Monthly Archives: October 2018

LGBTIQ and the Local Church (LGBT 16)

In a sense, everything that we have covered in the first 15 blogs is just introduction. Doctrine is important, it provides a solid foundation for our thinking about the practical issues of everyday life. But on a controverted topic like this, what really counts is how these things are applied in the context of a local church. When you look into the eyes of real people with struggles that are different, yet Scripture indicates are similar to your own, the theories that seem so clear in abstract may not be as useful as one had hoped. I am grateful that in the SDA Church issues like church membership are reserved for the local church, which is closest to the situation. It is in the local church, where people are known truly and deeply, that decisions regarding faithfulness to Christ and adherence to the teachings of the church are best made. So let’s explore how the insights of Scripture, science and experience play out in some local church scenarios.

First of all, there are seven levels of possible engagement with the local church, each more fraught with potential consequences than the one before it. 1) Attendance at church services and others events of the church community. What kind of belief or behavior might cause a local church to exclude someone from even attending? Certainly if someone is known to be a serial killer or rapist, a church would need to protect its members by barring proximity for such a person. Under what circumstances should that apply to LGBT people? 2) Participation in church activities, such as leading games at a picnic, singing in the choir, involvement in Sabbath School activities, and playing instruments or leading the singing at worship. These levels of involvement raise the stakes over mere attendance. At this level there is real participation in a church community. 3) Membership. In the SDA Church membership is taken very seriously and individuals who are flagrantly violating sexual standards or promoting bizarre beliefs are likely to be denied baptism and membership. But what about an LGBT person who is celibate and clearly loves the Lord? Membership judgments in such cases should be made locally by mature Christians on the basis of the best biblical and scientific principles available.

4) Local Leadership (unordained). This involves things like teaching Sabbath school classes, chairing the Social Committee, or using specialized skills to lead out in work bees or construction projects. One would not need to be ordained to hold such positions, but churches would normally want someone taking on such leadership to be a member in good and regular standing and highly esteemed by the church. 5) Local Leadership (ordained). This kind of leadership involves offices like elder and deacon and clearly spiritual tasks like counseling, Bible studies, home visitations, and leading in worship. Ordination to these roles certainly implies a strong mutual commitment between a local church and an individual. 6) Teaching in Church Schools. Each level requires higher degrees of responsibility and includes more risk for the church, particularly in areas related to sexuality. Molding the minds of children is a sacred trust, not to be granted or entered into lightly. Normally the choice of teachers in church schools is not solely a decision of the local church, higher church authorities (conference) are rightly involved as well. 7) Ordained Minister. This is the highest level of responsibility and trust that any local church can participate in granting. Decisions regarding pastoral ministry are, therefore, made largely at higher levels, right up to the union (which is above the conference). Local churches can make decisions regarding who they wish to pastor their churches, but they choose out of a list of individuals who have already been vetted at higher levels. Having said this, one could argue that teaching in the church school might be a position of equal or even greater risk than the pastoral ministry.

What levels of involvement in local churches are appropriate for LGBTIQ people in light of the biblical, scientific and experiential data available to us today? Certainly people with intersex conditions have done nothing to cause the condition (unless they have willfully mutilated themselves). An intersex person’s beliefs and behaviors should be the only basis for determining their fitness for church engagement. Dealing with transgender persons could be much more complicated, as local churches may not have anyone who understands the various dynamics. I make no attempt in this series to speak directly to that complicated issue, which probably affects less than one per cent of the population. In this series I am primarily addressing people with gay and lesbian identities, or homosexual and bisexual orientations. How shall local churches address LGBT individuals who desire participation and membership in SDA churches?

