A More Biblical Unity

Presented by Emily Flottmann, Andre Wang, and James Wibberding Introduction Church unity has been a governing concern for Seventh-day Adventists ever since the study of ordaining women rose to prominence in the 1970s. The applied definition of unity, in this regard, has been that unity requires uniform practice across world cultures. Although this definition of unity has not dictated the Adventist relationship to every cross-cultural issue—such as the ordination of female elders, where culturally-based variants are provided for—it has dominated the discussion of ordaining women to pastoral ministry. This appears in the 1990 General Conference decision regarding the ordination of female pastors. The voted document says, “recognizing . . . the need for oneness of and unity in the church . . . [and] in view of the possible risk of disunity . . . we do not approve the ordination of women to the gospel ministry” (GC Session Bulletin, 1990).1 Although the report did not address the prospect of varied practices around the world, the assumption of a uniform practice is apparent. Another indication that uniformity has characterized the applied definition of unity is that, when the North American Division requested flexibility to create Division policy on the issue, it was soundly defeated (GC Session Bulletin, 1995). The reigning philosophy has continually been that North America and Europe must wait for the whole world to accept female pastors before ordaining them. Forty years of applying this approach to unity has not produced unity. Arguably, it has damaged it. This paper will show that the prevailing concept of unity is not only unproductive but also unbiblical. By practicing a more biblical unity, there is hope. The biblical case for unity is not relegated to a few obscure texts. It appears as a central theme in the New Testament church, along with defining moments that leave little question about the basic nature of biblical unity. The New Testament church provides an excellent model for nurturing unity in a multi-cultural church. Christ’s Vision After listening to His closest followers debate their relative greatness (Luke 22:24), Jesus passionately pled for the Father to unify them. “Holy Father,” He said, “keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11 ESV). Over their visions of hierarchy, He imposed a vision of oneness—a oneness born of equality in place of hierarchy. Christ’s prayer did not address the shape of unity, focusing instead on the embryonic ideal. He indicated that their oneness depended on sanctification by truth (vv. 17-19) and being in Him (vv. 20-21). Though He did not define unity, His perpetual emphasis on love offers insight into how He wants believers to treat each other. When asked to identify the greatest commandment, He summarized
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It should be noted that this vote was not a vote to restrict the ordination of women but a vote to resist taking the affirmative position the General Conference had been asked to take. No restrictive policy resulted.

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all “the law and the prophets”2 in terms of loving God and loving humankind (Matthew 22:35-40). When He described the judgment, He identified its final criterion as love demonstrated in action (Matthew 25:31-46). When He offered His final definition of faith to His disciples, He said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another," and He even called it a “commandment” (John 13:34-35). Love, not sameness, was the centerpiece of Christ’s relational vision. Apostolic Practice Apostolic practice provides the clearest examples of building unity in a diverse church. As the early church labored to share Christianity with the varied Pagan and Jewish traditions, they did so by streamlining practical demands. The apostles, as children of their rich Jewish heritage, worked to translate their faith to gentile cultures without losing its essence. Paul and Peter failed to reach immediate consensus on how to do so (Galatians 2:11-14) but, in the end, they both deferred to evidence of the Spirit’s work in gentile lives. They argued that the Spirit had validated the gentile faith by His presence in their lives, even though their practices differed. When called to defend his acceptance of gentiles without making them Jews, Peter asked, “If . . . God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17). Paul later used the same argument to defend his own cultural tolerance, contending that “God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.” (Acts 15:8-9). Ultimately, this logic came to define New Testament church policy regarding cultural differences. The model moment that defined their approach to unity appears in Acts 15. There, at the Jerusalem council, they decided together to codify the standing practice of making space for differences. Contention over the Abrahamic covenant sign of circumcision initiated the council, when “some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.” (vv. 1-2). Those contending for circumcision had biblical arguments and tradition in their favor but the argument that won the day was the moving of God in gentile lives, as noted above. In the end, the apostles and elders issued a surprisingly short list of requirements for gentile believers (vv. 23-31) and the gospel continued its advance to every nation. When threatened with serious division, they made space for differences to preserve unity. They chose unity through diversity. Paul applied this philosophy to varied ministry approaches in 1 Corinthians 12, providing a model that captures the idea of unity through diversity. In this famous discourse on the body of Christ, he articulated the importance of valuing one’s own uniqueness (v. 15) as well as that of others (v. 21). Contending that having differences in the way we serve God is as crucial as having all the different parts of your body, he offered this as a corrective to a church plagued

