"Unity in Mission" Will Fail and Here’s Why

"Unity in Mission" Will Fail and Here’s Why

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Written by: 
Published:
October 19, 2016

Just as a prescription is as good as the diagnosis, solving an administrative problem depends upon an accurate understanding of what it is.  

My best guess at this time is that "Unity in Mission:  Procedures in Church Reconciliation" will fail. This is because it rests upon a misreading of the continuing tensions among Seventh-day Adventists about ordaining women in ministry. This document construes the problem in two related ways. On the one hand, it depicts the difficulty as tension between unity and individuality. On the other, it portrays the discord as tension between authority and nonconformity. Each of these accounts makes some sense but not enough.

Neither those who oppose the ordination of women in ministry nor those who favor it primarily account for their positions in these terms. Those who favor it disagree with the suggestion that they are excessively individualistic and defiantly rebellious.  Meanwhile, albeit less vigorously, those who oppose it would rather explain their position in the first place without regard to contentions about church unity and authority.

This deserves a pause. A process of reconciliation will not make much progress if one party feels that its position is misunderstood. If both parties feel this way, it will not even get started. This is where we are with "Unity in Mission." Although one party feels it much more intensely than the other, neither of them is totally happy with how it is being portrayed. This is an unpromising way to start.

Those who oppose the ordination of women in ministry want most of all to be understood as being faithful to Scripture. They have repeatedly studied it from cover to cover, discussed it thoroughly and respectfully, and prayed to be led by the Holy Spirit.  They believe that they have been blessed in this way and that now they are duty bound to be faithful to the conclusions that they have reached.

Their minds are not closed but they are settled. It is disrespectful to ask them to revisit these materials and to consider revising their conclusions. In any case, asking them to do these things will not work.They cannot in good conscience honor these requests and they will not.  They will not yield no matter what happens to them, even if they are fired or banished. For them, the issue is not primarily about unity and authority.  It is about integrity. Underestimating their moral resolve about this issue is a big mistake. After all, their very souls are on the line!

Those who favor the ordination of women in ministry want most of all to be understood as being faithful to Scripture. They have repeatedly studied it from cover to cover, discussed it thoroughly and respectfully, and prayed to be led by the Holy Spirit. They believe that they have been blessed in this way and that now they are duty bound to be faithful to the conclusions they have reached.

Their minds are not closed but they are settled. It is disrespectful to ask them to revisit these materials and to consider revising their conclusions. In any case, asking them to do these things will not work. They cannot in good conscience honor these requests and they will not. They will not yield no matter what happens to them, even if they are fired or banished. For them, the issue is not primarily about unity and authority. It is about integrity. Underestimating their moral resolve about this issue is a big mistake.  After all, their very souls are on the line!

Attempts to bring about reconciliation by seeing our current tensions as anything other than a tragic encounter of groups with equal integrity will make things worse. To miss this is to misunderstand everything.

 No amount of additional prayer, Bible study, discussion, and consultation on any other premise will make positive differences. Neither will any actual or threatened use of coercive power. The more of any of these there is, the more resistant and resilient the overwhelming majority on both sides will become.  To do anything else would be to compromise their integrity.

Our leaders can deepen and widen our denomination's wounds by continuing their misunderstandings of our situation and prolonging the use of their current methods. They have not worked. They are not working. They will not work. Nothing less than a better understand of the problem has any chance of healing them.

Every attempt at reconciliation must begin with genuine gratitude and much praise for the integrity of people on both sides of this issue. It must promise not to try to change anyone's mind about ordaining women in ministry. It must pledge not to use or threaten to use coercive administrative power. It must commit itself to respecting the decision made by the 2015 General Conference in San Antonio, Texas. The task is to find a way forward that keeps all three promises.   

Many will dismiss this way of understanding and handling things this way with a scoff that it is impossible. Others will be more cautious and want more time to think about it. Still others, recognizing that nothing else has worked so far, will be willing to give it a try at this point.

Much depends upon how many there are in the third group, who they are, and how effectively they share their enthusiasm for trying something very different.

This will require much administrative creativity; however, sparking the imaginations of people in all walks of life is one of the Holy Spirit's specialties.  Once again, Jesus said it well:  “Let those with those with eyes really see and those with ears actually hear!"  

 

David R. Larson is Associate Scholar at the Loma Linda University Center for Christian Bioethics and Professor of Religion and Ethical Studies at Loma Linda University's School of Religion. 

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