Tear Down This Wall

It’s time to get serious about repentance.

For nearly 10 years, Adventism’s most powerful church leaders have been doubling down on their agenda of male superiority and privilege. In their view, a wall divides men from women: the leaders are on one side, and on the other the women who must be sweet-talked and cajoled, or if necessary compelled, into a status that leaves men in charge. These leaders think women, just in virtue of being women, cannot be ordained into pastoral ministry, and they weaponize the Bible — I explain the verb below — against those who think otherwise. As for conscience, when it compels individuals and organizations to tear down the wall and to take steps toward the single new humanity envisioned by the Gospel, our most powerful leaders want these individuals and organizations to be punished.

Last Friday night I read the December 9 Adventist Review report on Annual Council consideration of union conferences that are “noncompliant” with respect to the church’s ordination policy. The policy, re-affirmed at the 2015 General Conference Session despite widespread scholarly objection, reserves ordination for men and forbids it for women. But some unions, in deference to the church’s declaration (Fundamental Belief #14) that we are all “equal in Christ,” remain determined, nevertheless, to treat men and women equally. Some defy the policy by continuing to ordain women; others evade it by using the same “commissioning” service (not quite ordination proper) to recognize all pastoral callings, whether of women or of men. The latter may seem harmless enough, but to the leaders now most powerful in the church, it is still abhorrent. Even when, as in the case at hand, a belief is no mere idiosyncrasy but a widely shared conviction, church policy trumps conscience: noncompliance in defense of women cannot be tolerated.

A dividing wall looms over all of Adventism. This wall is an infamy, a condemnation of our very being as a church. And if we don’t realize it, and recoil from it, that’s in large part because we don’t know how to read the Bible. Let me explain.

On the same night I looked at the Adventist Review report, I was paging through my Bible in preparation for a Sabbath School class. The quarterly took me to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, both stories of heroic faith, courage, and determination. But in these books you can also find such contempt for foreigners as to justify “never” seeking their “peace or prosperity” (Ezra 9) and prohibiting them from “ever” entering “the assembly of God” (Nehemiah 13). Today these words feel exclusionary and disturbing. But when you realize, as I did on Friday night, that the prophet Zechariah encouraged and addressed precisely the people who were in those days re-building Jerusalem, you see how the Bible story helps explain why, today, such contempt for foreigners disturbs us.

Start from anywhere in Scripture, it turns out, and when you try to connect that part with the other parts you see development, a story that is going somewhere. And the direction of the story — what I pondered again last Friday night — shows why many of us, or perhaps most, cannot be at ease with what seems exclusionary. It shows, too, why the persistence of the exclusionary attitude among the church’s most powerful leaders is such a scandal. The dividing wall has cast an evil shadow on our community for decades, and we have failed to bring it down. This fact, I repeat, is an infamy; we must repent.

So, taking the Sabbath School’s current focus as a beginning point, consider the story. Ezra and Nehemiah lead a remnant of Israel back to Jerusalem from exile; the surrounding peoples make life difficult, and both leaders speak of them in highly negative ways. The prophet Zechariah offers assurance and support, and also reminds his readers (chapter 6) to show “kindness and mercy to one another.” He says, too — note this well — that God forbids oppression against “the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.” The alien? Yes. To the prophet the alien matters, and this seems a step beyond the disdain for “unclean” others you find in Ezra.

Then, in chapter 8, Zechariah predicts a “sowing of peace” such as will make Judah and the house of Israel a “blessing.” These words, as we know, echo the call of Abraham, where God promised that Israel would be a blessing to all the families of the earth. This, too, seems a step beyond. But if Zechariah’s words point backward to Abraham, they also point forward to something Zechariah (or as some say, one his disciples) declares in chapter 9: Your “king” will come “riding on a donkey” and commanding “peace to the nations.” According to the Gospels, Jesus did come riding on a donkey and he came as the prince of peace. The author of Ephesians declares (chapter 2), that Christ is “our peace,” the maker and guarantor, that is, of true Christian fellowship and generosity. Under Christ’s influence, the “dividing wall” between Gentile and Jew tumbles down, the chapter says, and “one new humanity” rises up. Here again is a step, or giant step, beyond disdain for “unclean” others. So the story goes somewhere; it has a direction.

Now consider what “one new humanity” implies. A single new humanity would lack dividing walls that privilege some as inherently superior to others, and so stir up “hostility” and sabotage “peace.” Nothing in this single new humanity would feed bitterness, slander, and malice. The author implores us (chapter 5), “[B]e kind to one another,” and the words feel like a summing up of the Gospel’s moral meaning. But the author sheds further light: Not only be kind but be also “tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

All this makes God in Christ our reference point, our guide, our North Star. And when the point sinks in you realize again why some of what you see in Ezra and Nehemiah feels disturbing. Those stories take you to Zechariah, and from Zechariah you can find a path straight to Christ and a moral vision five words summarize: “Be kind to one another.” From the perspective of kindness, the exclusionary attitude seems diabolical. Christ, echoing Zechariah and other prophets, takes us beyond what we find in Ezra and Nehemiah.

