With mixed feelings I studied, earlier this morning, the reports of yesterday’s special one-day constituency meeting of the Pacific Union (the administrative unit of the 215.000-plus Adventist church members in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada en Utah). With 79 percent of the votes in favor, and 21 percent against, a motion was approved that in the future ordination of pastors will be open to men and women. After a similar recent decision by the Columbia Union (in the North-East of the US), this is the second major administrative unit that chooses to depart from the policy that, until the very last moment, the General Conference (the highest administrative unit in the Adventist Church) had been pleading for. A similar decision was recently taken by the North-German Union.
I am delighted with the outcome of the meeting, (which was not unexpected, in spite of heavy resistance from men (yes, of course: men) like Dough Batchelor, and in spite of the fact that the president of the church, Ted. N.C. Wilson, together with two of his vice-presidents, addressed the delegates in person with a view to protecting the unity of the church and to urge the Pacific Union to wait with unilateral steps until the ongoing process of study and decision by the world church would have been completed.
It seems, however, that the General Conference leaders had expected that the outcome would be negative (from their perspective), for just a few hours after the meeting in California ended, a bulletin was already published on the website of the Adventist Review, signed by the three officers of the world church, in which the decision of the meeting in the West of the US was deplored and it was announced that the church would have to react in some way to this development.
Yes, I am happy with yesterday’s outcome, and so are many with me. It is time that the church will end this nasty form of discrimination, that, according to the majority of Adventist theologians, is not in line with the Bible, and that many members can no longer, in good conscience, support. But it the same time I am saddened and deeply disappointed about the fact that the church finds itself in the present situation.
Something that, first of all, is a cultural matter, has been turned by many into a burning theological question. Of course, we do have to deal with the underlying question: How do we read the Bible? This is an issue that is at stake in many different discussions, and it demands the church’s attention. But it is deplorable that the ordination of women has slowly but surely become the key issue in the debate between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’, that may well split the church.
For a long time the world church has failed to come to any decisions regarding the ordination of female pastors and has appointed one study commission after another. In the meantime is has become extremely difficult to discover a clear line in the official statements and decisions. It is OK to have (ordained) female elders in those areas of the world that are open to this. Churches are also free to appoint female deacons and to organize a suitable service of induction (whatever that means). Female pastors may receive a blessing (we call it ‘commissioning’). They are allowed to baptize and lead out in the Lord’s Supper. But they are excluded from a number of (administrative!) positions and they may not be ordained. That poses the question: What is ‘ordination’ exactly? Is it a ‘sacrament’ that may only be administered to certain categories of people? What then is the real difference between the ordination of a pastor and the ordination of an elder? (Some biblical arguments, please!) Most ‘ordinary’ church members cannot follow the reasoning that forms the basis for the current praxis. But what they do understand, loudly and clearly, is the basic fact that somehow women are not yet quite the equals of men. And many of them feel that the moment has come to protest against this state of affairs and to be no longer satisfied with promises that the church is engaged in a thorough, comprehensive study and that a decision will be forthcoming by 2015.
But the most deplorable aspect, I think, is that the matter of WO (Women’s Ordination) has developed into a power struggle. The decision by the three unions is seen by some (many?) as ‘rebellion’. A few weeks ago Wilson threatened with (undefined) sanctions against the unions that refused to follow the policies of the world church. Is this pastoral concern or ‘power-speak’? Many regard Wilson and his team as the ‘losers’ in this struggle and feel that their prestige as world leaders has clearly suffered. For many, the top leaders of the church are engaged in a rear guard battle. It is part of a process, they feel, that has been going on for considerable time. Increasingly, members want to see that many aspects of the church’s policy making takes place at lower levels, where local circumstances can be taken into account, and they no longer translate the concept of unity in term of uniformity. It is not easy for the leadership of the church to deal with the current impasse in a wise (and spiritual) manner. Unfortunately, the impasse has, to a major extent, come about as a result of the fact that the church has failed to adequately address the issue, mainly out of fear for reactions from the non-western regions of the church. Fear causes serious long-term problems. Courage, linked with tolerance and understanding for those who look at things from another cultural perspective, may often prevent situations such as they one we currently face.
The other day I read a comment on an article on a pro-WO website that invites further thought. The leaders of the church have invited us to be open to a process of ‘revival and reformation’. In Bible times, justice always was a key concept when prophets spoke about reformation and revival. When the Spirit descends on God’s people, there will be a deep desire for justice. Could it be, that the conviction that it is time to end the injustice towards women is a (perhaps unintended) fruit of the ‘revival and reformation’ to which we were called? It might very well be.