A subdued crowd of delegates and observers left the General Conference 2015 business session at the Alamodome Wednesday, some with slight smiles, some with looks of sadness, some in silence while others talked earnestly. It was a serious end to a day packed with briefings and deliberations about one subject—women’s ordination.
In a 1,381 to 977 decision, the church voted down the motion to allow division executive committees, as they may deem appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry.
Wednesday morning before the vote, one could easily see the rise in attendance on the delegate floor and in the stands beyond. Some estimated there was two times the crowd than at some of the other sessions.
Vice President Michael Ryan chaired the session and introduced the item of “theology of ordination” to the body of delegates. Speaking to the assembly, Ryan said the church recognizes this item is not new, but “a road we have walked before.”
Noting there were differences of opinion, Ryan spoke of the “special spirit” present in the Annual Council in 2014 when the General Conference Executive Committee had this item place before them. Ryan attributed this spirit to the assembly taking time to ask for the Lord’s presence. Ryan urged that respect be shown to those who differed. He asked delegates to refrain from applause after comments. He then warned against speakers directing comments towards others during discussion, encouraging everyone to address him when they took the microphone, and speak to their own opinion rather than that of someone else.
Before opening the floor for discussion, for the benefit of delegates who may not know as much about the issue, Ryan invited President Ted Wilson to more fully introduce the agenda item.
Wilson indicated that the entire day was set aside for this issue, with much of it reserved for discussion. He expressed a “heartfelt desire” that the Holy Spirit control all of what took place that day. Wilson asked that no one would “use parliamentary process to cut off debate,” “table the item,” or “try to amend the motion” because he said, “a very careful approach has been taken to place this motion before the body.” He also strongly acknowledged “delegates have the right to do what they would like,” and said, “every delegate is to vote his or her own conscience after study and listening to the impressions of the Holy Spirit.”
Next President Wilson gave a brief history of the agenda item.
“The General Conference in various committees have studied this subject since the early seventies,” he said. “During the General Conference Session in 1990, specifically on July 11, 1990, the session addressed the question as to the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, responding to a recommendation that came from the 1989 Annual Council that the church not move ahead with that process. The 1990 General Conference Session delegates voted and agreed with that recommendation and the current position that we have was maintained. In 1995 the issue was again addressed at the General Conference Session in Utrecht, Netherlands. On July 5, 1995, the General Conference Session received a request from the North American Division that was passed on to the session . . . There was no recommendation from the 1994 Annual Council to the General Conference Session. It was simply to pass on a request from one of the divisions, the North American Division, that the General Conference invests in each division the right to authorize ordination of individuals without regard to gender. The 1995 General Conference Session decided not to accept the request, and to maintain the current position of the world church.”
Wilson described the forming of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) as a result of the plea of a delegate at General Conference Session 2010 in Atlanta. TOSC’s reports and consensus statement were given to the Annual Council of 2014, Wilson said, from which the motion arose for it to be taken to the General Conference Session 2015.
“This is important that you understand . . . The motion which was passed at the Annual Council coming here is a non-weighted, neutral question,” Wilson said. “It’s a non-neutral, non-directional question, a neutral question upon which you must decide yes or no … the General Conference Session owns this question, having considered it twice in the past.”
Citing the absence of the Urim and Thummim, hovering cloud in the tabernacle, pillar of fire, and a living prophet in our church today, Wilson said, what we have is what the Spirit of Prophecy indicates.
“When the General Conference is in session,” Wilson said, “it has authority, and in some cases, it indicates highest authority… I pledge to you today, that whatever this body votes, after prayerful consideration and review, one way or the other, I pledge to uphold that decision. I ask each of you to do the same. We need to be open to what God wants.”
Wilson closed his introduction with a reiteration and a charge.
