Disappointment with the San Antonio General Conference Session

Last weekend was spent at the Calimesa SDA Church Retreat at Pine Springs Ranch in the San Jacinto Mountains of southern California. During the Sabbath School time the teacher was addressing the weekend’s theme of “When Things Don’t Turn Out. . .” He was addressing how we should respond when things don’t turn out the way we expect, personally, in local communities, and worldwide. He invited me to be prepared to say something about the General Conference Session and the big thing that didn’t “turn out” there, the vote to give official endorsement to divisions of the church to consider mission as a key factor in decisions regarding women’s ordination. Time ran out before I was able to speak, but I thought my notes there might be useful or encouraging to someone here. My apologies if this blog is annoying to those who might disagree with my conclusions.

Let me begin with the history of ordination. While the word “ordination” appears in the King James Bible, that English word comes from the Latin, it is not found in the New Testament. Ordination as we know it developed gradually over the early centuries and became fixed in the Middle Ages. Ordination of women did not occur then on two grounds: 1) the Bible nowhere required it, and 2) no one had ordained women before, so tradition supported the Bible’s silence on the question. These two reasons also sufficed for the Adventist pioneers, who adopted male ordination from their previous churches. This was not a theological act but a practical one, providing credentials to those who spoke for the church. When I entered ministry in the early 1970s, the traditional situation remained in place and the lack of biblical clarity meant I was neutral to negative on the question when calls to ordain women began in the 1970s.

In the years since, society in many parts of the world has completely changed on the role of women. In the 1950s nearly everyone assumed that some roles should be filled only by men: physician, soldier, lawyer, fireman, police officer, truck driver, President of the United States, and airplane pilot, to name only a few. In more and more places today, women fill virtually all roles in the work place except for ministry in churches like ours. Absent a clear “thus saith the Lord” on the matter, a tradition was threatening to present the church as completely irrelevant to society in many parts of the world.

So I took a fresh look at the Bible in light of the new situation. Acts 15 provides encouragement to do that. The earliest church believed that the Bible (the Old Testament at the time) taught circumcision as an unchanging requirement for salvation. But God’s providence in their experience led them to re-read the Bible and open the way for uncircumcized Gentiles to participate in the church. Things that once seemed obvious from their study of the Bible were no longer so in light of the Spirit’s leading. In my own fresh look at the Bible it dawned on me that the Bible nowhere asks the question “Should women be ordained?” It doesn’t address the issue directly. That means that the “answers” people were finding on both sides of the issue lacked the clarity of direct speech from God. Why doesn’t the Bible address the issue directly? What does that tell us about God? Evidently God never addressed the question in Scripture because He could live with the situation as He found it (male ordination). It was not the most important thing to challenge people with in those days. God addressed people on issues when they were ready to hear it (John 16:12) or when the mission required it (Acts 10-15).

This was the conclusion of the majority of members of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee. For many it was a change of mind. They learned that the Bible does not settle the matter in an absolute sense. Where mission requires it, women can be ordained. Where mission suggests that ordaining women would harm the church in a particular society, it should probably not be done. There were holdouts on both sides who believed the Bible clearly forbade or required universal women’s ordination, but the clearest trend of Bible study was in the direction of mission being the determining factor in any part of the world. That meant the world church allowing local jurisdictions to decide what was the best approach for their areas. This was not a pro-women’s ordination conclusion, it was a pro-mission conclusion. And it seemed to me that this was the only reasonable outcome at the General Conference session in San Antonio (July, 2015). I realize that there are many on both sides who still disagree with me on this. And I affirm them as brothers and sisters who have the same right I do to study and seek the mind of God on this question. Where God has left room for differing opinions, we dare not cut each other off.

Having said this, the denial of the TOSC conclusion and process in San Antonio was heart-breaking for many of us. I was heartbroken for the many women who felt the action showed disrespect to their perception of a call from God to do ministry. I was disappointed for those parts of the world who felt distrusted when their local judgment on the matter was rejected. I felt distrusted and disrespected when my earnest attempts to bring reason into the discussion were summarily dismissed with assertions and condemnation, rather than collegial debate.

But I realize that in the ultimate scheme of things my disappointment and that of others does not matter all that much. If I am right about Scripture and about God, God has been waiting a long, long time to see His people come to their senses on many issues. He has been waiting a long, long time to see healing of the divisions in the universe. He has been waiting a long, long time to see the ministry of women being affirmed by us in the same way He affirms it. If that is true, things in San Antonio didn’t turn out for God either. . .