Why Can’t They Just Pray It All Away? (LGBT 15)

Many will be troubled by the direction of my comments in the previous blogs. They assume that if LGBT people would only pray and commit themselves to Christ, their orientations would be taken away and they would become “normal” people. But there are some considerations we need to give attention to before applying these expectations in a real situation. First, in practice that happens rarely, if at all. I am aware of individuals who claim to have been “changed” by God and are now living a fulfilled, heterosexual life. I do not doubt their testimonies (although such testimonies are sometimes premature), and I am happy for them. But I know many, many people who never wanted to be gay and pray earnestly to be otherwise, but nothing seems to happen. I have heard their anguish and know that God hears them too. In my experience as a counselor and in the scientific studies I have observed (particularly those done by Bible believing Christians), orientation change is rare at best, and may simply reflect bisexuals, whose journey to change is considerably shorter than those with a full-bore homosexual orientation. In most cases, orientation truly seems as unchangeable as physical defects. If we would not encourage a one-legged person to pray for God to grow a new leg, we probably should not encourage a gay person to pray for a new orientation. Orientation is not sin. It is a consequence of the Fall that is likely to be with us until the Lord comes.

There is a theological basis that explains this reality, at least to some degree. Seventh-day Adventists believe in the inspiration of Ellen G. White. In her book Steps to Christ (and supported by the Bible), she describes a loving God who desires relationships of love with the creatures He has made. But genuine love cannot be forced, it must be freely chosen and freely given. To be free to love, means to be free also to not love or even to rebel. A loving God so respects the principle of freedom that He allows His creatures to rebel against Him and He also does not interfere in the consequences of that rebellion.

So we all suffer from the consequences of sin. Many of those consequences are directly related to the choices we ourselves have made. But many consequences are related to the choices others have made (such as abusers, murderers, rapists, salve-owners and the Holocaust). Not only so, many consequences of sin are collective to the whole human race; pollution, environmental disasters, birth defects and orientations that are contrary to God’s original design. While prayer can certainly change our hearts and our attitudes, it does not often remove the consequences of sin. To do so would be a limitation on human freedom, which would place a limitation on love. So we struggle for life and purity in the midst of our various orientations to sin. This reality is not God’s ideal, but is a necessary real in the context of a cosmic conflict over the character and government of God. In this context, we can pray for miraculous recoveries and changes, but should not demand or expect them. We are called to serve God as best we can where we are. To place unnecessary burdens on LGBT people, whose lives are already incredibly hard, is to make their lives even more difficult than they are, and it makes the church an unsafe place for them to wrestle with their challenges.

Consequences of “The Fall” (LGBT 14)

For Paul, God’s ideal was exhibited in creation, the natural order of things (Rom 1:25). It was all “very good.” Among other things, human beings were created in the image of God, reflecting His character, not only in their choices and actions, but in their very being. But with the Fall God’s natural order of things was marred and distorted. That distortion included the marring of God’s image in human beings. So one of the consequences of the Fall is the sinful desires that plague us all. Another consequence of the Fall is the three levels of homosexuality mentioned in earlier blogs. Homosexual identity, homosexual orientation and homosexual attractions are all contrary to God’s creation ideal. When someone experiences a homosexual attraction, it is not the way things were created to be. It would not be true to the Bible to say anything else.

But heterosexuals also experience attractions that are contrary to God’s ideal. Whenever a married Christian is deeply attracted to someone other than their spouse, it is a sign of human brokenness, just as much as homosexual attractions are. In a fallen world we all struggle with desires and attractions that are contrary to God’s ideal. We can follow Paul’s lead and exercise control over them or we can allow them to rule us and to do that which is not in our own best interests or in the interests of the other person for us to do. To act on sinful attractions not only works against God’s ideal for us, it also defrauds others (1 Thess 4:3-8), not only the ones we are relating to but others they will engage with in the future. Any counselor will tell you that promiscuity fractures the personality (sometimes called “splitting off”) and makes it harder for people to truly bond with a single individual in marriage. Acting on the sinful desires moves us further and further way from God’s ideal, not the progression to which Christians are called.

