Ted N. C. Wilson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, appealed to church members worldwide to earnestly read what the Bible says about women’s ordination and to pray that he and other church leaders humbly follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance on the matter.
Church members wishing to understand what the Bible teaches on women’s ordination have no reason to worry about where to start, said Artur A. Stele, who oversaw an unprecedented, two-year study on women’s ordination as chair of the church-commissioned Theology of Ordination Study Committee.
Stele, who echoed Wilson’s call for church members to read the Bible and pray on the issue, recommended reading the study’s three brief “Way Forward Statements,” which cite Bible texts and Adventist Church co-founder Ellen G. White to support each of the three positions on women’s ordination that emerged during the committee’s research.
The results of the study will be discussed in October at the Annual Council, a major business meeting of church leaders. The Annual Council will then decide whether to ask the nearly 2,600 delegates of the world church to make a final call on women’s ordination in a vote at the General Conference Session next July.
Wilson, speaking in an interview, urged each of the church’s 18 million members to prayerfully read the study materials, available on the website of the church’s Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research.
"Look to see how the papers and presentations were based on an understanding of a clear reading of Scripture,” Wilson said in his office at General Conference headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.
“The Spirit of Prophecy tells us that we are to take the Bible just as it reads,” he said. “And I would encourage each church member, and certainly each representative at the Annual Council and those who will be delegates to the General Conference Session, to prayerfully review those presentations and then ask the Holy Spirit to help them know God’s will.”
The Spirit of Prophecy refers to the writings of White, who among her statements on how to read the Bible wrote in The Great Controversy (p. 598), “The language of the Bible should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure is employed.”
“We don’t have the luxury of having the Urim and the Thummim,” Wilson said, in a nod to the stones that the Israelite high priest used in Old Testament times to learn God’s will. “Nor do we have a living prophet with us. So we must rely upon the Holy Spirit’s leading in our own Bible study as we review the plain teachings of Scripture.”
He said world church leadership was committed to “a very open, fair, and careful process” on the issue of women’s ordination.
Wilson added that the crucial question facing the church wasn’t whether women should be ordained but whether church members who disagreed with the final decision on ordination, whatever it might be, would be willing to set aside their differences to focus on the church’s 151-year mission: proclaiming Revelation 14 and the three angels’ messages that Jesus is coming soon.
3 Views on Women’s Ordination
In an effort to better understand the Bible’s teaching on ordination, the church established the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, a group of 106 members commonly referred to by church leaders as TOSC. It was not organized to be proportionately representative of the world church but simply to carry out the two-year study. In a first, special Biblical Research Committees in each of the church’s 13 world divisions contributed to the study process and were represented on TOSC.
A main goal of TOSC, which finished its work in June, was to determine whether it could find a consensus on women’s ordination, which it did not. Members split into three camps, known as Position Nos. 1, 2 and 3:
Position 1 emphasizes the biblical qualifications for ordination as found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and the fact that never in the Bible were women ordained as priests, apostles or elders. Therefore, it says, the Adventist Church has no biblical basis to ordain women.
Position 2 emphasizes the leadership roles of Old and New Testament women such as Deborah, Huldah, and Junia, and biblical passages in Genesis 1, 2 and Galatians 3:26-28 that stress all people are equal in God’s eyes. Therefore, it says, the biblical principle of equality allows the Adventist Church to ordain women to positions of church leadership wherever possible.
Position 3 supports Position 1 in recognizing a biblical pattern of male leadership in Israel and the early Christian church. But it also emphasizes that God made exceptions, such as the case of granting Israel’s desire for a king. It says women’s ordination is a matter of church policy and not a moral imperative and, therefore, the Adventist Church should allow each field to decide whether or not to ordain women.
Wilson urged church members to examine all three positions, which are presented in the final TOSC report.
“Be sure to look at all presentations and to understand how God is speaking to you from the Word and your daily walk with Him,” he said.