Other summaries of Christ’s moral vision would work — the word “love” is the best-known — but the enjoinder to be kind works, too. And it helps us say exactly why the dividing wall the church’s most influential leaders are now protecting is so despicable. That wall is unkind. It slanders women who themselves bear the image of God. It does nothing to allay bitterness or stifle malice. It is thus a disparagement of Christ and a disaster for the church.

You will see this if, when you confront Holy Writ, you read with a view to Christ — with Christ always, in other words, as your reference point and guide. In the Adventist Review issue I mentioned before, John McVay, president of Walla Walla University, argues for a “Christ-centered” church. He appeals to Scripture and invokes Ellen White’s insistence that Christ is the “one great central truth” that must be kept “ever before the mind” as we study the Bible. Yes! Otherwise, anyone can weaponize the Bible, taking small bits from here and there in order to defend, rather than tear down, dividing walls.

The person who reads Christocentrically will have no problem grasping the present urgency of churchwide repentance. The Bible, read that way, forbids unkindness to anyone, not least unkindness to persons who differ from us. So what powerful men are now doing to assure that no Adventist women pastors, not even where congregations welcome them, can be granted dignity equal to that of men — this effort, by these men, is unkind. That is the essence of the offense, and it has continued for years; it does not come from oversight but is deliberate.

So let us repent for having let this go on so long. Let us declare now to ourselves, our leaders and (at the appropriate time) our representatives to the 2020 General Conference Session: THIS WALL MUST COME DOWN.

Charles Scriven is a member of the Adventist Forum Board.

Photo by Serenity Mitchell on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10088
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Thank you, Chuck, for clarity and moral vigor on this topic. As you make so memorably, God trusts us to read the Scriptures both “locally” and globally, down in the details and above in the grand vision. And both views direct us to a continuing education in the ways of God with humanity. There is hope if we can see how our horizons have widened when people have looked higher.

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The wall does not come down by itself !

Someone has to tear it down!

Who dares to take up the challenge?

Carsten

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Perhaps the issue of women’s ordination is being tackled defensively rather than offensively. We’re constantly defending the idea that women are as “worthy” of ordination as men. The issue needs to be put on the offensive. Make someone spell out - what it is about women that makes them unworthy of being ordained? I dare them to make that list without sounding stupid.

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I disagree with your suggestion that what will help solve the ordination problem is more words. It led me to think of Eliza Doolittle’s expressions of frustration in “Show Me.” Don’t you think it is time for a groundswell of organized protest and the application of pressure as the Dutch Adventist congregation has done and as the Swedish Union is doing?

Eliza
Words! Words! Words!
I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars Burning above; If you’re in love,
Show me! Tell me no dreams
Filled with desire. If you’re on fire,
Show me! Here we are together in the middle of the night…!

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Chuck is being “kind” by accusing church leadership of being “unkind,” even though that is a rebuke of those who follow Jesus. I would use stronger language: Leadership’s behavior is a malignancy on the body of Christ. As it spreads, the body will succumb to weakness, division and a sense that leadership is irrelevant to moving the church into the future as a healthy community.

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The Bible story DOES move and revelation IS progressive. These principles agree. There is a tension between this natural flow and our established faith, but as the hymn urges us, “New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth…” I see leaders and preachers everywhere clinging to tradition, and the wideness of God is kept narrow because of our collective fear of change. I fear it is present truth, not old standards, that are being compromised by our hardened hearts. Thank you for your strong language in calling us “onward still, and upward.”

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Thanks, Chuck. Amazing moral courage. Revolution is needed, pray for Indianapolis.

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Thank you for this thoughtful article.

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What isn’t being said but what is fundamental, foundational and absolute factual is that our human church GC leadership is defying God’s roll. Humans, and that includes Ted are not the deciders of who is to be given the gift of minister or evangelist or teacher. Those who are bestowed of these gifts, and their subsequent ordination are to be bestowed by the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit and only the Holy Spirit that calls people to the ministry. For any human, especially someone appointed primarily because of nepotism, is not only wrong, it is blasphemy.

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Praying is good, no doubt about it. BUT, what the Church really needs is finding a way to replace Ted Wilson and his team asap.

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Thank you for this simple reminder of how simple the issue actually is. Men and women are fully equal before God, and not recognizing this denigrates women, which is unkind and more. As the European Unions that only commission have pointed out, our very own fundamental beliefs say that men and women are fully equal, so it is inconsistent and hypocritical to persist in seeing women as unequal in ministry. Men and women are either equal in all ways or they are not. God has clearly said they are and our leaders need to repent of their sinful hypocrisy and acknowledge this.

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Divert the Tithe until such time as this church begins again to mirror the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. We shall not be moved.

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This is a thoughtful and much-appreciated essay–much as I would expect of Dr. Scriven. Thank you for sharing.

