by Larry Downing | 08 October 2018 |
This piece is written prior to when the 2018 General Conference (GC) Autumn Council meets in Battle Creek, Michigan, where, in 1863, the Seventh-day Adventist church began. To commemorate this date and the place of meeting, GC president Ted Wilson and other administrative officials sport full-grown beards. Exchange a digital camera for an early Kodak and one is taken back to those early years when photographs of church leaders lined up, beards on full display, populated the pages of the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. The 2018 GC Autumn Council has more important things to do than photograph church executives. The Compliance and Unity documents have drawn particular attention and response. There have been widely publicized voted actions from numerous church entities expressing objection to both the Compliance and Unity documents and the establishment of the five committees appointed to monitor areas of concern that call for special attention.
I have read the documents and have watched the three presentations broadcast from the Loma Linda University Church that provided background and response to these documents. The presenters well expressed the pros and cons of how these documents might affect the Adventist church. The obvious consensus of the presenters was that the process being recommended to assure compliance and unity would have the opposite effect. I believe that even the potential implementation of the process described in the documents creates unease, threat and insecurity among educators and those who serve the local church.
There should be little surprise that the GC has prepared and recommends Compliance and Unity documents. More than two decades ago a presenter, at what was then known as the Andrews Society of Religious Studies, assured listeners that ecclesiology would be the next challenge awaiting the Adventist church. The professor was a prophet.
Clergy friends and those in educational organizations have shared their distress and emotional disturbance that the proposed compliance/unity/accountability documents have created in their lives and those of their colleagues. Parishioners and others, take note of this! Be sensitive to the possibility that your pastor or teacher may be troubled by certain policy and theological matters that swirl throughout the Adventist world. The majority of church members live their lives unaffected by what are perceived to be arcane matters that now await action by church administrators. Church employees do not have the luxury to be immune from GC actions.
Implicit in the approval and implementation of the proposed compliance/unity documents is the threat of censure, or worse, should a conference or organization be identified as noncompliant and thus a unity disruptor. Woe to the organization that does not affirm a literal six-day creation week, a week composed of seven literal days. Double woe if the organization has a problem promoting the understanding that this creation week occurred in recent time—less than 15 or 20 thousand years ago. The compliant organization is to reject geological, archeological and scientific conclusions that state life began millions of years ago. The compliant organization will promote a world-wide flood and have no truck with the ungodly geologists who propose there is no verifiable flood model.
Those employed by organizations deemed non-compliant are theoretically immune from scrutiny and possible reprimands. When an organization is reprimanded or the leaders of an organization are censured, it is not clear what effect that will have on the employees of that organization. Such insecurity has a negative effect on organizational administrators and staff.
There may well be despair and feelings of isolation that come to those who, like Elijah, conclude they are alone in holding to conclusions that are deemed non-compliant by church administrators. People, be gentle with these men and women. You may not understand why the anxiety and emotional distress. What is important is to assure pastors and professors that they have support. Assure them that you respect their conclusions. Indeed, what individuals believe may differ from what you or GC administrators believe. Scripture allows for diversity and provides evidence that there was not always consistent agreement among the early believers. Paul and Barnabas agreed to disagree. Simon Peter faced his own dilemma in how to deal with the Gentiles. Paul journeyed to Jerusalem and agreed with the Jerusalem leaders that Gentiles are to abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from what is strangled and from fornication (Acts 15:28f.).
The biblical record provides evidence that Paul did not, in every situation, implement what he once agreed to. He was comfortable to affirm that eating food offered to idols had no moral or theological importance. Let the weak follow their rules, he stated, but for the strong? Eat what you wish, without regard to conscience (cf. Romans 14). Should not the apostle have been called before the Jerusalem council to explain his noncompliance and be reprimanded for his deviant behavior? Paul is not an isolated case.
The Gentile influx presented Paul the opportunity to give reasonable and effective response to a unique situation. He had proclaimed the gospel, and his message of hope and salvation hit home, but the Gentiles rocked the boat. They were not steeped in Jewish tradition or beliefs. They did not have a problem with buying their meat at the public market where food offered to idols was sold. Paul’s response to this unexpected situation is instructive to the present situation that confronts our church. He did not explain to those Gentiles the action taken by the fellow-believers in Jerusalem who voted that Gentiles were to abstain from meat offered to idols. His advice to the new converts, and to those who had been longer in the Way, was that each was to follow her/his conscience, but be gentle to the weak believers. His statements are models of pastoral care.
The GC administrators would do well to learn from the Apostle Paul and adopt his pastoral methods. Desperately needed in the Adventist church today is for GC administrators, and Ted Wilson in particular, to learn and implement pastoral skills. These skills are not now evident. Indeed, the opposite is evident. Statements, attitude and behavior towards those whom Ted believes are inconsistent with his beliefs hurt, not heal. It would benefit all if nothing were said rather than condemn or denounce. As a result of the decision to implement secular management behavior, the church is divided, its members are under stress, and its administrators are desperate to find some method to unite people in what was perceived to once have been a church unified in beliefs and mission. Rules and reprimands will fail to rectify the problems that stress both those in leadership and the men and women in the pews. Now is the time for administrators to model respect, acceptance and love toward all. The recurring imposition of divisive mandates, statements and accusations produces hostility, distrust and disappointment. There is a better way. The opportunity to implement that better way lies before our denominational leaders as they meet in Battle Creek, Michigan, to consider what future awaits the Adventist denomination and its members.
Lawrence Downing, DMin, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.