Models of Christian Leadership

One of the biggest challenges in any kind of faith work these days is leadership. Without leadership few good things happen in this world, yet how do you do good leadership? Do you follow the models of western corporations? How about those of democratic governments? Or would you prefer the more autocratic leadership style of a Vladimir Putin or a Bashar al Assad? Does the New Testament have anything to say about these various styles of leadership? Should followers of Jesus exhibit a leadership style that is different from the models in the popular consciousness?

It goes, perhaps, without saying that the ultimate source of all leadership models is God, the author of creation. Like the manufacturer of an automobile, who provides a manual for that car’s use and care, God is in the best position to understand human beings and how they function as individuals and in groups. But this assertion does little to assist us in the project of understanding leadership principles. No one has ever seen, heard or touched God. So direct knowledge of God, or of the leadership principles He manifests in governing the universe, is not available to us.

In Scripture, however, God has chosen to reveal Himself in human language. The Bible is not a complete revelation of God, but it offers inspired testimonies of how God spoke and acted in specific human situations over many centuries. While God’s self-disclosure is limited by the human context, the Bible offers the clearest revelation of the eternal God available to the human race. This is the place where all Christian leadership models must be tested.

The New Testament portion of the Bible is centered on the life, death, resurrection and heavenly ministry of Jesus Christ. As God in human flesh, He is the clearest revelation of God. He models God’s way of leadership in terms that human beings can understand. As a result, nearly every leadership title in the New Testament is applied to Jesus at one time or another. He is called “servant” (Phil. 2:7), “apostle” (Heb. 3:1), “prophet” (John 4:44; Acts 3:22-23), “overseer” (1 Pet. 2:25), “deacon” (Rom. 15:8), “ruler,” (Rev 1:5), “captain” (Heb 12:2), “shepherd” (John 10:1-7; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25), and “lord/master,” (Eph. 6:9; Phil. 2:11; Col. 4:1), among others. Any study of Christian leadership principles, therefore, must begin and end with Jesus Christ.

Jesus not only modeled on earth what God is like, He also mentored the apostles in the divine principles of leadership. After His ascension He sent the Holy Spirit to inspire the apostles and the Christian prophets to carry on the work that He had begun on this earth (John 14:16-17, 26; 16:12-13). The apostles then passed on to others what they had received from Jesus (1 Cor 11:23; 15:3; 1 John 1:1-4). As He Himself told them, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15, NIV, cf. 13:13-17) Those who were closest to the earthly Jesus absorbed His leadership skills directly. Jesus is the clearest revelation of God. His apostles have passed on the clearest revelation of Jesus.

In the New Testament, this role was particularly played by Paul (1 Cor 11:23; 15:3). While not one of the twelve disciples, Paul frequently applied the title “apostle” to himself (Rom. 11:13; 1 Cor 9:1-2; 15:9). In Acts 20:17-35 Paul gathered the elders of the church of Ephesus at Miletus to pass on what he had learned from Jesus. As the faithful disciple of Jesus (20:19, 24) he is able to mentor the elders of Ephesus. The heart of Christian leadership is to be like Jesus, doing and teaching what Jesus taught. Following in the leadership path of Jesus includes servanthood (Luke 22:24-27; John 12:26; Acts 20:19), self-sacrifice (Acts 20:19-23), a strong sense of accountability (20:26-28), vigilance in the face of spiritual threats (20:29-32), and service, not for pay, but out of a strong sense of being commissioned by Jesus Himself (20:33-35). This is the starting point for a New Testament view of leadership.

Conclusion (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth)

In a series of three blogs I have briefly reviewed the two main approaches to Scripture exhibited in the discussions over women’s ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. One is the proof-text method, designed to “take the Bible as it reads.” This method collects biblical texts on a particular topic to determine the Bible’s overall teaching on that topic. The other method explores the Bible as a whole, seeking to understand each portion in light of the issues Bible writers were facing. It seems self-evident that both methods have value and should be practiced by those who desire to know God’s Word. But what has distressed people is the discovery that the two methods have led people to opposite opinions in regard to ordination and the role of women in ministry. For some, this raises questions about the value of hermeneutics at all. They may abandon careful Bible study thinking that there is no reliable way to know the Bible’s actual meaning. Others reject the method that didn’t produce their desired results and limit themselves to one method or the other. But since the two methods naturally correct each other, rejecting one or the other subjects people to the weaknesses of their preferred approach, which I have laid out in the first blog in this short series.

