On July 8, at 4:30 p.m., delegates of the Seventh-day Adventist church at the 2015 General Conference session in San Antonio, TX, voted 58% to 41% not to allow individual geographical divisions to decide for themselves whether to ordain women to ministry. Coming as it did after years of Bible study and discussion, after several days of debate, controversy, and scrutiny, the decision was deeply controversial, drawing attention from outside the denomination. Popular Christian author Rachel Held Evans tweeted, “Love & prayers to all the women hurting over the…ordination decision today. No one can take your call away. No one.”1 Within the church, tweets, posts, and articles responding to the church’s decision expressed the anger, devastation, and renewed conviction of thousands of members who still firmly advocated for women’s ordination. In the wake of the vote, one thing was inescapably clear: the vote had done nothing to unify the church or its members’ beliefs.
In an interview with the Adventist Review days before the vote, however, General Conference President Ted Wilson (a vocal opponent of women’s ordination) made his views about church unity clear: “Regardless of what decision the church makes on any number of subjects, this church is still the apple of [God’s] eye. Whatever decisions are taken, even though they may not be to your liking, there is no other place to go. This is God’s remnant church. If you don’t believe that, then you have, in your own mind, another recourse. But I don’t read anywhere in Scripture or in the Spirit of Prophecy that there will be another remnant of the remnant.”2
Wilson’s comments are consistent with the Adventist church’s teaching that it is the remnant church, God’s particular people tasked with maintaining scriptural truth during the end of the world. In the larger context of the Christian tradition, however, they raise timeless questions about the conflict between individual and church authority regarding spirituality and the interpretation of Scripture.
Christianity has never been genuinely homogenous, with dissenters and offshoots predating its formal organization as a religion, and the East-West Schism of 1054 resulting in the mainstream church splitting over questions of authority into two groups which we today identify as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. While these groups were in open disagreement over who was the true Christian church, however, they both maintained that they were the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”3 It wasn’t until the 16th century that the idea that there might not be one true and authoritative organized church took hold.
Martin Luther is a figure who requires no introduction: most Western Christians can roughly outline his path from devoted Catholic monk tormented by his inability to earn salvation through works, his earth-shattering reading of Romans and conviction that sinners are saved by grace alone, and his fiery commitment to making the Bible available to the common person. Luther believed that salvation was a deeply individual matter in which an individual confessed their sins to God directly and received all-encompassing grace instantly and without mediation by the church. This belief – and his criticism of the church’s corruption through the fund-raising sale of indulgences, or pardons for sins – led to his excommunication from the Catholic church, and spurred on the Protestant Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation can be summarized by three solae – sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”), sola fide (“by faith alone”), and sola gratia (“through grace alone”).4 All of these center around the importance of an individual and personal relationship with God, and place the onus of truth on the believer’s study of scripture and relationship with God. Unsurprisingly, these doctrines were directly contradictory to the hierarchical and authoritarian Catholic church, which emphasized obedience, top-down control, and the infallibility of the church. The Church demanded a loyalty so unbending that Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, is recorded to have said “What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.”5
In response to this extreme loyalty to the organized church regardless of truth, Luther was firm in his conviction. “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason,” Luther declared, “(for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves) I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”6
When it came to his encounter with the Catholic church, Luther took a clear stance: scriptural authority trumps church authority. That being said, he was encountering a specific church, deeply corrupt and self-removed from Biblical authority. Does Luther’s standard of individual spiritual autonomy stand over or ever against church authority for all places and all times? What role should the church, as a corporate body, have in determining Biblical truth?
These questions are complex, and not necessarily analogous to contemporary situations. The size and scale of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Church cannot be replicated within one mere denomination today. But many people today see Luther and the other Reformers as a primary reference point when confronted with the humanity and finitude of their own church traditions.
For contemporary Seventh-day Adventists, looking at controversial church decisions should lead to broader questions about the Church, the world, and God's role in defining leadership. No matter what side of an issue you might see yourself on, at some point you will disagree with something done by an individual or group in a position of authority. But what happens when we view that authority as being established or led by God?
In the New Testament Church, Paul was forced to watch from prison while some people preached the gospel of Jesus from impure motives. "It’s true that some are preaching out of jealousy and rivalry. But others preach about Christ with pure motives. They preach because they love me, for they know I have been appointed to defend the Good News. Those others do not have pure motives as they preach about Christ. They preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely, intending to make my chains more painful to me. But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice. For I know that as you pray for me and the Spirit of Jesus Christ helps me, this will lead to my deliverance." (Philippians 1:15-19 NLT)
This example from Paul demonstrates his attitude to some kinds of corruption among people taking on leadership roles in the church. He could not agree with everything they were doing, but was able to rejoice in the good that did come from their actions.
We see more of this from Paul when he looks out at authority issues the broader world. Paul and the early Christians would face scrutiny, mistrust, vilification, opposition, and even violence because of their religious beliefs. The Roman Empire would not be truly friendly to Christianity until the 4th century, and in any case this Empire had already proven to be a violent oppressive force in the world.
Nevertheless, Paul had this to say:
"Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience." (Romans 13:1-5 NLT)
For Paul, even political leaders who were clearly bad and responsible for the harm being experienced by Gods people (see Romans 8:35-37) had some role to play in Gods greater plan. The key was submission to God's will and knowledge of when to joyfully accept bad circumstances, and when to boldly obey God rather than people. (See Acts 5:29, 25:8-12)
How do you feel about those in authority over you in the world? Do you trust that God is leading and guiding them as much as he is leading and guiding you?
Related texts or passages to consider: 1 Thessalonians 5:12; Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 5:17; Ephesians 4:11-13
Read Acts 23-26, four chapters worth of material. How do you see Paul interacting with the political authorities of the world? How does Paul's faith in God drive his actions? What role does "conscience" play in Paul's actions?
Read Philippians 1:12-26. When Paul was in prison, how did he feel about the actions of other Christians who were preaching about Christ? How can we apply a similar attitude today when people in our own religious traditions disappoint us?
Read John 21:17-23. Jesus here is commissioning Peter to a specific task in his life. Peter points out John ("the disciple who Jesus loved") and asks "what about him?" Jesus essentially tells Peter "that's non of your business." What can we learn from this story about judging Jesus' other disciples in how God is leading them?
What should we do when our personal convictions and reading of the Bible disagree with those of the individual congregation we belong to? The denomination? The religion? Why?
Do church leaders have more interpretive authority than individual members? How about scholars of religion? What makes you think what you do?
Is it right to remain in a church with which you theologically disagree? Why or why not?