Forgotten Homework: The 2020 Study in Hermeneutics
A convincing case could be made that the last time the global Adventist Church was truly “at study” was during the multi-year Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) effort that preceded the 2015 San Antonio General Conference. For one thing, the subject was important and impactful: it concerned how our church viewed the limits, if any, of women who feel called to gospel ministry.
Still, as influential as the TOSC study was, I think the reason the world church got so intimately engrossed was – the process. For the first time in our church’s history all thirteen divisions of the world church were tasked with setting up committees under the guidance of the General Conference (GC) Biblical Research Institute (BRI), to independently study a subject and report their individual findings without predetermined conclusions. Even the committees’ composition was groundbreaking. There were theologians and laypersons, pastors and administrators, men and women, young, old, not so old. The inclusiveness and diversity on the committees, coupled with their global spread, created a beehive of serious studies that reverberated throughout the worldwide Adventist subculture.
When it was over, we gained some noteworthy insights about our church on the question of ordination. First, we learned that our church has no theology of ordination. That is, we have no stated “belief” about who, and to some extent, why we ordain. Our church has almost 30 core beliefs but we have never considered ordination vital enough to include it on the list. This is significant because it follows that, during our roughly 150 years as an organized church, any male church member with no known public scandal or verifiable mental incapacity, who feels called to gospel ministry, could be trained, employed, ordained and aspire to the General Conference presidency – no questions asked. But not Adventist women who, by some estimates, make up over 60% of our church. It bears repeating; for almost four biblical generations in our history, we have had no theological justification for letting men in, and keeping women out. In contemporary slang: “We have been winging it”.
A second broad finding from the TOSC studies was that geography and culture influence our perception of who should be ordained. Some in high church circles were disappointed by this. They expected the church culture to be strong enough that on social issues we would project a unified front. But this finding should not be surprising because the church exists in society and is not immune to the general trends of the larger community it inhabits. Generally, SDA divisions in the more affluent parts of the north – of the north/south divide – approved of women’s ordination (WO), while divisions in regions with challenged economies, mostly in the south, disapproved. There are several different ways the support for and against WO, as reflected in the divisions’ recommendations, could be interpreted. But it is indisputable that the church was polarized on who should be ordained, and the split fell along discernible geographical fault lines.
Polarization notwithstanding, on aggregate more division committees disapproved of the status quo than committees who approved. This was a development that some key GC personal appear not to have anticipated. As originally conceived, the TOSC results were supposed to have been reported to the San Antonio GC delegates and voted on, as is customary with such study results. But once the data started showing a plurality of divisions in favor of ordaining women, the GC president changed his mind and insisted that the TOSC process was now only advisory, meaning the results would no longer be binding. For many, especially within the northern nations that favored ordaining women, it was this midstream process shift that poisoned the well.
But that was then, and now we are engaged in another study, on Hermeneutics (Interpretations), which will be voted on at the 2020 Indianapolis GC session. Yet, halfway through the five-year assignment, there is no noticeable world church engagement in this study as we experienced with the TOSC meetings. The reason for this almost total lack of church-wide awareness about this assignment is not because the church is exhausted from studying. Adventists seemingly never tire of a good study. So it is getting difficult to suppress cynicism, which keeps suggesting that perhaps the quietude surrounding the Hermeneutics study – is purposeful.
Hermeneutics, which was promoted as “our most important need” when introduced, was given to the BRI and some unidentified others within GC officialdom. The idea for this study came about almost with serendipity. A day after the San Antonio gathering voted down the motion to allow divisions discretion to ordain women, David Ripley, current president of Manitoba/Saskatchewan Conference, made an emotional plea for this study. In his view the bitter polarization evidenced at the session stemmed from an incorrect church hermeneutic. When he made his plea there was no indication that anything would come of it. But the next day Ripley’s proposal was brought to a vote and adopted – with an important caveat: it would be conducted by the BRI/GC, and their report voted on at the next GC session.
The BRI is a fine body, composed of biblical scholars from different backgrounds, and is dedicated to helping the church navigate the theological landscape. Its members are generally conscientious critical thinkers with unquestioned academic integrity – not “thought police” as some might suspect. For example, many BRI scholarly writings about WO, done individually and collectively over many years, have come to the same conclusions as TOSC: there is no biblical prohibition against ordaining women. I suspect that the BRI may be weary of this unsolicited assignment. A cursory search of their website shows that hermeneutics has not been a neglected orphan. Neither can we persuasively argue that the church lacks a coherent document on hermeneutics. At the 1986 Rio Annual Council the leadership voted to adopt a hermeneutics study that has guided us since. The Rio Adventist Hermeneutics document is an exhaustive 304-page tome.
So, why another study? And why did we not use a more open process like TOSC?
Well, we probably do need a new or substantive revision to our hermeneutics. Our present posture relies too heavily on proof texts to develop doctrine and that has long been concerning to many. The belief that our church is the sole earthly agency God has bestowed theological knowledge onto, especially concerning eschatology, is frankly too brazen. So yes, our hermeneutics may be due for an overhaul. But I worry about the spirit in which this study is being developed.
Considering how suddenly the whole idea came about at the last GC session, there is reasonable apprehension that this could be an opportunity grab by some in current leadership. Sadly, the motivation for this enterprise may not be to educate the church. It might instead be to create a totally new document – one that narrows the broader understandings of our faith, in the same way that some in this administration have sought to “rein in” the big tent safeguards regarding Fundamental Belief #6 (Creation), that had been honored by previous administrations. This fear is fed by the process adopted to conduct the study. It is worrying that, by assigning this to the BRI and the GC, it could lead to a scenario where a few individuals come up with this “all important” document. The BRI is made up of seven or eight associates and assignments like this could be handled in one of two ways. One common approach has all associates writing on different aspects of the study, after which individual papers are read and critiqued by the other group members. A second way gives one or two associates responsibility to write the entire study and the remaining members vet the finished result. This is comparable to the peer reviewed literature process except that, in this scenario, the reviewers are members of the group who know each other and will take turns critiquing one another. Either approach risks the independence and effectiveness of the entire process. Worse still is the sad feeling that this is a step backward because we know that, regardless of BRI method, such a product will lack the global denominational participation that was so refreshing about the TOSC process.
Two and a half years into the assignment, there has been no public information by the BRI or the GC about its progress so the larger church community could have buy-in. One of the greatest failings of the TOSC process was the GC sidelining of its work, in San Antonio. There was no official report of TOSC meetings from the individual divisions, or even a single report that summarized the outcome of the collective TOSC studies. Instead, we voted on a resolution at the session with little or no background information about what had led to this resolution. It will be to our collective shame if we, through benign neglect, ignorance or just indifference, allow these same mistakes to be repeated.
It is not a stretch to surmise that the GC leadership decided against using a TOSC-like process in studying hermeneutics in part because they were unsettled by what happened when all representatives had seats at the table to formulate policy. Instead of seeing the vibrant involvement by diverse voices within the church as something to celebrate, the leadership might not have liked the “messy” process. Perhaps it highlighted too much of our “differences”. They may have opted for a more controlled process using trustworthy professionals. The GC leadership gives the appearance of outmaneuvering change proponents and even hijacking a lively TOSC process to achieve a predetermined end. It is worrisome that the current invisible study in hermeneutics could end up similarly, this time to produce a document that aligns more with the fundamentalist worldview favored by the current GC leadership, then using a GC session to provide the imprimatur of legitimacy.