By Dan M. Appel  |  14 October 2018  |

In 279 B.C., King Pyrrhus of Epirus led his soldiers into battle in support of the Samnites against the Romans at the Battle of Asculum in Apulia. He won the day on the battlefield against the Roman army under the Consul Publius Decius Mus. But, in doing so, he suffered severe losses of so many of the elite of his army that the victory was ultimately a loss1. Pyrrhus was himself wounded by a javelin in the arm, his baggage was plundered by the Samnites, and over 15,000 Romans and Epiriotic soldiers died.

In describing the battle, King Pyrrhus declared “If we win another such battle against the Romans, we will be completely lost.” In other words, they won the war but in the process so damaged their cause that they never recovered.

That battle gave rise to the phrase “a pyrrhic victory.”

This Monday, the General Conference President Ted Wilson and his allies from the developing world and the Adventist far right won a victory at Annual Council – but one which I fear will turn out to be pyrrhic in its long term consequences.

In pursuit of their ultimate goal to block the ordination of women, President Wilson and his allies planted a stake in the ground on the issue of centralized and empowered church government and were willing to gamble the church on their chance of victory. It was so important to them that, as one in the church’s leadership was quoted as saying, “I am willing to lose two million members if necessary in order to make this a reality.”

A leader should be careful what he wishes for! Before the dust finally settles, that leader may get his wish.

The foundational issue at this Autumn Council is not the ordination of women. That horse is already far out of the barn, never to be corralled. It is not even an ecclesiastical one – whether we will have a top down style of administration leadership in the Adventist Church – although at least for the time being it appears that our system will more closely resemble that of Roman Catholicism than it does the Early Church and the church Ellen White worked so hard to protect.2

The real issue is what it means to be the church and what it means to be the Church in “unity.”

The underlying problem all concerned have is that when it comes to issues like this, we often use the same vocabulary but employ radically different dictionaries to define the terms. Until we are willing to carefully define our terminology and choose to come to common ground and listen to the concerns and needs we each have, we will never solve the internal problems which threaten to fracture our church as we go forward. You see, words matter! And how we use them really matters!

The Problem of Unity

A term which was sounded over and over again at the Autumn Council meeting today was the word “Unity.”

For some, unity really means “uniformity.” Charles de Gaulle used to take great pride that, under his leadership you could tell exactly what each school child was doing in every classroom of every grade in France at every hour and minute of the day. That is the essence of uniformity. It thinks in terms of lock-step, carbon copies. In this view, the more we can all think and act the same, like the identical cookies in a package of Oreos, the more in unity we are. If we look the same, act the same, eat the same, talk the same, believe identically the same and express those beliefs identically the same, then we are in unity. Freedom, if it is idealized at all, is within carefully prescribed boundaries – much like the freedom of captives in the prison camps of the Third Reich to exercise freely, but only within the bounds of the barbed wire that surrounded them.

For others, unity means a healthy diversity in pursuit of common goals, characterized by respect and appreciation for similarities and differences. Instead of minimizing or trying to eliminate them, it celebrates differences within broad boundaries and rejoices in being part of a family that is bigger than just my local one. It recognizes that we are all committed to a common destination, even though we may look different as we travel the road to get there. It cheers and appreciates the nuances of various cultures and is willing to respect and allow for diversity of practice in various parts of the world even as it enjoys and basks in the respect of others for oneself. It celebrates the beliefs that we hold in common even as it recognizes that those will be expressed and practiced differently in different places, in different circumstances, by differing people. It doesn’t see differences as threats but as blessings to be appreciated and learned from.

One approach to “unity” tries to make the holes in the sieve smaller and smaller to screen out anyone who doesn’t see and do things my way and endeavors to discipline anyone who gets out of line; the other sees the church as a tent where there is plenty of room for diverse kinds of people who love God and are committed to serving him and are together “marching to Zion.” One side sees “truth” as a knife edge and tries to balance everyone on that knife edge; the other sees the life of the church as a road – a road with ditches on each side, right and left, to be sure, but a road wide enough to accommodate difference as we support each other on the journey to the Kingdom of God.

An illustration from my own country might help to make my point. Many consider the United States to be a vast “melting pot” where people from all over the world come and melt together into something called an American. But, that results in something resembling Poi, a tastless, paste-like, monochromatic food loved by Hawaiians. What makes the United States the great place it is, is the reality that it is a “stew pot.” In a stew pot, there are all manner of vegetables and proteins mixed and cooked together without losing their identity – but enriching and supporting each other.

That is what the Lord of the Church designed his church to be. It is what the Early Church looked like and what, in spite of what some leaders condemned by church founder and prophet Ellen White tried to do, characterized the early Adventist Church. Some, such as those in the current leadership of the our Church at the General Conference level and many of the more conservative and Third World leaders sincerely want a melting pot and want the membership to be a homogeneous, amorphous mass, a rather boring and bland dish made by mashing out all of the diversity and difference. On the other hand, what many others hope and pray for and wished so badly would emerge from the Autumn Council discussion was more an appreciation for the sweet beauty of a fruit salad with ingredients from all over the globe respecting and appreciating and supporting and celebrating our differences as we worked together to “finish the work.”

It is so easy to forget that enforced uniformity is never unity – that you can force compliance on the outside and still not have unity on the inside of people and organizations. “A man,” to slightly mangle the old saying, “coerced against his will is of the same opinion still,” on the inside. The dissent will always be there, hidden and often silent beneath the surface like a volcanic caldron ready to erupt at the most unexpected and inopportune times and places.

