“Personal Statement on Authority, Membership, and Baptism” by Apostle Designate Shandra K. Newcom

This is an excerpt from “Theology Volume 2: Authority, Membership, and Baptism” which was published in 1994. While Shandra was not an apostle at the time, they will be formally ordained as such at the 2023 World Conference.

This article was written by Shandra while they were a second year student at Iliff School of Theology. It represented a specific point in both her and the church’s journey, one that we all have continued to take for nearly 30 years. In light of that, please keep in mind that things may have changed for both Shandra and our church.

That said, Shandra boldly brings up concerns that we are still addressing today, and we should continue to find answers for these questions.

I’m not going to play by the rules. Authority, membership, and baptism are fine topics, and worthy of discussion. I choose, however, to look at some more systemic issues that touch on these topics, rather than addressing them directly and exclusively. My education and background are rooted in the study and praxis with issues of peace and justice. These, then, are the lenses through which I view all of life: How does this affect a person living on the street or a child who has been sexually abused by every member of her family? It is a tough and uncomfortable way of seeing because when I am honest with myself, the world we live in, including this church, is not very compassionate to the dispossessed. So I am here, asking the question, how can this conference speak to me so that I may bring hope to the people I work with in Denver?

A hierarchical, patriarchal, racist, oppressive culture is the reality we live in. Oppression cannot be rated. An African American or Latino woman must not be forced to choose which is the greater evil – racism or sexism – because the oppression affects us all in holistic ways. The systemic domination, particularly in this culture, is perpetuated through many avenues. I believe that one of those avenues is language, and that by insisting that we focus on authority issues we, as a church, are participating in that oppression. Authority, to too many people, means abuse and pain.

Even if we see “God-dess” as a figure of authority, we are forcing a lack of choice on people. For example, I was raised to believe that the hierarchy ran in this way: God (never Goddess), president(s), twelve, appointees, priesthood, pastor, men, women, children, animals, earth. The higher up on the ladder of hierarchy one went, the more authority one got. God was the ultimate authority – not the presence of the Divine, but the androcentric God who was an individual working in the world. Whatever God said was law – to whomever God said it, whether that was David Koresh or Joseph Smith. I was told to rely on authority, and that meant I was not encouraged to work in community. My potential for self-realization was limited. This was true for all RLDS members – instead of working in community to change our ordination policy to include women, we waited for the Authoritative God to talk to the Authoritative President Smith and then raised our hands to support their authority. The community was not truly empowered by this act but was divided in painful ways. Our choices were limited and our responses had to come in black and white. How much more different things could be if we were to understand that community is the way to combat the oppression we encounter and participate in daily.

But if we ever even had it, we have not lost the sense of community that we need to reach out to each other and our world. This society is based on a model of individualism and held together by those who claim authority over us, not with us. Individualism is the desired way of being; we are encouraged to make it on our own, whatever the cost, even if it kills us. And the cause is not just worldly; we can see it within our own church. Every day the church decides against participating in the worldwide Christian community. We are “the one true church,” we serve only closed Communion, rebaptize those who want to join in fellowship with us, and refuse to become a part of the World Council of Churches. If we are so into our individualism as a church, how can we expect our own attempts at community within the church to succeed? We learn by modeling, and we have not been handed an appropriate model.

The truth is that if we must accept the word “authority” as part of our vernacular, then we must understand it in a new light. We need “authority with,” not “authority over.” Our communities work in community. We long to be a part of community. I am connection between people, just as congregations are. By breaking down the hierarchy of authority we are addressing issues of oppression and systemic evil while acting on issues of membership and baptism. Our society is crying out for communion with the divine prescience within all that is this earth.

Many gifts, one spirit. Do we believe it? If we do, we must eradicate the oppression that keeps us from living in community together. We must redefine membership and priesthood – and God. Then we can reach out to other communities of faith and join in their efforts in reaching out to the needs of this world. But we must to it in community together. Alone, we cannot reach our life potential. In community, we can change the world.