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In order to understand the handling of the issue of women’s ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it is important to know how the structure of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination functions and from whence its institutional authority is derived.
There are four principle documents governing the church, and four constituent groups in its structure. The four documents are the 28 fundamental beliefs, the Constitution and Bylaws, the Church Manual and the General Conference Working Policy. The four constituent groups are the local church, the local conference, the union conference and the General Conference. Divisions are not constituent organizations, but rather are divisions of the General Conference, providing leadership and direction in defined geographic territories.
The 28 fundamental beliefs, the Constitution and Bylaws, and the Church Manual are determined and modified only by a vote of the General Conference in session. The General Conference Working Policy is determined and modified by vote of the Annual Council of the General Conference Committee.
The four constituent groups have authority over specific functions of the church that belong only to them and may not be taken or countered by the other constituent groups. The local church is the only constituent level which can take action regarding membership issues, church officer election, appointment and ordination of elders, deacons and deaconesses, local church budgets and finance and other such local church functions. The local conference is the only constituent level that can take action regarding the sisterhood of churches, its employees, institutions and finance. It also votes to recommend individuals for ordination to the gospel ministry, to the union conference. But it does not have the power to authorize such ordination. This authority rests with the Union. The division and the General Conference may authorize ordination of their employees, but has no authority over those voted by the union.
The Permission Issue
Ordination is, by General Conference policy, the purview of the union level of governance. This being the case, the General Conference has overstepped its bounds in seeking to tell the unions that they may or may not ordain women to the gospel ministry. It is not within the authority of the General Conference to take such action, just the same as if the taking of such action regarding individual membership, the election of personnel for church offices, or in the sisterhood of churches issues is not the purview of the General Conference Session. These actions belong to the constituent level to which they are assigned by policy and may not be determined or overruled by higher levels of the church structure.
An additional example of this overreach occurs in the General Conference action granting permission for churches to ordain women to the position of local church elder. There was no existing action prohibiting such election or ordination of elders or any other church office on the basis of gender. Therefore, there was no cause for granting such permission from the General Conference. Church officer election is under the authority of the local church constituency and by policy, higher organizations are not allowed to interfere in this process.
The General Conference, union or conference may not, for example, tell the local church whether it can elect women as treasurer or clerk of the church. Likewise they have no authority either to deny or give permission for women to be elected and ordained as elders. They may give advice on such matters, but it is not in their purview to dictate who may or may not be elected. With no action forbidding such gender choices, the church does not need permission to do as it sees fit.
How We Got to this Place
The issue of ordination of women was discussed by the General Conference officers as far back as 1950, at which time it was decided to appoint a committee to study the matter and report back to the officers. Again in 1970, a committee was appointed to study the issue and to report to the Autumn Council of the General Conference Committee later that year. In 1973, the report of the Mohaven Committee on women in ministry was accepted by the Annual Council, authorizing continued study. In 1974, the Annual Council voted to continue studying the issue. In 1985, the General Conference Session voted to study it further. In 1988, North American Division Leaders voted to end the discriminatory policies affecting women in ministry.
It was in the General Conference Officer group known as ADCOM in the late 1980’s that this issue was discussed with a view to placing the matter on the General Conference agenda for the 1990 General Conference session in Indianapolis. There were those on the committee at that time who objected to this being placed on the agenda on the basis that this was a matter defined by General Conference Policy to belong to the Union level of authority. There existed no action or policy of the church defining ordination as gender exclusive. Therefore, the General Conference had no authority to tell the unions whom they may or may not ordain.
ADCOM and the Annual Council did, however, place this matter on the General Conference session agenda, counter to their authority to take action on a matter which, by policy, belongs to the union level of governance. The General Conference would be within its right to give council to the unions, but not to usurp the decision process which belonged to the union level.
It is important to be clear on the action taken in this matter at the Indianapolis meeting. It was not, as often represented, a vote forbidding such ordination, but rather the failure of an action to proceed with ordination. Thus the effect of this vote was simply that the proposed action went away. In fact, another action was taken granting performance of the functions of ministry to women pastors. This was done under the authority of a “Commissioned Minister” credential which, for women pastors, paralleled the “Ordained Minister” credential.
The matter continued to be under discussion for the following five years and was again placed on the agenda of the 1995 General Conference session in Utrecht at the request of the North American Division. At this meeting it was officially recognized that there was no biblical or theological to support a position of forbidding such ordination, and the vote there again did not forbid it, but rather stated that to avoid division in the world church, the request was denied “at this time.”
At present, the matter is under continuing study. The General Conference officers have outlined a plan whereby “Biblical Research Committees in all divisions have been asked to conduct a study on the theology of ordination and its implications. In addition, during 2012, the General Conference Administrative Committee will appoint a Theology of Ordination Study Committee, with representation from all divisions, to oversee and facilitate the global discussion process and to prepare reports for presentation to the General Conference Executive Committee. The Annual Council 2014 will determine what action, if any, should be recommended to the 2015 General Conference Session.”
