Continuity and Change: The Dangerous Border the Church Must Cross

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Editor’s Note: The following article is a condensation of a "Sligo Sabbath Seminar" presentation, made at the Sligo Adventist Church, October 6, 2018. Originally prepared for oral delivery only, it possibly contains one or more thoughts or statements without proper attribution. Further, because of its time-sensitive nature, the piece is published almost completely in its original format, without always adhering to strict footnoting protocols.

The catalyst for this meeting is the coincidental convergence of two events in the Adventist Church: the Sabbath School lesson series (now in progress), and what is shaping up to be a historic Annual Council in Battle Creek, commencing October 11, 2018. Unity is the focus of the lessons, and the threat to unity undergirds a key agenda item of the Council — a draconian document, having its genesis in the controversy surrounding women's ordination. A document which, if passed, can have serious consequences for the unity and stability of the church.

I begin with a testimony.

I wasn't born into a Seventh-day Adventist family. I joined the church as a teenager, by my own free choice. And even after all these years, the church still retains a lot of the original charm and freshness I experienced as I came in. I find myself still very jealous for its theology, its reputation, its image.

As an editor of the Adventist Review, I had opportunity to attend two General Assemblies of the World Council of Churches — in Canberra (Australia) and in Harare (Zimbabwe). Three Adventists were in attendance in Canberra: Ray Coombe of the South Pacific Division (SPD), reporting for the SPD Record; Bert Beach, then director of the department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty at the General Conference (attending with observer status); and myself.

Security was tight, keeping demonstrators well at bay. But it was the height of the Australian summer, and one afternoon the air-conditioning system in the complex broke down, forcing officials to open the side-doors of the auditorium, which was on the ground-floor. About 45 minutes later, in the middle of the afternoon session, two off-shoot Adventists (who had been demonstrating outside), eluded security and marched to the front of the auditorium through one of the open doors, and hoisted a large banner, held aloft by helium balloons, that read: "Seventh-day Adventists believe that this Rome-ward movement is anti-Christ."

The entire session came to a halt, as officials scrambled for a way to take the banner down. The incident damaged the image of the Adventist Church in front of the world body. As a church, we don’t go around insulting people and disrupting their meetings. And as Bert Beach, Ray Coombe, and I came together for an emergency confab, we had just one goal in mind: repairing the damage to the church's reputation and image.

As an observer, Bert Beach had no voice at the Assembly. But following up on our decision, he asked and received permission to make a brief statement before the body. And when the session resumed, after about an hour, he did. And did he ever do us proud! Thunderous applause followed his speech.

The point I'm making is that there's a closeness that Adventists feel with one another and with the church. The three of us came from different backgrounds, from different parts of the world, but we shared an innate loyalty to one another and to the church. I see this as an evidence of our "Oneness in Christ" — which is the theme of the lesson series this quarter, which is coming under threat in Battle Creek in a few days, and which forms the burden of Jesus' urgent prayer in John 17. "'I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one'" (verse 17).

(At this point in the Sligo presentation, four key areas were highlighted — areas in which, historically, the unity of the church has come under the greatest stress: 1) Culture and Behavior; 2) Factionalism and Tribalism; 3) Faith and Theology; and 4) Continuity and Change. In what follows, only the fourth area will be covered.)

Continuity and Change

Years ago, when I visited Panmunjom, the village in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, I got a sense I was standing at one of the most dangerous borders on the planet. One wouldn’t get that from seeing pictures of the place, but being there in person, I felt the tension.

The border between continuity and change can sometimes feel as tense as Panmunjom. And numerous times in its history, the Adventist Church has come up to that border, in regard to theology, policy, and governance.

The crisis of 1888 was one of those times — when the church faced a decision as to whether to continue in the backward path of legalism; or move forward in the path of change, and fully embrace the message of grace, of righteousness by faith. In her prime at the time, Ellen G. White had the foresight to come down on the side of grace, siding with upstarts like A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner; and standing up against stalwarts like Uriah Smith and General Conference president G. I. Butler.

The General Conference session of 1901 (held at Battle Creek, incidentally) also came up to that sensitive border between continuity and change. And again it was Ellen White who urged the church to bite the bullet of organizational change; to spread the responsibility for directing the work across a wider, more global group of leaders, rather than concentrating "kingly power" in a few men ensconced at the church's headquarters in Battle Creek.

When the United States came up to the mine-infested border between slavery and emancipation, James White, Ellen White, John Byington (our first General Conference president), and Uriah Smith (among others) vigorously spoke out against the injustice and immorality of American slavery. The apostle Paul in his day advised Onesimus to return to his master. But Ellen White in her time advised just the opposite. Civil disobedience is what she advocated. And Black American Adventists have never forgotten! It's one big reason they remain in the Adventist Church today.