“Your discussion and your decision will be based upon your personal study of the Bible, the spirit of prophecy, related materials, the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “There is an enormous mission and role ahead for God’s remnant church. That role is opening before us as we take our prophetic place in history to proclaim Revelation 14 and Revelation 18, which I might indicate was one of the chapters for us to read today in Revived By His Word. We are to proclaim the loud cry of the third angel, and accompanied by the fourth angel. Let us unite in Christ and His John chapter 17 wish that we may be one in him to accomplish his final plans for the salvation of humanity. Through the Holy Spirit’s power, He will use you and me as a united church. Arise, Shine, Jesus is coming!”
Vice President Artur Stele soon gave a brief report of TOSC and the various biblical research committees and announced that the consensus theology of ordination statement would be read to the delegates. He mentioned three different positions discussed in TOSC, summaries of which would be read to the group.
“This issue has the potential to distract us from the actual work we are called to,” Stele said. “And so . . . the world out there is dying without the knowledge, without the living bread, and we are here sitting on the bread continuing to argue who should deliver the bread to the dying world … Let us decide very quickly on the issue, and let us go about the mission of our Father. Let us not disappoint our Father.”
Ryan then introduced the reading of the synopses of the three positions that emerged as options from TOSC, which were read by Secretary Karen Porter.
Position 1 was against the ordaining of women to the gospel ministry. Position 2 supported the ordaining of women to the gospel ministry. Position 3 acknowledged the headship of man found in the Bible, but was for the ordaining of women to the gospel ministry where divisions deem it appropriate or necessary.
A special time of prayer followed the reading of the positions.
Ryan asked Executive Secretary of the General Conference G.T. Ng to read an introductory statement, placing the question before the delegates. Ng read previous actions on the issue by two previous General Conferences and eventually posed the question to be voted on that day:
“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?”
After Ng finished reading, Ryan asked for clarification so everyone could clearly understand.
“If someone votes ‘yes’ on this question what does that mean?” Ryan said. “And if someone were to vote ‘no’ on this question, what does that mean?”
Ng thanked the chairman.
“Yes means the opposite of No,” Ng said.
The audience laughed.
“’Yes’ means that the division executive committees are authorized by the world church, if they so desire, to ordain women to the gospel ministry within their own territory,” Ng said. “If the majority of the world church votes ‘no,’ that means divisions are not authorized by the world church to ordain women to the gospel ministry in their territory. That means the current church policy continues as they have been, and they are not to ordain women . . .”
Over a dozen people had already lined up at one of the microphones to speak. Each speaker would speak for a maximum of two minutes. Those needing translation would be allowed three minutes. Delegates for and against the motion would speak alternately.
North American Division Representative Ray Hartwell spoke in favor of women’s ordination, using as support Ellen White’s ordination by God and her statement that women should be pastors in the Testimonies to the Church. Hartwell referred to women receiving the Spirit in Joel 2 and suggested we may not be honoring God if we do not permit divisions to ordain.
Another North American Division Representative John Brunt was in favor of the motion. He compared withholding ordination from women to separation of Africans from whites in Southern Africa.
South American Division representative Carlos Steger spoke against the motion and affirmed the unity of the church. He quoted John 17:17 that says “sanctify them by thy truth.”
“We cannot have unity if we do not have truth,” Steger said.
The proposal to allow divisions to ordain would disunite the church, Steger said, and we would not be united by biblical truth.
Inter-European Division Representative Frank Hasel spoke against the motion. He urged prudence, warning against treating it as a fundamental belief. He asked how to protect the freedom of those who had a conscientious objection to female ministers and pointed out that those for women’s ordination do not have the same conscientious objections to male ministers as those objecting to women’s ordination.
North American Division Representative Larry Geraty said that the “so-called mission fields now comprise 90 percent of church membership” and appealed to the Global South members for missionary help to the NAD for church growth.
“[Those who] have ordained men . . . have already accommodated to modern custom without biblical authority,” Geraty said, “because there is no biblical basis for ordaining men as we practice them. There are many examples of the Global North being willing to accommodate customs of the Global South in our worldwide church . . .”
