So we’re now less than a month away from the General Conference session in San Antonio. Obviously, the big item on the agenda in this year’s session will be the topic of Ordination. In what’s become as highly a polemical atmosphere as any Presidential campaign, it seems like everybody is trying to capitalize on the moment.
Just this week, I received a letter from the Adventist Review asking me to subscribe to their magazine with a heading something along these lines:
“Pastor Nelson, don’t miss any of the DRAMA at this years General Conference Session. Sign up now and receive the same daily briefings as the Delegates.”
No matter which way you cut it, this is a serious situation and there is no room to sensationalize or politicize what should be a prayerful, thoughtful, Spirit-led meeting of God’s people. If you’re unfamiliar with what the vote represents, Pastor Ty Gibson from Lightbearers spelled it out very well:
At the upcoming General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas, a vote will be taken on women’s ordination. It will go one of two ways:
- A NO vote will make a universal rule forbidding women’s ordination throughout the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church.
- A YES vote will allow for each of the church’s 13 world Divisions to decide what is best regarding women’s ordination in their particular area of the world.
Regardless of which way you view the myriad of issues that we as a church debate about, we must remember that there will be a post-San Antonio world and the way we go into this meeting as a church is just as important as what happens in and after it.
I’m currently reading George Knight’s book If I Were The Devil. This book was published in 2007 through the Review and Herald (R.I.P.) in which he shares 14 tactics he would use if he were the Devil.
If I Were The Devil…
1) I would put my best energies into getting the church to reject the ideas and plans of the coming generation.
2) I would get the church to think small.
3) I would get people to believe that there exists only one way to do something and that everybody has to do it that one way.
4) I would downplay the importance of new technologies in finishing the church’s work.
5) I would make pastors and administrators the center of the work of the church.
6) I would undermine the importance of the local congregation.
7) I would create more administrative levels and generate more administrators.
8) I would make Adventists afraid of the Holy Spirit.
9) I would encourage the denomination to keep playing the numbers game.
10) I would get Seventh-day Adventists to forget or at least downplay their apocalyptic heritage.
11) I would get Adventists to hold that all of their beliefs are of equal importance.
12) I would get Adventists fighting with each other.
13) I would get as many Adventists as possible to think tribally, nationally, and racially.
14) I would get Adventists to look miserable on Sabbath.
Right now, I’d call that book downright prophetic. With the battle cries of “certain war” and “a splintered church” regardless of which way the delegates vote, I’d say that the spirit pushing this idea sounds very similar to what Dr. Knight published.
Again, everyone take a deep breath. If we go back to the very first General Conference session in 1863, we see that the church was in the middle of an equally contentious issue. The big fight there was whether or not the church should become an organized entity to begin with! Many sincere Advent believers thought that by becoming an organized and incorporated church, that would mean that they were turning into Babylon and therefore, apostatizing.
The fear was that by becoming organized and incorporated (by obtaining legal status from the “land beast of Revelation,” which Adventists identify this as the United States), it would open up the floodgate to Satan’s influence. They used the Bible and their reading of it to prove their point.
Now, at our 60th General Conference session, the same base issue is on the floor again. Although this time the surface issue is ordination, the real root issue is the same. Namely, it is a question of hermeneutics (how we interpret the words of the Bible). Gibson, again, describes both sides in this debate:
“The prominent voices in favor of a NO vote are telling us that the Bible clearly forbids the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, and that allowing women to be ordained would render the Seventh-day Adventist Church unfaithful to Scripture and to God.
The prominent voices in favor of a YES vote are telling us that the Bible does not forbid the ordination of women and, therefore, the church is free to do what it deems best on the matter for the advancement of the gospel.”
As a well-known saying goes, however, unless we learn from the past we are doomed to repeat it. What held the early Advent movement together as they started thinking about how best to serve God? What lessons can we learn from past history in order to see a vibrant post-San Antonio Adventist church? Here are a few thoughts that I think are important to keep in mind.
1) The church has always had a mentality of growing into more truth and not staying spiritually static.
At one point early in their history, Adventists believed that the door of probation had closed to the world after 1844. Obviously, today we don’t hold this view. Now, we have a worldwide mission across the globe and see the door of mercy open to all who would accept it. While we could also pick any number of other beliefs that developed over time within Adventism (e.g. Sabbath, tithing, health message, Trinity, etc.), this idea of progressive revelation was seen before the 1863 G.C. and even after it.
Going back to the original contentious issue (incorporation) at the first G.C., James White, who was eventually the second, fourth and sixth General Conference president (and husband of Ellen), had a gradual shift in his hermeneutical thinking (again, how he interpreted the Bible). His interpretation of the Bible changed from allowing only things Scripture explicitly mentioned (he was originally anti-organization) to an interpretation that approved of anything that did not contradict the Bible.
He would write the following to argue his point against his haters (which he had a lot of):
“we believe it safe to be governed by the following RULE. All means which, according to sound judgment, will advance the cause of truth, and are not forbidden by plain scripture declarations, should be employed.”
