Reflections on San Antonio
By Caleb Rosado, July 20, 2015, Revised: The decision on the ordination of women made on July 8, 2015 at the 60th General Conference Session at San Antonio, made it very clear that there is no “one” Seventh-day Adventist Church but several. The church in North America is very different from the church in Latin America, which is different from the church in Europe, and this one in term differs from the church in Africa, which also differs from the one in Australia. These various churches visibly manifested their differences when it came to the vote on the ordination issue.
The decision was not based on theology, nor the leading of the Spirit, nor the will of God no matter how many “Amens” where shouted; because God is not that confused, emotional, irrational, divisive, or anthropomorphic. The decision was based on culture and societal influences, pure and simple. By culture I mean the socially organized way of life of a people. And what holds that culture together are the operational value systems of that given culture. Thus, the operational values of North America, Europe and Australia are far different from the operational value systems of Latin America and Africa. And while we praise God for the exponential growth taking place in Africa and in Latin America, many in these areas of the world also adhere to a more traditional and patriarchal form of societal structures. These cultural and social structures also impact their reading and interpretation of Scripture. Just like the more egalitarian expression of society and culture in North America, Europe and Australia also influences many in their reading and interpretation of Scripture.
None of us come to the Word with a tabula rasa mindset. If that were the case then the Four Gospels should be identical, but they are not. Ellen G. White made that very clear: “The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen. Look at the different writers.” What she is saying here is that culture and social dynamics played an influential part in the writing of Scripture, and thus, by extension, its interpretation. Melville J. Herskovits, cultural anthropologist, explains the basic principle of cultural influence on human thinking: “Judgments are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his/her own enculturation.”
What all this means is that the largest body of members, with the largest number of delegates, with their traditional and patriarchal system of values, determined the outcome of the vote. People merely voted their way of life since their way of life influenced their view of God and interpretation of Scripture. Now it is important to keep in mind that with 41% of the delegates voting in favor of the motion to allow the Divisions to decide the question of the ordination of women, not everyone in Africa and Latin America voted against it. And then again, not all the delegates of North America, Europe and Australia voted in favor. There were dissenters in all the sectors, for patriarchal vs. egalitarian expressions of culture and readings of God’s Word are not exclusive to these respective fields. Yet the method chosen to carry out the vote predetermined the outcome. And as long as this method is used the outcome will always be the same, whether the vote was taken in 1995 at Utrecht or twenty years later in San Antonio, or twenty years from now who-knows-where.
In a time period when the Supreme Court of the United States finally approved what the American people had already accepted, same-sex marriage in all 50 states, when the Confederate flag – a symbol of racism and slavery – has finally come down from state capitols, when the possibility of a woman finally being President of the United States becomes a reality, the church is still the last bastion of sexism in the world. To focus on evangelism now as a solution to all the problems facing the church, comes across as a cruel joke. Who wants to join a sexist church? If the issue had been that only white males could be ordained to the Gospel ministry, the outcry would have echoed all the way from Paducah to Timbuktu (or as the Bible says, “from Dan to Beersheba), since the church is now more sensitive to racism then to sexism.
In the days following San Antonio, I predict that the church will experience a mass exodus of its membership, especially from North America, Europe and Australia, just like happened after Utrecht, but now even on a larger scale. And instead of being the “lead institution” in society – the institution from which all the other institutions get their cues for operation – the church will become more and more irrelevant to members in the three areas supporting ordination. Growth will continue to take place exponentially in Latin America and Africa, and the browning of Adventism will continue to increase.
I also foresee a split taking place in Adventism just like what happened with the Southern Baptists over the issue of gender roles, and two factions will emerge: A progressive element arising out of North America, Europe and Australia; and a more traditional element fueled by the growth of the church in Africa and in Latin America. San Antonio will more then likely go down in SDA church history as the church’s Kadesh-Barnea and 1888 moment, when the majority rejected the minority report, and will continue to wander with a theology based on culture. But the Spirit will continue to pour out on the church’s sons and daughters as God raises a whole new generation that will move the church forward with an inclusive vision, values, and mission.
Dr. Caleb Rosado has been a university professor for over 30 years. He now lives in Dubois, Wyoming, and is semi-retired but continues to teach online (https://www.rosado.net). He as the founding pastor of All Nations Adventist Church in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is the author of What Is God Like? (1988, Review & Herald Publishing Association), Broken Walls: Race, Sex, Culture (1989, Pacific Press), and Women, Church, God: A socio-biblical study (1990, Loma Linda University Press). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.