During the lead-up to the 2015 Adventist General Conference session in San Antonio, TX, several preachers, teachers, and scholars discussed the Adventist community’s approach to ordination.
The Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) and its regional subcommittees met over two years to thresh the questions. Their hope was that they would get to San Antonio with at least some consensus theology for the global collective to build on.
The North America Division’s report, for example, drew on the research of contributors across the US church and university network. It runs 240 pages long and includes articles from moderate Adventists like Dwight Nelson and Kendra Haloviak on leadership, authority, the priesthood, creation, and gender.
What it doesn’t include is a plain acknowledgement that contemporary denominational ordination isn’t “biblical”—neither modeled in the Bible nor mandated by the ethics of the early church. The international consensus statement conflates the ordination system with “public endorsement [from the Church] for persons who meet the biblical qualifications” or “[the Church] publicly recognizing those whom the Lord has called and equipped for local and global Church ministry.” It also buries the statement that “Over the course of Christian history the term ordination has acquired meanings beyond what these words originally implied.”
That acknowledgement was an outlier among the arguments that emerged during 2013 and 2014, often dropped in conversations and then run past. But J. David Newman made the most direct case for it.
Newman has argued that it’s inappropriate to debate ordaining pastors when modern pastoral ministry is discontinuous with the church roles described in the Christian scriptures, and the church has already allowed for the ordination of women deacons and women elders, two roles that are described in the Bible.
Though Newman’s position never found vocal advocates within the NAD, it seems to have persuaded some of his peers in Europe. Since the General Conference meetings denying world regions the autonomy to determine ordination policy for their own contexts, conferences in the Netherlands and Germany have continued to “lay hands” on ministers regardless of gender, and Sweden has abandoned the “ordination” category altogether.
Just a few weeks ago, however, while most of the US focused on the inauguration of No. 45, North American Division church officials met with the General Conference president to assure him of their continuing loyalty to the Adventist denomination. Other ministers have released their “ordination” credentials and sought “commissioned” credentials instead, the only kind the global church recognizes for its 3,500 women ministers.
“Non-doctrinal issues on which we have no consensus are not a basis for splitting the church,” church leaders reportedly told the General Conference.
Yet describing disparate treatment of employees on the basis of gender as a “non-doctrinal issue” is no way to end the disparate treatment. That description instead lowers the stakes and makes it less likely that Adventist community members will learn to see this as a problem that needs resolving.
This Bridge Called My Back was first published in 1981, a decade after the 20th Century Adventist church started reclassifying its women ministers. Co-editor Cherrie Monaga explains in the 2015 foreword that women are still marginal in US and global culture. Granting a few individual women exceptional treatment in this system doesn’t change the system’s nature because the underlying philosophy, ideology, and logic are still at work. All surface inclusion does is change the kinds of faces that enact and speak for the system.
The denominational discussion about ordination has been limited because discussants have preemptively committed themselves to saving the current structure. Regions of the world that have made the most emphatic progress despite this have been those that have worked around or replaced the category of ordained pastor entirely. We’d be much better off imagining a structure that’s just and doesn’t compel workarounds. For the sake of the employees still graduating into a two-tier workforce and members still acceding into a two-tier church, we’d be best off imagining differently.