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The Question You Aren’t Asking About Church Authority

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Alright, Haystack readers, I want your help with this one. With all of the recent conversations on Seventh-day Adventist media outlets and blogging websites regarding women’s ordination, one of the main arguments that keeps surfacing is one that denounces the General Conference’s decision to reopen the women’s ordination question for further discussion. Many feel there’s no finality to the decisions that have been made in the past, so how can we hope for finality in decisions to be made in the future? It’s a fundamental issue that goes much deeper than the discussions on women’s ordination. At what point do we question long-held practices and traditions, and at what point do we draw a line in the sand? How much finality should there be in church decisions?

While it’s a justified question, it’s also a question that tends to make people uncomfortable. We aren’t so certain about change. And, that’s rightfully so. Change can threaten the purity of the church. By changing practices, will we eventually come to change beliefs? Too much change can even threaten the church’s very existence.

By changing practices, will we eventually come to change beliefs?

When looking at this issue, it’s hard not to think of this question in relation to the Israelites as they struggle through the wilderness and in their Promised Land. Do you know what strikes me every time I read Exodus-Judges? Each time the Israelites begin to incorporate practices from the other people groups around them, they eventually come to take steps away from God. It’s like they can’t let outsiders in without muddying their own religion. If we just had the example of the Israelites, it would be easy. We’d try to do right where they failed and never alter long-held practices. We’d steer clear of new ideas altogether.

However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s difficult not to think of the Jewish leaders in the New Testament. They were so afraid of letting change in that they hardened themselves to love. They no longer looked to the needs of their fellow man. They became so focused on keeping themselves pure that they eventually took steps away from God. With two extreme examples of God’s people on both sides of the question, what is the modern Seventh-day Adventist church to do? While we certainly don’t want to change our beliefs to the extent of losing sight of our mission and message, we simultaneously don’t want to harden ourselves so much that we forget God’s calling to love both Him and our neighbors.

I believe a deep part of the human heart thirsts for a sense of finality. We want there to be an overt answer. Yes, even in a post-modern culture, we still crave absolutes. Of course we do. It’s only natural. Our world was never intended for such chaos. We prefer our answers to come in black or white. We don’t want to go near any shades of grey. Who knows what may happen in grey areas? At times, it seems preferable to just avoid the grey areas completely. But, if we always avoided grey areas, what new heights would we be able to reach? How would we ever share the incredible message that God has given us?

Pay close attention here. I’m not advocating for a lack of truth or a shifting truth. I believe in truth. I believe in absolute truth. I believe in absolute biblical truth. I’ve said it before, but I’m certainly not afraid to say it again. I am a Seventh-day Adventist Christian because I believe the truth that I find in my Bible most closely correlates with Seventh-day Adventism. As long as that remains true, I will always be a Seventh-day Adventist Christian. At the end of the day, I believe God empowers people to work for Him. I trust my church leadership. The church leaders are in the positions they are in because God allowed their placement there. However, while I believe that church leadership, structures, policies, and principles are divinely instituted, I do not believe that the church leaders, structures, policies, or principles are divine in and of themselves.

Why is that important? There’s a huge distinction between the two. If the church itself were divine, there would never be any need for it to change. It would have had all of the tools it ever needed from the onset and every decision would be final. However, the church is not divine. The church leadership is divinely established. Thus, God chooses to work through living people, present situations, and current environments. This means that though many church decisions are final, they are not all infinitely final.

Don’t believe me? Our church’s history is filled with incredible individuals who have been willing to ask difficult questions to determine what decisions are based on the Bible and what decisions are based on tradition. Martin Luther went against the grain of church tradition to reassert the Bible as sole authority. Ellen White and her family were willing to question their faith tradition in search of greater truth. After that, the disappointed Millerites were willing to take yet another look at their beliefs and their “church” to figure out what they had missed. And those were doctrines! Ordination isn’t even doctrine. How can we not be willing to even open up dialogue about it?

So, here’s the thing. Because of this distinction between being divine itself and being divinely placed, the church has to be willing to continually study and reevaluate interpretations on theological issues and ecclesiological practices. The church as an institution, a movement, and a body of believers needs to be able to grow. We have to be willing to question the way things have always been done. I’m not saying that doing so will necessarily bring us to a point where anything changes. I am saying that something is wrong if you are afraid or unwilling to open up dialogue on a particular question. We may have truth, but we don’t have all of the answers. We have to continually be willing to go to God and search for those particular answers with the truth that He has given us.

I’m not advocating for rebellion. I’m advocating for fresh, critical thinking.

Does there come a point in time when we have to go against the grain of what has always been done? I’m not advocating for rebellion. I’m advocating for fresh, critical thinking. I’m advocating for a willingness to put aside our prejudices and individual perspectives to evaluate the way it’s always been done. Though the church manual is important, the church manual is not divine. It cannot be used in place of the Bible. They are not the same. While the church manual is an authoritative source, it is not absolute. It’s open to discussion and interpretation. It’s changed and edited as the years go by. Words have to be altered. Ideas need to be expanded.

