As the General Conference (GC) Session ends and thousands return to their homes, and thousands more stop listening to endless YouTube live streams, the question in my mind is, so what?
Last week I watched as much of the discussion as possible, so much so that my health app has started giving me warnings about my sleep patterns! I’ve heard some excellent opinions ignored by the chair, and I’ve heard some ignored by the chair. I’ve seen and terrible ones. And now the GC is over and I’m wondering what’s changed and how we should react? Delegates, overwhelmingly employed by the church, return home and are both bearers and enforcers of the decisions made. I’ve been reflecting on this with the New Testament and Paul.
Adventists love the session to the in . Delegates from all over come together to discuss business. The agenda is rather simple. It’s just one point: do gentile Christ-followers need to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses? Peter speaks and appears to move a motion: gentile believers do not need to keep the law. Peter is lucky Artur Stele is not the chair, as he forgets to use the magic word “move.”
Paul and then Barnabas stand up and speak in support of the motion. James is next in line. Quoting from Scripture, he makes an amendment. It’s a compromise; I think it’s a terrible one. The non-Jewish members only need to abstain from four things: food offered to idols, fornication, strangled meat, and blood. There is no voting—maybe it’s by common consent. Or, what I think is more likely: the Jerusalem leaders, especially James, make the decision for the group.
The decision becomes policy or maybe part of the “Fundamental Beliefs.” The apostles and the elders write a letter informing people of the decision. Paul and Barnabas return from this session in Jerusalem, both bearers and enforcers of this new decision. What do they do?
Well, it’s hard to say exactly, but it seems to me that Paul just ignores the decision. He’s been to the GC, he’s heard the highest authority under God, he simply disagrees, and he’s just not cooperating. He neither enforces nor communicates the decision.
Paul tells his experiences of the session in . Let me summarize in his own words: “I laid before them the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles. We did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me. They asked only one thing—that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”
Paul’s account is so far from the one in Acts that theologians have wondered if it is even the same conference! Paul doesn’t hide his disdain for these so-called leaders who contribute nothing to his ministry. And when he reports what was decided, well, it’s a good thing no one could quickly check the minutes! Paul reports a completely different decision and doesn’t mention the four points at all.
Stronger still, Paul actively . As far as he is , eat meat offered to idols. Idols don’t exist, there is only God, so who cares if the food was offered to a non-thing? he says eat whatever you buy at the market, don’t worry if it’s idolatrous. If you eat at someone’s house, don’t worry about if the food has been offered to idols. Just eat it.
Paul does make , which echoes his disdain for the Jerusalem leaders. “It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” Some people are not able to deal with the freedom of Christ, and we need to realize that these people exist. Paul suggests kindness to these babies in the faith. Don’t tempt them, don’t force them to eat idolatrous meat, and don’t lead them astray.
If Paul had been a member of the Adventist church, he would have been one of the . With the , I think his membership to the General Conference Executive Committee would soon end. If someone shows “persistent failure to cooperate with duly constituted authority,” it’s Paul!
For me, Paul is a model to follow in these difficult times. He is a model of willful non-compliance. So what if some members we should not give premarital counseling to LGBT members? So what if the church us from marrying same-sex couples? So what if we now have to the Ellen White police in every church? So what if the leaders we cannot ordain women?
I’d rather be like Paul. I spent the last week on YouTube listening to the session. And if anyone asks what was decided, I’ll quote Paul: “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.” They asked me , . They asked me , , and to care for others. All of this I am actually eager to do!
Tom de Bruin is a biblical studies scholar from South Africa, the Netherlands, and the UK. He has been a pastor and union administrator in the Netherlands, and senior lecturer in New Testament at Newbold College, UK. Find him on Twitter or his website, tomdebruin.com
Title image: attendees at the 2022 GC Session. Photo by Pieter Damsteegt / North American Division
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