Report titled Ordination of Women as Pastors: Is It Biblical? in making its recommendations asserts that:

1. “Different modalities need to be urgently developed and implemented in the Church’s praxis so that no servant of God … feel[s] unappreciated and undervalued by the Church.” (p.14). Creativity in the development of culturally sensitive practices of appointment to leadership are recommended because “the God of Israel did not bypass cultural norms when He communicated important messages.” (p.19).

2. “Ordinationnow carries unhealthy nuances which need undoing in order to facilitate servant leadership for the Adventist Church. (p.14). These unhealthy nuances are named elsewhere in the document:

–“Notions of hierarchy and patriarchy.” (p. 19);

–“A concept and practice of ordination such that it perpetuates the notion of male domination in the church.” (p.19); 

–“The traditional Africa worldview where ordination is a male “spiritual rite of passage.” (p.19); 

–“The traditional understanding that male/female roles are fixed.” (p.20).

–“The person who has been set apart consider[s] himself/ herself as superior or better, and therefore endowed with additional magical powers.” (p.20).

3. “The differing views on interpreting Scripture, and especially, passages on headship as clearly taught, have left the two sides of the debate … engaging in what might be considered “dialogue of the deaf’ or “selective inattention whereby human beings hear what they want to hear.”(p.11). They express their unease with some of the arguments of both sides of the issue, stating that they have observed exegesis that is less than adequate from both sides. Thus, they in their own context make a strong call for more study of the issues before the GC 2015.

4. Their greatest desire is for a “theologically intelligent and responsible church,” and this will undoubtedly involve information sharing “down to the grassroots.” “It will be counterproductive for the Remnant Church’s delegates at San Antonio General Conference Session to cast their vote for or against  women’s ordination if they do not have adequate information.” (p.15). They are “keen to engage in pertinent theological conversations … in developing a theology of ordination which will enable the world Church to effectively carry out the mission of the church.”

5. Because of the mission challenges that present themselves in East-Central Africa “it is understandable if most people in ECD are not fully aware of how the issue ordination of women is a priority of the global Seventh-day Adventist Church this time. However, the interest and concern about the issue of the ordination of women is rising.” (ECD BRC Report Summary Presented to the Delegates of the ECD EXCOM Meetings on November 5-7, 2013).

Appeal to the General Conference Officers and Vice Presidents

So what is the way forward from here, both to the 2015 GC Session and beyond? The evidence that the present model of ordination is not all it can be is unmistakable and comes from all parts of the world. Calls for us to educate both Adventist members and GC Session delegates on these issues, both before and after, are so plain as to be impossible to misunderstand. Africans and Europeans, Asians and Australians are willing to move forward creatively with God’s agenda. 

How will the General Conference respond in promoting dialogue and a genuine conferencing, understanding and unity within our global family? Will we Adventists  redouble our efforts in the next year as a world Christian communion to educate our members and delegates, so that we all may move forward with God’s agenda, whatever the outcome in mid-2015? Or will we all sit on our hands in the next 12 months believing everything has been done that can be done to promote a genuine resolution of this seeming conundrum?

The time has come, I believe, to distill the results of the TOSC and associated studies into short summaries, published in several different media formats, and in a host of everyday languages for our global family. All perspectives entertained by the TOSC need to be fully explained and briefly outlined, with the Biblical support clearly spelled out.  The consensus on the theology of ordination would also be there, because however much disagreement there is about the practice of ordination it remains true that TOSC has started to build a useful new theological paradigm of the appointment of denominational leaders. Human interest stories that illustrate the Spirit’s blessing on women in ministry, and the joys and challenges of women ministering in contemporary societies would also be useful.

And what will happen if the sole strategy of the General Conference to deal with the ordination issue in the next 12 months is administrative? What will happen if there is no engagement with our global Adventist family, helping them to understand the issues? 

The East Central Africa Division has said that such a strategy would be counter-productive. In such a scenario, many delegates to the 2015 General Conference Session, especially those from the global south, will vote without being informed on the issues involved. And they will likely vote according to their traditional understanding of gender relations, which may or may not be informed by the teaching of Scripture.

Meanwhile, in the absence of accurate information about how to intelligently think the issues through for themselves, Adventist members from around the world will likely embrace suspicion, innuendo, misinformation and conspiracy theories. Disunity and spiritual loss will be everywhere. And this is especially true if the GC Session vote doesn’t go “their way.”  

A time of information sharing, such as is recommended above, in which the hearts and minds of Adventists everywhere are engaged, would also likely smooth the way to acceptance of the specific decision and the necessary steps toward its implementation.

May God bless your deliberations and decisions! I will be praying for you!

Peter Marks is an Australian who, after serving in the Adventist ministry, and teaching English at both Sunchon National University and Sahmyook University in the Republic of Korea, has taken early retirement on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia.  He holds an MA (Religion) degree and a Master of Information Management – Librarianship degree having graduated from Avondale College of Higher Education, Newbold College of Higher Education, and the University of NSW, Australia. Currently, he is engaged in research for a graduate research degree in Theology from Avondale College. 

A version of this letter was sent to the GC Officers and Vice Presidents.

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