UPDATE July 8, 2015, 6:15 pm CDT: Out of the 2,363 delegate votes, 977 were in favor of the motion. 1,381 were against. (41.3 percent were in favor). Thus, the status quo remains. Women ministers will still be commissioned per the General Conference action of 1990; and the unions retained the authority to decide on women’s ordination. The following article was originally published the day before the vote. It also contains important information that will help to make sense of what the vote means now and how the unions can move forward.
Jared Wright of Spectrum explained what the vote on women’s ordination actually means and what it does not mean.
On Wednesday (July 8), General Conference Session delegates in San Antonio, Texas will vote on what has been the most talked about (and perhaps least understood) issue in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in this quinquennium: ordination. For all of the discussion of the issue, many misperceptions of its significance persist.
Currently, women in the Adventist Church not only can and do serve as ministers, but they are also recognized by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists with ministerial credentials, as reflected in the Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook, the official record of denominational employees, produced by the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics and Research. The question of whether or not women may serve as ministers is not up for a vote.
The misunderstandings about what will happen on July 8 are pervasive, and have shaped both media coverage and many Adventists’ perceptions of the issue. So what will actually be decided? What will not?
Members of the 2014 Annual Council of the General Conference Executive Committee voted to ask delegates at the 2015 GC Session to vote on whether or not it is “acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to gospel ministry” (full text of the question here).
WHERE DOES AUTHORITY TO ORDAIN RESIDE?
Pacific Union Communication Director Gerry Chudleigh (who passed away on July 5, after a long battle with cancer) has pointed out that at the 1901 General Conference Session, with input from Ellen White, autonomous unions were created,
“[transferring] authority from the General Conference leaders to local leaders, and departments were created that transferred authority over such ministries as Sabbath school, health, temperance, religious liberty, publishing, mission appointments and education from independent stockholders to church leaders, including members, at all levels.
The unions, on the other hand, were created to act as firewalls between the GC and the conferences, making “dictation” impossible because:
Each union had its own constitution and bylaws and was to be governed by its own constituency.
The officers of each union were to be elected by their own union constituency, and, therefore, could not be controlled, replaced or disciplined by the GC.
Chudleigh’s careful analysis reveals that the authority to approve ordinations rests squarely on the shoulders of the church’s unions (See: “Who Runs the Church?”). [Others have reached similar conclusions.] This point means that whatever happens Wednesday, the vote will have a more symbolic than functional significance.
IF DELEGATES VOTE YES
If the General Conference delegates vote YES on the question, delegates will have signaled their agreement that divisions should, if appropriate in their territories, make provision for the ordination of women. Nothing more, nothing less.
IF DELEGATES VOTE NO
If the General Conference delegates vote NO on the question, functionally speaking, nothing will change. Unions that currently ordain women would continue to do so, and many more unions will likely join the unions that currently ordain women. This vote has no bearing on those facts.
WHAT THE VOTE WILL NOT DETERMINE
The vote will not determine whether or not women may serve as ministers. Nowhere in the question is any language to indicate that women may or may not serve as pastors, chaplains, or any other ministerial positions that may require denominationally-issued ministerial credentials. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has already decided in the affirmative, as noted above, that women may serve as credentialed ministers. Neither will the vote have any implications for ordained women elders or deacons within the Adventist denomination.
Because of the narrow parameters of the question posed to delegates, the vote cannot determine whether or not women may be ordained within the Seventh-day Adventist Church (this may be the biggest, most persistent misconception). There is no language in the question to suggest that women may be ordained or that they may not. A NO vote is not a repudiation or a prohibition of women’s ordination, and a YES vote does not require the ordaining of women.
Over the opening days of this General Conference Session, it has become clear that there is a sharp division among delegates over the issue of ordination, and although the discussion of ordination has not yet come up for discussion, several delegates have referenced Wednesday’s vote, with discussion at times becoming acrominious. It seems unlikely that the church will reach consensus on this issue, and the vote scheduled for Wednesday will make little practical difference, whatever the outcome.
Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org, where this article originally appeared, and is a member of the General Conference Session reporting team in San Antonio, Texas.
In addition to Jared’s insights, we would point out that women pastors were already fully authorized by the General Conference (as “commissioned” ministers) in 1990. For the past 25 years they have already been performing the same functions and have the same leadership role in the local church as ordained ministers. They will continue to do so, regardless of the vote on July 8.
Women pastors already go through the same kind of consecration ceremony with a laying on of hands. The only real difference is the word (“commissioned” instead of “ordained”) that is printed on their certificate after the ceremony.
There is no point in debating whether women should be ministers, because that is not what the delegates will vote on. When you boil it all down, the only real issue now is whether the individual world divisions can choose to call these female pastors “ordained” instead of “commissioned.” It is a matter of semantics, as Dr. George Knight explained on June 20.
There is no logical (or theological) reason to continue to discriminate between these two terms. The Spirit of Prophecy uses the terms “commissioned” and “ordained” interchangeably. They mean the same thing. There is no reason not to use the word “ordained.”
Ellen White made it clear that ministers receive “their commission from God Himself, and the ceremony of the laying on of hands added no new grace or virtual qualification.” It is simply a human recognition of God’s calling. (Acts of the Apostles, p. 161).
The General Conference Biblical Research Institute concluded 39 years ago: “If God has called a woman, and her ministry is fruitful, why should the church withhold its standard act of recognition?” (In other words, why call her “commissioned” instead of “ordained”?)
In the context of what will actually be voted on, it becomes clear that it is not a theological issue. It is a question of semantics, and there is no logical reason to continue discriminating between the term “commissioned” and the term “ordained.”
Dr. William G. Johnsson (retired Adventist Review editor) put it this way: “If God has given His stamp of approval to women in ministry [as seen in the General Conference policy of 1990], who are we to withhold official recognition?”