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The Spirit of Rebellion: Another Look at Post-Utrecht Ordinations

by

Samuel Koranteng-Pipim

[At the 1995 General Conference (GC) session in Utrecht, Netherlands, the Seventh-day Adventist Church worldwide voted to reject the proposal of the North American Division (NAD) to ordain women as pastors. The vote was 1481 to 673. Despite this decisive vote, a few NAD congregations decided to defy the democratic decision of the church by unilaterally ordaining women--an action that has provoked heated debates in different places. This article is a response to the arguments used by some champions of the post-Utrecht "rebellion." Although the original exchange took place in a public forum, I have changed the names of the individuals involved, and the site of the debate. This allows me to concentrate on the issues raised, rather than the personalities involved].

TO: BROTHER JOHN AND "ALL WHO CHERISH "INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM OF MORAL CONSCIENCE"

I welcome the privilege of dialoguing with you on an issue we both hold dear. While none of us can claim to be spokespersons for either the church of the West or the rest of the church, our conversation may be read as a genuine attempt by committed Adventists to grapple with issues that arise when some members of one region of the world church decide to go their own way in defiance of a democratic and prayerful decision. Let's leave aside the fact that some are failing to honor their own Division's pledge to not "embarrass," "divide," and "bring dishonor upon this church that we love." The issue now engaging our attention raises crucial questions about our respective understanding of the principles of a democratic system of church governance as well as how the Holy Spirit leads a body of people as its members wrestle with theological/ethical concerns.

On Feb 5, 1996 I offered a two-part critique of Sister Mary's justification of the post-Utrecht ordinations in some North American Division (NAD) congregations, and her consequent call upon consciencious proponents of Women's Ordination (WO) to withdraw from the church (see her 2/1/96 post on the "FORUM"). While readers of our two posts on the "FORUM" may want to form their own conclusions about the merits of the issues we addressed, I'd like to congratulate you for your interest in an important issue and your attempt to clarify Sister Mary's position (refer to your 2/7/96 response under the subject "Re: On Ultimate Rebellions"). Your effort was an honorable one, even though your own nuanced justification of the rebellion was more noteworthy for its breadth than for its depth on the critical issues that provoked my response to Sister Mary. Let me explain:

In concluding your apparent justification for the rebellion in some NAD congregations, you assert that those who choose to embark upon this course of action are neither willing to circumscribe the "Holy Spirit's leading" nor their "individual freedom of moral conscience" to the decision of Utrecht. Consequently, you write that the post-Utrecht proponents of WO are:

prepared to confront any organization who dictates to them who they may and may not recognize as a spiritual leader. Whether the organization allows this confrontation to lead to separation is up to it. Most people in this group sincerely believe in the Adventist system--they believe it can work, and believe it has an important mission to fulfill. This belief, however, extends to the concept of individual freedom of moral conscience, which people in this group see as a foundational idea underlying the whole of the Adventist system. Some of them see what they feel are dangerous tendencies within the church leadership to encroach upon that free exercise of moral conscience. This church, they maintain, has a long-standing and venerable tradition of not having a creed, and see the resultant plurality within the church as a positive thing, as long as it is used correctly. This correct use, they believe, will allow for different praxis by different individuals, and in no case should the opinion of the majority be allowed to infringe on the conscience of the individual.

In view of the fact that the seeds of rebellion that are currently being sown may soon grow and later bear some bitter fruits, permit me to explain why we must all be careful any time we are tempted to entertain thoughts about, or encourage the spirit of, rebellion--even if we justify these in the name of "the Holy Spirit's leading" or in the name of the non-negotiable ideals of "freedom of conscience." But first, let me emphasize that although the immediate context of our current engagement is the few post-Utrecht ordinations in the NAD, that my concerns go far beyond the issue of WO. I am directing these concerns to the members of the group who, in your words, "sincerely believe in the Adventist system--they believe it can work, and believe it has an important mission to fulfill." My question to them is: How can they advocate rebellion to the worldwide decision while at the same time claim to believe (i) in the SDA church as God's remnant movement, (ii) in the democratic principles undergirding the SDA church governance, and (iii) in the Holy Spirit's leading of our church? Let me explain why I raise these questions.

1. DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES AND THE SDA CHURCH GOVERNANCE Today, in several regions of the world, Adventists are experiencing an outpouring of the Spirit. Young men and women have accepted Jesus as their Savior and Lord, the Bible as His inspired and trustworthy Word, the second-coming as their blessed hope, and the Seventh-day Adventist church as God's end-time remnant movement in fulfilment of Bible prophecy. These believers from "every nation, kindred, tongue, and people" are daily searching the Scriptures, agonizing in prayer, making costly decisions of discipleship, sharing their faith, sometimes in toil and pain, and demonstrating to the wounded world around them that, indeed, the worldwide Adventist church is a unique commonwealth that is moving beyond the ethnic, tribal, nationalistic and other forms of racial pride, arrogance, hate and hurt.

These believers have listened to the dedicated missionaries and national workers who first preached to them. Like the Berean christians, they have "searched the Scriptures to see whether those things are so" (Acts 17:11). Believing that they have not followed "archaic colonial discriminatory biblical interpretations" (Sister Mary) nor some other "cunningly devised fables" (2 Pet 1:16), these Bible-believing Adventists are testifying, in the words of the people of Samaria: "Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world" (John 4:42).

Given their excitement over the certainty of the distinctive truths of Adventism believers in some parts of the world are astonished when they detect signs of an identity crisis in other parts of the world. They find it difficult to understand why people who have taught, have believed, and been baptized as Seventh-day Adventists could ever come to the point of doubting any of the distinctive S's of their faith--(i) Scripture's inspiration, trustworthiness, and and sole authority, (ii) the Substitutionary atonement of Christ, (iii) the Sanctuary message, (iv) the Second-Coming, (v) the Sabbath of the 4th commandment, (vi) the State of the dead, (vii) the Spirit of Prophecy, and (viii) the Standards on food, drink, dress, entertainment, relationships, etc. And given the fact that believers in several regions of the world (including North America) are willing to lose their jobs, education, friends, family, relationships, and even their own lives for Jesus Christ and His chosen bride (the remnant church), they also cannot understand why some will even entertain the thought of a rebellion, or even an "ultimate rebellion" of withdrawing from the church over the perceived injustice or discrimination of the church in not allowing women to be ordained as elders/pastors.

It should be emphasized again that the issue we are now discussing is not about the theological/ethical rightness or wrongness of WO in each individual division. Nor is it about the fact that the idea of "local ordinations," just as the idea of "local baptism" of polygamists, is meaningless, if not ridiculous in the SDA system of church government. It is none of these. Instead, the problem we are attempting to confront has to do with how baptized Seventh-day Adventists, in good and regular standing, ought to conduct themselves when an overwhelming majority of their fellow brothers and sisters reject as unacceptable what they sincerely believe to be biblically/morally justifiable. Should these conscientious individuals defy, circumvent, reinterprete or rebel against a collective decision?

Specifically, how can some in the church of the West commend the principles of democracy to the rest of the church, and yet proceed to act undemocratically? Their action would be understandable if we believe that the church in one part of the world has been divinely mandated to unilaterally dictate (or using Sister Mary's language, to "control") the rest of the church. But this racial spirit has never been accepted as the ethos for Adventism. Again, where is the "moral conscience" we speak about when post-Utrecht proponents of "rebellion" can in one breath advocate "equality," and yet when a body of "equal" believers takes a decision that is to be binding upon all, the very group that waves the flag of "equality," "justice" and "fairness" turns around and shows contempt on the collective decision by defying, circumventing, or reinterpreting that decision? Their action may be understandable if we believe that, for whatever reason, some parts of the world church are spiritually or theologically "more equal" (some will say more "matured," "progressive," "enlightened" or "principled") than the rest of the church. But our Fundamental Beliefs #13 challenges this very spirit of racial or cultural superiority also. (For the implications of Fundamental Belief # 13 to the issues being raised here, see my on-line article, The Triumph of Grace Over Race."

Regrettably, those who claim a moral or spiritual high ground for their views are finding reasons to masquerade their individualistic spirit, if not their attitude of cultural snobbery towards the rest of the church. As we pursue our discussion of how responsible church members of a worldwide church should relate to collective decisions that they deem unacceptable, we will take a closer look at how these latter-day rebellions are being justified.