The bottom line for Paul and the rest of the New Testament is this: Is our identity in Christ or is it in our sexuality? Promiscuous individuals (this includes engagement with pornography) find thoughts of sex consuming their whole lives, you can never get enough to truly satisfy. It doesn’t matter if the sexuality is homosexual or heterosexual, if it is the central focus of our lives, we will not be identified with Christ. While the focus may seem to be on others, promiscuity is really an obsession with self and with trying to satisfy needs in a sexual way, needs that can only truly be satisfied in Christ. When you identify with Christ, He calls you away from this obsession with self to be focused on Him and learn from Him how to focus on others in a healthier way. So the core decision of the Christian life is develop and maintain one’s identity in Christ. Being identified with Christ will more and more wean us away from the focus on self that leads us to gratify the desires of the flesh.

What does all this have to do with LGBTIQ issues? The realization that LGBT people may be different from the rest of us, but they are struggling with the same core issues. They too have a need for Jesus Christ. They too struggle with sinful desires. If we demand that they change their orientation, something most seem not able to do, even in Christ, the burden becomes exceedingly great and discouraging. It actually hinders their ability to overcome their sinful desires and maintain a life of Christ-like purity in relationship with others. When we appreciate the commonness of our struggles we can team up with each other to obtain the best possible outcome in a very challenging world. But when we hide our own faults under a guise of moral superiority in relation to LGBT people, we do them a disfavor and make our own moral recovery less likely. Through a recognition of our common brokenness and our common call, we can find our way to our common destiny.

Paul and Orientation (LGBT 13)

A big question that arises about Romans 1 and texts like 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is: Does Paul know anything about homosexual orientation as we understand it today? Does he speak to that issue in any meaningful way? In his condemnations of homosexuality is he including orientation in his description of sinfulness or just homosexual activity? There are two main answers to this question among Bible-believing Seventh-day Adventists. First would be the position stated by Richard Hays, Methodist theologian, and followed by Adventist theologians Ivan Blazen and Richard Rice. They argue, in the technical sense, that Paul has nothing to say about homosexual orientation, that his comments refer to homosexual activity. In that case, the Bible has nothing to say about orientation and people should be accepted in the church on the basis of their beliefs and behavior rather than on their orientation. This view would make room for LGBT people in the church, judging their fitness for membership on the same basis as any other member. In this view, one’s orientation has little or nothing to do with one’s salvation or one’s membership in the church, it is a reality that lies outside of direct revelation. The Bible would, in this case, have a lot to say about one’s beliefs and behavior, but not about orientation. This viewpoint assumes, of course, that homosexual orientation is, in most cases, not a choice, it is a consequence of genetic and environmental characteristics that set one’s orientation firmly well before the age of reason.

A second view of Paul is held by Andrews Seminary theologian Richard Choi. He argues that Paul has a lot to say about orientation. We all have an orientation to sin. That orientation may manifest itself in heterosexual tendencies to sin just as much as in homosexual tendencies to sin. We are all (except perhaps Christ) born with “desires” that move us to sin. These desires cannot be fully eradicated in this life, but need to be controlled by those who accept and follow Jesus Christ. In this view Paul does address the issue of orientation, but not with the scientific preciseness we might today. He notes that we all have an “orientation” that leads us to do things we would not want to do if we were in our right minds. I will spend a little more time on this view because it is less well known than the previous among Adventists.

Choi points to texts like Romans 13:14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Greek: epithumias).” When we put on Christ, these “desires” (as Paul calls them) continue to afflict us, but we are not to “make provision” (Greek: pronoian) for them, we are not to exercise care and foresight in satisfying these desires. In the words of the NIV: “Do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Another text Choi points to is Galatians 5:24: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (epithumiais).” This “orientation” to sin is something we have to do battle with every day. One further relevant text is Ephesians 2:1-3: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires (epithumiais) of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Paul does not speak here about eradicating the desires of the body and mind. What characterizes the pre-Christian person is that they eagerly carry out the desires of the flesh, for them this is the natural way of life. We “did what we were told” by our orientation to sin. But when God made us alive in Christ by the power of His resurrection (Eph 2:5-6), we become his working project (Eph 2:10—Greek: poiêma) and this causes us to refrain more and more from carrying out our “desires.” These desires are not eradicated, they will be there until the second coming of Christ (Rom 8:22-23), but they are increasingly under control of the one who follows Jesus. They no longer control our behaviors the way that they did before. As any heterosexual Christian can attest, controlling the desires is a lifelong “battle and a march.”

