Working Through Our Differences
Following the biblical way
By Ted N. C. Wilson
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20, 21).
Only hours before His sacrifice for a guilty world, Jesus pleaded with His Father for an essential characteristic of those who would put their faith in Him and share the good news of His salvation. Jesus knew that they needed one thing even more than they needed courage or safety or eloquence or perseverance: they needed to value and preserve the God-given oneness that should always typify His church.
Jesus’ prayer was well-matched to His followers’ actual needs. As we saw in the June World Vista column, “Conflict in the Church,” the early years of the church were times of both divine empowerment and human weakness. In that column we looked at some of the specific challenges the church faced and how they were resolved (seehttp://www.adventistworld.org/issue.php?issue=2012-1006&page=8In).
Building on that foundation, we will now look more closely at how the apostles addressed the issues confronting the church at the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15.The experiences through which the Holy Spirit led those early believers provide a wealth of guidance for His church today. In particular, we can learn much from the discussion about how Gentiles could become members of the church. From the record given us by Luke, it’s clear that there was much debate on this issue over several years. The matter finally came to a crisis when Christian believers from Judea arrived in Antioch, claiming that Gentiles could be saved only if they would be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, meaning especially the ceremonial aspects of the law (Acts 15:1, 5).
The dispute became so serious that many were afraid a division in the church would result. The Antioch believers sent Paul and Barnabas together with other local leaders to Jerusalem to place the question before the apostles and elders at what some have called the first “General Conference session,” where delegates from the various churches would meet in general council to think, discuss, and pray together. From the insights provided by Ellen G. White, it seems that there was quite a warm discussion! (See The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 190, 191). Because different ideas exist regarding what actually happened at this meeting, it is important to look more closely at the process the apostles and elders used to reach a consensus.
The Spirit of Interaction
The words Luke employed in Acts 15:2, 7 can be understood either positively in the sense of “study, investigation,” or negatively as a “dispute” or even a “debate.”1 The attitude—the spirit—in which we enter into an examination of controversial subjects will have a dramatic impact on the outcome of the discussion: are we looking to seriously study, or only to dispute and debate? Are we willing to listen—truly listen—to those with whom we disagree? Do we believe that God can teach us something as we together search to find the answers?
“We must have greater wisdom than we have yet manifested in regard to the manner in which we treat those who in some points of faith honestly differ from us,” Ellen White wrote more than a century ago.2 “It is unbecoming in anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ to be sharp and denunciatory, to stoop to ridicule the views of another. The spirit of criticism unfits men for receiving the light that God would send them, or for seeing what is evidence of the truth.”
Direction From God-given Visions
Another important element of the process used at the Jerusalem Council was that the issues raised were addressed by recounting guidance from divinely given visions that supplied the impetus for this new phase in the church’s understanding of its mission. Peter’s first recorded speech to the council recalls God’s choice that through him the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe (Acts 15:7). Acts 10 describes in detail how that happened: God gave a vision to Peter three times, as well as a vision to Cornelius, leading to the acceptance of the gospel message and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the centurion and his household. Peter’s vision is described twice and explained (Acts 10:28), as is the vision of Cornelius (Acts 11:13, 14).
At the council, there were also stirring testimonies of God’s working through Peter, Paul, and Barnabas for the salvation of the Gentiles that confirmed what had already been divinely indicated through visions (Acts 15:8-12). The Spirit took the initiative through the gift of prophecy to lead the church forward in its mission to the world.
Discussion and Study
Judging from the very brief account we have, it apparently took some time for the delegates at the council to agree on the scriptural basis for God’s will in the matter (just as it had before Pentecost in their choice of a twelfth apostle [Acts 1:15-26]). After much discussion from both sides, James recognized the fulfillment of prophecy in what the apostles were describing, and quoted Amos 9:11, 12 (see Acts 15:16, 17) to confirm that God was indeed taking a people from among the Gentiles to unite with believing Jews.
As he concluded that Gentile believers should not be required to keep all the Jewish laws but only four fundamental requirements to bring them into harmony and fellowship with believing Jews, James was simply announcing “the decision arrived at by the council.”3 These four requirements represent the minimum standards that were required of foreigners who desired to live in Israel during the time of Moses, and are even given in the same order (compare Acts 15:20 with Lev. 18-20). The decisions emerging from the Jerusalem Council were not simply arbitrary, pragmatic solutions based on momentary needs, but the result of careful, prayerful study of the Word in light of what was discovered to be God’s divinely revealed will.
