The Seventh-day Adventist denomination’s 60th General Conference meeting now in San Antonio, TX, includes a vote on whether any of the 13 worldwide divisions of the church may provide for women’s ordination to ministry. I wrote about this conversation earlier this year—and the vote will occur on Wednesday, July 8.
It’s big. Yet a number of commentators are beginning to argue that it’s not big at all.
Laura Ochs Wibberding told Adventist Today readers that because the church’s ordination policy does not include a gender requirement, “No policy change is needed to ordain a woman. No rule of the church prevents it.” Jared Wright, managing editor of Spectrum Magazine, published an explainer on Monday about the language and implications of the question that GC delegates will consider Wednesday. He argues that, whatever the results, “the vote will have a more symbolic than functional significance.”
To remind you: at last October’s Annual Council meeting, church administrators approved the following question. Officials have framed it as providing each division with the option to “decide for itself whether to ordain women”:
Whereas the unity for which Jesus prayed is vitally important to the witness of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and;
Whereas the Seventh-day Adventist Church seeks to engage every member in its worldwide mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ among people from every nation, culture and ethnicity, and;
Whereas various groups appointed by the General Conference and its divisions have carefully studied the Bible and Ellen G White’s writings with respect to the ordination of women and have not arrived at consensus as to whether ministerial ordination for women is unilaterally affirmed or denied, and;
Whereas the Seventh-day Adventist Church affirms that ‘God has ordained that the representatives of His Church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference Session, shall have authority,’
Therefore, the General Conference Executive Committee requests delegates in their sacred responsibility to God at the 2015 General Conference Session to respond to the following question:
After your thorough study of the Bible, the writings of Ellen G White, and the reports of the study commissions on ordination, and;
After your careful consideration of what is best for the Church and the fulfillment of its mission,
Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? Yes or No.
The “reports of the study commissions on ordination” that this question refers to are available in full on the General Conference Archives website. Read them. I’ve also summarized all three major doctrinal positions, as well as an outlier fourth, here on this site.
Though several administrators have claimed the vote is not about doctrine but about policy, the ordination commission reports all address doctrine, and the question references those reports. The denomination’s 14th Fundamental Belief also remains background material for decisions about both the doctrine we teach and the policy we use to organize the church. The Adventist church has always insisted that its organizational structure and processes are divinely guided, not merely incidental or managerial. So I’ve never found the doctrine-policy distinction very compelling.
Further, even if Wednesday’s vote is largely symbolic, that does not mean it’s insubstantial. That female ministers may be ordained and affirmed as such in more than three union conferences around the world is deeply significant to many, many members—and not just in North America or Europe. Whereas the female ministers I know have been diligent about their individual work regardless of the denomination’s resistance, I’ve not yet met anyone under 40 years old who doesn’t already see and balk at what not ordaining without regard to gender tells members, ministers, ministers-in-training, and the general public watching the entire show.
[Younger members] don’t see what the big deal is. They do not understand why we’re still talking about this in a time where—y’know, we’re a hundred years past suffrage for women… I have a lot of older women come to me crying, ‘I felt the call of God on my life, but the people around me just wouldn’t have it, so I’m living vicariously through you’… It just wasn’t something that we thought we could do, and now [my sister and I] are pastors, and we’re trying to speak to the younger generation but it’s definitely hard. —Pastor Andrea King, 16th Street Seventh-day Adventist Church, San Bernadino, CA
Whatever else this vote might be, and however the denomination chooses to move forward, the one thing the GC’s question doesn’t allow for is a mandatory worldwide ordination policy: it simply creates room for those world regions that would like to recognize union ordinations to do so without hindrance. This very modest ask is precisely why this “symbolic vote” is significant. These are challenging times, and there is no good reason for the church to make its own ministers’ work that much more challenging.