I believe both views of Paul and orientation are correct in relation to their definitions of the term orientation. In the technical, modern-day sense, Paul does not address the issue of sexual orientation. But in the larger sense, he does address it. In our sexuality we all have an orientation to sin. And if we indulge that orientation, we will become more and more at home with that which is unnatural. We all need to do battle with the desires of the flesh (more than 90% of the Bible’s sexual warnings are directed toward heterosexuals). And whatever Christians or Adventists may say about LGBT issues, we need to say from a position of common brokenness. In our sexuality, we were all born “contrary to nature” (Rom 1:25), we all desire that which is not for our own good. And we all desire to “judge” others (Rom 2:1-3) so that we might not feel so bad about our own failings. To truly follow Jesus requires everything we have and there are no shortcuts. In addressing LGBTIQ we can all learn something valuable about our walk with Christ.

We’re All in This Together (LGBT 12)

Previously, we noticed in Romans 1 that homosexual activity is not the cause of God’s wrath, it is one of the outcomes of it. This is a very important distinction when it comes to how Christians should treat LGBTIQ people. This distinction is best illustrated by intersex conditions. We can probably all agree that intersex conditions are no more a person’s choice than being born with one leg missing, sterile, or without sight (see John 9:1-4 for a biblical example). We should not heap condemnation upon a person for conditions they did not create or desire. If it should prove (and both science and experience seem increasingly decisive) that a homosexual orientation or transgender condition arose from factors outside the person’s control, then condemning such a person for that condition is arbitrary and cruel. We all have some control, at least, over our behavior, but none of us chose to be born with sinful propensities and desires. Understanding the distinction between homosexual identity, orientation and attractions helps one to better understand how best to respond to people who are “different,” yet want to know Jesus Christ and be part of His church family.

Paul goes on in Romans 1 to list many other consequences of human rebellion and God’s response to it. “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom 1:29-31). The consequences of human rebellion include homosexual behaviors, but they also include many things one tends to excuse in church; envy, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossip, 30 slander, boastfulness, disobedience to parents, etc. Homosexuality gets central billing here as the “poster child” of human life lived at increasing distance from God’s original ideal for human life and relationships (verses 24-28), but it is one of many evidences of human brokenness (verses 29-31). Whatever we may say to LGBTIQ people, we need to say from a standpoint of common brokenness.

But what if you have never shared a single bit of gossip, were never disobedient to your parents, and never indulged in envy, strife, deceit, boasting or any of the other vices listed in Romans 1? Would that mean you are fully justified in condemning people who have failed in these areas? Paul has a message even for you, in Romans 2:1-3: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man- you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself- that you will escape the judgment of God?” In this somewhat counter-intuitive text, Paul indicates that in the very act of focusing on the sins of another, a negative dynamic settles in on us as well. The sins of others brings out the worst in us. That is why confrontation, when it must happen, needs to happen with “tears in the voice” and with a strong sense of common brokenness. Until God brings us to that place, all our attempts to confront others over sexual misconduct will do more harm than good.

Paul and Homosexuality (LGBT 11)

I’ve been a little distracted lately with the Annual Council of SDAs, so I have had to set aside this series on LGBTIQ and the church for a while. It’s time to get back to it, an issue that is not going away and one where most Christians have shallow or distorted knowledge. God always wants to operate on the basis of truth, but on issues like this, truth is sometimes hard to come by. I know I still have a lot to learn, but what I have learned so far seems to be very helpful to people whose opinion I respect and trust. So let me continue looking at some key biblical texts.

The most explicit and seemingly harshest condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible is found in Romans 1. Here’s the crucial portion: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Rom 1:24-28). Homosexual actions are here condemned as a “dishonoring of their bodies,” as “dishonorable passions,” as “contrary to nature,” and as “what ought not to be done.” Many take this passage as license to condemn those who are “different” in the harshest terms possible. If God pours out His wrath against homosexuals (Rom 1:18), we ought to do the same. But before we blindly follow that kind of reading, let’s take a closer look at this passage in its context.