I should add that our church now adheres to a genitocentric rather than a cerebrocentric theology. The former posits that God judges our behavior based on the external genitalia between our legs, whereas the latter leaves open the possibility that God judges us based on our brains instead. These physical structures can be mismatched in gender, as I’ve written in detail (https://spectrummagazine.org/article/jeffrey-kent/2014/05/05/christian-attitudes-toward-sex-and-women%E2%80%99s-ordination-cerebrocentric). The most insulting thing about our Church’s genitocentric theology is that the single most important criterion for leadership–prioritized above any character trait or ability–is the presence of a penis. A penis! What makes this all-mighty spiritual organ so important? How fickle God must be if that’s what he requires! Let’s be frank: genitocentric theology is clearly a phallacy no thinking SDA should succumb to.

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Why do they do that?
Is it because they do not like the fact that God used a woman to help found the Church?
Or because the Spirit of Prophecy has been downplayed so long that it is inept?
It is a fact that God called EGW to be His “Messenger.”
It is a fact that the priest “[is] the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 2:7)
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)
To allow any Jew of Greek (not being from the tribe of Levi) to be an ordained pastor, there had to be a change in the law.
“For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law” (Hebrews 7:12)
Precisely, because the law was changed:
"And [Christ] hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him [be] glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen [So let it be].(Revelation 1:6)
So why does the SDA leadership push the Roman Catholic doctrine of a male priesthood that defies the word of God that is confirmed by the Spirit of prophecy?

The enemy of all truth is working with deceptive power to cause men and women to place human institutions where God should be, and to forget that which was ordained for the happiness and salvation of mankind. Yet this apostasy, widespread as it has come to be, is not universal.–Prophets and Kings

There is hard work to be done in dislodging error and false doctrine from the head, that Bible truth and Bible religion may find a place in the heart. It was as a means ordained of God to educate young men and women for the various departments of missionary labor, that colleges were established among us. It is God’s will that they send forth not merely a few, but many laborers. But Satan, determined to overthrow this purpose, has often secured the very ones whom God would qualify for places of usefulness in his work. There are many who would work if urged into service, and who would save their souls by thus working. The church should feel her great responsibility in shutting up the light of truth, and restraining the grace of God within her own narrow limits, when money and influence should be freely employed in bringing competent persons into the missionary field. {GW92 292.3}

The Lord move upon the churches! May the voice from the living oracles of God, the startling movings of providence, speak in clear language to the church, “separate unto me Paul and Barnabas.” Holy and devout men are wanted now to cultivate their mental and physical powers and their piety to the uttermost, and to be ordained to go forth as medical missionaries, both men and women. Every effort should be made to send forth intelligent workers. The same grace that came from Jesus Christ to Paul and Apollos, that distinguished them for spiritual excellencies can be reproduced and brought into working order in many devoted missionaries. Let not a large number fold their hands and say O yes, let such and such an one go to untried fields, while themselves put forth no interested devoted self-denying labor and expect their work that the Lord has committed to them to be done by proxy. {6MR 226.3}

It is the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God.–RH January 15, 1901

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We are in the final shaking. Only that which is ordained of God will stand.
God will tear down this wall, and His will will be done!

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In addition, I might add that the children are watching. If the current effort to discriminate stands, when the children reach adulthood, they will choose not to align with our group. Hypocrisy on the issue of equality tilts the scale so that many say it is not worth staying in the denomination that has already proven to have glaring pockets of inauthenticity.

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It is not the “powerful men” that are the problem. They have the support of a majority of the church.

I was impressed that at the Fall Counsel the leadership voted to discipline the leaders and conferences that had chosen to ignore the vote taken in 2015. These “powerful men” have the support of their people. I thought there would be a backing off, but there was not. And I think that a new president will not change much. The world church made a decision and has kept at it.

So railing against those “powerful men” is not really going to cut it. You have to convince the folk in the pews, and I mean the pews in Africa and S. America before you will get a change.

You guys seem to like top down organization. If we can get a majority of the elites, we can have our way. Might not be a working strategy at this time.

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If the Bible is any indication of HOW God works in His
Church – the Jewish one first, and later added the
Christian Gentile community,
God uses PEOPLE to do His building up and tearing down.
PEOPLE listening to what the Spirit says through the Scriptures.
It is “the Wise” who will shine as the Stars.
The “Wise” are trying to work in the SDA church, but the forces
of evil are against it.
We have the call in Scripture for Equality in giving the Gospel,
but the forces of Evil in the church are doing what they can to
prevent this.

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Thoughtful article. So while doing my early morning reading, I came across this: "Let all who accept human authority, the customs of the church, or the traditions of the fathers, take heed to the warning conveyed in the words of Christ, “In vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” DA 398. It’s remarkable that in one week, Time Magazine names a Swedish teenage “girl” as its Person of the Year, and Finland votes in the youngest “woman” prime minister (and Ms. Marin’s cabinet is all women). Is anyone at the GC paying attention? The third world is not the best source of inspiration for setting global church policy.

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