In the spiritual realm, license is to liberty what presumption is to faith. The former is Satan’s counterfeit of the latter.
During the past few decades of theological controversy in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, license has often been confused with liberty. Synonyms for this license include such phrases as “academic freedom,” “gospel liberty,” “freedom of expression,” and others. Most of the time these monikers have referred to the desire of certain ones—many of them pastors and scholars—to dispute, raise doubts about, and even oppose various doctrinal and moral positions taken by the church, without the fear of losing one’s denominational employment and/or church membership.
Following the General Conference session of 1990, at which the worldwide Adventist body voted for the first time to not proceed with women’s ordination, a large local Conference within the North American Division held a constituency meeting at which they discussed whether or not to pursue women’s ordination on their own, despite the decision of the world church. Though not a delegate, I was in attendance at this meeting, and watched the proceedings from the gallery at the church where the session was held.
Perhaps the most impressive statement from the floor was made by a retired General Conference vice-president, who at the time was a neighbor of mine. When he stood at the microphone, he spoke of how relationships into which people choose to enter often place restrictions upon their choices. He spoke of how, for example, when he married his wife, he willingly chose to restrict his association with other women—a decision, he added, that he had never regretted.
Indeed, most men and women, when they get married, have previously had more than one serious boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, sufficiently serious that those in the relationship willingly choose not to date others at the same time. Similar choices are made in the respective worlds of business and politics. If one is employed, for example, by a particular manufacturer, he or she agrees not to promote the products of rival companies. If a paid staffer of one seeking political office chooses to publicly endorse a competitor, no one would accuse the candidate employing the staffer of intolerance or restricting freedom were the candidate to fire the staffer in question—as, inevitably, such a candidate would.
Even in our postmodern age, most would consider it irregular, even bizarre, if a person caught and reprimanded by a spouse for pursuing an extramarital affair were to complain that his or her “freedom” was being challenged or restricted. Most people, especially among the married, would consider that kind of freedom very strange.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church, like other religious entities in a free society, is a voluntary organization. Unlike the medieval papacy, with which organized Adventism has lately—obscenely—been compared (1), no one is forced to be a member of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. No one is compelled to be an employee of the denomination either. Those choosing to be employees or members of our faith community hold such positions because they want to.
Accordingly, when such persons willingly choose to challenge, deny, or foster rebellion against the duly voted doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and moral postures of the church, it is not a curtailment of such persons’ freedom when the collective body of believers holds them accountable for their straying. If measures imposed for the application of accountability are pursued in harmony with Scripture, the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy, and the duly voted policies of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and if such a process regrettably leads to an employee’s termination or a member’s removal from fellowship, such a course serves simply to affirm the free choice the individual in question has made.
When a person is baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist denomination and enrolled on the church books, that doesn’t make such a one a church member. Such a one becomes a member in faith and practice through a free and heartfelt acceptance of the church’s teachings before this free decision is ratified through baptism and enrollment on the church records. The same is true with employees. Those called to become either ordained or commissioned ministers of the church, and who choose to accept this calling, are required to adhere to Seventh-day Adventist fundamental beliefs before receiving either investiture (2).
By the same token, if an employee or member of the church freely chooses to differ with the organized body over the doctrinal, ecclesiastical, or moral positions of the church as voted by the General Conference in world session, this free choice must again be acknowledged, this time by the loving, regrettable, but nevertheless principled removal of such persons from church employment and/or membership (3).
The same principle applies to organizations within the global structure of the church. The General Conference Working Policy requires that all entities willingly choosing to be part of the global network which constitutes the Seventh-day Adventist Church—be the entities in question Union Conferences, Union Missions, Unions of Churches, local Conferences, local Missions, or local churches—must pledge adherence to all General Conference decisions of a doctrinal, ecclesiastical, or moral nature (4). Accordingly, if any of these entities choose to depart from General Conference positions in any of the aforementioned areas, higher entities within the church structure are again constrained to acknowledge this choice—by pursuing disciplinary measures which, if a reversal of course on the part of the straying entity does not occur, will eventually, regrettably lead to either the reorganization of the entity in question or—in the final extremity—dissolution of the entity (5).
Liberty and License
Liberty, therefore, is exercised when individuals and structural entities willingly choose to be part of a larger network, just as liberty is exercised when a man and a woman willingly, lovingly, and joyfully enter the exclusive relationship of marriage. License, by contrast, is exercised and witnessed when individual members, employees, or entities within the global church structure choose to follow a course at variance with the doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and/or moral tenets of the church as voted by the world body in global session.