Brother John, let me emphasize that, even though the majority of believers in the NAD do not subscribe to the spirit of rebellion, the reason why I commented on the statements and overstatements of Sister Mary (see my 2/5/96 "FORUM" post) is that they contained the seeds of the kind of spirit, which if left unchallenged, may sooner or later manifest itself in the rebellious activities often associated with off-shoots--independent groups, whether of the fanatical right or the radical left. For though these rebellious groups are different, and though the causes they champion vary, they all share the same basic attitude of thinking and acting as if they alone possess superior knowlege, insight or maturity in biblical and ethical issues. In the context of our current discussion, this attitude of cultural arrogance literally says "no turning back" on my views on WO--pro or con--no matter what the rest of the church thinks or says.

Observe from Sister Mary's 2/1/96 post what happens to one who cherishes and encourages this kind of spirit of rebellion:

(1) one displays an attitude of disrespect towards the elected leaders of the NAD, just because one disagrees with leadership;
(2) one appraises the Utrecht GC session as a "disgrace," just because one fails to see the Spirit's leading in the decisions that were arrived at;
(3) one insinuates about the motives of other divisions, just because one believes that the issue of WO is "policy" and the others divisions viewed it as "theological";
(4) one intimates that their brothers and sisters from other divisions are less than equal to their counterparts in NAD, just because one fails to recognize that it is possible for women who are as equal and as capable as their men to be "affirmed" in the soul-winning ministry without aspiring to be the representative heads of their homes or churches (which is what the real issue about WO or headship is about);
(5) one is inclined to believe that the "intense study" of some scholars should determine theological truth, just because one fails to realize that in the SDA church, scholars (as well as leaders) must submit their findings to correction by the entire church--a historic practice that was dramatized at Utrecht with two scholars at opposing ends of the issue, and by the sad fact that today the scholars are themselves divided over such issues as biblical inspiration and interpretation, sanctuary, Ellen G. White, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, homosexuality, polygamy, war, etc.;
(6) one shows carelessness in handling historical facts when one claims that proponents of WO had been "silent" for 20 years prior to Utrecht, just because in spite of the pro-WO "strategies" and activities a majority of the church was not convinced by their arguments; and (7) one justifies the post-Utrecht rebellions in some NAD congregations as morally legitimate, and goes on to encourage the "ultimate rebellion" of leaving the church.

Brother John, because your response dealt with points 5-7, let me briefly comment on these and move on to offer some biblical guidelines on how members of a worldwide church should conduct themselves whenever issues of theological disagreement arise--issues on which opposing sides claim for their side "the Holy Spirit is leading" or "individual freedom of moral conscience."

(a) Scholars and the World Church. Though both sides of the WO offer conflicting accounts of what actually happened at Mohaven conference of the 1970s--the conference that purportedly declared that there is no biblical obstacle against WO--one thing is certain; since that time students of the Bible have continued with their studies, resulting in some "Mohaven scholars" changing their former views (apparently, then, scholars are fallible). Since Mohaven, as a result of the ensuing discussions and articles, and the concerns raised by both sides, the worldwide church has had to address this issue twice--first at Indianapolis (1990) and recently at the Utrecht (1995) GC sessions. Prior to and during the GC sessions the scholars and leaders made their voices heard, the worldwide church evaluated their arguments, and offered its verdict. This is not "morality by democracy," nor a determination of "good scholarship...by popular vote," nor even a "papacy of administrators," as you claim. It was simply the Adventist church's historic way of passing judgment on an issue that both sides claim the Bible and the Holy Spirit as their allies. Later, in part 3, we shall look at biblical principles to resolve such theological conflicts.

(b) Is It Historical Research or Historical Revisionism? Were pro-ordinationists silent in their production and distribution of pro-WO materials, as you and Sister Mary claim? Based on your "previous debates on the 'FORUM'" you conclude Yes. As evidence you point to publications by Our Firm Foundation and Adventist Affirm publications, including the latter's The Tip of An Iceberg and Searching the Scriptures. (By the way, in an apparent attempt to give delegates who had read Searching the Scriptures another perspective, an influential NAD Conference distributed to delegates at the Utrecht GC session an eye-opening critique, by a team of five pro-ordination scholars; researchers may what to evaluate the scholars' critique of the book by the actual contents of Searching the Scriptures). It seems also that you may have forgotten to mention also the book Women in the Church: A Biblical Study on the Role of Women in the Church by Biblical Perspectives publications.

