A House Divided (4A): Words Matter…“Generally”

(This is article 6 in a 9 article series by Adrian Zahid)


In this article, we build all the conceptual legal elements that are the building blocks for the current debate over the role of unions. After examining relevant policy language, legal precedent, administrative precedent, and dissolution scenarios we will be able to see the vast implications this debate holds for our church going forward.

Mitchel Tyner has put forward the best legal arguments on this issue from the Unions point of view. He is a retired Associate Counsel of the General Conference. He published two articles in Spectrum Magazine,[1][2] and a paper,[3] at a scholarly conference on the topic of Adventist Ecclesiology held at La Sierra University.

I critique his articles and paper on the constitutional questions behind the Union-General Conference dispute over the authority of a Union to unilaterally ordain women to the Gospel Ministry. I also explore the constitutional and due process issues that are central to this debate and to other crucial issues as well.

Background Context

We start with an online release from the Pacific Union-Conference (PUC). The process and rationale that formed the basis of their decision to ordain without regard to gender is quoted in full below [Emphasis mine].

“In March 2012, at a regular quarterly meeting of the Executive Committee of the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, a lay member moved that the Executive Committee begin immediately approving requests from local conferences for ordinations to the gospel ministry for both men and women. After much discussion, the motion was tabled until the next meeting on May 9. At the March meeting, an ordination study committee was appointed to study how to implement the ordination of both men and women within the policies of the church and within the authority of the union. The Union bylaws committee also met and recommended a bylaws change. On May 9, the executive committee heard the reports from both of these smaller committees, then voted to call a special constituency meeting on August 19 to consider the issue.

Initially, legal counsel and the bylaws committee advised that the Executive Committee could not approve ordinations without regard to gender unless the Union bylaws were changed to say the Union would “generally” follow voted world church policy. The reason that the executive committee could not vote to ordain women without changing the bylaws was that the bylaws said the union will comply with all GC policy, and GC policy was thought to not permit the ordination of women. When church administrators pointed out that there is no GC policy limiting ordinations to men, the response was that even though there is no such policy, the assumption that there is such a policy is so widespread that the union would be best advised to proceed as if there were such a policy. The executive committee decided that the issue was contentious enough that the union should make no change without being sure the constituency supported a change.

Before the special session the same legal counsel advised that while the Executive Committee did not have the authority to approve the ordination of women without changing the bylaws, the delegates to a constituency session did have the authority to vote to approve the ordination of women, with or without changing the bylaws. They explained that since the constituency delegates create and modify the bylaws, the constituency delegates may choose at times to act out of harmony with their own bylaws. (This principle was illustrated at the 2010 General Conference session, where the delegates voted to not change the bylaw that says all departmental associates must be elected at GC session, but a few days later voted — contrary to GC bylaws — to elect the associates in the ministerial department at the next Annual Council. The action was contrary to the bylaws, but the constituency has the authority to vote exceptions.)

On August 19, 2012, the delegates to the Special Session voted (79% to 21%) to “approve ordinations to the gospel ministry without regard to gender,” but the delegates did not vote to amend the bylaws to say the Union would “generally” follow world church policy. That motion, which required a 66.7 percent positive vote to pass, received only 65.3 percent vote. The documents below represent the discussions that took place before, during and after the August 19 Special Session.”[4]

Without commenting on the issue of women’s ordination, we can still analyze the decision process and the rationale that is the foundation of this decision. 1) A lay person on the executive committee moved that the Pacific Union begin to approve requests to ordain both men and women effective immediately. 2) An ordination “study committee” was created to study the issue. 3) Approximately two months later the committee reported to the larger Executive committee its findings 4) Along with the findings the Bylaws committee reported its findings as well that under the current Bylaws such a decision was not possible. A change in the Bylaws was recommended 5) The Counsel and the Bylaws committee came to the conclusion that the change “generally” or “in general” to follow world policy 6) Then the church administrators [unnamed but presumably PUC administrators] pushed for an alternate reading/opinion of the General Conference Policy. The response [presumably legal counsel/Bylaws committee] stated that even if there wasn’t such a policy, the assumption was that there is one. 7) The executive committee decided that the issue was contentious [not clear if the issue of ordination was contentious or the variance in opinion regarding going afoul of world church policy] 8) The executive committee then decided to call a special session to vote on the change. In the interim, Counsel informed the executive committee that it was their opinion that the constituency session delegates could vote in the change without a change to the Bylaws. I was unable to find any written rationale by the Counsel however the stated rationale above is that they relied on precedent from a prior action at the 2010 General Conference in Session. Also, there is no indication that the PUC Counsel reached out to their counterparts at the Division or the General Conference for their opinion.

What is left unanswered from the PUC statement above is the reason why the Pacific Union Conference did not take into consideration the world church’s plan to study ordination, at the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC).

Needless to say, the then upcoming constituency session generated immense interest in the Pacific Union Conference and around the world, most notably at the General Conference. At the invitation of the PUC president, the General Conference President Ted Wilson, and two of his General Vice Presidents, Dr. Lowell Cooper, and Dr. [Armando?] were present to witness the vote. President Wilson requested for time to speak to the delegates and the members of his delegation spoke as well. A year later, according to a press release by the South-eastern California Conference (SECC), Ricardo Graham, president of the Pacific Union Conference, reminded delegates that the General Conference does not endorse women’s ordination, and he passed on a message from Ted N. C. Wilson, president of the world church, clarifying that the election of a woman as president would not be recognized by the General Conference. But Graham continued by stating that because delegates to the Pacific Union Special Session voted in 2012 to authorize the ordination of women, that the recommendation of the SECC nominating committee is in harmony with conference and union bylaws and policies.[5]

In the next two parts, I will share the excerpts from the transcripts from the PUC vote and the subsequent General Conference Session vote where church officials and delegates at both sessions raised constitutional arguments. We will then analyze the statements of the PUC executive officials after the PUC vote at the General Conference Session, as two of them had the chance to speak at the Session. Following a brief analysis of those two votes, we will look at specific areas in the General Conference working policy to ascertain for ourselves the validity of the claims made by both entities. Then we will consider Mitchell Tyner’s arguments in detail and then see the ramifications of the precedents in court.

There are five key areas that are central to constitutional issues at stake:

  1. The actions of the Unions [In this article, we limit ourselves to the Pacific Union Conference].
  2. The GC Session Vote
  3. General Conference Working Policy Language
  4. Administrative Precedent to External Threats
  5. The United States Supreme Court Case Precedent for Church Property Disputes

We will consider all of these areas in subsequent parts in this article. We now go to part 4b to look at the constitutional reasoning advanced by the PUC, and GC as well as the PUC Special Session Constituency delegates.


[1] Tyner, Mitchel, “Analysis: The Use of General Conference Working Policy in the Case of Unions that Ordain Women.” Accessed Online: January 10, 2017. http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2016/10/10/analysis-use-general-conference-working-policy-case-unions-ordain-women

[2]Ibid. “Unions and the General Conference – What Happens Next?” Accessed Online: January 10, 2017. http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2015/08/27/unions-and-general-conference-what-happens-next

[3] Ibid. “How Civil Law has influenced Seventh-day Adventist Governance” Accessed Online: January 10, 2017. http://spectrummagazine.org/article/jared-wright/2014/11/24/adventist-society-religious-studies-provides-rich-investigation-eccl

[4] https://session.adventistfaith.org/

[5] SECC Press Release: https://secc.adventistfaith.org/news_entries/7151

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