As the Adventist Church faces an ongoing dispute about how to relate to differences in polity and organization, I think that the following questions are quite revealing, and are answered similarly by those on the right and left of the church:
- 1. Do you trust God?
- 2. Do you trust Christ?
- 3. Do you trust the body of Christ?
Wait, you say, that third question is very different than the first two. The first two relate to the question of our faith and trust in the divine, which by definition can be completely trustworthy. The third question, the body of Christ, or the church, includes all those fallen, if redeemed, yet still messy, stubborn, and often annoying human beings.
Yes, there are differences, to be sure. The body of Christ does have a major human component, and we certainly cannot view it as infallible and perfect. Yet, consider this. the Bible reveals that God has appointed Christ as the Savior of the world. Also, it teaches that Christ works most visibly and prominently through His body, the church on earth, to bring this salvation to people (see 1 Corinthians 12:27-28). In light of this, can we say that we really trust God and Christ if we have little to no trust or confidence in His body?
There are many who are willing to trust the Body of Christ invisible and intangible—those true followers of Christ found in all denominations and even religions who are genuinely committed to following the leading and prompting of the Holy Spirit. But this trust comes rather easily, as this invisible body is not organized as a visible community, and does not seek accountability. It makes no demands on us other than those flowing from brotherly love and sisterly hospitality—the extent of which is entirely up to us.
But the Bible talks about the reality of living in a visible Christian community with messy humanity. It talks of the mutual submission we should give each other, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Submission only occurs when there is disagreement, and this requires a certain level of trust in others.
The Bible also talks about the submission we should have to those who are responsible for the church. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account in the church” (Hebrews 13:17). Clearly, this is not a blind or unconditional submission. Rather, it is thoughtful, intelligent submission based on the principles of God’s word, as was shown by the noble Bereans (Acts 17:10-11). But it is also true that this submission requires a certain level of trust in the body of Christ and its leadership.
Of course, it would be a mistake to equate the body of Christ or its leadership with any particular level of church organization, whether local churches, pastors, conferences, Unions, or the General Conference. The body of Christ is the whole group of believers, as “we all are baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). The experience that we have of this body, however, is most often at the local level. That experience, of course, can extend to the representatives of larger groups of believers, such as we might see at a constituency meeting of a Conference, Union, or the General Conference. Further, as the body of Christ is in the group of believers, so the leadership of the body of Christ includes all the leaders, not just one segment, whether local, regional, or worldwide (Acts. 15:1-2). (Now, I’m not making the claim that the Adventist church is the only visible aspect of the body of Christ, but for the Adventist church member, that is the practical, covenanted, lived reality.)
These groups speak most responsibly and fully (though not infallibly, of course) at either a General Conference in session or at an Annual Council meeting, which are analogous to the first Jerusalem Conference of Act 15. (Some would bristle at suggesting that an Annual Council is like the Jerusalem Conference, and they would want to reserve this comparison for the General Conference in session. But historically, the Jerusalem Conference was in some ways more like our Annual Councils than it was a General Conference—both in terms of size, duration, and lay representation. But still, I believe we have wisely chosen to limit the right of doctrinal formulations and significant church reorganization to the General Conference in session.)
In seeking to oppose a Catholic system of hierarchy, we may over-react and undo appropriate and biblical notions of trust, submission, and even authority. If we do this, we threaten confidence in the structures of the church whereby coordinated action and unity of purpose are achieved. This kind of dissent can have the ironic effect of causing a backlash, with some returning to medieval Catholic versions of authority. This can be seen in the return of many formerly Protestant intellectuals and scholars to the Catholic church when they become aware that many Evangelical churches, with their loose-knit confederations, and often congregational organization, have an insufficient basis for church unity.
What I have written here should not be read as a defense or apology for the current proposed plan of compliance committees that has been recently unveiled. I have a real problem with this plan and the way in which it is structured. I believe that the proposed plan itself violates the spirit if not the letter of church policy.
I think it is a problem for a General Conference Committees to remove ex officio committee members for accurately representing the positions of their constituents. Union personnel are chosen by their own constituencies and are employees of separate organizations, which the General Conference does not directly control. To remove these representatives from General Conference committees based on a finding of misconduct for merely accurately representing their constituents’ views is to expand significantly the notion of misconduct, and also shortcuts the existing disciplinary process.
The General Conference could re-organize these Unions if it chose, and appoint interim leaders and representatives until new ones are elected. But it could only take this extreme step, under current policy, at a General Conference session. To expel committee members based on interim findings of misconduct—in effect punishing them for the views of the organizations they represent—is to get the punitive cart before the procedural horse. Thus, the so-called compliance committees will themselves, in my opinion, be out of compliance as soon as they are voted. Ironically, their appropriate first task would be to investigate themselves!
It is not that I am against church accountability. I would argue that parts of the church suffer from a lack of balanced and responsible accountability. But such committees, to be legitimate, should have much more representation from lower church bodies, as well as from laymen. The body of Christ should hold itself accountable, but not through some “super team” of General Conference personnel, with a few token others. Such an unbalanced committee would indeed represent a move towards a papal-like hierarchy. A more balanced committee would have General Conference representation, but there should be much more regional and local representation. The current proposed structure also appears to assume that only lower bodies and leaders need to be held accountable. The Bible teaches that accountability should be mutual.
But again, do we not believe that both the body of leaders at Annual Council, and ultimately the gathering of the fuller body later on at the General Conference, will act responsibly and ultimate reject, or at least significantly modify, the current proposal? Consider the last two Annual Councils, where similar attempts were made to bring heavy-handed methods of discipline and control to bear. What happened? These methods were either scuttled because of the collective concern when they were revealed, or they were voted down outright, as happened in 2017. Why do we not believe that the 2018 Annual Council will be similarly Spirit-led and responsible? Would we modify our feelings and expressions of outrage, despair, frustration, and so on, if we were quietly confident that God is still really in control—especially of those matters that relate the body of Christ?
Again, trust in the body of Christ is not a blind trust that it will do everything perfectly, or that it will never disappoint us. Rather, it is an overarching confidence that God continues to guide and oversee it, and that it is worth our supporting it and working for it. In this way, we can help make it, by the grace of God, a better, fuller, and more complete reflection of Him. In doing this, we are only following the example of Jesus himself—who entrusted himself and His efforts on behalf of a very weak, immature, and disorganized group of fallible human beings.
It is not unlike a marriage, where we entrust ourselves to the imperfect human being that is our spouse, and they to us. Do we not make mistakes, and disappoint each other, and let each other down? Yes, we do. Do we work to hold each other accountable? Again, yes. Yet we are committed to the covenant we have made before God and man. Christ has made a similar kind of covenant with His church.
These similarities are why Paul used the example of marriage to describe the relationship between Christ and His church: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).
Can we sacrifice more for the body of Christ than Christ himself did? Can it disappoint us any more than it did and does Him? Do we have any reason to be less committed to it than He was? At a time when our country is riven with insurmountable ideological divides, is it not time to show that Adventist Christians have a unity and a trust that is not of this world? May all of us—left, center, and right—see beyond our policy concerns and differences to this larger vision and calling.