Monthly Archives: February 2015

Circumstances and the Bible

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

Let me share some examples of how the principle of “circumstances alter cases” can be seen in the Bible. In Genesis 17 God offers Abraham an “everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). That sounds pretty permanent. This everlasting covenant would be for “you and your offspring after you throughout their generations” (Gen 17:9, ESV). That’s sounds pretty permanent too. And the sign of that everlasting covenant was the circumcision of all males among the descendants of Abraham.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the early church adopted circumcision as a mandatory rule for all followers of Jesus. In fact, some of the most passionate believers among them confidently asserted, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1, ESV) But at the council described in Acts 15 church leaders discovered that the Holy Spirit was calling uncircumcised Gentiles like Cornelius. What to do? They re-thought Genesis 17 and drew the conclusion that circumcision was specifically for the physical descendants of Abraham, but was not required for the Gentiles (Acts 15:19). Later on, when Timothy accepted Jesus, Paul required him to be circumcised because the Jews in that area knew his father was a Greek, but he had a Jewish mother (Acts 16:3). The full Gentile Titus, on the other hand, was not circumcised (Gal 2:3). Circumstances alter cases.

The book of Leviticus offered rules and regulations for Israel’s experience of wandering in the desert and living in tents around the tabernacle. Leviticus 17 addressed the issue of private slaughtering of animals for food and sometimes even as sacrifices. Some of this slaughtering was happening around people’s tents, others did it outside the camp. Leviticus asserts that under no circumstances was such slaughtering to occur without bringing the meat to the door of the tabernacle to be inspected by a priest (Lev 17:4). Even better would be to let the priests handle the whole process there (17:5-6). A crucial factor in this regulation was the proper draining of blood so it would not be eaten (17:10-11). This was to be “a statute forever for them throughout their generations” (17:7). This is a reasonably clear text. And it sounds pretty universal and permanent.

A generation later, however, the circumstances were about to change. Moses created a “second law” (Deuteronomy) which would apply to Israel’s settled existence in the promised land (Deut 12:1). In Deuteronomy 12 he instructs them to continue bringing animals for sacrifice to designated locations such as the sanctuary (Deut 12:13-14). But the slaughter of meat for food was no longer part of the regulation. They could freely do that slaughtering where they lived as long as they did it the right way, respecting the blood regulations (12:15-16). You see, with sacrifices at the sanctuary, the animals could be transported live, so the distance between home and sanctuary is not critical. But with meat slaughter, freshness begins to decline the moment you do it and having to transport meat as much as 50 miles back home before people could eat it made no sense. Circumstances alter cases.

To be continued. . .

Thoughts on Ordination and San Antonio (GC Session)

“Circumstances alter cases.”

The phrase was often used by Ellen White. A positive example can be found in Testimonies for the Church, Volume Six (339:2), “While we present methods of work we cannot lay out an undeviating line in which everyone shall move, for circumstances alter cases. God will impress those whose hearts are open to truth and who are longing for guidance.” In the second volume of Manuscript Releases (100.2) is the following: “Circumstances alter cases. I would not advise that anyone should make a practice of gathering up tithe money. But for years there have now and then been persons who have lost confidence in the appropriation of the tithe, who have placed their tithe in my hands, and said that if I did not take it they would themselves appropriate it to the families of the most needy ministers they could find. I have taken the money, given a receipt for it, and told them how it was appropriated.” She also cautions people not to use the phrase as an excuse to ignore God’s Word and follow their own selfish motives and purposes (RH, September 14, 1905).

I did a little research and learned that Ellen White did not make the phrase up, it is actually an old English proverb, probably going back to the Seventeenth Century. I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and found the following definition: “A general principle may be modified in light of particular circumstances.” According to the Dictionary of Idiomatic English Phrases: “It is necessary to modify one’s conduct by the particular circumstances or conditions of each case.”

As time permits I plan to explore some significant instances in which the Bible appeared perfectly clear on a topic, but circumstances caused people to see things in the Bible that they had missed before. I think there are powerful implications in these Scriptures for the way we should handle issues like the ordination of women. This July delegates from around the world will attend the quinquennial session of the General Conference in San Antonio, Texas. A major question on the floor will be whether or not world divisions of the church can differ in the way they handle policies like ordination. My mission in this series of blogs will be to seek an answer to the question, “Is there any word from the Lord?” on this issue? I do not expect all to agree on what the Bible says about ordination, but there IS something in the Bible on this topic that we can all agree on. Stay tuned. . .

How the Organized Church Changes, Part 5 (Conclusion)

In the previous blogs Dave Thomas showed how religious entities shift from movements to institutions. One of the key elements of that shift is the move from persuasive power to coercive power. That shift is not planned, but tends to happen because coercive power is more efficient and gets things done. But when managerial power is applied to matters of faith and belief, it tends to produce compliance and duplicity rather than genuine faith. In this concluding blog, Thomas offers some implications of his study for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Jon Paulien)

Any essentially voluntary organization that makes the shift from invitation to mandate in matters of faith brings about a subtle but substantial change in its own nature. It moves, without careful consideration, away from the idea of church as a community of believers toward a hierarchical concept of church as a sanctified organization where centralized power is seen to be essential. In a community of believers, a “problem” is an occasion for fellowship and exhortation and discussion and invitation, for messy interactions. In an organization, it is time to find a policy by way of which compliance or non-compliance can be measured and action taken. And once that kind of shift takes place in a religious movement, it is not very long before “orthodoxy” and “heresy” get defined and life becomes very difficult for those who dissent. In so many cases, this is the very dynamic that, in the course of Christian history, brought death to those who dissented at the hands of those who persuaded themselves that by destroying the dissenters, they were only doing the work of God.

While researching this topic some time ago, I happened upon mention of a fascinating study, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, written by Walter Bauer back in 1934. According to Alistair McGrath, who cites this study, the conclusion Bauer came to is that, at least in the early Christian Church Abasic unity did not seem to be located at the level of doctrines, but at the level of relationship with the same Lord. Christian unity lay in the worship of the same Lord, rather than in the formal statement of doctrine (which is how ‘orthodox’ tends to be divined).” (Alistair McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed. (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 113) Bauer goes on to claim that, Aa variety of views which were tolerated in the early church gradually began to be regarded with suspicion by the later church. An orthodox consensus began to emerge, in which opinions that had once been tolerated were discarded as inadequate.@

The operative question immediately becomes one of how this orthodox consensus developed. Bauer=s answer is quite striking, that A>orthodoxy= was the result of the growing power of Rome, which increasingly came to impose its own views upon others, using the term >heresy= to refer to views it rejected.@ In other words, as the Bishop of Rome=s infrastructure-driven power increased, he was able to transition from invitation to mandate. He was able to take more and more initiative to himself and his office and he was able to apply greater and more substantial penalties to those who dissented. This is what brought Bauer to his conclusion, that Athe difference between orthodoxy and heresy often seems arbitrary.@ It appears to be more a derivation of the opinions of those in power than anything else. It is by this process that the Church of Rome grew to such prominence.

Clearly, the rise and role of infrastructure, how it functions and what power it grants to a few, is something that needs very careful thought in believing communities. While necessary, infrastructure in church cannot be left to function like infrastructure in for-profit companies. Is infrastructure using up too many resources? Is it limiting growth by being too fixed? Is it in harmony with an appropriate ecclesiology? Is it giving too much power to too few people? And is the power produced by infrastructure being used for management issues or is it broadly being called upon to also settle matters of belief and commitment? More pertinent to our setting, where is the Seventh-day Adventist Church in all of this? How far along in the Organizational Life-cycle are we? And what kind of language are we using to describe ourselves? How is managerial power being used? And how do we perceive organizational structure, as some kind of missional necessity, or as something quasi-sacred in and of itself? All of these things warrant careful thought and reflection. They warrant our best and collective attentions lest we thoughtlessly transition away from being a mission-driven “community of believers” to something else that probably ought not even to be named among the faithful.