On the other hand, true uncoerced unity always organically coalesces around what is truly important, what is really important and genuinely matters even as it celebrates diversity in the things that are peripheral. Love never coerces, it always draws and allures and attracts and instead of conflict, peace and serenity and happiness follow in its path.

Aligned in Belief and Practice?

But, some would argue, isn’t it important that everyone be aligned in belief and practice, like soldiers in a military parade, if we as the army of God are going to finish the work he has given us to accomplish on this earth?

That has been the discussion in the church since shortly after Pentecost. It was the central issue in the much-touted trip to Jerusalem by Paul and Barnabas to submit the question of what was really necessary for salvation to the Church leadership.

Much has been made of the fact that they were willing to submit their message and methods to the Church leadership in Jerusalem for approval. What is often neglected or ignored is the result of those discussions. The Church leadership established a principle that, when it came to practice and much that many considered foundational to belief, very little of all of the things the Judaizers believed to be so important really was.

That is the crux of the battle being waged in our church today for the hearts and minds of our members. As mentioned earlier, the issue is one of “unity” or “uniformity.” And, it is a question worthy of careful and prayerful consideration as we think about the future of our own church. We are at a tipping point that will decide the future of our denomination for a very long time.

Based on his understanding of what happened at that Jerusalem conference, Augustine of Hippo elucidated a very concise and cogent principle that must govern our attitudes and actions in what has become a truly world church as we look to the future.

“In essentials, unity;
In non-essentials, diversity;
In all things, love.”

Just how much is the council this week and others like it in the future going to mandate is essential to being a Seventh-day Adventist? Are we going to become like the Jewish Church, insisting on every jot and tittle of the Torah plus all of the 26 volumes of the commentaries and interpretations of the Torah found in the Mishnah and later the Talmud?

Can the Spirit Still Lead?

What is at stake in the decision of the 2018 Autumn Council is far deeper than the shadow issue of women’s ordination or even the future of Adventist ecclesiology – it is whether we are going to go down the path of our Jewish forebearers and try to regulate ever more minute areas of our lives, beliefs and practice as congregations, unions, conferences and individuals. Then, are we going to follow our Early Church ancestors down the road to Rome and begin to enforce what those at the top have decided to regulate and regiment? Or, are we going to go back to the fundamentals and then trust God to lead his people, each in their own culture and circumstance to apply the essentials to their situation? Are we going to constrict the ability of the Spirit to work and lead, or are we going to foster the kind of freedom that characterized the early Adventist Church, the Church being celebrated in Battle Creek in 2018? Once we decide that very important and foundational question, the answers to much of the rest that we debate will be much easier to decide for all of us.

President Wilson and his supporters won the battle today, let’s give them credit. But, I am afraid at a cost that will haunt them and the rest of us for years to come. Just as the early Christian Church sincerely did when they began to root out anyone who dared to disagree with the leadership in Rome, and to discipline them, and to subject them to inquisition and eventually persecution, the Adventist Church took its first baby steps towards an end as tragic as any many believe is prophesied of another church in the Revelation.

Just as after Glacier View, conferences and unions and divisions will begin to be pressured to bring anyone with divergent views into line. And, just as occurred in the aftermath of that tribunal, who knows how many will walk away from the Adventist Church? How many more will continue the trend of donating their tithe to other projects that they believe they can support with good conscience – albeit under different categories to avoid the mandate that all tithe has to go to the Conference. Mission offerings will continue to shrink, and accessions to churches in North America will continue to dwindle3 while “apostasies” mount as people look for places and ways to invest where they can.

For some, and I say this with great sadness, it won’t matter – “even if we lose two million.” They will cry a few crocodile tears, bemoan the loss of beloved brothers and sisters, affirm that for them prophecy is fulfilled once again, and then move on. The “Shaking” was predicted after all, and the Church needs purification. As a dear friend from the Adventist “right” used to say to me, “God can never finish the work and Jesus can never come until we deal with all of the problems in the church.”

What he and those like him forget is that that has never worked. The Dark Ages stand as living proof of that. They forget that it is not our job to purify the church, it is God’s. He is God, and we are not! And they forget that the power, and especially the religious power they hunger and strive for so that they can control others, corrupts; and absolute power, especially religious power, corrupts absolutely. Is the price of gaining and supporting that kind of absolute power in the pursuit of uniformity really worth it?

We have probably crossed a Rubicon today; a divide that we can probably never crawl back to and re-cross. As someone who has devoted 45 years of his life to service in this church, it breaks my heart – not because a political battle was won by someone I disagree with, but because of what the impact will be in the spiritual lives of so many that I love and have worked so hard to encourage to believe in what this Church is all about, people who already are on the phone sadly asking me where they should go from here. I worry about my pastor colleagues and my friends and family who are questioning, “Now that the church has chosen to walk away from me, what will I do?”

I don’t know. Maybe this is the Shaking. But the real question is, has the Church started the process of shaking itself away from Jesus?4 And if it has, what do we do?

1  Plutarch, writing in Pyrrhus, 75 A.D.

2  It bears at least passing mention that we have the identical number of administrative and ecclesiastical levels as the Roman Church.  We are also following the same path, beaten by the early church, in working to bring what it perceived as heretics, rebels and miscreants to heel.

3  It is hard to find more than a handful of Anglo and African-American Adventist churches in North America that are experiencing much of any “Kingdom growth” – people coming to a saving relationship with Jesus.  Most Adventist Church growth in North America is transfer growth – from another Adventist Church or from another denomination.

4  1 Timothy 4:1,2

Dan M. Appel is a published author and retired pastor living in Magalia, California.  He is a deeply committed and sometimes passionate follower of Jesus who loves being a layman, and trying to live in the marketplace that he has encouraged others to do for so many years.

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