Although TOSC did not reach a consensus on women’s ordination, its members did approve a consensus statement on the theology of ordination and, in a separate statement, affirmed that they remain “committed to the message and mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as expressed through the 28 Fundamental Beliefs.”
Wilson said he hoped that all church members would embrace a similar willingness.
“If we’re not careful, the devil will sidetrack us into controversy that will create a diversion from what God intends for his last-day remnant church to accomplish, and that is to proclaim the three angels’ messages and gladly share about Christ’s soon coming,” he said. “The bigger question is how will we relate to the ongoing mission of the church.”
What Church Members Should Read
Stele, the TOSC chair and director of the church’s Biblical Research Institute, said that if church members looked at nothing else, they should read the committee’s short “Way Forward Statements.”
“If people want a very quick snapshot, they can go to the ‘Way Forward Statements,” he said in an interview. “Then when they get interested, they can go to the ‘Position Summaries.’”
The longer summaries are part of the 127-page final report, which also includes the TOSC-approved one-page definition of the theology of ordination, the history of TOSC, and a list of the many scholarly papers drafted for the study.
The study was initiated at the request of a delegate at the last General Conference Session, in 2010, and its necessity has been underscored by a growing chorus of calls for women’s ordination from some regional church leaders. Complicating matters, three of the church’s 124 unions — two in the U.S. and one in Germany — authorized women’s ordination in 2012 despite an appeal from church administrators to wait for the results of the study and the possible General Conference Session vote next year. The world church does not recognize the three unions’ decisions.
Stele urged church members not to be influenced by other people’s viewpoints on women’s ordination and to reach their own conclusions through prayerful study of the Bible.
“These position statements could really help because all of the key passages are interpreted from different angles here,” he said, holding a copy of the final TOSC report in his hand.
Stele said church members could influence the women’s ordination discussion in several ways, including by speaking with the delegates who will represent them at the next General Conference Session, which will be held in San Antonio, Texas.
Wilson likewise said church members could share their convictions with their pastors and conference presidents, but he asked that any conversations or letters be respectful and Christ-like.
“But most importantly,” he said, “we covet your prayers that we would humble ourselves as leaders and listen to the direct interventional voice of the Holy Spirit and God’s will as revealed in Scripture.”
Stele concurred, saying: “I think the more significant way to participate would be if every church member prayed. Pray for the process and pray for the Session so that it isn’t human wisdom that prevails but God’s will.”
The recommended starting point for people unfamiliar with the issues are these three “Way Forward Statements” that summarize the three positions on women’s ordination drafted by the Theology of Ordination Study Committee:
Way Forward Statement 1 (PDF)
Way Forward Statement 2 (PDF)
Way Forward Statement 3 (PDF)
Theology of Ordination Study Committee’s final report, including the “Position Summaries” (PDF)
All the documents related to the Theology of Ordination Study Committee’s work (web page)
All the documents related to the issue of the theology of ordination can be found in this special section on the website of the church’s Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (web page)
The Adventist Church’s official position on how to study the Bible, titled “Methods of Bible Study”
Previous reports on women’s ordination
“Reflections on the TOSC Deliberations” by Mark Finley, June 11, 2014
“Ordination Study Concludes with Suggestions for ‘The Way Forward’” by Adventist Review staff, June 5, 2014
“Study Committee Votes Consensus Statement on ‘Theology of Ordination’” by Mark A. Kellner, July 23, 2013
“Trust Is the Foundation of Unity” interview with Artur A. Stele by Bill Knott, Oct. 11, 2012
“Questions & Answers Regarding Current Issues of Unity Facing the Church,” Aug. 8, 2012
“An Appeal For Unity in Respect to Ministerial Ordination Practices” by General Conference, June 29, 2012
“Adventist Church Administration Commits to Comprehensive Study of Ordination” by Elizabeth Lechleitner, July 8, 2010