By now, a lot of articles have been written about what is taking place at the Seventh-day Adventist Annual Council meetings in Silver Spring, Maryland. Basically, delegates have gathered at church headquarters to discuss, among other things, what to do with respect to ordination policy compliance.
In truth, though, these discussions aren’t as much about ordination, or even compliance with agreed working policy, as they are about procedure and authority. What does the church do when one entity takes actions independently of standards that have been agreed upon by the entire church body?
George Knight wrote a MUST read article for every Adventist member and leader about this issue which you can read on theHaystack.
Still, for all of the discussion about adherence to policy, I have one major challenge to this logic:
Religious appeals based primarily on policy adherence are bureaucratic legalism. And just like religious legalism, there is disproportionate attention given to some matters of the law at the exclusion of others.
For example, in my previous post about Adventist extremists, I shared the story of one pastor who was grilled by a church member for drinking water with a meal when, unbeknownst to the pastor, that same church member was struggling to quit smoking.
The current request for Unions to comply with voted ordination policy appears to be, on the surface, a selective witch hunt (although that may not be the case). This may be new information to some church members, but many conferences and unions have been out of compliance in other matters of ordination policy for years, but no one has ever gone to the lengths of disciplining these Unions as they are now with those who have approved the ordination of women. What am I talking about? For reference, here is the current denominational policy for the hiring of ministers in the Adventist Church:
L 05 Ministerial Training L 05 05 General Provisions—The educational requirement for entrance into the ministry shall be completion of the Ministerial Training Course as prescribed by the division committee. Candidates for the ministry who, because of age or unusual circumstances, have not completed the Ministerial Training Course as prescribed by the division and who are considered for employment as ministers, shall be referred for consideration to the respective union committee for careful study and implementation of applicable division policy in such circumstances. (emphasis added)
When I was at a Praxis meeting held at the General Conference in September 2015, one of the areas of frustration that I heard from leaders in the North American Division was the continued practice of employing and ordaining of pastors who had not gone through the ministerial training outlined in policy. It was noted that in theory, policy requires a vetting process for pastors who are outside of the educational requirements in order to see if their experience is comparable. Yet this is rarely, if ever, done in practice.
In some circles, the term “90-day wonder schools” is used to describe institutions that provide intensive training programs that cover a variety of evangelism topics like apologetics, personal and public evangelism, preaching, etc.
Two examples of these programs are the Amazing Facts College of Evangelism (AFCOE) and the ARISE program from Lightbearers.
Don’t get me wrong: these programs do deliver on their promise to provide practical evangelistic instruction to their students.
Some conferences hire these graduates to serve as Bible workers in their fields. Some take this a bit further and, after some time, hire these graduates as pastors, for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are obvious: the graduate may be an effective soul winner, or may otherwise be shown to have a clear calling from God into ministry. A conference may perceive this and make the moves to hire them as a full-time employee.
But there are other conference leaders who prefer hiring these graduates because of the “heresy” they fear is being taught and promulgated at Adventist universities and the Seminary. Speaking with an admitted degree of speculation here, I wonder if some conference leaders also prefer hiring these evangelism college graduates because they sense that they are easier to manage than pastors who have been seminary trained, as the latter may be more questioning and less submissive toward conference leadership.
The reasons for this submission are based on a subtle power dynamic comparable to the experience of undocumented persons in the country. Pastors in these positions might feel a sense of powerlessness because they have “no papers” and know that they could be gone at any minute without a degree to fall back on for other income. Thus, injustices (be they real or perceived) are tolerated and silence is kept until at least ordination when a bit of “extra security and tenure” is given.
Back to the matter at hand however, to be clear, these intensive programs do not provide the graduate with a degree from a higher education institution. When someone is hired as a full-time pastor, they begin to earn experience and are eventually ordained. To my knowledge, an ordained pastor must have at least a bachelor’s degree (preferably a Master of Divinity) before being ordained. The practice of ordaining pastors without academic degrees is out of compliance with current ministerial ordination policy. Yet this practice has been done for years with little to no fanfare, unlike current discussion over policy adherence when it comes to women’s ordination.
