What authority do church unions have in ordaining ministers?

Questions & Answers October 22, 2016

Q: When unions were established, God saw to it that they had final authority to determine who gets ordained. How is it that when they exercise that authority they are rebellious? Has the General Conference decided that they know better? How does this (what absolutely appears to be an) exercise of kingly authority promote unity? — Bill, from the United States

A: Thank you for your questions, Bill. First, allow me to address the misconception that you voice in your first sentence regarding unions.

When union conferences were established, they were given the responsibility of working within the policies outlined for the world church which now generally takes place by world church representatives at an Annual Council and sometimes at a General Conference Session. Unions were established to make mission more local since the General Conference wasn’t able to cover the world with direct counsel for every situation, but unions are not a law unto themselves.

While the union has the right to approve or disapprove of which individuals, recommended from local conferences, to ordain, that decision is to be made only within the framework of the Working Policy of the world church. In addition, the unions are not responsible for approving men to be ordained to the gospel ministry on the division or the General Conference levels. Each of those organizations and their institutions, through the respective executive committees, are authorized to approve ordinations. Therefore, the unions are not responsible for all aspects of ordination.

However, all organizations at every level are subject to the General Conference Working Policy and specifically to the “Qualifications for the Ordination to the Ministry,” found in Working Policy L 35 as explained further below in this response.

Please note this very important point: Working policies are not equivalent to Scripture or to the counsel given in the Spirit of Prophecy. Working policies are agreements made by church leaders and lay members from around the world as to how we will operate as a world church in carrying out our God-given mission. The foundational principles of policies are and should be based on the instruction of the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy.

The Working Policy isn’t written by just one person, or a small group of individuals. Items in the Working Policy have gone through a careful process including input from a variety of sources, review by committees and groups (including the Policy Review and Development Committee, Administrative Committee, President’s Council, Secretariat Council, Treasury Council, General Conference and division officers) and finally presented to and voted on by representatives of the entire world church during an Annual Council of the Executive Committee.

It is also important to know that most Working Policy has been in existence for decades as the church has progressed in its organization. As already indicated, adjustments to policy are generally made at Annual Councils.

Let’s look at some fascinating information as to how the world church works in a very interrelated manner — all with Christian goodwill — nurtured by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all administrators at every level. In our world church’s Constitution, we read:

“The General Conference conducts much of its work through its divisions, which in turn are comprised of unions in specific areas of the world.

“Each division of the General Conference is authorized to carry out responsibilities in the territory assigned to it.

“It shall act in full harmony with the General Conference Constitution and Bylaws, the General Conference Working Policy, and actions of the Executive Committee.

“… the actions of division committees shall, of necessity, be in harmony with and complementary to the decisions of the General Conference in Session, and the actions of the General Conference Executive Committee between Sessions” (Constitution of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Art. III).

“Administrations of all organizations and institutions within a division’s territory shall be responsible to their respective executive committees/boards and operate in harmony with division and General Conference Executive Committee actions and policies.” (Bylaws of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Art. 1, Sec. 4).

“The General Conference Working Policy shall be strictly adhered to by all organizations in every part of the world field. The work in every organization shall be administered in full harmony with the policies of the General Conference and of the divisions respectively. … All conference [whether union or local], mission, or institutional administrators shall cooperate in maintaining these policies as they affect the work in their respective organizations. Only thus can a spirit of close cooperation and unity be maintained in the work of the church in all parts of the world field” (B 15 10, par. 1).

The Working Policy is clear that only men are to be ordained to the gospel ministry. L 35 05 of the Working Policy under the heading of “Qualifications for the Ordination to the Ministry” indicates:

• “The setting apart of men for the sacred work of the ministry should be regarded as one of the most vital concerns of the church.”

In that L section under L 35 10, it further states: “The mind of the Lord concerning the qualifications for the ministry is clearly revealed in the Scriptures. Anciently the minister was known as ‘the man of God’ (1 Kings 12:22), sometimes the man of the Spirit. Detailed instructions were given to Moses concerning the qualifications of the priesthood, with the priest’s dress, demeanor, and spiritual understanding being emphasized. …

“In the New Testament the picture is just as clear. The apostle Paul speaks of himself as ‘a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God’ (Rom. 1:1). … Later in writing of the work of the minister he spoke of it as a high calling (Phil. 3:14). In the Epistle to the Hebrews we read, ‘No man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God’ (chap. 5:4).”

