In 1990 and 1995, delegates of the Seventh-day Adventist Church met in General Conference Session. On both occasions the church voted not to proceed with women's ordination. Even in 2010, the GC president polled leaders of the various world divisions, afterwards reporting a clear consensus that the church could not proceed with women's ordination at that time.
How is it then that only five years later, in 2015, there are multiple Unions acting unilaterally to ordain women? What happened?
In 2009 through 2012 we saw the leadership of the North American Division (NAD) continue attempts to bypass the will of the world church. General Conference Working Policy includes a section named E-60. In harmony with Scripture, E-60 designates which persons may serve as conference president. It clearly states that only an ordained minister may fill this role. The very language of E-60 makes it clear that the position of president has long been considered a headship role. In fact, the policy presents the president as one standing “at the head of the ministry . . . [and] chief elder, or overseer of all the churches” of that unit (GC Working Policy E-60). Thus, long ago, the church limited the responsibility of president to spiritually qualified males.
And yes, E-60 stood in the way of many in NAD leadership who desired to place women in executive roles. Therefore, the NAD made a request to the GC Annual Council to vote the Division a variance. Annual Council refused. This should have been the end of the matter.
It was not.
A month later, the NAD response to the denial of their request was to vote the removal of this limitation. They voted to modify the wording of the Division's own Working Policy. Under the new wording, such positions could be filled by an “ordained/commissioned minister.” Therefore, the NAD granted its own variance.
Had the GC not intervened in the matter, the NAD would have gained what the world church had refused in two prior General Conference session votes. By ignoring the NAD’s change of wording, the GC would have been derelict in duty and they would have been unfaithful to the remaining 12 divisions of the world church. And so, General Conference leadership patiently but firmly refused the NAD request.
NAD SEEKS LEGAL ADVICE AND THE GC RESPONDS
At this point, the NAD sought legal counsel and closely investigated the NAD standing on the basis of the Church Manual and Working Policy of the church. In due course the report came back: the NAD had exceeded its authority. Why? Because the NAD is part of the General Conference. Unlike its own Conferences and Unions, as the NAD president would point out, “Divisions do not have constituencies.” Therefore, the General Conference must vote changes at the Division level or no such change can be accomplished.
On January 31 of 2012, the president of the NAD sent a five-page letter to the 311 members of the North American Division Executive Committee. In this letter he outlined why the NAD was forced to abandon its self-voted E-60 variance. The NAD president said it was “a huge understatement” (p. 2), to say that the NAD leadership was perplexed about this outcome. With unflagging energy, he reminded readers that the “clear commitment of the members of the NADCOM to strengthen the role of women in ministry [had] not changed”. He went on to say, “It is of vital importance that we affirm the women clergy presently serving in our Division, and that we encourage women who may be called to gospel ministry in the future and that we enhance the understanding and unity of our membership regarding the role of women in the church”. In fact, he stressed, “this is a very significant matter that needs to be dealt with” and that the NAD should “move this matter forward” and “consider new approaches” (NAD president - letter to NAD Executive Committee members).
A NEW PLAN IS DEVELOPED
In his letter, the president reaffirmed that the Holy Spirit had led the committee and that the committee should not abandon their conviction. Then, interestingly, he suggested “the E-60 matter was allowed to make the progress it did” in order that “we can now develop our thinking with far more clarity and power than ever before”. In other words, here comes a new plan!
Part of the plan, as already stated, was to re-educate the members of the church. The president called for:
. . . the development of a theology that demonstrates the basic biblical and Spirit of
Prophecy foundations that emphasize not only the necessity of women in ministerial and leadership roles but also the theological mandate that they be active in specific roles. At the same time we must study the biblical and Spirit of Prophecy understandings of related issues such as the calling of God, justice, and equity” (NAD President, p. 3).
This is why the North American Division Report to TOSC, several months later, presented an extensive 240-page report. That document contained the root material planned for the re-education of North American church members, including you and me.
And yet, this was not enough. According to the NAD president, “the time has now come for us to become practical in our application of philosophy and belief” (NAD President, p. 3) How so? Remember, the fundamental point that prevented NAD leadership from carrying out its plan? “Divisions do not have constituencies.”
And so, the individual then standing at the head of the work in the North American Division, told the hundreds of members of his Division committee:
“The North American Division and its Unions and Conferences (as local circumstances permit) must become more intentional in the development of pathways to ministry for female pastors. We must also develop intentional methods of mentoring women who can take on executive leadership positions within our conferences” (NAD President, P.3).
Notice, the NAD president here calls for exactly what E-60 prohibits - namely, it calls for the premeditated development of a group of women who can take on executive leadership positions. This would include the position of conference president. The point for our special interest is that while the Division president pointed out on page 2, that Divisions do not have direct constituencies, on page 4 he calls for Unions and Conferences of the North American Division to be “intentional.” Indeed, pages 3-5 repeatedly urge that these matters be moved forward via new approaches. As the President says, “we must fully enable, recognize and utilize all who are called by God to serve as pastors and leaders” (NAD President, p. 5).
A NEW APPROACH CAUSES UNIONS TO SPRING INTO ACTION
What was the result of this official letter? Unions sprang into action.
Only 36 days later the Mid-America Union Executive Committee voted to ordain women. Similar attempts came as winter turned to spring in the North Pacific Union. However, that attempt was side tracked in a committee for a time. In the eastern part of the country the Columbia Union held a special constituency meeting on July 29 to approve “ordination without regard to gender.” Then, back to the west, and the Pacific Union repeated the show in Special Session August 19. With the onset of autumn, North Pacific Union announced it would educate its members and afterward hold a special session as Columbia and Pacific Unions had. Approximately one year following the President’s letter to the Division Executive Committee members, in October 2013, the Southeastern California Conference elected Ms. Sandy Roberts conference president.
Incited by the President’s letter, Union and Conference leaders in the NAD had bypassed and contravened the repeated decisions of the General Conference in session and ignored the earnest pleas of current General Conference leadership.
The current NAD president and his associates pleaded for NAD Unions and Conferences to act, and NAD Unions and Conferences acted. In short order, these leaders have destabilized not only their own Division, but have side tracked the whole world body.
While there is much more to say about the theological foundations of women's ordination and kindred issues, in a nutshell, this is basically how the present crisis developed from 2009-2015. Please continue to pray that God will give the General Conference leaders of His church wisdom and discernment in the weeks ahead.
BIOGRAPHICAL INFO: Larry Kirkpatrick serves as a pastor to the Deer Park and Chewelah churches in the Upper Columbia Conference in the North Pacific Union.