The attitude people take toward authority often depends on who has it. Those, for example, who find rebellion against parental authority to be wondrous and liberating will likely develop a different attitude when starting families of their own. Free-spirited rule-breaking is generally a luxury enjoyed only by those without the burden of keeping order in the world they inhabit.
Right now in certain circles of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, we’re hearing a lot of negative talk about authority. Attacks on the church “hierarchy” and its centralized structure are extremely popular just now in certain quarters of the denomination. In fairness, it should be noted that this isn’t just a mindset found among theological liberals, though they seem to be the ones particularly irate about such perceived threats at the present moment. But anyone who has followed denominational affairs in recent decades knows that animus toward authority isn’t unique to any particular point on the church’s theological spectrum.
A Neutral Instrument
Those who presently perceive the General Conference as gathering too much authority to itself tend to portray themselves and those of like mind as persecuted underdogs oppressed by a rigid, insensitive establishment. They call for the church to allow for differences of opinion and practice, often insisting that the refusal of the worldwide Adventist body to tolerate such differences is an effort to force the conscience. Comparisons with Martin Luther, other great reformers in history, even Christ Himself, have been made by those putting forth this argument.
But those making this argument might have a stronger case if they themselves practiced the kind of tolerance they preach. Any number of denominational lecturers and employees can attest to the fact that those presently extolling the virtues of tolerance and diversity regarding any number of current issues in the church (e.g. ordination, Last Generation Theology) tend to be quite intolerant themselves, within their own jurisdiction, regarding those viewpoints with which they differ.
This contradiction in the behavior of so-called “progressive” Adventists has been evident in the church for some time. When I was a college student during the Desmond Ford controversy in the early 1980s, certain faculty and administrators on the campus where I studied, who loudly condemned Ford’s removal from the ministry as a violation of “academic freedom,” were themselves subsequently responsible for ostracizing fellow faculty who supported the church’s theology and disciplinary actions. More recently, certain other theologically conservative professors on one or more higher educational campuses in the North American Division have suffered a similar fate.
At least two prominent evangelists with a worldwide reputation in the church have in recent years experienced efforts by specific local administrators to have their speaking invitations cancelled on account of their opposition to women’s ordination. (Some of these administrative efforts, it should be noted, have proved unsuccessful in the face of public outrage.) One such evangelist was recently told he was banned, apparently for the same reason, from speaking in the churches of another Conference. Another speaker of my acquaintance had his invitation cancelled at a large institutional church because he opposes the ordination of women. An invitation by a student group on a large North American university campus to still another speaker was forcibly cancelled by the local university church because—the speaker was told—he opposes women’s ordination and supports Last Generation Theology.
Some of us can remember when a leading denominational magazine was edited by a devout theological conservative. This principled Christian gentleman was routinely vilified in academic and other circles for not making the magazine he edited into a forum for varying theological perspectives in the church. In the years since this man retired, the magazine has taken a very different theological and spiritual direction, one which has allowed few if any articles of conservative theological leanings to be published. Yet few of the critics who faulted the former editor seem to care. It’s fine, apparently, if intolerance of opposing views is practiced by your own camp, but very wrong if it’s practiced by the other.
At least one prominent theology faculty in the North American Division has apparently decided to not invite any speakers to address their students for the purpose of presenting the Biblical case for the church’s global decisions against permitting the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. When at least one student on the campus in question asked a teacher why the students couldn’t hear one or more speakers who supported the position taken by the General Conference in three different recent sessions, the teacher responded that the faculty and administration had collectively decided not to allow this.
Other theology students, as well as pastors, have indicated that various Conference administrators in the same Division have made it plain that they simply will not hire any additional pastors in their fields who support spiritual male headship and oppose women’s ordination.
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me make it clear that I am not a pluralist. Were I a church administrator, I would certainly select employees based on their adherence to Scripture, the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy, the Fundamental Beliefs of the church, and duly voted denominational policy. But when a theologically conservative church administrator selects employees based on their theological, moral, and ecclesiastical convictions, he is being consistent. By contrast, when a theologically liberal administrator selects pastors on this basis, he is not being consistent, as theological liberals profess to believe in freedom of expression and the airing of diverse theological viewpoints without administrative curtailment.
One can certainly argue as to the value and wisdom of allowing the expression of conflicting theological and spiritual views in certain settings, especially when a lack of awareness as to the case for varying perspectives is evident on the part of so many. But when restrictions on free expression come from individuals who call on the church to make room for ideas or practices at variance with the considered judgment of the worldwide Adventist body, it isn’t too much to expect those asking for such leniency to perhaps show a little themselves. While they criticize authority when it is exercised by the world church against their own ideas and practices, they don’t hesitate to wield the exact same authority against the expression of ideas contrary to theirs.
This may be one reason why current appeals for liberty and tolerance by such persons aren’t gaining much traction among the church’s top decision-makers. The fact is that considerable evidence suggests that if local regions of the world church were permitted by the General Conference to adjudicate theological and other issues by themselves, without intervention from the church’s highest authority, those now calling so passionately for “tolerance” would likely exert every effort imaginable to smother the voices of those disagreeing with their perspective on any number of current denominational issues.
If nothing else, we begin to see how authority in many respects is really a neutral instrument. If it is their authority being exercised against beliefs with which they differ, certain folks seem to have few conscientious scruples against wielding that authority. If, however, the authority of others is wielded against their ideas and practices, their response is to tout “liberty of conscience” and to hold forth against the alleged “intolerance” of the church “hierarchy.”
Authority is bad, in other words, unless it’s mine.
“Can two walk together . . . ?”
Perhaps this inconsistency has less to do with hypocrisy and more to do with the eternal principle articulated by the ancient prophet: “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). Ellen White makes the following statement on this point:
Light and darkness cannot harmonize. Between truth and error there is an irrepressible conflict. To uphold and defend the one is to attack and overthrow the other (1).
Speaking theoretically, it might make sense if those talking so much about “academic freedom,” “freedom of expression,” and “liberty of conscience” just now would go out of their way to demonstrate similar tolerance in their dealings with those under their ecclesiastical jurisdiction who differ with them. What a public relations coup these folks might win in the court of denominational opinion if they could point to their own openness in allowing persons of contrary convictions to be invited as speakers and to freely express themselves within the territories and institutions where they hold power. They could then say, “We allow under our own authority the expression of ideas with which we disagree. Why can’t the global church do the same for us?” But obviously the contempt held by these non-compliant ones for opposing views in the church won’t allow them to do this.
And perhaps, in the end, it’s just as well. Perhaps, at long last, it needs to be made unmistakably clear that the two principal approaches to doctrine, worship, and lifestyle that have sundered the church’s theological and spiritual harmony in recent decades cannot peacefully co-exist under the same institutional roof. None of us would rejoice if a parting of the ways is brought about by the cluster of issues now dividing the denomination. After all, despite what some believe, doctrinal truth is very much a salvational issue (Hosea 4:6; Matt. 4:4; John 8:31; II Thess. 2:13; I Tim. 4:16). The rejection of such truth in the face of evidence cannot occur without the risk of eternal loss, and thus cannot take place without deep sadness on the part of God’s striving faithful. But unless a fundamental change of spirit and worldview is seen among those presently denying the church’s Bible-based teachings and collective decisions, such a parting—though regrettable—may prove inevitable.
1. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 126
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.