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Viewpoint: Where Are We Regarding Ordaining Women?


The divisions have given their verdicts, the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) has completed its studies and its vote,  the annual council has voted how the issue will be presented at the General Conference  Session in 2015.

I. What did the divisions decide?

The decisions of the divisions have been explained in different ways but whatever explanations are given what is clear is that five divisions are definitely in favor of the ordination of women, one division is clearly opposed, and the rest of the seven divisions, while not ready to ordain women, are nevertheless willing to allow those divisions that are ready to proceed. So however, one wants to explain the decisions of the divisions, it is clear that the majority, even though some of them may not be ready, would favor allowing those divisions that are ready to proceed.

II. How did TOSC members vote?

If we went simply by those who are opposed to women’s ordination and those who are in favor, a straw poll of TOSC members indicated 32 against and 40 for.  On that basis the majority was for the ordination of women. However, a third option arose, which included those who may have some qualms about it but would favor allowing women’s ordination to proceed.  There were 22 in favor of this option. So if we simply count all those who were in favor of allowing women to be ordained, there would be 62 in favor, 32 who opposed. So here again the majority would favor allowing women’s ordination to proceed.

III. What did Annual Council decide?

The delegates at the 2014 Annual Council voted on how the issue of women’s ordination would be brought before the General Conference session in 2015.  They voted on a statement crafted by the General Conference and Division Officers (GCDO) that included the following question:

‘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”

However, before they voted they heard the three positions that emerged from the Theology of Ordination Study Committee.

  1.     Denying ordination of women pastors on the basis of male headship.
  2.     Allowing divisions  that support ordination to proceed.
  3.     A kind of compromise between positions 1 and 2.  [This position has always been unclear to me]

After much discussion for and against, the final vote was 243 in favor, 44 opposed, and 3 in abstention.  The 44 who opposed this motion could have done so because they opposed allowing divisions to decide the issue, or they could have voted no because they favored rejecting the question that came from the GCDO in favor of a stronger statement recommending the ordination of women. While some could have cynically voted in favor of the question to be sent to 2015 GC delegates hoping that the question would be voted down in San Antonio, it seems more probable that the majority of delegates at Annual Council favored allowing divisions to decide the matter.

To me, the most important and crucial point at the whole Autumn Council was the declaration by Artur Stele, Vice President and Chair of the Biblical Research Committee that the issue of women’s ordination is not a theological but an ecclessiastical issue.  I would assume that this is not just his personal view but the position of the General Conference officers. Otherwise he would not have stated it.  It is not clear to me what “ecclesiastical” means here, but I take it that when he says “theological,” he means “the attempt to base this on the Bible.”  This is crucial because it undercuts the whole basis for the argument against women’s ordination such as the headship argument and the statements of Paul regarding the subordinate position of women to men.  These are the people who “would die for their position.” That is because since they believe that the Bible is their authority on matters such as this and this is why they are Seventh-day Adventists, they could not give up a position they believe is biblically based.  However, if the issue is not theological but ecclesiastical then the implication is that the Bible cannot be used to support this issue.

However, it is more complicated than that. If we simply mean that the Bible does not give clear-cut prohibitions against the ordination of women and also the same for the ordination of women, then that statement stands. However, we cannot say that the Bible cannot be used to support or reject the ordination of women in general. In a previous article, I considered how Christians have gone beyond what the Bible states. I mentioned in this regard the practice of slavery among other examples. There is no clear-cut statement regarding the abolition of slavery, but there are principles that can be found in the Bible that reflect ideals that can be applied to these practices. An excerpt from that article:

Biblical principles override specific texts

“So how do we go about dealing with slavery when even in the New Testament we have slavery mentioned without condemnation?  Here again we cannot look to specific texts but to biblical principles. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1818 accepted the view that slavery was a “gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature, awfully inconsistent with the law of God, which requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and totally irreconcilable with this. And principles of the gospel of Christ which enjoined that ‘all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them.’” 

We have also the Genesis account which declares that man and a woman were both made in the image of God. Such principles override the practice of slavery, as well as the subordination of women. The abolition of slavery, polygamy, moderation in drinking, subordination of women, arranged marriages, and the rod as a means of discipline for children, go beyond biblical practices but not biblical principles.”  See “Should Our Practices Go Beyond What the Bible Permits?

It is a bit over-simplistic to say that the issue of the ordination of women is not a theological issue but an ecclesiastical one. But I think the point being made, which is true, is that one cannot from specific biblical passages state that the Bible forbids or accepts the ordination of women. That should not be taken to mean that there are no biblical principles that would support the ordination of women. In the sermon on the mount Jesus kept saying “You have heard that it was said,” about adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and loving one’s neighbor. But in each instance he went beyond what was said. And it seems to me that this is what we must do with regards to practices that have come in because of sin such as slavery, polygamy, alcoholic drinks, and the ordination of women. We must look for the kind of principles that were ideal before sin entered and to which Christ points us to which he wants us to incorporate into our lives.

