By Edward Reifsnyder

Recent discussions of the Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation, document voted by the General Conference Executive Committee during their Annual Council Meeting on Oct. 11, 2016, and discussed by the North American Division, offered an opportunity to express views on the importance of what is foundational to how the church is governed. The article that follows is an opinion piece we hope will find interest as it discusses the challenge our church is facing. —Editor

We have a situation. There are events occurring in the Seventh-day Adventist Church with the potential to have a negative impact on our fellowship if not handled with wisdom, prudence, and discretion. Here is a quick background.

For about 40 years, the Church has studied and discussed the ordination of women without coming to a consensus.

During those 40 years, the world Church has voted to avoid the ordination of women.

Large numbers of members, particularly in some parts of the world, believe that God calls women to ministry just the same as he calls men to ministry, and that women experience God’s calling to ministry just like men do. They are frustrated that the Church has not recognized that calling. In 2012, the member constituencies of the Columbia Union Conference and the Pacific Union Conference voted by overwhelming margins to begin ordaining women in their territories. They did so against the direct urgings of the General Conference (GC) President.

The GC President stated that there would be “grave consequences” as a result of their positive votes. In 2014, the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) came to a split vote, with the majority in favor of moving toward the ordination of women in some way. The TOSC came to a majority position that the Bible does not prohibit the ordination of women. In 2015, at the General Conference Session, the world Church voted against permitting each division to make its own decision on the ordination of women. It was a split vote of 59% to 41%. (A comment: In volunteer membership organizations, moving forward on badly split votes is nearly always problematic.)

At the 2016 Annual Council, the General Conference Executive Committee adopted, also on a badly split vote, a proposal entitled, “Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation.” This document permits the GC to bypass a division, union, or local conference to intervene directly if an organization of the Church is out of compliance with “fundamental beliefs, voted actions, or policies of a worldwide nature.” The document specified that during the next year, the parties would go through a process of “reconciliation” intended to bring about “unity.” The specific intent was that the General Conference would deal directly with the Columbia and Pacific Union conferences (a course of action outside Church norms) with the intent that those unions would reverse course on their ordination of women or face unspecified “grave consequences” promised by the General Conference President in 2012.  In January 2017, General Conference officers, North American Division officers, and the union presidents met. The union presidents presented a written statement. It said that the union presidents “believe the Holy Spirit calls both men and women into ministry and we see no clear biblical mandate against ordaining women.” The statement also said, “We believe the GC is dangerously overreaching its authority and potentially endangering the current and future unity and mission of the church.” Clearly, the union presidents are taking a position in firm opposition to the General Conference.

So, we have a situation. In essence, the GC says, “Ordaining women is against policy. You must stop and conform.” The unions say, “By Church policy, ordination decisions are within our purview, and our constituents think ordaining women is the right thing to do as we pursue mission where we live.”

This is complicated stuff. It involves several serious factors. Policy. Church governance. Church legal structure. Authority. Power. Control. Maybe even personal feelings.

Each of these factors warrants full exploration, but this article focuses on one factor: Unity. Why? Because the cur- rent discussion has been framed by the GC as a call for reconciliation and unity. The implication is that we can’t be in unity unless we uniformly comply with policies across the world, regardless of culture or missional needs.

Please note that the current struggle is not about doctrine, belief or theology. The GC is not taking the position that the ordination of women is in violation of our doctrines, at least, not openly. It is implied that the problem is lack of adherence to a policy.

Personally, I see this as a contest between (1) a desire for uniformity and organizational compliance, and (2) a desire to take steps that make sense to the mission of the Church in some parts of the world, even if not in others.

My problem with universal uniformity and compliance is that those terms do not imply unity. As a matter of fact, the quest for uniformity and compliance may be counter to unity.

So what is this thing called “unity?” When are Christians in unity? Permit me to tell a couple of personal stories.

I was in Romania on a mission trip with college and academy students. My responsibility was to make sure things ran well. On Friday afternoon, our leader, Bill, a university theology professor, said, “Oh, by the way, Ed. I need you to speak tomorrow for church.” Huh? I am not a preacher. My wife assures me I am definitely not a preacher! But a strange thing happened. Before Bill was through speaking, I knew what I would say the next day. It is the clearest experience in my life when I thought the Holy Spirit was speaking.

We were in Romania to build a new church. There was already a nice, large church in town with a congregation of Romanians, Hungarians, and Gypsies—also known as Roma. The history between the countries of Romania and Hungary is not conducive to good relationships between people. And Gypsies are often not well accepted anywhere. So, three people groups with multiple troubled histories, all in one church. We were there to help the Hungarians build a new church so they could move out.

