A Maxim for Today — Unless It’s Too Late
At this moment, the number of Adventists eager for forthright coverage of goings-on in the church’s administrative circles has gotten ominously larger. Recent initiatives from Silver Spring seem, after all, to put the church’s very unity at risk.
Since we are within days of an Annual Council fraught with potential discord, it is well to heed anew the New Testament’s ideal of church unity. Although we cannot suppose that circumstances today exactly equal those in New Testament times, two classic chapters — Ephesians 4 and John 17 — still offer vital correction and encouragement.
The first of these came to my present attention on Thursday, September 20, when Bobby McGhee, a pastor in the Arizona Conference, called to say, “We need phrase.” He meant, he went on, a phrase central to Christian life that could be a maxim for a time when conflict may tear us apart despite all we have in common.
When Pastor McGhee proposed “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” the phrase struck like a bugle call: Yes, what better summons to an awakening! We need solidarity, not division. We need hope, not discouragement. Our perspectives vary, as do our backgrounds, but we still yearn, worldwide, for singleness of purpose and commitment. Perhaps the six words from Ephesians, diamond-bright in their classic setting, could precipitate renewal toward these ends. Pessimism inside of me says, “I doubt it,” and perhaps the same is true for you. But for as long we trust the risen Christ, our hopes cannot shatter altogether. Sheer pessimism, though understandable, is pagan; Christian hope says Yes despite all the reasons to say No.
So consider “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.” Ephesians 4, the phrase’s home, begins by asking readers “to lead a life worthy” of their “calling.” In such a life, “with all humility and gentleness” and “patience,” we bear “with one another in love” and make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” So when we are worthy of our calling, the New Testament is telling us, we are not cocky or pushy; instead we are patient and forbearing, focused on strengthening the life we share together.
Does this mean that whatever our convictions, and however firmly held, we must at all costs avoid offense to any brother or a sister who disagrees with us?
Recall that although we share “one Lord,” we are human, so we lack the God’s-eye view and our interpretations of that lordship are bound to differ. We share “one faith,” one trust and loyalty, yet, as we grow together, not only limited perspective, but also faultiness, remain. We share “one baptism,” but the same public response to God still leaves us at different points and circumstances along the way to maturity. “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” does say that we belong to the same story and revere the same God, but it does not say we are the same to the point of uniformity. The fact of difference — real and difficult difference — is why Ephesians 4 assumes that we must put great “effort” — forbearing “effort” — into maintaining Christian unity.
The point, then, is not to withdraw from our convictions, as if they were optional. Ephesians 4 tells us that “speaking the truth” is good. We need to let our disagreements into the open, look for deeper understanding, clear fresh pathways toward consensus. But all this works best if we proceed “in love,” reaching, to be sure, for “the full stature of Christ” yet doing so with “all humility and gentleness.”
This is hard, and who would say Adventists are particularly good at it? Surely no one. No human beings are particularly good at it. What harder goal, after all, than to achieve, at one time, both integrity and patience?
From the beginning, you remember, the message of Ephesians demolishes barriers against Gentiles and announces a single new humanity under God. In that light, may we not infer that spaces from which we have excluded others must also open up? Does it not mean that hurt we inflict — including hurt to our mothers, sisters, and daughters — must end? How can there be any outsiders in God’s single new humanity? How can we allow anyone even to feel like an outsider?
But…we differ, and have no easy time of resolving differences.
If Christ alone “ascended on high,” gave us “gifts,” and now functions as our “head,” how can we give a few human beings, from one center of power in Silver Spring, such authority as to stifle conscientiously held variations of outlook or aspiration? It matters that we are linked together as a global community, but how can we allow ourselves to resemble the sheer hierarchy Jesus himself associated with the Gentiles?
But again…we differ, and in dealing with difference we are, being human, clumsy, or stubborn or both.
We thus take some of the shine off Christian solidarity. But remember again how Ephesians spells out the ideal of our unity on earth. We do, the letter says, share “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism,” but in the present we may expect our solidarity to be imperfect. Unity on earth is something we aspire to. It takes, I repeat, “effort.” It means “bearing with one another in love.” We must bring “humility,” “gentleness” and “patience” to all our interactions.
One reason the upcoming Annual Council worries people is that top leaders are setting these values aside. Instead of helping us struggle through our differences, or live at peace in spite of them, they hope to stamp them out, coerce them away. These leaders seem comfortable with hierarchy instead of wanting to overcome it. “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” is a maxim for today because that phrase, taken in its context, lifts up the true unity we now desperately need. It does tell us that we are one, really one. But it tells us, too, that on this earth all unity in Christ is partly broken, and that this fact properly calls forth — not pride and pushiness, but forbearing love.
In what time, I ask, have we more needed forbearing love? In what time have we more needed humility, gentleness, and patience?
Simple Bible truth can seem too boring or naive or demanding. But can giving in to feelings that savage moral seriousness make human sense? Cynicism that “sees through” spiritual and moral passion as irrelevant or hypocritical or repressive is only self-indulgent. Arrogance determined, despite limits we all share, to force its way on the rest of us is, in Scripture’s light, an abomination.
Just when Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to assist us toward truth and implied that the journey is hard, he prayed (John 17) that his followers “might be one” as he and the Father are. The difficulty and the goal would go together, he was saying, and so he made a point similar to the one in Ephesians 4. Like Jesus himself, the classic phrase “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” acknowledges complicated truth even as it upholds a magnificent ideal. Can it not sustain us through the present tribulation and guide us to a better place?
It feels late, and is. But the phrase we “need,” as my pastor friend suggested, still looms large and therapeutic. Today as ever, it is indispensable. How, in this time of trouble, can it not be our theme? How can it not wave like a banner over the coming Annual Council?
Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
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