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Going Forward While Going Backward?

In spirit and language alike, Ted Wilson’s leadership evokes another era, one older Adventists can still recall. In key respects he is the second coming of Robert Pierson. So, like Pierson, he speaks (very properly) of revival and reformation. But with respect to his fears, Elder Wilson is also redolent of that era: he is ill-at-ease with the sort of ferment that was heating up in the 1970s. He is ill-at-ease, indeed, even with the orthodoxy of 1980s, and wants to revise, in a fundamentalist direction, the Statement of Beliefs that dates from the beginning of that decade.  As for the dynamism of the Adventist pioneers—the energy, the self-questioning, the constant shifting of views—he is,  at least in his spoken discourse, a stranger to it.

It’s a safe bet, unfortunately, that this frame of mind will not bring wholeness to Adventism.  In the older strongholds, much of the beauty of Adventism persists, but we are also broken by factions and disunity. The brokenness cries out for fixing, but Elder Wilson’s perspective leaves it, I’m afraid, ever more entrenched.

In October church leaders had an opportunity to repair some of the brokenness. Meeting for Annual Council in Silver Spring, they considered a change that would have opened a new door, in two world church Divisions, for women. 

Church policy distinguishes between “ordained” and “commissioned” pastoral ministry. The former (except in parts of China where the distinction goes unrecognized) is a status granted exclusively to men. But around the world women “commissioned” for pastoral leadership are serving as church pastors or even as conference officers. Under current policy, however, no woman may be a conference president, since that role requires male-only ordination.

Two presidents, Dan Jackson from North America and Bertil Wiklander from the Trans-European Division, proposed granting a “variance” from this policy just for the church territories they represent.  Both believe that the arc of Bible narrative points toward full spiritual equality for women. Both suggested that where the surrounding culture expects full equality (as in their territories) it is all the more crucial for Adventism to embody it.  

As discussion began, Elder Wilson left the chair so that, from the floor, he could oppose allowing women into conference presidencies. He did not mean, he said, to denigrate anyone’s spiritual leadership. Still, pastors who are merely “commissioned” cannot “organize churches” or “ordain elders and deacons,” and persons in “top spiritual leadership,” he argued, should be able to do so.

That, of course, was what the proposed variance would accomplish. So he went on to suggest, too, that embracing the variance would violate the unity of the church. The church has agreed that ordination be “recognized around the world.” Adventism is not the church “in America” or in any other division; it is one community. “We are,” as he put it, “a worldwide church.” The implication was that the proposed variance would be inconsistent with Adventist unity. “I would encourage you,” he said,” to vote against the motion.” 

Elder Wilson then returned to the platform as meeting chair. After lengthy discussion, the proposal was defeated; 117 voted Yes and 167 voted No.

I feel wounded by this, but cannot, of course, feel as wounded as those Adventist women who were hereby insulted once again. Many of them must admire the proposers and speakers who came to their defense at Annual Council, risking public disagreement with the General Conference president. But they must also feel the way I would if, for reasons having nothing to do with my abilities or character, the bureaucracy declared me ineligible for a role my near-at-hand colleagues might actually want me to occupy.

That all of this should go on and on—as least since 1881, when the General Conference Committee first gave formal consideration to the place of women in ministry—is brokenness. It is, I repeat, brokenness, and because we could fix it and don’t, it is also a profound failure.

Everyone knows that a good scriptural argument for the full equality of women and men can be made. Everyone knows, too, that it is legendarily hard to express a knockdown version of the argument. The fundamentalist mind-and-heart can easily resist what it wants to resist.

One form this resistance can take, and did take in October, is appeal to a bloodlessly abstract version of the church’s unity in Christ. On this view, unity is bureaucratic. It is uniformity, and has too little to do with human relationships and feelings. Local need seems practically irrelevant. 

Another way to make the point is that on this view unity has little to do with love. And love, after all, is the thing that constitutes the “new commandment” God gives to us in Christ. It is the thing without which we are but noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

For many who have a long devotion to the church, all this seems, and feels, tragic. I have twice in my life—once in my twenties, and once very recently—argued at book length that Adventism is something good and beautiful. But in this world all things good and beautiful stand on the razor edge of danger, and today the sense of precariousness seems particularly keen. At least in the church’s older strongholds, most thoughtful lay members must feel that precariousness. Many church leaders feel it. In practically all our institutions, the feeling of danger—not just opportunity but also danger—is palpable as night.

Obsession with bureaucratic (and also doctrinal) niceties looms large as an obstacle to love. And when obstacles to love are actually institutionalized, and when blindness to that fact seems well nigh deliberate, it is past time to raise a voice of alarm. 

In 1872, for the benefit of non-members and for the first time ever, Adventist leaders published a statement, or “synopsis,” of Adventist belief. The publication of the statement satisfied both bureaucratic and a doctrinal needs.  (These needs, of course, do matter.)  But the first paragraph said that the statement was not to have “any authority with our people,” nor was it meant to “secure uniformity among them, as a system of faith.” It was not meant, in other words, to secure superficial unity, or to stamp out all difference of opinion and practice.    

Why is such wisdom scorned today, or at least ignored?  It aligns with the New Testament story, and would help break the inertia of brokenness. Why do we fail to heed it?

I don’t know.  But if I said it’s a safe bet that the church’s brokenness will continue, I did not say it is fated to continue. Inside of faith, hope outlasts despair. We don’t drum it up by our own strength, but receive it as a gift, and the gift enables us to kick sand into the great tide of human pain and disappointment. The gift of hope enables us continue bearing a witness, and to continue believing, even against overwhelming odds, that our witness will matter.

Do we have a shot at making love the winner in the great battle between the essence of faithfulness and its bureaucratic distortions? Can we take steps toward shaking off obsessive fundamentalism? If we said Yes, and embraced means as loving as the outcome we hope for, God might surprise us.

Recently my wife and I saw a new play, about Martin Luther King, called The Mountaintop. Although I walked toward the exit with mixed emotions about the play itself, my feeling about a T-shirt the theater had for sale was anything but mixed: I loved it. On the front, in huge letters, were these words: “Can I get an Amen?”

We must never be a people who lose hope and shrivel into silence. We must (as many at Annual Council did) bear our witness. We must bear our witness. Can I get an Amen?

Charles Scriven is President of Kettering College of Medical Arts and chairman of the board of the Adventist Forum|SPECTRUM.

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