“I wish that I had been able to lead this church, during the eleven years of my presidency, to where we would not be having the sometimes acrimonious exchanges that we now experience regarding the role of women in our church,” Dr. Jan Paulsen stated in a keynote sermon that he was invited to present by current world president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Pastor Ted Wilson. He introduced the talk referring to the Easter season to which he said he was “irresistibly drawn” and focused on the lessons of Christ’s behavior modeling humility, love and compassion.
He made clear his continued commitment to the ordination of women pastors which he stated in his recent book. “The Spirit is ready to lead us to where we, for various reasons, are reluctant to go,” he told the yearly “Spring Meeting” of the General Conference Executive Committee, the top policy-making body in Adventist Church governance. “Ours is not a Roman Catholic or sacerdotal view of ordination.”
Denominational administrators who have long attended the meetings of this group speculated to Adventist Today reporters that Paulsen’s appearance was intended to deal with the concerns stated by several union and local conference governing committees in recent weeks on this topic and the criticisms leveled by opponents. “Sometimes we talk to each other across an abyss,” Paulsen said, “as when we last met as a council and talked about women.” This was understood by observers as a reference to votes last fall at the Annual Council of the committee and the annual meeting of the North American Division Committee regarding Working Policy E-60 which would have permitted women holding credentials as Commissioned Ministers to be elected as conference presidents in North America.
Paulsen stated that the love that Christ demonstrated in His interactions with the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane provides the standard for “how we must relate to each other when opinions collide and we are convinced that the other is wrong. Love them enough while we talk and … hopefully they will find room and time to see your point of view without you, by ridicule or caricature, embarrassing them.” He appealed for time, pointing out that the Biblical and theological study of ordination that the group commissioned last year is a useful educational process. He also implied that there is very likely nothing new to discover on the topic.
The elder statesman openly expressed the concern for a split in the denomination that has been privately shared by many church leaders. “Our unity as a global family is these days being tested with respect to the role of women in ministry and leadership in our church. Some insist that those who advocate the ordination of women … will split the church. … The other side answers that those who deny women ordination will be the ones who split the church. … If we cannot find a way forward in this matter without compromising the unity God wants us to hold, we shall all have to answer for how we contributed … and I suspect those who said ‘No’ will be held as responsible in the eyes of God as those who said ‘Yes.’”
Paulsen pointed out the fact that the Adventist movement exists “in a world whose cultural peculiarities and varieties turn 360 degrees.” He seemed to advocate flexibility and allowing world divisions of the General Conference to make their own decision on this topic as well as others. “We cannot do it the same way everywhere,” he said. “Our leaders in California cannot make that decision for their colleagues in Africa and our very accomplished mission church in South America cannot speak for struggling Europe.”
The appeal of Paulsen’s sermon was clearly for time and patience, acknowledging that the issue of women’s ordination is “the matter that will not go away,” since it was first voted in 1881 and then reintroduced in the early 1970s. “I hear the voice of a leader from South America say, ‘Things are changing also here. Our thinking is not locked into where we were ten years ago.’ And I hear the voice of a leader from Africa say, ‘Give us some more time. Our people need more time for education.’”
Clearly there is a fear on the part of at least some GC officers that one or more union conferences in North America and Europe may exercise their clear authority under GC Working Policy and approve the ordination of a woman pastor. This could lead to a demand that the union conferences involved be forced to withdraw their action, and perhaps unprecedented conflict between the General Conference and one or more of its constituent bodies. The method specified for this process is for the GC to convene a special constituency meeting in the union conference involved, but it is clear that in parts of North America it would be impossible to get anything but a vote supporting the ordination of women from delegates elected by local conferences or congregations.
What many church members and clergy in North America do not know is the kind of reaction that the denomination experienced in Africa and other places when a GC Session adopted the Department of Women’s Ministries as a lay activities program. Entire congregations left the denomination over this seemingly benign step, decrying it as apostasy from the Adventist message and mission.
The meeting continues today and it is unclear that any specific action will be taken on this matter. Usually the agenda for the Spring Meeting of the GC executive committee is primarily devoted to reviewing the financial statements from the previous year and voting confirmation of the budget for the current year. Often the full membership of the committee is not present and the normal procedure is to hold major policy decisions for the Annual Council in the fall of each year.
A video and a written transcript of the entire sermon is available on the Adventist News Network (ANN) web site.
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