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Unity & Authority In The Church: Report to the July 29 Columbia Union Constituency


On Sunday, July 29, the Columbia Union Conference overwhelmingly voted in favor of authorizing ordination without regard to gender. Before delegates discussed the motion to ordain equally, several leaders made presentations. Among them was the following from Ohio Conference President Raj Attiken, who spoke as a representative of CUC’s Ad Hoc Taskforce that considered in depth the objections made to moving forward with ordaining women.

Because we are a part of a global community of believers, we (Ad Hoc Taskforce) had to ask ourselves:  Will the action we are contemplating in any way jeopardize or compromise the unity of our church? 

The unity we claim is primarily our unity in Christ, who is the Head of the church.  We are united in one Lord, one faith, one blessed hope, and one mission.  That’s the essence of our unity.  As a church, we have a sacred covenant to be united around a common set of beliefs and a common purpose and mission. 

An essential nature of this unity is that it always exists in diversity.   We see that in the story of Creation, in the story of redemption, in the birth story of the church on the Day of Pentecost, and in the final Restoration.  Diversity is intrinsic to authentic unity.

While we desire unity, it seems to us that we make extraordinary efforts to achieve uniformity.  We do that largely by enacting policies.  We are a highly policy-driven church and many of those policies are directed at achieving uniformity within our body.

We are also a church that is invested in the practice of collective decision-making.  There is some unifying potential in this practice, but the practice in and of itself does not necessarily result in unified decisions.  We bring to the decision-making process our widely varying and sometimes unyielding perspectives that are shaped by our culture, traditions, our heritage, etc.  In fact, we bring these perspectives even to our reading of the Bible.  It is understandable, then, why as a world church we are divided in our convictions about the issue we are discussing today.  In many matters, culture trumps all other practical considerations!

Despite the unity we want to maintain, and the uniformity that we often strive for, the fact is that the Adventist Church around the world is a very diverse community – diverse in practices, traditions, rituals, form, function, and processes.  The examples are numerous.  The action we are considering today will no more divide the church than the scores of other actions we have taken at various levels of the church over the years that have contributed to the rich diversity that we celebrate as a world community.  Over the decades, the church has demonstrated extraordinary resilience in keeping in balance its unity, its desired uniformity, and its vast diversity.   

Now, besides the question of unity we also examined the matter of authority:  Does the Columbia Union have the authority, under our governance system, to authorize the ordination of persons to the gospel ministry without regard to their gender? 

We, as a denomination, have had a rather winding journey in defining how authority should be exercised within our church.  In the formative years of our church, our forbears leaned towards a hierarchical use of authority.  So much so, that by the turn of the 19th century, we realized the growing danger of concentrating power and authority at the top levels of the organization.  In our Representative form of governance authority was to rest with the people and flow up through a process of delegation.  We adopted the practice of delegated and distributed authority.  In the major reorganization that occurred at the General Conference session in 1901 we created Union conferences as intermediary units between the General Conference and conferences to delegate some of the responsibility and authority that previously belonged to the General Conference.  We said that the local church has authority over certain things; the local conferences over certain other things; the Union has delegated authority for certain things; and the General Conference has authority for certain other things.  Such boundaries were intended to keep each level of the organization functioning within its own sphere of authority.  Whenever one level extends its reach to exert its authority over another, or usurps the authority that belongs to another, it leads to dysfunction in the organization, and confusion among its people.  Or, when a level in the organization abdicates its responsibility to act in those matters over which it has authority, it too contributes to dysfunction in the system.  It turns out that in our model of distributed authority, Union Conferences have been entrusted with the authority to make decisions regarding ordaining persons for the gospel ministry. 

The 1881 General Conference session voted a resolution to approve the ordination of women.  There is no record of Ellen White counseling against this, either before, during, or after the action.  That action was taken before union conferences existed.  Why, some 90 years later, after having delegated authority to the unions, this matter was taken up by the General Conference in the 1970s could be an intriguing story.   Someone took it from the Union’s plate and placed it on the General Conference’s plate.  Regardless of how that happened, that single decision has shaped the trajectory of this conversation for the past 40 years.    

In our research we did not find any General Conference or NAD actions that revoke or limit the authority of the Unions to ultimately make decisions regarding ordination.  There are no policies that limit ministerial ordination to a certain gender or prohibit ordination of a certain gender.  Will the Columbia Union be violating any NAD or GC policy by voting to authorize ordination without regard to gender?  The answer is “No.”

