On Friday morning I eavesdropped on the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Annual Council meeting at the denomination’s headquarters in central Maryland. Several voices will live-report on the 8-day meetings via the Twitter hashtag #GCAC14: follow along over the next week.
Mark Finley is an Adventist statesman, an internationally known Adventist speaker and elder. For most of the 1990s and early 2000s, Finley was the gentle face of the televangelism series It Is Written. He currently serves the worldwide church as its evangelism vice president, and he spoke to the Annual Council Friday morning on using the stories in Acts 1-15 as conflict-resolution models, as examples for how to address intractable contemporary church debates.
His full remarks are already available via the General Conference Archives. Bear in mind that Finley is a member of the denomination’s theology of ordination study committee and has written that 1st Century believers received the Holy Spirit “without respect to either gender or ordination.”
Using Analogies to Guide Decision-Making
The denomination’s official account and Spectrum Magazine staff shared some of Finley’s key points, including these:
Mark Finley now speaks of times when honest people see things differently #GCAC14
— Adventist Church (@adventistchurch) October 10, 2014
— Alexander Carpenter (@carpenterale) October 10, 2014
Mark Finley – when you’ve studied an issue for 40 years, further discussion and debate only furthers division. #GCAC14
— SPECTRUM (@spectrummag) October 10, 2014
— SPECTRUM (@spectrummag) October 10, 2014
Analyzing the Analogy
Take a closer look at this rhetoric:
1st Century CE: The Acts community of Christians
21st Century CE: The Seventh-day Adventist Church faith community—administered by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, an association located in Silver Spring, MD. The association is legally represented by the General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists, incorporated in Washington, D.C.
1st Century CE: The apostles hand-picked by Jesus Christ and those who knew him
21st Century CE: The administrators and leaders of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
Deeply Contentious Problems
1st Century CE: Include selecting Judas’ replacement, Matthias; developing a just process for serving indigent widows; and deciding whether to receive non-Jewish believers
21st Century CE: Include whether to permit women to serve alongside men as ordained elders or pastors
1st Century CE: The apostles and Acts community resolve disputes via prayer, casting lots, and submission to the apostles’ decision
21st Century CE: The Seventh-day Adventist Church and its members should resolve disputes via prayer, church delegate votes, and lay member submission to thusly-decided administrative policy
1st Century : 21st Century : : the Acts community : the Seventh-day Adventist faith community
This analogical premise requires us to accept a very narrow view of the last two millennia, but it’s a common move for Adventists. As a restorationist tradition, the denomination believes that its gift to the world has two parts: (a) uncovering teachings once held by the first few generations of believers but lost through time; and (b) drawing out a remnant of faithful ones “from any and all corners to the purposes of God.” As such, Adventism represents itself as the end-times repository of Bible truth, and this has consequences for members’ attachment to the group. Former GC president Jan Paulsen once told youth that if he were to leave the denomination he would “risk [his] whole spiritual life and salvation” by doing so. Not all Adventists agreed with this point, but many did.
So Finley is well within mainstream Adventism in looking to the early church for a guide to conflict resolution in our time. We can leap from the 1st Century CE to the present day because the Adventist church’s 151-year history is less continuous with the rest of the Christian story and more a counterpoint to it: Time and Spirit all but warp-drove from the unveiling visions in Revelation to the denomination’s formation in 1863! Our network of assumptions and analogies works to mask both the commonalities and the diversity across 38,000 Christian denominations. At the same time, it suggests that the Acts authority mantle now falls not on the shoulders of the entire Christian community but on the policy committees of one group, ours.
According to the argument Finley presented on Friday, there are just a few roles available in this play and they have already been assigned. Non-administrative church members may be out of the loop when it comes to “points of disagreement” even if we’re otherwise trusting and supportive. And we cannot count on being included in discussions or decision-making about these issues either.
Per Finley, an ordinary member’s role in discussions about ministerial ordination, membership restrictions, and any other church-wide controversy is to pray, submit to the denomination’s decision, accept the General Conference’s conclusions, and “move on” thereafter. The only lines we have to say are “Yea” and “Amen.”