At a time when the church is threatened with division, we should practice more careful study of the Bible rather than less. Devotional methods of reading, taking the Bible as it reads to me today, can be very beneficial to one’s spiritual experience. But when the church is divided, careful exegesis in context is required to make sure we are all reading the same text. Human beings are too prone to self-deception to simply “take the Bible as it reads.” Internal mechanisms frustrate our desire to know the word and leave us likely to read ourselves into the Bible. I have laid out in the previous two blogs a way to bypass some of those defense mechanisms and reconcile the two methods with a simple approach that anyone can do. This approach was presented in five parts.

1) Approach the Bible with prayer for the Spirit’s guidance and much self-distrust. 2) Use a variety of translations. 3) Spend the majority of one’s Bible-study time in the clear texts of the Bible. 4) Spend the majority of one’s Bible-study time reading the Bible rather than engaged in selective study. 5) Subject oneself to the criticism of peers who are studying the Bible as carefully as you are (if you are following the first four principles). This method does not guarantee that all things will instantly become clear. But this method puts one on a path where the Word of God can gradually transform one’s understanding of God and truth and become more attuned to the Spirit that inspired the Bible. It also builds humility, as broad reading of the Bible will make one aware of how little one actually knows about the Bible. The end result (after decades of careful study) will be true lay Bible scholars who know how little they know and, therefore, handle God’s Word with great respect and reverence.

Such an approach leads to the discovery that not every question we ask of the Bible receives a clear and unequivocal answer in the Bible. On such matters it is better to allow for personal conscience. Unity does not require complete uniformity. When our peers are divided on what the Bible means, it may clearly show us that the Bible is not clear on that subject. Such occasions are not invitations to violence (whether in word or deed) but opportunities to shower grace and charity upon each other.

A Practical and Biblical Hermeneutic: 2) Five Principles for Bible Study

God’s people today desperately need an approach to biblical study that is authentic, simple, practical, and available to all. The following five principles, I believe, fulfill those requirements.

A) Authentic Prayer and Self-Distrust.
When you open the Bible, it is important to open it in much prayer and self-distrust. If human hearts are exceedingly wicked and deceptive, then the greatest barrier to Scriptural understanding is the lack of a teachable spirit. If you don’t have a teachable spirit, then it doesn’t matter how much Greek you know or how many Ph.D.’s you accumulate, your learning will not open the Word to you. True knowledge of God does not come from merely intellectual pursuit or academic study. It arises from a willingness to receive the truth no matter what the cost (1 Cor 2:14; 2 Thess 2:10; James 1:5).
So I’d like to suggest that you begin your study of the Bible with what I call authentic prayer. That means prayer for a teachable spirit. Prayer that God will open your heart, bypass your defense mechanisms, and teach you what you need to know. Authentic prayer goes something like this: “Lord, I want the truth no matter what the cost to me personally.” That’s a hard prayer to pray. But that kind of prayer will open the way to fresh insight into the Word.

B) Use a Variety of Translations.
Every translation has its limitations and weaknesses, and to some degree reflects the biases of the translator(s). So the safest course of action for a Christian who doesn’t know the original languages is to compare several translations against each other. Let’s suppose you are comparing five different translations of a particular text. If all five translations agree, the underlying Greek text must be reasonably clear. On the other hand, if all five translations go in different directions, it is a signal that the original language is ambiguous in some way. But if four translations say roughly the same thing and the fifth is way different, you have just discovered the bias of that fifth translation. The authority that you as an interpreter give to any particular translation of a text will depend on the level of certainty that it is accurately based on the original. Looking at a variety of translations breaks us away from pet readings that feed our own biases and can give anyone a clearer picture of the original text.