15 thoughts on “Disappointment with the San Antonio General Conference Session

  1. Betty Moon

    I appreciate your perspective

    A recent theme for spiritual growth in my life is the idea that we tend to elevate certain types of traditional ministry over other personal ministries and I believe the church suffers for it. Pastoral ministry, mission service etc, are highly valued . Those are seen as important and we are encouraged to support those those doing God’s work, especially full time.

    I think it hurts us because all of are called by God and given gifts and talents to use for Him… If in our minds we could see equal value in the ministry of using whatever we love and are good at for God’s glory, we could encourage much more lay ministry and outreach.

    I am good at sewing and God is giving me more and ways to bless others and use it for Him, but the church does not gather round to pray for this or a mother’s ministry to her children in the same way we recognize pastors or teachers or missionaries

    I think this could change if we thought about it… If we grasped the value of this, we could create a church culture and community of people supporting each other in their various day to day living for Jesus ministries . This is likely to only help the full time workers as well.

    Regarding ordination, I wonder if this elevation of some ministries over others hasn’t contributed to the difficulty.

  2. Reimar Vetne

    Wise words, Dr. Paulien. I was also really disappointed, both with the anti-mission outcome of the GC vote (our church deciding that it is still not urgent to get all decks on hand to complete our task), and the lack of careful collective Bible study on that Wednesday in St Antonio. But as you say, God has more experience being disappointed with His people than I do. I have to learn patience.

  3. Kevin Hellerud

    May I disagree with the idea that the Bible does not deal with the issue of women’s ordination. That the “Bible Study” used did not dig deep enough into the text, the history and culture. We know of some Rabbinical comments and we assume that these comments were the common understanding of the time. We read these comments into the Bible, both old and new testaments. However the evidence is that the spirit of those comments only started about 200 years before Christ and does not reflect the Old Testament.

    Also, from those statements we assume that all Rabbis were men. But now we know that there were indeed women rabbis and that there was a bit controversy over having women as rabbis with the conservative schools such as the school of Shammai wanting to CONTINUE women rabbis and liberal schools such as Hillel’s wanting Jews to STOP ordaining women and to start the NEW attitude towards women reflected in the quotes with which we are familiar. Becoming more aware of the debate and the culture we find that Jesus and Paul show which side of the debate they are on. For more information may I refer: http://www.biblicalresources.net/product.cfm?product=58

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      Kevin, I am open to reasoned argument such as you have given. I need to get better acquainted with women and the rabbis, I had not heard that in all my studies. That doesn’t make it wrong, but it does call for further study.

  4. Eddie Ngo

    A well balance approach to this difficult subject, but it did give me more light and historical background. However if a person male or female is called by the Lord to serve, who are we to disagree that we should not recognise the individual man or woman.

  5. Susan fleming

    Thank you for this thoughtful reflective essay. I so appreciate the gentle tone….we’ve seen too much pain reflected in anger on both sides of the issue. I think you would very much appreciate hearing Gary Vendon’s series from Redwood campmeeting 2015. God bless you.

  6. Clifford Owusu-Gyamfi

    Elder Paulien, that was a good reflection. I’ll refrain myself from the theological content to the voting process. The motion went wrong. Now where is our position on WO? Is it on the theory that it’s non-biblical or non-practical, or both? If our church is to dispose theological discussions before delegates at the GC sessions, then how credible or accurate would that conclusion be? As far as I’m concerned, some of the delegates are clueless about theological methods and tools. To me, it was a pain for an elder with an accounting background to decide a theological issue for our church. The TOSC, more professional and spirit-filled came to a conclusion to allow Divisions to decide. This should have ended the matter. Delegates would have had only one option, thus, on practice (not theory), either to effect it now or not. But as things went, delegates were voting on theory of ordination of women whether it’s biblical or non-biblical, which in my opinion was a complete failure and embarrassing to our theologians.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      Excellent summary. Most people find it difficult to distinguish between what the Bible says and what their context needs it to say. Thus practical issues become theological, even though there is no convincing theological argument.

  7. Nathan L Krause

    Thank you for this thoughtful reflection on the issue. I share your concern regarding the lack of collegial debate in the church today. It seems that our behavior is resembling what is so common in national/global politics these days: disregard opposing views, dig in your heels to maintain your position and shout with more volume and passion to reinforce how right you are and how wrong others are. This approach only creates further division rather than promoting unity.

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