Here is a real life scenario of what happens when this detail is overlooked.
Pastor A is a single female who has a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. However, she struggles to find work after leaving seminary because few conferences want to take the risk of hiring a single female.
Pastor B is a single male who graduated from one of these 90-day intensive schools but has not yet completed his academic studies to obtain his bachelor’s. He also struggles to find a job because of his lack of degree.
Eventually, both are hired into full-time ministry.
At the point of hire, Pastor B is out of compliance with policy. At the point of ordination, Pastor B is still out of compliance.
In contrast, Pastor A is within policy at the point of hire, but is out of compliance at the point of ordination.
Here is the great irony that I’ve noticed in the appeals at the Annual Council to be in compliance with ordination policy: the church is discussing what to do for conferences and unions that have ordained Pastor A, citing compliance to policy. Yet no one bats an eye when Pastor B’s name comes up for ordination, even though his ordination would also be out of policy compliance.
As an outsider, it seems to me like a clear case of picking and choosing. It also seems that the push to discipline unions ordaining women is driven by an ideology which takes issue with women being on equal leadership footing with men in an ecclesiastic setting, not so much because of unity and concern for policy compliance.
Let’s use an even worse scenario. Some might remember the controversial educational scandal from earlier in 2016 when Adventist leaders had been accused of using fraudulent degrees to advance their careers. Both of the men in this scandal were ordained ministers. One of these leaders resigned from his position due to the fallout, but the other is still employed by the denomination at the Division level.
It seems to me as though the church turns a blind eye to policy matters in some cases, but uses policy as an excuse when it is expedient. Cynically speaking, it looks as though you can make it to the highest echelons of the church with questionable degrees (being in breach of ordination policy the whole time, of course), but as long as you’re a man, the issue won’t be brought up. This is not the way we ought to lead and work in God’s church.
Again, just like legalism in churches, arguments based on strict adherence to all points of policy are usually shortsighted and selective. These arguments look at the letter of the law yet overlook the Spirit that led to its establishment.
In speaking about this issue with a few colleagues, one noted:
Also, male only ordination is not part of our fundamental beliefs. We have a theological document (produced by the Theology of Ordination Study Committee), and it says nothing about that. You don’t implement policy in place of theology. We were told the policy is to unite us, not to bring us in compliance with scripture.
Another colleague responded with this candid remark:
The problem is that anti-WO activists are trying to use policy as a proxy for doctrine and thus bring in a new fundamental belief through the side door.
What our church really needs is not uniform compliance to policy as much as uniform conversion of the heart. Both sides need to see each other as fellow workers, not rivals. When pro-women’s ordination proponents jeer President Wilson for his views, we are not moving in the right direction. When anti-women’s ordination proponents revel in the prospect of punishing Unions or “cleansing” the church, we are not moving in the right direction.
Personally, I think the church needs to reexamine the idea of policy variance. I don’t believe the solution is to punish Unions ordaining women (in however form that looks like) any more than we should retroactively punish Unions ordaining pastors with no academic degrees. The practice of ordaining male pastors outside of ordination policy compliance is already happening on local levels where Unions deem fit. Unless we truly believe in the call of “reviving and reforming” our beliefs, practices, attitudes, and yes, even policies towards each other, delaying action on this matter for a year will only delay an unnecessary split in the church over non-essential matters.
If we believe that the Holy Spirit equips the Church with gifts for the furthering of the mission, and that spiritual gifts are not gender exclusive; and if Unions already make exceptions to policy when the Spirit’s leading is evident in the life of a young man possessing no academic degrees, why would we not make provision for the Spirit’s leading in the life of a young woman with three degrees?
If we’re not careful, we will slip into the same error of ancient Israel, who felt it needed to strictly adhere to the rules and even add new creeds to compensate for its reluctance to follow where God’s Word and Spirit were leading. (I could make a quip about the proposal of adding Adventist education as a new Fundamental Belief, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.)
I’ll be praying for the discussions and decisions taking place this week. I hope you’ll join me.