C) Favor the Clear Texts
If you want to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, spend the majority of your time in the sections of Scripture that are reasonably clear. There are many parts of the Bible that are reasonably clear and others that are quite difficult. A great safeguard to your study of Scripture is to spend the majority of your time in the sections that are reasonably clear. The clear texts of Scripture establish the reader in the common ground of the Bible and the great verities of its message, safeguarding the interpreter against an inappropriate use of texts that are more ambiguous.
Adventists in particular seem to gravitate to the ambiguous texts of the Bible, texts that are difficult to understand because they can point in more than one direction. People who misuse the Bible tend to work with unclear texts, treat them as if they were clear, and then base their theology on this “clear” reading. When people spend the majority of their time in the difficult texts of Scripture they usually end up having to distort clear texts of Scripture because the message of the clear texts contradicts the theology they have developed from the unclear texts. But if you spend the majority of your time in the clear texts of the Bible, they will gradually shift your thinking in a more biblical direction.

D) Favor General Reading
A fourth, and most vital, principle is to spend more time reading the Bible than “studying” it. People often study the Bible in a fragmented way. They study a verse at a time, and then compare that verse with all kinds of other texts found in a concordance. In a way the concordance becomes their real Bible. They take a word, look at snippets from 300-400 texts, and pick out those that seem to say what they believe the Bible is saying. The best safeguard against such unintentional misuse of Scripture is much general reading of the Bible. Broad reading of the Bible sensitizes you to the literary strategies of the biblical authors. Use of a concordance, on the other hand, puts you in charge of the process, instead of the biblical author. The process is even more dangerous when the concordance is a computer. One can look at text after text without ever reading them in context.
The use of a concordance and the comparing of scripture with scripture has its place. But when you spend all of your time comparing scripture with scripture you can lose the forest for the trees. General reading of the Bible, on the other hand, helps you to look at the big picture and put isolated texts together with their contexts so that the meaning can become clear. It safeguards the reader against bizarre interpretations of its isolated parts. General reading helps bring you into a teachable spirit and helps you see the text as it was intended to be read. The Bible is not supposed to learn from us; we are supposed to learn from the Bible. Hence the recommendation, “Spend the majority of your time reading the Bible instead of studying it.”

E) Criticism of Peers
A vital principle for the study of the Bible is to give careful attention to the criticism of peers, in other word, anyone who has given the biblical text the same kind of careful attention you have. As I mentioned before, one of the biggest problems in biblical understanding is that each of us have a natural bent to self-deception (Jer 17:9). That self-deception is so deep that sometimes–even if you are praying, using a variety of translations, and focusing on the clear texts and broad reading–you can still misread the Bible on your own. So the best antidote to self-deception is to constantly subject one’s own understandings to the criticism of others who are making equally rigorous efforts to understand those texts.
Two kinds of peers are particularly valuable: 1) people who have studied the text carefully and who disagree with you, and 2) people who are particularly gifted or experienced with the tools of exegesis, including the original languages. We need the criticisms of others who say, “I’ve looked at this text carefully and I just don’t see what you are seeing. To me the text says something totally different.” It may be painful to listen to that kind of criticism. But we need to. You see, I don’t learn much from people who agree with me because we already see things the same way. It is people who disagree with me, who see the text differently than I do, who can teach me something about the text. We all have certain blind spots with regard to the Bible. These blind spots are rooted in our self-deception. But when I am confronted with someone very different from me, someone of another race, or even another religion, I am confronted with realities in the text that I would never have seen on my own. I may not end up agreeing with them, but my view of the text will be sharpened. Even in the study of the Bible, we need to listen to others, particularly people who have also studied the Bible carefully and have come to different conclusions than we have.

A Practical and Biblical Hermeneutic: 1) Self-Deception and Bible Study

There is a major problem that we all face when we open the Bible: self-deception. One Scripture deals directly with this problem: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9) The problem described here is self-deception. It is easy for us to read our own ideas, concepts, and needs into Scripture and turn the Bible into a book that reads just the way we believe. Human beings naturally–even unconsciously–tend to avoid ideas and situations that would be painful to them. So whenever you come face-to-face with the Bible, knowing that you are looking for truth, there is a tendency for the natural defense mechanisms of sin to get in the way. In a sinful world, it is natural to read the Bible in such a way as to avoid learning what we don’t want to know. And we often do it without realizing it.

The best safeguard against self-deception is an exegesis (discovering God’s original intention for a text) based on the original languages, the Greek and the Hebrew. Genuine descriptive exegesis is more difficult for me in English (my native language), because English is filled with associations to my own, personal past. For me, every word of the English Bible triggers associations with my own previous life experience. It evokes the events and contexts in which I encountered those words before. It’s almost impossible, therefore,  not to read my own ideas into the Bible when I read it in English. Reading one’s self into the Bible is perfectly natural until one becomes conscious of the need to learn a better way of reading the Bible.

