Calling out power abuse is just as relevant today as 500 years ago.
Anniversaries always come short of the actual event. How do you do justice to the magnitude of the Reformation, which began 500 years on this day? Answer: you don’t. Not in a single blog post, at least. Others have celebrated and commented throughout the year, for the legacy of the event is pervasive and has many threads.
The impact of the Reformation on Western thinking is indisputable, and not just in the field of religion. Max Weber’s thesis on the spirit of capitalism, while disputed, remains seminal in understanding the world we live in, for instance.
Dealing with Adventist dissent
In this post, however, I will comment more specifically on the issue of religious power. It is ironic and sad that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I am a member of, this issue should become one of full-blown conflict this year.
Adventists proudly see their movement as a continuation of Protestant ideals, continuing to question the status quo and search for ideas and theologies truer to the original Biblical intent and free of centuries of human degeneration.
Ellen G. White, the thought leader of the movement in the 19th century, described Luther’s adversaries with descriptions like this: “Crafty ecclesiastics, interrupted in their work of sanctioning crime, and seeing their gains endangered, were enraged, and rallied to uphold their pretensions.” And on his banishment from the Church, she penned: “Not a trace of Christian principle, or even of common justice, is to be seen in the whole document.” (GC, pp. 130, 134)
This is not far from the words of former church president Jan Paulsen, who recently stated: “I do not see the hand of God in this.”
His words came during a recent debate on how the world church deals with ‘dissent’. The apparent issue is the ordination of women, but that issue has become almost secondary to how the global leadership chooses to approach the discussion.
Matthew Quartey summarized it bluntly in the independent magazine Spectrum: “Our president’s seven-year leadership has been a continuous tugging at the seams of our togetherness. He has prioritized his antipathy toward women in ministry over the church’s higher goal of mission. He has spent more time and resources engaged in this private campaign than focusing the church on what truly binds us.”
Open or closed leadership?
While women’s ordination is the battle ground, the overarching point here is authority. Any organization needs leadership, sure. But you can choose to lead like a dictator or like an apostle.
The sitting president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is an American, brought up in the system, and his actions convey an overarching goal of not rocking the boat. He pursues unity at any cost, ignoring the paradox that forcing unity destroys openness, which in turn damages commitment and encourages more dissent.
Even more alarming is the apparent ignorance of any limitations to his power. You will find this tendency anywhere, but perhaps it is especially American: If you are given any position of power, you believe you have the right and mandate to do and decide anything.
Donald Trump also acts like this, neither understanding nor accepting the democratic ideal of checks and balances. If you claim to listen to the people, then you need to do it properly; otherwise call a spade a spade and eliminate the illusion of democracy altogether.
The Adventist Church has prided itself in its ‘democratic’ institutions, but there are many limits to how much the people actually decide. And these years even those institutions are under attack from a leadership who wants to centralize, dictate, and enforce.
The Lutheran Church in Denmark, for all its shortcomings, may have chosen a better path. It has a collective of bishops, but no central leadership. Its political leader has no say in matters of theology. While the church is defined as keeping to the Apostolic Creed and Luther’s writings, nobody is able to speak on behalf of the church.
I can see the Biblical and Reformation merit in this approach. Power to the people – a priesthood of all believers – nobody is exalted above others.
Pope or no pope?
George Knight, a well-known figure in the church and arguably a ‘prophet’ for our times, has given a thorough analysis of the situation in a recent paper. He describes the predicament of the church president thus:
“Obviously, what is needed is a new policy that allows the General Conference president to initiate actions against anybody deemed deserving of such attention. Such a policy, of course, would be a major step toward papalism and unrestricted kingly power. […] The October 2017 meetings may help the worldwide Adventist Church decide whether it wants to move more toward an Adventist Ecclesiology or toward a more Roman Catholic variety.”
I am no expert on the theology of the Papacy, but seen from the outside, it makes sense as a coherent system. Putting the authority of the Church over, or alongside, that of the Bible is a valid belief, and if you hold that belief you also accept that authority.
Protestants, however, have no such luxury: putting the Bible unequivocally as the highest authority does not allow for an authoritarian system. Rome claims a legitimate authority over all believers. Protestant denominations may very well represent the body of Christ, but with sola scriptura any attempts towards papal authority in these institutions are theologically void, and must be called out as human power-grabs.
I don’t really want a pope. But if I had to pick one, I would choose the one in Rome, not the one in Silver Spring, MD.