My few minutes of speaking the next day went some- thing like this. Jesus said in John 13:35 that his people would be known because they loved each other. Why did Jesus pick that particular criterion? Because He knew the gospel would attract many different kinds of people into his infant church. Jews and Samaritans. Tax collectors and small businessmen. Blatantly ambitious people. Gentiles, Romans, Greeks, Asians, Ethiopians, Egyptians. There was bad history between the Jews and just about all those people. And yet Jesus said, “People will know you are my disciples because you love one another.”

If this hodgepodge of new Christians from all over the Mediterranean Basin could love each other in spite of their differences, their cultures, their histories, that would say something remarkable about the power of the gospel! They would be a deviation from the norm. That would be real unity! Jesus told us that the power of love would be most obvious precisely when we have differences. His love holds us together, even in the face of differences of opinion or ancient hatreds. So if Hungarians, Romanians, and Gypsy Christians obviously loved each other, it would be a powerful witness to their community for Jesus.

I sat down. Somebody said something in either Hungarian or Romanian, and three people prayed. I didn’t under- stand what was going on. I noticed that the last man cried his way through his prayer. I learned later that a Romanian, a Hungarian and a Gypsy were each asked to pray. It was the Gypsy who openly wept during his prayer. It was the first time a Gypsy had ever been asked, or probably permitted, to speak in that church. A little unity had occurred.

Let me tell you another personal story.

I was sitting at a large table in a conference room at the old General Conference building in Takoma Park, Mary- land. The meeting was not holding my attention. It was probably about some subject like insurance or retirement. I was an outsider, an executive with Adventist Health System.

An object on the side of the conference table caught my attention. I checked it out. It was the handle of a drawer. I looked inside. There was a book, the General Conference Working Policy. I looked in front of my neighbor. Another handle to another drawer. After the meeting, I checked. Every chair at the table had a drawer in front of it and every drawer contained a Working Policy book. There must have been 20 chairs at the table. Twenty Working Policy books.

I could just envision an internal GC meeting in that conference room. Some subject arises. 20 people pop open their drawers and whip out their Working Policy books, ready for action. Ready to appeal to the authority of last resort—the Working Policy. My next thought? I couldn’t work here! The ubiquity of those books added to my already growing sense that flexibility, creativity, and strategic thinking might not be valued in those premises as much as conformity. I thought the very presence of a Working Policy book for every attendee at a meeting spoke volumes about the GC’s work, its organizational culture, and its value system.

I don’t know if they took that unusual conference table with them when they moved to the new GC building in Silver Spring. But why not? It was the perfect piece of GC furniture!

Obviously, I think each story describes different values.

The first story describes a state of mind that is very personal and is influenced by the Holy Spirit to bring about unity among people. It is about portraying the love of Jesus in the face of human differences. It is about the impact of Christianity.

The second story describes an organization where policy adherence is the big deal.

At the GC, Working Policy seems nearly paramount to truth and doctrine. The “unity” document seems to make no distinction between policy and theology. It refers repeatedly to “biblical principles as expressed in the Fundamental Beliefs or voted actions and policies . . .” I doubt most people see policy as expressing biblical principles in most cases. Most people put policy in a different category of importance.

The GC may value policy adherence more than almost anything because that is its only control mechanism. The GC has no real power or organizational control otherwise. The Church was intentionally set up that way in 1901 to avoid GC overreach.

Importantly, I think the parties come to the table valuing different things. The GC says to the Pacific Union and the Columbia Union, “Get in line.” The unions say, “Our people have voted by large majorities what they think is in the best interest of our mission in the territories where we live.”

How to get out of this impasse? It doesn’t seem likely to me that the two union conferences are going to change their stance. For one thing, these were not decisions of union officers or committees. They were decisions by constituencies,  members of the Church. Those members carry convictions, and are not likely to reverse course.

So perhaps the way forward means that we should look at a new flexibility in which different parts of the world customize their approach to mission. In my mind, mission effectiveness wins over policy, assuming adherence to beliefs and general good judgment. Different approaches to mission need to vary with culture. It is quite clear our 376,000 brothers and sisters in the Pacific and Columbia Unions have a clear view of how mission will work best in their midst. Who am I to say “no?”

Unity is a state of mind toward each other, compelled by the love of Jesus. It is not uniformity. It is not organizational lockstep marching.

Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant, president of The Reifsnyder Group, and senior vice-president of FaithSearch Partners. He and his wife Janelle live in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have two daughters