Around 2010 the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists requested to be allowed to ordain women in its territory. They argued that it was procedural and not doctrinal (as earlier studies had indicated) so would not need a formal action from the GCEC or a quinquennial session. When Jan Paulsen was reluctant to move forward at that time the request was renewed under the new administration of Ted Wilson. This request, small though it seemed at the time, was the small thing that led to the much larger issue of church governance that we face today. After GC leadership consulted with Legal Counsel, the Division was informed that they did not have the right to deviate from GC consensus. They were just an arm of the General Conference, their authority came from above, they had no constituency (a group of members who elect officials and give guidance). They were not free to make independent decisions.
When this decision was handed down, the lights went on at several unions around the world. Unions have constituencies, their authority flows up from below and they had the constituted authority to decide who could be ordained in their territories. So two North American Unions, first the Columbia Union (mid-Atlantic states) and then the Pacific Union (southwestern states), called constituencies to determine whether they should move forward in ordaining women. The GC president attended both meetings requesting that the constituencies not move forward on such an action. But both constituencies voted by a rough margin of 4 to 1 to move forward in ordaining women in their territories. Others in Europe and NAD voted to ordain, but wait to implement, or initiated creative solutions such as abolishing ordination or creating a new credential that both men and women could hold. General Conference leadership blamed the presidents for allowing such a vote. In their view union presidents are not only subject to their constituencies but also represent the world church and should exercise their authority subject to world church actions. In other words, union presidents have a dual role, they could have simply said, “It is not within my authority to allow this vote.” GC leadership believed that the union presidents involved had failed in their dual commission.
What all this was going on, the GC commissioned TOSC– the theology of ordination study committee and requested all to await its findings in 2015. But several unions refused to wait any longer. So the question arose as to how the world church should respond to these actions. While top leadership wanted to take significant action against the unions, many others preferred other options. So as a compromise, leadership agree to propose a “yes” or “no” vote at the General Conference in San Antonio (2015) on whether divisions could be allowed to decide ordination issues within their territory. After serious debate the measure was passed on to the 2015 session by the GECE in 2014. It was a grand compromise. Many hoped that if the delegates to the session (about 2000 from around the world) voted “yes” everyone could do what they thought the mission required in their territories and everyone would be happy.
I didn’t see it then and neither did anyone else, apparently. But this action would have led to an impasse either way. If the delegates in San Antonio had voted “yes” it would have violated the consciences of those who believed that ordaining women is a crime against the teaching of the Bible. On the other hand, a “no” vote violated the consciences of those who believe that treating women unequally is a crime against the clear teachings of the gospel. So a vote was set up in such a way that either result would create a crisis of conscience for a significant minority in the worldwide church. In retrospect, the action in 2014 appears to have been a serious mistake. A mistake that might be difficult to walk back. The “no” vote in San Antonio has kept us in crisis ever since.
In 2016 some top leaders proposed a “nuclear option,” to either replace the leadership of the unions that were ordaining women with leadership more amenable to the GC line or to disband the unions, set up new ones and ask churches, conferences and members to transfer their membership to the new entity. For legal and other reasons, the initiative failed, never even coming to GCDO or the GCEC. Instead a mild action of prayer, consultation and appeal was voted with the promise of a more severe response to come the following year. Then at the GCEC in 2017, a proposal was brought that would have required all GCEC members to sign a loyalty oath or be publically shamed and suffer the loss of voice and vote in the meeting. The action was seriously resisted by GCDO, passing only by a vote of 36 to 35. After vigorous debate, the attempt to discipline the non-compliant unions was sent back for further review, which is a mild way of saying that it failed. And so the impasse continued.