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UPDATED: The Conflict Between the General Conference and the Unions


[I made a mistake. My email cut off the last third of Sakae Kubo’s article and so I edited and posted it incompletely. You and he have my apologies. The rest of the article is now included below. —Alexander Carpenter]

On  October 16, 2012 the Annual Council of the General Conference voted to reprimand two North American unions for ordaining women as pastors. To understand this issue, we need to look at a little background. The issue of woman’s ordination is not a recent one. Committees have been studying this issue for years.  It was extensively studied at Camp Mohaven in 1973.  That committee recommended that qualified women be appointed in pastoral and evangelistic roles and be granted ministerial licenses. The 1974 Annual Council received the report and encouraged its implementation where possible.  Significant steps followed. The church opened the doors for women to serve and be ordained as local elders (1975, 1985, 2010). This was even recommended for the world church.  It even went so far as to place women as pastors (1990). The church was making progress. The trajectory looked promising. But a major setback for the cause of woman’s ordination took place at the General Conference of 1990 at Indianapolis while Neal Wilson was president.  There is a general consensus that Neal Wilson was one of our great General Conference presidents.  He accomplished much for the church.  He was one of not many presidents who listened to more progressive Adventists. Yet he made a serious tactical error that set the church back not only at that point but even until the present time but perhaps hopefully not too  long into the future.

The major mistake he made was to bring the issue of woman’s ordination before the world church in which in effect the action taken would force every division and every church in the world to approve woman’s ordination and be forced to accept an ordained woman as pastor of  a church in its division. It was framed with the understanding that ordination has worldwide implications.  Ordination is for ministry in the world.  Of course, presented with these implications the action was voted down. I would have voted against such a measure myself. Ever since that time the discussion of woman’s ordination has taken place with these implications in mind. A recommendation with such an implication would probably never be approved by the general body.

At the General Conference of 1995 another attempt was made to pass a motion to ordain women. However, this time it was framed better. This recommendation came from the North American Division.  “The General Conference vests in each division the right to authorize the ordination of individuals within its territory in harmony with established policies.  In addition, where circumstances do not render it inadvisable, a division may authorize the ordination of qualified individuals without regard to gender.  In divisions where the division executive committees take specific actions approving the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, women may be ordained to serve in those divisions.”  This action too was voted down.  The recommendation was set up better than before.  Instead of a worldwide recommendation, it was limited to divisions that favored it. The obvious reason for its failure was that the specter of the 1990 recommendation haunted it.  They could not get out of their mind that ordination has worldwide implication so that one cannot have ordination in one part of the world without affecting the rest of the world.  This threat is way overblown, however.  It is true that ordination has worldwide implications.  One’s ordination is valid anywhere in the world.  One does not have to be re-ordained for each division one serves.  However, this objection is met simply by the fact that each division, union, or local conference has the authority to call whomever it wishes to call, thus effectively, keeping ordained women from North America or elsewhere from its area.   If we are to make progress on woman’s ordination,  this implication has to be met head on and dealt with.

A report on the proceedings of the 1995 General Conference on this issue indicates that the delegates still had these implications  in mind.  The report states: “Once again the issue of the ordination of women pastors elicited passionate speeches pro and con. This time the point of focus was not their ordination, per se, but a request originating with the North American Division that each division of the world church be given leeway to determine what would be best for the work in its territories. Inevitably, however, debate on the floor reverted to ordination rather than dealing with the NAD’s request. [Bold print mine]  When the votes were at last tallied, the motion lost massively: 673 yes, 1,481 no. “

At the Spring Council, this year on April 17, Jan Paulsen, former General Conference President, gave the devotional.  He seemed to be struggling with this issue but seems to me to be pointing to a solution.  At least that is my interpretation. He does not want to offend either side so he is not clear cut in his answer but my analysis of his talk is that each part of the world needs to speak to its culture in order for the church to fulfill its mission there. This is the crucial statement in his talk: “The important point we keep coming back to is: We have a mission to do.  How can we do that most effectively?  Our leaders in California cannot make that decision for their colleague in Africa; and our very accomplished mission church in South America cannot speak for struggling Europe.  We have to think of where we are placed, and then pray that the Spirit will lead me to do it best where I am; and trust that he will also lead you to get it right where you are.  In the absence of an unequivocal biblical injunction, there is no other way!” In other words, let the North American Division ordain women and the South American Division not. That was the recommendation set before the 1995 General Conference delegates and was voted down.His insight is correct. Let the North American Division ordain women and the South American division refrain. Our mission is to get things right where we are while yours is to get things right where you are.  However, he did not deal with how to avoid the problem of the universal validity of ordination which would derail this recommendation.

