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.