Unity and Uniformity: A Fear Unmasked

  “The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel…. I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.” —Ezekiel 34

  ​Anyone who bears responsibility for the people of God must quake before these words.  Adventist world leaders must do so.  In our lesser spheres, so must we. ​Two recent occurrences show why the prophet’s message has great urgency today.  One is the “appeal for unity” world leaders sent out in order to halt passage of local (or “union conference”) policies that would grant full equality to women pastors.  The other is lay—but leader-inspired—outrage over a college presidential nominee’s passion for “spiritual formation.” ​Both occurrences betray self-satisfaction, even if it be uneasy self-satisfaction.  Both do substantial damage, even if the damage be unintended.   What matters equally, however, is that both spring from fear, and fear is just what the Gospel is meant to relieve. ​The Bible is the Gospel written down.  So it is astonishing that “An Appeal for Unity in Respect to Ministerial Ordination Practices” makes no mention of Scripture.  The Appeal simply states that policy from “the General Conference in Session” limits pastoral ordination to men and forbids “localized” exceptions.  It simply discredits unauthorized ordination of women pastors that have occurred in China.  It simply claims, again without Scriptural backing, that church unity depends on uniformity in the credentialing of pastors: even if our “convictions” differ, our practices must not.  

The tone throughout is polite.  Mention of a new “Ordination Study” throws out the hint, actually, that General Conference policy may change.  What is unacknowledged, however, are the forty years of study, and perhaps more, that have so far yielded no fully transformative effect.  What is further unacknowledged is the current General Conference president’s persistent personal opposition to pastoral equality for women.  (In the Washington, D.C. area, where over the past forty years numerous women have served as Adventist pastors and local elders, the president keeps his membership in a church that has no women elders. if you hope for change, that, too, is unsettling.)

Word about the nominee for president—president, that is, of Walla Walla University—galvanized a “group of constituents” into distributing, apparently very widely, an eight-page statement of protest.  A centerpiece of the constituents’ criticism was the charge that nominee Alex Bryan “continues to promote Spiritual Formation” (their capital letters) at the university church, where he is pastor.

 Specifically invoking the authority of the General Conference president, who during his inaugural sermon in Atlanta cast “spiritual formation” in a derogatory light, the document names Henri Nouwen and Richard Foster as examples of writers whom Bryan finds useful.  This fact (the document takes up other issues, too) helps disqualify him for academic leadership at Walla Walla. Neither here nor anywhere else does the group’s statement make reference to Scripture.  Nor does it offer any semblance of theological analysis concerning “spiritual formation.”  On this matter the protest is simply a blunt weapon, having no hint of insight and no point but reproach.  Any person both thoughtful and aware knows that “spiritual formation” may function as a rough synonym for “discipling.”

 Any such person knows, too, that like “love” or even “grace,” the term may be put to pernicious use.  But no more than for “love” and “grace” are its uses always pernicious.  The pernicious thing is thoughtless and ungenerous casting of aspersions.   Within the church few signs of self-satisfaction are more suggestive than intellectual indolence with respect to the study of Scripture.  I said that both occurrences described here spring from fear.  One dimension of this fear has to do, of course, with the prospect of disunity.  But the New Testament offers a case study regarding this dimension of churchly fear, and we seem substantially oblivious to its wisdom.  That needs to change. Eighteen months after Paul left Corinth, the congregation he founded there was a mess; it was rife with lawsuits, sexual sin, and quarrels over doctrine, idols, and food.   But even in those circumstances, Paul wrote, the Gospel and those who had embraced it were a stark alternative to the wider culture that did not see kindness at the heart of things, nor even hear a call to kindness.  What is more, the congregation’s members were still Paul’s “beloved children,” and still recipients of God’s grace and peace.  Given our bent to doctrinal bickering, one thing about the letter is shocking: it does not say, or even insinuate, that Christians in Corinth must agree on everything.  Paul seems aware of something we ourselves too easily forget: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (chapter 8).  Unmistakably, theory must give way to love; without love (see chapter 13), it matters no more than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  

A large part of spiritual discernment involves skill, including, crucially, the ability to tell the difference between what matters a lot (some things do!) and what matters less.  In his letter Paul insists on big-issues unity, and has no kind word for idolatry or incest or drunkenness.  But with respect to lesser matters—for him, one example is food offered to idols—he suggests that old restrictions no longer apply.  Even so, Paul says that he bends to the assumptions of the people for whom he is working.  On these lesser matters some agree with him and some don’t, and he avoids unnecessary insult to either group.  “To those under the law”—those who read the law conservatively—“I became as one under the law,” and to “those outside the law I became as one outside the law.”  What he calls “Christ’s law” obtains always, but otherwise Paul is “all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9). Unity does not require uniformity.  You can be sensitive to the needs you meet, sensitive, as we might say in our situation, to local nuance.  Certain things—not excluding knowledge and prophetic power—mean nothing, after all, except as we love one another, except, so Ezekiel might say, as we bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.  

The skill I am talking about involves no easy formulas; distinguishing what matters deeply from what doesn’t may be hard.  But slight, and fully principled, accommodation to polygamous marriage—what has actually occurred in Adventism—did not shatter church unity.  And no one said racial integration of congregations in North America had to await resolution of Apartheid in South Africa.  Refusal to bind up injuries anywhere until they can be bound up everywhere is absurd.  It is hard not to call it callous, too. All this applies, surely, to the question of women in ministry.  But the wider truth is the Bible’s call to love, to the law of Christ, to the bearing of one another’s burdens.  Although it would make sense to expose spurious versions of “spiritual formation,” heedless use of that term as a weapon—as if the concept itself were an affront to the Gospel—cannot withstand the test of Pauline truth.  Neither, for that matter, can it withstand Ezekiel’s prophetic gaze. ​But all this is liberating.  It is the Gospel, and it can deliver us from our fears about unity.  Ellen White herself doubted whether “perfect agreement” was possible.  “Nothing can perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christ-like forbearance,” she wrote soon after the 1888 General Conference Session. You have to say—what bitter irony—that were she alive today the church would not ordain her.  But Ellen White got that right, and I wish we could.​

Editors - The article has been edited to correct a mistake about the source for information about the church President Ted Wilson attends.





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Sat, 10/25/2014 | Los Angeles Adventist Forum
October Adventist Forum
Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D., A 2014-2016 Mellon Postdoctoral Fell ow in the Peace and Justice Program at Wellesley College (Boston), and a 2 015 Fullbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar, Formerly an Adjunct Faculty Membe r in the Dept. of International Relations at USC, and in the Honors Progra m at UCLA. Topic: "Death Before the Fall?: A Conversation with Ronald Osbor n."

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