Why the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Shouldn’t Dictate Ordination Policy


Reason #1: Our Church Structure 

The biggest problem with what is happening now with women’s ordination is that our people are ignorant about our church structure. We are not structured from the top down like the papacy, receiving papal edicts from the top with helpless obedience.

The power in Adventism is in the hands of you and me. God is not the god of the multitude so much as he is the god of the individual. The authority of constituent groups in the rising ranks of organization in the Seventh-day Adventist church is divided to protect the individual from dictatorship and assure that organization continues to support individuals in the meaningful ministry of the gospel.

In our church structure, non-fundamental issues are split up and dealt with by different constituent groups. It is not the General Conference that has the authority to deal with most non-fundamental beliefs. In the mix of responsibilities, our constitution states that the Unions have the jurisdiction to settle issues of ordination for their own territories.

Church policy states that “different elements of organizational authority and responsibility are distributed among the various levels of denominational organization. For example, the decision as to who may/may not be a member of a local Seventh-day Adventist Church is entrusted to the members of the local church concerned; decisions as to the employment of local church pastors is entrusted to the local conference/mission; decisions regarding the ordination of ministers are entrusted to the union conference/mission; and the definition of denominational beliefs is entrusted to the General Conference in session” (General Conference Working Policy, section B 6).

This is due to the restructuring of our church (with the help of Ellen White) in 1901. Unions have the power vote the way they want on non-fundamental beliefs within their jurisdiction in “harmony” with General Conference’s decisions. Anyone that understands music knows that harmony isn’t unison.

whorunsthechurchWhy Were Unions Created?

In his definitive essay on Adventist church structure, Gerry Chudleigh notes that the Unions were created to act as firewalls between the GC and the conferences, making “dictation” (a dictatorship) impossible because:

  • Each Union had its own constitution and bylaws and was to be governed by its own constituency.
  • The officers of each Union were to be elected by their own Union constituency, and, therefore, could not be controlled, replaced or disciplined by the GC.

The problem was that, in the initial formation of our church, the General Conference had too much power. Both the church fathers and Ellen White realized this. They obviously foresaw the potential browbeating that could happen on non-fundamental issues (like what just happened at San Antonio) and provided for it.

“It has been a necessity to organize union conferences, that the General Conference shall not exercise dictation over all the separate conferences” (Ellen White, Manuscript 26, April 3, 1903).

“Recently the General Conference in the United States has been divided into Union Conferences, and all matters pertaining to the work in these union conferences should be dealt with by the Union Conference Committee. The General Conference [world work] has grown so large that it is impossible for the committee to give attention to the many details and perplexities arising in different parts of the world. For this reason we have thought it best to organize large Union Conferences in all parts of the world, so that they would have large committees, and full authority and power to deal with all matters within their boundaries” (A. G. Daniels to George LaMunyon, Oct. 7, 1901, General Conference Archives Reference Group 11, bk. 25, p. 41, emphasis mine).

The Unions Are Autonomous

Gerry adds that “to put it as bluntly as possible, after 1901, the General Conference could vote whatever it wanted unions and conferences to do, or not do, but the unions and conferences were autonomous and could do what they believed would best advance the work of God in their fields.” This was to be done in Christian harmony with the General Conference, but again, remember that harmony is not unison. Unity is not uniformity.

The independence of the Unions would, according the Ellen White, prevent the General Conference from totalitarian coercion of the Unions, and would help the Union leaders grow in leadership and reliance on God. The oft-quoted statement from the Church Working Policy about the General Conference in session being the highest authority of the Seventh-day Adventist Church under God must be tempered by these facts.

In a short, comprehensive article, Sam Millen explains how our church structure plays out for Divisions and Unions:

“It is important to remember that the 13 Divisions are part of the organizational structure of the General Conference. Therefore, decisions made by the delegates at a General Conference Session are authoritative for Division Executive Committees. However, Unions are independent organizational units, and the delegates at Union Constituency Meetings can make separate decisions regarding women’s ordination for their Unions.”

Finally, Gary Patterson notes:

“While the General Conference in session is recognized as the highest authority in the world church, it is not entitled to impose its actions on other levels of the church in which it does not have constituted authority” (Six Points on the Ordination of Women Issue). This organizational structure that should be common knowledge to all church administers. In addition, this controversy had made it painfully clear that every member of the church should make it his or her business to understand it too.

Reason #2: Ordination and the Power of the Church

Since 1901, and especially in recent years, the image of the General Conference at the top of the chain of command—the final authority—has been strengthened. As Unions have adopted General Conference programs and policies over the years they have come to assume (falsely) that the General Conference ultimately dictates what Unions and their institutions can and can’t do. This has contributed, more than anything else, to our members believing that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is hierarchal.

Yet the truth is that our church isn’t hierarchical. However, there is another church, a church that Adventists believe will host the antichrist, which is hierarchical. The crazy thing is that an unbiblical concept of ordination, the same threefold ordination we practice as Adventists, is at the heart of the Catholic Church.

darius-jankiewiczPapal Origins

Dr. Darius Jankiewicz, a theology professor at Andrew’s University who has spent many years studying the history of Christian church structure, raises an important question:

Since historical research shows that the threefold ordination of pastor, elder, and deacon comes not from the laying-on-of-hands of the early church, but from the “ordinatio” of pagan Rome, blended into the church through the theology of Ignatius Loyola, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, and Cyprian of Carthage to elevate the status of church officials and increase the power of their institution, is it serving the Adventist church well?

