During the last two years the General Conference has produced a number of articles lifting up the importance of unity and abiding by the decisions of the GC Annual Council and particularly the GC Working Policy. One perspective seems to have been left out, however, or at least not focused upon:
Is there any possibility that the decisions of the GC Annual Council, and even decisions by the GC Session, are not in line with the basic principles that the Church has voted or agreed to follow? Could it be that parts of the GC Working Policy are not in harmony with the biblical message or the Fundamental Beliefs of the Church? If that should be the case, what are the means to rectify this?
Building Blocks of a Democracy
Three separate and independent building blocks are required in a true democracy: the legislative (making the rules/laws), the executive (applying the rules/laws) and the judicial (checking the rules and how they are applied).
In the United States:
They are the Executive, (President and about 5,000,000 workers), Legislative (Senate and House of Representatives), and Judicial (Supreme Court and lower Courts)…The Judicial part of our federal government includes the Supreme Court and nine Justices. They are special judges who interpret laws according to the Constitution. [i]
In democracies throughout the world it happens quite often that decisions made by the executive levels of the state/counties/municipalities, as well as the legislative levels, are challenged. If it can be proven that a law or decision is out of harmony with the Constitution, a decision or a law passed at any level can be set aside by a court.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church – Compliance to the “Constitution”
Do we in the Seventh-day Adventist Church have a satisfactory independent system to check on the compliance of the GC Working Policy to the “constitution”? Or do we have a system that does not see the possibility for any discrepancy to ever happen?
What would be the equivalent of the “constitution” in an Adventist setting? The following saying of Jesus to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law might be helpful to guide us in our thinking:
“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, `Honor your father and your mother,` and, `Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.` But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: `Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban` (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that." [ii]
Traditions that nullify the word of God are the problem Jesus addressed.
Another statement from Jesus in his meeting with the Pharisees might be relevant in this line of thought:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[iii]
An even more pointed saying from Jesus might also be helpful:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. [iv]
Is this basic rule of loving your neighbor as yourself applicable when it comes to the way female pastors are treated in the Adventist Church? And further, do we have any voted principle in the Adventist Church that can guide us in applying this basic principle in our dealing with our female pastors?
Basic Principle against Discrimination
In the GC Working Policy we find the following basic principle:
“The Church rejects any system or philosophy which discriminates against anyone on the basis of race, color, or gender.” [v]
This principle has a solid foundation in loving your neighbor as yourself in the Bible, as well as in Fundamental Belief number 14:
“… distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ …”
Is this our “constitution”? Should our laws and regulations be in harmony with the basic principle of not discriminating against anyone “on the basis of race, color, or gender”? Where is the Adventist judicial system to check if we are in line with our basic principles, our “constitution”?
More than Forty Years of Struggle
After more than forty years of struggling with the issue of not discriminating against women, and in particular female pastors, we face the situation that a growing number of thinking men and women in the church challenge both the logic and the current practice that is in place: female pastors do not have the same rights as their male colleagues, solely on the basis of gender.
2/3 Majority in TOSC (Theology of Ordination Study Committee)
In a democratic society, the validity of a law or practice that is challenged is not decided by a referendum or vote in the parliament. The decision is left to specialists in law interpretation based upon the available evidence. These judges are expected to put aside any additional input that is not part of the constitution and the base documents of the constitution. No cultural considerations that are not already reflected in the constitution should influence the outcome of their judgment. The closest we can come to such a system in an Adventist context with the issue of nondiscrimination toward female pastors is the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC). With a two-thirds majority, TOSC voted in favor of leaving the matter of ordination to the Divisions.
The 2014 GC Annual Council decided to let the question be voted by the delegates at the 2015 GC Session in San Antonio. The question to be answered by yes or no vote was:
Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? Yes or No. [vi]
Was it traditions that had the day in San Antonio? Remember Jesus’ warning of letting traditions nullify “the commands of God.” In San Antonio there was no attempt to find out whether a “no” vote would be in conflict with the voted general principles of the Church. Instead the decision was left to the feelings and thinking of each delegate and what each felt was acceptable.
The 2017 GC Annual Council
The 2017 GC Annual Council has a difficult task ahead of it when they meet this October. The Church is faced with a discrepancy between the voted basic guiding principles of the Church and the way female pastors are treated differently from their male colleagues. Jesus’ summarization of our duty toward our fellow human beings to love your neighbor as yourself is at stake. Fundamental Beliefs 14 and 17 have not been guiding the Church in its voted actions concerning female pastors. The basic principle of GC WP BA 60 05 is set aside: “The Church rejects any system or philosophy which discriminates against anyone on the basis of race, color, or gender.”
Is it possible to see the 2017 GC Annual Council vote an honest statement and admit that with the way GC Working Policy is worded, unions who employ female pastors are expected to discriminate purely on the basis of gender? Can we expect a statement admitting that the Church has not been faithful to the basic voted statements in Fundamental Beliefs 14 and 17, and Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself?
In 1936, a Norwegian poet wrote these words in a poem when he saw the dangers of the upcoming Nazism:
“You must not tolerate so well the injustice that doesn't affect you yourself!” [viii]
It is often risky to get involved when someone else is treated badly. We often hope and think that time will solve the issue. But that is often not the case. By telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus challenges us to get involved to defend the rights of others. The Church has voted a bold statement on non-discrimination. Is the Church willing to comply with this bold statement?
GC Annual Council 2017, defend the basic principle of non-discrimination and show that you are promoting Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself”!
[ii] Mark 7:8-13 NIV
[iii] Matt 22:36-39 NIV
[iv] Matt 7:12 NIV
[v] GC WP BA 60 05 Basic Principles
[vi] GC Session Document p. 69
[viii] Arnulf Øverland, Den røde front (The Red Front) (1937), Du må ikke sove (Dare not to sleep)
Finn F. Eckhoff is Executive Secretary of the Norwegian Union.
Image Credit: North American Division / James Bokovoy
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