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Unity? Policy? Flexibility? Where’s the Sweet Spot?


So, we have a situation.

In essence, the GC says, “Ordaining women is against policy. You must stop and conform.” The unions say, “By Church policy, ordination decisions are within our purview, and our constituents think ordaining women is the right thing to do as we pursue mission where we live.”

This is complicated stuff involving multiple factors. Policy. Church governance. Church legal structure. Authority. Power. Control. Maybe even personal feelings.

Each of these factors warrants full exploration, but this article focuses on one factor: Unity. Why? Because the current discussion has been framed by the GC as a call for unity. The implication of the GC’s posture is that we cannot be in unity unless we comply with policies uniformly across the world, regardless of culture or mission needs.

Please note that the current struggle is not about doctrine, belief, or theology. The GC is not taking the position that the ordination of women is in violation of our doctrines, at least not openly. It is implied that the problem is lack of adherence to a policy.

My problem with universal uniformity and compliance is that even if achieved, the result is not necessarily unity. As a matter of fact, the quest for uniformity and compliance may be counter to unity. That has been true so far, and I predict it will continue to be true.

So what is this thing called “unity?” When are Christians truly in unity?

Permit me to tell a couple of personal stories.

I was in Romania on a mission trip with college and academy students. My responsibility was to make sure things ran well. On Friday afternoon, our leader, Bill, a university theology professor, said, “Oh, by the way, Ed, I need you to speak tomorrow for church.” Huh? I am not a preacher. My wife assures me I am definitely not a preacher! But a strange thing happened. Before Bill was through speaking, I knew what I would say the next day. It is the clearest experience in my life when I thought the Holy Spirit was speaking.

We were in Romania to build a new church building. There was already a nice, large church in town with a congregation of Romanians, Hungarians, and Gypsies. The troubled history between their nations is not conducive to good relationships between Hungarians and Romanians. And Gypsies are often not well accepted anywhere. So, three people groups with multiple troubled histories, all in one church. We were there to help the Hungarians build a new church so they could move out.

My few minutes of speaking the next day went something like this: Jesus said in John 13:35 that his people would be known because they loved each other. Why did Jesus pick that particular criterion? Because He knew the gospel would attract many different kinds of people into his infant church. Jews and Samaritans. Tax collectors and small businessmen. Blatantly ambitious people. Gentiles, Romans, Greeks, Asians, Ethiopians, Egyptians. There was bad history between the Jews and just about all those people. And yet Jesus said, “People will know you are my disciples because you love one another.”

I continued. If this hodgepodge of new Christians from all over the Mediterranean Basin could love each other in spite of their differences, their varying cultures, their troubled histories, it would say something remarkable about the power of the gospel! They would be a deviation from the norm. That would be real unity! Jesus was telling us that the power of love would be most obvious precisely when we have differences. His love holds us together, even in the face of differences of opinion or ancient hatreds . . . or different policies. So if it were obvious to their community that Hungarians, Romanians, and Gypsy Christians loved each other, it would be a powerful witness for Jesus.

I sat down. Somebody said something in either Hungarian or Romanian, and three people prayed. I did not understand what was going on. I noticed that the last man cried his way through his prayer. I learned later that a Romanian, a Hungarian, and a Gypsy were asked to pray. It was the Gypsy who openly wept during his prayer. It was the first time a Gypsy had ever been asked, or probably permitted, to speak in that church. A little unity had occurred.

Let me tell you another personal story.

I was sitting at a large table in a conference room at the old General Conference building in Takoma Park, Maryland. The meeting was not holding my attention. It was probably about some subject like insurance or retirement. I was an outsider, an executive with Adventist Health System/United States.

An object on the side of the conference table caught my attention. I checked it out. It was the handle of a drawer. I looked inside. There was a book, the General Conference Working Policy. I looked in front of my neighbor. Another handle to another drawer. After the meeting, I checked. Every chair at the table had a drawer in front of it and every drawer contained a Working Policy book. There must have been twenty chairs at the table. Twenty Working Policy books.

I could just envision an internal GC meeting in that conference room. Some subject arises. Twenty people pop open their drawers and whip out their Working Policy books, ready for action, ready to appeal to the authority of last resort—the Working Policy. My next thought? I could not work here! The ubiquity of those books added to my already growing sense that flexibility, creativity, and strategic thinking might not be valued in those premises as much as conformity. I thought the very presence of a Working Policy book for every attendee at a meeting spoke volumes about the GC’s work, its organizational culture, and its value system.

I do not know if they took that unusual conference table with them when they moved to the new GC building in Silver Spring. But why not? It was the perfect piece of GC furniture!

Obviously, I think each story describes different values.

The first story describes a state of mind that is very personal and is influenced by the Holy Spirit to bring about unity among people. It is about portraying the love of Jesus in the face of human differences. It is about the impact of Christian love on humans. 

The second story describes an organization where policy adherence is the big deal.

At the GC, Working Policy seems nearly paramount to truth and doctrine. The “Unity” document seems to make no distinction between policy and theology. It refers repeatedly to “biblical principles as expressed in the Fundamental Beliefs or voted actions and policies.” I doubt most people see policy as expressing biblical principles in most cases. Most people put policy in a different category of human endeavor and importance.  

The GC may value policy adherence more than almost anything because that is its only control mechanism. The GC has no real power or organizational control otherwise. The Church was intentionally set up that way in 1901 to avoid GC overreach.

I think the parties come to the table valuing different things. The GC says to the Pacific Union and the Columbia Union, “Get in line.” The unions say, “Our people have voted by large majorities what they think is in the best interest of our mission in the territories where we live.”

It does not seem likely to me that the union conferences are going to change. For one thing, these were not decisions of union officers or committees. They were decisions by constituencies, members of the Church. Those members carry convictions and are not likely to reverse course. And the GC is showing no signs of accommodation.

How do we get out of this impasse? Is a disruption inevitable? Perhaps the way forward means that we should look at a new flexibility in which different parts of the world have certain latitude in their approach to mission. In my mind, mission effectiveness wins over policy every time, assuming adherence to core beliefs and general good judgment. Different approaches to mission need to vary with culture and circumstances. It is quite clear our 376,000 brothers and sisters in the Pacific and Columbia Unions have a clear view of how mission will work best in their midst. Who am I, or anyone, to say “no” and try to force them into changing their view?

Let me be clear. I think tactics designed to force volunteer members of a religious organization into adherence to a non-theological policy is just nuts. And always remember, Headship Theology is not part of our belief system.

In the end, this whole thing is about members, not leaders. There may be 30 or so people (men) dealing with this matter, but they should not be so shortsighted as to think this is about them. It is about us, the members in the pews. We will ultimately react to these matters.

An appropriate measure of flexibility is the way forward. I can feel perfectly in unity in Christ with my brothers and sisters in South America and Africa if they do not ordain women while other parts of the world do ordain women. Actually, I can feel in unity with my brothers and sisters in South America and Africa in spite of our differences. But when there is pressure for compulsory compliance with a disputed policy of the Church where there is no doctrinal issue, then unity begins to fray.

Unity is a state of mind toward each other, compelled by the love of Jesus. It is not uniformity. It is not organizational marching in lockstep.


Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant. He and his wife Janelle live in Fort Collins, Colorado. This article is an adaptation of one that originally appeared in the Rocky Mountain Conference’s quarterly magazine, Mountain Views, Spring 2017 issue. It is reprinted here with permission. 

Image Credit: / B S K

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