A Question of Ecclesiology
by Lawrence Downing
The most recent brouhaha over women’s ordination affirms those, who in the last Century, predicted that in Century 21 ecclesiology will be a major point for discussion within the Seventh-day Adventist church. The strident, some might suggest desperate, pleas issued from the General Conference administrators in response to the Columbia Union Conference vote to approve ordination for all qualified candidates, irrespective of gender is evidence to support the prediction. The statement, “An Appeal for Unity in Respect to Ministerial Ordination Practices,” issued by the General Conference, dated June 29, 2012, appeals to union conferences not to take action independent of the General Conference. The delegates to the CUC Constituency Session did not buy the GC’s arguments. The Pacific Union Conference delegates joined their eastern colleagues and affirmed a similar policy, despite the plea from GC President Wilson to vote no on the motion.
As I read the GC’s responses to the Columbia Union Conference vote I found myself thinking: These people are afraid. Their angst comes through loud and clear. They are afraid they have lost control. The authority of senior leaders of the worldwide church is under threat and they are not sure what to do about it! As one reads further into the documents the GC administrators express their concern that Adventists in other parts of the world from North America cannot accept change; they fear that the CUC and PUC actions will give “permission” to others to follow their example. They fear the Follow-the-Leader effect. After the second or third read-through of the GC documents I noticed a significant absence: Absent was an appeal to uphold the moral and ethical principle that the votes to ordain all qualified candidates violated. Absent was a statement that the votes transgressed a scriptural command. Absent was a “Thus saith the Lord“ to assure us that the actions are contrary to the gospel fundamentals.
The statement in the document that expresses the senior church leadership’s disappointment in the CUC vote indubitably is accurate. And as I read the rationale for the GC administrator’s great disappointment (Another “Great Disappointment” to add to our Adventist tradition) the fear the administrators have once again arises. Not a surprise. Fear is a powerful motivator, but not always a reliable one.
The GC statement concludes with the suggestion that perhaps some of the CUC delegates did not fully understand the issues or they might have voted otherwise than they did. Talk about a failure to fully understand! I believe the delegates understood well the issues. The union conference administrators made the issues clear in numerous ways. What the delegates appear not to have bought is that the church hierarchy knows more than those who occupy the pews and pay the bills.
The delegates had every reason to understand that women’s ordination is not a moral issue. When Ted Wilson addressed the delegates, they did not hear a strong and coherent appeal to scripture to support his admonition? His appeal was to follow authority and put policy above conviction.
I want to visit again the GC Appeal to Unity letter that states that the recommendation to the delegates that they vote no on the action to ordain all qualified ministerial candidates was with the consensus of the GC Executive Committee. That the vote was by consensus was stated and reinforced in later statements. A person who desires agreement without the messiness or uncertainty of debate appreciates the Consensus Rule: If no one objects to the motion before the house, the motion is passed. Debate on a motion holds threat of potential for disagreement and a potential failure. An objector, within the context of a determined and in-control CEO, risks disapproval, or worse. GC Executive Board members well know the fate that came to those upon whom the leader’s shadow falls. Better to go along than be pushed out! “By Common Consent, we agree that….” Over and done and no person’s statements or votes are recorded in the minutes. A closed mouth offers a certain institutional security blanket. Courage is not an essential component of the equation.
When those who occupy positions of authority in religious organizations equate their will with God’s; when they threaten those who spurn their admonitions, such behavior is a clue that it may be time to raise the red flag. The warning against principalities and powers in high places does not apply only to secular bodies. When “followers” chart a course contrary to the desires of those in leadership positions, then what? Church leaders express disappointment that the people voted against their recommendations.
Where is the evidence that the GC administrator’s recommendation to vote no on the motion to ordain all qualified ministerial candidates is any more consistent with God’s will than that of the CUC delegates who voted yes? Each group prayed to the same God to guide them. What arrogance for either group to claim itself the special repository and conveyor of God’s will! Should not President Wilson and his administrative team accept the vote of the CUC and PUC delegates as assurance that God’s will is done? Rather than express disappointment that their desire was not met, let the GC administrators consider another approach. Give thanks God has opened a new way to affirm ministry and has opened ministry to an additional core of innovative and qualified people who are dedicated to spread the Good News. Who is judge to determine what is the Lord’s choice? Which brings us back to where we started: the issue is ecclesiology. Who will control the church? Who has the authority? Who the power? What group will have the final word and what will be the outcome? We watch and wait.