Divisions not given ordination freedom


San Antonio, Texas, United States

Delegates turned down a motion that would have allowed each division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to decide for itself whether to ordain women to the gospel ministry in its territory.

My expectation for the church is not to have winners or losers, but that each one may feel the decision as God’s and may make it his or her own.

By a margin of 1381-977, with five abstentions, delegates by secret ballot ended a five-year process characterised by vigorous and sometimes acrimonious debate.

General Conference president Ted Wilson appealed to church members to unite in the mission of the church after the vote at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas.

“Now is the time to unify under the bloodstained banner of Jesus Christ and His power, not our power,” Wilson said after the ballots were counted on tables at the front of the Alamodome stadium. “Now is the time to unify in our mission as Christ’s church.”

He thanked delegates for the “careful and prayerful manner in which they carried themselves and addressed the subject” during six hours of discussion.

A secret ballot system was used that General Conference officers said offered the most fair and secure voting process possible.

“We have tried to be transparent, honest and thoughtful, and to ensure the privacy of the vote to the best of our ability,” said Nancy Lamoreaux, chief information officer for the General Conference and organiser of the logistics for Wednesday’s vote.

The ballots were printed on special paper, cut to the size of a half sheet of letter paper, and divided in half. One half contained the word “Yes”, printed in five languages, and the other the word “No”, also in five languages. The languages are English, Spanish, French, German, and Portuguese. 

The secret balloting system was prepared well in advance of the General Conference session as a backup in case an electronic voting system didn’t work, said undersecretary Myron Iseminger, whose sector oversees voting at GC sessions. The e-voting system, which debuted at the GC session, proved problematic, and delegates voted on Sunday to no longer use it. 

“From the beginning we had a backup plan in case the electronic ballots didn’t work,” Iseminger said.

Wilson, who opened the morning session with an appeal for all church members to abide by the vote’s outcome, underscored both then and after the vote that decisions made by the General Conference in session carry the highest authority in the Adventist Church.

The daylong discussions, which began at 9:30 am and broke for a two-hour lunch at noon, stopped nearly a dozen times for prayer. Participants engaged in silent prayer, one-on-one prayer, and group prayer. Scores more Session attendees packed special prayer rooms organised by the General Conference’s Ministerial Association and Women’s Ministries departments. 

Both Wilson and Michael Ryan, a retiring general vice president of the General Conference who chaired Wednesday’s discussions, voiced delight at the “sweet spirit” that permeated the proceedings.

Ryan made sure proper meeting decorum was followed, chiding attendees several times for applauding during the discussions. Delegates agreed earlier to refrain from applause in an effort to keep emotions under control.

Ryan, who announced the final vote results, sharply admonished a group of Alamodome attendees who broke into applause at the outcome. 

“There is nothing triumphal about this,” he said. “There are no winners or losers.”

Erton Köhler, South American Division president, echoed Ryan’s sentiment that this was not a political contest.

“My expectation for the church is not to have winners or losers, but that each one may feel the decision as God’s and may make it his or her own,” he told the Adventist Review. “May everyone have the humility to acknowledge that God can manifest His will in a way that differs from personal opinion.” 

Jerry Page, Ministerial Association director, also spoke of humility. “If we take time in prayer, humble confession, repentance, and service for others, we can move forward instead of spinning around and going backward because of the conflicts,” he said.

Lisa Beardsley-Hardy, education department director, said she hoped delegates would show respect toward each other. 

“My hope and wish is for forbearance on behalf of our brothers and sisters who face ministry challenges in ministry that differ from ours around the world,” she said. “Forbearance is a grace that can only come from God, not to hold one another hostage or abandon the body when something offends us.”

A total of 2363 ballots were cast in the vote on a motion prepared by senior General Conference officers and division presidents and approved at the 2014 Annual Council, a business meeting of world church leaders. The motion read in full: “After your prayerful study on ordination from the Bible, the writings of Ellen G White, and the reports of the study commissions, and; after your careful consideration of what is best for the church and the fulfillment of its mission, is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? Yes or No.”

A total of 40 delegates—20 who supported and 20 who opposed the motion—took to microphones to express their positions on the motion. The discussion was stopped 35 times by delegates who wished to make “points of order”, objections to how some aspect of the proceedings was being carried out.

Partway though the afternoon proceedings, Ryan invited Jan Paulsen, a former president of the General Conference, to make a statement.

Paulsen urged delegates to vote “yes”, saying it was a matter of trust. He said church members had to trust that their counterparts in other divisions knew better what their local churches needed.

Ryan also invited Wilson to make a statement. Wilson did not recommend a “yes” or “no” vote, saying only, “My views are rather well known and I believe them to be biblically based.”

Wednesday’s proceedings began with an agreement from the delegates to end discussion for a vote at 4:30 pm to begin the voting process. As the time approached, a number of delegates urged Ryan to extend the discussions, but Ryan declared the requests out of order.

General Conference executive secretary G T Ng indicated during Wednesday’s discussions that the General Conference hoped for full compliance from all church entities. 

“We are one church,” Ng said.

“God gifts all believers with unique spiritual gifts to carry on the mission of the church and to edify and build up the body of Christ. Ordination is not a criterion for giftedness. I long for the church to keep in focus clearly that the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts was poured out on both men and women. The gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 belong to both men and women. 

“So ordination is not a criterion for service, witness, or proclamation. I really believe now that we need to focus on maximising the gifts of all members of the church­—young and old, male and female—coming together in unity to focus on the mission of the church. We need to move from our discussions on ordination to focus on how to reach a lost world for Christ.”

—Mark Finley, evangelist, editor-at-large at Adventist Review

“Members of the North American Division are naturally disappointed in the vote, but we are very committed publicly and privately to our world church and to continuing our cooperative efforts to be a blessing in the world church. Our intention is to be a part of that final movement that hastens the day when Jesus comes.”

—Daniel Jackson, president, North American Division

“Today North America faced a disappointment for many, many members and for the women who are in ministry. For those who do not believe that this was the right vote, I would challenge them to think of Joshua and Caleb, who went forward after they could not go into the promised land and stayed faithful to God’s people.”

—Don Livesay, president, Lake Union Conference, NAD

“We will keep preaching, and we will keep uplifting Jesus.”

—Elizabeth Talbot, The Jesus 101 Biblical Institute

“Our mission is bigger than any issue that may arise in the Seventh-day Adventist Church at any time of our church life. We must remain united. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a mission and an agenda to finish the work that our Lord left to us. We should not allow any issue to divide us.” 

—Blasious Ruguri, East-Central Africa Division president

By  and  Adventist Review/ANN. Initial reporting by Jarrod Stackelroth (click HERE).