Church policy has been a hot topic of late. In October of last year our church leaders in the GC voted on a policy about church governance, surrounding issues of ordination. More recently, the NAD put together a statement addressing this very issue. Although church rules and regulations tend to sound like “mumbo jumbo” to some, there are many who have serious concerns about the implications that policies can have on church life. While policies are important to any organization, there lies a certain danger when they become attached to being of divine origin. “To obey or not to obey” has been the question stirring in the minds of many. This phenomena, however, is not new.
At the beginning of the second century the church witnessed one of the fastest and most significant deviations from Scripture. Ignatius was a church father from Antioch. He contributed to the platform upon which the Catholic Church still operates today. Highly concerned with the unity of the church in his day, he wrote letters to different churches urging them to stay away from divisions. However, his words would carry severe implications. Writing to the Trallians, he said:
“It is essential, therefore, that you continue your current practice and do nothing without the bishop, but be subject also to the presbytery as to the apostles of Jesus Christ, our hope… Similarly, let everyone respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, just as they should respect the bishop, who is a model of the Father, and the presbyters as God’s council and as the band of the apostles. Without these no group can be called church” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians).
On another occasion he wrote,
“All those who belong to God, belong to the bishop, and all those who repent and enter into the unity of the church will belong to God, that they may be living in accordance with Jesus Christ. Do not be misled, my brothers: if anyone follows a schismatic, he will not inherit the kingdom of God. If anyone holds to alien views, he dissociates himself from the Passion” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Philadelphians).
Although his motives may have been genuine, his desire for unity led to extreme elevation of the bishop position, making obedience to him a matter of morality. This idea, although further developed and nuanced in later church history, is still prevalent to this day in that Catholics believe that there is “No salvation outside of the church.” Ignatius’ passion for unity converted the working policy of church organization and structure into a doctrine that was necessary for salvation.
While organization is important to successfully carrying the Gospel mission forward, the church has a sense of autonomy in how it structures itself. For instance, there is no divine mandate behind the offices of bishops/elders or deacons. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles created that themselves. Therefore, the church is free to creatively operate within the boundaries of Scripture for the furtherance of the Gospel. Below are some ideas on how to do so, without getting tangled into the trap Ignatius fell in.
1. Unity is not uniformity. Sure, Jesus calls us to be one (John 17:20-23) but does oneness mean sameness? I think not. Man and woman are said to be “one flesh” when married, yet males and females are far from being the same. When unity becomes the primary value of the church, it often leads to coercion and results in the persecution of those who think differently, as seen throughout church history. However, Jesus says that the law hinges on two commandments: loving God and loving our neighbor (Mt. 22:37-40). And I believe that this love is necessary even in the midst of disagreement.
2. Innovation is not just permitted; it is needed! While the success of any movement depends largely on the oneness in mission, the methods by which it achieves success may vary. In times past, God often broke the framework of tradition and operated in unconventional ways. Consider David, who rejects King Saul’s suggestion to wear armor in his fight against Goliath, and instead took a radical approach: nothing but a sling and a stone (1 Sam. 17:38-40). Even Paul used diverse methods in his ministry: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.’ (1 Cor. 9:22)”
“New methods must be introduced. God’s people must awake to the necessities of the time in which they are living. God has men whom He will call into His service,—men who will not carry forward the work in the lifeless way in which it has been carried forward in the past…” (EGW, Evangelism 70.1)
3. Focus on mission and on prayer. In my experiences in ministry I have found that when the church is intentionally invested in expanding God’s kingdom and lifting others other up in prayer, time and emphasis put on divisive topics seems to shrink. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from the church in Acts. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer…Praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42, 47).
In conclusion, if we are really seeking to safeguard Adventism from Catholicism, maybe we should start by not converting policy into doctrine.
About the Author:
Gabriel Morales is currently an MDiv student at Andrews University. He was born and raised in America’s greatest state – New Jersey. Gabriel has also studied in Antillean University in Puerto Rico and is a huge Mets fan.