This article is adapted from a sermon given by Pastor Jan Paulsen, General Conference president, on Sabbath, October 13, at Annual Council—a gathering of church leaders from every division of the world church.
The apostle Paul is confronted with a dilemma that he describes in 1 Corinthians 8 to 10. It’s a dilemma faced by every church leader, whether their assignment is within the local congregation or church administration. It’s a dilemma that goes to the heart of church unity.
The question before Paul is this: how do you counsel people about eating meat that has been offered to idols? His conclusion is this: “As for me I don’t believe in idols—they are nothing to me—so, I can eat meat offered to idols without doing damage to myself.”
But, he says—and this is the critical point—if the exercise of my freedom causes damage to you, then it is wrong and not in harmony with the will of Christ. My exercise of freedom and the choices I make must be disciplined by love and concern for those who may be affected by it. This biblical principle must define the actions of all who exercise church leadership. “Everything is permissible,” Paul says, “but not everything is beneficial.” And he adds: “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor. 10:23, 24, NIV). And then he concludes by saying: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (11:1, NIV).
Clearly, for Paul the issue is not food. Food is just the illustration. The real issue is: What values should govern our decisions and actions? His answer is clear: consideration and deference. It is about being willing to forgo rights rather than assert them. It is about asking: if I do this—which I think I have every right to do—how will others be impacted? It is a recognition that our duty to others is greater than our duty to ourselves. This passage is about discovering what it means to be part of something larger than any of us and our immediate communities. And it’s a principle that is critically important to us as a global church.
I would like to draw out, perhaps using some license, a few thoughts that we can take from this passage.
1. Learning to trust. It is good to be able to share resources while at the same time letting go of the controls. Without trust, we cannot function as a church. You and I have our designated areas of responsibility. Let’s do our best there, and trust others to look after the life and mission of the church where they are. All of us will eventually be held accountable—perhaps in this life, but certainly in the one to come—for how we have performed.
2. Accepting differences. Paul’s words also offer counsel about accepting that which is different from me and my way of thinking. “Acceptance” does not necessarily mean that I take it on as mine, but that I refrain from judging its value to others who live in different circumstances and cultures. We are not all children of the same culture, but we all share the same family ties. We are bonded in unity, and we have to trust each other to do right.
3. Understanding the essentials. There is a hint in this passage that tells us to be sensitive to what is at the heart of the Adventist faith, and what is not; that we must not unduly elevate a particular perspective that occupies me and impose it on others; that I must not overrate the value of my particular culture as I relate to others.
4. Nurturing family ties. Very fundamentally, this passage has to do with nurturing the bonds that hold us together as a “family,” for that is what the global Seventh-day Adventist Church is. You support this family because of your love and loyalty to the Lord and His people. You will give no support to those who seem bent on offering—or perhaps even more dangerously, feel “called” to give—judgmental statements and messages of negative criticism, which become an offense to the Lord and harassment of the church and its leaders. That habit is harmful and destructive to the church as a family.
5. Representing Christ and His values. In everything I do, says Paul, I want Christ to look good. Although I am free, I make myself a slave—I discipline myself—for the sake of Christ, the gospel, and His people. Whatever I do, says Paul, I do it “so that I might win as many as possible,” and so that the voice of Christ and His love for the church may be clear and compelling.
How do we do mission in an imperfect world, surrounded by legal and social values we cannot accept?
This mind-set of shared responsibility and shared trust, for the sake of Christ and the unity of the church, defines Adventist leadership. The church is far from a perfect community. But the church is God’s people, the body of Christ, and looking after the church is an act of worship.
Whatever our sphere of responsibility, there is always a temptation to become distracted by tasks given to someone else, or by interesting challenges out there that we wouldn’t mind taking on. You may receive unsolicited requests for intervention in something that is happening elsewhere in the world church. You may feel drawn into it because you feel you have the solution. My counsel is: “Don’t.” You probably haven’t got the full picture. I frequently get what I call “10 percent stories”—it is in the 90 percent that I am not told that the true substance of the issue is found. Focus instead on the tasks you have been chosen to handle. Allow others to deal with the responsibilities they have been entrusted with. To the extent they succeed or fail, they will have to answer to the Lord, as will each one of us.
What you do as a leader in the church, do it with love for the Lord and His people, do it with integrity, and keep your heart clean. And, somehow, I think that is all the Lord expects of any of us.