“Just Do It”
At a later point during the 1990s, after yet another General Conference session refused to permit the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, I attended a local church business meeting which—unlike the constituency meeting noted above at which I was present—chose to move ahead with a localized ordination of female pastors. During the discussion, one person got up and advised the congregation, “Just do it.” Tragically, this individual got his way, and the illegal ordination went forward.
Anyone familiar with the methodology and behavior of theological liberals in the church during recent decades will recognize this pattern and strategy. Many with this mindset refuse to wait for the church to give them permission to reject its doctrines or standards. They just go ahead and “do it,” hoping never to face the rightful consequences of their rebellious choices. Whether the issue is theistic evolution, Biblical standards of sexuality, the investigative judgment, the Spirit of Prophecy, jewelry and adornment, interschool sports, or other disputed questions of theory or practice, the assumption on the part of those straying from the church’s position has been that if a sufficient number of employees and/or members disregard these standards boldly enough and long enough, in time the church’s collective judgment will view them as “lost causes,” and will in time either openly disavow such teachings and standards or simply permit them to wither and die from rejection and studied neglect.
Without question, this is the pattern being followed by those in contemporary Adventism seeking to change their church’s Bible-based, thrice-affirmed conviction that gender roles in spiritual leadership, while equally essential and imperative, are nevertheless not the same. By going ahead and conducting ordination exercises which run counter to the decision of the world body, and doing it often enough, they assume that church leaders will decide what other administrators facing different dilemmas have decided—that the pain and cost of corrective discipline is simply too great, and will thus choose to permit a variant status quo to persist and simply “pray about it” and “trust God” to bring reform in His own good time.
Thankfully, I believe evidence abounds that the current leadership of the General Conference has taken a very different attitude toward current circumstances where rebellion against world church policy is presently challenging and disrupting the unity of the global Adventist body. The present General Conference leadership understands the deep injury and destructive chaos that has attended in recent decades the allowance—deliberate or otherwise—of pluralism and unfettered tolerance with regard to theological, ecclesiastical, and behavioral departures from Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy. And it is recognized that if true revival and reformation is to take place in the church, this allowance must cease. Many may understandably lament the slow pace of the corrective process, but then, I imagine the sinless inhabitants of the universe feel the same way about the length of the great controversy.
But let none be deluded by the misguided appeals to “liberty” and “conscience” now being heard, which in reality—whatever the motives of those who sound them—are little more than appeals for license and confusion. (One can only imagine how such persons would feel had the vote gone the opposite way at the recent General Conference session, and if, despite such a decision, certain ones in authority had refused to permit gender-inclusive ordination to advance in those territories desiring it.) Like any other committed relationship, the one we have with God’s faith community is one of responsibility as well as privilege. When liberty morphs into license, it is up to the faith community to hold the straying ones responsible, through loving but firm measures.
Within the past week a prominent church leader, now retired, has called the present denominational crisis a “Luther moment” (6). With all due respect to this individual, whom I count as a friend and Christian brother, I believe it is more aptly called a Korah moment. Martin Luther stood for God’s transcendent Word against human authority and tradition. By contrast, Korah and his rebellious colleagues stood against God’s Word as revealed through His chosen servant (Num. 16). The latter is the dilemma now confronted by the Seventh-day Adventist Church at its highest level. While the current General Conference president is not inspired like Moses, he and others—like Moses—are endeavoring to keep God’s covenant community faithful to the inspired counsel God has given His people through Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy. Sadly, those appealing to “liberty” and “conscience” as excuses for disregarding this counsel as upheld by the General Conference in session, would have their church subordinate the inspired Word to human opinion, human culture, human scholarship, and human experience.
Let us lift in prayer the leaders of the great Advent movement as the Annual Council of 2018 approaches. May the contrast between liberty and license, whether corporate or individual, be made plain in light of the written counsel of God and the collective judgment of the body His prophet has designated as His highest earthly authority (7).
1. George R. Knight, “Adventism’s Shocking Fulfillment of Prophecy,” Spectrum, Aug. 28, 2018 https://conversation.spectrummagazine.org/t/adventism-s-shocking-fulfillment-of-prophecy/16586
2. General Conference Working Policy (2017-2018 edition), pp. 243,456.
3. Ibid, pp. 459-461; Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (2015 edition), pp. 62-63.
4. General Conference Working Policy (2017-2018 edition), pp. 157,158,172,173,186,187,214-215,228,229.
5. Ibid, pp. 110-113.
6. William G. Johnsson, “A Time to Speak Out,” https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2018/time-speak-out
7. Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 492; vol. 9, pp. 260-261.
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.