Council of Adventist Pastors
On March 29, 2016, the Upper Columbia Conference (UCC) executive committee voted into being a commissioned ministers policy which places that conference out of harmony with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Conference leadership argued to its pastors in five separate meetings and to its lay-advisory committee, that the change in practice was minimal.
If the changes are as insignificant as the constituency is being told, would it not have been wiser for leadership to prioritize harmony within the conference and unity with the world church? But the changes were sufficiently imperative that the topic was placed on the executive committee agenda in December 2015 and continued until voted March 29, 2016.
If the changes are insignificant then why force them upon the constituency? And if they are significant, then how could they rightly be represented to church members as inconsequential? Because of the high-handed action of the executive committee, several Upper Columbia congregations are now petitioning the conference to hold a special constituency session to reverse the action of the executive committee. (The Council of Adventist Pastors will report on this development in an upcoming article.)
But why is this action by the executive committee wrong? Consider two reasons: (1) the committee is acting outside of its authority, and (2) the committee is setting an example of insubordination.
Conference Acts Outside its Authority
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is not a gaggle of independent bits; its unity is not a fiction. The numerous unions of the church are not loosely connected. Heaven has appointed a system for leadership and decision-making in which the whole benefits from the parts. The spiritual experience of the varied members in all parts of the church is represented in voice and vote. God guides the larger body. He speaks through His servants.
In multiple General Conference (GC) sessions He has spoken on specific motions involving women in ministry. In 1990, 1995 and 2015 sessions His people understood His will as persistently supporting biblical qualifications for congregational leadership. Thus, His church has consistently refused to legitimize the ordination of women. Thousands of delegates have voted “No” on motions which would have resulted in women being placed in the headship position of ordained minister.
But now to the current situation. While the Seventh-day Adventist Church has repeatedly turned back attempts to apply the ordained minister credential to women, some have refused to accept God’s will for His Church. Some are now engaged in an attempt to inflate the authorities granted to the commissioned minister.
The result of such a process, if successful, would be to conflate that credential with the ordained minister credential. As previously outlined (see Commissioned Minister Crisis 1 | 2), in several ways the Upper Columbia Conference executive committee is disregarding not only the spirit of the San Antonio GC decision, but even North American Division (NAD) Working policy (WP) and the Church Manual voted by the world church.
Even as the UCC executive committee was voting on March 29 to place the conference it represents in contradiction to the world church, committee members had been given copies of NAD Working Policy L 32 by UCC administration explicitly showing that their action would place the conference in opposition to the world church. Conference executive committees are not granted such authority at any level. Nor are conferences or unions permitted to recreate the credentials by changing the authorities granted in the commission in each distinct credential. In August 2015 the General Conference Secretariat released a document explicitly restating to the church and all of its organizational units where the authority to set qualifications for credentials resides:
The authority given to the unions is not only delegated, but also limited. Unions have the power to select those to be ordained from among candidates proposed by conferences who meet the criteria set by the World Church. Authority to determine the criteria has never been delegated from the General Conference to any other organization—it does not belong to the work of the union. . .(1)
The facts are clear as crystal:
Nowhere does GC WP authorize any other entity to change the qualifications already voted by the world church. Working Policy does not enable unions to ignore the actions of GC Sessions or of the GC Executive Committee. In selecting who should and should not be ordained to gospel ministry, each union is bound to maintain and implement the criteria for ordination found in GC Working Policy, and to comply with World Church practice and policies.(2)
No other church entity is authorized to change the qualifications already voted by the world church. This is true of all credentials, not only the ordained minister. It applies also to the commissioned minister credential. In expanding the authorities invested in the commissioned minister credential, the executive committee is sidestepping criteria established by the world church and is acting outside of its delegated authority. The committee, on its own, is establishing a set of beliefs about congregational leadership local to the conference, which are in opposition to those of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. As the GC document notes:
Unions do not have the right to set their own criteria for ordination and are operating outside the parameters of Church structure if they do, just as if a local church decided to establish its own set of beliefs then it would no longer be a Seventh-day Adventist Church.(3)
An Example of Insubordination
Secondly, the UCC executive committee also set an example of insubordination. Conference membership is quite aware of the results of the 2015 San Antonio General Conference session. When the conference president places such an agenda item before the conference executive committee only five months after the GC decision not to permit unions to create policy to ordain women, and when that committee votes to defy the world church, we see insubordination. Intent is one thing, but what people see by actions sets example.
What will be the fruit of this spirit? When insubordination is modeled, insubordination will be duplicated. When leaders disobey the world church there is a ripple effect. If there is no intervention, in due course others will be led to disregard the world church. How can this strengthen God’s Church?
We know of no persons in the Upper Columbia Conference who asked for clarification of the conference’s practice concerning commissioned ministers before the “clarification” was proposed at the December 2015 executive committee meeting. There is a difference between “clarification” and “creation.” The introduction of a world church-defying conference policy is not a clarification!
The idea that the new policy was needed to clarify and that it helps the conference toward unity, is incorrect. We do not believe that the intent of the executive committee is to dissolve organizational authority or to strengthen the impulse toward congregationalism. We also realize that the committee itself is not agreed (the March 29 vote to adopt the policy was 5 opposed, 11 in favor, and one abstention). Nor do we sense in them a desire for disunity. Nevertheless, the action of the committee is dividing the conference.
People become members of the church because they desire to be Seventh-day Adventists and not something else. Church organization is not a plastic, malleable thing. We join together into a church organization that is not liquid, that does not slosh this way and that with the tides of cultural correctness. To engage in church membership says, I stand for something definite, something carefully organized. To act in contravention toward the practices of the world church is insubordination. We cannot at the same time be Adventists and act contrary to the Adventist Church.
The Council of Adventist Pastors appreciates the faithfulness of Upper Columbia Conference congregations which are determined to remain in harmony with the world church. Theirs is an example of clear focus. The mission of the church with its health and unity are important. We cannot conceive of any part of the church where leaders are needed whose influence sets an example of exceeding authorities delegated, or, in teaching insubordination.
We call on leaders in every conference to revisit their own goals and agendas and see if there is now opportunity to come into closer harmony with the message and mission of Jesus and His Church. All, in word and action, should set an example of fidelity to God and support of His Church.
NEXT: Commissioned Minister Crisis 4…
- “Unions and Ordination to the Gospel Ministry” Brief Summary and Comprehensive Explanation, General Conference Secretariat, August 2015, p. 1. Emphasis in original.
- Ibid., p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 4.