Learning to read the New Testament in the Greek, for example, allows you to break the bonds of the past and experience the text as it was meant to be experienced when it was first written. To learn the Greek of the New Testament is to break away from the familiar associations that blind interpreters to the deeper connections of the text. When an interpreter develops a reading knowledge of the Greek New Testament, associations start popping up that would not have been seen in translation. But here’s the best part. Once you have exegeted a biblical text, you can never read it the same way again. You cannot avoid the deeper implications of that text as might have been possible before.

The problem with exegesis based on the original languages is that most people who study the Bible will never have the opportunity to learn Greek or Hebrew. So such a requirement would limit good biblical study to an elite few, and this does not seem to be God’s intent in giving us His Word. Is it impossible, then, to do serious, honest exegesis? I don’t think so. I believe there are five simple, practical safeguards that will help anyone interpret the biblical text while avoiding the kind of bizarre misreadings that come so naturally to the human condition. These five principles provide interpreters with the kind of biblical balance that is necessary when dealing with divisive theological issues.

A Response to San Antonio

To those who like to hear something from me here every week or so, I apologize. Between several short trips and some extra challenges at the office I have not had the extra time to think through and process thoughts to share here. Hopefully I can be consistent again from here one.

People are asking for my reaction to the ordination vote at the SDA General Conference in San Antonio, so that seems like a good place to start.

Naturally, I am disappointed in the No vote on the question of allowing divisions of the church to assess whether or not ordaining women would be helpful to the mission in those divisions. I am disappointed because I feel the action was contrary to the Bible. As I have shown in the past, unity in the New Testament did not require all regions to have the same policies and practices. But the delegates felt differently. I am disappointed because the vote did not respect the doctrine of ordination already voted by the church. According to that doctrine, there is little difference between hiring someone and ordaining them. Both actions indicate the same thing, we trust that person to speak for us. So why we would hire a woman yet not ordain her doesn’t make sense to me. I am disappointed because I felt that my brothers and sisters around the world did not show respect for the conclusions of at least five divisions, several of which studied the subject more deeply than any other SDA group in the history of the church. I am disappointed because Adventists in some parts of the world will pay a heavy price for a decision largely imposed upon them by Adventists in other parts of the world. That doesn’t feel good and is hard to explain to my children.

But enough of disappointment. If I am wrong, my disappointment needs to be repented of. If I am right I need to forgive. Either way the above paragraph needs to be the end of my disappointment, lest I lose that which matters most; peace with God, others, and myself.

An emerging take-away from the recent General Conference is the realization that both sides in the ordination debate felt their way of reading Scripture was in harmony with Adventist understanding. That understanding was voted by the Annual Council in Rio de Janeiro in 1986: Nevertheless, that traditional hermeneutic did not produce agreement regarding the Bible’s teaching on the subject of ordination. I have already shared my understanding of the two different approaches and the strengths and weaknesses of each. In my next blog I will summarize my earlier work before sharing a practical hermeneutic that all can practice and which might help us to see the Bible with fresh eyes. To move the church beyond the impasse we need to find a biblical approach that all can agree on. I have an idea about that. . . (but after I summarize the current situation).

A Simple Solution

Here is a short summary of where I am on the issue of women’s ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For decades I have read multiple studies on the subject on both sides. Many studies on both sides seem very convincing until you read the arguments from the other side. It finally dawned on me that the one thing we seemed to agree on was that the Bible itself never asks the question we are asking, “Should women be ordained to the gospel ministry?” While there are people who disagree with that assertion, no one has been able to point me to a text that actually asks the question, so I continue to hold that position. And there is a good reason for that. Ordination as we know it largely developed in the Middle Ages, so the Bible could not and would not address the question, except perhaps in a prophecy of the future.

In light of that, I observe that in my part of the world NOT ordaining women exacts significant costs on the church’s mission and credibility in the wider community. No one from another part of the world could truly understand or assess those costs. Are those costs worth bearing? Only if the Bible is clear. But the assertions that the Bible is clear are mostly coming from parts of the world that have never studied the question as deeply as I have been forced to study it. I find it interesting that the only substantive studies against women’s ordination in the SDA Church are coming out of North America, the very place that doesn’t generally find those same studies convincing or helpful. And the best arguments against women’s ordination originated with a segment of non-SDAs who have historically been hostile to both Adventism and Ellen White.

