By Dan Day, May 23, 2017:      The continuing controversy over women’s ordination within the Adventist faith has sometimes been positioned as a debate between those who seek more centralized authority and those pursuing the greatest mission effectiveness. But it is also about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. Today’s traditionalists in Adventists would make the Jerusalem council, for example, a place where a pattern for centralized Christian authority was established. A majority of leaders voted on what the church would do in response to Paul’s demands for a variance on circumcision, and that means that whenever there is disagreement in the church, today, we vote, and whatever group wins the vote gets to pump their fists, while the losers salute, and say: “Yes, sir!”

Today’s traditionalists see the Jerusalem council as a pattern for centralized Christian authority. Whenever there is disagreement in the church today, we vote, and whatever group wins gets to pump their fists, while the losers salute, and say: “Yes, sir!”

Let’s step back and look at what actually took place. Paul, along with some other apostles, was commissioned by God to spread the gospel to those who weren’t already Jews. At some point, the leaders in Jerusalem sent out people to follow behind these apostles, assessing what they were doing. These Jewish Christians began demanding that these new members be circumcised. Paul was scandalized by this effort to interfere with what he believed the Holy Spirit was doing, so he and Barnabas stormed into Jerusalem, demanding a hearing. They confronted the Jewish Christian leaders with the ways in which they were inhibiting the spread of the gospel, and demanded that they stop. After much debate—including Peter telling the other leaders of the vision God had given him—the leaders finally accepted for themselves a far more limited role than they’d envisioned, including demanding only a minimal set of demands on gentile Christian behavior. No circumcision would be required of Greek believers, and a letter was sent out, attempting to put things right.

While some traditionalists would interpret this outcome differently, the Jerusalem Council wasn’t about a new set of rules to impose on those who deviate from “official policy.” Rather it was about those in Jerusalem acknowledging that leadership must play a more limited role than they had anticipated, and that the real work of ministry must be left to those closest to where the Holy Spirit was innovating. If there was a pattern being established, it was that mission trumps position, and that men are not in charge of this religious enterprise, but God is.

It is impossible to understand just how radical a departure this was (especially over how it has been characterized by some in leadership today), until we see it through the filter of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. A passive, rigid view of the Holy Spirit—as some today define it—asserts that the church must remain precisely what it has always been, and that it is the role of the Holy Spirit to reinforce what is traditional. I call this the  “governance prism,” because it represents a pathway for creating and maintaining a new orthodoxy. Under this view, is necessary and appropriate for there to be a strong, centralized authority in the church, able to define in great detail what we should all believe and do, or the church will be in chaos. Members must be subservient to those in authority, and driven toward uniformity in action. Indeed, individualism itself is framed as a spiritual flaw, leading inevitably to “rebellion,” and “an attack on unity.” The Holy Spirit may be involved, but only in rather distant terms, reinforcing what leaders determine.

But there is another prism through which the Jerusalem Council may be viewed. I’m calling it the “grace prism,” where we see what happened in Jerusalem not as a reaffirmation of the structural governance of Judaism (with only a few “Christian twists” added), but as establishing a specific line of demarcation, where the older system of obedience to a centralized authority was being contrasted with one far more dynamic, where the Holy Spirit was actively leading the church into unfamiliar territory. Under this “grace prism,” leadership has explicitly limited itself to the most essential areas of responsibility, the ones that can’t be accomplished without it. The Holy Spirit is directly involved in the ministry, equipping and enabling, so that the early church is prepared to find language to speak to contemporary audiences in ways they find compelling. The “mother church” does not seek to control, but rather supports and applauds.

Let’s look at a couple of examples where this approach was on display. In Corinth, the issue was religious extremism, based on emotionalism and confusion over how to be a Christian in a world full of exotic religious expressions. Paul doesn’t directly attack the specific expressions of this extremism in Corinth, or demand that members stop speaking in tongues. Rather, he speaks about how the Holy Spirit gives gifts to build up the church. He calls for everything to be done in an orderly manner, because he doesn’t want anything to drive the newer members away.  The goal of advancing mission is central, and because of that, Paul writes: “You are, I know, eager for gifts of the Spirit; then aspire above all to excel in those which build up the church.”

