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Viewpoint: The Implications of Calling Women’s Ordination Ecclesiastical, Not Theological


Dr. Sakae Kubo has offered detailed analysis of the action taken by members of the 2014 Annual Council to send a question to 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas concerning whether divisions in the Seventh-day Adventist Church should be authorized to decide women’s ordination within their territory. Dr. Kubo’s previous articles on the subject can be viewed here. -Ed.

In a meeting of the approximately twenty young adults serving as members of the General Conference Executive Committee for the 2010-2015 Quinquennium, Artur Stele the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) chair and GC General Vice President, announced that the President’s Executive Administrative Committee (PREXAD) meeting before the Autumn Council discussed the TOSC report and came to “a strong consensus” that “when the issue has no theological solution (and it was clear this issue had none) administrators must solve it ecclesiastically.” (See “Artur Stele: ‘No Theological Solution on Women’s Ordination.'”)

When I read Stele’s statement, it came as a surprise and at first it was difficult to determine whether it was good news or bad news. At first I thought it was good news, thinking that the decision was made because administrators came to accept the view that ordination is not biblical since it originated several centuries after the New Testament was completed according to Dr. Darius Jankiewicz of the Theological Seminary and independently by Dr. Bertil Wiklander, president of the Trans-European Division. Both of these scholars favor woman’s ordination. Thinking along these lines, I felt Stele’s acknowledgment would favor the position of women’s ordination. I thought it also indicated that Paul’s statements on the subordination of women would be discounted. However, as I read the explanation given by Dr. Stele (see below), I had to change my thinking.

I really don’t know which way the General Conference vote on divisions’ right to decide will go. My feeling is that most delegates will still view this as a theological issue even though the statement does not speak directly to women’s ordination but to allowing divisions that feel ready to proceed with ordination to do so. Some may interpret interpret a “YES” vote as a vote in favor of woman’s ordination, and vote “NO” for ideological reasons.

A closer look at Dr. Stele’s explanation is warranted. What does “no theological solution” mean? In this case it means, according to Stele, that there was no overwhelming majority in favor of a particular view. However, if there were a majority view based on analysis of the committees tasked with studying ordination, it would seem to be willingness to allow divisions to ordain women as they are ready.

In a survey of GC TOSC members, 62 indicated their willingness to allow ordination to proceed, and 22 indicated they would oppose women’s ordination in all cases. As far as the division Biblical Research Committees that reported to TOSC were concerned, five divisions were in favor of ordaining women in their divisions, and four divisions that opposed ordaining women in their territory indicated willingness to allow other divisions to move ahead. That made a total of 9 out of the 13 divisions open to allowing women’s ordination.

Stele indicated that if ordination were decided theologically, the issue would carry the weight of a Fundamental Belief, which are widely agreed upon. What “widely agreed upon” means, he did not say. A Fundamental Belief I assent to must have wide agreement. I don’t believe that it was ever thought that woman’s ordination would become a Fundamental Belief. This practice can never carry the weight of a Fundamental Belief since it is one in which different parts of the world hold, and will continue to hold, diverse views for a long time–specifically, regarding the role of women. How can we expect the kind of agreement that a Fundamental Belief must have when geographic regions hold such diverging views from one another? Clearly, issues like this one cannoy be treated like a Fundamental Belief. That is why such an issue should not be determined on a General Conference level but on a union and division level. This situation will not change, even after the vote is taken. Even if the majority favors one view over the other, the issue will not have the weight of a Fundamental Belief, begging the question why it is being treated as an issue requiring majority acceptance.

Knowing the issue and the people involved on both sides of the issue, and that those who favored one position would not shift even after widespread discussion, it was a foregone conclusion that there would not be a “strong consensus” by either position. Why the church spent so much time and money on protracted study of the issue is hard to understand, especially since also the conclusions of the division TOSCs and the General Conference TOSC have no weight in the final decision, which is in the hands of the delegates.

What does an ecclesiastical solution mean here? It means that since the theologians cannot solve the problem to PREXAD’s satisfaction, that PREXAD should solve the problem. But Stele said that the administrators should not dictate the outcome. So then what? Since the theologians could not come to an overwhelming decision on one side of the issue, and administrators felt they should not decide the issue, they decide let the delegates at the General Conference decide the issue. The majority of the delegates, most of whom have not been involved in the lengthy ordination study process, and whose understanding of the issue may be limited compared with the TOSC members or the General Conference administrators, will be the ones to make the final decision. This stands the issue on its head. The least equipped individuals in the saga are asked to make the supremely complicated decision of tremendous importance to the church.

This recognition that the ordination of women is not a theological but an ecclesiastical issue was not widely discussed at Annual Council, or in the months since. It should have raised all kinds of questions. Exactly at what point does a theological issue become an ecclesiastical one? What kind of issues can move from being theological to becoming ecclesiastical? Why should such theological issues be placed in the hand of administrators? Why should such an important and somewhat complicated issue be ultimately decided by mostly lay delegates?

The two questions raised at the meeting when Elder Stele announced this indicate the uneasiness with this procedure. Both affirming what is stated above. The first question was when theologians had so much time to study the issue, will the delegates with not as much time be able to adequately deal with the issue. The second which is related was whether the delegates will be educated on the issues before the vote takes place.

On this very important issue with so much at stake, we wait upon the mostly lay delegates at the 2015 General Conference to cast their votes.


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.

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