I’ve been reading Spectrum magazine for decades, and participating in it in as an online forum since—well, since it became an online forum. Spectrum has thought itself a loyal critic of the church, a place where dissenting points of view can be voiced, or underreported church news given an airing. At its best, it functions creatively and constructively.
Yet in the polarized world we live in, it shouldn’t be surprising that people with differing points of view are considered disloyal and destructive. And the critics are right to this extent: some of what we talk about here implies that we think the church should be different than it is. One of Spectrum’s elder statesmen, Charles Scriven, has become known for writing and saying, in scores of thoughtful and articulate ways, that the church must change.
But what if the church doesn’t want to change?
It’s not the first time I’ve suspected this may be a difficult expectation to hold on to. One of my first pieces in Spectrum magazine, 12 years ago, asked the question, “Whose church is it, anyway?” It seemed to me then, as it does now, that our church functions most enthusiastically in the fundamentalist, literalist mode. Back then, I held out hope that although some segments of our church are evolving differently from others, that there was enough elasticity in our system for cultural differences.
But these past couple of weeks has dimmed that hope. It wasn’t just the vote. It was the booing. The us vs. them. It was some of our leading pastors employing against women the cruelest Biblical metaphors: Nadab and Abihu, the rebellion of Korah, spiritualism, witchcraft. Really? After all that, it seems to me that July 8, 2015, was a watershed moment for the Seventh-day Adventist church. It will never be the same church, no matter what we do now.
What kind of church have we become? To how many will we cease to be relevant? I fear that we’re running out of time as God’s chosen remnant. I fear we may be so fossilized, so bedded down with fundamentalism, so on the defensive against change, that we may never again speak prophetically about anything of importance. All we can do is conserve, dig ourselves in, like the servant with the one talent. And when that happens (as we see in Scripture) the chosen are replaced with others. Even if they don’t know it.
Historians tell us that we weren’t always like this. That we were once a dynamic, evolving movement. Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart date the end of our plasticity to Ellen White’s death, though you can see it coming before that in the sniping between Ellen and the church leaders, her “exile” to Australia. But now we’ve grown into a real church with a real bureaucracy. The ubiquity of the “highest authority of God on earth” quote in the past GC session shows that we are now being asked to obey a papacy as infallible and as authoritative as the one of Rome, even if it speaks ex cathedra only once every five years.
The hopeful, the healers, press answers upon us. It wasn’t a strong vote, they remind us, the spread not as large as it used to be. Some, using a lawyerly interpretation, say that it didn’t change anything: the Pacific Union and the Dutch Union read the vote broadly as permission to continue to do what they feel convicted to do, which—let’s be honest—amounts to defiance of what most delegates were voting against on July 8. Might that signal the beginning of a liberating regionalism? Others remind us to be understanding of the southern hemisphere opposition: the church is doing better there than it is here, so let’s be prepared to accommodate them.
Nevertheless, a sort of dark pessimism has set in. I was surprised to see the number of Seventh-day Adventists on Facebook who wrote some variation of “This isn’t my church anymore. Where do I go now?” A family who I always thought of as the most Seventh-day Adventist of all Seventh-day Adventists, a couple who had church workers on both sides of the family and went into ministry themselves, wrote us, saying, “We feel so separated from our church. Like we don’t belong here.” My wife is one of that handful of female pastors who got ordained here in the Columbia Union. Even though she knew, as most of us did, what the outcome of the ordination vote would be, she found herself heartbroken for several days, grieving, struggling to sleep.
Some, in protest, are wearing black, nicely accessorized with bright ampersand jewelry. Some want to divert their tithe. Some talk about another chance in five years. But at the end of five years, will enough be left to care? Can it even be brought up again? As a pastor, I wonder what bitter hostilities the actions of the defiant unions will unleash. I hope we remember that it will play out not just in denominational committees, but in congregations, among friends. How many members will say, “This isn’t worth it”? Particularly if they feel like the prevailing mood is, “You lost. If you can’t accept that, goodbye and good riddance.”
Meanwhile, those that set the scene for this discord appear to be unbothered, as though this dramatic close-vote decision has settled something.
I’ve been writing about my church for over a decade in Spectrum magazine and this forum. Lately I feel my words running out. All the arguments have been made. All the opinions hardened. The church may survive not ordaining women. But the disappointment here is only a reflection of other problems in the western church that we can’t solve, either: the slow dying of thousands of small churches; the inability to tame our bureaucracy and its travel budgets; the refusal to be creative in evangelism, while relying on ethnic growth that is unlikely to last into a second generation; the money siphoned from local churches and conferences to independent ministries; the disappearance of our elementary and secondary schools; the ultra-right-fueled divisions that are tearing congregations apart; and (probably most important) that we’ve been waiting so long for Jesus to come, with no response for the scoffers other than to cry wolf about every change of tide in culture, as we’ve been doing for 200 years.
In these past few weeks, I’ve felt tongue-tied (finger-tied?), not knowing quite what to say. Perhaps my ability to speak here is coming to an end. Over the years I have read on this forum some of the most intelligent, creative, hopeful thinking I’ve ever heard anywhere. Yet it appears to me to have failed, for the most part, to open dialogue with church leaders. Doug Batchelor, who takes tens of thousands from local churches, gets praised publicly in the GC session. 3ABN, ditto. When our GC leaders need an international broadcast to the church, they choose 3ABN, its thrice-divorced founder as their master of ceremonies. But here at Spectrum? Where are our division and union presidents, if even to say, “I don’t necessarily agree with you folks, but I appreciate the lively, creative discussion you stimulate, and your continued loyalty to this church. Perhaps I can help, by erasing a little of the mystery, quashing some of the gossip, listening to your concerns”?
Maybe the ugly comments discourage them. I understand: more than once I’ve had to stop reading comments on my pieces. (I wish my supporters were always wiser and kinder than my opponents. One person described this forum as “the Adventist fight club.”) But then look at the gloating, revengeful responses left to fester on every official church social media page after July 8! Why does our church seem more willing to make nice with angry conservatives, than to dialogue about change?
I hope, I pray, I beg, that good people won’t leave this church. As important as women’s ordination is, I remind you that the center of our theology is Christ, and our goal to be, like Him, righteous, merciful, kind, just, and forgiving. (Right now, forgiveness is something we might want to be especially mindful about.) Nothing that happened at San Antonio can keep us from comforting the sick, the dying and the mourning, supporting mission hospitals, teaching children to be godly men and women, telling the world about Christ’s love, feeding the poor, visiting the elderly and shut-ins, growing in character, praying for one another, studying the Word, lifting up salvation, and encouraging each other in Christ. How stupid we would be, how ungrateful, to abandon all of that now!
Here’s a promise that other “losers” have lived by, in far more trying circumstances: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up,” (Galatians 6:9).
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.