I also note that the SDA Church did not adopt ordination as currently practiced from study of the Bible. It was adopted for practical reasons, to validate who spoke for the church and who did not. Today women around the world are hired and trusted to speak for the church in various capacities, even in parts of the world that don’t want to ordain them. But making a distinction between women and men in terms of ordination puts meaning into the act that it never had for the SDA pioneers.

In light of the above I have slowly come to the conclusion that this is one of those issues (like food offered to idols in the NT) that is best handled at the local level. I do not want women’s ordination to be forced on those who would pay a heavy price in their culture for doing so. Similarly, those paying a heavy price for NOT ordaining women should be allowed to assess those costs and act as the Spirit leads. The world will not end and the church will not fall as a result.

To me it seems so simple. Then why is it so hard?

A Few More Thoughts on Hermeneutics (The Science of Biblical Interpretation)

The easy answers provided by selective proof-texting sound pious and “clear” but often don’t stand up to careful investigation. So the weight of evidence causes me to withhold judgment on women’s ordination in the Bible and similar issues. A proof-text reading of the Bible tends toward opposing women’s ordination because there is no explicit proof-text telling us to ordain women (or even giving us the concept of ordination, which was a later development). But there is a trend in the Bible toward justice, fairness and equality that leads me to believe God might have worked with the patriarchy of ancient times (God meets people where they are) without approving of it as the ideal. Today the world is trending toward justice and equality and that reality opens the way to see things in the Bible we hadn’t seen before.

Something similar happened in Acts 10-15. As a result of Peter’s experience with Cornelius, the whole church read the Old Testament differently (see Acts 15:13-18). Very few of those who oppose women’s ordination take a comprehensive view of the Bible. The few that do are forging a new path and I don’t find them very convincing at this point. While I don’t think the Bible settles the issue one way or the other, the trend of God’s working with humanity from Abraham to John the Revelator suggests that ordaining women will not bring about the end of civilization or the work of God on this earth. It actually might be just what the church needs in some places.

Human beings like quick fixes. The perfect proof text, the simple answer that settles everything. But I don’t think that approach does justice to the Word of God. When someone says “the Bible is clear” on a subject like women’s ordination, all I have learned from that is that the Bible is “clear” to that person. It is a fact of human nature that the less we know about any subject the more confident we tend to be in our opinions and conclusions. The confidence so many have in their conclusions on ordination is evidence to me that they haven’t looked seriously at the arguments against their point of view.

This scholarly tentativeness can be frustrating to people of faith, who are used to hearing quick and easy answers to difficult questions. But I think that frustration arises, in part, from a misunderstanding of what true scholarship really is. A true scholar is not someone who knows many things, rather, a true scholar is someone who knows how little he or she knows. It is just as important to know when you are ignorant as to know where you are an expert. Being a scholar is like a farmer standing at the edge of a field. As long as his or her knowledge is limited to the surface of the field, the farmer might seem to know everything there is to know about that field. But scholarship is like the same farmer digging a post-hole at the edge of a field (an analogy for the dissertation). The farmer now knows all (s)he needs to know about the contents of that post-hole. But digging the post-hole teaches the farmer something else. The farmer now knows how deep the entire field goes. By digging that post-hole the farmer’s awareness of ignorance has grown faster than his knowledge.

This is why biblical scholars rarely approach issues with the confidence and clarity that evangelists (like Bohr, Batchelor and Nelson) have. Evangelists have been able to narrow their biblical focus to the things that help them persuade people. This is a very important gift and a very important task. But the church would be unwise to draw its conclusions about the Bible from the limited perspective of the evangelist. While certainty is attractive, it can lead one to a false confidence. As the Apostle Paul said, “We know in part, we prophecy in part, . . . we see through a glass darkly.” Both methods of Bible study (see previous blog for details) are valuable. Both Bible scholars and evangelists have their place. A certain level of confidence is commendable. But the greatness of God suggests we submit our confidence to a reasonable humility.

