Five hundred years ago, as of 31 October, 2017, Martin Luther wrote his famous Ninety-five Theses to his ecclesiastical superiors in the university town of Wittenberg, Germany. He hoped to invite debate concerning the abusive practices of the church. It was his invitation for the church to reform according to the Scriptures. The document got Germany talking. And the Protestant Reformation was born.
Luther became a courageous Bible scholar. Three and a half years later in April 1521 at the Diet of Worms, he provided Christendom with a case study of the nexus between conscience, the Word of God, church policy and Councils. Here, in his reply to the demand of the Diet that he recant his reformed beliefs and teachings, he asserted his need to be “convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes or councils, for they have contradicted one another - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Notice for a moment the emphasis Luther makes on the fact that his conscience was captive to the Word of God and must be educated by the Word of God! Unfortunately, the princes and the prelates in Luther’s day did not take him up on this challenge.
Two current happenings in the Adventist world and beyond shine a more contemporary light on the sacred nature of individual conscience and of individual religious freedom. The first of these happenings has to do with the upcoming release of the blockbuster movie, Hacksaw Ridge, about Desmond Doss. This movie promises to be a positive and sympathetic portrayal of the most famous and most decorated military conscientious objector of all time. He just happens to be Adventist. If the rapturous reception at the Venice Film Festival given this movie means anything at all, it may mean that many in society will pause, perhaps for the first time, to reflect on the sacred nature of individual conscience and of individual religious freedom.
The other reason to focus on issues of conscience and religious freedom arises from the current stalemate in many Adventist circles concerning the ordination of women. Perhaps if we choose to see this issue through the particular prism of conscience and religious freedom, we may yet see a greater consensus emerge on this topic. That is why I urge the Adventist communion to give serious consideration to the idea of designating 2017 as the Adventist Year of Conscience and Religious Freedom! 2017 should then be used to highlight these sacred features of our faith to our Adventist members and society at large. Also, Adventist members should focus their efforts on educating themselves in the Scriptures on matters of conscience and on achieving a Spirit-led unity and re-formation as we do this. There is much for all to do!
Theological & Ethical Convictions Are Matters of Conscience
The live ordination issues within the Adventist communion are issues where the minds of many, though not closed, are settled. Many of these people have settled on the theological high ground, believing that the Scriptures prohibit women from being ordained. Others have settled on the ethical high ground, believing that the Scriptures teach that it is less than ethical to continue to deny women ordination.
The attempt to solve a conundrum of this nature by majority vote will always be destructive. A majority vote should not be allowed to quash conscientiously held theological convictions. Nor should it be allowed to quash conscientiously held ethical convictions. However inadequate and incorrect these theological and ethical convictions may prove to be in the end, they must be respected. And both these theological and ethical convictions are believed to arise from Scripture. A stifling of minority dissent on such issues is not countenanced by Scripture and for good reason.
TOSC in all of its study did not reach a consensus on whether women could be ordained. In the end, they handed down three approaches to the issue. The 2015 San Antonio GC Session specifically rejected a proposed change in church policy to allow each of the thirteen world regions to decide for themselves whether to ordain women or not, thus creating their own selection criteria for ordinands. The vote in San Antonio did not concern the Scriptural stance on the ordination of women though people may have used their own understanding of the issue to guide their vote on the specific proposal before them. But the bottom line was that TOSC was unable to make a consensus pronouncement on women’s ordination.
Keeping Individual Conscience Captive to the Word of God While Maintaining Unity In the Adventist Communion
This is our twin task! These are our twin priorities! First, we will seek every opportunity to educate our conscience according to the dictates of the Scriptures. Such study can never be solely individual study. It must always be complemented by the input of our fellows, globally. We must never imagine that the heavenly gifts of knowledge, wisdom, and discernment are only operational in America, or in Africa, or in Europe. We must press together in this regard! Second, our growing, corporate understanding of Scriptural truth and of the will of God for His church and its practices will have as its aim a mission-driven unity. In my humble opinion, Adventists cannot hope to avoid turning again to the Scriptures, seeking thereby to educate their consciences and to maintain unity. It is to be an ongoing process.
Understanding Our Need of a Reformed Paradigm Concerning Adventist Leadership and Ordination
The TOSC process was a helpful and much needed process in seeking to engage each corner of our global Adventist communion in searching for a united understanding of the nature of ordination and what that means for the potential ordination of women. People from various areas of the world field came to understand something of the importance of these issues for others in other parts of the world. Some pled for more time to get on board and for more answers to their questions. Many in other places just wanted action without further discussion. There are certain features of the discussions of ordination that have not been highlighted to any significant extent in any discussion or study. This task is undertaken below.
It is easy to believe that in the Adventist world ordination means the same thing the world over. However, this is not the case. Our understanding of ordination and our practice of it is colored by our culture. For example, for many in America, to be ordained in the Adventist ministry is to be granted professional endorsement. For many in Africa, to be ordained is to become an ecclesiastical chief of sorts. In China, it may be that Adventist ordination is a pragmatic pledge that the ordained individual will co-exist in some sort of working relationship with the civil powers.
However much our specific culture may color our understanding of ordination, it is also true that the wider religious world can also colour our understanding of it. Much of the Christian world understands ordination according to a sacramental model to some degree. Adventist theology, at its best, does not! Hence, Adventists cannot import arguments for or against the ordination of women wholesale from other Christian bodies. There are several pointers to this fact.
First, Adventists who have been ordained are not regarded as a reverend clergy class with a special connection with God and separate and distinct from the laity class. Adventist ordination does not impart the dominicus character, enabling the ordained person to act as a mediator between God and humanity. Adventist leaders are an important part of the laos, the whole people of God.
