#GCAC16, Day Four: Us vs. Them, and What It Does to Us
By Loren Seibold, October 14, 2016: I’m home after a fast and intense trip to Silver Spring. It was marvelous to meet old friends, and work with the great journalists at the tables around me. I was especially gratified by the number of people (and remember, nearly everyone present was in church leadership) who said to me, “We need Adventist Today and Spectrum so much in this church.” I’m thrilled that they see us as making a contribution, and we should be proud of that—as long as we’re doing it thoughtfully. More on that below.
I intended to write a bit about the last half-day of Annual Council. But there’s really not that much to write about. The truth is that by the end of these long meetings, people are tuned out. When the chair has to “shhhhh” like a kindergarten teacher just so the presenter can be heard above the chatter, you wonder why they bother. If folks were thinking about the meeting at all by Wednesday, it was about what had happened the previous day—though more likely they were thinking about about getting home after a marathon (several weeks for some) of meetings that are occasionally fascinating, often maddening, and in between about as interesting as watching mold grow. (By the way, at the very end Alex Carpenter and I tested out new technology by doing a live Facebook broadcast. Take a look and see what you think. It ends so abruptly because Carmen called me on the phone I was using for the broadcast, which for reasons I don’t understand cut off the broadcast.)
So instead, I’m going to make a confession. The confession is that I did some clumsy reporting on the unity and reconciliation discussion. It was pointed out to me by Elder Justin Lyons of the Minnesota Conference, who wrote me a note on Thursday. Not only do I accept his criticism, but it gives me the chance to talk about a something that concerns all of us who have loyalties and opinions, whether in the church or politics. This vexatious paper was presented as an innocent procedure for general use, as though it had no association with women’s ordination. I doubt anyone there failed to realize the disingenuousness of that argument.
This vexatious paper was presented as an innocent procedure for general use, as though it had no association with women’s ordination. I doubt anyone there failed to realize the disingenuousness of that argument.
Not to go into too much detail, Elder Lyon’s complaint was that in my report I cast undeserved blame on Elder Thomas Lemon, the chairman of that meeting. By letting it sound as though everything happening up front was being done by the chair, I left the impression that he was responsible for everything about the meeting that many of us didn’t like. That was unfair of me. I still believe that large meetings are controlled by those in charge consuming time (Elder Wilson’s father, Neil Wilson, was a frequent and intentional practitioner of the filibuster) and limiting discussion (though I admitted some limits are necessary, many pastors losing all sense of time when they hear their own voices amplified). What I should have said was that Thomas Lemon was chairing the meeting he was given. He didn’t set it up that way. I still don’t like the way people were cut off in mid-word, but being rude wasn’t his intention.
I also disliked the way this vexatious paper was presented as merely an innocent procedure for general use, as though it had no association with women’s ordination. I doubt anyone there failed to realize the disingenuousness of that argument. But Elder Mike Ryan and Elder Ted Wilson made it, not the chairman. And it was also Mike Ryan who scolded that those who wanted to question the consequences should just be quiet and vote the process, and later on we’ll tell you how it’s going to end.
Hence an apology to Elder Thomas Lemon for cudgeling him by association.
Here is illustrated the us vs. them problem. Once you choose sides, your lenses start shifting all colors toward that end of the spectrum. And that causes the kinds of inaccuracies that I was guilty of. The internet has speeded up the process, but I think it was just as true when there was no way to communicate but with mouths and ears. Loyalties shape the way we perceive what’s happening around us, and causing us to disparage those who disagree with us, even if unintentionally.
That doesn’t mean that “Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation” was a good idea, or that it was helpful, or that it will bring about unity. It will have consequences that are large and long-lasting, especially if the earlier “A Study of Church Governance and Unity”, so confidently thrown up on the wall a couple of weeks before the meeting, again reemerges—the paper that implied that all of those who disagreed with the authors were under Satanic influence. Even if those in the meeting had all approved of the GC leaders’ method of handling these differences (and it was abundantly clear that almost no one in the NAD did) it will still cause a problem in the church that is going to be difficult to resolve, even by people with the best of intentions. To the demand that all parts of the world church meekly accept that women cannot be ordained is now added another layer of friction: a petulant authority that insists the entire church can become unified by being forced into a weak consensus.
Before this is all over, there will be lawyers.
We must take great care not to demonize our opponents, even if they demonize us.
I haven’t hidden that my sympathies lie at the progressive end of Adventism. I was raised with a religion that told small children that a time of trouble was about to start, that your Roman Catholic neighbors are preparing to persecute and torture you, that probation may have closed and you may already be lost, that you will surely be lost if you aren’t sure your crackers were made with vegetable shortening, or if you turn on the ball game before the sun goes down on Sabbath—a kind of faith that I now know to be neither Biblical nor emotionally healthy. And it is still here in our church, in the form of believers who want to hold on to a faith that has little to do with the actual Jesus, preferring a Jesus as imagined in a 19th century sect. This Jesus approves only of Seventh-day Adventists, and not even of most of us.
I don’t agree with them, but I feel they have the right to their beliefs, and I will gladly worship with them in whatever area of the venn diagram we can find in common. They are rarely as generous in return. For the sin of trusting the gospel when it comes into conflict with the church, many of us have paid a price. (There is a woman who calls Pacific Press about once a year to complain that they let me write for Signs of the Times because, she claims, I once stood in front of my church in full Roman Catholic priest garb and declared that I was going to turn my congregation over to Rome! No, not a person in a mental institution, but a professional person, a member in good and regular standing. This, friends, is where a fearful loyalty and a fevered imagination gets you.)
The worst excesses of the us vs. them problem are on display in our political life. I have friends whose only concern is that SCOTUS turns conservative so to bring an end to abortion. In the service of that one issue they declare President Obama a Muslim, Hillary Clinton a criminal, and overlook every sign that the Republican candidate is a psychopath even though he’s tried to tell them in a thousand different ways. Talk about distortion lenses!
That is to say, we are in an age of denial and declining common sense, and the very principles of the kingdom are at risk. We Adventists, in our disappointment that the event that defines us hasn’t happened, seem unusually susceptible. That’s why we need to be even more generous with those whom we don’t understand. All of us have a hard time sorting out truth from background noise. No one but God can.
In the end, we may have nothing in common with one another but our faith in Him. And if we sacrifice that to the gods of doctrine and policy (or, God forbid, politics); if we misinterpret other Christians because they don’t believe as we do about women’s ordination; there is little hope for any of us.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today