by Edwin Torkelsen  |  28 February 2018  |  

It is always interesting to read the General Conference Executive Committee Newsletter (ECN). Since it was launched in January 2017 most issues have contained articles that defend and promote the present GC administration’s views of church authority, their interpretations of GC session votes and unity. The purpose is clearly to prime the minds of the select readers, informing them of the truth about women’s ordination, and how the attempts to promote or defeat it are to be “correctly” understood.

The sometimes overlooked underlying assumption is that the GC administration alone has the prerogative of correct interpretation. By de facto usurping this interpretative magisterium, the GC administration may justify its swift and harsh verdict, handed down before investigation was undertaken, that certain unions are out of compliance with votes and policies, are rebels and deserve disciplinary punishment.

The February 2018 issue of the Executive Committee Newsletter is no exception. In the editorial, GC Vice President Guillermo Biaggi refers to the recent Global Leadership Summit held in Lisbon, Portugal (the attendance reported to be 49 persons) that “reflected on the important topic of unity and church authority.” He identifies a serious problem: “One challenge recently leveled is that the Protestant concept of ‘priesthood of all believers’ negates church authority.” This is the backdrop for David Trim’s article in this issue titled “The Priesthood of All Believers and Its Implications for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”

Biaggi’s identification of the problem lays the foundation for a straw man argument. To my knowledge nobody has claimed that the Protestant concept of priesthood of all believers “negates church authority.” What has been challenged is the present GC administration’s understanding and exercise of that authority, which is a different matter that rightfully deserves some attention. To what extent this side of the issue was considered and reflected on as an “important topic of unity,” Biaggi does not mention.

David Trim’s article is interesting and informative. As far as I can see, Trim’s description of some of Martin Luther’s views are correct and well documented. Trim is a good historian, but he must also be read critically. Luther’s view of authority in and out of the church changed during his lifetime, corresponding to the events he faced both in society and within his own movement. Some of those ideas, e.g. how he encouraged the princes to slaughter the rebellious peasants and blasted Carlstadt, we would probably not subscribe to today.

The second part of the title of Trim’s article opens the door for the politician. Here he interprets and applies what he learns from Luther to the present controversy in the our denomination regarding church authority. It is not a given that church authority is always exercised “properly.” Trim does not address this question. Luther has something to teach us on that point.

Context is significant. It is important to remember that it is the content and process of the exercise of church authority by the present GC administration that has been challenged. Nobody has denied the need for organization or the usefulness of the pastor. It is unproblematic that a pastor should in some way be certified. When Biaggi and Trim assert that the voices that question the present GC administration’s claims and strategies “negate” proper church authority, it is simply not correct.

Important aspects of the context is revealed by the one focused purpose of the ECN articles: To defend and promote the present GC administration’s interpretations of the nature and competence of their own authority and their strategic exercise of the authority invested in their office. This obvious defensive/offensive purpose moves these articles into the category of political propaganda.

There is one main point in Trim’s article that I find intriguing in this context.

Both Luther, Trim and I agree that the New Testament idea of the presbyterii fidelium (priesthood of all the faithful), invalidates the unbiblical idea of the Medieval Church that there is a qualitative difference between the clergy and the laity. After that I part ways with Trim.

According to Trim that two-tier system is at least partly retained also post-Reformation, not in salvific, but in ecclesiastical terms. He writes: “The priesthood of all believers is often misunderstood as being primarily about ecclesiology, when it had more to do with soteriology; it was never, for 16th-century Protestants, a shorthand for a pastorate of all believers, it was rather a claim of each believer’s ability to be saved without human mediation.”

True to some degree historically, but possibly untrue in its present political application. Has the exclusive medieval clerical priesthood, qualitatively different from the laity in both status and function, now been replaced by a post-Reformation exclusive “pastorate” that is qualitatively and functionally different from the laity? This new ordained pastorate is said to operate in the public ecclesiastical domain, while the non-ordained priesthood of the believers is restricted to operate in the private soteriological domain. Interesting point of view.

I may be wrong, but to me this sounds like a word game. A qualitative difference resting on a ceremony called ordination is still claimed to be functionally operative, creating two distinct classes of church members. The only difference between this idea and the medieval one, is the choice of functions and labels.

Back to context and political purpose: This new hierocratic doctrine can now be used to justify the present GC administration’s claims to magisterial authority, power, mind control and demands for obedience and submission.

There may be a slight distinction between the two realms of soteriology and ecclesiology. However, they cannot be seen as separate because they are complementary. The two realms are not on the same level of importance. The purpose of the organized ecclesia is to serve and facilitate the soteriology aspect of the presbyterii fideles. In that context, the presbyterii fideles takes precedence over the organized ecclesia. The organization is the servant of its members, not their master.

This understanding is evident in the Reformation’s choice of words. The office of bishop was abolished and new overseers were appointed that were simply called Superintendents. The Roman clergy was abolished and replaced by new Lutheran priests. The word priest was retained in some areas because some languages did not have a word that quite equals the English word minister. But the new content of the old word priest was definitely the same, one who is a “Servant of the Word.”

In the context of the women’s ordination and authority struggle our church, Trim’s article fits well into the line of articles that promote the view of church authority as it is understood and practiced by the GC leadership. Contrary to repeated denials that this is the case, judged on actual merits the focus remains in the tradition of the Medieval Church.

To borrow George Knight’s expression: the Catholic temptation is still alive and well.

Edwin Torkelsen is a retired historian who worked for the National Archives in Norway. He also taught Medieval History in the University of Oslo, and was an Associate Professor of History in the University of Trondheim with a special interest in the development of the ecclesiastical, jurisdictional, theological, doctrinal, and political ideologies of the Medieval church. He is a member of the Tyrifjord Adventist Church in Norway.

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