The most important Adventist Bible study conference in more than 30 years got underway last week. The Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) held its initial meeting January 15th through the 17th, as committee members from all over the world converged on a hotel in Maryland. It was widely felt that this study would be the most noteworthy such convocation since Glacier View in 1980, and might be remembered as being of similar significance to the 1888 General Conference Session. TOSC was conceived of after a delegate to the 2010 General Conference Session suggested that the church conduct a comprehensive study of ordination. GC President Elder Ted Wilson took the idea for a comprehensive study group to the GC Administrative Committee in September, 2011, and the idea was approved. TOSC will meet three more times, four times in all, with the objective of reaching consensus on a theology of ordination and as to whether women may properly be ordained to the gospel ministry. The study will be concluded in the summer of 2014, and a report provided to the GC Executive Committee for review at Annual Council in the autumn of 2014. The Annual Council will then decide on any items to be referred for action to the 2015 General Conference Session.
What did not happen with TOSC is more newsworthy than anything that has happened thus far: There was no attempt to bias the outcome of the committee's study by packing its membership. It appears that the membership is roughly equally divided between those in favor of and those opposed to female ordination. Moreover, the most articulate advocates on each side have been included. Prominent Adventist preachers in favor of (Dwight Nelson, Randy Roberts) and opposed to (Doug Batchelor, Stephen Bohr) female ordination are on the committee. Prominent Adventist scholars and theologians in favor of (Richard Davidson, Angel Rodriguez, Jan Barna, Darius Jankiewicz) and opposed to (P. Gerard Damsteegt, C. Raymond Holmes) female ordination are on the committee. There are female pastors who have already been ordained (Chris Oberg, Kendra Haloviak Valentine) as well as accomplished lay women (Kathryn Proffitt, former telecom executive and U.S. ambassador to Malta; Doris Gothard, former General Motors executive and lay church leader; Carol Zarska, founder of an independent ministry on the sanctuary). A complete list of committee members can be found here.
Not only does the larger committee strongly reflect both points of view, the smaller executive or steering committee also seems to be about equally divided: Davidson and Rodriguez are in favor of female ordination and Damsteegt and Fagal are opposed. Those tapped to present papers at the initial meeting also appeared to be about equally split. The committee is expected to pray and study its way to a consensus without a human thumb on the scales predetermining the outcome.
All this is in marked contrast to the procedure followed by the two rebellious unions last summer. They enlisted their tithe-supported union news magazines to argue in favor of female ordination, without presenting any contrary viewpoints. Then, at the special constituency meetings, only the arguments in favor of female ordination were presented. (Elder Wilson was allowed to speak at both meetings, but his comments were limited to church unity and order; he did not speak to the merits of female ordination.) I am told that the rabbit was put in the hat with regard to delegate selection, as well. After such a carefully choreographed process, the outcome of the votes was never in doubt.
In view of the two unions' one-sided procedure, and their rudeness toward Elder Wilson (the infamous “point of order” interruption), I would have followed the same procedure, to the opposite purpose: pack the committee with those opposed to female ordination, present only the anti-female ordination side of the issue, force a vote, and then present the results to Annual Council and the 2015 General Conference Session. But Ted Wilson is a better man than I am. If he was ever tempted to implement such a cynical strategy, he did not act upon the temptation. To the contrary, he wants and expects a full and fair hearing of the issue, with the strongest advocates on both sides involved in the process. He recognizes that the church must work through this issue with Bible study and fervent prayer. That he is able to put aside personal views, and even personal slights, and act only in the best interest of the Seventh-day Adventist Church impresses me that he is God's chosen leader for this time. I have immense respect for him.
Back to TOSC's initial meeting last week. Each day began with a devotional and a season of prayer. There were about six opportunities for prayer each day; typically, we prayed in groups of two or three, followed by a closing prayer from a microphone. The first day's devotional was presented by Mark Finley, who told a deeply moving story about forgiveness in the wake of the Rwandan massacres of 1994. Elder Wilson gave us our commission, and committee chair Artur Stele outlined the procedure we would be following. The steering committee decided to devote the first meeting to preliminary issues, such as hermeneutics, and the study of ordination itself, without regard to whether women can be ordained or to what offices.