In Ephesus, there was a conflict between those on one side who were misusing their freedom in Christ—returning to the immoral behaviors they’d followed before the gospel—and those on the other side who wanted to bring them to heel. Indeed, most of the texts offered by those supporting such extreme views as “male headship,” for example, are found in the book of Ephesians, where Paul is attempting to show the church as a redemptive community, based not on matters of governance, but on God’s love for humanity and desire to create a church that is able to help heal those most in need. He reminds us that the mature Christian life is always lived in the tension between the call of culture and the demands of tradition. Christ enables us to enjoy a new kind of freedom that affirms the more appreciative aspects of our experience. This is why Paul tells us in the beginning of Ephesians: “For in Christ our release is secured and our sins are forgiven through the shedding of his blood. Therein lies the richness of God’s free grace lavished upon us.

The power of God’s grace—driven by His relentless love—is Paul’s theme, all through both of these conversations over emerging crises in the church. In our expression of how to live the Christian life, we are not driven merely by the dictates of tradition, but inspired by the love of Christ and the grace Paul tell us God has “lavished on us.” Indeed, the very culmination of Paul’s argument in Ephesians is in chapter 5, where he writes: “Live like men who are at home in the daylight.” Our spiritual journey is not about overcoming darkness by our own efforts, but by our sense of God’s grace, expressed by our being open to the sunlight. We do what we do not because someone above us in authority permits or demands it, or because some group voted it at some meeting, but because our hearts are being changed. As Paul said in Romans: “But let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable, and perfect.” Change—when it comes to the church—is not effected by the efforts of some higher level of organizational authority, setting up policies to protect the church from itself. Rather, change is accomplished by the work of the Spirit, in His own way and at His own time. This is not congregationalism, as some would define it, but allowing the Spirit to shape the future. In His own words, Jesus set the pattern for our rejection of the sort of overreach that led to the “governance prism” that shaped Jewish life and found rich soil in the minds of the leaders in Jerusalem. He said:

You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You go halfway around the world to make a convert, but once you get him you make him into a replica of yourselves, double-damned.

This is one of the harshest criticisms of religious behavior that we see in the ministry of Jesus. It is aimed at religious leaders who lose all sight of God’s grace. Paul is asking us to reflect on whether we are advancing mission or just be getting in the way. He is reminding us that we are not here to rule, or even here to manage, in the management style some advocate. Even though the church has structure—with dedicated men and women in place to perform important activity—this is church, not a corporation aimed a delivering profit or demanding compliance by employees to keep their jobs. We’re in leadership to serve, to support what God is doing through His Spirit—and then to get out of the way.

In God’s church things are supposed to be done differently in various parts of the world, because they require application of diverse approaches for achieving mission. For example, the General Conference has at times allowed variances to policy for various cultural realities that exist in parts of the world. So, when leadership even contemplates punishing Unions in North America and Europe, we are forced to ask whether something is seriously out of whack. We in leadership are here to support and applaud, not to punish.

When we disagree over what is happening in one division, we talk about it together. And when the disagreement continues, unresolved, we talk some more. We follow the Gamaliel Principle:  “…for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God you cannot overthrow it – lest you even be found to fight against God.” And we follow the “principle of Godly forbearance,” illustrated in Jesus’ response to His disciples, when they wanted to bring immediate judgment on those who taught differently, emphasizing compassion and forbearance.

It is not the role of leaders in the church to govern or punish when people step out of line, but to lead and inspire.  We in the formal structure hold property and pay salaries; we help out  by developing resources and sharing ideas across geographic and cultural lines. If there are disputes, we remind members that they’re Christians, and need to be driven by generosity, humility and grace. We lift up Jesus and stay in the background—and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit, who is ever capable—and we try not to get too much in the way.


Dan Day is Director of Special Projects for the Adventist denomination’s North American Division, working out of the Office of Strategy and Research, responsible for marketing, communications, and research. He’s been a pastor, a university administrator, and worked in healthcare. He’s written over 30 books for the Adventist audience, including: Ever Been Irritated?, Marketing Adventism, Beginning Your Spiritual Journey, and A Deeper Look at Your Church.

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