Does the Union’s authority to act in the matter before us disregard, in any way, a well-known statement Ellen White made to a Brother A in 1875 concerning the General Conference in session?  “When the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority that God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered.”  3 T 492.  Does this declaration made to a specific individual manifesting certain specific attitudes and behaviors effectively strip the Unions, Conferences, and local churches from exercising their authority to make decisions that have been delegated to their sphere of responsibility?

Whatever Ellen White meant by what she said in 1875, it is instructive to note that in 1896, she made this declaration:  “The voice from Battle Creek, which has been regarded as authority in counseling how the work should be done, is no longer the voice of God.”  Letter 4, 1896, cited in Manuscript Releases 17:185, 186 (1896).  Two years later she announced, “It has been some years since I have considered the General Conference as the voice of God.”  Letter 77, 1898, cited in Manuscript Releases 17:216 (1898).  On April 1, 1901, the day before the General Conference session opened, she spoke these words:  “The voice of the [General] conference ought to be the voice of God, but it is not.”  Manuscript 37, 1901, cited in Sermons and Talks, 159, 160. 

Since 1901, after some of the changes were made to our organization – including the creation of Unions and delegating authority to them — Ellen White seems to have moderated her pre-1901 positions.  In 1909 she wrote, “God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference (session) shall have authority.  9T 261.  Perhaps it is significant that she chose to leave out the notion of “highest authority” and the analogy of the “voice of God.”  Whatever these comments were about, they were not about stripping the authority of Unions, Conferences, or congregations from the responsibilities delegated to them in our governance system.

The story of God’s activity in mainland China is receiving a lot of attention these days.  Our committee could not help but think about China.  While there are many differences in the social, political, religious, and cultural environment between China and the global West, we cannot dismiss the significance of what God is doing there.  There are over 400,000 Chinese who consider themselves Seventh-day Adventist Christians in every sense of the term.  I was personally blessed recently to visit seven cities in China and to listen to the stories of how God is working in their land.  Without any organizational link to the rest of the Adventist church since 1949, without any of the denomination’s policies and administrative protocols to shape them or guide them, they have nurtured the Adventist faith and its mission, and are pursuing it vigorously.  It is common knowledge now that in China ministerial ordination is extended to both men and women.  In my conversations with some of these ordained pastors I was impressed that these brothers and sisters there are convicted that God has led them to this practice to advance His mission there.  Elder Jan Paulsen, after his 2009 visit to mainland China said (as reported in Adventist World), “It is clear the Holy Spirit is at work in China.” “The fact is,” he said, “we have at least half a dozen women pastors who are ordained as ministers in China. We recognize them as ordained ministers.”   There are more of them now.  Some of them are pastoring congregations or groups of congregations with thousands or tens of thousands of members.

The importance of the China story to our committee is that despite this very significant deviation in practice regarding ordination, we – the world church – embrace our Chinese Adventists as brothers and sisters in the faith.  Although we do not have organizational reach into mainland China, we recognize them by including them in the SDA Year-book.  We include their numbers in our membership statistics for the China Union Mission, the Northern Asia Pacific Division, and for the General Conference.    In his visit to China earlier this year, Elder Ted Wilson assured the assembled Chinese Adventists, “You are a vital part of God’s worldwide people who are moving towards the Second Coming of Christ. . .”  The question, to which the answer is obvious is this:  If the practice of ordaining women is a violation of a Biblical teaching, or of a theological principle, or of a fundamental tenet of the Adventist faith, or is in any way immoral, illegal, divisive, or unChristian – would we so heartily and unconditionally embrace Chinese Adventists as Adventists when they unapologetically ordain women pastors?   What if, one day soon, we gained administrative access to mainland China and were able to extend our policies and regulations to them?  Will we promptly revoke all these ordinations to bring them in line with the rest of the world body or will we celebrate the diversity that God has brought about?

In light of all of these factors,

  • we conclude that the action today by this body to approve the ordination of persons to the gospel ministry without regard to gender is within the rightful purview of this body, and to wait for another level of the organization to address it would be to abdicate our responsibility and privilege;
  • we conclude that the world church, at multiple General Conference sessions and Annual Council sessions, has amply demonstrated its inability to act decisively in this matter.  We have no evidence that the regional and cultural biases have changed on this subject;
  • we conclude that our action does not intrude upon or usurp the authority of any other level of the organization, but respects our collective commitment to delegated and distributed authority;
  • we conclude that the proposed action is not a violation of any Biblical teaching or theological principle;
  • we conclude that gender-based discrimination in ministerial ordination is a practice that we must not condone any longer in this Union;
  • we conclude that the action we are proposing is the morally and ethically the right thing to do – and the right time to do the right thing is right now.
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