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Lee Roy Holmes
“Theological disunity is threatening the Adventist Church today as never before in our history.” I must confess I was startled by the article’s opening sentence, not only because it appeared in the Adventist Review (Feb. 14, 2013), but because it was written by Gerhard Pfandl, respected theologian and former director of the General Conference’s Biblical Research Institute.
Like many others, I suppose, I have had an uneasy feeling about the direction things have been going, but to have it confirmed in such unequivocal language in the church’s leading publication left me asking, “Are things really that bad?”
No doubt many minds are trying to retrace the steps the Adventist Church has taken to get to a place we have never been before “in our history,” if indeed that’s where we are. My own assessment is found in one word: independence. Not Bible-guided study. Not kindness and love for one another. Independence.
“All of you be submissive to one another,” the apostle urges (1 Peter 5:5). But it’s hard to submit. We are a society schooled in winning, not submitting. We question every call by the umpire. We challenge election results. We fight to protect our rights. We guard against the intrusion of government.
Submitting to the authority of the church may be the hardest of all, perhaps because we tend to view our relationship to the church as that of a volunteer. We joined of our own volition and serve at our pleasure. The idea that the church can exercise authority that would in any way limit our personal freedom and independence is not welcome. In fact, we may view such exercise of authority as both anti-American and anti-Christian. We demand religious liberty within the church as well as in the civil community, unwilling to accept the fact that, to a large degree, we surrendered that liberty in the very act of exercising it.
It’s hard to submit; but God, in His Word, has plainly asked us to do just that. He insists upon it. “All of you be submissive to one another.” But isn’t that dangerous? Submitting to God is one thing, but submitting to one another? “One another” can take in a lot of strange people!
First of all, the Bible makes it clear that everyone submits. Ephesians 5:21 is the umbrella under which Paul fits all the rest—“submitting to one another in the fear of God.” God is fair. The command takes in all. There is no executive privilege. No one climbs to such a high position that he no longer washes feet. No one is excused because it’s too hard. No one can beg off because he was born with a surplus of natural independence.
Second, we need to define what it means to submit to one another “in the fear of God.” Even as a very young Christian I understood that I was not required to submit to anyone in violation of conscience, not even to my own parents. The words “in the fear of God” stake out some boundaries for our required submission. Like the young Hebrews standing before the king’s idol on the plain of Dura, there are times when we have to say, “We will not kneel!”
Having established those two points, we can now explore what it means to submit to one another in the church. There are many ways in which that takes place. We submit to the church’s right to direct the mission of the church. We submit to each other’s God-given gifts. We submit to the church’s authority to discipline its members. We submit to pastoral leadership. And we submit to the church’s right to formulate doctrine.
But the heart and core of our submission is this: We submit to the authority of the church because it is an agency through which Christ exercises His authority. If we can agree to that, submitting to the church is greatly simplified. The Bible’s plain teaching is that “Christ is head of the church” (Ephesians 5:23). The church’s authority is a delegated authority; it was not invented by man, nor can it be self-assumed.
Christ gave authority to His prophets and apostles (2 Corinthians 10:8), and their words are still the basis of the church’s authority today. In the early church, elders and bishops were given authority to carry out their leadership functions (Acts 20:17-28). They had authority to decide what was sound doctrine and what was error (1 Timothy 3:1, 2). The entire church body was held accountable for purity of doctrine and discipline of its members (1 John 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:21). Questions of concern to the whole church were decided by a general council (Acts 15:6-35).
Seventh-day Adventists have, from their beginning, attempted to follow that New Testament model, and have developed a representative form of church government. Just as the decisions of the Jerusalem Council were not made by vote of every member of the church, so not every member votes on every church issue at every level of the organization today.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is God’s Church but the human element is not perfect. Mistakes can be made at all levels. But if Christ is indeed the head of the church, there has to be one body to whose decisions we are especially advised to submit. “God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority” (Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 261).
I have attended a General Conference session and marveled at the wisdom of the decisions made after thorough debate, and after being filtered through the minds of delegates from North America, Indonesia, India, Africa, Europe, South America, and other parts of the world. I came away convinced that the Spirit of God was present and working to protect His people from heresy and division.
Today some of our members are questioning the right of a General Conference session to interpret what the Bible teaches on the issue of women’s ordination. The seriousness of taking such a position can hardly be overstated. We need to recognize that every departure from full theological unity does, in fact, create another denomination. If that seems wacky, take a look at Baptist history. Wikipedia lists hundreds of Baptist denominations in the world. There are seventy-plus listed for North America. They range from Primitive Baptists to Seventh-day Baptists, from Landmark Baptists to Two Seed in the Spirit Predestinarian Baptists. And they all exist due to an assumed right to autonomy—autonomy exercised in many cases because of disagreements over the most trivial matters. And if the door to autonomy is opened at any level in the Seventh-day Adventist Church organization, further fragmentation is sure to follow in our denomination as well.
A church is defined by its beliefs and practices. The exercise of autonomy outside of policy voted by the majority redefines that part of the church. So if a Conference ignores an action taken by a Union, a Union votes to adopt a position contrary to its Division, a Division sets aside a process voted by the General Conference—each non-compliant entity must now be defined by those areas of non-compliance, and a new church has been created. At least its identity with the larger organization now has to be qualified. It is a Seventh-day Adventist entity except. And such exceptions go much deeper than some disagreement with voted policy. It is theological in that it challenges the larger group’s definition of the church.
It gets worse. Such an exercise in autonomy challenges Christ’s headship of the church. To take the position that the decision-making body of the church (The General Conference in session) is no longer guided by Christ through the Holy Spirit is to say that He not longer chooses to exercise His headship–or that He absents Himself when certain matters are being discussed. We need to remember that “He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalms 121:4 NKJV).
A crucial question which I feel is being ignored is the present discussion is this: If a church entity at one level can set aside the voted policy of any level above, what message does that send to members at the local level? Might they not take that as a model to guide their relationship to their own church, and feel free to act contrary to their church board’s decisions? The tendency toward independence and autonomy is sure to play out there as well.
If we really are more divided than we have ever been in our history, we are in crisis. It is imperative that each of us determines to do what we can to turn the tide—to be uniters, not dividers. Let’s do our part at the local level to submit to each other and make the exercise of church authority an expression of love. That kind of love makes us encouraging and forgiving, yet leads us to hold each other accountable, the kind of love that can get beyond the vagaries of human emotion and, guided by the infallible Word, do what is best for the body of Christ.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Lee Roy Holmes has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the North Pacific Union as Bible teacher, pastor, and school administrator for over forty years. Most recently he served as pastor for the Kettle Falls, Washington district. He has co-authored two Bible textbooks used in our academies, and written the book, The Church that Does Not Fall. He has three sons who are active in their local churches.