"Unity" is a hot topic in the Adventist church right now. Church leadership has issued statements, declaring that unity is the most important thing for our church to focus on. They quote Jesus' prayer in John 17, in which Jesus prays that His followers would all be one, as He and the Father are one. This sounds good, until one understands the issues behind it.
The Adventist church currently does not ordain women as pastors. Women can serve as pastors, but their title is "commissioned" pastor, rather than "ordained" pastor. For the past 40-50 years, there have been those in the church who have felt this is inappropriate, that it is discrimination against women, as well as a refusal to recognize the work and gifts of the Holy Spirit in women. The church has studied the issue for decades, and each study has concluded that there is no theological reason to withhold ordination. My dear friends in the Southern Baptist denomination will disagree with that, but this is the conclusion our denomination has come to.
In spite of this conclusion from many studies, there are many Adventists around the world who still believe it is inappropriate to ordain women, opinions largely shaped by the cultures they live in. Since these church members represent a large majority of the Adventist church membership, the General Conference has continued to withhold ordination of women, mostly through delay tactics when the subject is brought up.
Two weeks ago, however, the Columbia Union Conference, which represents a number of states in the eastern United States, voted to move forward with ordination of women. (It is the union conferences which approve candidates for ordination.) The membership here believes that the current practice is wrong, is discriminatory, and fails to recognize the gifts of the Spirit in some of the church's members, based on gender. The union delegates voted to move forward, in spite of opposition from the church leadership.
In response, the General Conference president, along with the thirteen world division leaders, have issued calls for unity. They have sent strong appeals that no other union follow the example of the Columbia Union, and that the Columbia Union reconsider its action. They suggest that this vote threatens the unity of the church, and that this unity is more important than the union's "unilateral" decision to move separately from the official policy of the world church (though there is disagreement as to what the policy actually states.)
Much has been written about this in the last two weeks - on Facebook, blogs, and other Adventist media. So why am I writing this today? Because it touches on an issue I have thought about for many years - the unity of the church. I agree with our president, Elder Wilson, that unity is extremely important. Indeed, Jesus did pray that His followers would be one. Paul writes to the Ephesians, "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." (Eph 4:3)
But through the years I have realized that this church is full of divisions, many of which will never be overcome. One example is the division over worship styles. There are many Adventists who find contemporary worship to be very meaningful and relevant. They enjoy worshiping through music styles that they can relate to. They are blessed by worship services that are interactive, and include a variety of elements, such as drama and video. On the other hand, there are many who prefer a much more conservative and traditional worship service. They enjoy the music of the organ and the choir, and the traditional liturgy they have been blessed by for many years. The solution seems simple: provide different services so people can choose. The problem is that each of these two groups feel that the other is in the wrong. Many of those who prefer the traditional service feel that bringing contemporary music into the service is wrong, that current music styles have no place in the church. They would suggest that this music is from the evil one, and that using it in worship is bringing worldly elements into the church, and is the beginning of a "creeping compromise."
At the same time, many of those who prefer contemporary worship look down on the conservatives, feeling that they are stuck in their ways, living in the past, and that their worship is not relevant to the world today. They suggest that we will never bring our unchurched neighbors into the church by using dated and worn methods and worship styles. In the end, both sides distrust one another. And while some may think it's just a matter of personal taste, it ends up much bigger than that, especially since one group feels that it is not about taste, but about right and wrong.
So here's an area of division that appears to me to have no way of coming to agreement. Both sides will continue to disagree with the other side. The question I've wondered about for years is this: Recognizing this division, and realizing that the two sides will never agree, how do we find unity with each other? How do we learn to love each other, to show that love, in spite of disagreement? Do I have to demand that you agree with me in order to have unity? Do I need to change my ways, even though I disagree, in order to have unity?
There are other examples. Racial issues still divide our denomination. Theological issues, such as Last Generation Theology, divide us. There are many areas in which we don't have agreement between our members. So how does Jesus' prayer in John 17, and Paul's counsel to the Ephesians, apply to us as a church? Can we have unity, when we have so many divisions?
Jesus tells us in John 13 that His disciples will be recognized by the love they have for one another. It seems that this is the only place our unity can be found. If my fellow church member disagrees with me, can I love them anyway? Can I have fellowship with a member of the church across town who doesn't like the way I play my guitar in church? Can we still work together for the kingdom of God, even though we disagree? Can we still call each other brother and sister, without demanding that the other change the way they do things? I would suggest that this is the only way we can have unity. Our unity is not in doing things the same way. It's not in getting rid of all disagreement. It comes from loving each other in Jesus in spite of our differences. The world will not say, "Look how united these people are - one group gave up its policy for the sake of the other." It will instead see unity when it can say, "Look how much these people love each other, even in their differences."
Lord Jesus, make us one, even as You and the Father are one...