Let’s be clear here. The Bible does not change. God does not change. However, I’d like to think our capacity to understand the Bible and to know God more deeply has no limits. I’d like to think that every time I open my Bible, I’m opening myself up to learn more. I’m opening myself up to learn anything fresh that God plans on teaching me. If that were not the case, what would be the point? Why would we continue to read the Bible if we weren’t open to reevaluating our finality on certain practices?

This is the deal. It may not be time for a revolution, but it is always time for some serious rethinking. How can you deny that? The members of the church are ever-changing, and the environments that those members are living in are not the same. While some decisions are permanent, some decisions are appropriate for a period of time. With every new challenge, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we do have to see how the wheel fits with the current model.

So, what do you think? Where do you draw the line? Right now, the question is women’s ordination. Tomorrow, an entirely different issue may arise. At what point is it rebellion and at what point is it merely standing up for what’s right?

I’d love discussion on this post, however, I do ask that we show both sides of this conversation respect. Godly people are on both sides of these discussions. Let’s not correlate our beliefs with any sense of superiority. All opinions, thoughts, and/or comments are welcome here.

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This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. Good thoughts, Cherie Lynn. Something to clarify is that there’s nothing to change in the Church Manual about ministerial ordination because it doesn’t address them. Ordination policies are in the GC & division Working Policy books, but there’s nothing in these limiting ordination to men. The situation is one of lacking a policy that includes women—when they’ve never been officially excluded.

    1. That’s an excellent point, Carmen! Thank you for making that clarification. I definitely wasn’t trying to convey that the Church Manual makes any sort of statement regarding the policies for ordination. I’ve seen in several places recently where individuals are trying to use the Church Manual as a means of discouraging deeper study and closing off further dialogue. I don’t believe that is the purpose of the Church Manual or an appropriate application of its contents.

  2. The only difference between men and women is that our sex organs allow us to have children. If that is all God wanted us to be, then we would have been made baby making robots. Instead God made us with mind, hearts, and beings that should worship and come to our God on our own. We are allowed, with these things ,to follow God and to serve Him in all religious ways. He also gave us the power to reason with common sense, the things that we feel are not clear. My God tells me I am a PERSON,not male or female……. and should God call me to speak for the church,we should. And we should be blessed with ordination (acceptance and blessing) by His church. The reason this is still being discussed is because we are in the “dark ages” of a mind set.

    1. I absolutely agree with you that the physical differences between men and women have no bearing on their ability to effectively serve as spiritual leaders. Personhood should never be subjugated by someone’s sex, race, nationality, identity, etc. Additionally, I think it is difficult to defend anyone’s refusal to be given the same recognition for fulfilling the same position/responsibilities.

      Also, your comment about the “Dark Ages” made me think of a paper that I came across this weekend by Leona Running on “The Role and Status of Women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.” If you haven’t come across it before, I highly recommend checking it out. My understanding is that it was written to the Biblical Research Committee in 1971. She speaks several times of the “dark ages” and “ancient (?) history) – with the question mark – to differentiate between the way Adventist women were treated in years past versus the way Adventist women were being treated at the time of the paper’s writing. I was so impressed with the paper, and it’s amazing to me how pertinent some of her comments are in the midst of these current discussions.

      http://www.adventistarchives.org/the-role-and-status-of-women-in-the-sda-church.pdf

  3. Great article and thank you for taking the time to ask the questions. Challenging organizational systems and long held doctrines is a vital part of who we are, not only as Adventists but also as protestants and Christians. Jesus challenged the Jewish system that had bogged itself down in practice. Later reformers like Luther and Calvin did it, followed by the Adventist founders in their continued pursuit of knowing God. We cannot confuse practice with belief. God may be leading into a new and closer relationship with him by breaking from the traditional man made practices. As Paul says in 1 Cor 2:16 “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” Blessings.

    1. Thanks, Ben! I appreciate the positive feedback. It’s so important that we effectively straddle the line between keeping our mission rooted in the Adventist movement and recognizing that the church has practical governing needs. While we shouldn’t subvert church government, the mission has to come first, and a huge part of that mission is staying firmly rooted in the Word while seeking to understand applications for today’s day and age.

  4. Much of the change/rebellion that needs to occur is in the unwritten/unspoken policies and politics that dictate our actions and discussions. For me, this is the most frustrating thing, because there is no handle to grasp – it’s just nebulous.

    1. For sure! I think this is one reason (of the many reasons) that the way this particular questions is handled is so important to the Adventist church. Where do you go with any breed of inequality in the church? How are you supposed to handle the situation? At this point, there is not a significant platform to bring challenges on this level. If the system is perpetuating the proposed injustice, we need a way to approach the system and encourage it to think outside of its typical way of thinking. At the same time, for most of us, this is a system that we respect greatly. There needs to be a more clearly defined, appropriate protocol to bring to light challenges on this level.

  5. I think open discussion is important!!!!!! I also believe that eventual ‘action’ will be necessary!!! I’m praying re : 2015 San Antonio decision re: this!!!

    1. I’m right there with you, Carrie. The way this question is handled is a huge part of my prayers right now. We can have all the important dialogue in the world, but eventually, beliefs have to be translated into tangible action.

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