How did we get here?
Finley’s analogies and suggestions about unity are not controversial if we accept that common business logic should bind how family members interact.
Debates on Adventist community websites like Adventist Today and Spectrum Magazine often invoke corporate disloyalty, suggest people who disagree with a given interpretation or policy should “just leave,” or argue that the church is right to bind its pastors, teachers, or vocal members by the closed-circle corporate preservation standards Coca Cola or Apple might use to weed out Pepsi advocates or Samsung sympathizers.
“The church has a brand,” some say, “and it’s only good stewardship to protect it. Further more, it has the right to.”
From Organization to Organism
Because this post will not be a book, I’ll offer just 7 short comments on why using corporation analogies as a positive guide for the “church family” steers us off-course:
- Though participating in a denominational group is largely voluntary (at least for those who join as adults and aren’t born and raised in the denominational culture), members of this faith community are not best compared to businesses’ employees. Employees trade skills and services for money and other forms of compensation. Church members freely contribute skills and services without compensation, and also donate both time and money to support their group.
- The relationship between church administrators and church members doesn’t map onto the relationship between employers and employees, except in denominational institutions where there actually are employment contracts, responsibilities, and rights. In these contexts, both employee and employer have rights and responsibilities that are buttressed by employment law. The transactional mutuality of the employer-employee relationship doesn’t transfer over to church-as-business, and quid pro quo isn’t a suitable matrix for relationships among members of a faith association. While churches can and do list any number of responsibilities that members are expected to fulfill, U.S. law offers individual church members no rights in relation to their church except for the right to leave.
- “God’s family” is one of Christianity’s primary analogies, and has been from the community’s start. In businesses, supervisors and staff can be fired for failure to perform, disagreement with the boss, and noncompliance. There’s no logical expectation of life-long relationship. In families, while parents can divorce and children can emancipate themselves from abusive or dangerous elders, mothers can’t usually fire sons or daughters fire fathers.
- Family members are genetically and/or emotionally bonded for life: legal emancipation doesn’t break these bonds. Families do have the option of living in acrimony or deliberate indifference with other. They can also choose to grow through the process of discerning how to work and live together without seeking dominance over each other through social role.
- The Adventist church appeals to the Bible in its conversations about hierarchy and role, and the scriptures define the community of believers as a body and not a corporation, as an organism, not an organization. Yet so much denominational energy goes to maintaining hard organizational boundaries, to determining who shouldn’t be permitted to stay and who really ought to go. We use support for “church organization” as a shibboleth (see Finley’s 5th “biblical essential”), yet persist in undermining the mutual trust necessary for the health of the church organism. Appealing to corporate and legal traditions to parse and rank organic variations, discipline members, and govern acceptable norms for debate suggest we prefer the fixed rules of ledgers and manuals to the ever-morphing order of flesh and blood.
- It makes no sense to expect to reap healthy, functional relationships of family and friendship from the doulos and kyrios patterns we’ve sown. Every tree still bears the fruit of its kind. Whereas Jesus described and taught his disciples as “servants” at the start of their relationship (e.g. Matthew 10), he spent his last discourse explaining that they were siblings and friends. He changed the matrix for their relationship and we are yet to grasp the implications of that change.
- Instead of building our interactions around family and friendship, we operate as if sanctions for disagreement can heal rifts, as if one group’s decisions must bind others absent a proven relationship of trust, and as if the closed discussions of a few can in any way guarantee “the unity of the faith.” This is not wise.
“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”—John 15:15
“There is a fellowship of the spirit, fathoms deeper than differences of opinion. It is the fellowship of those who love the Way of the Ages.”—Lewis Fisher
“I care about the Adventist church. I want it to be healthy and, most importantly, faithful to Christ. The only way that I can imagine that possibility is if Adventists can get over their obsession with Adventism, and decide to become a church whose chief question to itself isn’t its confessional identity, but its faithfulness to the One in whom it confesses faith.” —Matt Burdette
A Story from Recent History
The Association of Adventist Women recently honored Merikay McLeod (Silver) as their Woman of the Year. In the late 1970s, McLeod (pronounced Muh-Cloud) settled an EEOC claim out of court with the GC-owned Pacific Press, and, after several more years, the denomination agreed to compensate female workers who’d been denied equal pay for equal work.
