I interrupt the “guest blog” series from Graham Maxwell and Lou Venden to offer up some thoughts on how my mind has changed or stayed the same on the issue of women’s ordination. Hopefully these thoughts will have some value as the Seventh-day Adventist Church approaches a fateful Annual Council on October 5-11. As the two sides in this crisis harden their positions, I have considered, for the first time in my life, the possibility of a significant church split and it saddens me deeply.
In this context, let me review where I was in San Antonio (2015) and how my mind has changed since then. For forty years (since 1975), the best theological and administrative minds in the church studied the subject of ordination and the role of women in the church. While some were convinced the Bible supported women’s ordination and others were convinced that it opposed it, many or most of us drew the conclusion from all this study that the Bible never actually addresses the question. It neither mandates nor forbids the practice. I know that Seventh-day Adventists on both sides will disagree with me, but their honest disagreement actually helps make my point. I believe I was and am on solid ground in this assertion, as it was voted by the Annual Council in 2014.
Another area of consensus concerned the meaning of ordination itself. The same vote asserted that ordination is not the conferral of special powers, nor a superior position in a hierarchy. It is simply the conferral of representative authority. When we ordain someone, the church is essentially saying, “You speak for us, we trust you to represent us wherever you go.” And such a conferral of representative authority is necessary in a worldwide church. The church can’t have every Tom, Dick and Harry claiming to speak for it. It has the right to confer that authority on those it trusts. Hence the tradition of ordination.
The problem with that position is that ordination doesn’t really mean a whole lot in contemporary terms. When the church hires someone to preach, male or female, they have as good as ordained them already. No church entity hires a pastor they don’t know and trust to some degree. To hire a person and pay them out of tithe money confers representative authority. So the vote of the Annual Council in 2014 denied that ordination has “magical powers” that should be limited to select groups, ordination is simply a public recognition that a person speaks for the church. In saying all of the above I do not assume that every voting delegate read and/or understood the action and its implications. But it was voted as the consensus of church leadership, and I support that consensus.
In light of those actions, I came to the conclusion that the only logical step left was to encourage a “Yes” vote in San Antonio (2015), allowing divisions of the church to decide on the basis of mission whether or not to allow ordination of women in their territories. Since some Adventists’ consciences compelled them to ordain women and other Adventists’ consciences forbade them from ordaining women, a Yes vote seemed Solomonic to me. Let each church, congregation, conference, union and division consider carefully whether ordaining women would enhance or detract from the mission of the church in their local areas. Let each area of the church follow its conscience on these matters. No need to split the church on a matter that the Bible did not either mandate nor forbid. It made perfect sense to me. It was a win/win solution, like Acts 15. Everyone gets to follow their convictions and their conscience (Rom 14:5). No one loses. The mission of the church wins. But I was wrong. I had completely overlooked one or two really important realities that change everything in my mind. I think I now understand why a “No” vote has led us into such difficult circumstances. I now believe a “Yes” vote would have been equally problematic. Why? Let me explain.
In large parts of the church, particularly in the southern hemisphere, conscience not only compelled people to keep their churches and local regions from ordaining women, it was for them a matter of conscience that women should not be ordained anywhere in the church. It was something like Achan in the camp. To ordain women anywhere was to bring God’s curse on the church everywhere. A “Yes” vote would have violated their consciences just as much as a “No” vote has violated the consciences of others in the church. In other words, the problem was with the vote itself. It was a win/lose situation. Whether the vote was Yes or No, someone would lose, someone’s conscience would be violated. This was a tragic reality that I did not see at the time and I suspect neither did most of those who voted to set up this choice in 2014 (its passed with some 85% of the vote).
Is this clash of conscience intractable? Is there no way to maintain the unity of the church in the face of its diversity on matters of conscience? I think not. A second insight I have recently come to may point the way to a resolution of the impass. Most people who favor the ordination of women do not do so because they believe women need the “magical powers” that ordination will provide. They realize ordination is one way for the church to determine its authorized representatives, nothing more. What is a matter of conscience to those who favor women’s ordination is treating women equally, as is enshrined in the 14th Fundamental Belief of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In light of this Fundamental, to ordain men and not women is to create an unbiblical inequality. But ordination in itself is not an overwhelming value, particularly in the West. That is evidenced by a number of male pastors who have requested Commissioned credentials, even at some potential cost to themselves financially, in order that they have no advantage of position over women.
It seems to me that there is room for negotiation here. It is possible to honor the consciences of all. What exactly that solution is would come from the kind of listening to each other and praying together that the Annual Council action of 2016 called for. One possibility is the Scandinavian approach. They dropped the terms “ordination” and “commissioning” for a Scandinavian word that means something similar but does not have the biblical and historical overtones that make “ordination” discussions so problematic. Since the Scandinavian unions are not coming under discipline for this action, it seems leadership may see some possibility of a middle ground here. Those compelled to ordain who they wish would be free to do so. Those who want to treat women equally would be free to do so. The church would stay united. The mission would move forward.
I have no idea exactly what is going on among church leaders in the run up to Annual Council. I have no idea what will happen there. But experience has taught me that while the leadership of the church DOES make mistakes (witness the many rebukes of church leadership when Ellen White was alive), the collective wisdom of church leadership tends to correct itself and end up in a wiser place. I trust my leaders to do the right thing, all of them. Let’s hope that they will hear each other and the voice of the Spirit next month. Let’s pray for the Council. And above all else, let’s pray that regardless of the decisions made there, Adventists will not lose their faith in God and their fellow believers.