I was born into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. My parents and each of theirs were Adventists. I have been a member for over 50 years now and a product of 13 years of Adventist education. After going to law school and becoming a lawyer and then an entrepreneur I have been a local Adventist school board chairman, Sabbath School superintendent, Sabbath School teacher and charitable contributor to Adventist institutions.
I love that my church rejects the teaching of the vast majority of the Christian consensus concerning Hell. I continue to find it amazingly astonishing that our indefatigable co-founder, Ellen White, called her church to embrace the deep truth that “God is love.” Those are the both the very first and last words of her signature book, The Great Controversy.
I mention these few details in partial explanation for why I am not at all ready to concede easily that I don't know what authentic Adventism is.
As a member of the Adventist Forum board (and signatory of the unanimously-approved Statement in Support of Yes) my position concerning Women's Ordination has been clear. The vote at San Antonio is also clear: There were more No votes than Yes. I believe this is a tragic mistake and our church would have been much better positioned to energetically focus on and carry out our Mission if our president would have made the speech I suggested in my last editorial.
But after the great disappointment settles in, we must turn to the fact that life continues and consider what we can learn. My reflection has led me to contemplate something quite startling and much more horrific than simply losing a political vote: I fear that large swaths of Adventist leaders and members are apparently comfortable with an understanding of God's character that is at odds with what the New Testament says to me. If my fear is accurate, this has profound implications about our Mission. But it is not new and there is a directly pertinent experience in the New Testament that speaks powerfully to me.
More than 10 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Bible includes a story about Peter that seems applicable to our times now:
“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back… When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’” Galatians 2:11-14 (NIV)
Here we have dear Peter who lived with Jesus for three years, was deeply converted after the Resurrection, was anointed with the Holy Spirit and led out initially in taking the Gospel to the Gentiles yet he was “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” The thing that continued to have such a hold on him was connected to what he had been taught as a child to be God’s requirements and how his Jewish subculture overwhelmingly lived. But those norms were now in conflict with the Gospel of Jesus. In this story we learn how powerful our own culture or subculture can be in our lives. We also learn that the Gospel can call us to something completely different than our subculture embraces because Jesus shows a new way forward.
What was the “truth of the gospel” that eluded Peter on this occasion? I submit it was the radical inclusiveness that Jesus announced. In God’s sight there was no longer a wall of separation between Jews and non-Jews in salvation terms. There were no longer Jews and non-Jews in terms of mission or ministry. Today we find it nearly incomprehensible I suppose that the Jewish world found this so radical and hard to believe. But here we have Peter, dear Peter, who at times could backslide into his old comfort zone on just this point!
What was so bad about this that Paul felt compelled to oppose him to his face in what must have been a very tense situation? My answer is that Peter’s behavior publicly misrepresented God’s character, and that is very serious indeed. How does this relate to our situation today?
Ellen White has told us that “The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of His character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them” (Christ’s Object Lessons, 415). If that is the final work then in order to do such work we must be very clear about the nature of God’s character in order to communicate it to others. Most of the time after Pentecost Peter was clear, but not always.
The question of how the church should relate to women seems similar to me as the question 2,000 years ago of how the church should relate to Gentiles. In each case, powerful elements of society both within and without the church had a traditional view that was less than equality. Peter folded under pressure and separated himself from eating with the Antioch Gentiles. Just eating! Paul thunders that this is not in line with the gospel.
In our day the pressure is to exclude women from aspects of full equality of gospel ministry. This pressure is from the largest Christian organization, the Roman Catholic Church, some protestant denominations, the Later Day Saints, as well as from broad elements within our own denomination. This is true even though our own seminary experts in church history like Dr. George Knight and Dr. Darius Jankiewicz agree that ordination (which is the status around which the dispute revolves) is not even a biblical concept but was a pagan Roman concept dealing with authority that was extended to the church when the empire became “Christian” about 300 years after Jesus ascended to heaven.
I have heard the most superficial and silly arguments used to justify refusing to “ordain” women. Perhaps the most shameful is that Jesus did not appoint any woman to be one of the 12 disciples so our church should not ordain women today. Jesus did not appoint any Gentile to be among the 12 either. Nor any black man or Chinese, Spanish or Anglo-Saxon man. But where are the outraged proponents of using such an example to prohibit ordaining such men today? A similar argument is that only men were priests in the Old Testament. You know the reply!
In the 1st century Peter’s great post-resurrection failing was in not eating with some people. Perhaps in the 21st century our church’s failing is in refusing to be fed by some people. In both cases, there is an overt failure to accurately and adequately reflect God’s character to the watching world. President Wilson clearly desires a powerful mission of evangelism in these next five years, but if that evangelism is not a clear and accurate revelation of God’s character it will not be the last message of mercy that must eventually be given.
The great encouragement is that Peter, after Paul’s strong rebuke, saw the error of his ways and returned with renewed vigor to his mission. This was given as an example for us. The mistake can be fixed. Whether this time it will take a Pauline approach or something else remains to be seen. In the end God’s true character will be revealed.
Ken Peterson is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum Magazine.
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