The first paper was titled, “Dealing with Doctrinal Issues in the Church: Proposals for Ground Rules,” by Paul Ratsara and Richard Davidson. There was an opportunity for comments from the floor after each paper was presented. After lunch, William Fagal, who has perhaps the most beautiful speaking voice I've ever heard, presented a paper on, “The Proper Role of Ellen G. White's Writings in Resolving Church Controversies.” Next, Mario Veloso presented a paper titled, “Hermeneutic—A case of Biblical Understanding.” This paper was not in finished form, and seemed redundant in light of the 1986 Rio Document, the Seventh-day Adventist Church's approved statement of its scriptural hermeneutic.
Dr. George Reid, who was at the Biblical Research Institute in 1986 and was involved in drafting the Rio Document, answered questions about it. The final paper of the first day was, “Ellen G. White on Bible Hermeneutics,” presented by Dr. Damsteegt.
Day two began with a devotional by Kendra Haloviak Valentine, who teaches New Testament at La Sierra University. With the preliminaries regarding basic hermeneutics and Bible-study methods out of the way, the committee turned to the question of ordination itself. David Trim, the outstanding historian of Seventh-day Adventism, presented a paper on “Ordination in Seventh-day Adventist History.” He pointed out that this conference is the first time that we, as a church, have ever considered the theology of ordination. Darius Jankiewicz presented a paper titled, “The Problem of Ordination: Lessons from Early Christian History,” which showed that, within a couple of centuries of the apostles, ordination had become synonymous with authority to administer the sacraments, and in later Catholic practice came to convey irrevocable spiritual infallibility. Dr. Damsteegt then presented a paper on “The Magisterial Reformers [Luther and Calvin] on Ordination.”
After lunch, Angel Rodriguez presented a paper titled, “Towards a Theology of Ordination,” around which, it was hoped, the committee could form a consensus. Many wanted to comment on this paper, and it was eventually decided, after much fervent prayer and several suggestions regarding a way forward, to divide into five discussion groups of roughly 20 people each. This was done, and the sub-committees met and discussed suggestions as to how the consensus document could be improved. This took up the remainder of the day.
The third and final day of the conference began with a devotional by Joel Musvosvi, followed by more prayer, after which each group presented its suggestions as to how the consensus paper could be improved. Dr. Rodriguez had taken a minimalistic approach to the selection of Scripture passages for inclusion, limiting himself to those passages discussing the laying on of hands; hence, a common suggestion of the discussion groups was to broaden the paper to include Bible passages relating to setting apart to, and qualifications for, religious offices, regardless whether such passages mention the laying on of hands. There were quite a few other suggestions. The paper was to be revised after a prayerful review of the suggestions, and it is hoped that the committee will be able to reach consensus on a revised paper on the first day of the next meeting, which will be held this summer. Once consensus is achieved on this paper, the committee will turn to the more contentious issue of female ordination. After concluding remarks and announcements by Artur Stele and the steering committee staff, and a concluding devotional by Geoffrey Mbwana, the meeting was adjourned.
One of the most rewarding aspects of a conference of this type is the opportunity it provides to visit with other members of the committee. I was blessed to be able to visit with Dwight Nelson on the drive from the airport to the hotel, to share a meal with Doug Batchelor, and to chat with Elder Wilson about the work of the church in far flung locales such as Japan. I had a wonderful visit with Darius Jankiewicz, one of our scholars who is currently teaching at the seminary; we are the same age and crossed paths in Warsaw, Poland, in 1980, when my father's choir from Southwestern Adventist University visited that city and sang in several Adventist Churches. It was a pleasure to visit more extensively with Kevin Paulson, with whom I have often sparred online (although we agree far more than we disagree). I was also blessed to be able to visit with some dynamic Adventist lay women, including Carol Zarska, Doris Gothard, and Kathryn Proffitt. These opportunities for personal interaction are undoubtedly the nicest thing about such convocations. I am grateful beyond words for this opportunity to be enriched by association with so many thoughtful and accomplished brothers and sisters in Christ.
Note: Committee chair Artur Stele has noted that all papers presented are considered drafts subject to revision until the committee completes its work and submits its final report, after which time they will become public. He has therefore asked committee members not to disseminate the papers themselves. Since I am not at liberty to release the papers, please don't ask.