He further asks, “Is the distinction between ordained clergy and un-ordained laity, as accepted and practiced within our denomination, in agreement with the biblical principle of the priesthood of all believers? Have we sufficiently freed ourselves from the shackles of sacramentalism bequeathed to us from other Christian churches? Have we truly understood the radical implications of Paul’s teaching on the Body of Christ and His belief that ‘to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it?’ (Eph 4:7, 11; Rom 12:6). Finally, we must ask ourselves the all-important question: Does the current way of understanding and practicing ministerial ordination continue to serve the mission of the church?” (The Problem of Ordination: Lessons from Early Christian History).

Ellen White Herself Raised A Red Flag On Ordination

“At a later date, the rite of ordination by the laying-on-of-hands was greatly abused; unwarrantable importance was attached to the act, as if a power came at once upon those who received such ordination, which immediately qualified them for any and all ministerial work. But in the setting apart of these two apostles, there is no record indicating that any virtue was imparted by the mere act of laying on of hands. There is only the simple record of their ordination, and of the bearing that it had on their future work” (Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, 162 emphasis mine).

Inescapable Conclusions

It is not surprising, then, that Ty Gibson concluded the following in his article on women’s ordination:

“This present inclination among us to sharply distinguish clergy from laity and elevate the pastoral position with language of headship and privilege over other church members is decidedly papal” (A Closer Look At Women’s Ordination).

Dr. Jankiewicz comes to the same conclusion:

“If there was no such change (from a functional laying-on-of-hands that recognizes gifts given by the Spirit to a sacramental organization that invokes magical powers not already possessed) we would not be talking about women’s ordination. I say to my students that women’s ordination is a Catholic problem, not an Adventist problem. So we should not even be discussing this problem here in Adventism” (From a presentation given at the 2012 Women Clergy Conference).

Yes, It’s Shocking

At least it was to me. This is diametrically different than the way I have believed all of my life. Yet it rings true. My sense of reason forbids me to deny it, and the Spirit confirms it within me.

OrdinationOrdination: Horizontal vs Vertical 

Dr. Jankiewicz goes on to say, “In horizontal (functional missionary movement), ordination is not an issue. In vertical (sacramental), it’s a big issue. We must decide as a church whether we are primarily an organization with a mission, whether we subscribe to an institutional model where institution is primary, or whether we are a missionary movement with an organization that is suppose to get us somewhere” (The Problem of Ordination: Lessons from Early Christian History).

There is safety in being a functional missionary movement, a fellowship of believers with Christ at the head, but if we follow the sacramental process of ordination, then we soon come to the Catholic teaching that there is no salvation outside the ministers of the Church and that God’s will is revealed only through the clergy. In light of the actions of the General Conference in recent years it would be well for us to heed the warning of Dr. Jankiewicz:

“In answering these questions, let the history of the organizational developments of the early church serve as a warning to us; for it did not take long for the persecuted church to become a persecuting church, with those who disagreed suffering much at the hands of the ordained clergy. This church, so enamored with its own institution and the protection of the powers of its clergy, ultimately lost its place in the divine scheme of things. There are no guarantees that history will not repeat itself again” (Ibid).

Reason #3: The Forcing of Conscience

The words of Dr. Darius Jankiewicz haunt me:

“…for it did not take long for the persecuted church to become a persecuting church, with those who disagreed suffering much at the hands of the ordained clergy.”

A seemingly unquestioned assumption accompanied the vote at San Antonio. It presumed that it is the prerogative of the world church, through the General Conference in session, to make the final decision on women’s ordination for everybody—as if the General Conference has custody of this issue.

Yet our church structure does not back up that assumption. Church policy doesn’t even forbid the ordination of women. It leaves it up to the individual Unions. In other words, this isn’t a theological issue. It is a policy issue. The Unions aren’t out of harmony with the General Conference even if they choose to ordain women since the GC has never made a gender qualification for ordination and decades of church-sponsored research on the theology have found no prohibition.

The vote at San Antonio was only to decide whether to give the Executive Committees of the 13 Divisions of the World Church the latitude to make decisions on women’s ordination based on what they deem appropriate for mission in their regions. This had nothing to do with Unions. I don’t see how there can be any doubt that Unions are within the bounds of their authority.

Are Unions In Rebellion?

Some say that the Unions are in rebellion with their decisions to ordain women, but if you look at our constitution, they are acting well within their God-inspired jurisdiction and simply doing what they should to prevent the General Conference from seizing too much power and sending us all down the hierarchal road that turned the vibrant early Christian church into papal Rome.

Some may accuse the Unions of splitting the church, but if the Union votes are not in violation of our church policy, then those who are responding to those votes are creating the problem.

As Laura Ochs Wibberding concluded, “If the Unions are not in rebellion, then we already have a solution, one which does not take 2,600 GC delegates to make happen.”

