At the 2014 Annual Council, delegates voted to send the following question to delegates at the 2015 General Conference Session:
‘After your prayerful study on ordination from the Bible, the writings of Ellen G. White, and the reports of the study commissions, and;
After your careful consideration of what is best for the Church and the fulfillment of its mission,
Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? Yes or No”
In my last article, “Where Are We Regarding Ordaining Women?” I now believe I was overly optimistic and a bit naïve in my assertion that the signs point to General Conference delegates allowing women’s ordination for divisions that are ready to proceed.
I based my judgment then on the fact that the majority of the divisions and the General Conference Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) were in favor of ordaining women, or at least allowing those divisions ready to ordain to do so. However, I indicated one important consideration. That is that those divisions that were favorable to this position would be able to educate their delegates to vote likewise. As I think about it again I feel it was a bit naïve to think that the delegates not involved in the division committees would be educated sufficiently to vote as their division committees did or to have made a “prayerful study on ordination from the Bible, the writings of Ellen G. White and the reports of the study commissions” as the motion suggests. It also seems that one can hardly expect lay persons to change their views when members of the ordination study committees seem to have only calcified their positions after discussing the topic.
I was also a bit optimistic because Elder Artur Stele indicated at Annual Council that they (I assume here that the “they” refers to the General Conference Committee) had determined that women’s ordination was not a theological issue. (I believe “theological” is inaccurate. I think the more specific term would be “biblical,” at least I think what is meant is that ordination itself is not a biblical concept and therefore the Bible does not directly deal with this issue—i.e., that there are no specific texts that prohibit or command the ordination of women.) I now think that although the General Conference Committee indicated it is not a biblical issue, the majority of the delegates will continue to think it is.
As I examine this question to be presented to General Conference delegates, I see several major problems with it. But before considering the problems, let us look at what the question really says. The question does not ask whether delegates favor or disapprove of the ordination of women. One can vote “Yes” and still disapprove of the ordination of women in one’s division. One can disapprove of the ordination of women in one’s division but be generous and broad-minded enough to allow it where another division is ready for it.
The question also assumes that a majority of delegates can decide what other divisions should do. This in itself is not a problem since the General Conference in session can determine how the church in general should operate. However, the first major problem with the question appears here–not in the idea that the majority of the delegates can determine how the church in general should operate, but in the particular issue at hand. The issue is not biblical but socio-cultural. It deals with the question of the role of women in society and the church. In such a matter there is great disparity in views from one culture to another.
Some countries do not permit women to drive, require wearing of veils, forbid providing education to girls, and in our churches, forbid women to be ministers, to be in charge of our institutions, become college and hospital administrators, and seminary professors. Should we allow divisions that have such views on women’s societal roles to determine how other divisions with more progressive views should function? No! And neither should we allow divisions that have a more progressive view to determine what the other divisions ought to do. Following cultural restrictions and norms can never provide a basis for establishing Church unity.
Adventists living in restrictive societies will unavoidably be affected by cultural patterns of thinking. Paul was affected by the way society viewed slavery in his day when he dealt with Onesimus. This is inevitable, but it is a matter we must consider when making motions and taking actions. It could well be that, while the question concerns granting permission to ordain women or not, without a clear education on the intent of the question, some delegates would treat it simply as a vote for or against women’s ordination and would vote negatively based on their societal norms.
On the particular issue of women’s roles in a Church that is situated within society, it seems completely inappropriate to have divisions with societies that differ on women’s roles to decide how other divisions should deal with women. I would argue that the motion put to delegates at Annual Council was out of order and that it is out of order to put the question before General Conference delegates to decide. As it is now, the General Conference Session will set the precedent for giving the church in general the right to determine how churches in certain areas should respond to social issues where there may be major cultural differences.
A second problem could arise in the implementation of the action if the General Conference Session votes “No” on the question. Some could take the action to mean that divisions that have begun ordaining women to the ministry should not only cease doing so, but should also revoke the ordinations of women who have been ordained. I suspect this could lead to further attempts to disenfranchise Dr. Sandra Roberts, the president of the Southeastern California Conference. I can say right now that no ordinations will be revoked, and Sandra Roberts will not be deposed. Some could argue that parties have agreed to accept the General Conference’s decision for the sake of unity, which, as I’ve noted, is an agreement that should not be made in this kind of a situation. I maintain that it is inappropriate and wrong for the General Conference in session to make binding decisions on cultural issues.
The Pacific Union Conference just voted a statement in favor of unity in diversity—allowing divisions to decide whether or not to move forward. I don’t know how much effect the statement will have except perhaps to influence the union’s delegates to vote “Yes” to the question. What the union needed to do was to vote that it did not approve of this question because it dealt with a matter that properly belongs to unions and divisions, not the General Conference, and therefore, it cannot accept a “No” vote to be applied in that territory.
I don’t know of any division that has committed itself to the vote of the General Conference session if the majority vote is a no with the understanding that those divisions that have ordained women will no longer ordain women and revoke the ordination of those who have already been ordained. I don’t see how they can do that.
It seems that it would be impossible for the General Conference to implement a negative vote. We certainly cannot turn back time. It is like saying that we should re-institute slavery where slavery has been abolished. If the General Conference session votes against this motion, confrontation between the General Conference and several divisions will likely ensue, and will most likely result in divisions continuing to move forward in spite of the action. I cannot foresee these divisions moving back from what they have done. If the General Conference tries to usurp the authority of the divisions, it will not succeed. The result can only be a weakened General Conference.
A third problem that could arise if the General Conference session votes against this motion is confusion over the implications of this action. Since the action deals narrowly with the particular and limited area women serving as ministers, a no vote might raise some questions. Will this mean that women may continue to function in important and even executive positions where ordination is not a requirement? To be more specific, can women hold executive positions in our hospitals, our educational institutions, our publishing work, and especially in our seminaries? Will they continue to be allowed to teach in the seminary? Will they be allowed to serve as chaplains in our hospitals? If so the question will be why? What is the logic and the consistency for limiting the role of women only in this area? Why is this area singled out? Why does a no vote not affect all these areas, if it does not, but yes vote does? The very specific nature of the action raises questions of logic and consistency.
At this late date, there is no hope of changes being made to keep the matter from being brought before the General Conference Session. Let us hope and pray that for the sake of avoiding these problems, the majority of the delegates at the General Conference will be led by the Spirit to vote “yes” on this question. That would not solve the deeper problems of cultural inequities, but would temporarily avoid confrontations. Hopefully in the future we will be more careful not to create such problems.
Sakae Kubo, 88, has had a long career in the Adventist church, primarily in university and college administration. He taught at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University, served as Dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla University, as President of Newbold College, and as Vice-President and Academic Dean at Atlantic Union College.