But the other question is what is meant by “ecclesiastical”? A hint concerning its meaning is found in the portion of the GCDO statement that reads “careful consideration of what is best for the Church and the fulfillment of its mission.” However, while the Administration has determined that the issue of women’s ordination is not a “theological” issue, this does not guarantee that delegates will agree. There is still uncertainty regarding how this issue will be finalized. Since this issue will be brought before the entire delegation of the General Conference, the question that remains for me is whether the delegates will be sufficiently educated on the issues and will also recognize that it is no longer a theological issue.

What is very important is that those divisions willing to allow other divisions to proceed with the ordination of women sufficiently educate their delegation so that they will vote intelligently, so that they will likewise see that this is not a theological but ecclesiastical issue. If those divisions that favor allowing the divisions to proceed with the ordination of women educate their delegates with the same view, then the outcome is clear

There is a fear that a vote in favor of women’s ordination would split the church.  However, on the basis of the divisions’ report,  it does not seem to be the case. Most of them, even when they decide not to ordain women in their division, would be agreeable to the ordination of women in those divisions that feel they are ready.

This matter has already been tested in the North American Division were several unions have ordained women. There has been no split within the division because some unions have gone ahead with the ordination of women. More crucial is the fact that within the unions themselves, where some conferences have gone ahead with the ordination of women and others not, there has not been a fracturing of the church as a result. If in these more intimate relationships there is no split, then it is less likely to be so when a particular division decides to ordain women.

On this matter, we need to be reminded that at the Jerusalem Council where a potentially divisive issue was before them, they opted to move ahead allowing diversity–the Jews to continue to be circumcised and the Gentiles to remain uncircumcised. This decision for diversity truly brought unity within the early church.To the statement that a vote in favor of women’s ordination would split the church, former General Conference President Dr. Jan Paulsen replied: “Perhaps so. But equally, not to ordain women has the same probability to divide our church.” 

IV. The best solution to the problem

The best solution to the problem is to allow the divisions that are in favor of women’s ordination to proceed while allowing the divisions that are not ready to wait. This appears to be the will of the church. Perhaps, we should not have any anxiety in this matter and trust in the wisdom and grace of our General Conference officers that they will do the right thing, what leaders will do, sense the direction in which the world is moving and lead them in that direction. 

The worst solution to the problem would be to require that all divisions ordain women or not ordain women. Such a decision would surely split the church.

At Annual Council, Elder Mark Finley gave a devotional a message on unity based on the book of Acts and how the early church settled its problems.

From that experience came the following points: 

a.  The mission of the church is important, but it will be enhanced if problems are settled in a mutually-acceptable way.  Spending time on settling problems with the proper solution is not a waste of time but a necessary step to advance God’s work.

b.  While it is important that problems be settled, it is much more important that they are settled with the proper solution.  In regards to the problem in Acts 6, it was important that they appointed deacons to take care of the problem and especially that they were all Greeks since the problem arose from the neglect of the Greek widows. Obviously, the problem could have been solved in different ways. But we can see the tremendous wisdom in selecting others besides the apostles–especially in selecting Greeks.

The problem in Acts 15 was a bit more complicated. One possibility in order to preserve unity in practice was to require the Gentiles to be circumcised.  To be part of God’s people and to preserve unity in practice it was considered important to have the Gentiles also follow this practice. Another possibility to preserve unity in practice was to discontinue circumcision on the part of Jewish Christians. However, this possibility was hardly conceivable. In this case it was very important not only that a settlement was reached but the right settlement. The first possibility certainly would have stymied the work among the Gentiles and split the church. The second possibility would not even have been considered by the Jewish Christians and would definitely have split the church. Thus they had to go to a third possibility, a compromise, not a unity in practice but a unity in mission, the Jewish Christians  would continue to be  circumcised but the Gentiles would not be required to do so. Thus different practices were allowed but it did not hinder the mission of the church but instead enhanced it. This action led to evangelistic success and much greater growth in membership than if the action was taken to require that all be circumcised. In other words, the difference in practice made the church more efficient in its mission to preach the gospel to all the world, especially to the Gentiles..

c. The early church decided that the best way is not always to choose one way and reject the other.  At the Jerusalem Council, they decided to compromise–to allow the Jews to continue to circumcise, but the Gentiles not to be circumcised.  In other words, to allow for diversity.  Unity can be promoted by diversity. This is a model for our situation today. The issue of women’s ordination is so similar to the issue of circumcision that the same solutions are to be followed here and now.  We don’t have to have all the world ordain women or all the world not ordain women.  We can allow those that are ready to do so while those that are not ready to refrain from doing so.  This diversity will not cause division, but in fact will bring unity as in the early church. Such an action would fit the “ecclesiastical” determination of “what is best for the Church and the fulfillment of its mission.”

d.  What we should not do is to vote for an action that would be applicable to every division with the understanding that unity comes about when we all do the same thing. Such a decision would require all divisions to ordain women or to require that no division should ordain women.  Even those divisions that are in favor of ordaining women would not vote in favor of this first statement and probably only one division would favor the second statement.  It seems to me that the church has clearly indicated its will.

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.

Photo: Ansel Oliver / Adventist News Network

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