When we talk about our fears, we don’t often say what it is that actually scares us. A fear of heights is, most basically, a fear of falling. A fear of spiders or snakes is a fear of being bitten. These phobias which are legitimate can then become reified and take an irrational turn. We come to fear even the snake that doesn’t bite.
The Adventist fear of Catholicism is an elementary fear of Protestantism: a fear of Church authority, embodied in the clergy. But by beholding we become changed. Adventism, in its attempt to take the Protestant project to its end has traveled full-circle and ironically imitates the Roman church which it so despises.
Take, for instance, Ellen White’s provocative statement that, “when the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority that God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered.”
Adventism has attempted, and in many ways succeeded, at being a lay-led organization. But as controversy swirls around, the question of who can and cannot hold certain offices in the denomination, and as administrators try to flex their ecclesial authority, Adventism must define more clearly the nature of clerical authority.
I find the coincidence of opposites found in Adventism’s relationship to the Roman Catholic church to be of some importance here. Adventism has one of the most layered and complex hierarchies in all of Christianity, but at the same time there is not (officially) an office with more authority than the local elder. Thus, even our General Conference president’s ecclesial title of address remains ‘Elder Wilson.’ This middle-ground which Adventism tries to occupy leaves us with ‘presidents’ that function like ‘bishops’ but who are called ‘elders.’ No wonder debates regarding ordination are so volatile. They are debates regarding the very nature of our denomination.
My contention is that so long as Adventism continues to have a Catholic mindset with a Protestant spirit then our denomination will continue to languish in disunity. We are not just split between liberals and conservatives; Adventism itself is theologically confused because there is not a coherent vision of the nature of the denomination’s authority or the essence of its faith.
The only way to be more than a parody of the Roman clergy is to outflank them, to be more authentically Catholic than Catholicism. And in a traditional Catholic schema the Church acknowledges the connection between orthodoxy and holiness, between right teaching and right practice.
These two functions are typified in Catholic theology by the roles of Peter and Mary. Both figures or, more importantly, what both figures represent are equally necessary to the life of the Church. “The Petrine office,” writes D. Stephen Long, “should be in service to the Marian vocation to holiness.”In other words, orthodoxy, which is protected by those in Church office, is designed to facilitate the orthopraxis of the Church at large.
Long continues, “[T]he insufficiency of orthodoxy alone is itself an orthodox pronouncement: orthodoxy must be connected to the life of faith. . . Holiness is possible without orthodoxy if some impediment exists to prevent a right understanding of the faith, but ordinarily holiness arises from right teaching. It is also possible to stop at orthodoxy and miss holiness altogether. Nevertheless, orthodoxy and orthopraxis should not be rest asunder. We cannot begin with some self-evident ‘Christian practice’ if we do not know what constitutes Christianity in the first place.”
By extension, we cannot say: “Adventism does,” or, “Adventism does not practice the ordination of women,” until we can say with authority and without equivocation: “To be Adventist is to believe in the full equality of women.” Until we can set the stage by clarifying what really constitutes Adventist identity, our victories in changing Adventist practices will be small, few, and local.
An Adventist Orthodoxy?
The specter of ‘orthodoxy’ has loomed over this series. The first two parts were on Canon and Creed, respectively, both of which are means by which the Church secures its identity. The Adventist church aims at being a canonical community while not being a creedal one. Never mind, for now, the historical irony of the fact that the same community which established the canon promulgated the creeds. And perhaps there is some practical purpose for having thirteen baptismal vows rather than a three-part creed which outlines the most basic principles of Christian teaching. Instead, let me make the case for orthodoxy (located by means of three coordinates: canon, creed, and clergy) by way of analogy.
The United States of America secures its identity in its founding documents, but especially in the Constitution. This may be understood as the nation’s canon. But the Constitution also receives necessary amendments in order to clarify or expound upon the principles laid out in the original document. We might think of these as the nation’s creeds. But obviously there would be no United States of America without the acknowledgment of the authority of public servants. From the Supreme Court to a local traffic officer and every office in between, they each are necessary constituents of American identity because they bring to life the dead letter. America would not survive if each citizen took on the responsibility of interpreting the Constitution for themselves, and obeying the law according to the principles thus derived. In the same way, a community which does not acknowledge genuine authority in its clergy will fail to persist.
A move toward more Church authority is counter-intuitive for Adventists but especially so for progressive Adventists. For those of us who believe in the full equality of women, or who long for the day when the LGBT community is accepted without reservation into our community, it may appear that a higher ecclesiology is our bane. But I think that it is precisely because this denomination is lacking a theologically-minded deference to its leaders that the various battles for equality are a long way from being ended.
Again, think of progressive causes in politics. It is no coincidence that conservatism trumpets the cause of local governance. Imagine how regressive this country would be on matters of race if it weren’t for the federal government. We readily acknowledge the necessity of authority when it comes to organizing our ‘secular’ lives. How much more urgent is it that the Church, charged with the mission of the gospel, have clear and meaningful loci of authority?
Without an Adventist orthodoxy we end up being governed by a traditionalism that is more conservative and far more specific than we would under the guidance of those who are acknowledged as gifted theologians and church leaders. The opposite of orthodoxy is heresy which comes the Greek hairesis meaning ‘to choose.’ Orthodoxy protects the boundaries of the faith from being too broad, but also from being too narrow. It is a heretical tendency to define Creation having occurred in six literal, consecutive, contiguous, twenty-four hour days of recent origin. An orthodox articulation of the Sabbath would be more in keeping with Charles Scriven’s description of the Sabbath as “celebrating every week the goodness of creation, the value of human work, and the story of ancient Israel.”
We may fear that a greater deference to clerical authority would leave us on the outside looking in. But our love for this denomination and the people in it should drive us to not resign ourselves to being a part of a community which belittles women or persecutes gays and lesbians. Cowardice on the part of progressive Adventists will only leave us with decades or centuries more of misogyny and homophobia. The stakes are high in this communal life we call the Church, and we cannot recoil into a position of all-inclusiveness but fight for our Adventist identity with holy zeal.