At this point some may say, “Yes, but that’s what we’re arguing! A plain reading of Scripture CLEARLY forbids (or allows, depending on your view) the ordination of women!” That leads me to the second point, which is probably the most important point to consider:
2) A vote that would help fulfilling of the mission of the church was of vital importance at that first G.C. session.
The driving force behind White’s change of hermeneutics and concepts of church structure was a growing Biblically based understanding of the mission of the church.
Even though he had naysayers left and right, James White pushed for incorporation of the church because he believed it to be best for the future of the church. He said:
“It was not ambition to build up a denomination that suggested organization, but the sheer necessities of the case.”
James and other pioneers developed a system that would eventually become the Seventh-day Adventist church which stemmed from a deep desire to accomplish the mission of the three angels messages of Revelation 14 that they believed God had entrusted to them.
The realities in the field were what led to the decision to incorporate. I’ve openly shared my thoughts on the ordination issue before so I’ll say it again: I believe that ambition isn’t what’s driving most women into ministry (I’d say that applies to more men, actually). Quite the opposite – why would a woman voluntarily subject herself to constant second guessing of her calling to ministry at a time like this? She could be used as a political football for either perspective while very little attention would be paid to her actual ministry!
Yet, the reality of the field is that sheer necessity is requiring our church to take action. Regardless of what your view of ordination is, there are already female elders and pastors faithfully doing work for the mission of the church around the world with and without being ordained. We already have ordained female pastors in China who see themselves a lot differently than the administration of the church explains them to be, “Ordained simply to meet government policy.” They see themselves as Adventist leaders with a mission!. Again, these are the in-field realities that we are seeing today.
Out of curiosity, I wondered what James White would say about today’s struggle. We don’t know for sure. But here is an interesting quote where he speaks about how some people could be tempted to view the gifts of the Spirit (pastoring is one of those gifts) being bestowed upon one gender over another:
“We object to that narrow-souled theology which will not allow the old ladies to have dreams because the prophecy says, ‘your old men shall dream dreams;’ and that will not allow young women to have visions because the prophecy says ‘your young men shall see visions.’ These stingy critics seem to forget that ‘man’ and ‘men’ in the Scriptures, generally mean both men and women. The Book says that it is ‘appointed unto men once to die.’ Don’t women die?” (James White, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 25, 1862; Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, p. 24).”
While this quote doesn’t prove anything, the point is I believe James White would have sided with what was best for the accomplishing of the mission of the church.
The same missional spirit must be at the forefront in San Antonio. The question should be asked by all delegates, “What is the best for the accomplishing of the mission of the church in the future?” We should not allow a polemical atmosphere to skew the balance between unity and diversity, rigidity, and adaptability that is necessary in a worldwide church.
3) Knowing God’s will is not easy, but how we treat each other matters more than the beliefs we individually hold.
Even though James White was able to push through the idea of incorporating the church, it came at a high price. No, the church didn’t split, but he did continue to face criticism and prolonged stress because of it. Over the years, this mental and physical overwork led to his premature death at age 60. Ellen White is said to have attributed his death, in part, to the exhausting work of leading a growing church in such a contentious time.
As for us today, how are all of these debates helping our health as a church? Are outsiders looking at our posts, videos, and discussions, saying, “Man, that’s the kind of church that I want to belong to!” Are we so caught up in our internal bubble that we forget that other people are looking at the way we act and are making judgement calls based on it?
You can win the battle over ordination but lose the war over souls in the end.
We have a worldwide mission to accomplish and a short time to do it. Yes, delegates from all over the world are going to be converging in Texas next month in one of the most important meetings in recent memory.
What we need more of is prayer. What we need more of is encouragement and reminders of God’s leading. What we need more of is individual fasting and corporate repentance.
We don’t need the partisan bickering that is being posted back and forth online and the mass mailing of books being sent to church mailboxes across the country. My plea for our church is to get it together for the sake of the Gospel. Whatever view of ordination you hold, if you judge or treat with contempt the people who hold a different opinion than you, don’t expect God to soften your heart for those on the other side in Heaven if you’re not willing to be led by the Spirit that way right now.
Resentment towards your brothers and sisters across the aisle will be the millstone that weighs you down and keeps you from glory. So stop with the YouTube videos, stop with the book mailers, and stop with the bashing. Let’s commit to praying for the future of our church, believing that our great High Priest is still in control. There will be a post-San Antonio world and we will get through this situation as a united church because Jesus is still there. Believe it.
 George Knight, If I Were The Devil, pgs 19-25.
 Ibid, 74.
 James White, “Making Us a Name,” Review and Herald, Apr. 26, 1860, pp. 180-182.
 Knight, 79.
 James White, Life Incidents (Battle Creek, Mich.: Seventh-Day Adventist Pub. Assn., 1868), p. 299.