Quite understandably, because the source of your research was limited to "previous debates on the 'FORUM'," and not from readily available published sources at the library, you could only identify one book, The Welcome Table, for the pro-WO side! Typical of "research" works of this quality, you proceed by intimating that "the lag in pro-women's ordination material is due to respect of GC calls for "cooling off periods" or some other influence (like lack of funding or interest)"! Is this historical research or historical revisionism?

Leaving aside the important question of whether there has ever been a moratorium on the study of Scriptures on the issue of WO, and if there has been one, ignoring questions about who, when, to whom and why the alleged moratorium was issued, we still need to address the critical question: Were pro-WO relatively silent (allegedly because of their "respect" for the GC, or a "lack of funding or interest" on their part)? This is one area where there appears to be a gross mishandling of facts. In your case I'll assume that it was untentional since your source of facts was limited to prior discussions on the "FORUM"--never mind who placed the information there. Given this limitation on your part, I can understand why you failed to mention the activities and publications of individuals who were pushing the WO agenda. I can think of independent groups like Adventist Women's Institute (AWI), Association of Adventist Women (AAW), Time for Equality in Adventist Ministry (TEAM), and possibly many other groups that sought to "affirm" women in ministry. I can also think of publications like "Ponderings," Newsletter of AAW, "Spectrum," and "Adventists Today"--not to mention conferences/seminars/retreats sponsored by some of these groups.

You were correct in noting the publication of the pro-ordination book, The Welcome Table (by the way there is availble at the Adventist Heritage Center of Andrews University library an insightful critique, by a New Testament scholar, showing the liberal historical-critical assumptions underlying many of the essays in this book). Again, quite understandably, you also missed at least two other pro-ordination books: Women in their Place: Does God Call Women?; and also, Women, Church, God: A Socio-Biblicl Study. I've just allerted you to some of the non-official pro-WO publications. This will put into perspective your claim that because of the pro-WO group's "respect" for the GC, and possibly because they lacked "funding and interest" they have been relatively in the years since Utrecht.

I'm only left to wonder how a group which lacked funding and interest wa able to establish and implement "special strategy committees" to "educate" the church in their "promotion" of WO? Some may also want to know who was behind the lobbying, petition drives, referenda, etc. on college and university campuses, and among different groups, departments, and constituencies within the church. It is probably because you were unaware of these facts that you speak of the decision at Utrecht as tantamount to "morality by democracy, where the moral conscience of the members is decided by who can sway the most delegates to GC"! I hope that people who believe in "justice" and "fairness" will desist from re-cycling this historical revisionism once their attention is called to the facts. But there is more.

At least there is one more major source you failed to mention--namely our official church publications (Review, Ministry, Insight, etc.) as well as statements and activities by influential denominational leaders and constituencies. While I'll leave that line of investigation to "unbiased observers" (using the expression of Sister Mary), there is one statement I want to call your attention to. It comes from the pen of an editor of a PRO-ordination publication. In an analysis of the 1,481 to 673 defeat of the WO request at Utrecht, this pro-ordination scholar of ethics wrote: "Denominational leaders, with others, had backed ordination with speeches at Annual Council, the speech in Utrecht, and a special strategy committee. The Southeastern California Conference Gender Inclusiveness Commission and others had sent materials to all GC delegates. The Adventist Review has run special covers, issues, and features promoting women....Some ordination proponents thought that they might win if they got enough materials to the delegates, but found themselves wrong" (Adventist Today, July-August, 1995, pp. 12-13).

Do I need to comment any further? Unless the observation of this pro-ordination scholar of ethics is a misrepresentation of the facts, we have before us some pieces of evidence to judge the credibility of the "preliminary results" of your "FORUM research" in which you conclude that proponents of WO have been relatively silent on WO--in comparison with those opposed to it.

I want to emphasize that the issue we are addressing is not about the legitimacy of people expressing their views--whether pro or con WO. After all in a democratic system, such as our own, this may be perfectly appropriate--even necessary, if people are to make informed decisions. The issue we are dealing with is this: Is it morally justifiable for advocates of "fairness" and "justice" to ignore, or to mishandle, obvious facts? What has truth to hide? Is truth not its own defence?

