Rescinding a decision?

During this past week the Belgian-Luxembourg Conference held a two-day pastoral meeting in the Netherlands. They also invited Dutch pastors to attend. I was glad I was able to be there. Ever since a few years ago I interrupted my retirement to serve for some 18 months as the interim-president of that conference, I enjoy meeting with my Belgian colleagues. The theme for the study-conference was “Violence and Non-violence”. A number of presentations focused on biblical issues, some on historical aspects, and the last lecture dealt with how to handle non-verbal and verbal abuse in our churches. I had been ask to give a historical overview of the position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, throughout its history, with regard to participation in the military and, in particular, regarding the long tradition of non-combatancy.

I had spent considerable time researching this topic, as this was an area of which I did not know all that much. The church was organized (in 1863) in the midst of the American Civil War, and the small denomination of just a few thousand members had to decide how to react to this situation. Although the standpoint of the leaders was not immediately crystal clear, it is fair to say that from the beginning of the Adventist movement there was a strong sense that Christians should serve their country and be loyal citizens but should first of all obey God’s law, which would not allow them to “work” on the Sabbath and to go against the sixth commandment that tells us not to kill any other human being. In many parts of the world, and especially in the United States, there has over time been a significant shift in this regard, and today a military career is a viable option for many young Seventh-day Adventists. I feel sad that in the process a significant aspect of our heritage is being lost.

As I was preparing my lecture, I was struck by two interesting facts that (I think) have a direct bearing on current issues the Adventist Church is struggling with. First of all, there is the question whether decisions that are taken by a General Conference in session must always be adhered to or may, at some later stage, be rescinded or disregarded by the church’s administration, if there is a strong conviction that the decision was not good for the church. The 1954 General Conference in session in the city of San Francisco decided that the principle of non-combatancy was of such importance that it should be included among our principal beliefs in the Church Manual. This, however, did not happen. Apparently, the editors of the Church Manual dragged their feet, and a few years later it was decided by the administration of the church that it would be unwise to put this in the Church Manual, as this would cause considerable problems for our members in different places in the world.  How interesting!  It seems that a vote by a GC session was not always sacrosanct. There is at least this precedent where such a vote was later disregarded. And the argument used is also of major significance. The consequences  for some regions of the world of that vote were thought to be serious enough to go against a decision of the world body. Could this precedent perhaps help us to see the San Antonio decision about the ordination of female pastors in a different light?  And could it also help the GC leaders to respond positively to the North American request to rescind the “compliance-document” that was approved during the recent Autumn Council?

And then, secondly, it occurred to me that the shift in our attitude towards serving in the military and towards bearing arms happened without any formal decisions during a General Conference session or Autumn Council. It simply was a gradual development that took place over time. The point is not whether or not I applaud this development. The point is that the church does not always define and re-define its positions by a process of formal world-wide debate and GC session votes. Some things just develop and change over time—not always everywhere in the same way and with the same speed. Would it not be much better to also allow the issue of the ordination of women to simply run its course and accept that changes will happen in different ways in the various regions of the world and at different speeds? Similar developments have happened in other areas without jeopardizing the world-wide unity in the church.

The recent Autumn Council paid a lot of attention to our denominational history (in some aspects in a rather bizarre way). But is would seem that this attention to the Adventist past was in many ways quite selective. I would urge the church’s administrators to also look at our past in order to find some inspiration for ways that would get us out of the present quick mire in which our church is at risk to sink ever deeper and deeper.