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The Steep and Narrow Path to Unity


The Jerusalem Council has been reference point of choice for a great deal of the Adventist church’s discussion of unity and diversity. In her ground-breaking lecture, appropriate for what would usually be the Sabbath School hour, Dr. Olive Hemmings, Professor of Religion at Washington Adventist University and President of the Adventist Society of Religious Studies, gave a profound exposition of scripture. She moved via the New Testament epistles to the Abrahamic covenant outlining for her engrossed audience an understanding of the early church’s approaches to its own divisive issues. She suggested that Paul’s ethic was to reinforce the fundamental ethic of the kingdom of God rather than rituals and traditional practices. “The New Testament teaching on unity,” she said, “is a call to enter the new covenant experience of liberty.” It is an experience that frees the community from the need for conformity to spiritually valueless rituals and enslaving regulations. Hemmings suggested that Reformation interpretations of Paul’s message in Galatians as being addressed to individuals has obscured the idea that it was primarily addressed to a community. She argued that the Apostle Paul focused rather on how relations within the new community, the Jesus movement, now composed of Jews and Gentiles, should be conducted.

Hemmings’ closely argued exploration of the original and oft-misunderstood terms in Paul’s conversation—"righteousness," "faith," and "works of the law" described the ways in which those ideas would have been understood in the contemporary Jewish community. She suggested that "righteousness" was a call for "right relations" in community. The Jewish expectation was that the Messiah would bring about the realization of the Abrahamic covenant—the freedom of God’s people. As the new covenant people, the followers of Jesus were participating in a covenant of liberating justice, were inherently free (John 8:31-2).

Historically, Jews had had to practice ritual purity to access that freedom. In the diverse, new Jesus community, it was not ritual and legal regulations but a spiritual experience, now offered both to Jews and to Gentiles, that marked the members of the community. Circumcision of the heart was for everyone and would produce just relations within a diverse community. Any act of coercion would prevent the community from entering the covenant experience of liberty. Any attempt to live according to the dictates of someone else’s will or conscience would be a return to slavery. Liberty must be the hallmark of the Jesus movement.

But the context of liberty does not stand alone. In Hebrew scripture, it is inextricably connected to the idea of justice. “Please understand,” said Hemmings, “this conversation is not merely about liberty; it is actually about justice.”

The lecture went on to explore the covenantal quest for liberty and justice in Exodus and in the book of Daniel. It explored the roots of the Apostle Paul’s conviction that the risen Messiah was the fulfilment of God’s promise of liberation to the Jews—many of whom were now in slavery to legalistic rites—and to Gentiles who were now being invited into the community of the free. Any enforcement of traditional rites, then, would nurture a state of enslavement rather than the liberty in Messiah.

So—how to deal with the varying "consciences" of traditional Jews about ritual law, especially about the vexed question of meat offered to idols. Hemmings argued that the disunity over this subject arose not from faith but from spiritual immaturity, from lack of awareness of, or hunger for, the solid spiritual food that Paul was offering. Most of all, disunity arose from lack of the quality of love that builds rather than destroys the body. “This love is not conformity to the loudest voice. Rather it is respect for all the voices of faith,” said Hemmings.

So—what does the Galatians’ concern about ritual purity have to do with the disunity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church over women’s ordination? Hemmings argued that as the early church came to terms with the reality of a faith community that was no longer Jewish, the traditional rulings were seen as "old covenant consciousness." They were not producing spiritual fruit. The church judged that the ritual act of circumcision—which had a clear scriptural mandate—had no sanctifying value in and of itself.

How much more, then, does the question of women’s ordination, itself rooted in concerns for ritual purity and without clear scriptural mandate either way, how much more should that be seen by contemporary Adventists as a matter of conscience? Examined from the perspective of Galatians, our church’s current inability to accept difference together with its attempts at compulsion to conform indicate that our community has yet to achieve spiritual maturity.

Hemmings concluded with some brief comments suggesting that Jesus’ prayer for unity came in the context of liberty similar to that of the writings of Paul she had been describing. “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:31) emerges from the overarching theme of love in the Johannine writings.” When the Jews defended their inherent freedom because of the Abrahamic covenant, Jesus suggested that their actions do not demonstrate that the children of Abraham fully grasp the freedom that the Covenant offers: “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but you are trying to kill me” (John 8:40). At the heart of John’s writings is John 3:16 which reflects Paul’s interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant in the epistles. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that anyone who believes . . . may have eternal life” (John 3:16). God’s covenant of justice is one of love for all who accept the promise through Messiah—not just for a particular group who lives according to certain regulations. Jesus was killed because he taught the sort of inclusive love where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female.

Finnally, Hemmings described the stark choice between the self-centered human tendency to strive—rooted in fear—over against the outward-looking challenges of growing a diverse and inclusive community rooted in love. “In Christ, fear of uncertainty subsides, and we rest in the mystery of God’s being.” Such an experience cannot be voted, legislated, or coerced. It requires spiritual discipline, and instruction in the true spirit of scriptures through responsible Christ-filled exemplary discipleship. It requires a focus on growing members that is at minimum equal to that of growing membership. This is hard, much harder than enforcing conformity to the “elementary rudiments” of our individual consciences. But it is the road on which Jesus Messiah invites the church  . . . the path to freedom."


Helen Pearson is a counselor, psychotherapist, writer, and trainer from Wokingham in England and a longtime elder of Newbold Church. She is a member of the Spectrum reporting team at the London Unity Conference.

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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