Unity . . . A way forward?


Last week I attended the Unity 2017 conference about church unity in the face of the different views and practices surrounding the issue of the ordination of women to the ministry in the Adventist Church.  It was one of the most satisfying conferences I attended in years. A spiritual and intellectual high point.

In the past few days other things have kept me busy, but in the background remained the question: How can we go forward and find some kind of solution for the disagreement that causes so much trouble in the church?

Immediately after the General Conference session in 2015 in San Antonio, I wrote a blog in which I grappled with that question. How can we go forward. I just re-read it and decided to repeat it below. Can this help to find a way forward?



After San Antonio . . . what now?

So, how do we deal in the foreseeable future with the role of women in the Adventist Church? The vote in San Antonio did not bring anything like a solution. A 40 percent pro and 60 percent againstvote does reveal a majority, but it is miles away from a workable consensus. You do not have to be a prophet to see that a major segment of the church is, and remains, of the opinion that men have another (more important!) position in the church than women. This opinion is based on a particular (‘plain’) way of reading the Bible. It sees the superiority of men as a ‘truth’ that cannot be compromised, not even when forty percent of the church asks (or rather: pleads) to have the freedom to ordain women as pastors in their territories. On the other hand, there are many individual church members, but also administrative entities (unions/conferences), that are frustrated by the decision of the GC session. Or, in fact: they cannot abide by it for conscience sake.

How do we go from here?  For, in spite of all differences of opinion, also those who favor the ordination of female pastors want to stay together. I do not pretend to have a final answer, but I would like—in a very preliminary way—to contribute a little to the ongoing discussion by suggesting a pragmatic approach that may help us to find a way out that may be acceptable for many on both sides of the issue, and may prove to be workable.

It may be an approach that is attractive for conferences/unions that want to guarantee an equal status to male and female pastors, but also want to go as far they can to avoid controversies with the world church.

My own thinking about the topic of women’s ordination has in recent weeks been considerable sharpened by reading a book written by dr. Bertil Wiklander, the recently retired president of the Trans-European Division.[1] He points to a number of very important aspects that have often been largely ignored. To get an impression of the content of this book, see my reviews on the website of Adventist Today (http://atoday.org/at-last-a-fresh-re-assessment-of-the-entire-issue-of-ordination-men-and-women.html) and the website of Spectrum ((https://shar.es/1s1coO).

The most important principles in Wiklander’s book (for which he gives solid arguments) are:

  1. The issue of the ‘ordination of men and women’ must be seen against the background of the mission God has given the church.
  2. Men and women were created equal, and the ‘fall’ has not ended this equality in status.
  3. In the Old Testament we see how, with regard to the implementation of his ideals, God often made (temporary) accommodations in view of the social structures of the times (slavery; divorce; polygamy; patriarchal structures, etc.).
  4. The New Testament emphasizes how in Christ a new community has been realized, in which the old dividing lines no longer exist (slaves versus free, jews and non-jews, male and female).
  5. The leading principle for the church is the priesthood of all believers (male and female).
  6. At the same time we need to acknowledge that cultural circumstances in many parts of the world may (still) inhibit full implementation of the New Testament ideal of gender equality in the church.
  7. The traditional way of ‘ordaining’ people in the Adventist Church is not biblically prescribed. Some aspects may even be considered unbiblical (for instance, the idea that a human act may transfer a special, exclusive authority, seems to resemble Catholic sacramental theology).

In the discussion about the role and status of women in the church we should not forget that in many countries women form a large majority of the membership. And, more and more, it is simply impossible to ‘run’ the church without the involvement of women, also in leading positions.

In addition, it is also essential to keep in mind that humans (‘the church’) only play a secondary role with regard to the calling of men and women to be pastors. God calls people, through his Spirit, and this same Spirit equips them, male and female, for work in the church and on behalf of the church. Subsequently the church (i.e. an agreed upon administrative entity in the church) has the task to evaluate (as best as it can) whether a person has a genuine calling to the ministry and to determine whether he/she is adequately equipped for the pastoral role to which he/she is called. If these evaluations are positive, ‘the church’ will affirm this calling and give the person a place in the structure that it has created to accomplish its mission.

The form is which the calling of a person is recognized and affirmed, and the language that is being used in the process must be gender-neutral. The traditional terminology of ‘ordination’ and ‘commissioning’ are too emotionally and historically charged. But these are not biblical terms anyway, and, if so desired, we can put them aside. In stead it might be better to have three gender-neutral categories: pastoral interns, pastoral workers and pastors. Anyone (male/female) whose calling has been recognized by the church will—after some further practical training and possibly a (short) period as a pastoral worker—be given the title of pastor.

The differences between the status of pastoral workers and pastor need to be clearly defined.

The public recognition of the person (male/female) as a pastor will be announced in the first church(es) where he/she is to serve.  This announcement is to be made be a conference/union official. This may be accompanied by a low-key ceremony which avoids the rituals and terminology of traditional Adventist ordination ceremonies.

When a person moves from the area where he/she was publicly recognized as a pastor, to another division/union/conference, the receiving organization accepts him/her with all the rights and privileges of a pastor. If that is considered a problem (for instance, because the pastor is a woman) the receiving organization may decide not to call /employ this particular pastor, or, with mutual consent, accept him/her as a pastoral worker.

Unions/conferences that want to give equal status to male and female pastors may in their assignment of churches to their pastors show sensitivity towards particular feelings and circumstances in some local churches.

It would be important that (hopefully) the General Conference and those division that value equal treatment for male and female pastors, approve, or at least tolerate, this approach. If this approach proves to be workable, in time the relevant policies (preferably at the division level) may be adapted.

[It would seem to me that the ‘ordination’ of elders and deacons must also receive a different form, since the objections that are raised against the ordination of female pastors, would be the same for the categories of elders and deacons/deaconesses.]

Could a solution in the direction sketched above help us to go forward with as little controversy and tension as possible?

[Those who agree that we may continue to think along these lines, may feel free to share this blog with others or to distribute it in other ways].

[1] Bertil Wiklander A Review of Ordination Reconsidered: The Biblical Vision of Men and Women as Servants of God (Newbold Academic Press, June 2015) Available through Amazon in paperback and eBook.