A Tale of Two Churches
by Thami Danxa | 25 January 2018 |
The global reach of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is said to be one of our best features, and we pride ourselves on our presence in over 220 countries. However a major challenge with a worldwide church is the tenuous relationship between its constituent parts. Though the church takes pride in its globalism, the distinctions between the church in the West and the church in the rest of the world make us almost like we are two churches in one church.
This phenomenon is demonstrated by the different ways we handle certain issues.
The Pulpit Dress Code
To take one simple example: it is not uncommon for some churches in South Africa to deny a preacher the pulpit if he doesn’t show up wearing a necktie and a jacket. In most churches in the West, this would not necessarily be a divisive issue, whereas here in the “other church” it is treated almost as a point of salvation, and leads to contention whenever the problem is encountered. The Bible’s passages about modesty are apparently extended by some to mean a host of other things that the Bible doesn’t say: in this case, that western formal wear is more “biblical” than smart traditional clothing.
The worldwide church has one policy that guides its operations globally, and in many parts of the West that policy is generally implemented. Where church leadership in that part of the world is reluctant to implement some section of the policy, it’s a decision arrived at after having taken time to study, and having convinced the constituency of the rightness of, such a position.
However, in other parts of the world church (the “other” church) there is a tendency to consider policy interpretation and implementation as the preserve of local leaders. This leads to erratic interpretations of policy or, at best, a highly selective implementation.
Women in Ministry
Examples abound, but one of particular interest right now has to do with female elders and female pastors.
Whereas the worldwide church resolved the matter of female elders being ordained and female pastors being employed and commissioned many years ago, the leadership of the division in which I work hasn’t promoted or implemented this worldwide position. I am not aware of the leadership of the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division ever taking part in a service of ordaining a female elder or commissioning a female pastor—although they have been part of many ordination services for male pastors.
This is not only saying that the ordination of female elders and the commissioning of female pastors is not welcome here, and that we are not part of that worldwide policy, it furthermore tells the church in this part of the world that we are custodians of the policy only insofar as the leadership agrees with it—which in this case means that women are excluded.
On the other hand, the leaders of the church in the West, seem to be at the forefront of the implementation of this church policy, and are on record as defending and promoting it. Though there are pockets of resistance in the West, just like there are those of us here who are opposed to the constitutional delinquency of the church leaders in this part of the world, most in the western church appear to conform to the dominant pattern.
The Third Church
Why, then, when we call ourselves one global church, do we act as two different churches in certain areas? Who is responsible for this unfortunate and undesirable divergence? Why must we have different conceptions of globally agreed-to positions? Clearly, responsible for creating this polarity are those who have been charged with ensuring that we are a part of the worldwide church—and it is up to them to see to it that we do not, as it were, unilaterally secede from the rest of the church.
We must address this gap between the two churches because we are about to be faced with a Third Church. This emerging Third Church springs from a decolonization impulse, from a desire to see reflected the various cultures, nationalities and regions of the church in a more meaningful way. The emerging Third Church will demand we address the historical inequalities inherent in our societies, and by extension in our church, such as the fact that there hasn’t been a black General Conference president after a century and a half, even as most of the church membership is largely concentrated outside North America.
The Third Church agenda will be forced on the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the near future; it cannot be avoided. This movement will demand more power in the local fields, more self determination, wanting no longer to be dictated to by the leadership in the West.
Contrary to what the West believes about Africa’s attitude toward women, it is entirely possible that the decolonization movement will find traction in homegrown movements towards equality for women.
We can prepare for these changes by working on the gap between the existing two churches right now. We begin by addressing the urgent issue of the differences in the application of policy between the two blocs, including the autocratic leadership that is paralysing the church in this region, especially in the matter of recognizing the ministry of our female colleagues.
Thami Danxa is an ordained pastor in the Trans-Orange Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He is completing a Masters in International Development from Andrews University. He has previously served as a Conference Secretary, and member of the Southern Africa Union Conference Executive Committee. He is passionate about equality in ministry, and in developmental approaches to ministry. He and his wife Thuli have three children.