The Unity I would Like to See: An Open Letter to the General Conference

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Written by: 

Dear GC Executive Committee:

I have recently been reading a document you published this past July, “Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions.”1 In this paper, steps are outlined for identifying and disciplining church entities deemed out of compliance with the church’s doctrines and policies. The first page opens with a quotation from Ephesians 4:3: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

This emphasis on church unity has been a recurring theme in the writings of the General Conference and its leaders during the past few years, first in conversations on gender and ordination, and, more recently, in other areas of discussion such as creation and sexuality. These calls for unity have frequently held up the early Christian church as an example, offering numerous quotations from the epistles and from Acts. Elder Ted Wilson, for example, in a presentation at the GC Global Leadership Summit in Lisbon this past February, quoted the Acts account of the believers who “continued daily with one accord in the temple,” and echoed Paul’s injunction to the Philippians to “fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Acts 2:46; Philippians 2:2).2

I agree that the early church described in the New Testament offers valuable lessons for the Adventist church today. But the lessons I see there are somewhat different from the picture of “unity” offered in recent GC statements, and if I may, I would like to share with you a little of what I’ve seen, a layperson’s perspective. It has been intriguing these past few months to study the book of Acts with my Sabbath School class in Warner Robins, GA, against the backdrop of the GC’s proposed actions for promoting unity and compliance. (I notice, by the way, that “unity” is an oft-repeated refrain in the adult Sabbath School quarterly this quarter.3) The story of the early church does indeed contain many uplifting scenes of believers being “one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32). Yet it seems to me that this is not the whole story.

My sense of the early church, based on my recent re-reading of Acts and the epistles, is that its history is rather a messy one, in which the first apostles wrangled with one another and with new believers in trying to create a cohesive group identity — an identity centered on Jesus, yet allowing space for wide differences of class, ethnicity, geography, and worldview. They were struggling to make sense of ideas which, to outsiders and often even to themselves, seemed contradictory — a Jewish Messiah and a Savior of all people, an exclusive Jewish nation and a fellowship of believers from all nations, Mosaic laws and salvation by faith. They had conflicts — cultural, personal, logistical, and theological — much as the Adventist church today has. There were clashes of opinions, personalities, and egos. And what interests me most in the story (I speak here as a college English professor as well as a former church board member familiar with local-level church disputes) is not the heroic picture of the apostles doing miracles and holding firm to their faith in the face of imprisonment and torture, or of the loving, harmonious believers living “in one accord” (important and inspiring as these stories may be), but the drama of negotiation, debate, and occasional head-butting through which the Christian church came into being. This focus on real, imperfect people struggling through real dilemmas and frustrations — this is where the epistles and the book of Acts seem to me most real, most relevant to our church today.

The conflicts of the church in the first century are not exactly the same as those faced by the twenty-first century Adventist church, yet I think we can gain important insights by looking at the ways in which believers dealt with these conflicts. Here are a few examples that stand out to me:

1. The church leaders preached the good news of Jesus wherever they went; yet they understood that Jesus would mean different things for different listeners. For their Jewish listeners, Peter, Stephen, and others repeated Jewish history over and over, stressing the fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, Jesus’ recent death in Jerusalem, and their listeners’ own guilty participation in his crucifixion. For the Athenians, Paul presented Jesus as the “Unknown God,” the creator and father god memorialized in the Athenians’ own shrine and poetry (Acts 17:22-28). For the uneducated people of Lystra, Paul made no reference to prophecy or to poetry, but described Jesus simply as the God who sends rain and crops, who “provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). They seized every opportunity to “uplift Jesus,” and did not distort or water down the truth. But they saw that the truth about Jesus was complex and many-sized, and they tried to present the parts of Jesus’ story that would be most meaningful, relevant, and readily understandable to each group of listeners.4

2. Apostles, in making administrative decisions, listened to the concerns of ordinary believers and took their well-being into account. When the Grecian converts complained that their widows were getting less than their share of food, and that the Hebraic Jewish widows in the church were being unfairly favored (Acts 6:1), the twelve apostles did not order the Greeks to be silent and stop distracting from the Great Commission. Instead, they recognized that the need for food was a real need, and so was the need for fairness. In appointing deacons and delegating responsibilities to them, they sought to address both these needs, while also maintaining their own primary focus on spiritual ministry and evangelism.

