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Friday at the Unity Conference: Refreshed Understandings of Unity

How is church unity achieved? Can leaders create it? Is it a result of like-mindedness? Is it something that church members do? An agreement? Or, is unity a state of being with Christ? The presentations, questions, and conversation surrounding the word unity made for a lively day on Friday.

For worship, Gary Patterson spoke about God’s gift of deliverance to us, the Ten Commandments, or the 10 package as he called it. He focused on the rights within the Decalogue rather than the don’ts, the right to existence, the right to purity and relationship, the right to possession, and the right to a sanctified relationship with God. To visually illustrate his points, he brought members of the audience up to personify the various commandments. With the fifth commandment as the central point, and then two by two on each side in layers of rights, he created that package, wrapping it with a red ribbon at the end. These are not commandments, but promises he concluded. Promises based in love.

Wendy Jackson on Ellen White

Avondale Professor Wendy Jackson gave an analytical overview of Ellen G. White’s variety of thoughts on unity and the church. White wrote of unity of purpose, unity of action, unity of spirit, unity of thought, unity of faith, and being of one mind. Based on Jesus’ prayer in John 17, White saw a mandate for unity, since it is here that Jesus expresses his desire that all his followers be one. White identified the church as God’s appointed representative to testify to the love of God, and all members are meant to work in the best interest of God at all times. White felt that the remnant’s faithfulness to the law would be a testimony to its God. She assumed that those who joined the church would work together for the best methods of mission, coming together in humility before God. Thus, in her pragmatic view, unity is the responsibility of every member of the church. Disunity was viewed as sin, because it would bring reproach to the name of God. Jackson concluded with a list of seven items to inform the church today.

1. Unity is personal. It cannot be manufactured by leaders.

2. Unity of purpose does not require nor endorse uniformity. Rather it recognizes various practices are needed.

3. Authentic unity of the church can only occur between authentic Christians united in Christ and transformed by his power.

4. Unity involves in a variety of relationships within the church: with God, doctrine, individuals, church as a whole. Emphasizing one type of relationship without the others won’t work.

5. We need to take personal responsibility for our own attitudes and actions. The importance of personal attitudes of humility and kindness are often overlooked. White reprimanded those who considered being right as more important than displaying the character of Christ.

6. Our focus should be on Jesus rather than on the maintenance of unity. Unity is not constructed by us and our plans.

7. Recognition that the form of authority structure within which unity is envisaged is important. This means that church structures should not simply be left to calcify, but rather be regularly re-evaluated to see if they continue to best serve the mission of the church, are avoiding the tendency to centralization and abuse of power, and are aiding the church in its quest for unity.

A lively conversation followed the presentation. Rolf Pohler stood to say he was surprised by the description of EGW’s view of unity. “It does not sound intrinsic, like in the New Testament, it sounds like work, perfection.” He continued with his commentary on what is expected of Christians saying, “Mission seems to be a key word around which discussion is flowing, but I wonder about this word. The Church lives in the presence of God, and this is its mission – by the way we live together and treat each other.”

Roy Adams on John 17

Roy Adams was the next presenter. Now retired, Adams spent the last 16 years of his church career as an associate editor of the Adventist Review. He was introduced as a minute man, someone who graciously accepted an invitation to fill in for someone else who, because of health reasons, had had to pull out of the conference. Adams’ assigned topic was Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17. He said he appreciated the assignment, the chance to listen anew to the text of Jesus’ final prayer before the cross. Jesus unburdens Himself before God in an unprecedented manner with many burdens coming to fore. In his presentation, Adams looked at four: glorification, revelation, protection, and unity.

Glory is a prominent theme of John’s theology. “Perhaps Jesus’ most intriguing statement about glorification comes in verse 5, where He asked God to ‘glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.’” Before creation and the fall, there was a plan.

What comes next in Jesus’ prayer is the enormous burden to make God known in the world. Adam hears hints of a response to Gnostic culture and other philosophies and wants to be sure the disciples get the difference between those philosophies and God and is reassured when they respond that they now see him as coming from God. “One cannot ‘listen’ to Jesus’ prayer without coming to the conclusion that He wanted that revelation (of God and God’s Son) to spread to the entire oikumene. And if (as is logical to believe) he anticipated that the laborers would always be few, then it would be theologically irrational for Him to envision any curtailment of the workforce of His followers by a blanket disqualification of one gender that, in every age, has constituted more than half of the church.”  

