The Non-Immortality of the Church’s Soul
by Raj Attiken, October 19, 2016: For several years now, the actions or proposed actions by the leadership of the Adventist Church appear to display an inordinate obsession with conformity and uniformity. Specifically, there have been persistent and gnawing concerns about the exercise of authority and power to achieve compliance.
Much has been said and written about these concerns. There is general agreement that authority, in the Seventh-day Adventist church, is a distributed authority in that each “level” of the church is also a locus of authority. Each develops in a balanced and proportional way, respecting the spheres of responsibility and competency of the others. A healthy denomination is comprised of many such loci of authority; a dysfunctional denomination is characterized by the misguided efforts to expand one of these at the expense of all the others. Whatever one understands by Ellen’s White use of the phrase “highest authority that God has on earth” (and other similar designations) in reference to the General Conference or to the General Conference in session, it must be understood in the context of the responsible stewardship of authority to benefit all segments of the church constituency. Nothing in Adventist theology or ecclesiology permits the General Conference or any other level of administration to see itself as a Sacred Magisterium empowered to impose certain of its convictions on the entire global church or on select segments. Authority should not become conflated with control and coercion.
The exercise of power or coercion to impose a preferred cultural, moral or theological perspective has, and will, inflict significant harm on the church.
There have been, and will continue to be, various theories and arguments regarding the different understandings about ordination, administrative relationships, authority and the like. But all of them converge on one reality – that the exercise of power or coercion to impose a preferred cultural, moral or theological perspective has, and will, inflict significant harm on the church. Regardless of the outcomes or consequences (intended and unintended) of voted actions, policies, and documents on the administrative and institutional functions within the denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has already lost something precious as a result of the apparent intentions of some of these actions. The soul of the Church has been damaged, and the results go deep. While the content of documents, initiatives, and votes may appear to be merely procedural or transactional — aimed at the governance and leadership functions of the church — their impact extends beyond. The spirit that animates these actions, and the attitudes and approaches to leadership that they betray, inevitably affect the spirit and soul of the church in deep and enduring ways. These actions set a tone for the social and communal fabric of our church. They influence the kind of community we are, and will be in the future.
One of our church’s most cherished possessions is its social fabric – the quality of the relationships we enjoy as sisters and brothers in the faith. And that is what is rent apart when authoritarian and controlling approaches are used in leadership and governance. The church is diminished when its leaders become too rigid and too intoxicated with the fumes of power and control. The lust to achieve conformity and uniformity hinders the church’s ability “to act with love and justice” (Hosea 12:6) and to “do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with . . . God” (Micah 6:8).
The use of power and coercion to impose a preferred cultural, moral or theological perspective puts at risk the very seat of our soul, the freedoms that animate our faith and devotion to God. As a result there is an erosion of confidence. There is a weakening of moral authority. There is a diminishing of resources – human, financial, and emotional. There is a ripping apart of community. There is a dehumanizing and delegitimizing of persons. There is a diminution of the dignity that God has endowed on human beings as “image-bearers.” There is a squelching of creativity. And there is a subtle suppression of truth. For, whenever power is used to legitimize an error or distortion of truth in the pretext of upholding truth, there is also a subtle suppression of the truth and the ongoing reception of additional truth by the body.
The paradox of this situation is that the Church claims to take its cues from God in all matters of faith and practice. Yet, the cosmic narrative to which we attach our church’s story is about a God who governs His universe by the principles of love, trust, and freedom rather than of force and coercion. When we disregard these principles in our leadership and governance actions, the weave of our relational fabric unravels. The tone set by such disregard alters or damages the soul of the church. We are all poorer for it.
In order for a community to flourish, there must be within it an environment of love, trust, and freedom. Despite the risk of abuse, these principles of governance and leadership offer the best promise of shaping a community that experiences “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness (and) self-control” (Galatians 5:22). People rise to their highest potential in such environments. They make their greatest contributions. They achieve their loftiest goals. They become co-creators with the Creator. They become agents of transformation. They become responsible and accountable partners in advancing the mission of the church.
Religious authoritarianism, when it thrives in the church, is an awkward topic to write about. But, authoritarianism has raised its head again and again at the planning and decision-making bodies of the church. For the church to be a church at all, it must have more than doctrines, policies, and regulations. It must possess a robust and vibrant soul. Authoritarianism and control are enemies of the health of the soul. If these attitudes persist, the church is at risk of losing its soul. That’s my take!
Dr. Raj Attiken is a student of the interconnections between faith, culture, gospel, and church. He is an adjunct college professor of religion and a mentor of church-shapers and innovators. He is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Worthington, Ohio.