Preventing Schism in Our Denomination
By Edwin de Kock
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is about to tear itself apart with infighting about the ordination of women as pastors. At the 2015 General Conference session in San Antonio, a majority of the delegates voted against it. The leadership did, however, retain the commissioning of women pastors, without ordination.
Two Union Conferences in the United States are still ordaining women pastors. The larger Berlin Conference in Germany as well as the Union Conference of the Netherlands are doing the same. In China, the SDA church is largely led by women who are ordained and continue ordaining others, including men. But in Denmark and Norway, the leadership has discontinued ordination altogether, for men as well as women. In South Africa, female ministers are commissioned through the laying on of hands, that is, through ordination! About this issue, we are now in total disarray.
But the office of the pastor, as something different from and higher than that of the elder, is unbiblical and also contrary to an older Seventh-day Adventist practice during the nineteenth century.
In the early Christian Church, there were, apart from the Apostles, no pastors, only elders and deacons; also, it seems, deaconesses. Similarly, in the early SDA Church, at first no pastors existed, only elders and deacons. A wrong model replaced what God had intended. This is how Seminary professor P. Gerard Damsteegt startlingly put it twenty years ago:
“Soon after the death of the prophet John, many early Christians abandoned the New Testament leadership model of elders having the oversight of the local church, to a church leadership that centered on the bishop as the head of the congregation while elders functioned as his assistants. Similarly, shortly after the death of the prophetess and messenger to the remnant church, Ellen White, Seventh-day Adventists replaced the leadership of the local elders with a 2 minister or pastor-centered leadership structure in which elders functioned as his assistants.”1
After the death of the prophetess, the voice that spoke most strongly against the pastors taking control or hovering over local congregations was silent. As a result of the failure of elders and members to live up to their responsibilities in the local church, a gradual change began to take place in which the New Testament leadership model was abandoned and replaced by the “settled pastor” model. By having a paid “settled pastor” in charge of a church or several churches, church officials seemed to feel that this would be more beneficial than having ineffective
elders in charge of the congregation.
The appointment of “settled pastors” had a dramatic impact on the leadership role of the elders in the congregation. With the minister as the most important leader in the organizational structure of the local church, the church board, after the minister, became the decisive leadership voice responsible for the direction of the local church. Now the influence of the elder was generally reduced to leading out in platform responsibilities, breaking bread at Communion, giving advice to the church board, visiting members, and assisting the local minister. Nearly twenty years after Mrs. White’s death, this change of the elders’ authority became institutionalized with the official adoption of the first Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual in 1932.2
Our denomination should revert to the New Testament model as implemented by our pioneers during the nineteenth century. Elders rather than pastors should lead out in our churches. The issue of female ordination as pastors would evaporate, as these are phased out.
Our hierarchical system would disappear. Some elders would serve on a full-time basis and be remunerated through the tithing system. In many third-world countries, there is in any case a dire shortage of ministers.
If the present controversy about ordaining women as pastors continues, it will fragment the world unity of the SDA 3 Church. Many members would simply drop out. A large-scale withholding of tithes and offerings, especially in North
America, would be another reaction.
Let us solve this problem by eliminating pastoral ordination, which is unbiblical, a theological heresy. On the other hand, the ordination of female elders is already
established practice and need not be a cause for further controversy. But we also need electoral reform Why? According to our Church Manual, governance is supposed to be from the bottom up. But this is not how things work. We have, instead, a hierarchy, which governs from the top down, with the GC president at the apex. Our nominating committees are mostly chaired by functionaries representing the next higher level of governance. In the local congregation, the chairman is usually the minister, an employee of the Conference that pays his salary. In the deliberations of the nominating committee, he exerts an influence from above. This unduly empowers the Conference over the local congregations, though it supposedly serves their needs. At Conference constituency meetings, again, the nominating committee is usually chaired by the president of the Union Conference, whose interests he represents and is apt to promote. Etcetera. Second, for offices such as that of the conference president only one candidate is put forward. Therefore, third, the congregation or constituency is really a rubber stamp; it cannot choose between alternative candidates. The “nominating” committee is a de facto appointments committee. We need three modifications. First, the congregation or constituency must itself appoint the chair person of its nominating committee, excluding functionaries from above. Second, at least two candidates should be nominated for important positions. Third, the congregation or constituency must vote without manipulation. In this way, governance can be exercised in a non-hierarchical manner from the bottom up instead of from the top down. We can prevent a catastrophic schism by adopting the two measures outlined above: Phase out the pastors and reform our system of electing officers.
1. P. Gerard Damsteegt, “Have Adventists Abandoned the Biblical Model of Leadership for the Local Church?” in Here We Stand: Evaluating New Trends in the Church, ADVENTISTS AFFIRM: Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A., 2005.