by Glenn Sackett
Seventh-Day Adventists have hit a bump in the road, a bump so big it threatens the whole journey. This bump in the road occurred in 2015, leading up to, and during the General Conference session in San Antonio. In 2015 a decades-long discussion escalated into an ugly fight that descended into name-calling and accusations of rebellion. Ugly, really ugly.
The discussion is about how to recognize, validate and credential women God has called to ministry. The shorthand version of the topic is “Women’s Ordination.” Coming away from the San Antonio experience many of us knew something awful had happened. We knew that following the course we were on would make things worse, not better. We began to search for a roadmap that could get us back on the journey to the Kingdom of Heaven. I realized this ugly discussion had taken on a life of its own, one that neither in content nor tone resembled the Kingdom of Heaven I have devoted my life to experiencing now and in eternity.
Don’t be a freeloader! Support Adventist Today!
That freed me from trying to think harder along the same lines of thinking we were in, which is how to solve an organizational problem. It freed me to think back to our reason for being, which is a Divine Purpose. Then I could remember that our Divine Purpose is to reveal the Kingdom of God for the purpose of establishing the Kingdom of God. Once I started from the right starting point, with my mental map oriented so North is North, I could see the way clearly.
Actually I was surprised at the simplicity of what I saw; we must pursue our journey with these priorities: 1) Jesus First 2) Love Matters Most 3) Ministry is Service (A servant mentality)
Simple. And like most transformational experiences in life: Simple, but not easy.
Let’s expand on this.
1) Jesus First – Whatever we do and say must reveal Jesus. Whenever it does not we are doing it wrong; we must immediately go back, rethink it, and do it over. Better yet, before speaking or acting these questions must become second nature: What would Jesus do/say? How would Jesus say/do this? And while we are yet speaking we must observe: is the other person “getting Jesus?” Or is something (like me, my cherished ideas, my judgments) getting in the way? In fact, everything we say and do does reveal our conception of Jesus and God. Our children have been telling us clearly, as they have been walking out the back door for generations now “The God your words and actions represent is not one we find worthy of our attention.” We are Christians first, Adventists second; We are Christians, not Paulians. We are Christians first, “people of the book” second. It’s Jesus first, behavior second; It’s Jesus first, prophecy second; It’s Jesus first, doctrine second; It’s Jesus first, health second; It’s Jesus first, anything else second, every single time. These are not bad things; they are good things; important things, but they matter only after we are clear, in the moment, about Jesus.
2) Love matters most – Everything must pass this test. Jesus taught us that there are two most important things, which in heavenly math are actually one thing: Love. Love God; Love people. How can this be? How can 1+1=1? It’s a matter of equivalency, where there is really only indivisible substance. Which is exactly what Jesus taught about love:
-They will know you have been with me by the way you love each other;
-If you say you love me but do not love your brother, you lie. Love matters most.
Let’s compare that with another number: 613. That’s the number of rules under the Old Covenant, in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Are they all of equal importance? Which ones are so important that we should be willing to shout each other down, to risk destroying our faith community? None, according to Jesus. He extended the Heavenly math lesson: 613=2=1. Really? Yes, Jesus brings the New Covenant which brings new math: “All the law and the prophets can be summed up in this.” So whatever we teach, whatever we enforce, if it isn’t expressed and experienced as love, we’re doing it wrong.
Again, we must immediately go back, rethink it, and do it over. In this rethinking, the opening question is “What would love do?” And when that seems too abstract, we can go back to “What would Jesus do?” The apostle Paul “got it” too. Right in the middle of applying the teachings of Jesus to the nitty-gritty details of church life in Corinth, which needed a lot of spiritual direction, he brought it down to this priority list:
-Love; and the greatest of these is love.
And just to be sure we understand that there is a hierarchy here, a priority list to observe, absolutely consistent with Jesus teaching, he gave us a list of good things (prophecy, etc.) and then said “if we have all of these but do not have love we are like a noisy gong , a clanging symbol.” This is why we can’t argue our way out of the mess we have created: one side sounds like a noisy gong, the other like a clanging symbol. That is not why we are here, to see who can make the most noise! We argued our way into this; we will not argue our way out. Complex problems cannot be solved at the same level they were created. We must seek a higher level of thinking and acting. Bottom line here: it’s simple: love matters most!
3) Ministry is Service – our governance, our rules of engagement, our understanding of ministry, our expression of leadership—everything must be in service to the first two principles. Everything. Jesus: first shall be last (this is our model of leadership, servant leadership, not humanly constructed hierarchical structures copied from the worlds of politics or business, or other religions.
Can there be a “Christian organization?” No and yes. The organization cannot have a saving relationship with Christ, so it cannot be a Christian. But an organization can stand for something, and an organization can act. In this it can reveal Christ, or not. Seeking the good of the other, not our own. (even Paul, in his better moments, got this) One of my bosses, who understood better than most how to express Christian mission in the culture of the organization, constantly talked about “Service over self-interest.” Heavenly organizational charts and worldly organizational charts are upside-down to each other. Part of the thinking that has gotten us all tangled up here is that we have put the role of the “minister” into a worldly organizational chart, one that has the minister “over” others. Jesus, on the other hand, taught ministry as service, and demonstrated this on His knees, washing the feet of those to whom He ministered. We must “right-side-up” our organizational chart, at all levels, and in all instances of ministry if we hope to find our way out of this darkness. Simple, right?
Just three things:
1) Jesus is who we are here to show to the world, in everything we say and do.
2) Love is the method of interaction we are to use, in everything we say and do.
3) Ministry is service, the way we are to relate to each other, in everything we say and do.
That is all. Three things. Just three things.
Are they easy? No. Each one calls us to abandon our conformity to the ways of the world. Each one calls us to be transformed into the ways of the Kingdom, ways that are not our ways. And perhaps most difficult, we have to stop our self-dependent attitude of “I’m right so you must be wrong!” We must adopt the attitude demonstrated clearly by John the Baptist: “I must decrease to He may increase.” How will we get back to the Women’s Ordination question? I don’t know. I actually don’t think it matters. That may sound heretical; it may sound cynical. But I think it’s the simple truth. If we continue with the path we are on, we will simply be arguing about boxes on an upside-down, humanly devised organizational chart. On the other hand, if, and that’s a big “if,” we are transformed, if we get back to living in a right-side-up, Kingdom-based, service based operation, then we will see new ways to resolve our questions, because we will all be learners in the School of Heaven, seeing new possibilities we couldn’t imagine before. We will see new hope.
Glenn Sackett is an explorer, passionate about the natural world and helping other folks explore their world, their lives, their possibilities. Glenn is a hospital chaplain, specializing in mental health care, addiction treatment, mind/body/spirit relationships, resilience and “thriving on change.” Glenn has served in four healthcare systems from Maryland to Hawaii, working 22 years at Porter Adventist Hospital in Denver, CO.