West-Central Africa Division Representative Uchechukwu Nwadike spoke against the motion.
“Jesus is the truth, the way, and the life,” Nwadike said. “If Jesus is the truth, He practiced the truth, He did the truth, He taught us the truth, and so if Jesus is the truth, and did not ordain any woman to the gospel ministry, and that is truth, we should follow the truth and nothing but the truth, and it shall be well with the church.”
Others spoke before the lunch break, and when the break arrived and people were still in line, they were promised their places would be kept.
North American Division representative Bradford Newton spoke after lunch in favor of women’s ordination on the basis that it is best for our youth, our need to evangelize, and to submit to each other.
General Conference Representative Mario Veloso said that in the many years he had participated in these committees, the arguments for the ordination of women had not changed.
“Accept the same way of reading the Scriptures, not having two different ways,” Veloso said. “One, the biblical. The other, cultural. We need to stick with the Bible.”
North American Division Representative Marc Woodson expressed his fear that many are elevating the issue to a testing truth. He said it wasn’t, and urged that unity is not uniformity.
General Conference Representative Doug Batchelor spoke against the motion, briefly giving his testimony of searching for the true church and how he found the Seventh-day Adventist church. He said that fulfillment of the Spirit falling in Joel 2 does not require ordination and noted successful soul winners of both genders that Amazing Facts trains in its school of evangelism. Batchelor warned if the church has two theologies of ordination, it will send a message of confusion to the world.
“We’re living in very interesting times, with same-sex marriage and transgender bathrooms,” he said. “Our culture is awash in gender confusion, and I think this is not time for us to get fuzzy about what the differences are between men and women, which I believe is very clearly defined in the Bible.”
Batchelor suggested we consider that other churches have accepted women’s ordination and have had their mission negatively affected.
Inter-European Division Representative and conference president in Belgium Jeroen Tuinstra spoke in favor of women’s ordination and said he was “just trying to keep this church real.”
Tuinstra had earlier spoken in favor of accepting homosexuals in church fellowship as well as those in heterosexual live-in relationships.
“Reality in my part of the world is that God is calling women to the full ministry and leadership,” he said.
Tuinstra told of a young lady who felt the call of God to be a pastor and cried because “her church saw her as less capable, as less called.”
Euro-Asia Division Representative Guillermo Biaggi shared reasons for his convictions for a ‘no’ vote.
“Decided not to challenge or question the Lord on what he has not revealed, or has revealed,” he said. “It would be better for our church to have one body of ordained pastors for all the world, and not to have different bodies of ordained pastors by divisions. We need to learn of the experience of other Christian churches that had decided this question in a positive way and later they have followed with undesirable and unethical decisions.”
Biaggi concluded it would be difficult to explain to other Christians that Adventists are a Bible-based church if they voted ‘yes’ on women’s ordination.
For the rest of the afternoon, arguments expanded and recapitulated familiar sentiments.
North American Division Representative Jay Gallimore spoke of the divine order God outlined at creation with special roles for both male and female.
“It is to that divine order that the apostle Paul appealed when he reserved the office of elder for a man,” Gallimore said. “He was directing the church into the same order established at creation, the sanctuary, and Jesus’ twelve apostles … the gifts of the spirit, of which pastoring is one, are given to everyone, including children. Children may have the gift of spiritual nurture, as well as men and women, but the office of overseeing the church and the family is reserve for men.”
If the body voted ‘no,’ Gallimore said, “a large portion of North America will bless you.”
North American Division Representative Roscoe Howard spoke in favor of the motion.
“Culture is so pervasive that we cannot get away from it . . . culture invades everything,” Howard said.
North American Division Marvin Ray noted that while the membership of North America has become a minority in the world church, its finances remain a majority. Thus he asked the Global South to give the minority understanding and compassion.
“As you were being formed and growing, we strove to give you the tools and understanding within your culture,” Ray said, asking that variance be allowed to divisions if the motion did not passed.
He said that if this were not done a ‘no’ vote would be both divisive and destructive.
