By Loren Seibold
The latest conservative denomination to deny women ordination is the Seventh-day Adventist church, a denomination whose single most significant shaping force was its 19th-century prophetess and co-founder, Ellen Gould Harmon White.
White's role in the church might have suggested that women's spiritual leadership would be welcome. But that assumption wasn't tested until the push to strengthen women's rights in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1985 meeting of the quinquennial world convention, delegates voted to allow female pastors to work under a limited "commissioned minister" license, and congregations to ordain female lay elders. The decision was welcome in many parts of the American, European, and Australian church but sat uncomfortably with others, sparking three decades of campaigning against any further moves in that direction.
Delegates in 2010 requested a Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) with the hope of settling the question. Impetus was provided by a few smaller judicatories in the United States and Europe that pushed ahead with granting full ordination to the women ministers in their territory. The TOSC convened in 2013. Though the result of that committee's work was encouraging about the possibility of women's ordination in those parts of the world church that wanted it, a motion was presented at the 2015 meeting of the world church without the recommendation from the TOSC.
Three things worked against its passage.
- The selection of Ted N.C. Wilson as church president. Wilson, though a North American, won the loyalty of the conservative delegates by promising to fight against the liberalization that many feared was happening in the American church. Wilson is a skilled politician with an authoritarian style, which he used to good effect against the women's ordination movement.
- A new theology of male headship. Opponents made a Biblical case for male leadership while also succeeding in grouping women's ordination with homosexuality, which frightened many in the aging demographic of the church.
On July 8, 2015, at the world conference in San Antonio, TX, the motion to allow large geographical regions (divisions) to decide for themselves about women's ordination was defeated 60% to 40%. (To the disappointment of many, who hoped this vote was a referendum on all female church leadership, female commissioned ministers and female lay elders were not eliminated: the motion was confined to the question of whether divisions could grant full ordination to women in their territory.)
The denomination has tried hard to maintain uniformity in both theology and polity throughout its approximately 175-year history. In the latest session much was made of an 1875 statement by Ellen White (ironically) that the General Conference session is the highest authority of God on earth, meaning that the July 8 vote was an ex cathedra decision binding all parts of the church.
Yet some of the judicatories that had already begun ordaining women have said they'll continue to do so, in defiance of the session vote. Which leads most observers to conclude that the question is far from settled.