3. While recognizing the Old-Testament laws and prophetic writings as God-given sources of guidance and inspiration, they interpreted these writings with a sense of their rhetorical and historical context, and with a recognition that changed circumstances can call for changes in practice. This idea comes to the surface, I think, in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). The eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship (v. 27). This was contrary to the laws of Moses: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1). Though Luke does not say it in so many words, it is possible to read into the text that the eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship and been turned away — if so, the temple officials who sent him away might well have pointed to Deuteronomy and claimed that sola scriptura was on their side. Might this be why the eunuch was fascinated by the passage of Isaiah that speaks of a man suffering “humiliation,” “deprived of justice,” a man with no descendants (Acts 8:33)? In any case, Philip did not insist on applying the Mosaic criteria, but welcomed the eunuch into the fellowship of Jesus. For Philip, it was more important to include and affirm this sincere truth-seeker than to insist on the letter of the law.5

4. The early church leaders recognized that some decisions must be left to individual conscience — and respect for the consciences of others. After the Jerusalem Council, the apostles instructed the gentiles to “abstain from food sacrificed to idols” (Acts 15:29). But in Romans and in 1 Corinthians, Paul spoke in less absolute terms: He, not believing in the gods represented by the idols, did not see the eating of sacrificed food as an act of idol worship, and could eat with a clear conscience. But he recognized that others could not do so, and avoided actions that might undermine their faith, and urged other similarly “strong” believers to do likewise.

5. On some questions, the church leaders seem not to have reached one final, settled answer, especially in balancing personal freedom and cultural sensitivity. In the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), Peter and James insisted that circumcision should not be required for non-Jewish Christians, though the books of Moses had repeatedly insisted on this requirement. It was seen as an undue hardship for new believers (this might be taken as another illustration of the previous point that circumstances and historical contexts matter when one applies scriptural teachings). This decision was stated in the letter the leaders sent to the Gentile believers (vv. 23-29). Paul reinforced this rejection of compulsory circumcision still more vehemently in some of his letters, especially the one to the Galatians. Yet both Paul and Peter seem to have upheld this dismissal of Jewish ritual more rigidly in theory than in practice. Paul, shortly after the Jerusalem Council, circumcised Timothy before taking him as a helper in order to avoid offending Jewish observers (Acts 16:3). Peter also changed his behavior to show deference to Jewish customs when prominent Jews were present, though Paul publicly reprimanded Peter’s decision as hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-21). Both these apostles agreed that the laws of Moses were important and given by God, and also agreed that the ceremonial laws were not the thing that brought salvation, and also agreed that it was important to be sensitive to the beliefs of the people they were trying to reach, whether Jews or Gentiles. Both experienced situations in which these three values — obedience to the law, salvation by grace, and cultural sensitivity — seemed in tension, and on occasion they disagreed on how these tensions should be resolved. Both were leaders of a church celebrated for being “in one accord”; both were committed followers of Christ who had repeatedly received the Holy Spirit, and who had sacrificed and suffered much for their faith — yet they disagreed, and, it seems, even argued and exchanged harsh words. These facts have more than once given me pause for thought when I’ve been tempted to doubt the sincerity or godliness of a fellow Christian simply because of a difference in judgment or in cultural perspective, or because I’ve taken offense at something he or she has said.

6. When the apostles disagreed, they kept on working — and allowed one another to keep on working. Barnabas and Paul had a “sharp disagreement” about whether to give John Mark a second chance in the mission field after he had once disappointed them (Acts 15:39). This dispute led them to separate. Luke, in recording the story, does not make a statement on which one was right — perhaps it was one of those cases in which “each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong.” In any case, what strikes me in this story is this: Paul and Barnabas disagreed and separated, but both kept working to serve God and build up the church. Also, neither one attempted to turn church members against the other, to use apostolic authority to shame or punish or ostracize the other, or to question the other’s sincerity or devotion to Christ, or to impede the other’s work in any way. (At least, there is no record of either of them behaving in this way. The record in Acts gives little detail. But I would at least like to think that they handled their disagreement in a mature and constructive way.) Discord and disputes may not be God’s plan for the church, but for as long as the church is staffed by fallen humans, they will happen. But such disputes need not destroy God’s work — if both parties love and serve God, God can use both, even if they seem to be going in opposite directions.