Or Is Our General Conference At Fault?

Our General Conference has erred in allowing many to interpret this vote as an appeal for uniform practice in every area of the world church. Whether intentional or not, it has caused great disunity in the Seventh-day Adventist church by allowing its delegates to believe that they would universally enforce this non-fundamental issue by majority vote.

If we permit the General Conference to continue to misinterpret the facts to its constituents so that they assume that it has authority where it does not, then we are a part of the problem. If we allow things like this, then we are headed for a very sad day in Adventism indeed.

This is an issue of religious liberty. Shall we stand by and say nothing while our constitution—the one that was divinely given us through Ellen White and our founders—is made of no effect? We must help those in our sphere of influence to a better understanding our church structure. We must encourage our Unions to step forward and do their job.

“Religious freedom is a core conviction of the church, but we must not only be concerned about the state controlling our religious convictions. We must be concerned about any behavior that seeks to control another person. The recently popularized concept of headship in the Seventh-day Adventist church…can lead to the twisted use of control of one person over another” (Dr. Gordon Bietz, “Quiet No Longer” Sermon at SAU/Collegedale Church, 10-18-14).

bishops-mitre_opt-2So Is It Rebellion or Leadership Run Amuck?

As Adventists we worry about the state curtailing our religious liberty while our own church is tightening a noose around our necks. This is not about rebellion. This is about unauthorized General Conference dictation, whether intentional or not.

This is not about rebellion. It’s about leadership run amuck.

By continuing to embrace a Catholic (hierarchal) version of ordination, by ignorance of our church constitution and/or by a lack of vigilance, we as Adventists are becoming what we never dreamed we could become. We are becoming the oppressor that we have preached against so emphatically all these years. When we act the way we acted at San Antonio, our church is acting less like a gospel movement and more like a persecuting, papal power.

All Is Not Lost – We Can Still Safeguard Liberty

Destroyed For Lack of Knowledge

In Hosea 4:6 it says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” If the conflict over women’s ordination has taught me one thing, it is that all of us should be more careful in seeking a deeper understanding of how our church works so that we can all safeguard the process that God has given to us. We have stood by silently while the General Conference has minimalized Union jurisdiction. Our policies and procedures are only as good as our commitment to following them.

Liberty in Brotherly Love

It has also taught me how we should deal with our non-fundamental differences, both relationally and corporately.

While it is proper for the GC to make their will known, forcing the issue through a majority vote—that, in truth, meant something totally different than most delegates believed—only promotes disunity. It was a vote that should never have been taken. Adventists should never form policy outside of our fundamental beliefs by a worldwide majority vote. This type of browbeating only causes disunity in the church and solves nothing.

Gordon Bietz, President of Southern Adventist University, clarifies this:

“Disunity will come to the church when the majority seeks to impose convictions on the minority in areas that are not defined by the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. Ordination should be a policy determined at the division level; it cannot become Fundamental Belief No. 29, because there is no consensus on the issue in the Church. The worldwide unity of the Church will be assured when the focus is maintained on Jesus and our shared mission outlined in the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. Disunity will result when all are required to come to an agreement on issues over which we have developed no consensus…We must avoid the temptation to continue to more narrowly define the truth so as to exclude those who have a different perspective” (Is the Ordination of Women a Threat to Our Unity?)

Unity In Diversity

We don’t all have to do things the same way. Ellen White underscored this:

“The connection of the branches with one another and with the Vine constitutes them a unity, but this does not mean uniformity in everything. Unity in diversity is a principle that pervades the whole creation. While there is an individuality and variety in nature, there is a oneness in their diversity; for all things receive their usefulness and beauty from the same Source.” – Ellen White, SDA Bible Commentary

“Those who do labor together should seek to be in perfect harmony. No one should feel that he cannot labor with those who do not see just as he sees, and who do not in their labors follow just his plans. If all manifest a humble, teachable spirit, there need be no difficulty. God has set in the church different gifts. These are precious in their proper places, and all may act a part in the work of preparing a people for Christ’s soon coming.”
– Ellen White, Gospel Workers 92

Issues should be dealt with from the ground up and always with respect and allowance for our differences. It is too easy to force our brothers and sisters into the mold of the majority instead of respecting their liberty of conscious. The fate of the early church is our fate. Too easily the persecuted church becomes the persecuting church…

worldunityWhat My Family Has Taught Me About Differences

Ellen White says that we should live in the church like we live at home. I know from personal experience that my dad and my sons don’t see everything the same way I do. Yet we would never force each other or torch our relationship over our differences. This is the way the church should live also!

“Jesus Christ is the head of the church today, just like every other day. As Adventists, we agree on far more than we disagree about. This is not a fundamental belief; therefore it should not have power to divide us.” —Brenda Dickerson, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA

Take courage all Adventists! Though our separate Unions may differ in their independent policy according to what they believe will best advance the work of God in their fields, we all agree on every one of the 28 fundamental beliefs! And that is something to celebrate!

Every Seventh-day Adventist should read the following articles so that they can better understand our church structure and the jurisdiction of the unions: