Responses to Questions from Readers

In the June and July issues of the Pacific Union Recorder, we reported that the Pacific Union Executive Committee has voted to authorize the ordination of pastors without regard to gender, and that a special constituency meeting will convene on Aug. 19 to amend the union bylaws to clearly permit this. Since these reports, several people have responded, mostly through e-mail messages to Pacific Union officers. In the next few pages, the officers summarize the questions received and provide information that they hope readers will find useful.

Q: Why has the Recorder published only arguments supporting the ordination of women as pastors and given no space to other opinions?

A: During the last half century the Seventh-day Adventist Church has adopted several policies with which some loyal and faithful Adventists disagree. For example, church policy states that deaconesses (female deacons) should be ordained, that women can serve as local elders, that women can be ordained as local elders, that ordained local elders can perform baptisms and weddings and conduct communion services, and that called and qualified women can serve as pastors. As a result of these official church policies, more than 120 women currently serve as pastors in North America, including some who serve as senior pastors of large churches. Even though most of these women pastors are not ordained (but are instead commissioned) as pastors, they perform all or most of the functions of ordained pastors.

Because the Seventh-day Adventist church is committed to following the Bible without compromise, the church didn’t adopt these policies without first studying what the Bible says. In 1973, for example, the General Conference asked the GC Biblical Research Institute to assemble a team of Bible scholars and pastors to study what the Bible teaches about the place of women in ministry. That group of 13 men and 14 women reported at Annual Council that, “We see no significant theological objection to the ordination of women to church ministries.” Through the years, other committees have consistently reported similar findings. In 1977, Gordon Hyde, director of the BRI, reported: “The above observations, tied to the work done over a period of several years by the BRI and an associated study committee, provide the consensus of those involved that there is neither theological mandate nor objection to ordination of women to any level of responsibility for which ordination is indicated.” 

The world church never officially accepted or rejected the views of Scripture reported by these study committees, but the policies the church has adopted, as listed above, are clearly in agreement with the findings of those study committees.

And that is where differences of opinion arise. These policies of the church are contrary to the ways that some Seventh-day Adventists interpret Scripture. Some members and pastors would like the church to reverse several of the current policies regarding women in ministry. And they would like any church body that discusses the role of women in ministry to re-study the Bible and to arrive at different conclusions than those reached by previous study groups.

If the Pacific Union Executive Committee had voted to challenge the policies and re-examine the theology upon which the church has based its policies on women in ministry, then the Recorder would have reported both sides of those discussions. But the Pacific Union Executive Committee did not do that. They voted to apply the existing policies consistently to all pastors, in order to utilize all of God’s gifts to finish His work. It was clear during the discussions of the Pacific Union’s Ordination Study Committee that committee members were familiar with the biblical arguments for and against ordaining women. The study committee agreed with the policies the church has adopted regarding the place of women in ministry, and the executive committee voted 42 to 2 to take the next step in applying those policies.

From some of the letters received at the Recorder office, it is clear that this approach is disappointing to people who wanted the union to re-examine the church’s policies and understandings of Scripture.

Because many people are interested in the Bible arguments used during the previous few decades of debate, this issue of the Recorder includes a very brief snapshot of the biblical discussion. If these samples whet your appetite for more biblical studies on women in ministry, we have provided a link to a website where you can pursue the topic further.

Q: Will a positive vote at the special session enable female pastors to receive the same pay as men and to conduct weddings, funerals and baptisms?

A: In the Pacific Union, all pastors with similar assignments are already paid equally, regardless of gender. Men and women pastors receive the same salary, medical insurance, parsonage allowance, retirement benefits, and all other areas of remuneration. Also, women pastors are already authorized to conduct funerals and weddings, baptize, conduct communion, and do just about everything thing else a male pastor does.