Brother John, the above discussion highlights some of my concerns when I hear people waving the flag of "democracy," "equality," "fairness," "justice," and "unbiased" research, and yet in their relationship with people who disagree with them on issues, they do not seem to uphold these ideals. The question is not resolved either, when a person hides himself under the banner of "the individual freedom of moral conscience" or the "Holy Spirit's leading."

It is rather incomprehensible that while advocating "equality," "justice," and "fairness," some would not keep faith by honoring the collective decision that a representative body of "equals" took. It also not clear how a person can claim to be loyal to and supportive of the Adventist church and yet, proceed to rebel against that very church or even encourage the "ultimate rebellion" of withdrawing from the church.

It should be emphasized again that the issue we are addressing in this essay on "The Spirit of Rebellion" is one which goes beyond the current post-Utrecht ordinations by a few NAD congregations. We are challenging the spirit/attitude that says "I'll have/go my own way regardless of what others think or decide." We are trying to understand the attitude that claims the Holy Spirit's "leading" or the concept of "individual freedom of moral conscience" as reason to (i) show contempt to the democratic decision of the worldwide church; (ii) to show disrespect to chosen leaders of the church; (iii) and in some cases, to blackmail the church, e.g., by withholding tithes. It is this kind of spirit that creates offshoots--either of the fanatical right or the radical left. If we are to avoid the fate of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, there will be a need for Bible-believing Adventists to put in biblical perspective our talk about "conscience" and the Spirit's "leading."

HOW THE SPIRIT GUIDES: THE CORPORATE CHURCH & INDIVIDUAL CONSCIENCE

The Holy Spirit guides believers through His inspired and trustworthy Word, through our consciences and through the godly counsels of members of His church. The problem arises when the "spirit-guided" conscience or the "spirit-guided " understanding of the Word by an individual or a group conflicts with the "spirit-guided" views of the entire body of believers. What should a person do?

In my two-part critique of Sister Mary (see my Feb 5, 1996 "FORUM" post), I offered some suggestions. Let me briefly state what matured Christians ought to do in situations when their views clash with the majority of believers in the church:

(i) Gently present your findings to the church, and seek input and counsel from other members;
(ii) earnestly pray that the Lord will cause the church to see the light you have seen; much more can be accomplished on our knees than all the "pressures," "tithe embargoes," "strategic sessions," "political maneuverings," etc. that we are capable of mustering;
(iii) believe that since God is leading the church, even when delegates at a church council or GC session reject what is indeed true light, God Himself will step in at an appropriate time and overrule these human decisions (Acts 5:38-39);
(iv) continue to respect and support the church and its chosen leaders, even if on occassion we find ourselves in disagreement; our leaders are frail and fallible human beings, just as we are; we must pray for them as well as for our own selves;
(v) if there comes a time when one is absolutely convinced that the church is no longer the remnant church (and has become Babylon), one must graciously leave the SDA church and seek God's end-time remnant somewhere else. While this decision may be a painful one, it is the nature of authentic christianity to make decisions of costly discipleship--when one is absolute convinced that the church is not God's church. But for individuals to claim that the church is God's remnant, and for them to profess to be loyal members, while at the same time they proceed to defy, disrespect, blackmail, rebel against, or undermine its authority and doctrines is not a responsible christian spirit. It is misguided, if not hypocritical.

What about situations in which individuals still believe that the church is God's end-time remnant movement and yet they have legitimate reasons to question a collective decision taken at an annual council or a GC session? On the other hand, how can individuals avoid the folly, pressumption, or confusion that result when they wrongly diagnose their misguided individualistic spirit as a right to assert "freedom of individual moral conscience" or the Holy Spirit's "leading"? The Bible addresses these questions by offering some timely principles on the value of humbly subjecting one's views to the correction of the entire body of believers. For example, we are told: "The way of the fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel" (Pro 12:15); "Through presumption comes nothing but strife, but with those who receive counsel is wisdom" (Pro 13:10); "Where there is no guidance, the people fall but in abundance of counselors there is victory" (Pro 11:14). Since these inspired words come from the wisest man who ever lived--and one who once experimented with the folly of misguided conceit--those of us who are ever tempted to think of ourselves as spiritually, ethically, or theologically more "enlightened" or "matured" than all others may do well if we heed these divine counsels.