Adams added history and numbers to explain the enormity of the task of making God known throughout the world. With well over 200 denominations, most of them Christian, and each of them claiming the truth, he said, and Adventists 20 million strong in a sea of 2.8 billion in a world population of 7.5 billion. “A miniscule 0.3% of the world population and we are about 0.7% of the Christian population. In one of the memorable quotes of the weekend, he said, “It’s a staggering and from a human standpoint insurmountable task, notwithstanding clichéd reports about the message spreading by ‘leaps and bounds.’ If Adventists really believe in the imminence of the Parousia, and have even a partial understanding of the magnitude and complexity of the mission, then there could be no question about the need to engage every able-bodied person, every willing talent in the task. To understand the magnitude and complexity of the mission, and at the same time try to erect theological or ideological barriers to full participation in the church’s mission, whether on the basis of class or race, or age or gender is nothing short of theological malpractice.”

In regard to gender and other illegitimate causes of tension within the church, he turned to the apostle Paul, whom he said, could not be more in keeping with the oneness that Jesus called for in His prayer, when he wrote “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27, 28). “And as a church, we will be judged by what we allow to divide us.”

The importance of unity, to Adams, is even more important in some respects than love. He said John 13:35 points to love as the identifying mark of His followers. However, in John 17:35, Jesus issues another identifier, “one that would identify Him before the world, one that would tell the world who He is. The world will know that God has sent me, He said, when my followers “are brought to complete unity.”

Current Issues Discussion

Before breaking for lunch, all the presenters took seats in the front to answer questions posed by Barry Oliver as moderator of a panel discussion. The audience had been invited to submit questions previously and joined in the conversation at key points. In addition to questions about the papers presented at the conference, Oliver posed a question regarding the Unity document circulated by the General Conference prior to Annual Council in which there is discussion of Acts 15 and what happened at the Jerusalem Council in early Christian history. John Brunt noted that in the GC paper it suggests that diversity in church practices can be allowed but only after a body has agreed to the diversity. He said it makes it sound like there was no diversity before the Jerusalem Council, “but that is not the way it was in the New Testament. This statement (on page 13) is just wrong. By the time of Acts 15, they already had diversity. It did not create the diversity.”

In a comment from the audience Ricardo Graham referred to Roy Adams term “theological malpractice” saying it brought to his mind Paul’s discussion of Spiritual Gifts for which there are no gender qualifications. “Would it be out of our thinking to say, to deny the use of God’s gifts is denying God’s presence itself. To deny the opportunity for the operation of those individuals is a condescension, to deny the presence of God.”

In a discussion about hermeneutics, Roy Adams commented that the Theology of Ordination Study Committee had demonstrated the difficulty in that aspect. “Let us grant that our hermeneutics are different,” he said. Since we cannot come to a meeting of minds, we do not ask other areas to come along. That seems like a reasonable request. He had hoped that the GC would take a position and lead the world, and was very disappointed. “Remove this issue of ordination and we have a very united church,” he said, lamenting that one person is creating this division.

Ray Roenfeldt was asked to comment on the plain reading of Scripture. He replied that generally, “plain reading” is more complex than any other reading, because it is just a reading from the 21st century that does not get into the text. Without the context provided by authority, history, reason, and experience, plain reading is not true to Scripture.

In the afternoon there was a bus tour to Windsor Castle where the group gathered in St. George’s Chapel for Evensong to bring in the Sabbath.

John Brunt on a Theology of Unity

Back at the hotel, John Brunt gave a presentation titled “Toward a Theology of Unity.” He began with creation, but soon moved to Paul for stories and illustrations of unity. Using the text that describes Paul becoming like a Jew to win the Jews and like a Gentile to win a Gentile, he noted that Paul was willing to do things differently in different places. Exclusion of anyone was an anathema to Paul. Unity for Paul was a matter of loving every one in the same way.

He closed with a story from his years as pastor at the Azure Hills Church in California where the Adventure Club included over two hundred 4-9 year olds. “Can you imagine taking all of them along with their parents camping? Our leaders did it twice every year. One annual weekend trip was to a beautiful campground on the beach about three and half hour’s drive from the church. A group of 300 to 400 would camp from Friday through Sunday.”

He pointed out that families in the group had quite different convictions about Sabbath activities for the kids, but they had worked out a plan. “They decided that everyone should be able to follow their convictions, and no one should be judged, scorned, or pressured. They agreed that there would be options on Sabbath afternoon, and parents would decide which option their family would follow.” Swimming, hiking, playing Bible games were all options from which to choose, and no one was criticized for their choice. The day concluded with dinner together. “The people worked all this out among themselves. They did it without pastoral involvement. And it worked. It has continued to work over a period of almost twenty years. I can’t help but wonder, might the broader church organization learn from the wisdom of these faithful people in the local church?”

 

Bonnie Dwyer is Editor of Spectrum.

Image Credit: adventistunity2017.com

 

Papers presented at the Unity Conference can be downloaded on their website here. Additionally, the next issue of Spectrum (Vol. 45, No. 2) will be a special edition containing all of the papers from the conference.

 

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