It was another historic vote in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and I was there to witness it first hand from beginning to end. I have a slightly different perspective from other people about what happened, so I will express mine since I own this space. Let me first say that I respect the process our church follows in making decisions. Though I do not always agree with it and though fraught with many flaws, like all human processes, it is not immune to its share of foibles. Unless you did not know before yesterday, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is as imperfect as every other church under the sun. The enfeebled and defective portion of the quote from the Spirit of Prophecy should be in capital letters, so all members of the church will remember who we are, sinners saved by grace.
Having said that, I would like to suggest another problem that I believe hampers us as a church whenever we come to difficult and challenging decisions. It goes to the heart of our alter-ego so to speak as a church. It is a known fact that in our early beginnings, Seventh-day Adventists evangelists were known as great debaters. We would challenge preachers and evangelists from other churches to defend what they taught and believed from the scriptures and prove that their position was more Biblical than ours. As a result this has become a part of the personality of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For better or worse we pride ourselves as being a people of the book, who truly uphold the Bible and the Bible alone as our creed of authority. While other denominations say it, we maintain this as our benchmark. Hence the reason we observe the Seventh-day Sabbath of the Bible, that was kept by Jesus Christ and His disciples after His resurrection and ascension, along with many other Biblical truths of the scriptures. However, this same personality has not served us well when we have dealt with some issues of contention within the church. Our debating personality has caused us to handle every issue as an argument to be won, instead of an issue to be examined through the lens of our mission. Such has been the case in looking at the issue of women’s ordination.
It has been a established fact that there is no Biblical dictum for ordination in the scriptures for men or women. At best it is a hierarchical system that developed over time some 150 years after the apostles, found in the history of the Roman Church. This is an incontrovertible fact. So what are we really talking about and how can we make some kind of immutable Biblical argument concerning the issue? But when we as a church decided to examine the issue we followed the path of our personality. We decided to settle the issue by framing the discussion in the form of an argument. We placed the issue in the form of a question to be debated, instead of seeing it as an issue of mission. Does women’s ordination facilitate our mission? Mission has been the theme of the entire General Conference. It has been what the General Conference President has promoted at every turn. He even began the discussion about the question by recognizing a group of young people representing “Share Him,” that had just finished conducting evangelism in Mexico and affirmed their fervor for mission. But then we veered into our debating mode to decide whether or not divisions should be allowed to ordain women.
Think of how the discussion would have changed if the energies of the delegates were focused on examining how women’s ordination could facilitate the mission of the church. Is not that the only issue that is worthy of our discussion? If it does not facilitate mission, it is not worthy of the churches time or energies. Stop to consider that human trafficking is a $32 billion dollar annual industry world-wide where 800,000 women and children are trafficked across international lines. Think for a moment that one billion people are in poverty in the world today and the great majority of those people are women. Most of those women live in developing countries, some of the same countries who voted against the resolution that was presented yesterday at the General Conference. Do you think that perhaps if we focused on mission, by answering the questions posed by Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46, that maybe our thinking would have changed on how we should vote? What message could it have sent to the world if we as a church had made a decision based on mission to empower each division to ordain women in ministry because of the deep sense of urgency for the worldwide crisis that women face of oppression, exploitation and poverty. And in responding to the call of Jesus in Matthew 25: 34-40 we are empowering women in ministry to respond to that sacred call and allowed our divisions to do so as they believe God is leading their mission imperatives.
Too much of our time as a church is spent in winning arguments and not enough of time is spent reflecting on how we should best fulfill our mission. We just received a report about our growth from the secretariat that has warned us of its dubious direction in the future and yet we spent little time discussing how to address its implications. We have remained in the same organizational structure with little to no change, without asking ourselves whether it still facilitates our ability to best fulfill our mission as a church. We keep winning arguments, but winning arguments does not advance the cause of Christ. It merely brings applauds, causes animosity, opens wounds and creates distrust. We need to try a better method.
When Jesus slowly floated away from the disciples and gradually disappeared from their view on the Mount of Olives after His resurrection, He left them with one final message. They were still wondering when He would establish their earthly kingdom. And we like them often try to establish our earthly kingdoms. We become sidetracked with earthly power and authority not realizing that everything on this earth is temporary. He told them, “It is not for you to know the times and dates the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” When they left the mountain it interesting that their first test was a church election. They had to replace Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus. Interesting how life repeats itself. The one elected really was not the issue. What was the issue was how they would select his replacement. Would they politic their way to a selection? Would they use collegiality or favoritism or power positioning to advance their own careers. Peter responds in verse in Acts 1:21. He says, “It is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” Their sole criterion was the replace had to be someone who they were sure had an experienced relationship with Jesus for himself. Then after narrowing the selections down to two candidates, they left the final choice to prayer. Listen to their prayer in verse 24. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” It was this process that gave them Matthias. Knowing Jesus for yourself and prayer. No Urim and Thummim, no debates and arguments, just Jesus and prayer. And it was this process that brought their unity and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
So what can we learn from this. We just had an election. Could it have brought the same results among us? And if it did not why not? It is a question for all of us to answer. When we had our discussion about women in ministry should we have taken a different course? I believe we should have. And I believe because we chose the wrong method, we came to the wrong conclusion. This was not an issue to be argued, this was a process to be examined. Instead of pushing us apart, this issue should have pulled us together, causing us to examine whether or not the ordination of women helped to advance the mission of our church. I believe we missed a sacred opportunity and in the process caused greater harm than good. But I am one person and my opinion is not God’s. I would not presume to be the divine.
There is one thing I am convinced of. Everything that happens is an opportunity for us to learn. God is trying to teach all us an important lesson through this experience and in time He will reveal what that lesson is. It may not be the same lesson for all of us, but if we all have a teachable spirit we will learn the lesson He has for each of us. I am still in the learning process so teach me Lord. Are you?