But in no other area has the border between continuity and change been more fraught, more filled with tension for the church, than in respect to the status of women pastors. We've been lingering at this border now since 1881! That's when a recommendation in favor of women's ordination was presented to the General Conference session — a recommendation that apparently died in the hands of church leaders. Discussion of the issue waxed and waned in the intervening years, but came back to the fore over the last 45 years — since 1973. During that time, we've had study after study after study, each time ending with the conclusion "that we need more study" — to quote a high Adventist Church official. It has almost become a cottage industry with us.

Utrecht and Beyond

The 1995 General Conference session in Utrecht, Holland, was a pivotal event in the continuing saga of women's ordination. That's when the North American Division came forward with a special proposal and request. The motion before the session, couched in language ready for the policy book, if passed, read as follows: “The General Conference vests in each division the right to authorize the ordination of individuals within its territory…. In addition, where circumstances do not render it inadvisable, a division may authorize the ordination of qualified individuals without regard to gender.”

It was an eminently reasonable proposal. Inasmuch as the world church could not reach consensus on the subject, the NAD was simply asking for the green light and the blessing of the world church to move forward within its own territory. Facing, as it was, a ready constituency, and the existential reality of hundreds of women with demonstrable calls to pastoral ministry.

But the motion failed.

More studies followed after Utrecht, including the formation (in September 2012) of a 106-member Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC). The TOSC, after meeting four times (at a cost of more than half a million dollars — my estimate) found itself unable to reach consensus. However, a poll taken among the group as its work was coming to a close sought to define a "Way Forward" for the church. In that poll, the highest vote supported the idea that "Each entity responsible for calling pastors [should] be authorized to choose either to have only men as ordained pastors; or to have both men and women as ordained pastors." Forty members voted for that idea, while only 32 voted for the narrower position that called for only men to be ordained.1

That vote represented a huge step forward, especially given the (reportedly) anti-women's ordination slant of the committee as it began its work. But General Conference leadership conveniently chose to disregard that encouraging signal. Had it taken seriously the suggestion that garnered the most votes, it could easily have validated, after the fact, the actions taken by the Columbia and Pacific Unions, whose constituencies in 2012, had authorized the ordination of women pastors within their respective territories.           

However tentative or informal the TOSC vote, it did come after tons of study and effort; and it provided the very "cover" leaders needed in this difficult situation. Instead, ignoring it, General Conference leadership in their wisdom placed this loaded, curiously-worded motion in front of delegates at the session in San Antonio:

 “After your prayerful study on ordination from the Bible, the writings of Ellen G. White, and the reports of the study commissions, and after your careful consideration of what is best for the church and the fulfillment of its mission, is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? Yes or No?”

After a heated (and sometimes bitter) debate, the No vote prevailed: 58.4% to 41.3%, with 5 abstentions.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

So now we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.

By stubbornly ignoring the reasonable and legitimate appeals from North America and elsewhere, we have willfully put ourselves into this bind. And rather than trying to find a reasonable way out, the General Conference president and his advisors are hell-bent on punishing the leaders of these Unions, under the terms of an ill-conceived compliance document now headed to Battle Creek for a vote.2

According to the document, "In the event … due process … does not bring about compliance and does not result in the reversal of the action taken by the non-compliant entity3 … the constituency-elected leader of that body (the union president…)… may be subject to" certain punitive actions. First a warning; second, "public Reprimand"; and third, "placed on Removal for Cause."

In regard to "public reprimand," the document says that "each time the [non-compliant] union president exercises his right of voice to address the General Conference Executive Committee, the members will be informed that the speaker has been given a public reprimand." (A kind of scarlet-letter public shaming.) The final blow, of course, is to remove the (violating) Union president from the executive committee, and thereby disenfranchise his entire constituency.

To back up these punitive threats, the GC administrative committee, as of August 14, created "five General Conference review committees, with responsibilities for overseeing infractions" in five broad areas of belief and behavior — from church policy to theology.4 And if, as is apparent, the expectation is for those five committees to be replicated on the division, union, and conference levels, then we're looking at an exponential increase in ecclesiastical bureaucracy. Eerily reminiscent of totalitarian regimes, whose citizens live under constant surveillance — everyone watching everyone; everyone reporting on everyone; with perpetual investigations the order of the day.

That will not be the Adventist Church we know.

Sometimes I wonder whom President Ted Wilson is listening to. Somewhere in the Sabbath School lessons this quarter is the story of Rehoboam. Succeeding his father Solomon, he travels to Shechem for his coronation, and is approached by those who wanted change — change from the oppressive ways of his dad. So what should he do?

Rejecting the advice of the elders, Rehoboam instead took the recommendation of "the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him." This you should say to the people, the young men advised: "‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions’” (1 Kings 12:10, 11).