In L 35 15 under “Spirit of Prophecy Counsel” in the “Acts of the Apostles,” page 328, is quoted: “A man can have no greater honor than to be accepted by God as an able minister of the gospel.”

Here is what the world church has agreed to in its Official Position section of the Working Policy (BA 60 10):

“The world church supports nondiscrimination in employment practices and policies and upholds the principle that both men and women, without regard to race and color, shall be given full and equal opportunity within the Church to develop the knowledge and skills needed for the building up of the Church. Positions of service and responsibility (except those requiring ordination to the gospel ministry) on all levels of church activity shall be open to all on the basis of the individual’s qualifications.” (General Conference Working Policy, 2015-2016 edition, p. 118).

Generally, all language throughout the Working Policy has been made gender-neutral or gender-inclusive except when referring to licensed ministers (who are on a track for ordination) (L 25) and ordained ministers in “Qualifications for Ordination to the Ministry” (L 35). Regarding ordination, the Working Policy preserves the male gender pronoun in these sections.

As already referenced above, the designation is very specific when it says, “The setting apart of men for the sacred work of the ministry should be regarded as one of the most vital concerns of the church. …”

In the section, “Examination of Candidates for Ordination,” (L 50) we read:

• “Before the church sets a man apart by ordination he should have given satisfactory evidence of …” and then it lists several qualifications including:

• “a call to the ministry as a lifework, a belief in and knowledge of the Scriptures, an acquaintance with and full acceptance of the vital truths we believe we are called to proclaim to the world … a cooperative attitude and confidence in the organization and functioning of the church,” and more.

Another specific indication in Working Policy is in L 35 20, “Examination of Candidates,” which talks about the examination of candidates to be ordained as a process that is not to be perfunctory but a “true evaluation of the candidate’s fitness.”

This section indicates that “Wherever possible the candidate should plan to have his wife present for the examination, realizing that ordination affects not only the individual but the entire family.” This is very much in line with God’s counsel in His Word in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.

• The General Conference in Session in 1990 indicated that only men were to be ordained.

• The General Conference in Session in 1995 and 2015 indicated that no other level was to have the right to determine who would be ordained other than that which has been indicated in the Working Policy and confirmed by the General Conference in Session in 1990.

• After having treated this overall topic three times, the General Conference Session with representatives from all parts of the world owns this subject.

The B 15 section in Working Policy titled “General Conference Working Policy” indicates in B 15 05 that:

“The General Conference Working Policy contains the Constitution and Bylaws of the General Conference, the Mission Statement and the accumulated or revised policies adopted by General Conference Sessions and Annual Councils of the General Conference Executive Committee. It is, therefore, the authoritative voice of the church in all matters pertaining to the mission and to the administration of the work of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in all parts of the world.”

Therefore, whatever is voted at a General Conference Session, including policy decisions, is to have authority. The Spirit of Prophecy also supports this in “Testimonies to the Church,” Vol. 9, pages 260-261.

Regarding your “kingly authority” question: What could be more of a “kingly authority” action than to deliberately go against what has been voted by the worldwide representation of delegates from around the world at a General Conference Session? Three times this subject has been addressed in some form by a General Conference Session.

As president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I am duty bound with a sacred responsibility, as are all other officers of every level of organizations throughout the church as is indicated in Working Policy, to follow what the world church has voted in session (whether I agree with it or not). To go against this vote would be exercising kingly authority.

Let us be sure to recognize that our ultimate unity is found in looking steadfastly unto Jesus who is the Great Unifier portrayed in His John 17 prayer of unity. The Holy Spirit will keep us in unity and focused on our final, last-day proclamation of the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14 and the fourth angel of Revelation 18 as we unitedly lift up Christ, His righteousness, and His soon Second Coming.