San Antonio and Beyond
What heaven really values.
Seventh-day Adventist Church members around the world are anticipating the upcoming General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas, during the first two weeks of July.
One of the topics generating significant discussion is women’s ordination. Basically, three positions have developed. There are those who oppose women’s ordination and are convinced that the weight of biblical evidence is in their favor. There are those who favor women’s ordination and are equally convinced that they have the weight of biblical evidence on their side. There’s also a third group who, while believing that there is a pattern of male leadership in the Bible, do not understand this to be a Divine command and, along with the second group, would be willing to support women’s ordination where it is deemed appropriate. However, it is not my purpose in this brief article to evaluate each of these positions.
My purpose here is to focus on a different set of questions. What values should guide the church in resolving this issue? What is most important to God? When the dust settles and the General Conference Session is over and the decision is finally made, what really matters? In this article, I will outline five values that, in my view, matter deeply to God, and every delegate to the General Conference Session and the church at large should keep these in sharp focus.
1. BIBLICAL FAITHFULNESS
From our earliest beginnings, Seventh-day Adventists have been known as the “People of the Book.” We are a community of faith based on the Word of God. We take seriously Jesus’ statement, Sanctify them through your word, your word is truth (John 17:17 NKJV). We accept wholeheartedly Paul’s counsel to Timothy that, All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness... (2 Timothy 3:16 NKJV). Every day, thousands of Adventist evangelists, pastors and lay people appeal to their friends, neighbors and working associates to follow the teachings of the Word of God, not human traditions or opinions. Our belief in creation, the Sabbath, the virgin birth, the cross, the resurrection and the second coming of Christ all are based on our unwavering faith in Scripture.
Commenting on the reformers and the need to stand firm on God’s Word, Ellen White makes this telling observation, “In our time there is a wide departure from their (the Bible’s) doctrines and precepts, and there is need of a return to the great Protestant principle, — the Bible, and the Bible only, as the rule of faith and duty” ( The Great Controversy, p. 204). The Word must guide, inform and direct each decision the church makes.
I fully recognize that people may understand the teachings of Scripture differently on this topic. However, my prayer is that when the decision is finally made on the question of women’s ordination in San Antonio, Church members around the world will sense the decision was based on the divinely-revealed truth in God’s Word, not popular sentiment, because biblical faithfulness has a high priority with God.
By fairness, I mean the willingness to openly share both sides of a challenging issue, listen sensitively and freely decide, based on the convictions of a conscience guided by the Holy Spirit and informed by the Word of God.
As the 1888 General Conference Session approached, there was tension in the air. The Adventist Church was deeply embroiled in a debate over the law in Galatians. The question was whether the law in Galatians was the moral or ceremonial law. This was of extreme importance to Seventh-day Adventists. There were those who felt if one took the position that the law in Galatians was the moral law, the Ten Commandments, that it would weaken our position on the Sabbath. G.I. Butler, then president of the Seventh-day Adventist world church (General Conference), was in this class. He published an 84-page document shortly before the Session to “prove” that the law in Galatians was the ceremonial law. E.J. Waggoner and some of his colleagues took the opposite position, and a major conflict developed.
Ellen White’s counsel to G.I. Butler is insightful. She wrote these words to him, “I believe now that nothing can be done but open discussion. You circulated your pamphlet; now it is only fair that Dr. Waggoner should have just as fair a chance as you have had. I think the whole thing is not in God’s order. But, brethren, we must have no unfairness. We must work as Christians” ( Letter 13, 1887).
This insight is fascinating. Ellen’s position was that it would have been better if G.I. Butler had not circulated his views and stirred up emotions before the Session; but, since he had, it was only fair to give Waggoner a hearing and listen to his position.
This wise counsel speaks volumes to the issue before us today. God values fairness. Each side must be given equal opportunity to freely share their views. The perception must not be that one side or the other is manipulating the process or controlling the flow of information. Fairness demands that both sides of a question be heard equally. When the information has been clearly presented and prayerfully considered and a decision finally made, both sides will be able to say, “The process was fair. There was open discussion, honest dialogue, and now the debate is over. We respect the decision of the corporate Body of Christ.”
I pray that, if the Lord tarries, future generations will be able to look back on this pivotal moment in Adventist history with the sense that the process was fair. And I have every confidence they will, for the integrity of the process is as equally important as the outcome in God’s eyes.
3. CHRIST-CENTERED RELATIONSHIPS
Jesus articulated the essence of Christianity when he declared, By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35 NKJV). John grasped the reality of this eternal truth and echoed, Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God (1 John 4:7 NKJV). Neither Jesus nor John says, “By this shall all men know you are my disciples because you agree with one another.” Here is the fundamental question: Can we treat one another with dignity and respect even if we do not agree on the subject of women’s ordination? Will our love for one another and this Church keep us from cutting remarks, hurtful insinuations and damaging labels? If one side wins the so-called women’s ordination battle at the expense of fractured relationships and damaged friendships, the price is much too high.
