The timing for the discussion of Unity in Sabbath School this week is fascinating, given that the materials for the lesson study guide are prepared several years in advance. And yet, here we are, post Annual Council 2016 when the topic of unity exploded within Adventism, post the London Unity Conference sponsored by ten unions as a response to what happened in 2016, and awaiting this year’s Annual Council when the topic will again be front and center. Can we discuss unity in Galatians without acknowledging the divisive role the word unity has played within our midst over the past year?
It was in September 2016 that the General Conference Secretariat released a 54-page paper titled “A Study of Church Governance and Unity,” just prior to the Annual Council meeting of the General Conference Executive Committee. When religion faculties at various Adventist Universities examined the document, they began raising red flags and calling for significant discussion and review of the concepts presented. The Church in Norway released a statement saying, “The document has a number of weaknesses and is likely to contribute to the splitting of the church over the issue of equality for women in ministry. An attempt to coerce unions to comply with General Conference Working Policy is likely to set in motion a series of uncontrollable and unpredictable events.”
Unpredictable events did follow at Annual Council, and a voted action left unions and the General Conference in a standoff, with a year of prayer and meetings designated to try to come to an amicable solution.
By now, when people, who have been closely watching that standoff, hear the word unity, their eyes glaze over. They quickly switch the topic. Is there really anything left to say on unity? At least that is how I felt about the word as I boarded the plane to London for the conference organized by the unions. The meeting itself seemed to be a good idea, but was a discussion of the word unity really what the current situation warranted?
Yes, as it turned out, it was. There were exciting new ways to explore what the Bible says about unity, and a rich conversation flowed as papers were presented on “Authority and Structure,” “Unity,” and Liberty of Conscience.”
So, I see the opportunity to explore ideas about unity in Sabbath School this week as a gift. The London papers are available for online reading at this site: adventistunity2017.com. I highly recommend them as commentary to the lesson. In particular, for this week, I commend to you the papers of John Brunt “Towards a Theology of Unity,” “What Is Jesus Saying in John 17?” by Roy Adams, and Olive Hemmings on “Liberty of Conscience and Freedom.” Next week, the papers by George Knight and Reinder Bruinsma will make excellent reading with the quarterly.
The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is central to all church discussions of unity. In the GC’s paper on unity, the process of the Council is emphasized as the lesson to be learned. “Diversity of practice can be allowed, but only after a representative body has agreed to allow some variation.” In London, during a Q/A session, Brunt disagreed, pointing out that diversity in the Early Church already existed before the Jerusalem Council. In his paper, Brunt showed how unity was achieved by allowing for diversity. And then he said that allowance for diversity was a well-thought-out theological conviction for Paul who described becoming as a Jew to win more Jews and placing himself under the law to win those under the law. (I Cor. 9:19-23) But there was more. Brunt continued with Paul’s experience in Corinth and his allowance for diversity regarding meat that had been placed before idols, a surprising position, because it was post Jerusalem Council where it was voted to forbid eating food that had been offered to idols. “Perhaps he felt that this voted policy was not necessary for all time or for all places or for all situations. In this case, for Paul, good sense appears to trump adherence to voted policy,” Brunt said. He also explored how church finances contributed to unity between Jew and Gentile in the Bible and Paul’s willingness to travel close to 2,000 miles out of his way to make it happen.
Roy Adams was given the assignment of examining Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17, and he said that he tried to set aside his presuppositions about the chapter and to just listen to what the text is saying. What he heard brought him to a new appreciation of the link between love and unity. “And if the unity of the believers is a marker that points to Jesus as the One sent from God—the Messiah, the Redeemer, the Savior of the world—then unity in the gospel of John (and in the prayer of Jesus) supersedes even love itself.”
Justice was the key word in Olive Hemmings’ presentation on “Liberty in Messiah: The Steep and Narrow Path to Unity.” She pointed out that the Apostle Paul addressed the divisive issues in the Early Christian Church “not by appealing to the ruling of the Jerusalem Council, but by appealing to the Abrahamic Covenant through which God brings liberty.” Her thesis was this: “The New Testament teaching on unity is a call to enter the new covenant experience of liberty that frees the community from the need for conformity to rituals and regulations that have no spiritual value in and of themselves, but serve to keep it enslaved.” She describes the letter to the Galatians as a conversation about the freedom of conscience.
Those are just tidbits from the eloquent papers of these scholars. Listening to them in London, I came away with a new appreciation for the importance of unity. An understanding that unity is a gift from God through the Holy Spirit, not something to be voted into action, not policy driven. What makes us one in Christ Jesus is our love for one another (John 17:21). As we read the Scriptures together this week and pray for the Holy Spirit to guide our studies, may that love become real.
Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.
Image Credit: Pexels.com
Papers presented at the Unity Conference can be downloaded on their website here. Additionally, the next issue of Spectrum (Vol. 45, No. 2) will be a special edition containing all of the papers from the conference.
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