Coming up: A concise and clear summary of where I stand on the question of women’s ordination and the Bible.

On Biblical Hermeneutics (The Science of Biblical Interpretation)

Recently many people are suggesting that support for a Yes vote at the General Conference is grounded in a “new hermeneutic,” reading the Bible differently than the way the pioneers of Adventism read it. There is some truth in this suggestion and it bears some careful investigation. The implication some suggest is that the new hermeneutic results in a fundamental distortion of the Bible’s message regarding the role of women, a message that is clear and unequivocal. To read the Bible any other way is to place oneself in rebellion against the clear teachings of God. This is a serious accusation and I believe it arises out of a shallow understanding of hermeneutics.

There are in fact two basic hermeneutics (the science of biblical interpretation), but the right and wrong of this issue is not as simple as some would make it. There is a way to read the Bible that is seemingly safe and secure, but often does not withstand detailed investigation. That way is sometimes called the “proof-text method.” It involves using a concordance to select passages from all over the Bible that seem to address a particular topic and attempting to understand their collective weight in light of current questions and concerns. At its best this method is a form of biblical theology, gathering everything the Bible says on a topic and seeking to learn from that data how to understand the mind of God on that topic. This method has been used within the Adventist Church from its very beginning and is quite efficient in quickly exposing biblical evidence related to a topic. It leads to relatively easy conclusions that work for a time, but tends to gloss over many things along the way. At its worst it is a powerful way to pick and choose one’s evidence and confirm preconceived opinions. At its worst it appears to honor the Bible while ignoring or distorting the message of the Bible. The selective method without exegetical (careful understanding of the original context) controls makes it too easy for one’s personal biases to determine what texts count as evidence and which ones don’t. The quality of the outcome can depend more on the character of the interpreter than the evidence itself.

The other hermeneutic is grounded less in concordances and more in broad reading of Scripture. One explores the Bible as a whole, taking it book by book and seeking to understand the questions the Bible writers were addressing and the issues they were facing. The interpreter recognizes that God meets people where they are (there is plenty of Scriptural evidence for that assertion– see the opening chapter of my book Everlasting Gospel, Everchanging World), so the teaching at any given point in the Bible may not be a final word on all related issues, but may be a specific answer to a specific issue in that time and place. Understanding the meaning of each text in its context is crucial to developing a biblical theology that can address today’s issues. In the Bible God sometimes allows or even seem to approve of actions that elsewhere are treated as wrong (how about the seeming approval of polygamy in 2 Sam 12:8?). So comparing Scripture with Scripture may still leave one short of explicit answers to every one of today’s questions, requiring one to explore where God’s revelation is trending. This is the method that has led Christians to abolish slavery, even though the New Testament seems not to forbid it (Eph 6:4-9).

At its best this method takes the whole Bible and its original contexts into account. It helps us discern what is clear in God’s revelation and what is not. It avoids the selectivity of the proof-text method and provides safeguards against our natural human biases. But this method also has its limitations. Few people have the desire or the time to master the Bible as a whole. Even for those who do, the process is lengthy and subject to human forgetfulness. In addition, understanding the context of each biblical story and message is best served by knowing the biblical languages and a great deal about ancient history and culture. This makes it easy to leave deep Bible study to the experts, who may become our authorities on what the Bible says rather than allowing every member to do their own diligence in the Word. In addition, projecting the “trajectory” of what God is doing in this world is often necessary, but it too introduces a human element into the process that can project trajectories God Himself might not recognize. So this method is not a fool-proof answer to all questions when the church is divided.

I have used both methods and see that there are strengths and weaknesses in each. A healthy church will not be limited in its approaches. But the outcome of my decades of study in hermeneutics indicates to me that God has not chosen to satisfy our curiosity about all matters in His Word. At creation God granted human beings intellect, reason and considerable freedom. Such freedom is best exercised when we don’t know the answer to everything. God calls us to sharpen our minds by wrestling with the difficult issues that He has chosen not to settle. So when the church, after years of study, remains divided on a question, humility and kindness are the appropriate response. Everyone agrees that the Bible is clear on how we should treat one another. What a shame it would be if we hammer others on things that in the Bible are not truly clear, while transgressing those teachings of the Bible that all agree are clear.

