By Reinder Bruinsma — During the recent Annual Council of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, some 300 participants from all around the world voted two official statements. One of these expressed the church’s continued confidence in the ministry of Ellen G. White. It was agreed to put this on the agenda for the next World Session of the General Conference of the Church in Indianapolis (May 2021) for endorsement by the world church.
The other official statement was the response of the Adventist Church to recent social developments in society, in particular in the United States. It was titled, “One Humanity: A Human Relations Statement Addressing Racism, Casteism, Tribalism, and Ethnocentrism,” and dealt with the issue of social justice.
The statement reads: We maintain our allegiance to the biblical principles of equality and dignity of all human beings in the face of historic and continuing attempts to use skin color, place of origin, caste, or perceived lineage as a pretext for oppressive and dominating behavior. . . . We accept and embrace our Christian commitment to live, through the power of the Holy Spirit, as a Church that is just, caring, and loving.
Some will undoubtedly wonder what impact such official denominational statements have. Will they be read by a major portion of our worldwide membership, let alone be noticed by the society around us? A few members, here and there, will probably analyze every word of the statement and ask some critical questions. Is the document clear enough and complete enough? Or does it fail to mention some important injustices—for instance, the widespread discrimination against those who have a “different” sexual orientation?
Some church members may also wonder whether accepting full gender equality does not require that female pastors receive the same status as their male colleagues. Others will welcome the statement as it was voted and consider it important that the church raises its voice to make clear where it stands in this time of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and amid continued global injustice at a horrendous scale.
Perhaps the recent statements about social justice and confidence in the ministry of Ellen G. White are more closely linked than many might think. After all, Ellen White was quite outspoken about a number of important social issues in her time—an aspect of her work that some of her loyal followers today could pay more attention to.
Rules and Church Policies
Dictionaries define justice as the quality of being just and as pursuing righteousness, equality and moral rightness. To be just is to uphold the justice of a cause. To maintain justice in a society requires a judicial system, that operates on the basis of a body of just laws.
When we speak of social justice, we refer to fair and just relations between the individual and society. It has to do with such elements as equal opportunities, regardless of gender, race and ethnicity, and with such things as a defensible distribution of wealth and uniform access to education and health care. A democracy must develop a legal system that provides a solid basis for administering the kind of justice that is, indeed, “just,” and applies in the same way to every citizen and inhabitant of the country.
Churches must also operate on the basis of a clear set of rules. In the Roman Catholic Church and some other denominations, internal laws have, through the centuries, developed into a body of canon law. This has become so complex that ecclesial lawyers and ecclesial courts are needed to administer it. Most mainline Protestant denominations have a “church order” which regulates the way in which the church is governed and may be updated from time to time. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has collected its internal rules and regulations in two basic documents: The Church Manual and the General Conference Working Policy Book.
The focus of the Church Manual is on the inner workings of the local church and on its relationship to the conference to which it belongs. Its history goes back to 1932 when the first edition appeared. Amendments and additions are voted when the world church meets in its quinquennial world congress. It is no secret that in much of the non-Western world, the Church Manual plays a much more important role than in most of the western world. In some parts of the world, the Church Manual seems to have acquired a semi-divinely in- spired status!
The origin of the General Conference Working Policy Book (and its derived division and union policy collections) also goes back almost one hundred years. It has grown over time from a modest pamphlet that summarized the past decisions of the church’s leaders into a book of more than a thousand, fine-print pages. Each Autumn Council of the General Conference has a policy section on its agenda—as part of the constant updating of the “black book,” as the corpus of “Adventist canon law” is often referred to by church leaders. Increasingly, the issue of “compliance” with the policies by all organizational entities in the Adventist Church has become a hot issue, particularly with regard to financial management and the matter of ordination.
Acting Justly, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly
Applying the rules of the Church Manual and the regulations of the denomination policy book demands a consistent concern for justice. This is, in fact, what God demands of us. In a famous Old Testament text, the prophet Micah is adamant that God requires that we act justly (Micah 6:8). This most definitely applies to leaders at all levels in the church. But the prophet immediately adds that God is not interested in mere outward compliance with a set of rules. “Acting justly” must be integrated with “loving mercy.”
Christ taught us to look at principles and to always apply justice together with mercy. Uppermost in our mind should be the thought that God is never in the hurting but always in the healing business. Acting justly does not first and for all mean that we follow the letter of the law, but that we apply rules in such a way that they will ultimately benefit and bless the people involved.
During my years as a church administrator, I appreciated the fact that the church needs rules and regulations, but I never felt that the letter of church policy was the ultimate answer in every situation. In some cases, I concluded that a statement from the Church Manual needed a creative approach, and that a strict application of church policy would not be fair or in anyone’s interest. In some instances, I have always felt, it may be even morally questionable to go by the letter of the policy book. “Acting justly” demands not just sternness and determination, but also intelligence and “loving mercy.”
Micah reminds us that another important aspect is connected with “acting justly” and “loving mercy.” God also requires, the prophet says, that we “walk humbly” with our God. Church boards, pastors, conference and union officials, and other church leaders may at times be confronted with complicated matters when no existing rule seems to provide a good solution, but a decision must be reached. They must always realize that having been called to a leader- ship role does not make them infallible, and in all humility, they may have to admit that they made a mistake that needs to be corrected. It is never easy for leaders (or, for that matter, anyone else) to admit that they did not “act justly” and/or failed to “love mercy”. However, “walking humbly” is a key aspect of what God requires.
The Long Term
“Acting justly” implies looking at the long-term impact of what we do. We see this powerfully illustrated in the story of King Solomon, when he was asked to adjudicate a case that involved two prostitutes. Both women had given birth to a baby. One baby had died, and then hell broke loose. Each of the women claimed to be the mother of the baby that was still alive. Solomon had to act justly. And he did. Reading and analyzing the story in 1 Kings 3:16-28, we discover that Solomon had a long-term view.
His aim was not just to satisfy one of the two women. His concern was: What is in the long-term interest of the baby that is alive? How could the future of the child be best protected? Who was the “real” mother? The woman who agreed to the extraordinary suggestion that the child be killed so that they would each get part of its dead body? Or the woman who was prepared to do anything to ensure that the child would live? This is an important consideration whenever we seek to “act justly”: not to focus on immediate short-term answers that push the real issue toward the future. Some of us are good at that, but we must look further ahead. “Acting justly” opens up a future for those who suffer and seek justice.
There is one further important aspect: Voting a statement about the importance of social justice remains a public relations gesture if those who voted it are not determined to put the principles the statement emphasizes into practice as they seek, in all humility, to “act justly” and to “love mercy” in their decision-making practices.
–Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. Among his latest books is “I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine.” Email him at: [email protected]