During the 2014 Annual Council, the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church made a strong appeal to each delegate to freely share their convictions kindly and lovingly in the spirit of Christ. I was personally impressed and deeply moved that the discussions at Annual Council were open, honest and, at times, frank but couched in the spirit of Christian love. I have the confidence that the discussions in San Antonio will be characterized by the same Christ-centered spirit.
The ability to love — genuinely love — someone with whom you do not agree and reach out to them as a brother or sister in Christ is one of Heaven’s most important values. The One hanging on a cross with bloody hands and blood-tinged brow speaks to us from experience about loving those who oppose us and whose views are radically different than ours.
When future generations look back at the San Antonio General Conference Session, my prayer is that they will say, “Oh! How they loved one another.”
While I fully recognize that a “so-called” unity does not trump biblical faithfulness, I also acknowledge that unity in the Body of Christ is one of Heaven’s highest and most cherished values. Unity occurs when we sensitively listen to one another, share our thoughts, pray together, study the Word, and decide together what is best for the Body. Unity does not occur because we all think the same but because we are willing to surrender our personal opinions, no matter how right we believe they are, to the decision of the larger body.
I am reminded of Ellen’s statement regarding the General Conference in Session, “God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority” ( Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 9, pp. 260–261). God has invested in the corporate decision-making process of the delegates at the General Conference Session the authority to make decisions guided by the Holy Spirit based on the Word to further the mission of the Church. Humbly accepting and submitting to those decisions fosters unity.The fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer that, they all may be one as you Father are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me really matters to Heaven (John 17:21 NKJV). It is a value on which Heaven places a high priority.
What is it that unifies the church? It is the Holy Spirit bringing us into oneness in our common commitment to the living Christ. It is also a mutually-accepted set of biblically-based fundamental beliefs, a divinely-inspired Church organization that spans the globe, and a passion to share the message of Jesus’ love and truth with the world. We come from different backgrounds and cultures. We speak different languages. At times, we see things differently and vigorously debate our positions, but that which unites us is far greater than that which divides us.
When San Antonio is all over, I long for a church that is more united, not less, so that the world may believe the reality of the gospel because they see it lived out in our attitudes and actions.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has been given a Divine mandate to proclaim an urgent end-time message of God’s love and grace in the context of his eternal law to every nation, tribe, tongue and people (Revelation 14:6–7 NKJV). Ellen could not be plainer when she said, “In a special sense Seventh-day Adventists have been set in the world as watchmen and light-bearers. To them has been entrusted the last warning for a perishing world. On them is shining wonderful light from the Word of God. They have been given a work of the most solemn import — the proclamation of the first, second, and third angels’ messages. There is no other work of so great importance. They are to allow nothing else to absorb their attention” (Evangelism, pp. 119–120).
Here is my prayer for San Antonio: That together, we will make a biblically-informed decision, in the spirit of Christian love, and the result will be a unified Church more focused on mission.
Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if the debate over women’s ordination overshadowed our commitment to mission rather
than facilitated it? There are millions in the world who do not know Christ and his last-day message for a dying planet. God is calling all of us — young and old, male and female, lay people and pastors, ordained and unordained — to participate with him in the completion of his mission. Ordination is not a qualification for proclamation; a spirit-filled life is. Whatever decision is made at the General Conference Session in San Antonio, it must foster and enhance mission.
But there is yet one major unanswered question. What will your response be if the delegates at the General Conference Session vote something contrary to your convictions? When you have godly individuals who feel passionately about both sides of this question — whether to ordain or not to ordain women, one group is going to be disappointed in the vote. Maybe there are bigger questions: Do you believe God is large enough to guide his church even if the vote is not what you think it should be? Do you have enough confidence in the message and mission of the Church that you will not be shaken by a decision for or against the ordination of women in San Antonio? Do you trust the Holy Spirit’s leading on minds of the delegates, and are you willing to accept the corporate decision of the Body? Are you prepared to give your time, energy and talents to reach out to lost people for Christ’s sake whatever decision is made at the General Conference Session?
Here is my prayer for San Antonio: That together, we will make a biblically-informed decision, in the spirit of Christian love, and the result will be a unified Church more focused on mission. Some will feel this is unrealistic. Humanly speaking, it is. But if each of us surrenders our will to Jesus and the truths of his inspired Word, I am confident his Spirit will guide us. If we value unity and mission as Heaven values it, the Holy Spirit will bring us together in a united purpose to share his “eternal gospel” with the world. If we believe God still leads his church and are willing to accept the outcome of the collective Body, even if it is contrary to our personal understanding, God will do some amazing things. I will go San Antonio hopeful because the God we serve is a God of Hope.
The following article first appeared in the Lake Union Herald magazine in the May 2015 edition. It is reproduced here with permission.