Reflections on Annual Council

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I had the opportunity to drive from Berrien Springs to Battle Creek, along with my wife, and spend Sunday, October 14, 2018, at Battle Creek. We sat in the gallery of the Kellogg Arena and listened to the Sunday afternoon discussion of the so-called Unity document.

One thing that struck me about this document was that it did not arise simply in response to the dispute over the ordination of women. The seeds of this document were sown way back in 2010 at the beginning of the Presidency of Elder Ted Wilson. Some of us will remember that in his inaugural sermon on the last Sabbath of the 2010 GC Session, Elder Wilson called upon church members to watch their pastors and call them to account for faulty theology and to keep an eye on our Colleges and Universities and to speak out against any deviant teachings. Thus was inaugurated an era of suspicion and distrust in the administration of our church. It was a small beginning but it has had a far-reaching divisive effect.

Some think that division has been caused by the question of women’s ordination. I submit respectfully that it is rather the reaping of the sowing by the GC President over the past eight years. If any pastor in a local church in South Africa managed to divide his congregation as successfully as Elder Ted Wilson has done, there would be no further call for him in the Conference. His pastoral work would end.

I believe that a General Conference President is called upon to unite all elements in the world church. He is there to unite and bring all members together. This means working in the interests of the ultra conservatives, the conservatives, the progressives and the liberals. The presentation of the gospel and the love of God should endeavor to unite all strands into one united body. God respects differences and gave Himself in Jesus Christ for the whole world.

It appears to me that at the beginning of his presidency, Elder Wilson decided to throw in his weight on the side of the ultra conservatives to the neglect of the other segments. I say ultra conservatives as I consider myself a conservative and I am uncomfortable with the direction of Elder Wilson. Perhaps he sees the ultra conservatives as the true remnant and sees himself as called to shake out the non-compliant elements. We remind ourselves that Jesus said in response to the suggestion by the disciples to pull out the tares, “Let both grow together until the harvest.” It is not the spirit of Christ to try and cause a shaking or an elimination of the so-called tares before the harvest.

In the context of this document it has also been mentioned that some Unions are in rebellion. Actually the Pacific Union and the Columbia Union are not in rebellion. Long before the 2015 GC Session these two Unions felt led of God and their constituents to go ahead and recognize the calling of God with regard to their female pastors. For them there was no rebellion. The move was prompted by the Holy Spirit. It was an act of conscience. They believed that the prophecy of Joel was being fulfilled before their eyes: “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28, 29).

Any so-called rebellion could have been forestalled by the General Conference leadership before San Antonio in 2015. The report of the TOSC clearly supported the idea that while Scripture does not command the ordination of women it does not forbid it. It is generally known that Elder Wilson does not favor the ordination of women. If he and the leadership had read the signs of the times correctly they could have had a different outcome at San Antonio. They could have asked for reports from successful women pastors from the NAD, from Europe and from China. This would have followed the Jerusalem Council model when the apostles gave reports of what the Lord was doing amongst the Gentiles. Once they heard these reports they took the action which they did.

The leadership could have easily presented a win-win motion to the Session rather than one that was bound to lead to division. After a presentation by women pastors and an appeal to the leading of the Holy Spirit and on the basis of the TOSC report imagine if the leadership had spent time urging the delegates to allow each Division or Union to permit the ordination of women pastors where it was felt feasible to do this for the sake of the furtherance of the gospel. With the strong backing of the GC leadership the world church might even have simply voted for consensus.

The leadership could have followed the advice of Gamaliel when he said, “I say to you, keep away from these men [and women] and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it — lest you even be found to fight against God” (Acts 5:38, 39). Imagine both sides winning and avoiding the tension and the division we have at the moment. And so I would say that the leadership has brought the crisis on themselves; it cannot be shifted to Unions that followed their conscience on Scriptural grounds in the tradition of the Protestant Reformation.

A few further thoughts on my Battle Creek experience.

The Rehoboam Syndrome

In listening to the discussion of the document I could not help but think of the experience of King Rehoboam, the son of Solomon.

Upon succeeding Solomon, Rehoboam was approached by Jeroboam and Israel to know how he would rule them. They asked him for a lighter reign than they had enjoyed under his father. He consulted the elders in his kingdom. They counseled him to be kind to his citizens and to treat them with love. We know that he rejected their counsel and listened to another group who advised him to be very tough with his followers. This resulted in the breakup of the kingdom. Jeroboam and ten tribes broke away and became Israel. Rehoboam remained king in Jerusalem with the tribe of Judah and Benjamin.