The Bible's discussion of "conscience" is equally enlightening. The Bible urges us to do our best to "maintain a clear conscience" before God (Acts 24:16). But the Bible also speaks about different kinds of conscience. We are told that the conscience can be "good" (Acts 23:1; 1 Tim 1:19), "evil" (Heb 10:22; cf. 9:14), "seared" (1 Tim 4:1-4), "weak" (1 Cor 8:9-12), and "defiled" (Titus 1:15). Since the human heart is very deceptive, it is important for individuals who want to cherish "freedom of moral conscience" to ensure that their own consciences have not been shaped by their un-examined secular culture or ecclesiastical tradition. Our English word, "conscience," it must be remembered comes from two Latin words--CON (which means "with" or "together") and SCIRE (meaning "to know"). Thus, etymologically, the word conscience suggests "to know with" or "to know together." The same meaning is found in the New Testament Greek word for conscience, SUNEIDESIS, meaning "to know with," "to see together," or "to agree with." Therefore, conscience is never an independent authority for knowlege. It is always a knowing in partnership with others. A true conscience is one which knows with God--i.e. one which is in agreement with God and His Word, as it is led by the Holy Spirit (Rom 9:1).

Ellen G. White said it best: "It is not enough for a man to think himself safe in following the dictates of his conscience. . . . The question to be settled is, Is the conscience in harmony with the Word of God? If not, it cannot safely be followed, for it will deceive. The conscience must be enlightened by God. Time must be given to a study of the Scriptures and to prayer. Thus the mind will be established, strengthened, and settled" (Our High Calling, p. 143). This raises the question: How does the Spirit guide the individual conscience in its understanding of Scriptures vis-a-vis His leading of the corporate church?

On pages 40-44 of Searching the Scriptures I have offered some biblical suggestions. Let me briefly summarize:

1. THE SPIRIT GUIDES INDIVIDUAL BELIEVERS. Without belittling the valuable contributions of technical biblical experts, we need to remember that it is possible for everyone to study Scripture without a mass of technical theological expertise. One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to lead laypersons, no less than theologians, into "all truth" (John 14:26; 16:13-14; 1 Cor 2:10-14; 1 John 2:27). The assurance that "the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple" is still valid (Ps 19:7). Scripture is able to make even little children "wise unto salvation" (2 Tim 3:15). The Holy Spirit will lead everyone who approaches the Word of God with the humble, tachable, and God-fearing attitude of the child Samuel: "Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth" (1 Sam 3:9-10).

2. THE SPIRIT GUIDES THE ENTIRE CHURCH COMMUNITY. But while the Spirit guides individual believers in their study of Scripture, Paul says that believers will come to a knowledge of God "with all the saints" (Eph 3:18), suggesting that God also gives spiritual understanding through the Christian community. It is here that the different gifts of the Spirit come to play--particularly, the gifts of teaching, wisdom, discernment of spirits, prophesying. This is where the contributions of elders/pastors, preachers, administrators and professional theologians come in. While their interpretations are not normative, they cannot be lightly ignored (cf.Acts 17:11). The recognition that the Spirit guides believers in partnership "with all the saints" repudiates "Lone Ranger-ism" in interpreting Scripture--the spirit that says "I'll go my own way without regard to what the community of believers thinks"--and it serves as a check on those who tend to believe that they alone are guided by the Holy Spirit.

"God has not passed His people by and chosen one solitary man here and another there as the only ones worthy to be entrusted with His truth. He does not give one man new light contrary to the established faith of the body. In every reform men have arisen making this claim. . . . Let none be self-confident, as though God had given them special light above their brethren. Christ is represented as dwelling in His people. Believers are represented as 'built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief Cornerstone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit' [Eph 2:20-22]" (Testimonies for the Church, 5:291-292).