Authority for ordination is assigned to the union level of church governance as indicated by General Conference Working Policy L 45 05. It states, “After favorable consideration the local conference committee will submit the name of the candidate with its findings and convictions to the union for counsel and approval.” There is no gender reference in this policy whatsoever. The policy does allow that the Division and General Conference may handle their own ordination matters separately from the union by submitting for processing the consideration of selected individuals in their employ for ordination to their respective executive committees for authorization. However, it does not allow for interference by either the Division or General Conference level in the action of the union.
Regarding discrimination in ordination, General Conference Working Policy B 60 10 states, “The world church supports nondiscrimination in employee practices and policies and upholds the principle that both men and women, without regard to race and color, shall be given full and equal opportunity within the church to develop the knowledge and skills needed for the building up of the Church. Positions of service and responsibility (except those requiring ordination to the gospel ministry*) on all levels of church activity shall be open to all on the basis of the individual’s qualifications.”
The asterisk refers to a note at the bottom of the page which reads, “The exception clause, and any other statement above, shall not be used to reinterpret the action already taken by the world Church authorizing the ordination of women as local church elders in divisions where the division executive committees have given their approval.”
This policy establishes two matters which bear on the issue of the current discussion of the ordination of women. First, the policy establishes that the position it takes is discriminatory. The issues of gender, race and color are delineated as being covered by this policy, but it then selects one of these, gender to be specific, as an exception to the policy, thus indicating that discrimination is acceptable in this instance. One can imagine the justifiable outcry if either race or color were selected as a valid reason for discrimination, which brings up the question as to why gender discrimination is acceptable and the others are not.
The footnote establishes the second issue relevant to the discussion. A major point in the argument against unions moving ahead with what is by policy their official domain of decision, is the call for unity in the world church. However, this policy indicates that the unity claim has already been officially breached among the divisions in the matter of the ordination of women as elders. As it states, this issue is to be decided by where “the division executive committees have given their approval.” Thus it already officially exists, in the context of the ordination of women, that the divisions have gone their separate ways by authority of the General Conference Committee action. This makes the argument of unity of no effect, given that it already does not exist by official sanction in the very area of the ordination of women as elders.
What is Unity?
The very sound of the word “unity” is such as to invite an automatic acceptance of the idea. How would anyone dare be opposed to unity. So, for the sake of the discussion, let us assume that we all are for unity in the church. But having made that assumption, the difficult task has only begun, as we must address what we mean by unity. The concept seems to exist that if we just abandon the pursuit of the ordination of women to the gospel ministry that unity will be achieved. But why is this a one-way street? Why is it not just as true that if we approve it, unity will be achieved? The reality is that unity is not achieved by everyone thinking and doing the same thing around the world, but rather by getting along with one another while we do many markedly different things as needed in our varied cultures and the diverse world. It is at this point that we understand that if the General Conference had not sought to enter areas that were out if its jurisdiction, we would be able to move ahead as needed in our respective areas, even as we have in the ordination of women as elders.
In the early days of the church, the Apostle Peter, quoting from the book of Joel states, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” Acts 2:17 & 18). And on the matter of gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit he asks, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us… who was I to think I could oppose God?” (Acts 11:17) As in the day of Peter, refusal to recognize the calling to ministry of women today is the same as telling them that their calling is not of God. Do we tell the hundreds or even thousands of women who have clearly blessed ministry in North America, or for that matter in China where the work of the church is being advanced primarily by women, that their call is not from God, or at least in some way inferior to the call men receive?
Conclusion: Where do we go from here?
First, we need to recognize that unions deciding whom to ordain without respect to gender is not a violation of policy, but the General Conference making that decision for the unions is. The General Conference needs to recognize its violation of policy and remove itself from usurping action from the union.
Second, we must admit that such discrimination, as recognized and approved in General Conference Working Policy B 60 10, is unacceptable, and we must face two embarrassing questions: (A) Why is it disunity to reject such discrimination in ordination practice? (B) Why is it unity to allow divisions to discriminate against ordaining women elders?
Third, how long must we continue to study this issue? Given that this matter has been under study for over 60 years, there are those who see the current action further stalling tactics by a body which has authority to advise on the issue but does not have the constituted authority to make the decision for implementation anyway. While the General Conference in session is recognized as the highest authority in the world church, it is not entitled to impose its actions on other levels of the church in which it does not have constituted authority.
Dr. Gary Patterson served as an officer of the North American Division of the General Conference and as a member of the GC administrative committee. He was the founding director of the Office of Mission Awareness for the General Conference.
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