General Conference 2015: Back to the Future

As everyone who cares knows by now, on October 14 the Annual Council approved the following question for submission to the 2015 San Antonio General Conference Session delegates:

After your prayerful study on ordination from the Bible, the writings of Ellen G. White, and the reports of the study commissions, and;

After your careful consideration of what is best for the Church and the fulfillment of its mission,

Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? 
Yes or No

So the delegates will be asked to vote on whether to allow each division's executive committee to decide whether or not to ordain women. Does that sound familiar? It certainly should, because that is exactly what the 1995 Utrecht GC session decided. Here is the language that was put to the GC delegates at Utrecht:

The General Conference vests in each division the right to authorize the ordination of individuals within its territory in harmony with established policy. In addition, where circumstances do not deem it inadvisable, a division may authorize the ordination of qualified individuals without regard to gender. In divisions where the division executive committee takes specific actions approving the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, women may be ordained to serve in those divisions. 

This measure was voted down, with 673 favoring the language and 1,481 opposed. So the 2015 San Antonio GC session will vote on the same issue that was resolved in 1995: whether division executive committees can chart their own course on female ordination. The 2015 General Conference will go back to the future, back to 1995. I guess history really does repeat itself. But didn't Elder Wilson tell us in his inaugural address to “go forward, not backward”?

Why are we submitting the same question to the 2015 GC that was settled in 1995? Weren't the GC delegates at Utrecht guided by the Holy Spirit? Why does there need to be another vote on the same question? Well, the Pacific Union and the Columbia Union (and the Dutch and North German unions) have decided to go ahead and ordain women anyway, contrary to the decisions of the 1990 and 1995 GC sessions. But should that act of rebellion earn them “another bite at the apple,” another chance to win approval for the local option on female ordination? What kind of message does that send: Defy the world church, and the world church will meekly allow you another opportunity to carry the day?

Beyond sending a message that undermines sound church government—rebel and you get another bite at the apple—next year's vote will not settle the issue of female ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This is a doctrinal issue, and it can only be resolved doctrinally. The only path out of the present morass is for the church to clarify its doctrine regarding the role of women in the church, which can only done at a General Conference Session.

Proponents of female ordination argue that the issue is not doctrinal but ecclesiological, a matter of church practice (a predicate to the argument that mere details of church practice need not be uniform within the church, but may vary from place to place). But this issue is both doctrinal and practical, and the doctrine should determine the church's practice. What one believes the Bible is saying about sex roles in the church ought to determine what one believes the practice should be. This principle is clearly illustrated with regard to the Sabbath; if one believes that the Fourth Commandment is still in effect, and the solemnity of the Sabbath has not been transferred to another day—a doctrinal belief—then one will also believe that the church should meet and worship on the seventh-day Sabbath—a church practice. Doctrine determines practice, and that is also the case with the role of women in the church.

Proponents of female ordination are absolutely correct, however, when they argue that there has never been a vote on the doctrine of this issue. In Indianapolis in 1990, the delegates were asked to accept a recommendation of the 1989 Annual Council that women not be ordained. The 1989 Annual Council's recommendation was explicitly based on the pragmatic grounds of church unity, not on Bible doctrine. The recommendation stated:

  1. While the commission does not have a consensus as to whether or not the Scriptures and the writings of Ellen G. White explicitly advocate or deny the ordination of women to pastoral ministry, [there is still an important role for women in ministry].
  2. Further, in view of the widespread lack of support for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry in the world Church and in view of the possible risk of disunity, dissension, and diversion from the mission of the Church, we do not approve ordination of women to the gospel ministry.

The delegates at Indianapolis overwhelmingly endorsed the Annual Council's recommendation, 1,173 in favor, 377 opposed. Opponents of female ordination cannot honestly argue that those delegates were voting on a biblical doctrine of sex roles in the church when the  recommendation was explicitly based upon the practical ground of church unity.

