Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Seeds of Change

Deborah - ordained of God
Since the big "high level" GC meeting on October 6, I've been getting a confusing flood of "updates" from the GC and the North American Division seeking to clarify what actually happened at the meeting. According to the Adventist Review, "...officers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted on Oct. 6 for a document detailing actions to be taken in response to certain entities of the world church that are not in compliance with an action voted on by more than 2,000 representatives of the 19.5 million-member denomination at its most recent General Conference Session held in San Antonio, Texas from July 2-11, 2015."

The San Antonio vote, despite many efforts to either explain or obscure what happened in San Antonio, was not a vote to end women's ordination. It was a vote about who has the power to decide whether or not to ordain women. The vote took back power from the divisions ceded to them at a 1903 general conference where power was decentralized away from the church - a move Ellen White, who attended the conference, approved. Rather than voting down women's ordination - a tricky proposition given that opinions on the subject are sharply divided among SDA theologians and previous study committees that have found no objection to ordination of women - the GC in 2015 merely got itself made "the Decider."

Ultimately the issue comes down to who ways whether we can ordain women as pastors or not. GC says, that's us. The divisions, at least some of them, beg to differ. Over here in the Washington Conference and in both West Coast divisions, sentiment has come down rather firmly on the side of women's ordination. Women have been ordained pretty widely in this and other divisions, particularly in the North American Division. Now the GC says they can't do that. Heretofore, such decisions were firmly in the hands of the division and local conferences. Now it's not.

Daniel Jackson, NAD president keeps reassuring us that nothing is wrong and that we all need to be unified and that everything is okay. Obviously everything is not okay, especially if the GC forces division and conference leaders out of office and demotes or removes women pastor's already installed. A guy I knew back in college, Randy Roberts, who pastors the LaSierra College church, recently made an impassioned pro-women's ordination speech at a meeting of concerned division leaders. His motion at that particular conference probably seemed "rebellious" to come folk. It was not. It mostly reaffirmed the shared beliefs of an apparent majority of pastors in the division.

With all of the controversy over this issue, NAD staff probably need to keep looking for less inflammatory words than "rebellion" to describe the resolve on the part of some conferences to ordain who they please. 

Two things trouble me.  First the words "high-level" to describe the October 6 GC committee that decided how to handle the non-compliant divisions. I've never found the authoritarian approach to religious organization to be good for the church. To be honest, I think the headship doctrine of strict levels of authority based upon church rank and gender are not very representative of the structure of the relationship God seeks to have with his people. It's Calvinist in its origins and unprecedented in Adventist theology prior to Samuel Bacchiochi's return from earning advanced theology degrees in Vatican schools. This is not to say old Sam turned Catholic on us, but his writings took a turn for the more restrictive in many ways. I lost more than one friend that left the church after reading Bacchiochi, looking for a path to God that was a little more arduous than the then prevalent 'righteousness by faith" path.

The second thing that troubles me is the seeming intent by some in our GC leadership to return Adventism to "the way it was".  I remember how the church once was when I was a child. It was authoritarian, legalistic and more than a bit grim and it nearly scared me away. I fortunately met Christ thanks to an HMS Richards Sr. protoge' who taught us about righteousness by faith. I met Christ as He is - a loving God whose love awakens in us love and obedience and who saves us by his Grace. That was a new version of Christ in my church. Prior to that, evangelists just hammered us about our clothes, our diet and our behavior as though somehow we could grit our teeth and that would get us through to Paradise. Combined with vivid pictures of the last days and the time of trouble, that formed the old time Adventism of the day, I had a completely wrong picture of God and kept me more out of the church than in.

In a recent speech, Ted Wilson called for members to "“... lay aside our personal opinions for the good of the body of Christ, and that we will, together, march forward to the kingdom of God." The calls for submission have become almost daily lately as the GC seeks to enforce its will on "noncompliant" Adventist believers.  I think this is a bad thing. I am not good at marching. I'm more of a wanderer. Sheep are like that. We need a shepherd, not a drill-master.