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Scripture references are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

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with division. Instead of appealing to uniformity as the cure for division, he prescribed an increasing appreciation for diversity of practice. Paul applied the principle of unity through diversity to almost every type of cultural division he encountered. In Romans 14, he took the shocking step of applying it to religious practice. Speaking of dietary qualms and religious feast days, he said, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (v. 4). In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, he explained his reason for nurturing diversity, saying, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (v. 22). By philosophy and example, Paul made it clear that the church must make room for practical differences in order to spread the gospel. In the above examples, the distinction between what is flexible and what is inflexible is not perfectly clear. We can observe, however, that the points of flexibility did not include tenets of the moral law as expressed in the Decalogue or its extended concepts. To the contrary, the apostles often insisted on moral absolutes. Neither did the points of flexibility include questions of God's nature and identity. In sum, diversity did not extend to timeless doctrine. The biblical data reviewed here leaves two important questions unanswered. First, how can the church distinguish between contextualized practice and timeless doctrine? In the Adventist context, a practical solution is to defer to the distinctly different doctrines and policies voted by the General Conference. Second, how significant does a disagreement need to be to require that a central church council settle it? In most recorded cases, the apostles settled issues regionally but the Jerusalem council was required when a regional solution met strong enough opposition. Discerning this will prove to be an inexact science. With the extensive flexibility the apostles practiced, what is the source of unity? Paul articulated it in Ephesians 4 when he wrote, I . . . urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-13). Biblical unity does not emerge from external conformity or uniformity. It occurs when a diverse group of believers—differing in personalities, preferences, backgrounds, convictions, and even faith practices—are led by the same Spirit toward the same faith in Christ and the same love for each other. Paul’s ultimate expression of unity through diversity came in his definition of the gospel itself. He described a gospel that could break down every wall of separation between Christians, a gospel that would bring full equality of believers in Christ. While contrasting the faith as it was before Christ with the new order Christ initiated, Paul said that in Christ Jesus there is now
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“neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In Paul’s time, the gospel precipitated the stunning erasure of the Jew and gentile divide. In the nineteenth century, the gospel led to the end of church-sanctioned slavery. The final test of gospel potency has come in our time. To achieve the unity of the gospel, we must eliminate gender inequity. Conclusion If we take Jesus’ prayer for unity seriously and we accept the apostolic example of nurturing unity through diversity, we must nurture biblical unity by the simple practice of blessing practical variants that do not violate doctrine. This, we believe, includes the status of women in church leadership. Our forty-year experiment with an unbiblical concept of unity has failed to produce unity. We have not made space for unity through diversity, as Scripture outlines, since we have not encouraged differing fields to make the best decision for the spread of the gospel in their contexts. An issue as culturally laden as gender roles will never find worldwide consensus. Insisting on uniform practice across cultures has badly damaged church unity. The uniform practice of denying female ministers ordination has left many confused, alienated, and hurting. Continued insistence on uniformity will certainly result in further schism and attrition. Ellen White summarized well the true secret to unity: “As the children of God are one in Christ, how does Jesus look upon caste, upon society distinctions, upon the division of man from his fellow man, because of color, race, position, wealth, birth, or attainments? The secret of unity is found in the equality of believers in Christ.” (Selected Messages, Vol. 1, p. 259). The New Testament recipe for unity is never a call to behave the same but to respect and love each other by making space for differences. The distribution of authority in the Adventist church is explicitly designed to apply the biblical principle of unity through diversity. The creation of unions was intended to "decentralize power" and "distribute the responsibilities of the General Conference, placing them more fully and definitely upon those who are on the ground where the work is to be done and the issues to be met". Thus, "a thousand details [were] transferred from the General Conference Committee to those whom the Lord has called to his work, and whom he has placed in the field where the details are to be worked out" (General Conference Bulletin, 1901, No. 3, pp. 513-514). GC Working Policy reflects the original intent of the unions by giving them “final authority and responsibility” over “decisions regarding the ordination of ministers” (B 05). We appeal to our beloved church to allow for unity through diversity by encouraging various fields to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit through women, as God may choose to lead.

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