Commitment to unity
The church is unique. It is not only God’s idea, but it is a community of the highest value to God. Ellen White wrote: “Enfeebled and defective as it may appear, the church is the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard.”* The church is deeply loved by God. It is the “theater of His grace,” and He has an unwavering commitment to it. The message from Scripture, from the pen of Ellen White, and from our own history tells us that God wants this church to stay united.
From time to time issues come up that test our commitment to unity. And this is when shared trust and shared responsibility provide guideposts for moving forward.
I know of nothing that has the potential of dividing the church more than theology itself. It has always been like that. Some of you who are students of church history may remember from your reading that many centuries ago a controversy arose that split the church of the East from the West, Constantinople from Rome, and the Orthodox Church and Western Christianity parted ways. The heart of the issue became known as the “filioque” controversy. It had to do with the procession of the Holy Spirit after Christ’s ascension. Eastern Christianity said that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father; the Western Church added “and from the Son.” And that divided the church.
As Seventh-day Adventists we have strong convictions regarding doctrines and theology. That should not surprise any of us. It has to do with our roots and our self-understanding. It has to do with eschatology, and it has very much to do with preparing a people to be ready for Christ’s return.
I say to all church leaders: we have the statement of 28 Fundamental Beliefs. They hold together our core identity in terms of faith and doctrine. Resist any tendency to pluck out strains from any of these and make them into a separate and new doctrine that will divide the Seventh-day Adventist global community! We are in such rapid global growth today as a church, and to me it is important that we have the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, as stated, understood and held to by all the new members who are joining us. That in itself is a monumental task. The wonderful fact that we are growing rapidly around the globe is also our great challenge, and we cannot afford to become distracted.
There are also such challenges as the oft-discussed matter of the role of women in ministry. It is a concern that keeps surfacing from time to time, whether in my conversations with young adults or during a recent televised conversation with a group of pastors from North America. And some ask: “Do we have to keep talking about this?” Well, it seems so. We may well be of the opinion that we should have handled it differently from the beginning. But we consulted together as a global family and we came to a decision. We shared in the process and we share the outcome, and we cannot step out of our shared past and say: “I don’t like it! Whatever others may think, I will correct in my little corner of the vineyard what I think was a mistake.” It does not work like that in the church. Before we embark on a new course, particularly in a difficult and potentially divisive matter, a broad-based consensus of leadership must, listening to each other, conclude that the time has come to think differently.
The greater concern of many women who feel called to the ministry, and who have pursued professional training, is not the ordination issue, but just being employed in ministry. Local churches are reluctant, and conferences find them difficult to place. This I think is a most unfortunate failure. Young people, both men and women, must follow the calling God has placed within them. We are going to need everyone to finish our mission and for God to usher in eternity.
Mission in an imperfect world
Secular society and the church share the same world, but are divided by some important values. And society will test our conduct in some of these areas. Marriage, cohabitation, and same-sex partnerships are already issues within both the larger society and the church. Laws will increasingly impact our conduct as a church, perhaps particularly in employment matters and in the way we run our institutions. I see tension ahead between our being fair to all and not attracting litigation on the one hand while, on the other, holding fast to important biblical values. We are a law-abiding people, obedient citizens of any country; but obedience to God takes first priority. It is important that we do not lose sight of that when the values of two different worlds collide.
But even when that happens and things get difficult, we have to ask ourselves: how do we do mission in an imperfect world, surrounded by legal and social values we cannot accept? In such a scenario I believe we have to remember that we are called to do mission in a world where sin abounds. In some instances, the laws of the land may restrict us in our public response to that which we do not condone or share. This is difficult, but this is the world in which we live, and we cannot step out of it. This is where we have been placed to do mission.
So, what is it that really matters, when all is said and done, to us individually and personally, as well as to us as leaders of the church we believe is God’s community in these last days of earth’s history? If I were to express it with just one word I would probably use the word “obedience”—obedience to God. For obedience expresses the practical side of faith; its reference point is always someone or something outside my own person. Faith has no other way of expressing itself.
How should those who lead the church respond to difficult issues; how should we approach decisions where the consequences are uncertain or unpredictable? If, after we have talked the matter through and prayed about it, and our mind finds rest with what we believe is right, it is important that the prospect of uncertain consequences does not hinder us from moving forward. If you are clear about what is right, just do it. Don’t be political. Keep your heart clean. Be self-critical with reference to potential conflicts of interest and then just do what you know is right. You will sleep better for it, for you did your best to be loyal and obedient to God. In an uncertain world with an uncertain future, that is, I believe, the only safe stand church leaders can take.
*The Acts of the Apostles, p. 12