How Much Can We Trust Adventist Consciences?
by Loren Seibold | 6 May 2018 |
When I was a teen, one Adventist teaching that seemed extraordinarily clear to me was that Seventh-day Adventists were, and I supposed always would be, noncombatants in military service. This was the Vietnam era, and I knew Adventist young men who got drafted and served, not as soldiers but as medics, a few of them in the controversial Whitecoats program. I vividly remember the Selective Services office in Jamestown, North Dakota, where I signed up when I turned 16. For several years, until the Vietnam draft ended, I carried in my wallet a card that identified me as “1-A0”, which meant I was perfectly fit to serve in the military, but I had chosen to do it as a conscientious objector.
And I really was, and still am, a conscientious objector. I hate violence, and though I recognize that it is sometimes necessary, I do not glorify war, nor completely trust the rhetoric politicians use in support of it. People ask, “But don’t you want to defend your country, your freedom, and your way of life?” Of course. But my distrust of the warmakers is deeper than my fear of foreign threats. I never could see how the peasant soldiers of Vietnam were diminishing my freedom, and the way the Vietnam conflict was ended made it pretty clear that even those who insisted it be fought realized it was a useless expenditure of life.
I believe that almost all wars (not all, but most) are unnecessary. Those who invent them—old white men who don’t have to pay a price themselves—appeal to a vague but emotionally-charged notion of patriotism. But behind the scenes fortunes are being made from supplying military hardware and services. I have come to suspect this latter as just as important to the urging of war as the former idealistic reasons.
Gary R. Councell pointed out in his book Seventh-day Adventists & Military-Related Service that the end of the American military draft in the early 1970s was the beginning of the end of conscientious objector status. Once conscription was eliminated, the argument went, there would be no crises of conscience because Seventh-day Adventists who didn’t want to carry a gun need not enlist. In 1972 the General Conference Executive Committee voted that bearing arms was a matter of one’s individual conscience, and according to Councell, about that same time the church stopped educating youth with regard to noncombatancy.
Whence the notion that we follow all ten of the commandments? What if the draft is reinstated, and Adventists again want to be conscientious objectors: will it be harder because we let our attention to it lapse? And what’s the point of divesting of companies that make armaments and weapons as a church if we’re not certain killing is bad enough to take an official stand against?
My wife tells me about going when she was a teenager with her Spanish-speaking mother and father to appear before a judge to finalize their U.S. citizenship. She translated to them the Oath of Allegiance. Her Adventist parents stopped her at the line “that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law,” and said that was something they wouldn’t be able to do. The judge asked immediately, “Are you Seventh-day Adventists?,” and he then crossed out the line and proceeded without further discussion.
That is to say, noncombatancy was a belief with a respected reputation, a central part of Adventist identity for a a century and a half. My conscience tells me that I must still regard it that way.
I found the individual conscience language repeated by Elder Ted Wilson in a 2014 article about military service in Adventist World. “Thus, while the official church position is that of noncombatancy—conscientious objection to bearing arms—the decision as to whether or not to serve in the military and bear arms is left to the conscience of the individual.”
Most of the article, I was pleased to see, was supportive of our traditional position on noncombatancy—and I thank Elder Wilson for that. His stance is for peace, and for Seventh-day Adventists not being people who destroy others, but who heal them.
It was just that phrase “the conscience of the individual” that started a tiny rock slide in my brain.
In some sense, every choice is dependent upon the conscience of the individual. Acting according to conscience implies something more than mere impulse, but beyond that it’s hard to evaluate. On matters like the one we’re discussing here, a religious leader can try to educate you, but in the end you’re going to have to decide for yourself.
(Being something of a religious libertarian, I’d prefer that the church let the Holy Spirit guide members in a number of areas that we tend to make rules about: what we ingest, what we wear, the relationships we’re part of, how we keep the Sabbath. You cannot prevent sin by rules, and too many petty rules dilutes people’s understanding of sin.)
I am regretfully forced to agree with Elder Wilson: even though noncombatancy is a heritage position of the Seventh-day Adventist church, and one that I value, war can be understood from enough legitimate Christian moral perspectives that it isn’t at all clear that I—or my church—get to declare someone else’s decision to serve in combat a sin.
I think Elder Wilson and I are of the same mind on the matter of Christian participation in war. What I’m wondering is why he’s granting me the liberty of my conscience about whether to serve in combat, but not in other areas where he seems to have put his foot down and become not just instructive, not just a guiding voice, but an enforcer.Why, for example, has he expended so much personal authority and institutional energy on keeping women from being ordained?
So I think Elder Wilson and I are of the same mind on the matter of Christian participation in war. What I’m wondering is why he’s granting me the liberty of my conscience about whether to serve in combat, but not in other areas where he seems to have put his foot down and become not just instructive, not just a guiding voice, but an enforcer.
Why, for example, has he expended so much personal authority and institutional energy on keeping women from being ordained? He grants one person liberty of conscience to pick up a gun and spray bullets into an enemy. But when a talented woman says “I was called by God and I want to be fully authorized to preach for my church,” he says, “Sorry, not possible.” (The former, I remind you, is addressed in the Ten Commandments; the latter is not.) When unions and conferences feel compelled by the Holy Spirit to recognize pastors who are women as equal to men, he devotes meetings to developing strategies to put those leaders in their place.
