I trust the collective wisdom of church leadership, but voted decisions of the church have not always proven to be good for the church. The 2014 decision to put an up or down vote on the floor of the San Antonio session has in retrospect proved to be a big mistake with escalating consequences. And 2014 is far from the first such mistake. Ellen White spoke about this in Testimonies, volume 9, page 278: “Many matters have been taken up and carried by vote, that have involved far more than was anticipated and far more than those who voted would have been willing to assent to had they taken time to consider the question from all sides.” When documents are so controversial that they split the leadership of the church down the middle (GCDO’s recent 32-30 vote to put these documents on the floor of GCEC), I am very uncomfortable seeing these documents voted and implemented. When nearly half of those at the heart of the mission do not approve the danger of this being a mistake that will cause serous unintended consequences is high.
The reality is that the early church did not operate by vote, they operated by consensus. The only vote mentioned in the Bible (to my knowledge) is mentioned in Acts 26:10. There we are told that Paul cast his vote in the Sanhedrin in favor of punishing Stephen (who ended up stoned to death). The early church operated by consensus, talking things over until a solution appeared that most or all of the leaders could agree with. This is what happened in Acts 15. Having said that, it is probably impossible to govern a voluntary organization of 20 million members by consensus. But there is an alternative. Making all substantive actions dependent on a super-majority of two-thirds or even 75%. If 75% are needed to approve something, leaders will have to work hard to find common ground and will be less likely to push actions that can split the church. But that is a discussion for another day.
So what happens if these documents are approved? I would hope that they would be implemented on the Gamaliel Principle. In Acts 5:29-39, the Sanhedrin determined to execute the apostles for preaching Jesus as the Messiah. Gamaliel, one of the most respected members of the Sanhedrin, warned against that. He indicated that if the apostles work was of God, it would succeed regardless of what the Sanhedrin did with the apostles. If their work was not of God, it would fail. In other words he was saying, “Put these differences in God’s hands. Let Him demonstrate that this new direction has His blessing. Don’t put yourselves in the place of God.” Such an approach would allow for some reprimand and even punishment, but in the end allow the diversity to live and prove itself. Coercing the conscience does more harm than the behavior you are trying to control.
But what if these documents and procedures don’t pass, what if they are rejected? Are we doomed to have drama every Fall until the Lord comes? Surely there is a better alternative. If these documents fail (it looks to me as if it could go either way), I suggest members on all sides lay aside pride and go back to 2010 in spirit. In sports this is sometimes called a “do over.” Knowing what we know now, what would we have done differently? Do we love each other enough to respect the consciences of all? Is there a way to treat women equally without ordaining them? There are proposals out there that accomplish that. Perhaps with both sides tweaking such proposals we can come to a consensus that frees all consciences to pursue the mission of the church without reservations. We can respect the biblical convictions of both sides and find a way forward together. Ordination, after all, is not a biblical concept (the 2015 document voted in San Antonio stated exactly that) and adds no power or prestige to a pastor. It merely indicates that the person has the church’s approval to speak in its behalf. In a practical sense the church has already given that approval the day it hires a person. So ordination is more of an honorary element than a functional one. Would we split the church over who gets a badge of honor and who does not? Seems rather silly when you put it that way. In my view, the way out of the current impasse is to reverse the actions all have taken since 2010, at least in theory, and see if there is a middle road that we could have chosen then. Perhaps it is not too late to choose it now.
In conclusion, let me briefly reflect on some research I did a few years ago on the leadership language of the New Testament. I studied many books and articles on the subject and did my own wrestling with the New Testament (I ended up with more than a hundred footnotes). What fascinated me in this study was that there are only three passages in the New Testament that give specific principles on how church leadership should function. One of these was more localized, Acts 20:17-35. The other two are core to everything, Matthew 20:25-28 and John 13:13-15. I will close with these two passages, which are self-explanatory. Matt 20:25-28 (context James and John– parallel Mark 10:42-45): “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” John 13:13-15: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”