On July 17, 2018, the Unity Oversight Committee published the document: “Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions” (“Regard and Practice …”). The document is an attempt to solve non-compliance issues in the church. Ordination is not mentioned, but the challenge of women’s ordination and the 2015 San Antonio GC Session vote is the backdrop of the published document.
A divided church
In San Antonio, 42% voted yes to allow Divisions to decide concerning women’s ordination. A 2/3 majority of the TOSC was in favor of this. The Church is divided, and the current situation must be met with wisdom and statesmanship to avoid a possible serious schism in the Church.
Unity or uniformity
The appeal is for unity. The procedure suggested in “Regard and Practice …” includes coercion and humiliation as part of the process to obtain unity. Is it reasonable to hope that the result will be unity? Or, is it uniformity that at best will be the result? “The secret of unity is found in the equality of believers in Christ” (EGW 1SM 259).
Non-compliance General Conference Working Policy versus 40-year process on equal recognition of women pastors
The auditors have reported that more than 80% of unions around the world are non-compliant in relation to various parts of the GC Working Policy. This may include issues of exploitation, abuse of power, corruption, fraud, and nepotism within leadership. Such issues and others must be dealt with in a professional way. Have the provisions of the GC Bylaws Article XIII Sec. 1. c, and GC WP B 95 proved insufficient? Have these provisions been applied?
The Church has struggled with the issue of equal recognition of women pastors for more than 40 years. This issue is of a totally different category and of a magnitude that demands a separate and individual handling, and not just a procedure prepared for any non-compliance issue.
What are the major reasons that make the present proposals inappropriate in approaching the issue of equity in our treatment of male and female pastors?
• The calling of the Holy Spirit who gives spiritual gifts “as He wills” to both men and women:
• As the prophet Joel writes concerning The Holy Spirit’s activity in the last days, “…I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy... Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28, 29 NIV – emphasis added. See also Peter quoting Joel in Acts 2:16-18).
• Fundamental Belief no. 17 deals with the spiritual gifts: “… God bestows upon all members of His church in every age spiritual gifts that each member is to employ in loving ministry for the common good of the church and of humanity. Given by the agency of the Holy Spirit, who apportions to each member as He wills, the gifts provide all abilities and ministries needed by the church to fulfill its divinely ordained functions” (emphasis added).
• The biblical principles of love and non-favoritism
• “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’, you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (James 2:8-9 NIV).
• “...there is no favoritism with him [God]” (Ephesians 6:9 NIV).
• Equal treatment is a basic value of the Seventh-day Adventist Church:
• Fundamental belief no. 14 states: “…differences between… male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ,… we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation.” This value is found expressed in the GC WP BA 60 05 Basic Principles: “The Church rejects any system or philosophy which discriminates against anyone on the basis of race, color, or gender.”
• A matter of conscience, not of administrative behavior
• Forty years of research has shown that this is no clear-cut issue. This is a matter, which requires sensitivity and wisdom, not coercion and disenfranchisement.
• Elevating human decisions on demanding favoritism creates a dilemma of conflicting demands for loyalty
• The basic biblical principle is: “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29 NIV)
• Conscience issues cannot be decided by a majority vote within the Church
• The contribution to and participation in the mission of the church by women pastors:
• Women pastors around the world have made, and are still making, an important impact in the mission of the Church.
• For decades, the church has employed women pastors in harmony with decisions of the GC Annual Council (see below: Neal C. Wilson, 1990 GC Session).
• Policy states that decisions regarding the ordination of ministers are entrusted to the unions
In the Church there is a separation of powers in the following areas: 1) membership is dealt with by the local church, 2) employments of pastors are decided by the conferences, and 3) ordination is voted by the unions. GC WP B 05 defines this in detail. These are the words concerning ordination and the summarizing of this principle of separation of powers:
“Organizational life and procedures… are based upon the following principles… decisions regarding the ordination of ministers are entrusted to the union conference… Thus each level of organization exercises a realm of final authority and responsibility…” (GC WP B 05, emphasis added).
