After approximately five hours of debate on Monday, October 9, at the 2017 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Annual Council, a vote of 184 to 114 was made to send a document entitled “Procedures for Reconciliation and Adherence in Church Governance: Phase II” back to the Unity in Mission Oversight Committee, from which it originated, where it will receive further review and “refinement.” Until the next fall’s Council, dialogue regarding unity and discipline for “non-compliance” will continue.
Women’s ordination causes heated controversy in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Although the idea of ordination as endowing sacerdotal gifting and authority has no biblical foundation and was created long ago by what would eventually become the Roman Catholic Church, many protestant churches still cling to this tradition. The issue exploded at the 2015 General Conference (GC) session in San Antonio, Texas, when the GC voted against allowing Divisions to make their own choice about ordaining women into ministry throughout their division of the Seventh-day Adventist World Church. The pre-existing decision by Columbia Union and Pacific Union of the North American Division (NAD) of Seventh-day Adventists to ordain women as they do men creates a unity question as they continue the practice of ordaining women in spite of the GC vote.
The 2016 Annual Council voted on a “Phase I” document, introducing a process that “sought to initiate standard procedures for maintaining church unity in matters involving non-compliance,” as reported by Adventist News Network. “Phase II” was presented at the most recent session.
The document of Phase II opens with the Executive Committee declaring their commitment to “continue the discussion, listen sensitively, and seek further resolutions,” as “the continued forbearance and discussion process will provide additional time to find solutions.” The rest stresses the importance of strictly adhering to policy, using examples from Bible stories supplemented with select quotes from Ellen White.
“Throughout scripture, organization has been a priority for God’s people,” the document reads. The document urges church members to encourage their elected leaders to “comply with the General Conference Working Policy B 15 15.” The policy stated says that “Officers and administrators are expected to work in harmony with the General Conference Working Policy. Those who show inability or unwillingness to administer their work in harmony with policy should not be continued in executive leadership by their respective constituencies or governing boards/committees.” Furthermore, the document articulates that “executive committees and/or constituencies” are encouraged to “remove and replace” leaders who do not comply with GC policy.
The document also includes a statement that General Conference Executive Committee members are to sign promising to adhere to and enforce GC policy in their respective positions, among other terms. Should any GC Executive Committee member be found non-compliant with the statement, they will forfeit their “privileges of voice, vote and subcommittee participation” until they agree to comply with the General Conference policy.
Although the controversy is largely portrayed to be simply over ordaining women, the real foundation of the problem is something bigger. “I think that the ordination thing is a subcategory of something greater, and that’s the issue of authority,” says Dr. Stanley Patterson, Chair of the Department of Christian Ministry and professor at the Andrews University Theological Seminary.
Dr. Patterson explains that unlike the top-down papal hierarchy, the Adventist church was organized in a bottom-up ladder of authority, vesting power in the people, not a single leader. Dividing into Unions, Conferences, and local churches serves to prevent a top-down kind of hierarchy. Adventist Church members elect representatives who have influence at the Conference governance level, and Union Presidents answer to their constituencies.
“It’s challenging,” says Tanner Martin (Masters of Divinity, third year). “How do you respect leaders while still holding them accountable? It is a bit of a paradox, there’s a bit of a tension there… and we’re definitely seeing that going on right now.”
Though action may not be voted upon until later, it does not mean that punishment for the Columbia and Pacific Unions will not be pursued.
“I love my church, but my heart aches for it,” Dr. Patterson says.
Additional news coverage and commentary on this action and others at Annual Council can be found online at: