Could anyone say the church’s current president bends to the wind of fashion?
Not reasonably. In Utrecht, twenty years ago, many American and European delegates to the General Conference Session were arguing that the Bible supports gender equality in ministry. Elder Wilson declared that an NAD effort toward the ordination of women would contradict Scripture and create “widespread factionalism.” Every delegate, he said, should “vote against” the NAD request. Still, upon becoming our leader fifteen years later, he did support a worldwide study process meant to give people on different sides of the issue a fresh opportunity for deep reflection.
No consensus emerged, and in that light the 2014 Annual Council voted to place this question before delegates to the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio: “Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry?”
I know people who doubt that the majority of delegates will vote Yes on this question if it means going against Elder Wilson’s wishes. Others think a Yes vote is possible irrespective of his wishes. But Elder Wilson is our leader. His opinion matters, and it matters because the stakes are so high. The risk of injury to Adventist unity and morale seems greater now than it was in Utrecht, and divisional self-determination concerning the question of gender equality in ministry seems ever more ingenious. For if anything has become clear, it is that such equality is a matter of conscience for an increasing number of Adventists. For many who oppose the idea, their stand is also a matter of conscience.
If Adventists could now agree that the best option is intentional and loving openness to difference on this matter, we could leave San Antonio, I believe, fundamentally as one. Everyone, after all, loves the international character of Adventism; and everyone wants to stand side by side in basic solidarity with Christ and one another. It is well to remember, therefore, that at least for Adventists alive with Ellen White, sheer uniformity was never the goal. The preamble to the 1872 statement of faith, meant to explain Adventism to the wider world, said pointedly that the document was not meant to “secure uniformity” of conviction among Adventists. Our own story, it turns out, opens a door Elder Wilson could help us walk through. He could very well, like Esther, have come into his influential role “for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).
In loyalty to principle, Elder Wilson has shown backbone against the wind of fashion. It seems likely (I don’t know for sure) that he remains dubious about the scriptural legitimacy of gender equality in ministry. So if, to his fellow church leaders, he began advocating a Yes vote on the question that will come up in San Antonio, would that compromise his integrity?
Here another name in Bible history comes into play. Gamaliel, one of Paul’s own teachers, sat with a council of Jewish leaders who wanted to kill Peter and the apostles for defying their order to stop teaching in Jesus’ name. He rose up and said the council should “let them alone; if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin,” he went on, “it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” No evidence suggests that Gamaliel himself was on the side of Peter and the apostles. He just recognized that sometimes the best way to deal with disagreement is to let it play itself out, trusting the outcome to God. And so he mustered the courage to recommend this approach to his colleagues.
Were Elder Wilson to emulate Gamaliel, it could spare the church much grief. A Yes vote would erase the specter of forced compliance with a new policy. Divisions could pour more energy into mission. Everyone in San Antonio would sing “We Have This Hope” with roof-raising gusto, and the hallways and eating places would resound with words of relief and gratitude. What is more, Elder Wilson would take a huge step toward leaving a legacy he can be proud of, rather than one that makes his name a byword for discord.
This is Elder Wilson’s Esther moment. This is Elder Wilson’s Gamaliel moment. Church leaders, especially Elder Wilson’s closest colleagues, should begin now to encourage him into seizing the moment. In living memory, there has been no graver threat to Adventist unity than the one hanging over us today. Nor could there be a greater breakthrough to renewed solidarity than the one that offers itself just now to all of us, and not least to our General Conference president.
Charles Scriven is chair of the Adventist Forum board, the parent organization of Spectrum Magazine.This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6704