Perhaps not. But Jesus distinguished between between those who “lord it over” others and those who truly serve (Matthew 20 and parallels), and today many Adventists contemplate that distinction with a longing that approaches desperation.
Killing hope—killing it stone dead—is hard. We may thank God that healthy congregations, generous pastors and administrators, and long-suffering Adventist faculties still offer nourishing environments for church members who love the Lord with their minds as well as their hearts. So you do find thoughtful people who participate wholeheartedly in the church’s life and live in the hope that the humility Jesus embodied and commended can shape the higher reaches of church bureaucracy. But these days such hope requires exhausting levels of resiliency.
Just a few weeks ago, in May, an African man who served as a delegate to the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio declared publicly that as he was standing in line to “speak for women’s ordination” his division president approached him to say he should mind how he “expressed” himself. The president, then a favorite in Silver Spring, was an opponent of women’s ordination.
This disheartening experience, further aggravated by the July 8 negative vote, left the delegate with questions about his own church membership and pastoral responsibility. “It was there at San Antonio that I lost confidence in the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist church,” he said, then adding that he draws some solace from Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares and from Ellen White’s assurance that even if the church is “weak and defective,” it will still, by God’s grace, accomplish its mission.
Those who lord it over others attempt always to control the expression of thought. Another such an attempt, larger in scale, is in the works just now. High-level administrators are overseeing revision of the church’s Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Ministerial and Theological Education. The draft revision, like the Handbook now in place, requires that, worldwide, individuals on Adventist religion faculties receive an “endorsement certificate,” renewable at five-year intervals, from an authorized (General Conference or Division) ministerial education board.
Some church divisions, including the North American Division, are not enforcing the current Handbook requirement. Now in what one highly placed theologian calls a “toned-down” version, top General Conference leaders are pushing the requirement again, still bent on church-wide compliance. Such a centralized licensing of thought would offend many accrediting agencies, and is again meeting resistance from educators. But faith communities constitute the body of Christ, so policies need to measure up, not just to educational reality, but also to the standard implicit in our understanding of the church. And just because centralized licensing of thought involves deep distrust of Adventist faculties and institutional boards, it fails to meet that standard. Nothing like such a policy appears in the New Testament or in the annals of early Christianity. What is more, explicit rejection of such thinking characterized not only the Reformation but also Pioneer Adventism, as is widely known and fully evident in the 1872 statement of Adventist beliefs.
It’s true, of course, that when you combine intellectual passion with human fallibility, you guarantee difference of opinion and slippage into error. But how can we not slip into error if, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, we now see only “dimly,” and know and prophesy “only in part”? Shared Christian life involves risk, and the risk should be no shock. What’s shocking is that the proposal to license thought keeps coming back, even though the curtailing of intellectual freedom by bureaucratic initiative recalls the very institutional excess that incited the Reformation. The Bible grants God’s people the freedom to reason together under conditions (Matthew 18) of local responsibility to one another. The most powerful Adventists seem to forget this completely.
Ellen White’s assurances about a “weak and defective” church do constitute a helpful reminder. Faith in Christ entails confidence that, as Paul also said (2 Corinthians 4), mere earthen vessels can truly be God’s instruments. Our topmost leaders forget, however, that people in local institutions—in schools and churches and hospitals—are God’s instruments, too. It’s not the priesthood of believers at the top; it’s the priesthood of all believers.
As for the possibility of error, these leaders forget that flaws in thought are normal, as are efforts toward correction of flaws. What seems not normal, from the New Testament point of view, is the attempt to address this problem through coercive authority. Someone as intelligent and determined as Paul may have been tempted by put-the-screws-on shortcuts to wide agreement with his theology; but his ministry, like that of Jesus, remained always persuasive. He and Jesus both battled for their convictions by entering into conversation. The leaders with the most power seem ignorant of—or perhaps put off by—their example.
If many thoughtful Adventists bridle under pressure to conform, many of these same Adventists enjoy straightforward give-and-take in Sabbath School and other settings. Where prayerful and open-minded Bible study occupies the truly concerned, both relationships and understanding deepen. I am part of a circle, led by my friend Daryll Ward, that is thinking about the meaning and importance of the Sabbath. The conversation has reminded me again of how, in addressing God’s will for the tired and distractible, this part of our heritage meets not only our own need but also a human need in general. I recently participated in a conference at Friedensau Adventist University, in Germany, on Adventist “Perceptions of the Reformation.” Christ was the gathering’s center. People sat around tables as equals and, at breaks, enjoyed one another’s company over food. I saw again that in such circumstances forthright conversation not only fulfills the divine intention (Matthew 18 again) but also invigorates the human spirit.
But even in these circles a pall of worry can break the spell. Drift toward “kingly power” crushes candor and has come to feel like drift toward (if not yet to) the totalitarian. This latter word may be jarring, but remember that the examples I began with can be multiplied. Remember, too, that topmost leadership and its partner theologians do not bother to acknowledge, let alone refute, the kind of perspective as I am offering here. They feel, such is their degree of power, that response is not necessary. Nor, typically, do less powerful leaders and theologians dare to chime in publicly. It is best, as everyone knows or finds out, to keep silent.
Someone, of course, may cite the example of corporations—if you work for the company you support its policies and plans—but even if that point has a certain resonance in any institution, it resolves nothing. The church is not a corporation, except in the narrow, legal sense required by the world. The church is the body of Christ, and here the standards of Christ trump the standards of the world.
In its struggling, older strongholds, Adventism today dwells in secular territory, as Israel once dwelled in Babylon. We sing our songs in a strange land, where conventional witness finds little purchase, and may even come across only as an annoyance. To think now (or ever) that uniformity of thought is our urgent task overlooks something truly challenging: how, in secularizing culture, to get a hearing at all. Unless we want to die in such places, we need to encourage fresh thought, not stamp it out. We need, once and for all, to renounce authoritarian control over the interpretation of the Bible, and to embrace instead local responsibility for constructive conversation.
Daniela Gelbrich, of Friedensau Adventist University, has suggested that God’s word is like a hammer that shatters rock, like an axe for the frozen sea inside of us. Well, we have Matthew 18 on constructive conversation, and we have Matthew 20 and its parallels on Christian leadership. Isn’t it time to let God’s word actually speak to our condition?
Leaders could start by deciding, right now, to bury the provision for “endorsement certificates.”
Charles Scriven is board chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum Magazine.
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