After some 18 months of work, the 106 member Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) concluded deliberations with a June 2-4, 2014 meeting. The TOSC study group was appointed as a result of the 2010 Atlanta General Conference session request made by the North American Division (NAD) that the Church consider women’s ordination yet again. It is now possible to look more broadly at what TOSC (not an NAD but a General Conference committee), has revealed.
Key outcomes from the 2013-2014 TOSC process now concluded include:
- The committee agreed that the Seventh-day Adventist practice of ordination was valid (some had urged the practice was unbiblical).
- The committee agreed that women should be involved in ministry. This was never in dispute although some favoring women’s ordination (WO) had suggested it was.
- As meetings progressed it became apparent some supporters of WO were proposing the use of methods that seriously diverged from the longstanding Seventh-day Adventist use of the historical-grammatical approach to biblical interpretation. Advocates of WO unveiled an “adaptation” of the historical-grammatical method and a “major” (2013 NAD Report, p. 24) plan for biblical interpretation they called the “principle-based, historical-cultural” (PBHC) method. This approach they placed on a continuum between the historical-critical and historical-grammatical methods! (Ibid., p. 8). This modification in approach, they said, was “required” in order to address certain “difficult passages” (Ibid., p. 31). Fortuitously for those favoring WO, the use of the PBHC method eliminated from the Bible “conclusive evidence prohibiting the ordination of women” (Ibid., p. 25). The NAD study committee report here quoted from, far from supporting the historical-grammatical method as claimed (Ibid., pp. 7, 8, 14-20) actually treated the 1986 “Methods of Bible Study” document advocating it selectively at best, even criticizing it (Ibid., pp. 23-25).
- Several biblical passages touching the question of Headship were studied in TOSC. Although the committee as a whole was divided, many found the exploration of the Scriptures on this point stimulating and useful.
The spirit of the meetings remained positive, but TOSC closed with no consensus. Participants remained sharply divided over women’s ordination.
The results of the TOSC process will in due course be made available in its final report, which includes the positions and recommendations suggested by groups in the committee. This material will be forwarded to General Conference ADCOM (Administrative committee) this month. At Annual Council this October the General Conference will review TOSC’s advisory recommendations and determine how the women’s ordination question will be processed at the 2015 General Conference session in San Antonio, Texas, USA.
In the concluding meeting, a third distinct group developed. This group felt it necessary to concede that the Church should let each division decide the women’s ordination question for itself. While holding that the office of the ordained minister should ideally be carried out by males, this group’s overarching stated concern was unity. And so, as God permitted Israel to choose for itself a king against His will, the Church should let each division decide the women’s ordination question for itself—even if the decision to ordain women was wrong.
A straw poll was taken on the last day of the meeting. Thirty-two persons voted for the biblical-qualifications (anti-women’s ordination) position. Forty committee members favored women’s ordination. And 22 persons voted for the let-each-division-decide-independently option. Imagine! Here we stand on the very borders of the heavenly Canaan, and the best we can do is agree to disagree?
The straw poll seemed to show that the participating majority of the committee would approve of having each division decide the matter of women’s ordination for itself—yet this was not so. In fact, the “Biblical qualifications” (anti-WO) and the “A proposal for an accord on Women in Ministry” (pro-women’s ordination) positions were very firm. Thus, the majority of the 95 polls returned (73) were NOT interested in the compromise position as their first option. (But as many as 12 who favored women’s ordination could have included the compromise position as their second option). But the straw poll also showed (32 + 22) that more than half of those participating understood male headship/leadership to be the biblical position. The compromise position garnered 22 responses as first choice, yet of those 22 almost as many, 19, were willing to accept another option. Thus, the compromise position lacked deep commitment. In contrast to these, zero of the 32 participants marking the “biblical qualifications” (anti-WO) position were willing to mark either alternative as second choice, while two did have a distant third option they preferred to the other. And so, a more nuanced look at the poll results shows that rather than being fluid, the positions are rather firmly locked.
Some favoring women’s ordination will overstate the significance of the straw poll results, but in actuality, there is little in the TOSC process for them to rejoice in. TOSC has revealed the most fundamental point in the whole matter. Namely, that should the world church adopt women’s ordination, it will have to change its approach to biblical interpretation in order to lend support for the new practice. It is no news that some are ready to change how we interpret the Bible in order to prevent “division” of the church. Yet the facts remain: the church is divided as never before.
TOSC has not created the divide. It has only more clearly revealed it.
Everything turns on the Adventist approach to biblical interpretation. Encouraging each division to act unilaterally on women’s ordination would set the precedent that in future, every division would decide on same-sex marriage or any other overly controversial matter. In essence, this course of action would mean abandoning global coherence as a church body. We would become a gaggle of disagreeing units each doing what was locally felt to be the right. Can a church thrive or even persist in existence when it values unity even at the sacrifice of God’s ideal, more than that unity founded on the authority of “the Scripture of truth”? Another denomination might survive that approach for a time; the Seventh-day Adventist Church would not.
TOSC could not have been more successful in revealing that the Church now stands at a monumental crossroads in biblical interpretation. Whatever is decided in San Antonio, it will be impossible to turn back.