The church manual lists two things an ordained minister can do that a commissioned minister cannot: ordain local elders, deacons, and deaconesses; and form, disband, or merge churches. But in North America, the conferences form, disband, and merge churches, not individual pastors. And in most local churches in the Pacific Union where women currently pastor, the conference already authorizes them to ordain local church leaders. So if the constituency approves the bylaws changes that have been suggested, there is really nothing that most female pastors will start doing that they are not already doing. There may be a few who will be able to begin ordaining local leaders, but this is a very small part of a pastor’s work.

Q: But women cannot now be elected as a conference or union president, right?

A: In most places that is true, but the Pacific Union Conference bylaws have said for many years that the president must be ordained or commissioned, so a woman can already be elected union president. And most women pastors in the Pacific Union are employed in the Southeastern California Conference, where they can also be elected as president.

The special session will not affect the policies of any local conference in the union or in the world. So if local conference policy permits or prevents a woman from serving as president now, the same policy will apply after the session, regardless of what is voted. A positive vote at the special session will not automatically open up any new presidency to women, nor will it qualify a single woman pastor to be elected president who is presently not qualified for that role.

But a positive vote may encourage some local conferences to amend their bylaws or change their policies to permit women to be elected president.

Q: What will the Pacific Union do differently if the delegates vote yes on August 19?

A. This one is easy. Nothing the Pacific Union does will change. Here’s why: Until August 2002, every three months, each conference in the Pacific Union sent to the Executive Committee one list of pastors to be approved for ordination and another list of pastors to be approved for commissioning. The Union Executive Committee then approved the ordinations in one vote, and the commissionings in a second vote. But in early 2002, the Southeastern California Conference informed the union that their policies now required that men and women pastors be treated the same. For that reason, all SECC pastors, both male and female, would be “ordained-commissioned.” The union could have responded by creating and approving three lists each quarter: ordinations, commissionings and ordinations-commissionings. Instead the union began putting all requests into one list, whether for ordination, for commissioning, or for ordination-commissioning. For 10 years, all qualified candidates have been approved for “ordination/commissioning.”

That simple change means that conferences that ordain men and commission women get the approvals they ask for, conferences that ordain men and don’t employ women as pastors get the approvals they ask for, and conferences that ordain-commission both men and women get the approvals they ask for. In early 2012, when SECC began ordaining both men and women, that, too, required no change on the part of the union. All their names are added to the single list for “Ordination/Commissioning” and approved with the others. [Clarification: While the process followed by the Pacific Union Conference would enable the Union to approve women pastors for "ordination," without any change in procedure, no conference has yet requested approval for a woman to be "ordained" and no such approval has been given, or will be given, before the special session on August 19.]"

Still, the Special Session vote is important. If the delegates at special session vote to authorize the union to ordain without regard to gender, that vote will mean that official union policy is catching up with union practice, and that the variety of local conference policies are officially affirmed by the union.

Q: All those different conference ordination policies must create a lot of confusion. What happens when a female pastor goes to a place that does not have the same policy as where she was ordained or commissioned?

A. In many ways the Pacific Union is a microcosm of the cultures of the whole world. But the variety of practices and policies regarding the ordination of women has created no conflict or confusion of any kind. Churches, conferences and schools around the world invite a particular woman to speak as a guest when they want that woman to speak, regardless of what is written on her credentials. When a woman transfers from a conference that ordains women pastors to a conference that commissions women pastors, or vice versa, she receives credentials according to local policy and performs the functions her new employer asks her to perform. The General Conference recently employed as a vice president a woman pastor who previously served in the Southeastern California Conference and carried “ordained-commissioned” credentials. No doubt, when she moved from Loma Linda to Silver Spring, she received new credentials that say “commissioned,” and she works according to GC policy. The GC has reported no conflict or confusion.

Q: What will the Pacific Union Conference do differently if the delegates vote to not approve the changes?

