Unity and mutuality
Regarding “United in Message, Mission, and Organization” (April 2017), I am sure that all of us, as loyal Seventh-day Adventists, want unity in the message and mission for our church. It has been shown, however, that for this to happen, we sometimes need diversity in organization; fortunately, this is currently true in many matters and parts of the world church. So I am not sure just why Mark Finley seems to think we now need the current Unity Document.
In his article, he uses the selection of a replacement for Judas as an example of unity. He notes that this could have divided the church but they all agreed to accept the outcome. What he does not mention is that Matthias was selected by casting lots—not by discussion or vote. The result had nothing to do with personal conscience or opinion, or perhaps even perceived theology.
Then he uses the selection of the seven deacons as another example of unity—Finley calls it a “mutually agreed upon solution.” It is true that they were united in the decision, but Finley should have noted that those selected were all apparently Hellenistic Jews or Greeks who would identify immediately with the offended Greek widows. There was no controversy indicated with the selections. This decision was to meet mission, but was certainly outside the usual Jewish leadership.
In Acts 15, Finley says they mutually agreed to refer a matter of controversy to the Jerusalem Council. True. The question was in regard to circumcision. Interestingly, the agreed upon decision doesn’t even mention circumcision. Furthermore, if you wanted to circum- cise, it was allowed. If you thought it not necessary, it was not required. In other words, rather than requiring the exact same things done organizationally, freedom of conscience and mission pre- vailed. Finley notes that “they focused on what was the most important thing on God’s heart—saving lost people.” I have to wonder why he doesn’t think that should be allowed now in regard to women’s ordination.
Finley uses the word mutual or mutually at least four times. But anyone who was in San Antonio would have to agree that the vote not allowing divisions to decide for themselves for mission in regard to ordaining women was not decided mutually in any meaning of the word.
I hope we really will allow for unity of theology, and at the same time allow for conscience and diversification of organization as needed for mission, especially in this 500th year of celebrat- ing the Protestant Reformation.
—Ardis Stenbakken, email
Unity and authority
I ’m deeply disappointed in Mark Finley’s article, “United in Message, Mission, and Organization” (April 2017). That Finley uses the experiences recorded in the book of Acts to suggest that the council in Acts 15 was some kind of legislative body is misguided. Indeed, the entire article seems to suggest that the first impulse of the church in Acts was to establish its authority. In fact, Acts 15 records an attempt to solve a problem, not to establish an organizational structure that issued hard-and-fast mandates.
Some have rightly observed that the title of the New Testament book, Acts of the Apostles, should more accurately be known as Acts of the Holy Spirit. Finley seems to emphasize the Holy Spirit’s role as simply to create a hierarchy. I suggest that the Holy Spirit’s purpose was to empower believers to take the gospel to the world in ways that an authoritarian structure could neither approve nor monitor.
The institution that says, “Do it because I say so,” inspires no more confidence in its members than parents who use that same logic with their teenagers. More important, and more effective, are leaders who guide their members in hearing the Spirit’s voice for themselves.
—Stephen Chavez, pastor, Silver Spring, Maryland
Unity and diversity
Mark Finley in his article in the April 2017 issue reads into the book of Acts too much information about church organization. Serious scholars have not found so much. With his emphasis on unity by “mutual agreement” he down- plays the “differences of opinion” by never mentioning the term diversity. Are policies enunciated because of “mutual agreement” or by majority vote? If the minority consists of “honest people,” why should their disagreement be considered as “paining the heart of God” when their commitment to the truth and mission of the church is in harmony with the major- ity? By summarizing his theses in “four aspects of unity” I could as well leave out the addition of the fourth: “when the mutual agreements or policies of the church serve as the foundation for a system of church governance and authority.” Three aspects of unity completely comply with the notion of a triune God who creates unity in diversity.
—Erwin Meier, retired pastor in Westphalia, Germany
A response to questions regarding the article "United in Message, Mission, and Organization" (April 2017)
Although I have received numerous positive responses to my articles on the essence of church unity based on the book of Acts, there have been a few who have raised questions. I deeply appreciate those who see things from a different point of view. It’s healthy for a church to discuss critically important issues in a spirit of Christlike love and genuine respect. Honest questions deserve an honest response.
My original article was one piece that, because of its length, necessitated its division into two parts. In the first article, “Unity: Then and Now: A Divine Movement United in Mission and Message” (March 2017), I outline the issues in the book of Acts that united the early believers. In spite of their differences, they were united through the Holy Spirit in Christ, the fundamental truths of His Word, and the centrality of mission. Although diverse in many ways, their individual differences were secondary to their commitment to reaching people for Jesus.
The second article, “United in Message, Mission, and Organization” (April 2017), focuses on those instances in Acts that could easily become flash points of disunity. I was not so con- cerned, in the second article, with outcomes but, rather, that the New Testament church found ways to settle differences by means that preserved the unity of the church. My point in Acts 1 on the choosing of Matthias is not how Matthias was chosen. Casting lots is obviously not a method God uses today, but the fact remains that the church did not fracture over the choice. In Acts 6, the disciples once again found a way to solve a challenging situation. A representative group of men were chosen whose affinity to the Jewish widows, obviously with a similar ethnic background, solved the problem. Throughout Acts, the Holy Spirit guided believers to discuss issues together and discover solutions to per- plexing issues the church faced.
Acts 15 is the most instructive of all. Again, my emphasis was not on the solution but on the process. Acts 15:1 points out that there were those who made circumcision a matter of salvation. Verse 2 is clear that this issue brought “dissension and dispute” into the church. The local congregation could not solve the problem, so it sent representatives to Jerusalem to seek counsel (vs 2–5). Although there was general agreement with the council’s decision regarding Gentile believers, there were those who disagreed with the decision and sowed seeds of disunity.1 The Holy Spirit invested the elders and apostles at Jerusalem with the adminis- trative authority to guide the church at a time of crisis. Ellen White’s comment is insightful: “The entire body of Christians was not called to vote upon the question. The apostles and elders, men of influence and judgment, framed and issued the decree which was thereupon generally accepted by the Christian churches.”2 In this same chapter, Ellen White talks about the “authority vested in the body of believers united in Christian fellowship.”3 My point in the second article is simply this: one of the factors that held the New Testament church together was church organization. This organizational structure that united believers had an administrative authority vested in it by the Holy Spirit. Certainly, there was a recognition and respect of diversity, but these decisions were made together, not unilaterally.
The Acts model is not a hierarchal, authoritarian system but a representa- tive form of Christlike administrative leadership that guides the church in times of crisis and keeps it from fractur- ing. Without some form of organizational structure and administrative author- ity, the church would soon descend into chaos, and its mission would be severely hindered. The body of believers accepted the corporate decision of the Jerusalem Council and the church was preserved in a time of crisis.
1 See Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 196.
3 Ibid., 200.