First of all, in Romans 1 the wrath of God is not poured out because of homosexuality. Homosexuality is not the cause of God’s wrath, it is the outcome of God’s wrath. Notice Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” The core reason that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven is that human being suppress the truth about God. Even if they don’t have Bibles, nature itself is evidence enough that God exists and that He is powerful (Rom 1:19-20). And if that is true, then human beings should honor Him and be loyal to Him. But “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21). Instead of honoring God they became fools and made images of the created world to worship instead (Rom 1:22-23). So the core reason that God’s wrath is poured out is human rebellion. Deep in their hearts human beings knew God, but they turned away from Him and lost their reason.

But what is the wrath of God? For Paul, it is not God’s violent response to human rebellion, it is His turning away from sinners and allowing them to reap the consequences of their own choices. Three times in the following paragraph Paul says, “Therefore God gave up. . . to impurity. . . .” “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. . . .” “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). Why does God give them up? “Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25). Homosexuality is not the cause of God’s wrath, it is the outcome of God’s wrath. It is clear that Paul holds a very negative view of homosexual activity. It is contrary to the order of creation and an evidence of human brokenness. But the core reason for the wrath of God is not homosexual activity, it is suppressing the truth about God and refusing to be thankful for what we have all received from God. So homosexual activity is condemned in Scripture as a result of God’s wrath, not the cause of it. When it comes to dealing with people who struggle with their sexual and gender identity, such distinctions are very important.

The Day After (AC18-12)

In case you had not heard, the compliance documents and procedures we have been talking about this last week were voted by the GCEC to the tune of 185-124, about a 60% majority. If you are wondering what will happen now, go back and read the last two blogs (AC18-10 and AC18-11) where I explore that. The odds are the vote will have little impact over the short run. The long run is less certain.

If you are rejoicing today, rejoice! Savor it with all your might. God has given us deep capacity for both joy and sadness. Days of sadness will come for you again, so take the days of joy to heart and remember them when the dark days come. But if you run across someone who is sad or even devastated today and you feel tempted to gloat or tell them sternly that they will now be rewarded for their rebellion, reject the feeling, it did not come from God. God weeps with those who weep. In times of rejoicing we have a surplus of energy to comfort the heartbroken and sooth the fears and anxieties of others. Don’t miss that opportunity today.

If you feel sad or devastated today, know that God loves freedom so much that He even allows human beings to take away the freedom of others. It was God who centuries ago allowed the papacy to win the battle of the Christianities and dominate the Christian world for over a thousand years. If God could somehow continue His mission in the darkness of the Middle Ages, this small setback yesterday is a piece of cake to him. If there are no humans that you can trust, know that God remains trustworthy, even in the midst of human freedom and its consequences. Stay close to Him and you will be all right.

To any of you who are thinking of leaving the Seventh-day Adventist Church today I ask, “Where will you go?” Where else can you find the unique package of ideas that John the Revelator prophesied would be mission critical in the last days of earth’s history? And if you think you can live without that, know that no matter where you go, religious politics will follow you. It will be same old same old wherever you go. God did some amazing things for the SDA pioneers more than 150 years ago. They needed to organize their religion in order to more efficiently proclaim what God was doing in the world. That was the right thing to do. Religion is a human attempt to honor and proclaim a mighty act of God, and as such it is a beautiful thing. But over time all human institutions become more focused on their own survival than on the original mission, even when they are feeling really pious. But feeble and defective as they are, religious institutions still bear witness to elements of the original mission. For that reason, the disciples never left Judaism. Luther never left the Catholic Church. And Ellen White never left the Methodist Church. They were all thrown out. God arranged things so they had no choice. I doubt things are that drastic now, but if it should happen to you, that will be God’s sign that He has something better for you. In the meantime, set your face to the tasks God has set before you today. Even when things seem out of control, God is still in control.

What Do I Hope Will Happen? (AC18-11)

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.”