A Successful Process
We can clearly see that in both Antioch and Jerusalem “lively” discussions took place, where all were able to share their beliefs regarding controversial issues and frankly acknowledge their differences. When the disagreement became too contentious in Antioch, all parties agreed to take the issue to a general council in Jerusalem, where delegates from other churches gathered. In the meantime, it was agreed to pause the controversy and wait patiently for the decision of the general council, which would be “universally accepted by the different churches throughout the country.”4 Waiting was certainly not easy, as it required yielding their own convictions of immediate action to the wisdom of the wider group.
In Jerusalem, after another “lively discussion,” the Spirit’s leading was evident as Peter recounted the Lord’s guidance through visions, and evidence was given of the Gentiles (as well as Jews) receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. These experiences were confirmed by the truths of Scripture, and led to the consensus requiring of Gentile converts only those items that had been specified for Gentiles in the book of Leviticus.
Following the Biblical Example
As we face difficult and challenging issues in the church today, it is vital that we also follow the biblical example of working together to find a solution. At the 2010 General Conference session in Atlanta, one of the delegates, a president of a conference in the United States, “called for a church-conducted reexamination of ordination.”5 Taking this request very seriously, church administration committed to a comprehensive, worldwide study on ordination, including the appropriateness of ordaining women to gospel ministry.
That process is currently going forward in all 13 world divisions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, where special Biblical Research Committees (BRCs) have been established. During these meetings much discussion, study, and prayer are occurring. Differences of thought are being shared; different aspects of ordination are being studied. Members of these study committees will find as much common ground as possible, and where differences occur, separate reports will be made from various groups within the same research committee.
In November 2013, each division committee at its year-end meeting will review the study and report(s) prepared by its division Biblical Research Committee, and will then recommend conclusions to the Biblical Research Institute director for consideration by a Theology of Ordination Study Committee. The General Conference Administrative Committee will appoint the members of this larger study committee, which will include appropriate representation from each world division.
This larger committee will carefully review the materials received from all of the division BRCs, and will prepare a combined report by June 2014. That report will itself be reviewed by the General Conference officers and the General Conference Administrative Committee. In October 2014, the report will be shared with the Annual Council of the church’s Executive Committee—its highest deliberative body between General Conference sessions held every five years. That large Executive Committee, representing the amazing depth and breadth of the world church, will consider the report and decide what further action to take.
Throughout this careful, patient process, research, and open discussion are encouraged as members around the world pray for this important study.
Coming Together in Christ
Since the beginning of the Advent movement and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, members have discovered unity by focusing on Christ and His Word. As we submit to the Word through the leading of the Holy Spirit, we learn to live together as the body of Christ with all our differences and diversities. It is inevitable that there will be differences of opinion among even the most committed believers. For that reason, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has always worked through its General Conference sessions, held every five years, and through the Executive Committee, which meets between the General Conference sessions. During these sessions delegates and Executive Committee members establish the understandings by which the global church affirms its biblical beliefs, organizes its mission outreach proclaiming the three angels’ messages, and spiritually nurtures its members in a relationship with Christ.
Unity has been expressed many times in General Conference sessions and other meetings as the Holy Spirit leads the church through difficult issues. While differences of opinion are candidly expressed, we covenant to work together as a worldwide organization with beliefs and practices based upon the Bible.
I have every confidence that the Lord will continue to lead His church now as He has in the past, as we humbly come together, share our convictions, prayerfully study His Word, and remain open to His leading.
1 E. Larsson, “Ze-teo, Ze-te-ma,” Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2, pp. 102, 103.
2 “Candid Investigation Necessary to an Understanding of the Truth,” The Signs of the Times,May 26, 1890.
3 The Acts of the Apostles, p. 195.
4 Ibid., p. 190.
5 “Adventist Church Administration Commits to Comprehensive Study of Ordination,” by Elizabeth Lechleitner. http://www.adventistreview.org/article/3625/archives/issue-2010-1526/adventist-church-administration-commits-to-comprehensive-study-of-ordination
Ted N. C. Wilson is president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.