Dear Elder Finley: What is Unity?
by Bill Garber
Dear Elder Finley,
I’m a little in awe as I draft a response to your two-part series in Adventist World titled “Unity Then and Now.” I first became aware of your ministry when I worked briefly with your sister several decades ago, though you and I have never met for a conversation. You are a legendary evangelist. And I’ve seen your byline for most of my lifetime in church publications. So I’m not surprised that this series became a conversation piece among people I know.
I found it easy to find points of agreement as you address unity within the context of a church. There are many. I also see your evangelistic skills clearly in your presentation—and that is meant as a well-deserved compliment.
In the first of the two articles you reflect that the church of the New Testament is not some ‘human-made bureaucratic institution,’ but rather is ‘a divine movement raised up by God.’ We cannot make that distinction too often, especially these days. It is certainly in Adventist Today DNA, which is why in addition to the church I also invest in helping Adventist Today to nurture this distinction as a confirmation for faith and hope for Seventh-day Adventist people.
I remember as a young person in the late 1950s this same distinction between church and movement was raised in the pulpit from the then-newly occupied Pioneer Memorial Church on the campus of Andrews University. What triggered that discussion 60 years ago was the denomination reaching the 1-million member mark, half of whom were in the United States, and the other half scattered across mission fields around the world.
The concern 60 years ago was whether the good old ‘Advent Movement’ would be overwhelmed by the bureaucracy necessary to manage a church of 1 million members.
Today, leadership of the now 20-million-member denomination should again reflect on the potential threat to Seventh-day Adventism of an implicitly bureaucratic denominational structure. I am thanking you for anchoring your article in this distinction and doing so from your role as personal assistant to the General Conference president.
Moving to your conclusions in “A Divine Movement United in Mission and Message”, I recognize much insight in your summary call for unity, under your closing subheadline: Unity and Commitment to Christ.
You start by noting that the Seventh-day Adventist church maintains unity through our common commitment to Christ. So true!
You go on to note that among us unity is enabled ‘through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.’ Indeed! This is Paul’s thesis. The word ‘unity’ appears in the KJV Bible three times: once in Psalms 133, where the psalm describes the pleasantness of brethren dwelling together in unity in life evermore, and the other two times in Ephesians 4. Paul favorably identifies the Ephesians as ‘endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit.’ And he goes on to identify the work of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers as ‘for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, [and] for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come into the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God … ’ Clearly unity cannot simply be voted, but is the result of shared experiences.
You also say that unity is maintained ‘when we place priority on mission and are moved by what moves the heart of God.’ Of course! Unity is truly found in sharing our love for Jesus, the Christ of Christianity. I see you writing from the heart of an evangelist. Unity is a heart experience, indeed!
And then, Elder Finley, you startle me.
And as much as I try to make this fit with the rest of your previous points, I simply cannot. To so vividly turn away from Jesus and to abandon reliance on the Holy Spirit and instead advocate for church policy and governance and authority to enable unity is utterly demoralizing. You put it this way: “The unity of the church is maintained … when the mutual agreements or policies of the church serve as the foundation for a system of church governance and authority.”
As a long-time minister in New York volunteered to me the last time we were together: the vicar of Christ is the Holy Spirit, not the Pope or the General Conference executive committee.
I was willing to consider your embrace of denominational authority as a slip up by a devoted churchman. But you leave no such opportunity when you immediately reiterate with this: “To neglect any one of these four aspects of unity is to invite disunity, a dismantling of biblical truth, and a distortion of mission. To downplay church organization or authority is to leave the church in disarray and fundamentally erode its mission.”
I went back over your articles again to see what I had possibly overlooked.
I remembered your taking note of the statement of Jesus to Peter about building his church on this rock, and it struck me that this using this statement to support church organization or authority feels alarmingly close to the Roman Catholic way of endorsing the bureaucracy of its organization. They endorse the Pope rather than the Holy Spirit as the vicar of Christ, but its use in this context at all concerns me. I am sure that wasn’t your intention, but I wish you’d have made that distinction clearer.