A: The Pacific Union has been following its current method of approving ordinations for 10 years — with the existing bylaws in place. Presumably, if the delegates vote not to change the bylaws, the union will not change the process it has been following. It would be very difficult for the union to change its current process, because all pastors are employed, assigned, and ordained/commissioned by local conferences, according to local conference policy. Neither the GC, the North American Division, nor the union has authority to mandate or change local conference policy regarding employees.

Q: So why is the special session being held? Will anything change?

A: It is true that there won’t be many visible changes in the near future. Whether the delegates approve or disapprove the suggested amendments, the churches in the Pacific Union that have women pastors before the session will still have women pastors after the session, the churches that don’t have women pastors will still not have women pastors, the people who believe the Bible allows or requires that women pastors be treated the same as men pastors will still believe that, and the people who believe the Bible denies ordination or pastoral ministry to women will still believe that. But several significant things are likely to change if delegates approve the amendments.

  1. Current women pastors will know that they have the full, unqualified support and affirmation of the church, just like the men pastors do — at least in the Pacific Union.
  2. Young women who sense a call from God to enter the pastoral ministry will know that the Pacific Union will not deny that call on account of their gender. Over time, this will probably result in a larger number of qualified female candidates for pastoral ministry — and a larger number of qualified candidates, period, without regard to gender.
  3. Local conferences will be officially empowered, without reservation, to adopt and enact local policies that reflect their own mission needs, whether that includes women pastors or not. Recently, the Southern California Conference voted to begin ordaining women pastors when the Pacific Union officially authorizes that. So if the delegates approve the change, women pastors in SCC will be ordained rather than commissioned. In the future, other conferences in the Pacific Union may or may not do something similar.
  4. Since, in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, policy is normally adjusted to follow existing practices, the world church may recognize that the flexibility modeled in the Pacific Union is a good and proper way to finally resolve this issue around the world, preserving unity while facilitating the mission of the church.

Q: The General Conference president has initiated a process to study the theology of ordination. The study is scheduled to conclude in 2014, with a possible action at the 2015 GC session. Why is the Pacific Union not waiting for the completion of that study before taking action?

A: The executive committee decided to let the constituency make that decision. The delegates may decide to wait. The GC president has assigned two representatives to appeal to the delegates to wait. But there are several things the delegates will probably consider before voting to wait. First, the church has been trying for 130 years to develop one ordination policy that will fit the whole world. It is now clear to leaders in North America that one policy will never fit the needs of the entire world. As recently as 2010, then-GC president Jan Paulsen polled the 13 division presidents. Three of the divisions reported that ordaining women would be helpful or acceptable, and eight divisions reported that ordaining women would be unacceptable in the cultures where they seek to win disciples to Christ (two, apparently, did not respond).

It seems clear to most church leaders that if any one policy is adopted for everyone, the work of God in some parts of the world will benefit, while the work of God in other parts of the world will suffer. A single method for the whole world seems contrary to the Bible, where Paul said he became “all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22). It appears contrary to the advice of Ellen White, who said several times that the work could not be done the same in all places; and it is certainly contrary to the reason Unions were formed in the first place — to allow the Spirit of God to lead in different ways in different parts of the world. At least, that is the view of the Pacific Union Executive Committee. The delegates may or may not agree.

Q: The church voted in 1990 to not ordain women, and in 1995 to not delegate ordination decisions to the 13 divisions. Why would the Pacific Union take an action contrary to those votes?

A: The Seventh-day Adventist Church has no policy or doctrine restricting ordination to men, though it is a long-standing practice. The votes at GC sessions in 1990 and 1995 were votes to not create an ordination policy at those times. In order for those votes to become church policy, actual policies would have to be carefully written, voted, and added to the more-than-900-page GC Working Policy book or to the Church Manual. No such policies have been discussed.

A similar situation occurred in 1975. The GC voted that year that deaconesses should be ordained. But at GC session in 2010, there was much heated debate about whether or not to add that to the Church Manual. Many delegates probably wondered why ordination of deaconesses was still being discussed 35 years after it was voted, but church administrators knew exactly why: because until the action voted in 1975 was added to the GC Policy book or Church Manual, it was only a guideline, to be used by churches in those parts of the church that found it useful for fulfilling their mission.

