My most-read blog ever was my comment of July 12, 2015 on the women’s ordination vote during the General Conference session in San Antonio. It seems that my blog of last week has become one-but-most read blog. Apparently—-at least for most of the faithful readers of my musings—-giving equal rights to men and women in the Adventist Church continues to be a hot issue. Most of the reactions I received were from people who agree with me on the topic of women’s ordination. But I also had some e-mails and other reactions from a few readers who agree with the principle of full gender equality but at the same time believe that we should all abide by decisions of a General Conference session. An argument that keeps coming back is: Prior to the decisions in San Antonio intense prayer was offered. The delegates prayed for divine guidance and we must therefore believe that the vote that was taken represents God’s will.
Well, if only things were so simple. We must not forget that also in those unions which, according to the top leadership of the church, are non-compliant, a lot of praying took place before a decision was taken that deviated from the line that was set out by the General Conference. Did those prayers have less value? Did God listen to the prayers that reached him from San Antonio and not to the prayers of the church leaders in Norway and of the representatives of the church in the Pacific Union?
I have often thought about this conundrum. How does God determine which prayers he will answer and which prayers he will ignore? We are confronted with this question in a very down-to-earth way when people pray for a certain kind of weather. The tourist may pray for dry weather and a pleasant temperature, while the farmer in that same region pleads with God for rain. How does God handle this? How does he decide what prayer to answer? It becomes more serious when in a war both parties earnestly pray for God’s help and his blessing. And an awkward situation arises when in a faith community different groups plead with the Lord to let their viewpoint win the day, because their view accords with the ‘truth’.
Could it be that prayer is at times misused? Would it be God’s intention that we ask him to send us a particular kind of weather? Of course, an Almighty God might, in very special circumstances, intervene in weather patterns. But the kind of weather we get is normally a matter of processes that follow natural laws and that may also (according to many experts) be influenced by human conduct. At the very least, I think, we should be reticent in praying for a particular kind of weather. And it is certainly very questionable to pray God’s blessing over weaponry that will be used to kill other people. In that case our praying becomes cursing (‘taking God’s name in vain’), as we connect God’s holy name with something God should never be associated with.
What might be the role of prayer in ecclesial decision making? Unfortunately, we see all too often how prayer is used in a manipulative manner, for instance when immediately before a crucial vote is to be taken, someone is asked to offer a prayer and that person clearly alludes in his prayer to what would be the best decision.
May we ask God to be in our midst with his Spirit and to inspire us in our discussions and decisions? Certainly, but there are a few caveats. Whether or not God’s Spirit is with is and directs us does not primarily depend on God. He is always with us, but whether he can effectively touch and guide in a meeting depends mostly on the people who are assembled in that meeting. Praying for the guidance of God’s Spirit does not free us from the responsibility to make a thorough study of the subjects that are being discussed, to be theologically well-informed and to learn about the cultural backgrounds of the other participants. It presupposes that we are ready to listen to each other’s viewpoints and that we, when a vote is taken, try to overcome our prejudices and biases, and do not let ourselves by steered by political motives or external pressures. Only when such conditions are met, can the Spirit of God become operative. If not, then our prayers for God’s presence and guidance are meaningless or perhaps even a case of cursing—taking God’s name in vain. (Could it be that we saw an example of this during the recent Annual Council of the GC Executive Committee?)