Your reference to the Jerusalem in Acts 15 concerns me. I read Acts 15 as breaking down the need for bureaucracy by deferring to the Holy Spirit in guiding the person-to-person mission of the church. Acts 15 brought variety to the unity of the faith. It describes what we might see as an inoculation against a bureaucracy confirmed by the rise of the new age of the priesthood of all believers. Remember that the council essentially said, “We wouldn’t think of interfering organizationally where the Holy Spirit is at work! Feel free to do what you think the Spirit is guiding you to do!” That’s about as far from centralized decision-making as you can get!
Of course, I know that organization is required in order to achieve something that an individual person cannot do on their own.
However, taking after Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, the church leaders are to organize for service rather than compliance. I so wish you would have made that more clear.
Thinking about compliance: your article can easily be read to be supporting the current trend lead by our General Conference president in seeking to effect better policy enforcement rather than to seek better ways to make policy more responsive to the Holy Spirit’s leading in the field.
That said, you might ask, how we can know God’s will?
Elder Ted Wilson, GC president, seemed to be asking the same question in his presentation to Annual Council last fall when he pointed out, ‘We do not have a Urim and Thummim!’ He went on to suggest that he believes the General Conference delegates, when properly polled, are the modern equivalent. So let’s look in that direction.
What has the Holy Spirit already effected through votes by the delegates to various General Conference sessions? In terms of denominational structure, there is minimal, special, unique, and potentially powerful enforcement authority delegated to the General Conference executive committee, otherwise the decisions are all delegated to the field leadership levels.
The General Conference leadership can initiate just two possible courses of action it it believes it necessary to secure compliance with its policies. It can dissolve a Union Conference’s membership in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination and in effect walk away, or it can attempt to turn a Union Conference into a mission and place it under the direct management of men appointed by the General Conference.
The General Conference has never attempted either option by way of discipline, at least in my memory—now in my eighth decade of life. And with good reason. The risk is that the General Conference could be legally required to dissolve its relationship with the current Union Conference and start over by establishing new local Conferences or a new Union Conference and then set about to evangelize congregations and members to join the ‘real Seventh-day Adventist’ Local and Union Conferences. In short, what a mess this would be.
Perhaps the reason this has never happened before is that it has always been utterly unthinkable. But after the last Annual Council action, I find it alarming that the church appears to be considering such an action with one or more more Union Conferences. And I fear some will read your article in support of such action.
It seems to me it would be far better to employ Gamaliel’s rationale, who defended Peter before the council of the High Priest by arguing for a hands-off approach. Gamaliel, you’ll recall said, “Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: but if it be of god, you cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.” (Acts 5)
On a personal note (and is there really any other kind that we should consider, given Jesus’ final words to his disciples that we are to love one another), earlier this week we had dinner with a woman whose eyes teared up just thinking about your articles. She remembered the full week of the first camp meeting she and her husband attended after he entered pastoral ministry. Their family has experienced a period of great career hardship and she remembered that you were the evening speaker that whole week. And she spoke reverentially about how you personally, night after night, brought great encouragement to her and her family, which included two young children and a husband who was entering the ministry with both hope and fear.
The work of the General Conference is to minister and it is a great encouragement that a minister of your capacity for feeling the gospel of Jesus in deeply personal fashion is the personal assistant to the General Conference president.
I am so hopeful that you truly support the universal application of the Gamaliel position and personally oppose the attempted replacement of a Union Conference for any reason, and certainly not over a mere policy of the denomination. You are no Esther and the General Conference is no kingdom, and you may well have been called to be advising the office of the president of the General Conference for such a time as this.
As the woman with the long ago memory of your personal camp meeting ministry told me, she cannot bear to think of there being two Seventh-day Adventist churches, with her family members scattered among them which, she fears, is the inevitable outcome of splitting the church.
I so wish your articles could have more directly supported her—and all members in her situation—by having assured us that you also cannot personally bear to support General Conference leaders in harboring such a possibility.
Bill Garber is a third-generation Adventist, and a member of the Adventist Today board. He’s married to Shirley Schneider, and they split their time between Santa Cruz, CA and Berrien Springs, MI.