I'm going to claim (for I get to write my own history) that my questions on this topic originated at Sheyenne River Academy when, in order to get more compliance, they suggested that the rules they gave us were not just rules but something more, something holy and right and true. Yet we knew from looking at pictures of Jesus and church pioneers that clean shaves and short haircuts weren't a moral universal. But of course, we were teenagers, and for teenagers being contrary is as natural as having spots on your face. Still, I think I would have accepted it better if they'd said, "This stuff is almost completely arbitrary, kids. Gotta set some limits to please the constituents, including your parents, or this place would devolve into a dog's breakfast. The rules aren't Biblical, consistent, or even necessarily very good, and later we'll probably change them. But for now, you have to go along with them."
When I came back to the same conference some years later as an intern pastor church leaders were saying that the new academy they were building was God's will, too, in spite of its being quadruple the budget they'd originally set for it. That did turn into a dog's breakfast, and a very expensive one. Today Dakota Adventist Academy is thrilled if they get 50 students in a facility built for 500.
Of course we Seventh-day Adventists, leaders and laypeople, should have opinions and ideas and convictions on a whole range of church matters. Plans will be attempted that won't work. We may craft policies that prove poor. If we're doing our work right, we'll take risks that will result in colossal failures. Hard decisions won't always be made correctly.
What bothers me is that what we choose to do is too often presented as what God wants us to do. If you read through the Pacific Press documentation from the 1970's, you'll find that our arguments for underpaying women were theological ones: this is God's will for our institutions. Again and again we've made presumptuous claims on God's will. Thus my title question. Sure, we're going to lay some eggs. But so often we've laid these rotten eggs in a warm and downy nest of prayer, and sent them forth into the world stamped, "God's will".
Claiming God's will has been a particular temptation for the General Conference. The idea that the General Conference is God's highest authority on earth (Testimonies For The Church, Vol. III page 492) is so authoritarian that it's hard for me to understand how it ever got through even the coarse filter of our theology. As Reformationists, it's why we broke it off with Catholicism. As Americans, it's why we fled Europe. As Adventists, it is everything we say we fear about the future of religion. Even Ellen White later reversed herself on it. How can any Seventh-day Adventist use it without blushing?
I know those who use this statement to exercise their authority parse their words carefully to sound as though they're not trespassing on the democratic system of the church. Yet the matter of their authority seems to be where so many church controversies begin and end. And so often the answer is to attempt to control more heavily from the top, either directly (through policies or threats) or indirectly (by obscure, drawn-out representative processes and endless postponements). Always the given reason, the thing that makes it legitimate for leaders to exert control, even to scheme and politic and manipulate and say others are disobeying God when they differ from them, is unity.
In the State of the Church message from our General Conference President last week, he said "This is a time for administrators, pastors and members to unite in Christ under the banner of His truth, to preach His message to the world." I happily comply, if under that banner are the truths we Seventh-day Adventists agree are important, without which we needn't exist at all, and without agreement in which we'd get very little done. Things like, Jesus is a perfect expression of God, and He lived, died and rose again for our salvation; the Bible is our source of truth; Saturday is the Sabbath; Jesus is coming again. I think most of us would allow that the banner of mutually agreed-upon Seventh-day Adventist truth stretches over all of that, and more.
But how much more? Apparently a great deal. Here's what Elder Wilson includes in uniting in Christ under the banner of truth: "God has given to the Seventh-day Adventist Church a divinely inspired church organization, and mutual agreements called Church Policies, which under the guidance of the Holy Spirit are part of what helps to hold us together as a worldwide family. To discard or ignore these mutual agreements violates a sacred trust and creates unnecessary discord."
It's perfectly legitimate for an organization to have beliefs we all agree upon. But are all of the policies, written by men in offices and voted by committees, God's specific will? That means, then, that should a part of the church want to run things a bit differently, perhaps more in line with the needs of their own field (which, by the way, they long have done—there are as many versions of the GC Working Policy as there are divisions) they're not just choosing different methods of operation: they're breaking a sacred trust, flouting the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Elder Wilson asks us all to lay aside our personal opinions so that we can go forward in unity. But if he and I differ on policies about, say, women's ordination, which of us is reflecting God's will and and which of us a personal opinion? Is his conviction God's will because his pulpit is higher than mine?
But do Elder Wilson and I need to be unified about this? This is the crucial question. What does God want us to be unified about? Everything? Or a few important things? How much does the church hierarchy's authority to codify and enforce the will of God cover? Let's assume for this argument that it covers our defining beliefs, salvation basics, the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. But how much farther can you stretch that banner of truth? To the point: how much of the policy in matters like who gets ordained and the wording of constitutions is actually God's will? Does unity really justify such broad authority? Given the things the church has voted in the past (during my lifetime it was policy that black people couldn't eat in the GC office dining room at Tacoma Park!) it seems to me we have to be terribly careful about saying that anything we make a policy about is the specific will of God.
I confess I can barely stifle my yawns about the study commissions that get revved up and start cranking out papers with each ripening controversy, because by the time they're convened the issues are far beyond more study being able to swing the argument. But if we're going to have another study group, I'd suggest this one: let's study church authority.
We'll begin with an extended prologue insisting that all authority is God's and the Bible's and maybe even Ellen White's, as though we have nothing to do with it. We always do that. But after getting that out of the way, let's get to the point and talk about how we put these sources into action in running the church. Let's talk about what it means that the GC in session is God's highest authority on earth, and how much leaders can control the message and the meeting and still say it's God's will we're voting rather than theirs. Let's ask whether the church hierarchy should be stating God's will to us, or should just be trying to keep a conversation open about discovering it as it unfolds. Let's talk about whether the GC Working Policy really is an inerrant body of rules, and if thinking like that doesn't put us awfully close to a Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Let's question whether denominational leadership should mean being able to tell every other church entity around the globe precisely how they are to operate. Let's consider whether unity is important enough to push aside diversity and creativity, whether unity about some doctrines and policies is more essential than about others, and whether it's fair to insist that in every difference we must always unify on the least progressive option. Let's discuss whether the Body of Christ can be limber enough to let some parts move in coordinated independence, or so bound together that we can only move as a stiff, inflexible lump, like a petrified skull rolling downhill.
Authority is a vital and essential tool in leadership. What a blessing leaders are when they use it to help us all understand the big picture, the growing complexity and diversity of the church, and give us a sense that we're making this journey together! But authority grows from respect, from feeling listened to and worked with, and if it is to be maintained it must be employed with surgeon-like delicacy. There is no more effective way to lose authority than to overextend it.
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.