If These Proposals Are Voted, Where Will They Take Us? (AC18-10)

In reaction to the documents being proposed at Annual Council next week, two main possible outcomes seem to be envisioned; peace with honor and massive centralization of church authority with serious consequences. Those who wrote the document (and many conservatives on issues like women’s ordination) hope for the former, that these processes will achieve peace with honor, a solution to the impasse that has been in place for several years. The processes introduced in the documents provide church leadership a way to show that it is doing something without actually hurting the parts of the church that would be affected by the processes. The long process of working over the documents resulted in many safeguards being introduced against “kingly power.” In reality very little is likely to happen as a result of these new processes.

A careful analysis of the documents seems to support this view of things. In reality, compliance committee action is so cumbersome it is unlikely to get far in most cases. First a recommendation has to move up the ladder from conferences to the GCADCOM. If ADCOM can agree that the problem is serious, they will then refer to the appropriate compliance committee. The committee will then engage the organization that is under scrutiny to investigate the charges, exercise diplomacy, engage in prayer, listening and conversation, allow 60-90 days for a counter-proposal that could resolve the issue. If after all these attempts the problem is resolved the committee will recommend that ADCOM close the case and give its blessing on whatever action had been in question. If the problem is unresolved, the compliance committee can recommend that an entity is “out of compliance” and should be dealt with. If the GCADCOM accepts the recommendation (no sure thing), it would be referred to GCDO (ADCOM plus division officers—about 70 people) which meets once a year before the Annual Council begins. If GCDO accepts the recommendation that an entity is dangerously out of compliance (no sure thing), it is passed on to the Executive Committee (GCEC—300 members from around the world for action at Annual Council. If GCEC approves (no sure thing), the entity receives a warning. If nothing changes, a similar process the following year can result in a reprimand to the president of that entity. If nothing changes, a similar process the following year could result in the president being removed from membership in the GCEC. And that would have to occur on the basis of a two-thirds vote, perhaps a little more likely than the impeachment of an American president in the Senate, but unlikely nevertheless. The safeguards built into the system are such diversity at the lower levels of the church is unlikely to be much affected. Something has been done, but it is a something that, in itself, won’t hinder the work among the minority. The main damage would be psychological and spiritual, the loss of people who would see the whole process as evidence that the church no longer deserves their respect and support.

But what about the more ominous outcome, a slippery slope leading to massive and unintended (by most at least) consequences for the church. This fear arises from a lack of trust in the collective wisdom of church leadership. Is that lack of trust founded? It depends on who you speak to. I don’t think things are this bad, but humor me for a moment on what could happen. Once this process is voted, it will be treated with all the status of policy even if it is not at that level (guidelines). Leadership would then come under pressure from the minority to compel recalcitrant unions to come around even if the process fails to achieve that. The case can be made that leadership itself is out of compliance if any entity is out of compliance and not forced to recant. Pressure could build to vote unions out of the fellowship, in which case a “unity document” could end up splitting the church. Unions out of compliance love the church and want to be part of it. They would never choose to leave, but some might not mind being kicked out and accept that as the will of God. The unity documents could then have forced the very schism in the church that they were designed to avoid.

This scenario reminds me of a story. An Arab in the marketplace of Baghdad was horrified to find himself face to face with Death. Death had terrible look on his face. The man was so frightened he jumped on his horse and rode all the way out of Baghdad to Samarra. Someone else approached Death and asked him why he had given the man such a frightening look. Death replied that he was not trying to frighten the man, he was just surprised. “I was surprised to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him in Samarra tonight.” In fleeing to Samarra the man assured the very outcome that he was trying to avoid. All actions have a reaction and in church history many outcomes ended up far from what those who made those decisions intended. This could be the case with these Annual Council documents. I hope and pray not.

