A Need for Accurate Information on Women’s Ordination Though I had attended both the 1990 and 1995 General Conference [GC] Sessions, somehow, over time my memory of the actual votes taken regarding women’s ordination had become fuzzy and confused. It was only since mid-2012, and in the midst of the expanding debates on this matter that I went to the recorded minutes of those pivotal GC sessions to consider what was voted, and on what stated basis the decisions were made.
In connection with the current discussions on “ordination” I have repeatedly attempted to publicly point out that I am 100% committed to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, its 28 Fundamental Beliefs, including its officially voted positions regarding women in ministry. In other words, the question of the ordination of women either as local elders or to the gospel ministry is not simply an individual matter to be decided by me, personally; but, the question of “ordination” is a matter to be decided on by the Church, in its officially called meetings.
Hence, I am uncomfortable with the recent votes by unions that have taken positions contrary to the official position of the Church. The vote by these unions is a cause of disunity in the body of Christ. However, just as much as I am against such unilateral actions, I am equally uncomfortable to the positions taken by various independent organizations that are actively opposing the official and authoritative vote taken by our Church that women can be ordained as local church elders.
In fact, during the most recent discussions regarding women being ordained as pastors, a personal friend contacted the office of the President, Elder Ted N. C. Wilson, to delve into these matters. Regarding the 1984 vote (to permit women to be ordained as local church elders), Elder Wilson’s personal assistant informed my friend as follows: “The decision to ordain women elders is separate and it still stands. Women pastors is a different item. The decision voted at Annual Council or at the General Conference is of equal weight.” [This understanding and interpretation of church policy is in our Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (2010 edition, p. 31).]
Perhaps because the 1990 GC vote was such a lengthy statement, and maybe because these decisions were taken so long ago, much confusion seems to exist as to what was actually stated at this Indianapolis GC Session as well as at the one in Utrecht in 1995 regarding the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, and especially what the basis for these votes was.
1990 GC Session on Women’s Ordination to the Gospel Ministry In order to clarify this, the entire voted 1990 statement is outlined first, together with an added emphasis in bold, so as to highlight that this was not evidently seen as a permanent decision (and hence included the words “at this time”). Apparently, this was because it was recognized that the decision was based on pragmatic grounds (i.e., due to “widespread lack of support,” and to avoid the “risk of disunity, dissension, and diversion from the mission of the church”), and not from a consensus as to what Scripture teaches. In fact, the now retired Biblical Research Institute Director, Dr. Ángel Manuel Rodríguez accurately captured this when he stated: “The church has not taken an official position on the biblical support (or lack of it) for the ordination of women to the ministry.” (“Can We Talk?” Adventist Review, October 2010). Here is the 1990 vote:
Voted, To accept the following report and recommendations of the Role of Women Commission as recommended by the 1989 Annual Council:
The presidents of the world divisions of the General Conference reported to the commission on the situation in their fields with respect to the ordaining of women to the gospel ministry. In several divisions there is little or no acceptance of women in the role of pastors, ordained or otherwise. In other divisions some unions would accept women as pastors, but indications are that the majority of unions do not find this acceptable. However, in the North American Division there seems to be wider support for the ordination of women.
The division presidents also reported that based upon extensive discussions, committees, commissions, surveys, etc., there exists the probability that approving the ordination of women would result in disunity, dissension, and perhaps even schism. Hence the presidents came to these two conclusions:
- A decision to ordain women as pastors would not be welcomed or meet with approval in most of the world church.
- The provisions of the Church Manual and the General Conference Working Policy, which allow only for ordination to the gospel ministry on a worldwide basis, have strong support by the divisions.
The General Conference and division officers present at the commission concur with the conclusions of the presidents. The commission having listened to the arguments and presentations for and against the ordination of women; having sensed the needs and concerns of the world field; having carefully considered what is probably best and the least disruptive for the world church at this time; and recognizing the importance of our eschatological mission, the witness and image of our spiritual family, and the need for oneness of and unity in the church, reports to the 1990 General Conference session upon the recommendation of the 1989 Annual Council the following results of its deliberation:
- 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, it concludes unanimously that these sources affirm a significant, wide-ranging, and continued ministry for women which is being expressed and will be evidenced in the varied and expanding gifts according to the infilling of the Holy Spirit.
- 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 vote was – In favor to not ordain women: 1,173. Opposed: 377].
1995 GC Session Vote on Divisional Autonomy In 1995 at Utrecht, the GC session voted to keep the world church united, thus denying the North American Division’s [NAD’s] request to ordain women pastors in its territory. In brief, again as Rodríguez has so aptly stated: “It has simply voted against leaving the decision up to each world division.” (“Can We Talk?” Adventist Review, October 2010). Here is the actual complete voted statement (which, it must be noted, once again does not provide any biblical passages or specific scriptural principles denying the request regarding the ordination of women to the gospel ministry). Notice that the focus once more was clearly related to the matter of whether or not the global Adventist Church would allow for any individual division to go its own way, or to remain united on this matter (i.e., the issue was unity, not Scripture per se):
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. [The vote was – In favor of divisional autonomy: 673. Opposed: 1,481].
1984 GC Annual Council Vote on Women as Local Elders To fill out the picture regarding women as spiritual leaders in the Adventist Church, there is a need to record what was voted in 1984. Here is the full text of 272-84GN, the 1984 General Conference Annual Council action, regarding women as local elders (and, once again, it can be seen that there was a major focus on the unity, this time, that of the local church):
WOMEN (LOCAL CHURCH) ELDERS: ELECTION AND ORDINATION VOTED,
- To reaffirm the Spring Meeting action on the General Conference Committee of 1975 Role of Women in the Church (GCC 75-153).
- To advise each division that it is free to make provision as it may deem necessary for the election and ordination of women as local elders.
- To suggest that the following guidelines be used in the selection and ordination of women as local church elders:
- The concept should be carefully examined, discussed, and properly accepted at the local church level.
- If a church contemplates such an action, the entire matter should be discussed and approved by the conference committee after the conference administration has sought counsel from the Union leadership. The negotiation between the church and the conference should occur in advance of the final decision and vote by the local church.
- The action to elect and ordain a woman as a local church elder must not be taken unless a clear consensus exists that the ministry of a woman elder is desirable and even essential to the spiritual well-being of the local church family. It should also be the consensus of the church that a woman elder will be respected as a spiritual leader and soulwinner. The church should also express its belief that there are dimensions of spiritual service and counsel which cannot be properly fulfilled by a male elder.
- A clear majority of the voting members of the local church must be in favor of the action. The matter should be considered at a specially called church business meeting. Every church member should be given the opportunity to vote on this issue rather than only the few who might be present at a regular meeting where routine items of business are on the agenda. Although preliminary study could be given to this question by the church board, any final action should be taken by the church in a business meeting.
- Whatever the decision of the church. It should result in unifying the members and not be the source of divisiveness or alienation. The body of Christ, the church, must not be tarnished in any way. In this important issue, as in all things, the name of our Lord and Saviour must be exalted.