But appeals to church unity ring hollow in the Protestant culture of Seventh-day Adventism, in which Martin Luther is lauded and authority flows from the Word of God, not from church councils. In a church such as ours, it is far past time for a biblical, doctrinal resolution of this issue. I assumed, when in 2012 I was asked to serve on the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, that the committee's purpose was to lay the groundwork for a theological/doctrinal resolution of the issue at the 2015 GC session. A doctrinal resolution could be achieved by allowing the delegates to select one of two doctrinal summaries, such as those below:

Option One:

Although Jesus had many female followers (Mark 15:40-41; Luke 23:27-30), He chose twelve men, males, as His specially ordained disciples to lead His church on earth (Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; DA 290-297). When lots were cast to replace Judas within the twelve, both candidates were men (Acts 1:12-23). The office of episkopon (“bishop,” “overseer”) is to be filled by a sober man who is the husband of only one wife, and a wise and effective father (1 Tim. 3:1-7). Similar criteria are specified for the office of presbuteros (“elder”) (Titus 1:5-9). The husband is the head of the home (Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1), and capable leadership of the family is a prerequisite to leadership in the church. (1 Tim. 3:4) Moreover, Scripture expressly teaches that in the church, women are to learn in submission (1 Cor. 14:34-35) and are not to hold positions of authority over men (1 Tim. 2:11-14). Accordingly, since gospel ministry in the SDA Church is comparable to the biblical office of bishop or elder, the Church does not ordain women to that office. 

Option Two:

Scripture provides examples of women exercising the spiritual gift of leadership, including the prophet Miriam (Micah 6:4), the prophet Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20; 2 Chron. 34:22-28), and Deborah, who was both a prophet and a judge, exercising spiritual and civil authority over men (Judges 4:4). Paul tells us that, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Paul affirmed women leading out in the church, such as Euodia and Syntyche who “labored side by side” with Paul in proclaiming the gospel (Phil. 4:2, 3), Phoebe, a “benefactor” and a “deacon” in the church of Cenchrae (Rom. 16:1-2), and Junia, who was “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7). Paul's letter to Timothy regarding the church in Ephesus addressed issues specific to that time and place, and should not be read as barring women from gospel ministry in the modern world. Accordingly, since neither the Bible nor Ellen White prohibits the ordination of women to gospel ministry, the SDA Church ordains women to that office.

Dear delegate, after prayerful study of the Bible, the writings of Ellen G. White, and the reports of the study commissions, please endorse either “option one” or “option two” as the doctrine of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Make no mistake: the proponents of female ordination do not want this question settled doctrinally. The pro-female ordination caucus at TOSC did not want a vote on doctrine; they wanted a vote allowing local divisions and/or unions to decide the issue locally. They do not want a vote on what Scripture is teaching. Such a vote would highlight their un-Adventist hermeneutic (the “principle-based, historical-cultural” hermeneutic), and hence would be very difficult to win. All they want is permission to ordain women, to fill the pulpits with female pastors, to get folks accustomed to the practice of female leadership in the church. That's why they have forged ahead with their program, even contrary to voted GC policy.

If there were a vote on doctrine, such as the one proposed above, the pro-female ordination crowd would have everything to lose. A vote in favor of Option One would make male leadership in the church the official, Bible-based doctrine of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and thus repudiate the liberals' hermeneutic and destroy their movement. It would be a high-stakes, meaningful vote that would determine the theological direction of the church for the foreseeable future.

But thanks to Ted Wilson and his committee's recommendation to Annual Council, and Annual Council's approval of that recommendation, in San Antonio there will be no vote on the doctrine of this issue. The pro-female ordination caucus will avoid facing a vote that, if they lost, would settle the question against them on biblical grounds. Instead, they will get another vote on allowing division executive committees to approve female ordination in their divisions, a question settled against them in 1995. If they can stave off a vote on Bible doctrine, they can keep having a vote on local variations in practice every couple of GC sessions until they finally win that vote.

So the conservative Ted Wilson has set up a vote that, if the conservatives lose, will give the liberals what they asked for, but if the conservatives win, will merely reiterate the 1995 vote that the liberals have already ignored with impunity. I believe Elder Wilson's heart is in the right place, but he has been completely outmaneuvered on this issue. 

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