The same is true of the votes of 1990 and 1995. This is why former GC president Jan Paulsen could say about women’s ordination in 2006: “We have talked about it and looked at it more than once, but we have not been able to make a decision in this matter affirming a direction that the global church can go together.”

In the years since 1990 and 1995, no policy on ordination has been suggested. The Pacific Union Executive Committee believes it is time to recognize that a global policy is not the answer to this 130-year global problem. General Conference policy specifies that the final authority and responsibility for deciding who should be ordained resides with the unions. The Pacific Union Executive Committee believes this perplexing problem is resolved when unions exercise their responsibility instead of waiting for a worldwide policy.

Q: If the Pacific Union develops a policy on ordination before the General Conference votes a policy, is that rebellion against the world church?

A: No. Unions were adopted by the world church in 1901 for no other reason than to allow flexibility in ministry methods in different parts of the world. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is not governed by a hierarchy. In fact, the church felt so convicted of this, that in the reorganization of the church in 1901, they adopted a constitution that did not include a GC president. In our church, all authority is derived from the membership. The membership assigns certain responsibilities and authority to “higher” levels of church organization. For example, the world church assigns missionaries to various parts of the world and manages the world mission budget. The world church adopts common baptism vows and membership policies, but only the local church has final authority to decide who will and will not be a member in a particular local church. The Church Manual says that working on the Sabbath is a reason that a member may be disfellowshipped, but only the local church has the authority to decide if a member who is working on Sabbath actually will be disfellowshipped. The decision of the local church cannot be mandated or vetoed by the local conference, union, division or GC.

This system of government was voted by our pioneers because they believed it would enable the Holy Spirit to best lead in the lives of the most people, resulting in more effective ministry of the church around the world.

Likewise, the world church votes employment policies for pastors, but only the local conference decides who will be employed, and where they will be assigned. The world church votes general qualifications related to ordinations, but only the unions have the authority to decide who will be approved for ordinations.

The Seventh-day Adventist church would not be having the current discussion about women in ministry if the church were a hierarchy: the GC would make a decision and the unions and conferences would obey. And we would not be having this discussion if we were congregational: the churches would make their decisions and no one from world headquarters would complain. We are involved in this discussion because of the unique nature of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, where no level of the church has final authority for everything.

A recent document produced by the GC commented correctly that the distribution of authority in the church creates a tension between world church perspectives and local perspectives. That tension should be a healthy and friendly conversation between world leaders — who will usually believe the work of God would proceed more efficiently if unions, conferences, and local churches would all just follow world policy — and local leaders, who will usually believe that the work of God can be done more efficiently if planned at the local level, without interference.

Q: The Bylaws Committee has suggested that the bylaws should be changed to say the policies of the Pacific Union will “in general” be in harmony with the policies of the world church. Doesn’t that open the door for rebellion and apostasy?

A: No. It might, if that one sentence were all that held us together. But the Pacific Union Conference has been a loyal and supportive part of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist church since 1901, and that statement — that this union’s policies will be in harmony with GC policy — was not added until 100 years later, in 2001. A few sentences before the sentence to be changed, the Bylaws state that the purpose of the Pacific Union is “to promote the worldwide mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.” And the next sentence after the sentence to be changed says, “This Union shall pursue the purposes of the Church in harmony with the doctrines, programs and initiatives adopted and approved by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Constituency Session.”

Regardless of the outcome of this special session, all Seventh-day Adventists are brothers and sisters in Christ, bound together by His love for us, by our love for Him and by our love for each other. The officers of the Pacific Union and the members of the executive committee invite all members in our territory to study the issues carefully, to pray that the Holy Spirit will lead in the discussions and in the votes, and to resolve that whatever the outcome, we will remain united in our purpose — to preach the good news of salvation in Christ and to prepare people for His soon return.