Surprise “third way” option emerges at final TOSC Meeting

Both sides can claim victory in the Theology of Ordination Study Committee. At the last minute, a “moderate” faction emerged that recognized a biblical principle of male leadership in the church, while arguing that, because male leadership is a guideline of church organization and not a “moral absolute,” it is waive-able for practical reasons of mission and expediency, and should be decided locally. Because of this “third way” faction, a clear majority of committee members acknowledged that there is a biblical ideal or pattern of male leadership in the church—a victory for those opposed to female ordination. But a clear majority were in favor of allowing female ordination to be decided on a union-by-union basis—a victory for those in favor of female ordination.

Those who assembled the Theology of Ordination Study Committee attempted to divide it evenly, recruiting about the same number in favor of ordaining women to ministry as those opposed. The committee also brought together the strongest advocates on both sides, including most Adventists who have written books and articles on the issue, as well as prominent preachers who have preached in favor of female ordination (Dwight Nelson, Randy Roberts) and against it (Doug Batchelor, Stephen Bohr).

Given the balanced composition of the committee, and the strong commitment of many of its members, it was never likely that a consensus would be reached. By the end of the first meeting in January, 2013, it was obvious to me that no agreement was possible and no consensus would be reached. By the end of the third meeting, in January 2014, it had become apparent that the committee would need to issue two reports for the church to act on, one in favor of female ordination and one opposed. These reports would be written between meetings, and the final meeting would be devoted largely to refining the two position papers.

On Sunday, June 1, as committee members arrived at the Maritime Institute near Baltimore, registered, and received their materials, they learned that three papers had been prepared. The third paper, “Seeking a Biblical and Workable Solution to the Women in Ministry Dilemma,” had been written by Nicholas Miller, a lawyer and Associate Professor of Church History at the Adventist Seminary, and David Trim, an historian and director of the Office of Archives, Statistics and Research at the General Conference.

The Miller-Trim paper stated, “we are persuaded that the Bible teaches that the office of ordained minister (the functional equivalent of the New Testament office of elder), with its gate keeping responsibility in the church—overseeing the implementation of church standards and discipline in relation to all members—should ideally be carried out by men.” But they argued that the gender criterion for church leadership is not absolute, and that Scripture provides a number of examples of God allowing modifications of His standards for the Israelites in relations to matters of leadership and/or gender. They cited the following examples:

  • A king in Israel—God wanted Israel to be governed by a combination of prophets, judges, and elders; He never wanted Israel to have a king. But when they demanded a king, God directed Samuel to anoint God's chosen candidate.

  • The Daughters of Zelophehad—Divine law provided for property to pass to men, rather than women, but when Zelophehad died without a male heir, Moses allowed the daughters to inherit.

  • Deborah and Barak—Deborah judged Israel, even though the ideal was male leadership, and even in war, when Barak was called upon to lead the armies of Israel, he wouldn't go unless she came with him.

  • David and the Moabite Restriction—in Deut. 23:3, God says that unto the tenth generation, no Moabite shall enter into the assembly, but King David's great-grandmother was Ruth, a Moabitess.

  • David and the Show bread—by law, the Show bread could be eaten only by the priests, but David ate it an emergency, and Christ approved.

  • The Jerusalem Council—the council's decision did not require uniformity; every Christian could decide for himself whether to be circumcised.

Nick Miller describes his "third way" option to the members of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee on June 2nd

Nick Miller describes his "third way" option to the members of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee on June 2nd

Miller and Trim argued that God's organizational ideals “should not be lightly or cavalierly disregarded. But neither should they be allowed to hinder the mission of God's church. . . . Organizational and ritual ideals, even those that point to abiding principles, are sometimes adapted to further these ultimate goals of salvation.” They concluded by proposing “that the world Church acknowledge the general ideal of male leadership in the office of the ordained minister, but that it also allow for flexibility where local circumstances may make that ideal difficult or impractical to implement to further the unity and mission of the church.” Their bottom line was that the issue should be decided at the union level, which is also the goal of the pro-female ordination faction.

A significant portion of the committee's time was devoted to meeting in caucuses. When the time came to divide into three caucuses, the groups were nearly equal, with a third of the members in the pro-female ordination caucus, a third in the anti-female ordination caucus, and a third in the caucus that I began merrily referring to as “the Millerites,” a play on the name of Nick Miller, one of faction's two leaders. About a dozen people caucused with the Millerites who did not ultimately vote with them in the straw poll take on the third day. I sat in on their caucus for about 45 minutes one day, and most of the time was spent arguing about whether male leadership in the church—the Millerites reject the term “headship,” accepting the argument that Christ is the only head of the church—was an “ideal” or merely a “biblical pattern.”

After the dust settled, it was clear that the “third way” was mainly a combination of elements of the other positions. The Millerites largely agreed with the biblical interpretation, i.e., the hermeneutic, of the anti-female ordination caucus, while completely agreeing with the proposed solution of the pro-female ordination caucus: a local, union-level option for female ordination.  The only unique element was their argument that the Bible authorizes exceptions to the general rule of male leadership in the church.  Several members noted that, because the Millerite option was presented only in the final meeting, this one unique element of their position had not gone through the same vetting process as the other positions.  If a couple of conservative scholars had been assigned to critique the claim that the Bible allows for exceptions to the male headship rule, the committee would have been better able to form a judgment as to the merits of this claim.

At the end of the meetings, a straw poll was taken, and results were as follows:

  1. Egalitarian purists (pro-female ordination) – 40
  2. Male headship purists (anti-female ordination) – 32

  3. Millerites (male leadership ideal; local option female ordination) – 22

The headline depends upon how one aggregates the votes. A clear majority—54 to 40—believes that the Bible teaches an ideal of male leadership. But the news being trumpeted in the church's liberal precincts is that an even larger majority—62 to 32—believes that unions should be allowed to independently decide the issue of female ordination.

In the coming months, church administration will be carefully considering the committee's reports and papers. A committee of presidential advisers known as PREXAD will review the material, then a larger committee of General Conference Division Officers, after which the General Conference Executive Committee, meeting at the Autumn Council, will decide what is ultimately to be submitted for a vote by the church in General Conference session in 2015 at San Antonio.

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