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On August 7, a news note was posted on the Adventist Review website under the banner Church Leaders Issue “An Appeal for Oneness in Christ.” The appeal is in response to the recent vote of the Columbia Union Conference regarding women in ministry.
The appeal includes the following language:
“The action taken by the Columbia Union Conference represents a serious threat to the unity of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church, and thus, at its next meeting in October 2012, the General Conference Executive Committee will carefully review the situation and determine how to respond. “
I have been thinking about “unity” and how the term has been used in the discussion of women in ministry. I suspect it means different things to different people. If, as the GC leaders suggest, the vote of the Columbia Union constituency represents a threat to unity, just what is it that is threatened?
If I were a leader of the General Conference, I imagine that I would fear the loss of ability of the GC to keep a common thread of policy intact around the world. I imagine I would fear a deterioration of intra-division relationships and politics. (It would be naïve to think there are no church politics!) I imagine I would fear the loss of my ability to guide decisions as much as I would like.
But I am not a leader of the General Conference, and I don’t fear those things so much. To me, those things are about organizational management and dynamics. They speak of hierarchical concerns. Those things, for me, don’t get to the root of the issue.
Here is what I fear. I fear the loss of an attitude of unity among the laity that is based upon Christian love and forbearance. I fear the loss of a unity of purpose, unity about our collective mission to present the gospel of salvation by faith in our Savior. I fear the loss of amicable fellowship among believers.
What I think would drive the loss of unity I fear is a lack of the exercise of love among the laity that Jesus was describing when He said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I believe Jesus made that statement because He foresaw that there would be severe stresses in His nascent church. He knew that tax collectors and small businessmen – both found in His group of 12 – naturally don’t get along. He knew that some of the disciples had unhealthy ambitions. He knew that soon Paul would be bringing untouchable Gentiles into the church to join with Jews who abhorred them. He knew different races, cultures and nationalities would be commingling. In short, Jesus knew that inter-personal dynamics could explode a young church. The only thing that would prevent that was a mysterious love among them that would create forbearance and tolerance among people of, at minimum, strongly divergent views and, at maximum, people who despised each other. An unnatural love, with Jesus as the source, would be the oil on the waters of diversity and difference.
It is not much of a challenge for Christians to be in unity when they agree. The real challenge to unity arises when they don't agree. Jesus said observers would know who his disciples were because they love one another. I don't think He meant that because they loved each other, they would always agree. I think He was saying that His disciples will confound observers and love each other, and continue to be in unity with each other, primarily when they disagree. That is the real test of Jesus' statement. The stronger the disagreement, the greater the opportunity we have to show Christian love and forbearance in unity. That is what will truly amaze observers. It's a piece of cake to be nice, cozy and unified when we agree. No test there.
So now the challenge to our world-wide fellowship is for us the laity to nurture our unity in a moment marked by strong, diverse opinions and, it appears, difference in practice regarding women in ministry. If we can individually find it in our hearts to be in unity of spirit and unity of mission purpose with each other, is it so important that we have different manifestations of mission in different parts of the world? There are people out there watching to see if in a moment of challenge we can fulfill Jesus’ words in John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Edward Reifsnyder is a lifelong Adventist and a healthcare consultant by profession. He writes from Fort Collins, Colorado.