A couple weeks ago, church leadership from around the world met in Battle Creek for Annual Council 2018. The hottest item on the agenda was a vote around something called a “Compliance Document.” This website has reported extensively on the background to this document and the reaction from the more liberal sectors of the global church. Unsurprisingly, one of those liberal sectors includes Andrews University, the church’s flagship university and home to the SDA Theological Seminary.
It was here on Thursday, October 25 at 11:30 A.M. Dan Jackson (NAD President) visited to host a discussion and open forum along with AU’s President, Andrea Luxton and the Dean of the Seminary Jiri Moskala. The purported rationale was to discuss the Compliance Document and the response to it from the perspective of the Seminary, the University and the Division—all three of which are staunch proponents of women’s ordination. The discussion began with all three leaders sharing their thoughts with a little background information on why the World Church felt the need to “discipline” the out-of-compliance liberals.
Early in the discussion, President Luxton called for respecting the minority voice on campus but noted that unlike the 60-40 margin from the world church, issues of compliance and women’s ordination would probably lean the other way in the Andrews community by about 80-20. This acknowledgement was an admission that the community at Andrews is far outside the Adventist mainstream when it comes to the ordination discussion.
All three leaders shared that while they respected the democratic majority of the global church they wanted a consensus model with Elder Jackson sharing how the NAD had even tried to work on a proposed 4 page “Gamaliel” solution with the GC leadership. “You will never achieve unity through the enforcement of compliance…you will perhaps achieve uniformity,” Jackson argued. “The women’s issue” as he called it “will never go away….EVER”.
Elder Jackson’s non-verbal body language at this point—as well as his words—communicated his passion, intensity and difficulty with moving beyond the issue. At a later point in the conversation he said he doesn’t want to have another Annual Council discussion on this, foretelling a hope for peace, but also a troubling future for the NAD’s relationship with the World Church.
Jiri Moskala spoke of the issue in the context of words like “punishment”, “culture” and noted that for him the ordination of women is an issue of “social justice.” The leaders did note some of the GC’s response with President Luxton pointing to Elder Mark Finley’s “Myths” article as pushback to some of the accusations and insinuations about the document. With that, the mics were opened for discussion.
An older gentleman spoke first, arguing that the Fundamental Beliefs should be our foundation and Elder Wilson’s push for compliance is going beyond the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the church. He then stated he believed in the need for diversity with some divisions going their own way and others staying the status quo. “We need to recognize basic, fundamental social differences” in order to further the mission of the church, he argued.
Next came a question about how the document changes the organizational structure of the Church. The questioner asked specifically about the “kingly power” accusation that has been pushed by men like George Knight. Elder Jackson thankfully threw cold water on the accusation, though he did respond that while the document theoretically could have a lot of power, due to the realities of organizational structure (responsibility starts at lowest level of governance and goes up) he stated that he doesn’t actually see it as that big of a threat. In summary, because of the document’s long and complex process, implementation is more like that of a toothless tiger. Andrea Luxton added her thoughts by noting how it takes three years for any kind of enforcement action based on the document. This seemed to be a common refrain throughout the day with all three leaders going back and forth between criticizing the document as being too authoritarian, but then also downplaying it as almost powerless. Apparently those in opposition to the document haven’t settled yet on which view they wish to see it in, and so have decided to argue both views.
The next questioner asked about TOSC (Theology of Ordination Study Committee) and the purposes of it in relationship to consensus. Dean Moskala spoke about the “three groups” that came out of TOSC stating his view how “2/3 were in favor of ordaining women.” Elder Jackson helped clarify this nuance later on, after another question about TOSC—by sharing that among that 2/3 there was quite a bit of variation on what being in favor of ordaining women actually meant. Elder Jackson helpfully explained that TOSC was not the same as the Global Church and that no matter how hard those of us in the West may want women’s ordination, the vast majority in a place like Africa just won’t go along with it, and “not because they are bull-headed or bad people” they just don’t agree. The liberals in the West may see it as justice issue, but others see it differently.
A local pastor then asked a unity-based question, “How do you respond if you are for or against the church.” Elder Jackson responded he thinks most people in local churches could care less about the discussion. Elder Jackson noted that if he were a local church pastor his answer would be “I’m on the Lord’s side. I’m not on the NAD, I’m not on the GC, I’m on the Lord’s side.” President Luxton added that her answer would include a focus on the mission of the church and how we all can unite on the mission even if we disagree on some of the particulars.
The next questioner asked about the legality of the document and what response from the NAD would be considered appropriate. If the GC were to actually enforce the document, how can the NAD respond in a legal manner? Elder Jackson replied quite adamantly that The NAD IS NOT going to get involved in a legal match with the General Conference. Elder Jackson then recounted the legal background and why he believes the document isn’t actually that big of a threat in practice.
Another questioner, a white male from South Africa, shared his own experience about the time following apartheid where the church had to make difficult organizational decisions and he was on the opposite side. He noted how though he disagreed with policy he nevertheless went ahead with what the church went. Was it understood from everyone’s perspective that this was a POLICY vote, he asked? (There was some confusion as to which vote he meant, until it was clarified he was talking about GC Session 2015 in San Antonio.)
