Within hours of the special constituency meeting of the Pacific Union Conference on Sunday, August 19, that voted 79% to 21% to ordain persons for full-time pastoral and related forms of ministry without regard to gender, the General Conference officers issued a statement that many around the world are experiencing as grim and foreboding. In my view, such darkness is unnecessary; therefore, I hope that in their next communication the General Conference officers will say something more positive along these lines:
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ around the World:
We begin with the words of the Apostle Paul to the first Christians in Rome: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” (Romans 1:8. All texts from the NRSV). We add how Paul began his correspondence with the believers at Corinth: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s words to the earliest Christians at Philippi are ours to you as well: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” (Philippians 1:3)
We are writing to you at this time because not long ago in Southern California, on Sunday afternoon August 19, a special meeting of the constituency of the Pacific Union Conference took two important actions. First, by the smallest possible margin (1%), it voted down a proposed rewording of its Bylaws that would have given it more independence. Although we would have preferred to have seen more of the delegates vote against it, we are relieved that it was defeated.
The other proposal was approved by 79% to 21%. It mandated that the Pacific Union Conference approve qualified candidates for ministry without regard to gender. This disappoints us; however, we are neither dismayed nor distraught and there is no reason for any of you to be.
The most difficult decisions in life are not between right and wrong but between two right but completing duties. The delegates faced this challenge. One duty we all have as Christians is to treat men and women justly. Another is to protect the unity of the church. The great diversity of our worldwide denomination makes it virtually impossible to accomplish them equally at the same time. We often emphasize justice one time we meet and unity another time we gather, or the other way around, and somehow by God’s grace through this clumsy process we achieve more balance than if we had tried to accomplish it all at once.
From where we serve it seems that this is a time throughout the entire world to emphasize unity. From the perspectives of our brothers and sisters in the Pacific Union, it is a time in their region to put more emphasis on justice. In the end we all want both and we will continue collaborating with each other toward this goal, mindful that in this life we will never realize them completely and in perfect harmony.
Making difficult decisions rests on how we read the “facts” of the case as well as upon which of our duties we emphasize. Elder Randy Roberts, the Senior Pastor of the Loma Linda University church, spelled these out very clearly. First, there is the factual question as to whether Scripture forbids the ordination of women. Second, there is the factual question about whether ordaining women would violate existing denominational policies. Third, there is the factual question as to whether ordaining women in the Pacific Union Conference will harm the worldwide unity of our church. His own answer to each of these three questions was “no.” We intentionally did not speak to the first question; however, our answers to the second and third questions are “yes.” These are honest in how we see the relevant “facts”.
A third factor in decision making of this sort is the process. By this we mean the plan by which to make a decision, who will make it, what steps they will take in making it and when they will do so. We have put into place a worldwide process of study that will lead to reports at the Autumn Council of 2014. This will lead to decisions as to what should be placed before the delegates at the 2015 session of the General Conference. We believe that this is the best possible process at this time.
Many of our brothers and sisters in the Pacific Union Conference believe that this is too little and too late. Unlike many in other parts of the world who have joined our movement more recently, they recall studies of this issue over the last several decades and therefore they see no need for another, albeit bigger, one. The differences among us between those who have been considering this issue for half a century and those who haven’t influence how we view the current process and understandably so.
We need to put one anxiety to rest and this is that actions like those of the Pacific Union Conference will lead to congregationalism. This won’t happen for a very simple and important reason. This is that the pioneers of our movement wisely made this impossible by making the Local Conference, or its Association, the legal owner of all the church property in its region. This makes it impossible for a congregation to remove itself from our denomination and take its property with it. Without this ability, congregationalism cannot happen.
Where do we go from here? Although the path forward is not completely illuminated, we do have enough light to know what we should now do while being confident that new light will emerge as we need it. First, we should neither think nor say that our denomination is in great peril because it isn’t. Second, no matter where we stand on these issues, we should all do what we can to reduce the current tensions among us and to prevent others from emerging. Third, we should all do what we are obligated in self-correcting groups to do in a way that is not needlessly provocative. Fourth, we should continue our studies and discussions of these issues doing what we can to make them a success. Fifth, and most importantly, we should co-operate in preaching the gospel, healing the sick, educating the ignorant, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.
These are growing pains. In a few short generations our movement has explode from a handful of believers in the New England to seventeen million of us all around the world. When any group grows this rapidly, challenges like this one are inevitable. But God has led us through our earlier ones and God will lead us through this one too.
We end where we began with the words of the Apostle Paul: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus.” (I Corinthians 16: 24. NRSV)