General Conference Session delegates pray in prayer room.

Justice, equality: Is God interested?

Friday, July 28, 2017
Avondale president calls for unity of Adventist Church’s mission and message

Treating each other justly and equitably is as important as correctly interpreting Scripture, a paper the president of Avondale presented at a unity conference shows.

Professor Ray Roennfeldt’s “Justice and Equality: Is God Interested?” closed Unity 2017, a three-day conference in London this past month (June 15-17) exploring unity in diversity within the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

He began by examining the Genesis account of the creation of humankind to find the divine ideal for human relationships. The concept of image of God not only infers a Creator–human relationship, he said, but also a human–environment (Genesis 1:26) and a human–human relationship (Genesis 1:27). “At very least it means that there is something about men as well as women that equally ‘images’ God in the world.”

The order and the structure of the account—a progression from the simple to the complex and a completion from what is formed to what is filled—may even suggest “the superiority of Eve over Adam. . . . With the creation of the woman, the situation of Adam’s aloneness described by God as ‘not good’ (Genesis 2:18), is now ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31).”

What enabled the church to move forward? The Spirit had been leading the community in a different direction and . . . courageous leaders . . . were willing to stand up (sometimes literally) for a biblical and pragmatic solution to a divisive issue.”Professor Ray Roennfeldt, President, Avondale College of Higher Education
But then came the fall. What of its impact on human equality? The key passage, according to Roennfeldt, is Genesis 3:16: “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (NIV). Why? It is the only passage indicating a change in the human–human relationship. The context seems to indicate the passage is descriptive rather than prescriptive, said Roennfeldt. While the soil would now produce food only through the painful toil of Adam, there is “no edict that he was to ‘submit’ to the fact that the soil would ‘now produce thorns and thistles for you.’ By analogy, one might legitimately assume that the woman, also, was not predestined to be dominated by the man.”

Roennfeldt then used two stories from the Old Testament to show God’s just and equitable treatment of the marginalised. Hagar, an Egyptian (see Genesis 16), flees to the desert after being mistreated by her mistress, Sarai, and treated with indifference by her master, Abram, with whom she is pregnant. But God makes two promises: descendants too numerous to number and the birth of a son. Ruth, a Moabite, is despite divine prohibition married to an Israelite’s son. The son dies and Ruth travels with mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem, where she meets and marries Boaz, her kinsman-redeemer. She receives not only a complete welcome—the women declare her better to Naomi than seven sons (Ruth 4:15)—but also the blessing of the covenant.

Moving to the New Testament, Roennfeldt began with Luke’s account of Jesus reading from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). He then notes how this revelation of God’s interest in justice and equity is illustrated by Jesus’ interactions with women. John places the story of the Samaritan woman near the beginning of his Gospel. Jesus has just spoken with Nicodemus, “the quintessential Jewish man,” said Roennfeldt. Now He speaks with the Samaritan woman, “the quintessential outsider.” Roennfeldt also refers to the story of the Syrophoenician woman as recorded in Matthew and in Mark. In both books, it follows a discussion of cleanness and uncleanness. “Jesus is surely indicating that this ‘unclean woman’ was truly part of God’s kingdom of justice and equity.” A reference to Paul’s writings—“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NIV)—is, for Roennfeldt, enough to suggest all racial, social and gender differences are now passé in the Christian community. “Yet it is other writings from this same Paul that appear to be the primary seedbed particularly for the church’s practice of treating women inequitably.”

Having built his case for a positive answer to the question of whether or not God is interested in justice and equality, Roennfeldt then cast doubt, asking about the texts in Scripture appearing to support slavery and to justify the dominance of the male in church and in society, and about why Scripture contains no clear direction on the ordination of women to the gospel ministry. While noting the better treatment of slaves and women in ancient Israel and the early Christian church compared to other nations and cultures, Roennfeldt wondered why God did not more proactively promote justice and equity for these marginalised people.

Roennfeldt suggested Adventists consider the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”—a circle of authority composed of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience—as at least one of the tools for interpreting Scripture, “especially when the biblical materials show evidence of diversity.” He used it to examine the “revolutionary impact” of the Jerusalem Council as recorded in Acts 15. “If a totally conservative position had been taken, it would have stymied the growth of the fledgling Christian church,” said Roennfeldt. “And, if it had been too progressive, it would have completely severed the church from its Jewish roots. Perhaps, even today, we’ve not completely understood the implications of the position taken at this Jerusalem council, which made circumcision nothing and uncircumcision nothing. No longer was the mark of the covenant something that only pertained to males, rather ‘Keeping God’s commands is what counts’” (1 Corinthians 7:19).

What enabled the church to move forward? asked Roennfeldt. “The Spirit had been leading the community in a different direction” and “courageous leaders . . . were willing to stand up (sometimes literally) for a biblical and pragmatic solution to a divisive issue.”

Roennfeldt ended with this challenge: the divine interest in justice and equality “is not merely to remain the domain of Deity. Rather, God’s attitude to justice and equity is to be played out in the way we interact with each other.” This mission and the message of the Adventist Church should be same, said Roennfeldt. “Preaching righteousness by faith without doing justice and righteousness is heresy, preaching Sabbath sacredness without living out the freedom and equity it stands for is legalism, and preaching the second advent without helping the alienated and marginalised is downright dangerous.”

“Justice and Equality: Is God Interested?” is published in the next issue of Spectrum, the journal of Adventist Forum, on August 7. The double issue (Vol 45, No 2-3) includes all the papers from Unity 2017.

Photograph

While delegates at the 60th General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in San Antonio, Texas, USA, were discussing the ordination issue, church members were interceding in the prayer room. Dominik Zeh/Adventist Review/Adventist News Network

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Brenton Stacey

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Brenton is Avondale College of Higher Education’s Public Relations Officer. He brings to the role a decade’s experience as a communicator in publishing, media relations, public relations, radio and television, mostly within the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific and its entities. He is also co-convenor of Manifest, an Avondale-led movement exploring, encouraging and celebrating faithful creativity.

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