A Polite Revolution

Andrews University chaplain Michael Polite says he wants a “revolution.”  Polite, like so many developed world Adventists, is all worked up over the Annual Council vote adopting the compliance committees. 

Polite makes his appeal for revolution in a two-part video that has been posted on the Internet. 

Part One: Michael Polite’s revolution

In part one, Polite argues that the compliance mechanism voted at annual council aims at uniformity, when it should be aiming at unity, or rather “harmony.”  His implication is that if some regions or unions of the church ordain women, and most do not, the church will be in “harmony,” which is preferable to uniformity.  The “harmony” point is Polite’s twist on a pro-ordination talking point—unity vs. uniformity—that has already become a tired cliché.  But tolerating two different doctrines on female ordination within the Adventist Church would lead not to harmony but rather to chaos and ultimately dissolution. 

Most of us in the developed world who oppose female ordination oppose it because we believe it is contrary to very plain Bible teaching, whereas those who favor it choose not to see any biblical obstacle.  Those who oppose female ordination have a different scriptural hermeneutic than those who favor it.  By itself, that dooms any prospect of real harmony.  How can we be in harmony if we disagree on basic principles regarding how to read the Bible?  But even that profound difference does not reach the core of the disagreement.

Those who favor female ordination seem to be much more interested in culture than in Scripture.  They point out that the dominant culture of the developed world is egalitarian and is intent on eradicating every vestige of traditional sex roles.  They argue that if the SDA Church continues to distinguish between men and women in church ministry, our outreach in the developed world will be crippled.  In other words, what worries the pro-ordination faction is that we will be so out-of-step with the dominant culture that we will not be able to evangelize.

Conservatives reject this cultural/missional argument, pointing out that churches that have embraced sexual egalitarianism—Mainline Protestants like the Presbyterians—have seen very rapid shrinkage.  These churches do not evangelize effectively despite having embraced gender egalitarianism.  By contrast, the Southern Baptist Convention, which rejected egalitarianism in favor of biblical complementarianism, continued to grow, becoming the largest Protestant denomination.  The cultural/missional argument is simply not supported by the data on church growth in the developed world over the past 40 to 50 years.    

Clearly, we are not arguing just about Scripture but also about missional effectiveness in developed-world culture.  But even those two issues do not fully encompass the extent of our differences.  Because, as we are about to discover, the Michael Polites of the denomination, and they are legion, do not view the female ordination question as primarily one of biblical interpretation or even of missional/cultural effectiveness.  They view it as an issue of justice vs. injustice.  They believe that to fail to treat women identically to men in SDA Church ministry is unjust and cannot be allowed to continue.  Conservatives reject the idea that a cultural imperative can be an issue of justice if it conflicts with a plain Bible teaching.

The differences here are manifold, and rise to the level of weltanschauung, or worldview.  It would in no sense constitute harmony to allow two different church practices to exist side-by-side on the issue of female ordination.  To the contrary, it would be atonal disharmony, cacophony, in the most meaningful sense.  Ironically, Polite’s heartfelt and stirring words on harmony, and its requirement of tonal variation rather than sameness, perfectly describe the complementary ministries of males and females in God’s church. The roles of men and women in the church are not the same, but they are in harmony.

Polite argues that the indoctrination of Adventist young people has left them at a loss to know how to react to the Annual Council vote.  I heartily agree with that.  The indoctrination of Adventist young people—and I know this both from personal experience in my younger years and from close observation over the last several years—is woefully inadequate as it relates to creational sexual distinctions. 

We were not taught that God created two and only two sexes.  We were not taught that God values the creational distinction between men and women just as much as He values the distinction between the Sabbath and the other days of the week.  We were not taught that God established patriarchy as the normative and healthy ideal in the home and the church.  We were taught the importance of confining sexual expression to marriage, but we were not taught how this purity principle fits within the larger patriarchal government that God established for his children.

So, yes, I can relate to the idea that the indoctrination of Adventist young people has left them woefully unprepared to deal with the doctrinal crossroads at which the Church finds itself.

Polite wraps up part one of this revolutionary screed by arguing that the revolution will be conducted at the local church level.

