This past Sunday, a special constituency meeting of the Columbia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists voted to authorize the ordination of women. Despite the pleas of General Conference President Ted Wilson, who was present at the meeting and spoke twice, the vote was not even close: 209 to 51. More than eighty percent (80%) of those present and casting votes voted for the motion to authorize ordination without regard to gender. A number of thoughts occur to me in light of this extremely lopsided vote. 1) The fight over female ordination was lost, in principle, when the church allowed females to be ordained as elders. The scriptural principle of male headship in the church (which is the main reason not to ordain women) was totally eviscerated by this compromise. The fight over female ordination was lost, as a political matter, when women were hired as pastors to do jobs indistinguishable from those done by men, and given a ceremonial confirmation (commissioning) indistinguishable from that given to men. These compromises rendered the refusal to ordain women politically indefensible.
2) The calls for unity, issued by the division heads at the GC some weeks ago and by Elder Wilson personally at this meeting, were unavailing. The world church must articulate a scriptural reason, a doctrinal principle, for opposing female ordination. The mere fact that divisions representing 85% of world membership do not want to ordain women will not suffice to prevent the divisions representing the 15% from doing so. For Adventists in North America, Europe and Australia/NZ, the fact that Adventists in Chad or Zambia are not ready to ordain women is not a good reason why we shouldn't do it. This argument has been made and has failed. Principle must be met with principle, and “unity” is not a principle. If unity were an overriding principle, then we would all still be Roman Catholics; basing faith and practice upon the Bible is more important than unity for unity's sake. If there is a principled basis for opposing female ordination, the church must articulate it.
3) The church has been studying this issue for 40 years; the idea that the church needs yet another study to understand Bible truth is risible, and was, in fact, ridiculed at the CUC constituency meeting. (Potomac Conference President William Miller stated, “One of our favorite pastimes as denomination is to commission another study.”) Ted Wilson knows how the SDA Church works at the highest levels, and he has concluded that another study will be helpful, perhaps as a parliamentary maneuver to prepare the issue for a church-wide vote at San Antonio. But there is no need for another study to see that there obviously is a doctrine of male headship in Scripture. Biblically, this is not a close question, but a closed question. We instinctively defend Sabbath-keeping, but the New Testament authority for keeping the Sabbath is insignificant in comparison to New Testament authority for patriarchy, for male headship in the home and in the church.
4) Although the doctrine of male headship is clear in Scripture, it is an issue that divides liberals and conservatives. Liberals wish to ignore the doctrine, whereas conservatives would uphold it. Studies by panels of “experts” and “theologians” merely reveal who is liberal and who is conservative. Liberals will always conclude that the verses pointing to patriarchy and male headship in the church are culturally conditioned and hence may safely be ignored. Conservatives will always conclude that it is not safe to brush these passages aside, if only because we will soon be brushing aside every verse in conflict with today's culture (most immediately with respect to homosexuality). Ultimately, the question is whether this is a liberal or a conservative church. I had assumed that the SDA Church was a conservative church, but, in light of this lopsided vote, the best that can be said is that the Adventist Church in North America is conservative on many issues, but has blind spots on important biblical issues, such as human sexuality and sex roles.
5) If the church is going to reverse the vote of the Columbia Union constituency (and the upcoming vote of the Pacific Union constituency) the only way forward is to draft a fundamental belief regarding male headship in the church and bring it up for a vote at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio. Only if there is an actual, bona fide, doctrine of male headship, which is violated by female ordination, can the church in North America and the developed world be brought to heel. It isn't too late to win this struggle, but it is too late if Ted Wilson and other conservative church leaders believe that appeals to unity, or appeals to wait for yet another study, can stop the momentum behind female ordination. I know that Ted Wilson wants to uphold Bible truth, and liberal machinations during the Paulsen tenure have left him in a weak position. But we cannot wait two more years to start making the biblical case for male headship in the church. We have to start promoting this doctrine now, while many Adventists are still open-minded on the issue. Most of those who are still willing to accept a doctrine of male headship in the church are now in other parts of the world, not in North America, but we had better start supporting them with Scriptural arguments now, not in two years.
6) It is important to emphasize that the vote in the Pacific Union on August 19 is not limited to the question of female ordination. The vote in the Pacific Union would alter the bylaws of that union, so that the union's working policies need not always be in compliance with the working policies of the GC and the North American Division. In effect, the Pacific Union is giving itself the right to ignore the world church, not just on female ordination but on any issue it chooses. Because this involves a change to the bylaws, the motion must carry by a two-thirds majority. (As we have seen, the motion in the Columbia Union carried by much more than two thirds, but that motion was limited to the issue of ordination.) My sense is that most of the delegates to the August 19 meeting are unaware of the sweeping nature of this change. If you know a delegate to this meeting, please make them aware that they are deciding whether to give the PUC effective carte blanche to ignore the world church whenever it wants to.