The Spirit and the Letter
by Dennis Meier | 23 October 2019 |
I was in attendance in 2012 when my union conference (the North German Union Conference, or NDV) voted for equality in pastoral service. The motion was placed on the agenda by a single individual, though the Executive Committee seemed happy to bring it up for a decision.
Obviously, there was apprehension in the room. Would people line up behind the microphones, ready to pick a fight with those queueing on the other side like we had seen 1995 in Utrecht? Would there be Bible-waving, wife-dragging, or references to headship theology (a term unknown in Germany, and untranslatable)?
The discussion revealed otherwise. Yes, there were voices raised against the motion. But all those arguing against it did so not because they were opposed to ordaining women and men equally, but because they felt that in three years the meeting in San Antonio would probably settle it positively, and we shouldn’t preempt the process.
Perhaps I’m not remembering every detail clearly, but I recall hardly any opposition to the spirit of the matter at hand: equality in ministry. An officer of the division introduced a somewhat clumsy automotive metaphor, saying that just because our German cars can drive 200 km/h doesn’t mean that we should do so, seeing that it depended on the road one is on. To which someone responded: just because there are bad roads 5000 kms from here didn’t mean that we need to express our solidarity by driving along our beloved autobahn at 30 km/h.
The motion passed with a solid 85% margin. And what is even more remarkable: there was no uproar, no major arguments from rivalling camps, after the vote. Our right-wingers just shelved it as one more proof that German Adventism was out of sync with the world field. Those who favored full female ordination appeared to be ready to sacrifice it on the altar of “unity”—an expectation that is always thrown at the parts of the world that stand for equality.
San Antonio 2015, for some odd reason, caught us by surprise. Our optimism had proved to be just a perception bubble.
In 2013 I had been elected president of the Hansa Conference, the most northern of the German conferences. That made me part of the strategic planning amongst the presidents on how to react to the vote, and how to find solutions. I remember our grappling with this issue whilst enjoying Syrian food at a restaurant. What emerged is what I have since described as the art of protesting without being noticed. How can we be true to our resolutions about equality, and at the same time wave to the world with a big smile of loyalty? The solution that materialized, while not bearing the made-in-Germany-trademark, was driven by a naive belief that GC administration and the world field would greatly appreciate our working policy expertise and canonical craftiness. Theologians too readily stepped aside and sent in the lawyers. Just as some world fields hadn’t been forced to ordain their female elders and deaconesses, no one would resent us doing likewise for our ministers. It was resolved to suspend ordination and henceforth only use the commissioned ministers credentials for both sexes. (Fun fact: we never really understood that a difference existed between them).
For at least the past three years we had heard the rumbling of a distant thunderstorm, that would pass us by. Or so we thought. Autumn Council 2019, however, revealed the pricetag we are now asked to pay.
We love our world church, and wanted to show that as best as we could. That much must be said. At least someone could have honored our attempt to navigate between the world church and our constituencies. Someone could and should have, even if paternalistically, lauded us for at least trying to be faithful. We didn’t want to be rebels, or to be labelled as rebels, or even to be camouflaged rebels. But now we have been warned, and it is an embarrassing warning. Not just because it happened (shameful in itself), but because we betted on the letter of the law and set our hopes in the policies. We thought the policies would work for us, too.
If being warned can be worn as a badge of honor, as some seem to say, it is a somewhat excruciating honor to be warned for not having done something that we at heart think to be the right thing. I would have preferred to incur a warning for actually having gone forward in ordaining women, as other fields bravely did: the Columbia Union Conference and the Pacific Union Conference, who just barely missed the honorable badge of a reprimand. I now feel that we can’t insist on listening to the promptings and calling of the Holy Spirit by wiggling our way through the letter of the law. How could we have been so deluded? I had to witness our eloquent and articulate Union Conference presidents, whom I admire, quoting the letters and ordinals of the Working Policy—still placing hope in the letter of the law, even as we began to understand that the spirit of the vote in San Antonio was to hinder us from exercising equality and to force us to sacrifice our convictions on the altar of unity.
All of which pins a faulty reading of Acts 15 against the obvious and concise “Aha!” of Peter in Acts 10:34: God shows no partiality (literally: He is not a favoritist; Greek: prosopolemptes)!
But because we will not go back to inequality (something Ted Wilson seems oblivious to), my appeal is that we in Germany should provide good reasons for warnings and reprimands by just doing what we think is right and biblically warranted: ordaining women to the worldwide ministry. I intend to introduce this motion in my union conference.
Dennis Meier is the president of the Hansa Conference in the North German Union Conference (NDV).