That attitude and those words split the kingdom (1 Kings 12:16-20). Listening to the wrong advice divided the nation. Would history repeat itself?

Hear this advice from a mother in Israel, and someone Elder Wilson likes to quote:

"The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and thus root out disagreement…. Nothing can perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christlike forbearance."5

O that we might borrow a page from that classical biblical example of radical change, found in Acts 15.            

You understand what an extraordinary action the Jerusalem council took only when you go back and take a look at the central place circumcision occupied in Old Testament times. God's stipulation to Abraham was crystal clear: "'For the generations to come every male among you … must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner….My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised…will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant'” (Gen 17:12-14). And in regard to the Passover, God directed that if foreigners wanted to participate, all the males among them must be circumcised. "'No uncircumcised male may eat it'" (Ex. 12:48).

Even in Isaiah, "the gospel prophet," we find these strong words: "Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city: for henceforth there shall no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean." And Stephen, the first Christian martyr, went to his grave in the belief that circumcision was still in force. Among his last words on earth were the following: "[God] gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision" (Acts 7: 8).

And now at the Jerusalem council, the leaders, under the unction of the Spirit of God, made the extraordinary decision to abrogate that centuries-old divine requirement, in regard to Gentiles coming into the church. It's mindboggling!

The border between continuity and change in regard to the ordination of women utterly pales in comparison with the revolutionary theological reorientation that confronted the early church. Because in our case, all our women pastors want is to join their male counterparts in the mission of the church and, in all fairness — and in keeping with common human decency — be fully and equally recognized for it. That's all. And as I keep saying, to make THAT a source of controversy and division is obscene.

I feel the same way now as I felt in Canberra at the World Council. It pains me to see the image and unity of the church damaged by such needless draconianism.

To expend hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring delegates from across the globe to vote a document that can do severe damage to the mission of the church is reckless and (forgive me) borders on theological insanity.

The solution to the present "crisis" calls for humility, magnanimity, and Christian statesmanship. When equally dedicated Adventists, operating in good faith, cannot reach consensus on a non-moral issue — an issue, moreover, not spelled out in Scripture — then magnanimity, Christian statesmanship, and humility require that we accept reality and simply let responsible Divisions proceed at their own pace. It seems the only sensible path to unity.

Jesus' Dying Wish

The prayer in John 17 represent Jesus' dying wish, uttered, as they were, in the very shadow of the cross: “'My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me'" (verses 20, 21).

When someone's dying, family members lean in to hear their loved-one's final words. Because in those last, critical moments, with no time to squander, the dying person utters sentiments that lie closest to their heart. In her famous poem, "Bingen on the Rhine," the English writer Carolyn Norton underscores this point. She says,

A SOLDIER of the Legion6 lay dying in Algiers,
There was a lack of woman's nursing,
There was dearth of woman's tears;
But a comrade stood beside him, while his lifeblood ebbed away,
And bent with pitying glances, to hear what he might say.
The dying soldier faltered, and he took that comrade's hand,
And he said, "I nevermore shall see my own, my native land:
Take a message, and a token, to some distant friends of mine,
For I was born at Bingen, —at Bingen on the Rhine.

And you can be sure that that soldier took pains to follow every single iota of his comrade's dying wish.

May we, like that soldier on the battlefield in Algiers, bend low to listen once again to those final words of Jesus, and in our lives and in the church do all we can to fulfill our Savior's dying wish: "That they may be one."

 

Notes & References:

1. See https://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/ordination-study-concludes-with-suggestions-for-%E2%80%9Cthe-way-forward%E2%80%9D

2. You can read the full document at https://www.adventistreview.org/unityoversightcommittee.

3. Could any realistic leader expect the Columbia and Pacific Unions to rescind their actions on women's ordination? Really?

4. The five areas are: 1) General Conference Core Policies; 2) Doctrine, Policies, Statements, and Guidelines for Church Organizations and Institutions Teaching Creation/Origins; 3) Doctrine, Policies, Statements, and Guidelines Regarding Homosexuality; 4) Distinctive Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church; and 5) Doctrine, Policies, Statements, and Guidelines Regarding Issues of Ordination.”

5. Ellen G. White, “Love, the Need of the Church,” 11 MR 266.

6. She's talking about the fabled French Foreign Legion, a branch of the French army, famous for recruiting soldiers from all over the world (the down-and-out, the riffraff of the nations, people fleeing justice), and building them into an elite fighting force.

 

Roy Adams has served the Adventist Church in many capacities. His final years of service was at the General Conference, where he worked as an associate editor of Adventist Review/Adventist World.

Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

 

Further Reading:

Responses from Church Entities and Timeline of Key Events, Annual Council 2017 to Present

 

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