It’s been a common misunderstanding by those opposed to the actions of the world church that decisions on women’s ordination have been merely “policy votes” and therefore don’t require as much respect. Thankfully, Elder Jackson corrected the misunderstanding by stating “IT is NOT a policy vote. It is a decision of the General Conference.” Elder Jackson explained how the GC in Session is not there to create policy but rather to review the teachings and to help instruct how the church operates. As he summarized the three different types of meetings of the World Church are: Spring Council-Finances, Annual Council-Policy, GC Session-Doctrine, teachings, mission.
When asked if he expected this same issue/vote to come up again Elder Jackson replied “I don’t know if I expect it or not. I doubt it.” President Luxton interjected shortly thereafter her view that you can “Force something to happen quickly, but I don’t think compliance brings unity”.
A middle-aged black male known as “Dr. Nixon” spoke next. He gave more of a mini-sermon on “issues of justice” stating that when talking about mission, he believes the leadership needs to be accountable to membership. Dr. Nixon, referenced another “meeting” going on, this one on social media and his view that the leadership of the church is being tone deaf and ignoring the liberals and Millenials in North America, who are very disaffected by what they see.
Dean Moskala called it a “well-formulated question”, while Elder Jackson said the observations about local church are correct. “The pushback hurts every time it comes” said Elder Jackson consoling the hurt feelings of those women wishing to go where the rest of the church has said it doesn’t want to go. Elder Jackson then added “I’m not defending it but we’re a world church so different congregations are different”.
Next Stanley Patterson, one of the professors in the Seminary, spoke on his view how the church invented the organization. We had a people-centric organization up til…Sunday the 14th” (referencing the date of the vote). We didn’t have a boss system “until Sunday the 14th”. Patterson then went on an attack against the church leadership calling the GC a “coercive” arm and described it as if the GC was now on a witch hunt. He then shared his own personal story of talking to some young pastors who almost left the church. Thankfully a good liberal, Dr. Patterson was standing by to encourage them to stay and work to change the church of its old ways. Patterson admitted his own personal struggles with his closing “I really wish someone would make me committed and not just compliant.”
Elder Jackson expressed his admiration for Dr. Patterson “Because he speaks truth to power.” Elder Jackson then shared his own feeling that he wasn’t afraid, and that there shouldn’t be fear around this issue. While admitted he couldn’t just throw this issue aside, Elder Jackson instead spoke about his work of recruiting 1000 female pastors in the NAD. This led to applause and lots of cheering from the pro-women’s ordination audience. Yet Elder Jackson argued that his authority to do was so not based on NAD ideology but rather 8 pages full of affirmation of women in ministry that came straight from the GC Working Policy.
With that, the discussion entered the last “15 minutes” and speakers were told to hurry things along.
A young woman spoke next and asked how the NAD plans to move forward at Year-End Meetings, after the Compliance vote. Should there be any financial implications? Elder Jackson replied “I have never believed that we use tithe as a weapon.” He did note, however, that the NAD has been in discussions with the GC around tithing equity and he personally supports a review. However, Elder Jackson (possibly in a dig at other GC leaders) stated “We do NOT do politics in the North American Division. We will allow the people to respond.”
Another young woman student asked about the issue of education. She felt the reason women’s ordination may not be so supported in some local churches as it is on the campus of Andrews may be because people already have their culture, their own opinions. She wondered if the NAD had any plans to use its platform to “educate” (some might say “re-educate”) the laity for new thinking in line with what those in the Seminary and Adventist academia believe. President Luxton replied that the NAD already has many ways it uses to reach and educate lay members.
Another black woman then brought up the current political climate in the United States and spoke her fear how the politics in the nation were mirroring the politics in the church (perhaps a veiled reference to the Trump-Wilson comparison).
Finally there was a voice from the global majority. A young male (who later answered he was from Nairobi in Africa), asked a question regarding voting. “Why be part of a process (democracy) where a statement is voted and you say, No it’s not my way and I have to do my way?” Why go forward when the global church says no?
Elder Jackson replied “I don’t agree, doesn’t mean I’m not still on the team.” The difficulty for Elder Jackson is because of conscience issues. In Kenya that’s how things are, he said. “But in North America we do things differently.” Elder Jackson then went on to lecture the young man how he was steeped and rooted in the culture of Kenya, and that North American culture is very different. Elder Jackson then referenced the non-compliant action of the Southeastern California Conference in making a woman, Sandra Roberts, its President. Why didn’t you go there, throw out the officers and have new elections? Elder Jackson then shared an analogy to his experience on a safari, saying if he had done the same with lions in the road he would have been torn to pieces. Apparently, though Elder Jackson may disagree with what happened he feels too powerless/weak to do much about it. Elder Jackson then continued his lecture on culture and how in his view “The Church needs to grow up and recognize divergences that aren’t doctrinal.”
Others followed, largely sharing their personal concerns and asking for support for female pastors especially in this difficult atmosphere the document has created. President Luxton shared her own difficulties as a woman in leadership and Elder Jackson added “If God called you, He will see you through. He then gave more words of “encouragement” to women to continue their role in ministry no matter what the global church says. Elder Jackson then closed with prayer specifically referencing “Women and men alike.”
With that, the discussion, and sometimes emotional support session, came to an end. Stay tuned for the NAD year-end meetings beginning next week to see what fallout may further come from this discussion.