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Sabbath at the Unity Conference: Justice Takes Center Stage


Happy Sabbath. Gary Patterson concluded his worship series with a devotional about the joy that we are to experience in Sabbath rest. Certainly the Sabbath day in Heathrow would prove to be a joy as we gathered together for more conversation and presentations. By this time, people were beginning to know each other. The conversations at our round tables had created new friends as we discussed the questions that were circulated after each presentation.

Olive Hemmings and Reinder Bruinsma spoke Sabbath morning, and their presentations have been summarized by Helen Pearson in other articles on this website. In this article I will share my notes from the Panel Discussion on Coercion and the Church and Ray Roennfeldt’s presentation on “Justice and Equality: Is God Interested?”

The first question in the panel discussion went to Wendy Jackson concerning how the church can bring about unity. Leaders cannot construct unity, she responded. Leaders can model it. Reinder Bruinsma suggested that leadership can create an atmosphere of unity through equality, listening, respect, collaboration, accountability, integrity, and trust. Barry Oliver jumped in to say that the reason we work as a structured church is because of trust. “If we lose trust,” he said “we’re done.” As others chimed in on the difficulties that we face because of disagreements within the church, Wendy Jackson recommended a book by Gregory Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty.

What are the non-negotiables of unity, Moderator Barry Oliver asked Lowell Cooper? To begin, Cooper answered, you have to acknowledge unity is not a human construction; it is a gift of God. Next comes the priority of Lordship of Jesus in individual lives. In organizational life, he suggested several points: the centrality of the Bible, the distribution of authority in structure, and the fact that the church is a volunteer association so there has to be room for participation. Most importantly, trust. Where trust exists, all other resources come into play. Where trust does not exist, all other resources are depleted. It is a function of leadership to build trust. When that is taking place, other flavors of unity can come to the table.

With trust back at the center of the conversation, Oliver asked, “How do you rebuild trust?"

Cooper responded that it is important that there is not a reaction with emotional intent. It takes time together and maintenance of a sufficiently calm atmosphere to be able to speak. Trust gets rebuilt out of relationship.

Oliver then talked about the results of coercion or demands for uniformity. He said there are two primary results: people either go along with the demand or rebel. Either way the church is destroyed.

A question was raised from the audience. There was an action voted at the GC session. Is there legitimate reason for coercion?

Another audience member referenced the presentation by John Brunt in which he used multiple illustrations from the Early Church to show that in the Bible the example was tolerance.

Where do we go from here, Oliver asked?

Among the many answers, one of the more intriguing observations came from Roy Adams who zeroed in on the church’s election system as a place for possible change. He described the nominating process at GC sessions where the president is elected first so he can sit in on the Nominating Committee and give his preferences for every elected official. That is what gives him kingly power, Adams suggested, because he essentially dictates who gets elected. If the Nominating Committee truly did that work, perhaps that could help change the climate within the Church.

At 3:15, it was time for Avondale President Ray Roennfeldt to give his presentation on “Justice and Equality: Is God Interested?” He began with the Genesis account of the creation of Adam and Eve to find the divine ideal for human relationships. To those who would suggest that the order of creation suggests an inequality between the two, he responded, “there is no hint of that in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2. While Adam is created first, the ‘order’ of the creation narrative would forbid such a conclusion. Within the account there is distinct progression from simple living things to the more complex.” He added that the “structure” of the creation account “indicates the same progression: what is formed on day 1 is filled on day 4. . .” He concluded, “In fact, ironically, one could argue for the superiority of Eve over Adam given the inherent structure within the narrative!”  Next, he considered the stories of Hagar and Ruth to come to the conclusion that the God of the Old Testament is interested in equality and justice.

Moving to the New Testament, he began with Luke’s account of Jesus reading Isaiah in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus tells the people of Nazareth that this scripture is being fulfilled in their hearing, seemingly taking this justice passage as his mission statement. To that he added the stories of Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4, where to the disciples’ surprise Jesus treats this person of doubtful morals and a believer in an apostate offshoot of Judaism with respect and equity. Another example is the story of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7 that follows a discussion of cleanness and uncleanness, Jesus is surely indicating that this unclean woman was “truly part of God’s kingdom of justice and equity.”

Having built his case for a positive answer to the question of whether or not God was interested in justice, Roennfeldt then cast doubt, asking about the lack of prohibition against slavery. “What about the texts that appear to justify the dominance of the male in church and society, and why does Scripture contain no clear direction on the ordination of women to the gospel ministry?

“Given the diversity of Scripture on our topic but also with clear indications that God is on the side of justice and equality and also that he works within and even accommodates variations of time and place in order to maintain interaction with humanity, we have to ask how we might best interpret the Bible and grow in understanding as a community of faith.”

Roennfeldt suggested that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—a circle of authority composed of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as a valuable tool for the interpretation of Scripture. He used it to examine the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. “Perhaps, even today we’ve not completely understood the implications of the position taken at this Jerusalem council, which made circumcision nothing and uncircumcision nothing. No longer was the mark of the covenant something that only pertained to males, rather ‘Keeping God’s commands' is what counts” (1 Co5. 7:19; John 14:15, 23). Finally. he suggested that we need a new paradigm that will assist us in breaking through the hermeneutical tangle that is dividing member from member and region from region. “It is not enough to say that we should now ignore issues of justice and equity and focus on the mission and message of the church. We have that, for Jesus himself, there was no dichotomy or separation between mission and message; the two were actually one and the same.”

Conclusion of the Conference

After a break for supper and an executive meeting of the union conference officials in attendance, the final session was held. Pacific Union Conference President Ricardo Graham reflected on the time together, saying it had been refreshing and had expanded our vision. Columbia Union Conference President Dave Weigley outlined the way forward, saying that “we have to stay on the high road.” He said talking points will be gathered in anticipation for a visit with General Conference leadership as soon as possible. He said they will go with a sense of diplomacy and be there to offer solutions. He emphasized the importance of communication and reaching out to others about what was learned at the conference.  "If all of that fails, we will think of protest to the princes,” he said. And then he invited suggestions from the audience for going forward.

And so, the first meeting of unions from multiple divisions came to an end. While it had not been a meeting on the regular calendar coordinated by the General Conference, it had been successful in bringing together not only union officials but also conference presidents, pastors, academics, and a few lay people for a very effective conversation and for a new understanding of the meaning of unity both in the Bible and in Christian communities both historically and presently.


Bonnie Dwyer is Editor of Spectrum.

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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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