How the Organized Church Changes, Part 4

In the previous blog Dave Thomas explores how an entity like a church changes from a movement to an institution with a large infrastructure. The infrastructure is created for the sake of efficiency in pursuit of the mission. But over time the infrastructure itself can become a mechanism that changes the mission. How the mission changes is explored in the following by Dave Thomas. (Jon Paulien).

The establishment of organizational infrastructure has three effects. First, it sets itself up in competition for resources that would otherwise have gone to frontline mission. Secondly, it places employees in among the volunteers who then tend to dilute their volunteerism because there are now paid people to do the work. And, thirdly, and most importantly to this paper, the appearance and growth of infrastructure produces and makes available managerial or administrative power to those who have charge of the infrastructure. These three things– competition for resources, the appearance of paid personnel, and the rise of managerial/administrative power– become the elements that affect or determine the future of an organization. While the first two items are important and quite interesting, this paper is going to look only at the third one, the rise of administrative power, for it bears most directly on the subject of unconsidered ecclesiological change.

Probably the best way to delve into this is to observe that, in the early stages of an organization, the leaders who originally articulate the vision have no administrative power. The have only the power of persuasion, exhortation, encouragement, prayer, personal appeal and personal example all of which depend on the voluntary compliance of adherents to achieve their desired ends. Early leaders have to win the goodwill of the people. They have to bring followers to the point of willing consent. But the appearance of infrastructure brings with it a very different dynamic for it introduces and very quickly brings to bear, a new kind of power that is of a different sort. Administrative power is very efficient, it is immediately available to leaders and leaders only, and it operates by something other than persuasion. Administrative power does not necessarily have to concern itself with the voluntary commitments of those who come under its jurisdiction. It has the power of policy and is able to use the prospect of penalty as motivation.

This difference between persuasion power and coercive power is very important to explore. When a charismatic leader encounters a problem, it is time for visitation, persuasion, exhortation, appeal, invitation, prayer, even tears. Early leaders have to rely on this kind of power even though it is not very efficient and may require time and muddling along to achieve its purposes. Its primary strength is that it elicits the willing compliance of adherents. But the emergence of managerial power makes for a very different scenario. Rather than having to expend time and effort trying to persuade, a manager may go directly to policy by way of which compliance or non-compliance can then be determined. After that, decision-making can be rather straightforward, willing compliance or not.

The temptation to use administrative power can be considerable because it offers the prospect of very quick resolution, it is “fair” in that it applies “across the board,” and it usually requires relatively little deliberation so can be applied quickly which means the “problem” is resolved and the organization can get on to other things. When a religious organization is careful to limit the use of managerial power to issues of infrastructure, life can be very good. But when it allows for a generous expansion of the use of managerial power to include also matters that pertain to belief and faith, it likely enters a whole new arena. History shows that the temptation to broaden managerial power expansively is a temptation that is very difficult to resist. In far too many cases, leaders have succumbed quite readily to the temptation to use managerial power to deal with ideological and belief issues. Discrepancies over doctrine and belief and commitment can be very challenging and messy and prolonged in resolution, so administratively powerful leaders face the great temptation of looking at belief issues as management issues that could be settled not by argumentation, discussion, or persuasion but by appealing to policy after which compliance and non-compliance can be measured. After that, the path to resolution can be very short.

When a religious movement accepts or allows this shift to take place broadly, when it allows for matters of faith and belief to be treated as matters of policy and management, at its heart it transitions away from invitation to coercion replacing the power of persuasion with that of requirement. Instead of calling for assent, it calls for compliance and in so doing, overlays voluntary commitment, which is the essence of religion, with an involuntary mandate, something that is inimical to faith. Administrative power does not work by persuasion and invitation but by coercion. It does not work on the inside but from the outside. It works by mandate, able to administer a penalty of some kind for non-compliance. It is the power of state-craft and so is inappropriate at the level of belief. While administrative power is important and useful, it should not, indeed cannot, effectively be used to manage religious commitments and ideas. Being elected to a position of power does not make a person right. It only makes them powerful. Efforts to enforce compliance easily lead to duplicity rather than genuine faith.