An Appeal from a Pastor to the General Conference
By Geoffrey Patterson, October 14, 2016: I am certain that denominational leadership must be extremely difficult. Gentlemen and ladies, you have my prayers. And in addition, let me add, I as a pastor want to be a good soldier, doing my part in the work of the Lord with a minimum of complaining or second guessing of those in positions of leadership. But I am concerned about something. And as I mowed my lawn this evening, free to ponder in the indistractable silence-of-the-mind that a noisy mower affords, I could not escape the conviction something needs to be said.
I hope that what this appeal says is a part of the something that needs saying.
First of all, I hope it is not too bold of me to suggest, I think I get it: the world has gotten crazy, particularly the western world, which doesn’t much resemble what it was when I was younger. And in a world gone crazy, how does the church not end up following along into destruction? In this environment, the simple answer seems to be, “Let’s tighten up and straighten out and clarify and define and, yes, enforce.” (Can anyone say Revival and Reformation?)
I mean, after all, if we don’t want to end up deserving the admonitions and warnings of Pergamum and Thyatira, we had better not ignore those within the gates who hold to the teachings of Balaam, or who tolerate that woman Jezebel.
But is it the answer to the times that we would take up the double-edged sword ourselves and strike Jezebel’s children dead?
The problem as I see it is this: under what circumstances should the church take an action to dissolve a duly elected and functionally loyal union? Is it enough that they are simply out of compliance with a policy? If this is all that is required, haven’t we then in essence totally undone the whole basis for which unions were originally established? Should not instead the circumstance for such a dramatic move first have, at a minimum, a theological and Biblical consensus as its basis for action? And on this point, let us not become distracted: having a Biblical basis for the power to dissolve a union is wholly different from having a Biblical basis for actually taking the action. In other words, just because the GC has authority to dissolve a union doesn’t automatically mean it has a Biblical basis to do so.
Welcome to the slippery slope of religious tyranny.
Have we not been warned about this so many times? Yet it seems in this day of craziness, our fearful visions are driving us, on every side, toward the establishment of a continuous creeping kingly power. And in the process, we are rapidly abandoning two of our key claims: we have no creed but the Bible; and, we are firm believers of religious liberty.
We have no creed but the Bible, except when the Bible isn’t quite specific enough in its language, necessitating that we better clarify exactly what it means so that we can then use our man-made clarification as a basis for a loyalty oath. Which, if you think about it, isn’t that what a creed is?
But at least in regard to recent adjustments to the Fundamental Beliefs, at least with these things we can argue we have some consensus of a Biblical basis for the action. Yet with the issue that seems to loom on the horizon, that of taking action against out-of-policy unions, can we say such a consensus exists?
As I understand it, based largely on the instructions to the delegates at last summer’s GC session, the only consensus our multi-year study of the issue of Women’s Ordination produced was a consensus that the issue could not be affirmed nor denied by Scripture. And as a result, the vote taken last year was, at least in the consensus view of our best theologians, merely a vote of preference or conscience. This is not to suggest that there aren’t many who believe this issue is clearly established in Scripture. Indeed, many feel it absolutely is. Unfortunately, the convinced fall on both sides of the dividing line, though neither in large enough numbers to produce a sufficient majority to cause the final caucus of theologians to speak in a clear voice.
And herein lies the root of the problem: if this issue has not been established clearly as a Biblical issue, but instead is merely an issue of preference or conscience, I could, I suppose, live with an effort to force our people to act against preference for the sake of unity (though I wouldn’t love it). But do we really want to be responsible before God for forcing our people to act against conscience? Is that not precisely what religious tyranny is, and the exact opposite of religious liberty? Can anyone else hear the voice of Martin Luther here: “Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by the clearest reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me. Amen.” (Ellen White, The Great Controversy, page 160)
Is it really our intention here, by means of coercive church “authority,” to create a new generation of Martin Luthers?
And let me just add another thought, speaking as a pastor who spends his days in direct contact with the members of a church in North America: have we given our people so few opportunities for cynicism and disillusionment that we would dissolve their duly appointed and functionally loyal union over an issue that our scholars have concluded isn’t Biblically clear? We think we are having financial troubles now, I can’t even imagine what this would do to the people already inclined to abandon the default giving practices of the generations past.
And to go one thought further, is this really the issue upon which we want to spend our leadership capital? I don’t think it takes a prophet to see that there could soon come a day when a union does actually embrace a position not just contrary to the preferences of disputable policy, but rather, in fact, clearly contrary to an overwhelming consensus of our theologians. Shouldn’t we rather save our gunpowder for that day rather than waste it on a cosmetic battle over something we haven’t proven from Scripture?
So here is my appeal: please just stop. If we cannot ourselves reach a Biblical consensus, should we not then trust the Holy Spirit to lead? If our theologians cannot clearly tell whether or not the ordination of women is against God’s purpose, should we not then, as the religious authority of the day, once again embrace the counsel of Gamaliel: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. . . keep away from these men 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 5:35, 38-39 NKJV) Please tell me we have not become even more stubborn than the Sanhedrin of old.
And as for the toleration of Jezebel, and the putting up with those who keep to the teachings of Balaam, indeed, it is stated that they should be fought against with a sharp, double-edged sword. But let us not be too quick to take the sword in our own hand, for the text clearly states it will be Jesus who will do the fighting. (Revelation 2:16, 23)
Let us not be deceived: religious tyranny is not defined solely as the actions of a single man, or even the actions of a few. Religious tyranny can manifest even in the majority vote of delegates from all around the world, for tyranny is not defined by its method, but rather by its result. Any decision, whether it be by one man or many, becomes religious tyranny when, without firm Biblical basis, it demands that others act against conscience. And this is the fearful road we are headed down.
May God grant us wisdom in this hour of necessity.
Pastor Geoffrey Patterson is senior pastor at Forest Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida. With 3,813 members it is one of the largest Adventist congregations around the world.