Second, Adventist ordination does not create additional bridegrooms of the bride of Christ, other than Christ himself. We do not believe in male headship in the ecclesial context. Some Christian clergy wear a ring symbolizing their marriage to the Bride of Christ. Many wear vestments and dog collars signifying their membership of the distinct clergy class. Adventist leaders do not for they understand, in their best moments, that they are part of the laos, the whole people of God.
Thirdly, Adventist ordination is not the sole identifying mark of those who have been “called” by God to serve and minister in His name. The New Testament emphasis is that all saints are “called” by God to serve and minister in His name. The “calling” by God of every individual saint to serve him is enfolded in the specific spiritual gifting of that believer. God’s saints are all his believer-priests serving him in His temple. Adventist leaders are an important part of the laos, the whole people of God.
Protestant Reformers undid some of the accretions of power and lordly spiritual authority that had accrued to the priestly/clerical class in the centuries before them. Adventist pioneers, in their turn, built their polity and gospel order in a pragmatic fashion, borrowing much from other Christian groups around them. This polity and gospel order has, for the most part served Adventists well. However, the almost inevitable drift toward institutionalisation and clericalisation may well have created subtle, even sinful changes in attitudes and modes of operation which are best addressed by a studied renewal and re-formation of our gospel order.
“Ordination,” if we like that term, has an important theological character we can derive from the Scripture. However, we must also acknowledge that cultural elements have also been overlaid on the theological core of this rite.
Toward a Consensus on a Reformed Paradigm of Adventist Leadership and Ordination
At San Antonio on 9 July 2015, Pastor David Ripley, then the Ministerial Association Secretary of the Northern Asia-Pacific Division, spoke to the assembled delegates in the aftermath of the ordination vote. He stated that “one of the things that it [the vote on ordination] showed us is that we have a world church looking at the same Scriptures and coming up with very different interpretations. I think that points out that this church has very divided hermeneutics or rules of interpretation.” Ripley wants to make a motion to the effect that “the world church will take time to study and to help us come together what our hermeneutic really is because we’re using two very different ones.” The following day word came from the Steering Committee of the General Conference Session that this request had been received favourably and that action would be taken through the BRI to address the issue. We are yet to see how comprehensive such a study on Adventist hermeneutics will be. It may be little more than the publication of their findings in a revised second edition of the book currently available on biblical interpretation. Ripley was calling for something more. In essence, he called for the application of newly refined hermeneutical principles as Adventists globally search for a biblical solution to our present impass concerning ordination.
In my prayerful study of the issues involved, if this study of Adventist hermeneutical principles is to have any positive impact on creating greater understanding and unity concerning our theology and practice of ordination, the following two elements must feature in the study. First, the question as to the relationship of freedom of conscience to the whole hermeneutical enterprise must be addressed. How are the conscientiously held theological and ethical convictions of others to be allowed to impact the expression of my own convictions? How can these varying convictions be refined and made to contribute to unity among believers? Second, the relationship of culture to biblical interpretation must be studied. Principles that guide our understanding of the impact of culture on biblical interpretation must be defined. In these things the input of both Adventist religious liberty experts and Adventist missiologists should not be overlooked.
Concrete Steps Toward the Creation of a Reformed Paradigm of Adventist Leadership and Ordination
A greater consensus on the theology and practice of ordination can yet be reached through employing a streamlined, global study process of helpful hermeneutical principles. Such a study process need not detain us long, but it must be pursued with real purpose! A renewed and more biblically adequate paradigm for the theology and practice of Adventist leadership and ordination can yet be devised as Adventists reach for greater global unity on this issue. In the end, it may be agreed that absolute uniformity is neither achievable nor desirable. Agreement may be reached that cultural sensitivity in the design and implementation of ordination rites will be a blessing to the global Adventist communion. Such cultural sensitivity may assist the expression of the core principles underlying our theology of ordination and its practice.
Here, in brief, are the four concrete steps toward the creation of a reformed paradigm concerning Adventist leadership and ordination:
- Seek a more united and a more biblically adequate Adventist hermeneutic that can help us understand more of the religious freedom and cultural dimensions associated with the theology of Adventist leadership and ordination.
- This would provide a really helpful foundation for a comprehensive theology of Adventist leadership, ministry, and mission as well as the theology and practice of “ordination.”
- Foundational ecclesiological principles guiding our practice of Adventist leadership, ministry. and mission including “ordination” could be established from such a theology. (I have critiqued the currently accepted foundational principles underlying the theology and practice of ordination elsewhere).
- With the above three steps in place, Adventists may move confidently into a renewed phase of policy development concerning ordination and credentialing.
I dream that one day soon the Adventist communion which I love will awaken to the potential of a new paradigm for Adventist leadership and the practice of ordination. There is good promise that we will leave aside a hierarchical, elitist paradigm of Adventist leadership, ministry, mission, and ordination. And there is every hope that we will embrace a new culturally sensitive, lateral, and role-oriented paradigm of the same. Let us move creatively into God’s future empowered by his Spirit. The proposed Adventist Year of Conscience and Religious Freedom could well serve to focus our attention on this possibility lying within our reach.
Peter Marks served in the Adventist ministry in Australia and New Zealand (1983-1995). He was a professor of English at Sunchon National University (2005 - 2007) and Sahmyook University (2008-2009). Both these universities are in Korea. He has an MA (Religion) degree from the Newbold College Campus of Andrews University (1989) and a Master of Information Management - Librarianship degree from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia (1998).
If you respond to this article, please:
Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.