October 10, 2012

The Question of Ordination

On Tuesday, September 18, the General Conference Administrative Committee (ADCOM) framed and organized a Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC), composed of more than 100 theologians, laypersons, pastors, and Bible students, and including young adults, representatives of many regions of the world church, and at least 24 women. Only three church officers—a chair, vice chair, and secretary—will be members of the committee; ADCOM members urged that the process should not be significantly influenced by church administrators. Adventist Review editor Bill Knott spoke with Artur Stele, chair of the TOSC and director of the church’s Biblical Research Institute.

2012 1528CalledTogether INBOXThere were previous study committees leading up to the 1990 and 1995 General Conference sessions that researched the appropriateness of ordaining women to the gospel ministry. Some have suggested that there’s no need for yet another study process. How will this one be different?
The church always learns—and grows—from what it has experienced of the Lord’s leading, and nothing about this new process should be understood as a criticism of the previous study committees. This two-year process, though, starts from a new vantage point and pushes the discussion out to the entire world church.

What is that new vantage point?
This process came in response to a delegate request from the floor of the 2010 General Conference session in Atlanta that the church study “the theology of ordination.” While the previous processes have assumed that the church had a carefully worked-out understanding of ordination, this study process does not: it seeks to ask, “Where is the concept of ordination biblically mandated, and for whom is it intended?” It will, of course, also deal with the appropriateness of ordaining women as pastors, but it asks even bigger questions. And this time, rather than beginning with a central committee, the process actually began almost a year ago. Each of the 13 world divisions was asked to organize a biblical research committee of its own to bring the best thinking of that world region to bear on the issues the church must wrestle with. The majority of the divisions have already started, and what is really good is that they have established research groups. Many divisions have set aside four groups for research. Some study the Old Testament—what it says about ordination, and whether ordination is intended for only one gender. Other groups focus on the New Testament, and still others try to understand what church history teaches us. By starting with division-based committees, we can involve many of the scholars of each division, as well as administrators, lay members, and pastors. The goal is to get them to study—really struggle—with the biblical texts. Some see the issue as profoundly biblical; others see it as almost entirely cultural. All right, then, let’s study; let’s discover the principles that should guide the church in making a good decision. Each region of the world church, whatever its history and culture, is being asked to seriously investigate the Word of God on this matter.

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Major Events of Recent Decades Regarding Women in MinistryGeneral Conference Session Actions

Will those division study committees interact with the new Theology of Ordination Study Committee that’s just been organized?
The second phase is to organize this large and representative centralized committee that will receive the reports of the division study processes. But even more important, by launching the central committee now, it gives an opportunity for expertise to be shared both ways, for insights discovered in one process to pollinate the whole study process. It’s a mistake to believe that all wisdom and insight flow from headquarters out to the world field. The reality is that the Spirit is working on the hearts and minds of God’s people everywhere, and we need to set up an intentional dialogue so that we can learn from each other.

What steps have been taken to ensure that the membership of the committee just formed by ADCOM represents more than the preferences of a few leaders?
Beginning almost two months ago, all ADCOM members were invited to nominate persons who they thought could significantly contribute to the church’s discussion. Special emphasis was placed on nominating persons who represent the entire spectrum of current thinking about ordination—those who want nothing changed in the church’s current practice, and those who believe that the church should rethink both its philosophy and its practice of ordination, including whether it should be available to both men and women. Almost 100 names were nominated, and they cover the entire range of thought. On the voted list are scholars, pastors, lay members, women, men, young adults, and members from around the world church. The goal is to achieve a very good balance so that everyone who looks at the new committee can say, “I trust that it’s fair.”

What are the key issues you expect to be emphasized in this dialogue?
First and most important, what ordination is—and what it isn’t. How has the church arrived at its current practice of ordination, and is there solid biblical support for that practice? What is our functioning theology of ordination? Second, the implications of what we discover. What does ordination mean? Are we justified in what we have done, ordaining only deacons and deaconesses, elders, and pastors? Is the division of elders and pastors biblical? And, of course, we have to carefully and prayerfully address the issue of women’s ordination. This is really the issue that we most want to focus on: our position—whatever we determine it should be—must grow from biblical principles.

2012 1528 page16Much emphasis was placed in the ADCOM session on the way this new Theology of Ordination Study Committee will go about making decisions. Tell me about that.
Representative and democratic processes are used to the concept of majority rule: all decisions come down to a vote, and one group wins and the other loses. But this new committee has been specifically organized on a principle of consensus decision-making. Our goal at each stage and with each question we address is to present the consensus opinion of the group. On issues where we are successful in reaching a consensus, one document will be presented to the 2014 Annual Council. But on issues where we haven’t been able to reach consensus, two reports—a majority report and a minority report—will be presented. All the arguments—all the research—for both perspectives will be shared.

How will General Conference leaders relate to these reports?
Elder Wilson has told us very clearly that GC administration will not support one viewpoint or the other. If we hope to encourage members everywhere to trust the integrity of this process, we have to ensure that the outcome is not inappropriately influenced or controlled. That’s why administrators are not included in the TOSC, except to keep the process organized. The role of administration will be at the end of the process—to receive the report, make logistical arrangements for its presentation to the Annual Council, but not to influence the report delivered to the Executive Committee. Church leaders’ most important job is to encourage the wider church to make good, biblically sound decisions—not just to make decisions on behalf of the church.

You’re saying that General Conference leaders will not intercept or veto any recommendation from this process, even if they might not personally support that conclusion or consensus?
Yes—the church’s leaders have intentionally chosen this way. This is a moment when, like the pioneers of this movement, we all need to really study and struggle prayerfully with these ideas. It’s not about winners and losers, but about allowing the dialogue to be led by the Spirit. While there are many emotions on these topics, it’s not emotion or culture or personal prejudice we want to honor in this process. We want the certainty that we are being led by the Spirit in our study of the Word to decide and do what will most honor the Lord and most fully advance His mission to the world. 

What do you hope this process will do for the church?
We have a mandate—we have a commandment—to stay united in our following of Jesus. That doesn’t mean that we all have to have the same opinions, but it does mean we need one process for deciding what is right and appropriate. Ultimately, our most important decisions always go to the most representative decision-making groups—the GC Executive Committee between General Conference sessions, and the sessions themselves, held every five years. We agree to submit our most important decisions to the groups that speak for the entire church—for all 17 million members in more than 200 countries. And then we agree to live with that decision until the Lord leads the church to rethink or remake it. That’s how we build up trust in each other. And trust is ultimately the foundation of unity. 

This article was published October 11, 2012.