Are Compliance Committees a Step Toward an Adventist Papacy? (AC18-9)

Many are concerned that the proposals coming before the Annual Council are an unwarranted step toward excessive centralization of control, an Adventist Papacy or dictatorship. For them voting these documents is another mistake like the action in 2014. To me, this is overstating the situation. The compliance committees are not arbitrary bodies with the power to search out and punish individuals and groups all over the world. They are actually sub-committees of the GC Administrative Committee. All GC committees are appointed by the ADCOM, so this is not an unusual action. What is unusual is that such an appointment is so widely publicized and so widely noticed. In a sense, these committees do not change anything. They are like consultants to GCADCOM, researching and processing issues that would otherwise have to be dealt with by a single body. The compliance committees cannot investigate any issue unless it is referred to them by the GCADCOM. They cannot investigate complaints and charges coming from individuals or even groups. All compliance complaints must come from a duly constituted executive committee action. They must be the product of more than even the biblical “two or three witnesses.” The compliance committees respond to actions or formal requests from conference, union, or division committees as processed by GCADCOM. As long as they are limited to the GC level, they are not likely to do much harm. But should compliance committees become a reality at all levels of the church, the “authoritarian culture” that Ellen White feared could become a reality in the church.

The idea for compliance committees arose in response to statements made in the floor discussion at the GCEC in 2017. They are an attempt at even-handedness in terms of the compliance issues that would be addressed. And those issues are about more than just ordination. An even bigger issue is finances. People have confidence in the church because it operates on tight financial compliance rules. But as the church has expanded problems in the financial area are increasing and the existing system did not seem capable of dealing with non-compliance in financial matters as each country tends to handle such things differently. The compliance committees are designed as investigative bodies that are supposed to do more than just recommend punishments. They are also tasked with diplomacy, trying to find solutions to problems. In the terms of reference, their primary task is to listen, talk and seek solutions. If they find there is actually no problem, or the problem has been fixed, they can decline to recommend action against an entity or institution. If they find there is a ongoing problem, they can recommend accordingly to GCADCOM, and the warnings, reprimands, and other penalties come into play. But they have no direct authority on their own, they only have power to recommend to the GCADCOM and from there to GCDO and GCEC. So the compliance committees actually add an additional layer of consideration and process. It is not a dictatorial or papal approach.

One of the greatest misunderstandings about these proposals is the idea that it has to do with individuals. A colleague of mine said to me recently, “Maybe neither of us will be working here anymore next year.” Such a conclusion is easy to draw from the panic in many of the media reports. But individuals and interest groups are excluded from lodging complaints with the compliance committees and their terms of reference clearly specify that individuals and groups are not in the cross-hairs of these committees as such. They are concerned with non-compliance in official voted actions of institutional executive committees. As the terms of reference state: “GC compliance review committee with doctrine, policies, statements, and guidelines for church organizations and institutions. . .
. . . teaching creation/origins
. . . regarding homosexuality
. . . regarding issues of ordination
. . . with GC core policies
. . . with distinctive beliefs”

The compliance committees are dealing with issues related to institutions when they take official positions against the church, its teachings and its policies. Example of this are the following: Choosing to ordain women before the world church makes that an option, conferences choosing to withhold tithe for their own use, single signatures on major financial transactions (where one person has total control), or a church body deciding they no longer believe in the Trinity. Two committees have already been tasked to act, the one on ordination and the one on core policies. A third issue is in discussion and may been announced shortly, but does not yet have the votes.

Whether or not you like this proposed system, it is not the establishment of an Adventist papacy. The church is not changing its doctrines. It is not significantly changing its structures. It is certainly a move in the direction of centralization. Many leaders believes that such an action is needed at this time because of the perceived slide toward congregationalism (the protestant tendency). Some fears are stoked by the perception that current GC President Ted Wilson is the most powerful president in the last hundred years and that he will use these processes to coerce consciences and enforce uniformity. But the system is filled with safeguards. The hot debate over these issues among top leaders is not for nothing. Those who do not trust Elder Wilson, whether conservative or liberal think of him as supremely powerful. But he is not as powerful as both sides assume. I am confident that he does not feel very powerful right now. This proposal is not what he was hoping for. It is the product of collective wisdom, collective debate and collective decision. With all of their flaws these proposals are the best that UOC could come up with in a year of work. So the big question is: If these proposals are voted next week, where will they take the SDA Church?