Could We Try Servant Leadership?

Perhaps not. But Jesus distinguished between between those who “lord it over” others and those who truly serve (Matthew 20 and parallels), and today many Adventists contemplate that distinction with a longing that approaches desperation.

Killing hope—killing it stone dead—is hard. We may thank God that healthy congregations, generous pastors and administrators, and long-suffering Adventist faculties still offer nourishing environments for church members who love the Lord with their minds as well as their hearts. So you do find thoughtful people who participate wholeheartedly in the church’s life and live in the hope that the humility Jesus embodied and commended can shape the higher reaches of church bureaucracy. But these days such hope requires exhausting levels of resiliency.

Just a few weeks ago, in May, an African man who served as a delegate to the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio declared publicly that as he was standing in line to “speak for women’s ordination” his division president approached him to say he should mind how he “expressed” himself. The president, then a favorite in Silver Spring, was an opponent of women’s ordination.

This disheartening experience, further aggravated by the July 8 negative vote, left the delegate with questions about his own church membership and pastoral responsibility. “It was there at San Antonio that I lost confidence in the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist church,” he said, then adding that he draws some solace from Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares and from Ellen White’s assurance that even if the church is “weak and defective,” it will still, by God’s grace, accomplish its mission.

Those who lord it over others attempt always to control the expression of thought. Another such an attempt, larger in scale, is in the works just now. High-level administrators are overseeing revision of the church’s Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Ministerial and Theological Education. The draft revision, like the Handbook now in place, requires that, worldwide, individuals on Adventist religion faculties receive an “endorsement certificate,” renewable at five-year intervals, from an authorized (General Conference or Division) ministerial education board.

Some church divisions, including the North American Division, are not enforcing the current Handbook requirement. Now in what one highly placed theologian calls a “toned-down” version, top General Conference leaders are pushing the requirement again, still bent on church-wide compliance. Such a centralized licensing of thought would offend many accrediting agencies, and is again meeting resistance from educators. But faith communities constitute the body of Christ, so policies need to measure up, not just to educational reality, but also to the standard implicit in our understanding of the church. And just because centralized licensing of thought involves deep distrust of Adventist faculties and institutional boards, it fails to meet that standard. Nothing like such a policy appears in the New Testament or in the annals of early Christianity. What is more, explicit rejection of such thinking characterized not only the Reformation but also Pioneer Adventism, as is widely known and fully evident in the 1872 statement of Adventist beliefs.

It’s true, of course, that when you combine intellectual passion with human fallibility, you guarantee difference of opinion and slippage into error. But how can we not slip into error if, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, we now see only “dimly,” and know and prophesy “only in part”? Shared Christian life involves risk, and the risk should be no shock. What’s shocking is that the proposal to license thought keeps coming back, even though the curtailing of intellectual freedom by bureaucratic initiative recalls the very institutional excess that incited the Reformation. The Bible grants God’s people the freedom to reason together under conditions (Matthew 18) of local responsibility to one another. The most powerful Adventists seem to forget this completely.

Ellen White’s assurances about a “weak and defective” church do constitute a helpful reminder. Faith in Christ entails confidence that, as Paul also said (2 Corinthians 4), mere earthen vessels can truly be God’s instruments. Our topmost leaders forget, however, that people in local institutions—in schools and churches and hospitals—are God’s instruments, too. It’s not the priesthood of believers at the top; it’s the priesthood of all believers.

As for the possibility of error, these leaders forget that flaws in thought are normal, as are efforts toward correction of flaws. What seems not normal, from the New Testament point of view, is the attempt to address this problem through coercive authority. Someone as intelligent and determined as Paul may have been tempted by put-the-screws-on shortcuts to wide agreement with his theology; but his ministry, like that of Jesus, remained always persuasive. He and Jesus both battled for their convictions by entering into conversation. The leaders with the most power seem ignorant of—or perhaps put off by—their example.

If many thoughtful Adventists bridle under pressure to conform, many of these same Adventists enjoy straightforward give-and-take in Sabbath School and other settings. Where prayerful and open-minded Bible study occupies the truly concerned, both relationships and understanding deepen. I am part of a circle, led by my friend Daryll Ward, that is thinking about the meaning and importance of the Sabbath. The conversation has reminded me again of how, in addressing God’s will for the tired and distractible, this part of our heritage meets not only our own need but also a human need in general. I recently participated in a conference at Friedensau Adventist University, in Germany, on Adventist “Perceptions of the Reformation.” Christ was the gathering’s center. People sat around tables as equals and, at breaks, enjoyed one another’s company over food. I saw again that in such circumstances forthright conversation not only fulfills the divine intention (Matthew 18 again) but also invigorates the human spirit.

But even in these circles a pall of worry can break the spell. Drift toward “kingly power” crushes candor and has come to feel like drift toward (if not yet to) the totalitarian. This latter word may be jarring, but remember that the examples I began with can be multiplied. Remember, too, that topmost leadership and its partner theologians do not bother to acknowledge, let alone refute, the kind of perspective as I am offering here. They feel, such is their degree of power, that response is not necessary. Nor, typically, do less powerful leaders and theologians dare to chime in publicly. It is best, as everyone knows or finds out, to keep silent.

Someone, of course, may cite the example of corporations—if you work for the company you support its policies and plans—but even if that point has a certain resonance in any institution, it resolves nothing. The church is not a corporation, except in the narrow, legal sense required by the world. The church is the body of Christ, and here the standards of Christ trump the standards of the world.

In its struggling, older strongholds, Adventism today dwells in secular territory, as Israel once dwelled in Babylon. We sing our songs in a strange land, where conventional witness finds little purchase, and may even come across only as an annoyance. To think now (or ever) that uniformity of thought is our urgent task overlooks something truly challenging: how, in secularizing culture, to get a hearing at all. Unless we want to die in such places, we need to encourage fresh thought, not stamp it out. We need, once and for all, to renounce authoritarian control over the interpretation of the Bible, and to embrace instead local responsibility for constructive conversation.

Daniela Gelbrich, of Friedensau Adventist University, has suggested that God’s word is like a hammer that shatters rock, like an axe for the frozen sea inside of us. Well, we have Matthew 18 on constructive conversation, and we have Matthew 20 and its parallels on Christian leadership. Isn’t it time to let God’s word actually speak to our condition?

Leaders could start by deciding, right now, to bury the provision for “endorsement certificates.”

Charles Scriven is board chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum Magazine.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7496
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Thank you Charles for an article that hits home.

Your reference to the meaning and importance of the Sabbath must be an interesting discussion. What if we expanded the discussion to explore whether the weekly Sabbath has better than a shadowy meaning and importance under the New Covenant. We could compare wandering in the shadows with discovering the glory of the substance.

Perhaps an in-depth study of Paul’s instructions on acceptable Sabbath keeping for his Gentile converts would add an interesting dimension - Gentiles who previously were excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

The “endorsement certificate” wouldn’t dampen the discussion, would it?

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So insightful, eloquent and needed, yet so easily dismissed as another “liberal” diatribe to derail the “faith once delivered to our saintly founders.” Some of us well remember the theological consultations of the past in which administrative, pastoral and theological leaders from around the world gathered for days to pray and study together the most challenging issues imaginable. Credit is due to the GC leadership that enabled those discussions. What emerged from them was disquieting to leadership. To be sure, much of Adventism was affirmed, but some views needed to be explored more carefully. Many administrators, busy with the organizational needs of the church, had not been given the privilege they voted for others: years of support to study in the Seminary or doctoral granting institutions. They were unprepared for the kind of research and reasoning others took for granted. One admirable leader confessed to me privately that he was perplexed about how to communicate what he was hearing to the membership. His was a justified administrative and leadership concern for the spiritual health of the community.

When the convocations were done, nothing happened. No systematic, even if gradual, education of the church was initiated–especially on how to read and interpret Scriptures. As a result, the study of some church theologians (even some who had published books on subjects like inspiration and revelation) was minimized or criticized, while the ones deemed less “threatening” to the established order were promoted and valorized. It cannot be an accident that no such meetings have been held since, or that some religion departments have changed personnel in a very short time. Your appeal is important and correct, but as one leader confessed to me years ago: “We like change to come from the bottom up rather than the top down.” That is safe strategy in the short-term for leaders who fear risking the alienation of some powerful laypeople. But, as you have suggested, it is manifestly unsafe for the maturation and spiritual growth of the church long-term. Thank you for your courage.