3. THE SPIRIT GUIDES AT A CHURCH COUNCIL. Just as there is safety and certainty "in the multitude of counselors" (Prov 11:14; 15:22), so also in the collective decision of the worldwide church at a council meeting there is safety. The Spirit's guidance at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) may be instructive for Seventh-day Adventists who are tempted to defy, circumvent, or reinterpret GC session decisions. Note the following:

(a) The problem confronting the apostolic church was not merely asociological issue, shaped by culture or geography, to be resolved pragmatically by compromises and concessions. Rather, it was a theological issue, having to do with salvation, the law, and the understanding of Scriptures on these issues (Acts 15:1, 5, 15).

(b) Because it was a theological issue it became a church-wide issue, and could not, therefore, be settled by each different region of the church according to the cultural "readiness" of the various churches, nor according to the sociological structures (be they "democratic" or "non-democratic") in the respective regions where the church had a presence (Acts 15:2-4).

(c) Because the theological issue was an explosive one, to resolve the "sharp dispute and debate" (v. 2) a council was convened--a GC session at Jerusalem--attended by delegates from the different regions of the church (vv. 2-6). Before a final decision was made, they had a free and open discussion of the issue, with theological input from both Gentile and Jewish Christians (vv.7-12). Could this suggest that no one region of the world church, group of scholars or administrators has monopoly over insights on theological, ethical, spiritual issues?

(d) The decision was not based on pragmatic considerations; instead, after Peter, Paul, and Barnabas called attention to God's work among Jews and Gentiles, James appealed to Scripture as the basis for the theological solution (vv. 15-21). And after listening to the different arguments, they adopted a position that was based on a harmonistic approach to Scriptures (not a "principle-based" approach nor "an archaich, colonial, discriminatory biblical interpretation"--whatever these post-Utrecht recycled jargons mean). The literal principle they employed in their interpretation of Scripture was simple: "The words of the prophets [must be] in agreement with this, as it is written" [v. 15]).

(e) After the spirited debate, they, "with one accord" (v. 25 KJV), took a decision. The scriptural solution to the theological problem did not only result in unity and harmony between the Jewish and Gentile Christians (vv. 22-35, but it also met the approval of the Holy Spirit ("It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. . ." [v. 28 NIV]) because it was in harmony with His expressed will as revealed and recorded in inspired Scripture.

(f) Finally, the theological decision they made at that Jerusalem GC session was not optional, to be accepted or rejected according to the "unique needs" or "peculiar circumstances" of the different churches. The council's prohibitions were binding on all the churches: they are said to be "necessary," not optional (v. 28). Though the letter was addressed to the Christians in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia (vv. 23-29), it was binding on all the other Christian churches (Acts 16:4; 21:25; Rev 2:14, 20). And because the various churches submitted to the council decision, the mission of the church was greatly helped, resulting in a growing church membership (Acts 16:4-5). The strategy for church growth was: Quit fighting and start working! The harvest is ripe.

CONCLUSION

This is how the Spirit leads a worldwide democratic church. And this is the example recorded in Scripture for our emulation. As we stated at the beginning of this essay, these are exciting days for worldwide Adventism. But these are also turbulent days. Ellen G. White describes it as a time of sealing and shaking. For this reason, we should not be surprised if in the coming days and months we witness all kinds of rebellions. These rebellions will be packaged in different labels, and the commercials (advertisements) for the rebellious products will sound impressive ("equality," "justice," "fairness," "revival," "purity," etc.). Our only safeguard in the days ahead will be Scriptures alone. This is why we must daily continue "searching the Scriptures" to see whether the things we are seeing and hearing around us are really of God.

While this essay was born by my concerns about the "rebellion" spoken of by Sister Mary and Brother John, in a very real sense, I am also appealing to the many Marys, Johns, Samuels, Jeffs, Janets, Richards, Rosemarys, etc. who are wrestling with, entertaining thoughts about, and planting seeds of "rebellion." My attempt is designed to alert us on the "ultimate rebellion"--the gathering storm--that looms in the horizon. This is the time for us to hunt for the solid Rock, dig deep, and lay our foundation sure. When we do so, when the time comes when the rains come down, and the floods go up, and the winds blow in different directions, our individual theological houses will stand firm. Let us therefore build upon Christ, the only solid Rock (cf. Matt 7:25). If we do so, no one can cause us to fall-- not even our fellow church members, our loved ones, our scholars or leaders, or our church council decisions. May the Lord help us.


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Last Modified 23 March 2000

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