Is there any lesson in this story for Elder Wilson? During the past months and in fact over the past few years older men have been giving him advice on the direction the church should take. Some of these older men have been Dr. George Knight, well known Adventist church historian and scholar. Another has been Elder William Johnsson, longtime former editor of the Adventist Review. Has Elder Wilson read his book, Where Are We Headed? Adventism after San Antonio? There has also been the counsel of former General Conference President, Elder Jan Paulsen, sadly mocked by some GC delegates at the 2015 Session. Turning his back on these seasoned counselors, it appears that Elder Wilson has lent his ear to another group of counselors!

As I listened to the presentations on that Sunday afternoon, October 14, I once again listened to reasoned counsel from seasoned church leaders from the NAD and from Europe, counseling Elder Wilson to draw back from the extreme steps entailed in the document. This document that barely reached the agenda by a slender vote of 32 for, 30 against, and two abstentions. Despite all of this counsel, he chose to listen to other voices. Will the result be similar to that in the days of Rehoboam or will the Lord in His mercy and grace bring out a more favorable result? Israel and Judah paid the price for the wrong decision of King Rehoboam. Will the Seventh-day Adventist church pay a price because of the decision of our General Conference President?

The Arm of the Law

Another issue that became of great concern to me as I listened to the presentation promoting the document and as I contemplated the five Compliance Committees, was the heavy hand of the law. The GC Legal Counsel was one of the five presenters who spoke to the merits of the document. In addition, I discovered that each of the five Compliance Committees will have a legal counsel on them. Aside from the issue of the expense of the entire enterprise, is the disturbing turn to the arm of the law to make sure that actions are legal and are carried out. I am simple enough to believe that this is foreign to the spirit of the apostolic church of the first century as depicted in the book of Acts. It was the persecuting power of the church that turned to the law to punish the early believers.

As a church we have long taught that when the church turns to the state (law) to enact and force its dogmas and teachings upon the people we will have an image to the beast (see Revelation 13:11-18). We never thought that this prophecy might be fulfilled, even in part, by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We remind ourselves that Revelation depicts the last church as being in a state of blindness and that it cannot see. Some of us have been blind to the subtle inroads of the legal system into our own ranks. It is a sad day when we have to depend on the law instead of on the gospel and the mercy and grace of the Lord. Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you have love one to another” (John 13:35).

Which Way Now?

All concerned members of the church must ask the question, “Which way must the church now go?”

Of course it would be ideal and wonderful if Elder Wilson could sense the impasse and be led by the Holy Spirit to make a radical change in his approach and method of leadership. He is a sincere, godly man and if he could really dedicate himself to leading every grouping in the world church in a fair and even-handed manner it would be to the honor of the Lord. It also means that he should reassure the Unions of their legitimate authority and entrust the issue of the ministry into their hands. He would also have to wholeheartedly embrace the right of Unions to ordain women pastors where that is the desire of the constituents and for the furtherance of the mission of the church.

If Elder Wilson feels that he is unable to make this radical change to embrace the entire world church, he should do the honorable thing and step down from office. Someone should be appointed, led by the Holy Spirit, who is a person of peace, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom and who is dedicated to every segment of the church. One who is able to lead conservatives, progressives, and liberals. One who is able to present and embody the great principles of Adventism and to inspire all generations from the younger to the older.

Such a leader, under the guidance of his peers, might want to call a world council with adequate representatives from every segment of the church, including administrators, pastors, scholars, and youth representing every grouping of the church to look at the structure of the church. The last time that was done was in 1901 in the days of Ellen White.The goal would be to simplify, to modernize, to decentralize, and to spiritualize the structure. The world church could be challenged to make our movement one of dynamism, of liberty in Christ, of attraction, and of power.

 

Dr. Eric and Mrs. Ruth Webster were both born in South Africa. He began his ministry in 1949 and has been a church pastor, a Conference President, a Theology professor, the director of the Voice of Prophecy in South Africa and upon retirement at the age of 64 took on the management and the editorship of the Signs of the Times on a self-supporting basis. He ceased this work at the end of 2012 at the age of 85. Eric and Ruth have emigrated to the USA at the age of 91 and 92. They came at the end of September and have their green cards.

Image Credit: Flickr.com / Brent Hardinge / Adventist News Network

 

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