McLeod shares the short version of her story with Spectrum editor Bonnie Dwyer in this 10-minute edited interview.
Note: The video is only auto-captioned and caption accuracy is about 65%.
“The Equal Opportunities Commission sued Pacific Press and the court directed Pacific Press to deposit $600,000 into a bank account and distribute it to the women they employed but paid less than men for similar work.
In this case, the state showed more pity for the poor, the divorced, and the widowed than did the church.” —Association of Adventist Women
It’s probably easier for administrators to reframe the church family as a corporation and encourage us to structure our expectations and engagement patterns of it accordingly. After all, there’s no single universal family model: family looks different around the world and among groups within each culture. Family structures are also evolving in each culture in new ways.
Family is no guarantee of healthy relationship, however: “family culture” was the excuse Pacific Press staff gave McLeod for her and others’ low salaries. It also claimed “intra-family disputes” as the reason civil courts and agencies shouldn’t be allowed to intervene on behalf of underpaid female employees. So family isn’t always a sanctuary, but it does suggest a quality of parity, safety, and communion that we’re yet to manifest.
Analogies and metaphors have cognitive, material, and relational consequence: our core analogies structure our thinking, our relationship to others, and how we manage common space and resources. We can’t afford to be cavalier about them.
(To get this point from scientists, start with the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. To get it from humanists, start with the work of Toni Morrison.)
So if we were to prioritize the metaphors of family and organism across this faith community, it’d be appropriate to be careful and thoughtful—Finley-style—about understanding the kind of family we are, what nature we have as an organism, and how to nurture our interdependence and ability to adapt. For now, though, the organization still dominates both our community and our conversation and determines the tight, restrictive way many of our leaders lead.
“As one person or as a small group of insulated advisers to a leader, you don’t have access to all the information you need, and you also, unintentionally perhaps, put in the minds of people ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ll figure this one out.’ I haven’t met a senior leadership team that actually knows what it’s doing anymore. And I’m speaking about national governments as well as large corporations or very large NGOs.
“I would love leaders to realize that as they narrow their focus and only work with a few trusted advisers—which is the arc that almost all leaders take when they’re in crisis—realize that that [approach] decreases your capacity, and the very people you need who would be a wonderful resource of imagination and creativity and working 24/7, are The People.
“And when you take it back to your office with a few groups of advisors, the signal you’re sending people is ‘We’ll figure this out, and then we’ll tell you what to do.’ And people are becoming more and more dependent as that dynamic gains more traction.” —Dr. Meg Wheatley (with Let Go and Lead)
That being so, it doesn’t benefit us to treat the question of our shared identity as a second-tier priority. Who we are at our core and, hence, what will grow from us as olives grow from their vine must not be deferred while we push doggedly ahead with “mission.” At this stage in the human story, I can’t imagine anything less inspiring than a global purpose that accommodates or justifies sustained discrimination against any vulnerable or marginalized group of people. Discrimination undermines the credibility of institutional religions and the moral universe they present to the world as ideal.
I agree with Mark Finley and Reinder Bruinsma on this point: we’ll get so much more done building up from what connects us and what good we can create together then we now do heel-digging into our differences.
So imagine that Mephistopheles himself offers us an accomplished mission if we’d only leave some family members to fend for themselves while we carry on for the cause. Can you also imagine we’d have the vision to recognize that proposal’s hollow heart? The cause we’re called to isn’t viable without a strong, applied commitment to the value of the whole human person, and I believe this commitment is something Adventism could advance quite coherently if we chose to. I’m in no way motivated to engage or participate by the thought of becoming one of many cogs in one of many organizations, but working with my siblings as peers under God does motivate me: it’s not a self-definition consolation prize. Yes, “God can take care of Himself,” and I say it’s our mission to take care of each other.