Someone will say I’m comparing apples and tennis balls. Noncombatancy is a personal choice, they’ll say, while women doing ministry is an institutional choice. I grant that the church appears to have made that distinction. But I don’t. If one is a matter of conscience, why isn’t the other?
At least part of my interest is Elder Wilson’s voice in these matters. I contend that he has had a major hand in shaping the institution’s stance on women’s ordination. Elder Wilson has not been just a quiet moderator of our supposedly representative, presbyterian system: he pushes his own points of view. A good democracy requires leaders who value democracy, but Elder Wilson works the machinery of the church in his favor such that it is a bit less democratic than a leader who values democracy would want it to be. In the name of unity he tries to enforce submission to Silver Spring across geographic and cultural regions, at least in what matters most to him. (He has also—a discussion for another time—chosen not to intervene in matters of moral and ethical behavior where many believe he should.) I believe—it is as impossible to prove as that Russia changed the 2016 American election results—that Elder Wilson’s political maneuvering swung the vote against women’s ordination at San Antonio in 2015; if so, he not only trampled on the consciences of called women, but the conscience of much of the church.
Given the authoritative voice he’s adopted, it seems fair to compare his leadership on one matter to the other. The freedom he grants some to defend themselves and their country, he won’t grant to those who want to ordain women.
In the General Conference Executive newsletter of May of 2017, Dr. Frank M. Hasel seems to argue that you can rely on your conscience only until the church speaks. “But how shall we relate to the church—and particularly to decisions taken at annual councils or when the world church gathers at a General Conference Session—when the church makes decisions that might be in conflict with one’s personal conscientious opinion of the same issue?” Dr. Hasel asks. He doesn’t dismiss the conscience—he in fact assigns it a good deal of importance—but he warns that it isn’t entirely trustworthy. “Sin can erode the conscience so that our conscience can become distorted and even perverted.” So what can be done? The implication appears to be that we must bow to the church. “I am expected to represent the church I love even though I might not feel comfortable with every decision that the church has taken.”
Could this be read to say that those who would see women ordained have distorted and perverted consciences that must be corrected by church policy? Contrast that with our much stronger trust church leaders have in the consciences of those who choose to employ weapons against enemies in battle.
Some say that we need to get together and study until we find unanimity. TOSC (the Theology of Ordination Study Committee) showed that consensus is almost impossible to achieve by voting, particularly when an opinionated leader is leading the study. We’ve so thoroughly muddled religion with faith—for example, the Roman Catholic notions of denominational unity that our leaders have been promoting—that I doubt there’s much hope of us arriving at a comfortable theological consensus.
What we might do, though, is recommit ourselves to the freedom of the individual conscience.
Let us fully support the conscientious objections of those who feel women shouldn’t be ordained: if you oppose women in ministry, you needn’t ordain a woman, be ordained if you are a woman, or choose to belong to a congregation with a female pastor.
One could make the case that if there was ever a time for us to renew our Adventist commitment to noncombatancy, it is now. We could call on our history to argue for nonviolence, in opposition to that posse of American Christians who idolize guns and make patriotism an ersatz faith. But I fear that that horse has left the barn. Let’s grant that, practically, if not officially, we no longer share a denomination-wide conviction on nonviolence and noncombatancy. When we gave that decision over to the consciences of individuals, we lost the denominational voice on pacifism, pacificism and nonviolence that we once had.
But perhaps we might do this: we might grant the same freedom of conscience that we’ve called upon with regard to noncombatancy, to the matter of women’s ordination.
Let us fully support the conscientious objections of those who feel women shouldn’t be ordained: if you oppose women in ministry, you needn’t ordain a woman, be ordained if you are a woman, or choose to belong to a congregation with a female pastor. We will defend your right to not have a female pastor baptize you, perform your wedding, or your funeral.
But then let us also allow women who the Holy Spirit has gifted for ministry to be ordained and serve fully.
If our church can allow some consciences to choose to drop a bomb upon, or fire a gun at, or plunge a knife into, an enemy, I can see no reason it can’t allow a woman with a loud, clear calling from God to stand in our pulpits.
- Noncombatancy has been so thoroughly neglected that many of us now are completely ignorant of its long history among us. I have met young Adventists who think it a theological novelty, or a leftover of the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era. But the sixth commandment was being discussed with reference to war in the 1850s, not that long after the Great Disappointment, and in 1863 J.N. Andrews went to Washington DC to formally inform military leaders of the newly-organized denomination’s non-combatant doctrine. Adventist leaders realized that if they wanted others to respect their keeping of the Sabbath commandment in a simple and literal way, they needed to show consistency in respecting the simple and literal language of all of the commandments. The doctrine was used by Seventh-day Adventist conscriptees through the Civil War, both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam. The story of Adventist noncombatancy is told extraordinarily well in articles by Ginger Hanks Harwood, and by Douglas Morgan, both in the Journal of Adventist Education. To now see noncombatancy dismissed and ignored seems extraordinary to me, and I fear the day will come when we will regret our neglect of such a vital Biblical teaching. ↑
Loren Seibold is a pastor, and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.