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The last time the role of the IBMTE became a matter of public discussion, I opposed it in spoken and written words. But the situation today is quite different because the current top leadership of the SDA denomination is so certain that it is doing God’s will that it plays less attention to alternative points of view and established policies and protocols. This evokes three options. One alternative is to allow the IBMTE to divert our attention from our own own work and perhaps discourage us. This is at least as real a temptation for me as it is anyone else. The other alternative is to do our best in our own spheres of responsibility and let whatever will happen go ahead and happen. At the “moment of truth,” some will enthusiastically co-operate with the IBMTE because they applaud its endeavors Others will refuse because they disagree on either substantive or procedural grounds, or both, and accept the consequences of their acts of “ecclesiastical disobedience.” People of my age and station in life have a special obligation to take this course for the sake of the younger generations. If and when the “time of trouble” comes, I hope to be among those who do this. Both of these first two groups will sleep each night with clear consciences. Things will not be so easy for those who comply on some technicality even though they are actually opposed what the IBMTE is and does. They will be the most to pity because few things are as pitiful as men or women who lack the courage of their convictions. Meanwhile: “Cowards die a thousand times but the courageous die only once.” Not to worry overmuch!

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This type of management is indicative of a fundamental defect which is frequently seen in mental health clinics among dysfunctional families where parents, referred to as “helicopter parents” continue to hover their children to provide “external support.” In reality these parents have been weak, inconsistent and incompetent in instilling internal controls to their children during their formative years that they feel compelled to hover over them into their adulthood having lost confidence in their children to internalize and introject their counsel. Of course these children grow up, mature and enter the employment ranks where they project their psychological baggages onto their employees and duplicate their earlier maladaptive parenting experiences. And the cycle goes on and on and on. The same dynamics can be seen among secular organizations and/or governments.

This type of obsessive compulsive management style should play no part in a religious denominational organization other than to declare publicly the leadership’s team’s inability to trust their employees and tacit admission to delusions of paranoia.

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“The cycle of crisis in authority tends to repeat itself over time.” (George R Knight)

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In my garden in Maleny, Queensland we have a unique stone formed from blue stone, weighing more than a hundred weight, which we removed from a creek bed at Ophir, New South Wales-a gold mining place named after the Ophir of Scripture. That unique sculpture sits as a reminder to our family of how change takes place. You see, thousands of small fragments of rock passed over that stone, and one day a hole appeared and we have a completed sculpture. This work may have taken hundreds of years.
The constant
flow of water and fragments formed this piece of art.
‘How Long O Lord’ will we have to endure the administrative childishness, wishy washy,double talk, and quite frankly-absolute dishonesty, which flows from Administrative headquarters down to grass roots.
Glacier View and many other conferences have left thousands of Scholars floundering. Surely enough is enough. Can we call a halt to this administrative nightmare, stop wasting Christ’s money, and let real true Scholarship provide the answers so sadly lacking from compromised leadership. Surely a shortcut would be welcome to complte the sculpture? Ken L Lawson

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Perhaps the historians of tomorrow - the ones that survive - will be able to trace the steady march of confusion and fear as the two engulfed all man-made institutions. When there’s an overload of information - more than our brains can handle - we seem to yearn for authority -someone to tell us what to do, and what to think. It’s a great time for those with illusions of grandeur to rise up and take charge. It’s happened throughout history, and is happening again - the “signs of the time”.

The world is in chaos once again, and is primed for a voice of authority to take charge. The overload of information that shrunk the world has created instability in all corners. The Middle East is over-run by pure evil; Europe is a pressure cooker, ready to explode; the US is pretending to be launching democratic elections that are dogged by insanity; and the Adventist church is groping for an identity.

The church is only a microcosm of the bigger world. Those who rely on others to do the heavy lifting - the average churchgoer - just wants things to go back to the way they were. Those with illusions of grandeur imagine themselves to be that voice - the voice that brings cohesion and stability; while the students of history, and those who still have faith that the Spirit will lead into truth, count the numbers on the wall - “mene, mene …” and wait for history to repeat itself.

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In the 1870s listing of SDA doctrines by James White there were less than 10.
But The Wording is Interesting and Telling.
He writes — Generally Believed.
NOT, Absolutely Believed.
Or, just “Believed”.
Does any one recall the “witch hunt” by certain individuals around the Southern University, Collegedale, TN about 1982, 1983, 1984? My lab partner in the BSN program was the wife of one of the Theology Instructors. It was AWFUL. It decimated the Religion Department.
Do we want to do this again with the whole church? I think if there is to be an “endorsement certificate” It SHOULD Include every single Pastor in every single local church who is Ordained and Preaching and Teaching.
All Pastors are Teachers. All Pastors are the “final authority” to the laity as to what the Bible says in the context of Seventh day Adventist teachings [not just Christian teachings].
It sounds to me like we are heading for the “Dark Ages of Seventh day Adventism”.
All we need is the wood totem and the pile of dry brush around the base. A couple of quality matches.

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It seems to me that an underlying problem here is the inability or unwillingness of Adventists generally to acknowledge mystery.

