I believe the time has come for North America to change its relationship to the General Conference from one of subservience to supportive independence. The vote on Sunday, October 14, at Annual Council points out the wisdom of our forebears in setting up our union conference structure, and calls on the North American Division to reassert the independence of local fields to make decisions about how to fulfil their mission. Unions were set up to make sure that one part of the world field didn’t make one-size-fits-all programs for mission everywhere.
The discussion on Sunday made it clear that there is a huge geographical and cultural divide over how we carry out our mission. There were exceptions, of course, but almost all the speeches from church leaders in North America opposed the proposal for compliance committees. On the other hand, almost all of the delegates from Africa spoke in favor. Our cultures are different. For many years we in America tried to impose our culture on other parts of the world, and that was wrong. Now, however, the tables have turned and it is Africa who has the votes. With no sensitivity to the missional needs of North America, the rest of the world can take votes on issues that are cultural, not biblical or a part of fundamental beliefs, that thwart the mission in North America.
In both the Pacific and Columbia Unions about eighty percent of the delegates voted in favor of women’s ordination. This is a large percentage, yet it means nothing to the world field. Do people in Africa really know more about the needs of the church in California than do eighty percent of the local delegates?
How, therefore, do we move forward with mission in North America? We need our leaders in the NAD (and other parts of the world as well who have the same kinds of missional concerns) to reassert the principle that led to the formation of unions in the first place. Mission must be driven by the local field. The General Conference overreaches its authority when it goes beyond basic biblical issues and attempts to dictate the ministry methods of the whole world. Resisting this overreach is not rebellion. It is returning to the wisdom of our forebears.
The early church recognized in Acts 15 that unity is not achieved by a culturally insensitive uniformity. The apostles could have demanded that everyone, even Gentiles, had to be circumcised. They could have decided that no one, not even Jews, could be circumcised. But in the wisdom of the Spirit they chose to allow diversity. Circumcision would be neither demanded nor forbidden. This cultural sensitivity allowed for a deeper unity. We need the same wisdom.
We should continue to be supportive of the world church. The message of “every nation…” is part of our DNA. We should continue to send our mission offerings, send cross cultural workers where needed, and receive cross cultural workers from the other world fields. We should continue to affirm our basic biblical beliefs. But we should no longer be subservient to votes from the world field that are not based on biblical issues and thwart our mission.
John Brunt, a New Testament theologian and prolific author, recently retired from the pastoral ministry at Azure Hills SDA Church in Grand Terrace, California, and moved to Washington to be near his children and grandchildren. He had not been there long before the conference president asked for him to pastor a church that had recently lost their minister. Now he is a part-time pastor at the Edmonds Adventist Church. Before he went to the Azure Hills Church, he spent 31 years in academic work, including being the Academic Dean at Walla Walla University where he also taught theology. Among the numerous books that he has written are A Day for Healing: The Meaning of Jesus’ Sabbath Miracles, Now and Not Yet, a reflection biblical eschatology, and Romans: Mercy for All.
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