In the past month we have seen two unions (Pacific and Columbia) vote to ordain ministers without regard to gender, joining the Northern German Union that conducted a similar vote earlier this year. These are certainly exciting times for those of us that want to see gender discrimination end in our church. However, what I have found most interesting over the past month is the move by the General Conference to paint these votes as a threat to church unity. In the past 30 days, we have seen Elder Wilson, travel across the country to address women’s ordination at both union meetings, and also reach out over 3ABN at ASI to discuss concerns about unity – while being careful to not address the circumstances under which the question of unity arose. Much has been said in this forum on the subject, and yet I think it is important to properly discuss the social aspect of this problem of disunity and properly assign responsibility for our current circumstances.
· The most glaring issue with the way the church addresses the question of unity is that many of the positions presented are often double-sided. They apply just as well to the church as they do the segments of the church that decided to ordain without regard to gender. Elder Wilson has said that organizations within the church need to work in submission to each other and to the Lord. I agree. Elder Wilson’s own construction of that statement implies, however, that the organization Elder Wilson heads (the General Conference) would at times submit to the unions, just as unions at times should submit to the GC. But he doesn’t ever explain who should submit to whom and when.
· Elder Wilson suffers from the same problem when he attempts to use the unity argument specifically. Unity works both ways, and could be just as easily accomplished if he (and the General Conference) submitted on this issue as if the unions submitted. Here’s the odd part – I agree with Elder Wilson. This is an issue of unity – just not the way he thinks. One of the definitions of unity is an absence of diversity; to be of an unvaried or uniform character. I want there to be an absence of diversity in the way we bless people called by God for ministry. I want the designation of the calling that God places on both men and women to be unvaried or uniform in character. In my time at Andrews Seminary it was clear to me that we don’t train men and women differently. I was also able to understand in a very personal way that the callings that these women receive are not somehow less, or different from the calls that men receive. We have seen that the work that they do for the church is not different or less than the work that men do as pastors. We should not be discriminating against them and treating them differently simply because we want to continue an antiquated system of prejudice. I want “unity” too.
· Furthermore, the arguments against women’s ordination would carry a lot more weight if someone would explain what exactly it is that female pastors do that is different from what male pastors do. The most common rebuttal to the equality argument for women’s ordination has been that there is equality amongst persons, but differences in roles. The Trinity is often cited as the ultimate example of this principle. I understand it (and agree) in regards to the Trinity. But what exactly is it that male pastors do that female pastors don’t do in leading their churches? If there is no difference in roles, why the difference in conferral of status?
· A minor and tangential religious liberty note from the “I agree, but not the way you think” department – Elder Wilson took time out in his introductory comments on the 3ABN program to talk about the fact that we are living in the last days. One of his signs? The acceptance of gay marriage. I agree. Adventism believes that churches seeking to have their beliefs codified into civil law and forcing people to live by the Christian ethos without choice are signs of the last days.
· The Adventist church is attempting to have their cake and eat it too on this issue, and it seems that some organizations in the church are tired of the hypocrisy. Right now Adventism allows women to pastor, but not to be ordained. That does not make sense. There is actually a stronger biblical argument for not allowing women to pastor at all. I don’t agree with the argument, but you could make it logically. But we’ve already gone too far down the road for that, and the evidence is too strong that God is blessing women to pastor, lead churches, and lead souls to Christ. That should be evidence enough that women are worthy of the same earthly credentials as men (seeing as they clearly have the same heavenly credentials). The church can’t do that either though, because there are too many people who see the verses that seem to speak against women in ministry and are mad enough that women are allowed to lead anything in the first place. The Columbia and Pacific Unions exposed this tenuous balance by voting to no longer contradict themselves. I cannot find any problem with that.
· Some of the arguments proposed in the discussion of unity do not support the General Conference’s position upon deeper inspection. At one point during the 3ABN program Pastor Mark Finley referenced Acts 15 as a time when there was disagreement in the church. He made the point that people put aside individual differences for the sake of the mission of the church. Does he realize that the apostles (the heads of the church at that time) solved the dilemma by giving up their preconceived notions and relaxing the rules for the constituents at the local level of the church? I’m sure he does.
· However, the most dangerous thing that Elder Wilson has implied was that people should ignore the voice of God for the sake of uniformity. Now Elder Wilson has not used the word uniformity, but it seems clear that uniformity is what he means. During the roundtable discussion on unity on 3ABN, Elder Wilson said that it would be better to act together, even if the conclusion runs counter to personal conviction, than to foster disunity. That sounds extremely problematic to me. This isn’t one person. These are broad segments of the church that voted overwhelmingly to ordain women, and the people who voted for the provision, voted based on their religious conviction. I am willing to assume that they voted the way they did because they felt that this is what God would want them to do (and by the way, I would feel the same way if the numbers were reversed). Is Elder Wilson calling for people to obey the church, even if they feel God is calling them to do something else? Peter found himself in this very position in Acts 5 and said, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Again Elder Wilson is right – this is about unity. How did the church come to this fractured position? When I think about this issue, I’m reminded of the movie Remember the Titans. This movie, which chronicles the on and off the field struggles of a recently integrated football team in the South, is one of my favorite films. At one point Julius Campbell (Wood Harris) is arguing with Gerry Bertier (Ryan Haust), the captain of the team. Julius tells him that no one is playing for the team so he is going to play for himself. When Gerry tells him that he has a poor attitude Julius retorts, “Attitude reflects leadership, Captain.” Elder Wilson laid the foundation for this “problem” of disunity when he became president two years ago. He stood before the entire church and divided us from each other, taking particular spiritual issues and implying (if not actually saying) that one was somehow deficient in Adventism if they believed a certain way about particular elements of belief. (This one of the first things I ever wrote about on Spectrum.) He was well within his authority to do so. However, you cannot divide us from each other and then call for unity when people decide to go against you on certain issues. Elder Wilson may not have much particular power or influence. The votes of the two unions despite his strenuous and present objections are some proof of that. However, like any other president or leader, Elder Wilson is the one who sets the agenda, and the consequences of the use of that power and influence rightly rest with him. Elder Wilson fomented the spirit of division and discord from the very beginning, and the current state of affairs is a reflection of that leadership.