Politics in the New Testament (June 21, 2015 version)

In the previous blog posted a few days ago I raised the question whether or not there should be politics in the church. On the surface the obvious answer would seem to be “no.” Jesus’ teaching is clear. “If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other for a second strike. If someone curses you, offer instead a blessing. If someone abuses you, pray for him or her.” (Matthew 5 among others) This seems to leave little room for “competing interests” in the church. All subgroups in the church should adopt the self-sacrificing spirit of Jesus toward others.

Yet all who have experienced religious institutions recognize that political action is alive and well in them. Church people struggle to find a balance between competing interests among ethnic groups, people from different economic backgrounds, and people with differing theological perspectives. While it seems they should be exempt from politics, theological discussions are easily politicized when the outcome of a theological discussion would favor the competing interests of one side or the other in a church. Is there any way to get rid of politics in the church?

A careful look around the New Testament suggests that the Sermon on the Mount was not often followed to the hilt, even in the earliest church. Within a short time of Pentecost, competing interests arose in the Jerusalem Church (see Acts, chapter 6). It seems the Jerusalem Church set up a safety net for the widows in the church who may have been abandoned by their families when they accepted Christ. The Greek-speaking members of the church complained that the Greek-speaking widows of the church were not getting their fair share of the daily distribution of food. The complaint was brought to the apostles and they responded that it was not their responsibility to turn away from preaching to be arbitrators over food distribution. They invited the church instead to appoint seven men to take care of the matter.

But there are two elements in the story that are puzzling if these “deacons” were simply being appointed to relieve the apostles of administrative responsibilities. First of all, the seven “deacons” hardly confined themselves to menial tasks. The two we know the most about, Stephen and Philip, did a lot of preaching themselves, and in Philip’s case, he even did a lot of traveling. So the seven “deacons” behaved much as the apostles did. The other puzzling element in the story is that the seven deacons all had distinctively Greek names. While some of the apostles had adopted Greek names, their primary names were Hebrew: for example, Peter was a Greek name, but that is only because of translation, his real name was Simeon and Jesus’ gave him the Aramaic nickname Cephas, the linguistic equivalent of Peter (“Rocky”). So it seems likely that the seven “deacons” were added to leadership to ensure that the interests of the Greek speakers were fairly represented in the councils of church leadership. The problem in the church was competing interests, the solution was to make sure the neglected segment of the church was represented in the decision processes of the church. Sounds like a political solution to me.

A little later in the book of Acts (15:36-39), Paul and Barnabas are contemplating a second mission trip together. The previous trip had been hindered somewhat when John Mark, the nephew of Barnabas, suddenly abandoned the apostles at a difficult time. Barnabas wanted to give him a second chance to prove himself, but Paul would have none of it. There arose such a sharp disagreement (the underlying Greek word is the root of the English word paroxysm) between the two apostles that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him to Cyprus and Paul sought out a different companion for his mission to Asia Minor and Greece. Couldn’t one or the other of the two apostles have “turned the other cheek?” Couldn’t they have worked it out in the “spirit of Jesus?” Maybe they could have, but they didn’t. Instead they chose to go their separate ways, pursuing a political solution to strong differences.

A less-well-known story in the Book of Acts has to do with Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem in Acts 21:16 and following. Paul, Luke and a number of others, including at least one Gentile Christian named Trophimus, came to Jerusalem and stayed at the house of Mnason who had been an early disciple of Jesus (probably one of the 70 or 72 mentioned in Luke 10). The text tells us “the brothers received us warmly” (Acts 21:17). So at first glance, Paul and company seem quite welcome in Jerusalem. The next day, however, it is clear that thousands of believing Jews in Jerusalem did not yet know Paul was there (Acts 21:22) and these were believing the worst about him. Following the advice of the apostles to appease this other group of believers, Paul is arrested in the temple and his mission in the Book of Acts is brought to a close. Clearly, the church in Jerusalem remained divided between Greeks and Hebrews many years after Acts 6. Mnason, a Greek believer from Cyprus, was happy to welcome Paul. The rest of the church in town thought other thoughts about him. The end result was pretty ugly.