North American Division Representative Louis Torres spoke to the issue of conflict within divisions on this issue. He pointed out that the Guam/Micronesia mission of the NAD, which is very evangelistic, is not in support of ordaining women. He noted that other conferences in the NAD are not in favor as well. Torres said that the Spirit of God was using women evangelistically in his field without them being ordained.
The chair then invited former President of the General Conference Jan Paulsen to address delegates.
Paulson said because a ‘no’ vote would “cause rupture and serious damage to our global church,” the church should vote ‘yes.’
He pointed to his leadership roles for most of fifty-five years in the church.
“For the record, the spirit that guided me during the years when I provided leadership for the church did not leave me when I left office,” he said. “I believe that I know this church . . . well. I know what it is that holds us together.”
Paulsen then spoke directly to African delegates, asking they trust church leadership, assuring them of his love and investment in Africa. Paulsen’s statements were not well received by some of the African delegates, who could be heard protesting his comments directed at them.
North American Division Representative Jim Howard addressed some of the comments regarding Ellen White.
“Ellen White uses the term ‘pastor’ and the term ‘pastoral labor’ to refer to anyone who exercises the spiritual gift of pastoring, the nurturing of the flock through personal visitation and ministry,” he said. “Ellen White describes pastor’s wives and even church members doing pastoral labor, but when speaking of the office of minister, Ellen White writes, ‘The primary object of our college was to afford young men an opportunity to study for the ministry, and to prepare young persons of both sexes to become workers in the various branches of the cause.’”
He noted that Ellen White here in Testimonies volume 5 p. 60 identified young men for the ministry, and persons of both sexes for other branches of the cause. Howard then quoted Testimonies volume 5 p. 597, saying, “Those who enter the missionary field should be men and women who walk and talk with God. Those who stand as ministers in the sacred desk should be men of blameless reputation.”
Ellen White was making a distinction in both of those places, Howard said, also speaking to the problem of assuming that divisions within themselves were united on the issue. He said this “is simply not the case. In the North American Division there is a sharp divide on this issue.”
General Conference Representative Natasha Neblett spoke against the motion.
“If the division has not acknowledged all the convictions within their own division, how can we anticipate that they will appreciate and be considerate of the convictions of the world church on other issues, when we have once set a precedent that each locality can decide for itself?” She said. “I am a young woman, a young adult, an ethnic minority, and the leader of one of the largest youth movements in Adventism . . . God has already called me to work for Him, and that is all the calling I need. While people recognize my work as president of the young adult conference, they should give more recognition when I become a wife next February and a mother after that, since the Spirit of Prophecy says, that that position is higher than the minister in the desk, and the king on his throne. We should focus on giving that the dignity and honor that it deserves. I say ‘no’ to the question and ‘no’ to dividing the church.”
Ryan gave President Wilson the opportunity to speak. Wilson asked for the clock to be set to two minutes like the rest of the delegates.
“With all humility and with respect I speak to my brothers and sisters,” Wilson said. “Most of you know already where I stand on this issue. I humbly submit that my views are rather well known, and I believe very biblically based. Plainly said, but I will not refer to them after this. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand. I have heard the angst and the emotional deep feeling by so many. I think we all hold these views rather strongly. But let me give you a very strong, pastoral appeal. I believe we need to stay together as a church in making a united decision, not separately. We have had a fair and open process. Our real challenge for the future, Brother Chair, is to maintain a sweet spirit. After the vote is when we really will be tested, whichever way it goes. I want us to focus on the mission, and upon evangelism and not continue agitation on either side for this issue. The mission of the church is so precious to all of us. We have been entrusted with the proclamation of the Three Angels Messages and today we are reading Revelation 18, the fourth angel. My dear Brother Chair and the rest, I will be praying. Let us stay together.”
At 4:30 p.m. discussion was closed. Several attempts were made to postpone the decision until the next day, which were unsuccessful. Delegates voted by secret ballot.
The motion failed.