Repeatedly the GC leadership has reminded members that the GC Session is the highest authority in the Church. The GC Session expressed this in a vote in 1877:
RESOLVED, That the highest authority under God among Seventh-day Adventists is found in the will of the body of that people, as expressed in the decisions of the General Conference when acting within its proper jurisdiction; and that such decisions should be submitted to by all without exception, unless they can be shown to conflict with the word of God and the rights of individual conscience. (Minutes, 16th General Conference Session, 1877, p. 115, GCS 63-88, emphasis added).
Have these important qualifying clauses been overlooked in the process concerning ordination?
In 1901–1903 the Union Conferences were established. Ellen White declared at the 1903 session: “it has been a necessity to organize union conferences, that the General Conference shall not exercise dictation over all the separate conferences.” (Ellen White, “Regarding Work of General Conference,” MS 26, Apr. 3, 1903).
Women pastors in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the 1970s and 80s
At the 1990 GC Session, Neal C. Wilson (GC president 1979–90) informed the delegates on the process concerning the recognition and use of women pastors in the 70s and 80s:
…there were both men and women who were equally prepared, especially trained, and equally endorsed by the church, and given equal responsibilities in carrying out ministerial functions. But the men, who carried a ministerial license, could perform certain functions that the women, who did not carry a ministerial license, could not, even though they had equal training and background (Adventist Review, 1990 GC Bulletin 8, p. 13, session meeting on 11.7.1990, emphasis added).
We have tried our best over a period of time to do something that would use every talent that there seems to be in the church and the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to individuals. In 1976 we made some provisions for licensed ministers. The next step was to make provision for women training for the ministry, and we encouraged that. All this was done at Annual Council, with representation from the world church. The next step we took was to authorize women to be ordained as local church elders in North America. In 1984 the Annual Council, with the full approval of those in attendance representing the various divisions, voted to extend to those divisions that felt it would be helpful the privilege of the ordination of women to local eldership (Adventist Review, 1990 GC Bulletin 9, p. 10, session meeting on 12.7.1990, emphasis added).
Changes in the Church Manual in the 1990 GC Session
At the 1990 GC Session a further step was taken in giving women pastors the same opportunities and responsibilities as their male colleagues. The session voted relevant changes of the Church Manual:
• The description of the elder was made gender neutral and thereby generally open for women
• The conducting of the marriage ceremony was opened to licensed/commissioned pastors (including women pastors) “…where division committees have taken action to approve that selected licensed or commissioned ministers who have been ordained as local elders may perform the marriage ceremony” (CM p. 59).
The concept of ordination
However, the Church seems to struggle with the obstacle of how to understand the concept of ordination, a word from the Roman world, not to be found in the Hebrew/Greek manuscripts of the Bible.
Pastor-ordination within the Adventist church has been perceived as giving a higher status, which shows some similarities to ordination within the Roman Catholic Church. The late Adventist church historian Daniel Augsburger made this statement:
There is no support in early Christian history for an ordination attached to the person of the minister rather than to his mission. Thus Adventist ordination that is valid worldwide reflects a later, Augustinian concept of ordination (editor: Nancy Vyhmeister, Women in Ministry Biblical & Historical Perspectives, p. 96).
Ellen White on the setting apart of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13
In contrast to the Catholic/Augustinian concept of ordination, Ellen White gives us the following description as she comments on the setting apart of Paul and Barnabas:
“…when the ministers of the church of believers in Antioch laid their hands upon Paul and Barnabas, they, by that action, asked God to bestow His blessing upon the chosen apostles in their devotion to the specific work to which they had been appointed.
At a later date the rite of ordination by the laying on of hands was greatly abused; unwarrantable importance was attached to the act, as if a power came at once upon those who received such ordination, which immediately qualified them for any and all ministerial work” (AA p. 162, emphasis added).
