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The Status of Women’s Ordination Ahead of Annual Council


Seventh-day Adventist leaders from around the world are on their way to Silver Spring, Maryland for the 2014 Annual Council. The meetings span six days, from October 9 to 15. Women’s ordination, which current policy allows for deacons and elders, but not ministers, will come up on Tuesday, October 14. On that day, delegates will consider recommendations from the thirteen divisions’ Biblical Research Committees and the General Conference Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC), and will in turn make their own recommendation for the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas.

The discussion at Annual Council may be a comma, not a period, in a debate that has already spanned four decades in earnest–much more by some counts. Kit Watts, a former assistant editor of the Adventist Review and first director of La Sierra University’s Women’s Resource Center put together a nearly exhaustive women’s ordination timeline stretching back into the 19th Century and forward to 1995 when Adventist women were concurrently ordained as pastors on both coasts of the United States. However, women were officially serving as ministers as early as 1973, forty-one years ago, in Maryland, California and Germany.

Despite the Church’s having studied ordination for many decades, Annual Council will not settle the topic. Neither will San Antonio, despite growing expectations that delegates there will vote on women’s ordination. The reason is that now, as for the past four decades, there is no consensus and votes will not create it unless the church can compromise.

The thirteen divisions’ reports reveal an ideological divide:

While summaries of the divisions’ positions point to incompatibilities, the reports are nuanced; they raise questions.

First, and most obviously, though: the Trans-European Division and the Southern Africa Indian Ocean Division represent the points farthest apart on the left-right continuum. On the left, TED would remove all reference to gender in ministry; on the right SID would repeal preveiously-voted official actions allowing women elders to be ordained, to say nothing of women pastors.

Between those poles, one finds many commonalities. Most divisions reported that Scripture either does not expressly forbid women from being ordained or is ambigous on ordination altogether. Many divisions cited “mission” as a key driving force, and found that women contribute at all levels to the Church’s mission as well as men. All the divisions that favor ordaining women called for allowing each division to decide, rather than moving together in lock-step. Most all of the divisions that opposed ordaining women stated that they would abide by the church’s decision, whatever it be. So could the thirteen divisions reach an accord?

The scenario that, at least on paper, seems most agreeable to nearly all parties would be allowing ordination to move forward on a division-by-division basis. Those calling for (or who have already moved ahead with) ordination could do so, and those uncomfortable would not be forced to. Such a vote could preserve unity without demanding uniformity, but TOSC adds another layer of complexity to the situation.


The General Conference-appointed Theology of Ordination Study Committee of 100 members plus three officers including President Ted Wilson, after hearing the reports from each of the divisions, worked on creating its own report that will go to Annual Council. The committee met in Maryland several times with three distinct positions emerging: On the right, proponents of male headship would revoke ordination for women elders and deny it to women ministers. Their position most closely resembles the Southern Africa Indian Ocean Division. Slightly left of center, proponents of ordination equality would allow for women to be ordained as deacons, elders and pastors where possible. Their position most closely resembles the North American Division. Somewhere between lies a third group that considers male leadership the biblical pattern, but contends that each church field should choose whether or not to ordain. This position resembles a marriage of the North American Division and the Inter-American Division.

The third TOSC group, in terms of policy (aside from ideology), sides with those in favor of allowing women’s ordination, making the “allow divisions to decide” votes within TOSC a clear majority. However, TOSC may not directly reflect the attitudes of the thirteen divisions or the more than 2,500 delegates to the General Conference. Nevertheless, the TOSC report now goes to the 338 members of the Annual Council, who will decide whether or not to send the issue to the floor of the GC in 2015.


If Women’s Ordination goes to San Antinio in 2015, it will likely receive an up-or-down vote from delegates. But will the vote resolve the issue? A vote to allow divisions to decide could bring an end to the decades-long, church-wide study of ordination. It would then fall to divisions to continue on regional levels, but the church would have a workable policy. A vote to disallow divisions to decide would not bring resolution because several unions and conferences have already moved forward with ordination, and many other church entities, from the division level down, have signaled their intent to move forward as well.  A “no” vote would mean yet another round of study, debate and dischord.

With all eyes clearly on Silver Spring this week and San Antonio next summer, ordination partisans have made moves to win over the undecided, if any remain undecided. Proponents of male headship held a weekend-long symposium in Fresno, California to make their case for disallowing women to serve as elders or pastors (let alone be ordained as such). This would roll back current, voted policy that allows women to be ordained as elders and commissioned as pastors.

Proponents of ordaining women published a book of questions and answers on ordination through Pacific Press for eBook distribution and in ABC stores. It calls the Church to move beyond current policy toward full equality between men and women.

In attendance at Annual Council will be Southeastern California Conference president Sandra Roberts, the first ordained woman president of a conference in the denomination. Roberts will be attending Annual Council as an invitee for the first time since becoming president. Perhaps more than anything else, her presence in Silver Spring attests to the true status of women’s ordination in advance of the 2014 Annual Council.


Clarification: This article corrects a previous version that erroneously stated that TOSC meetings were held in Silver Spring and that Sandra Roberts will attend Annual Council as a delegate.

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