Part Two of Michael Polite’s Revolution

In part two of his presentation, Polite lays out three principles for carrying forward the revolution.  First, he says, “we must become intolerant of institutional injustice.”  Who could oppose that?  Certainly not me.  But the difficulty lies in what is considered “injustice.”  As we already noted, being faithful to God’s patriarchal order in His church is not injustice. 

Polite quickly launches into another already tired cliché and meritless talking point—the notion that ordination itself is a Romish rite that has no place in Adventism.  This is foolishness that is not supported by Scripture, the writings of Ellen White, or the conclusions of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, which rather easily agreed on a simple statement regarding the nature of ordination.  

Then Polite launches into an anti-colonial rant:

“And why is it that Euro-centric values are the only preferences acceptable before God. Is it that God would not be pleased?  Or is it that the original European colonizers who co-opted Jesus’s story would not be pleased?”

What does this have to do with the ordination question?  To what colonies is Michael Polite referring?  Africa has been without a colonial “oppressor” for half a century, now, and even South Africa has been ruled by blacks, not by its white minority, for a quarter of a century.  As has been pointed out on this site many times since October 14, the Annual Council delegates who voted for the compliance committees (and against female ordination) are un-colonized blacks from Africa and other third world countries, whereas those who voted against the compliance committees (and for female ordination) are the white, male, European colonizers themselves, in all their pasty-faced glory.  So Polite’s anti-colonial, revolutionary pose cuts against him in this case, but he seems to lack the wit to understand that. 

Polite’s second principle is that “we must value and maximize the power of our influence.”  He says he is speaking not about political influence, but about influence in the local community through social welfare outreach.  Here, I agree with him.  The Adventist Church has generally done a poor job, or no job at all, of the social welfare ministry that Ellen White wanted us to undertake at the local church level. 

Polite’s third principle is that “we must take a renewed interested in the role and responsibility of our investments.” We’ve noted that the SDA Church has already started, with regard to its pension funds, down the sad road of “socially responsible [Leftist] investment.”  But Polite is talking about the destination of the tithe.  He thinks it should stay at the local church level rather than going to the conference.  He argues that the first Christians didn’t send their money “to some office” or “to some foreign country.”  But in the days and weeks immediately after Pentecost, the believers in Jerusalem did put their money in a common location or office—at the apostles’ feet—and Paul did ask the believers at Corinth and Galatia to collect money to send to Jerusalem, certainly “a foreign country.” (Acts 4:32-37; 1 Cor. 16:1-4)    

Polite seems to be arguing for congregationalism, at least on a monetary level.  But the genius of Adventism’s conference “storehouse” system was to encourage rapid growth by shifting funds quickly from established churches, where there was little need, to support evangelism and church planting, where there was a pressing need.  The conference “storehouse” system was intended to keep the church focused on growth and mission, rather than on strictly local needs and wants.  Sadly, today there is too much catering to large, settled churches with huge pastoral staffs—several years ago I was told that the Loma Linda University Church had 13 full time and 2 part-time pastors—and not enough emphasis on growth and church planting.  But the theory of the conference system is that funds should be funneled to where they are needed most, regardless where the money came from. 

We need more organization, not less.  Time is short, so we need faster growth, not slower.  And to accomplish these things, we need more sharing of funds, not more hoarding of money at the local church level. Ellen White speaks to this point:

“O how Satan would rejoice if he could succeed in his efforts to get in among this people, and disorganize the work at a time when thorough organization is essential, and will be the greatest power to keep out spurious uprisings, and to refute claims not endorsed by the word of God! We want to hold the lines evenly, that there shall be no breaking down of the system of organization and order that has been built up by wise, careful labor. License must not be given to disorderly elements that desire to control the work at this time.” {GW 487.1}

This plank of Polite’s revolutionary platform is misguided.  It seems to be motivated by a desire to punish the General Conference by starving it of funds, and perhaps even starving the third world divisions as punishment for their blocking female ordination.  But the truth is that probably even more money should go from wealthy first world nations, where growth is stagnant, to third world mission fields where the church is growing by leaps and bounds.  Money should go where it can best be used to fulfil the Great Commission. 

The “Polite Revolution,” when reduced to its bill of particulars, is mostly hot air.