Pastor-ordination and non-ministerial employees in the GC Working Policy
Non-ministerial employees in the Adventist Church may also receive the pastor-ordination:
“There are certain lines of work in the denomination that are not regarded as strictly ministerial but which provide experience for some ministerial development. For example, a college/university president or an academy principal…
Employees in other capacities—such as editors, institutional leaders, conference/mission/field secretary-treasurers/chief financial officers, departmental directors, secretaries and denominationally employed physicians/dentists — may also come to the place in their service where ordination is appropriate…” (GC WP L 35 45 Nonministerial Employees).
At present, the president of Andrews University is a woman. Is she a candidate for ordination according to this policy? What about the many female institutional leaders, departmental leaders, etc.?
The status given by ordination
The heated discussion on this topic gives reason to conclude that the pastor-ordination is regarded as giving a person a position of importance in the Church. Is GC WP L 35 50 an attempt to counteract the thinking that ordination gives status?
L 35 50 Not a Reward: “Ordination must never become simply a reward for faithful service or be considered an opportunity to add title and prestige to an employee. Neither is it an honor to be sought by the individual or his family or friends on his behalf. Such attitudes and tactics seriously minimize the sacredness of the ministry in the eyes of the church.”
Has the words of Jesus on servanthood been forgotten?
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44 NIV)
As the Church has studied the topic of ordination, it looks like the issue of women’s ordination has taken the focus from concentrating on the biblical meaning of setting apart a person for service to a specific mission task. The focus on God’s blessings to go with the person in a specific mission task, seems to come in the background. Is this blessing reserved for men only? Does the setting apart of pastors immediately qualify them for any and all ministerial work such as conference president, union treasurer, youth leader, Sabbath school director, union president? What is ordination all about?
Should Gamaliel’s recommendation to the Sanhedrin be heeded with regard to the equal treatment of men and women in pastoral ministry?
“Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men… in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:34, 38-39 NIV).
Commission to study and suggest changes in GC WP on ordination
A thorough study of the GC WP on ordination might be a starting point to untangle the current crisis. A commission could be given the tasks:
• of analyzing the GC WP to find out if Adventist ordination qualifies to some degree to the description that “…unwarrantable importance was attached to the act ” (AA p. 162, emphasis added).
• of harmonizing, if necessary, the policies with Ellen White’s understanding, that setting apart/ordaining is to ask: “God to bestow His blessing… to the specific work to which they had been appointed” (AA p. 162, emphasis added).
• of suggesting necessary changes, if any, in policies so that they focus on the mission of the person, rather than the Augustinian concept of ordination, which focuses on the person.
• of evaluating the Adventist policy/practice of a worldwide and once in a lifetime ordination to serve a wide variety of different tasks/responsibilities.
• of harmonizing the policies with the basic principle of non-discrimination (GC WP BA 60 05)
• of evaluating the Adventist concept of three different kinds of ordination (deacon, elder, pastor). Check on the biblical basis for this, and evaluate if these three categories serve the needs of the Church in the 21st century.
• of suggesting an alternative credential that recognizes men and women equally in pastoral ministry, in those territories where it is legally or missionally necessary.
GC Annual Council has the mandate to change policy
The appointing of a commission to study GC WP and suggest changes might be an important step towards finding a solution to the dilemma that the Church has struggled with for decades. The Norwegian Union sent on April 24, 2017, the article “Ordination – the Gordian Knot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church” to the GC Biblical Research Institute via TED, for the BRI to provide a professional assessment of the article. The article points out some of the challenges of the Adventist practice concerning ordination, and possible solutions.
Statesmanship is needed
The great need of the Church in the current situation is to:
• channel the divided Church into unity, rather than attempting to achieve uniformity
• foster a milieu that will make it possible to “use every talent that there seems to be in the church and the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to individuals” in the mission of the Church worldwide, to use the words of the late Neal C. Wilson (GC Session 1990, emphasis added).
Finn F. Eckhoff is Executive Secretary of the Norwegian Union.
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