Another consideration that weighs heavily on this issue and makes it difficult to prolong the decision is what is stated by the Columbia Union resolution regarding women in ministry. It states one of the reasons for going ahead with woman’s ordination, “Whereas, Some fields in the North American Division and other world divisions feel they are seriously inhibited in their effectiveness in mission among key segments of their own members as well as the population they are attempting to evangelize.” The Northern European Division also expressed such sentiments. Not only do members within the church feel embarrassed by the church’s position but people outside the church are not attracted to a church with such backward practices. Even the government, in the Merikay Silver case had to step in to bring the church in line with legal norms. This appears to be also Paulsen’s concern.

The General Conference wants to wait for the Committee on the Theology of Ordination to present its report before acting  on the question of the ordination of women. As I mentioned before, a major committee dealt with this matter in 1973.  The only profitable outcome of this new Committee is if it comes out unequivocally for the ordination of women and does not recommend application of it in all the world. But if it disapproves women’s ordination, we will back to square one. We have to always remember that because the social conditions in certain parts of the world will be such as to make it impossible to ordain women, if it approves it must make clear that this is to be carried on where the social conditions allow it.  What really needs to happen is the recognition that social conditions are different and that ordination of women should be done where conditions are favorable regarding woman’s status in society

To deal with this issue, the first thing that needs to be done is to make clear that the recommendation is not to discuss the question of whether women can be ordained or not. This should have been decided by a committee and approved by the Spring or Autumn Council. A large body as the delegates at a General Conference is not equipped to deal with the exegetical and theological nuances of this issue. It would be completely inappropriate and if it comes to this, any such measure will be voted down even if the recommendation is something quite different as happened in the 1995 General Conference. 

[Newly posted section of the article begins below.]

The second thing that needs to be done is to make crystal clear that the motion is to allow only those divisions that are ready to proceed with the ordination of women. No division that is opposed to ordaining woman is affected.

The third thing that needs to be done is to make clear that unity does not mean uniformity. There are many differences between divisions. At one point the marriage ring was officially forbidden by the North American Division but not wearing it by married couples was forbidden by other divisions. Swimming on Sabbath was not allowed in North America but taken for granted especially in the northern European countries.  Athletic activities on Sabbath were accepted in some places in Europe but not in North America. The Northern European Division has unions without conferences where we would not allow it in North America or elsewhere. So there can be unity without uniformity. I did not have the full paper that Mark Finley presented at the Autumn Council but he did state that the essence of unity is not uniform action. The church could live with actions that were not uniform. I do not know how he could say this and still favor the action the Autumn Council took. At any rate Ricardo Graham pointed to this part of his report to favor the unions’ position. Actually what the Jerusalem Council did should be the model for what we should do with this matter. There was a serious division. After all, the Bible (OT for them) in Gen 17 had made circumcision an everlasting covenant. Even the slave born in the house was circumcised.  In the light of this clear biblical command how could they change this practice?  They could because the situation had changed. Circumcision was given within the context of a continuing Jewish nation as God’s people.  But now God was moving away from the Jewish nation to a Gentile Church.  Circumcision was a national sign but the church was universal.  Moving from a national to an international institution, the church moved to something universal, faith.  Paul, himself, was the leading spokesman for this view.

But what is most relevant for our situation was the decision itself. The Jerusalem Council unlike the General Conference of 1990 and 1995 did not consider uniformity as necessary for unity. It did not vote that all members should be circumcised or that they all should be uncircumcised.  The Jewish members could continue to circumcise while the Gentile members need not be circumcised. Unity was obtained without uniformity. It is time the General Conference recognizes this fact as the Jerusalem Council did.  If not the cause of disunity are not the unions who have espoused woman’s ordination but the General Conference itself with its insistence on uniformity in this particular area.

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