The thing that has made our church strong over the decades is a willingness to look at Scripture as our spiritual source. We also have the prophetic gift to help us form our belief system. We've got 28 fundamental beliefs and membership in the church requires we adhere to those. God only gave us ten, so I think we've probably got those covered. A difference of opinion over a relatively unimportant point of doctrine should probably not be characterized as a rebellion.

Progressive revelation has played an important role in the development of the Seventh-day Adventist church. Ellen White commented that ""There are mines of truth yet to be discovered by the earnest seeker."  She believed that capital "T" Truth was an advancing truth. We can clearly see this with respect to the issue of monogamous marriage which was tolerated in ancient times, but became a clearly accepted doctrine by Christ's time. Slavery, which was accepted as a fixture of life, even into New Testament times, is clearly not something God approves of.  In Scripture were the seeds of the end of slavery.

The Biblical roots of our Constitution, injected into that document the seeds of the end of slavery in the United States. We learn slowly, we human beings do, but God has promises in Isaiah 54:13 that he will be our teacher and our children's teacher. The reason that slavery, polygamy, stoning, the divine right of kings and other ideas became repugnant to us is because the seed of that repugnance is buried in the pages of Scripture, planted there in Eden, watered at Sinai and grown to fruition on the tree on Calvary.

Because we are a people who believe in "Thus saith the Lord" some would have it that there must always be one firm and exact way of looking at things and no other. Had our forefathers adopted that attitude, we'd all still be Catholics. The great reformers like Luther, Zwingli, Wesley and Calvin mined great truths from Scripture. Some of them they got right. Some they got wrong. Others they overlooked altogether to be discovered later by other searchers.

Our responsibility as a church is to be God's Earthly MASH unit. We are the front-line aid station for a wounded and suffering world. Our job is to take in the lost and sick and injured, not to focus on ways to exclude and marginalize others. Adventism has been able to absorb debate over issues over the years. Within the church you'll find everything from feast day keeping legalism to vegetarians waiting for the coming of the Lord to people with more liberal ideas about love and forgiveness and Grace.

The point of unity for the Christian church is, of course, Christ. Are we going to turn the focus away from Christ over whether or not to pay women pastors the same as we pay men, which is a lot of it if you really want to get right down to it?

I really liked the Norwegian church's response to the GC vote on ordination. All their male ministers turned in their ordination credentials and the conference's pastors, male and female, instantly became equal as commissioned pastors. It was a courageous act on the part of the men and it left the GC without any real leg to stand on since the GC staked the issue on ordination and not on whether women should be silent in church.

Ellen White, in responding to an earlier church crisis counseled strongly that the church's leadership should not attempt to exercise what she called "kingly power".  It would do our leaders well to remember that. In the meantime, whatever I believe I am not in rebellion against my church nor will I leave it. As Morris Venden once pointed out, you can't change the church from outside the church.

Men do have a leadership role which I believe is a God-given trait that goes with being men. That said, remember what God did when men wouldn't step up and do the job. Deborah led the Israelite armies when Barak proved too chicken to go on his own. God even used a woman to knock off the enemy general.  A couple of men turned down the prophetic gift prior to Ellen White's taking it up.  So female leadership is not unheard of in the Bible.

Perhaps we should call what the pastors of Norway did and the men like Randy Roberts who are risking their careers over the issue, not "rebellion", but "resistance".  We are a fellowship after all and not a dictatorship. Seeking change is not rebellion. No one I know wants to break up the church. The truth will set you free and, as a whole string of dictators over the centuries have learned, you cannot rule a free people. The chain of command in the Christian church is short.  There's you and then there's God. That's pretty much it for the chain.

While we might disagree with our leaders on issues of conscience, as I have in the past, that does not mean I will leave the church in any way other than feet first in a pine box. As one church deacon told one of our church's self-declared "leaders" when he tried to move a Filipino family out of "his" pew, "Brothers, nobody owns a pew in this church. They all belong to God!" My church belongs to Jesus. He lets anybody be in it that wants to be in it and lets anyone out who wants to be out. The only one we need to absolutely obey is God and even He, as perfect as He is, is pretty good about forgiving us when we mess up. Perhaps in return, we should go easy on our leaders and our leaders should go a little easier on those they are responsible for. After all, like us, they're only human.

© 2016 by Tom King



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