The picture of the early church that emerges from the New Testament, in my reading, at least, seems patchy, scrappy, dissonant, even chaotic. To readers looking for a clear map or guidebook on how to “do church” correctly, the story is downright frustrating. Believers struggled to articulate their beliefs, to reconcile ancient laws with new revelations, to distinguish divine commands from personal bias, to be true to their own consciences while accommodating other people’s. Even the apostles made mistakes, changed their minds, and were not always consistent in applying teachings or defining policies. In short, early Christians had a lot in common with the Christians of today.

But I see one other thing in the early church: Its people and institutions were flawed, messy, and contentious, yet God blessed them and used them. God increased their numbers by the thousands, and endowed them with supernatural abilities of healing, language, and prophecy. He transformed Peter the traitor, Saul the persecutor, and John Mark the deserter into workers who would face any hardship, threat, or suffering rather than forsake their Master. He poured out power in a degree seldom seen, before or since, in the world’s history.

This, I think, is what we mean when we speak of wanting our church to be more like the early church. I believe this is what Jesus meant when He prayed for all believers: “May they be brought into complete unity to let the world know that you sent me” (John 17:23). If He was praying that the disciples would “accomplish their work together without any difference of opinion,” as Elder Wilson put it in his Lisbon presentation, we may conclude that the Father answered that prayer with a “No,” regarding the early believers as well as those of the present day.6 But if He prayed that they would be united in their willingness to be used and their readiness to receive His help and power — well, then, it has happened once and can happen again if God allows it.

This is the unity I earnestly want to see, that I pray for. And I do not believe it will be brought about by revising the twenty-eight fundamentals, or by forming new committees, or by dismissing or shaming church members who honestly question the church’s official teachings on sexuality or six-day creation, or by silencing union leaders who follow their consciences in supporting women in ministry. No one’s belief in Jesus or in the Adventist Church’s mission will be reinforced by such actions — from what I have seen, these measures are far more likely to lead to resentment, distrust, and discouragement. The General Conference cannot make true unity happen; nor can any union or division president, or pastor or evangelist or church member. Only God can bring that unity.

What can we do in the meantime? We can wait, study, pray, listen, learn, share, care for the needs we see around us. We can allow space for one another to work, as Paul and Barnabas did. We can make mistakes, recognize them, learn from them, and move on. We can do our balanced best to follow our consciences and respect other people’s. But the unity can come — and will — only by God’s act, in His time.

As the time approaches for the Annual Council business meeting, I join with my Adventist brothers and sisters in praying for guidance, both for you, our church’s leaders, and for ourselves, the members of the church and of Christ’s body. I pray for the unity sent by God. Thank you for your attention.

Sincerely,
Mary Christian

 

Notes & References:

2. I’m relying on the version of the speech published in Adventist World: Ted N. C. Wilson, “Church Unity and Biblical Authority,” Adventist World April 2018, p. 17. (https://www.adventistworld.org/april-2018/)

3. For example, “It’s so easy to sow dissension in the ranks, isn’t it? How can we do all in our God-given power to keep peace among us and to focus, instead, on mission?” (Lesson 4, Sunday, July 22). Or “Church unity is always so important. How can we learn to work together, unified, even when we have different views of things?” (Lesson 11, Friday, September 14). (https://absg.adventist.org/current-quarter)

4. I can’t help wondering: does the Adventist church follow their example when it insists that the only ministries that genuinely “uplift Jesus,” are those that share and emphasize the General Conference’s official interpretations of the six-day creation, Daniel’s little horn, sexuality and gender, and all other issues? See “An Invitation To Uplift Jesus,” Adventist News Network, 11 April 2018. (https://news.adventist.org/en/all-news/news/go/2018-04-11/an-invitation-to-uplift-jesus/)

5. Some scholars have argued that this story offers insights for Christian responses toward gay and trans believers. See, for example, Fritz Guy, “Same-Sex Love: Theological Considerations,” in Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-Day Adventist Perspectives (Adventist Forum: 2008), part 4, pp. 43-62.

6. Wilson, “Church Unity and Biblical Authority,” p. 16.

 

Mary Christian holds a Ph.D. in English literature, and teaches composition, drama, and world literature at Middle Georgia State University. She also serves as an Adult Sabbath School teacher at her local church in Warner Robins, GA.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

 

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