The typical Adventist mindset seems overmuch to value “having it all figured out”–we glory excessively in “knowing” things about end-time and other matters that “other” people do not know. This mindset refuses to acknowledge that ultimately, we cannot figure it all out. When certainty, having everything figured out and put in its neat little slot, becomes a paramount concern, then those who fancy themselves the guardians of theological correctness feel compelled to exercise control via “certifications” and the like.

I have become something of a skeptic about human ability to penetrate ultimately the mysteries that surround us, which are many. Preach to me about treating my fellow human beings as I would want to be treated; preach to me about how Jesus lived and what I should do as his follower; please, don’t try to “unscrew the inscrutable.”

In summary, humility is needed. Don Rhoads

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How does this endorsement certificate differ from a creed?

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Millions of words have been written about the great changes brought about by the Reformation. But there would have been no great reformation without one lone man: Martin Luther. Where is the Adventist Reformer, who like Luther is willing to put his life, reputation, and everything on the line for his very strong beliefs posted to the Witttenburg door? But who would join him? Or would they shrink silently behind closed doors, for fear of losing their pensions, or even permanent jobs?

Yes, I well remember the “witch hunts” at SAU, the president at that time was one of the most intelligent and respected educator in Adventism and recognized by many outside the church. It was just such a “house cleaning” of the theology department, initiated by a high roller or two in the church that later was used in other colleges, just as the Psychology Department at PUC has now almost been depleted.

Ray, above, mentioned a study on the “meaning of Sabbath.” It should always be remembered that for any symbol to have meaning it will always be very subjective and cannot be transmitted to anyone else. Our nations’ flag has great symbolic significance to U.S. citizens, just as others around the world are so proud of what their flags symbolize to to them. But Sabbath was even more important to the Jewish people and look how they surrounded it with a fence that essentially became a wall between them and the rest of the world. Have we not followed in their path and are continuing to encumber it just as they did? It was their leaders, not the people, who had a choke hold on Sabbath observers then. Caveat emptor!

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In my many years in the church I have seen or heard of much inflexibility both on the right and on the left. Many college profs who want intellectual freedom for themselves do not grant it to their students. At some point we need to decide what the purpose of having Adventist schools is for. I think it will always involve some degree of limitations at every level and each of us would draw the line differently. I personally think that right now all levels and all persuasions exert overmuch control but frankly I do not know how to resolve this difficulty.

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The trends in Seventh day Adventist leadership at the highest level are worrying. From psychological and sociological perspectives they are very unhealthy. From looking at both political and ecclesiastical history (Adventist as well as wider Christianity) they have disturbing precedents. From looking at cult leadership behaviour and attitudes they have increasing similarities.

These are disturbing times.

When the actions and attitudes displayed at the last GC played out, something within me broke. Deep in my psyche and soul I was no longer Adventist. My church had cut itself off from me. It had moved too far away from me. Everything I learned in it about Jesus and the Reformers runs counter to the actions and direction of where the church is acting and headed. Behaviours and attitudes that the church warned me of regarding its fear and loathing of the worst of Catholicism and communism are being lived out and promoted by certain leaders and are being embedded in the core of Adventist administration and corporate practices and policies. From being a small flexible movement the leaders are moving deeper into autocratic political games, strategies and control. They aren’t skilled or wise enough to lead / govern a group of people that in population is bigger than far more than that of 60% or more of the world’s countries.

I belong in and support my local church community but any Identification and belonging to anything beyond and “above” that is gone. I am no longer an SDA. My church has left me. I have gratitude for many things it taught me, and especially for the values of Jesus which now challenge any chance of allegiance to this religious/political corporation and its leaders. I don’t recognise it. I don’t recognise it as having the real Jesus at its heart.

Farewell Adventist church. Good luck, you need all you can get.

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Allow me to answer the eloquent essay with two terms and a comment on endorsement.

Loyalty includes the willingness to stay with an organisation even if you do not agree with everything, constructively critically working towards change. Loyalty (vs. mindless submission) is only possible, if the organisation allows for it.

Integrity includes truthfulness and in consequence the willingness to withstand an organisation (Luther: “here is stand”) on the basis of your own conscience, even at a personal cost.

There was a time in which my church valued loyalty and integrity. The planned endorsment policy is putting at risk both. Loyalty is to be replaced by hypocrisy, integrity by opportunism.

Finally - within the SDA church enorsement orginally was a document for clergy employed outside of the church (e.g. the military or hospitals), inside the church we have a credentialling system. Introducing an endorsement for our schools is an interesting and quite disturbing view of our school system.

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Maybe we need to impose term limits in administrative positions :slight_smile:

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