This brief survey of just one book of the New Testament makes it clear that politics in the church are the norm rather than the exception (see also Galatians 2:11-14). If the apostles themselves could not avoid it, church leadership today will not be able to eradicate politics from the church. Instead, it is wiser to be aware of the politics and find ways to manage political action in a way that causes the least possible damage to the gospel. In the shadow of San Antonio, the New Testament way to handle such politics would seem to me to call for a Yes vote on the ordination issue. That will ensure that those who prefer to ordain women will get a fair hearing in their various constituencies.

Politics in the Church

We can probably all use a break from the ordination debate, so I thought I’d repost a couple of blogs that I did about six years ago and were lost in the Go-Daddy meltdown. Many people are distressed by the politics in the Adventist Church. There are voices at both extremes of the Women’s Ordination debate who are saying something like “The Bible is perfectly clear and if you don’t see that you will burn in the fire!” But their “clarity” is in opposite directions. Others say the Bible doesn’t address the issue, so let culture and local consensus be the primary guide to God’s will in this matter. People are not only confused, but fear that the “politics” itself is a major problem. So the thoughts that follow should be timely, even though they were written mostly six years ago.

Should there be politics in the church? Isn’t the idea of politics in the church something of an oxymoron (putting two things together that don’t fit together)? At its most basic, I define politics as the process of balancing competing interests in a social system. For example, in the island nation of Fiji you have two main ethnic groups, native Fijians and Asian Indians. The two ethnic groups have very little in common. Native Fijians are darker-skinned (Melanesian) and have lived in the Fijian islands since before being “discovered” by westerners. The Indians are lighter-skinned and arrived during the colonial period. The Fijians tend to farm and live in the countryside, the Indians tend to live in the cities and towns and to be involved in commercial businesses. The Fijians tend to be Christians, while the Indians are usually Muslim or Hindu. When it comes to dividing up the island nation’s resources, the interests of Fijians and Indians almost always diverge. So the political way to keep the peace is to make sure that the respective political interests of Fijians and Indians are kept in a rough sort of balance. Colonial rulers sometimes kept the balance out of a lack of interest in the concerns of either side. But now that Fiji is an independent country, the prime minister will naturally come from one group or the other. There is always potential for power plays and strife as the competing interests are sorted out.

Sometimes different regions within a country will have competing interests. In China, for example, the people who live on the coast have very different interests from those who live in the interior. Coastal people tend to be involved in business and trade, people in the interior tend to be involved in farming. Coastal people interact more with the outside world, people in the interior of China tend to be more inward-looking. The coastal areas of China have a larger proportion of Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group. Various parts of the interior have large numbers of other ethnic groups, such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the Bao people in Yunnan. Keeping the country together by distributing resources fairly is a major focus of Chinese government. But competing interests have made it hard to keep the country together throughout its history.

Whether we like it or not, there are competing interests in any religious organization. Growing up in New York City, I remember the tensions that arose in my own church conference (diocese) between Hispanics and Anglos. The power in the conference had historically been held by Anglos, but as the Spanish-speakers rose in numbers, they felt that they were often left out in the distribution of power and resources and demanded greater representation in the “halls of power” or they would secede and form their own conference. Today there are strong and continuing efforts to make sure the composition of leadership in that church organization roughly reflects the ethnic makeup of the membership. Should it be that way, or should the leadership be chosen by God through more “spiritual” processes?

Theological differences can also create competing interests. Among Seventh-day Adventists, for example, there has always been some tension between a healing and service focus, on the one hand, and a doctrinal focus based on the study of biblical apocalyptic, on the other. Both of these foci are grounded in Scripture and in books like Ministry of Healing and The Great Controversy (neither of which contain the main emphases of the other), but tend to lead in somewhat different directions theologically. The healing side of Adventism tends toward an outward focus of engaging the world to make it a better place. The apocalyptic side of Adventism tends toward an inward focus of avoiding contamination from the world. Naturally, when Adventists from both sides get together, there can be tension, as it is always possible that each side will see a given issue from a somewhat different perspective. Theological discussions are easily politicized when the outcome of a theological discussion could favor the competing interests of one side or the other within the church.

Is the politicization of a theological discussion helpful or hurtful? Is there any way to avoid such politicization? Does God express his will through the outcome of political debate or does political discussion make it harder for people to hear the voice of God? Is it possible to balance competing interests in the church without conflict?  Is “politics in the church” always a bad thing? Stay tuned. The next blog will explore what the Bible has to say on the subject of politics in the church.