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Unity in the Church


If confession is good for the soul and for revival/reformation—here’s mine. Beware the call for unity these days in Adventism. Beware because it means there is disagreement in the house—most likely over women’s ordination–and a frustrated church leader uses the call for unity to try to bring us together. Instead, it comes across like a schoolyard reprimand. The Holy Spirit will not come unless you are united, children, so shape up and get with the program. To me, it seems to make conditional a love that was always promised as unconditional.

The negative side of unity for me arose long ago, because unity is given as the reason that we can’t ordain women. We can’t ordain women without the world church being in agreement that we should—which of course, it is not and never will be.

It happened again this week with the Sabbath School lesson’s call for unity, coming as it did just as the papers were released from the Theology of Ordination Study Committee. The conflicting ideas presented in the papers left no doubt that the church is not united in its thoughts on ordination. Over the last few years of debating about women’s ordination, it has become standard to remind us that unity does not mean uniformity. But that doesn’t resolve the matter for me. I have to go for a walk.

What I am learning is to turn to the books by John, where I have found Scriptural comfort. Take the last time I wrestled with unity. It was the spring of 2010. There was a rumor floating around that women’s ordination might be brought to the General Conference session in Atlanta for a vote. Perhaps the day for equality was at hand. At Spring Council, my head reeled when General Conference President Jan Paulsen announced his negative findings on the topic based on his poll of the division presidents.  He cited church unity as a reason not to take the issue to the General Conference session. Sleep was impossible that night. Waking, I picked up my Bible. It opened to 2 John: “The elder, To the chosen lady and her children whom I love in the truth. . . And now dear lady, I am not writing to you a new command but one that we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another.”

Learning to love in the face of disunity, how does that happen?

In 2010, when I was devastated by Paulsen’s report, we were preparing an issue of the journal telling the stories of women already pastoring around the world.

Preparing that issue taught me much about that love. From every place in the world  came lessons. Reading the report from the Trans European Division, I thought that their approach to utilizing women pastors exemplified a model for the entire world. Here is a division that contains as wide a diversity of cultures as exists in the world with vastly different views on women. The contrast between Pakistan and Sweden could not be more stark. What possible single policy would work in that division? And yet, women pastors have been allowed to work where appropriate. The (division) officers talked of the imperialist nature of any policy that forced one culture to adopt the mores of another. They look to the unions to make the call on what is appropriate. Allowing unions to decide how to handle this issue in their territory appeals to me as the most sensible policy for all—and it would take us back to the church’s original policy of having ordination determined at the union level. (The elevation of ordination to a world event is really the problem that we are trying to solve.)

Next, the role Communism has played in creating a culture of equality in the Chinese church took me by surprise. But I couldn’t help but be impressed by the pragmatic nature of the Chinese church which is ordaining women, regardless of what the rest of the world church does. They are acknowledging the people who are doing the work in the local churches.

But it was the women of Africa who truly brought joy to my heart. Author Kimberly Kim returned to Maryland from her African reporting trip just before the Spring Council meetings, so on April 6 we agreed to share supper and stories. When she picked me up at the General Conference building, I had just learned that the topic of ordination would not be going to the church business session in Atlanta; and I immediately shared my frustration. Kim’s response was to tell me about the conversation she had with several of the women who are pastoring in Africa. She had asked them what they would think if the church president did not approve of giving them ordination. They answered that it would not bother them because they considered their calling to have come from the Holy Spirit. They were ordained by God.

Their story let me know that the sisterhood of Adventist women is strong. And the calling of women to ministry by the Holy Spirit is real. They gave me courage. They made my heart sing.

In this week’s Sabbath School lesson on unity, I also found reason for my heart to sing. The key text for the lesson is John 17—Christ’s prayer, first for himself, then for his disciples and all believers. In verse 22, Christ says “And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one.”

First, that told me that unity comes from Christ. It is not something that we do to bring the Holy Spirit to us. The Holy Spirit is not dependent on a positive vote at a General Conference session. Christ gives us His glory to unite us.

That sent me on a search for the meaning of “glory”. It is God’s glory that makes us one. What is God’s glory? In the Andrews University Study Bible, it calls God’s character his glory. In other places, glory is associated with praise. In the Greek, glory comes from the word “doxa”. It is praise for God that unites us. Not doctrines, not mission. Praise for God. God sent His Son to live with us, to die for us, to give us His glory and be one with Him. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

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