The time has come. Every rapidly-growing organization will have to face the question of whether its structure is still befitting of its mission. Churches are no exception to this rule. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has oscillated for several decades between two forms of governance: centralism and/or federalism. As a church historian I have attentively observed that development.
Already at the 1995 Utrecht General Conference Session, Robert Folkenberg played the centralist card when he got voted in as “first officer,” not “primus inter pares” (first among equals). The church had presumably learned lessons from recent controversy over differing views on doctrine and didn’t want to face another Glacier View as happened with Desmond Ford. Robert Folkenberg oversaw a clear shift towards centralism. There was not yet an Adventist pope in sight, only some shady contours. That is why resistance within the General Conference administration was substantial. I still remember the long queue at the microphones. In vain, the motion was voted.
At the same General Conference Session an opposing motion was put forward—the North American Division’s motion to ordain women. Specifically, the motion was to leave it to the divisions to decide the matter, which was voted down. That motion clearly aimed for federalism. So two clearly opposing motions were being put forth at that session.
Every observer could see the problem that had arisen, so the General Conference, over the next few years, initiated several commissions to study this problem. For instance, at the 2004 Year-End Meeting a commission was organized to study steps towards an administrative restructuring of the church. The committee was asked to present its findings only six months later. The church clearly felt a sense of urgency. In autumn 2005 a permanent commission was even initiated. Jan Paulsen’s reason for this group was the rapid growth of the church. As he said: “there must be a better, more effective and efficient way of doing church.”
Against that backdrop we immediately hear a word that rings alarm bells for administrators (the NAD’s motion in 1995 was indeed aiming for self-determination): congregationalism. Why is that term so controversial? Congregationalism connotes deconstruction of an existing structure—in this case the dissolution of a worldwide Adventist Church structure, shifting power and resources towards the local church. That can hardly be a solution for our denomination, but something has to happen, and quickly. San Antonio doesn’t leave us with any other conclusion. We can’t allow theological and ecclesiological concerns to be determined by majority culture.
Our Church Manual lists different forms of church government and decides in favor of a representative form of church constitution. But it is precisely that model of governance that now faces its own limitations. By sheer quantity alone, delegates of certain regions can block any motion just doesn’t suit their theological convictions or cultural habits. Other regions have to acquiesce, even if their cultural environment is different. The vote on the motion to make women’s ordination regional has demonstrated that fact unequivocally.
What can we learn from church history? In Germany we have two dominant churches: the Roman-Catholic and the Lutheran Church. They have completely different forms of governance. The Roman-Catholic church champions a centralistic structure with a pope in Rome, while the Lutheran Church (or better, churches) favor a federalist solution. The different federal churches (Landeskirche) are allied under the roof of the “Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland” (EKD), with a president. The regional churches owe their existence to the influence of Luther himself. He determined the principalities of the different geographical regions to be the administrative heads of the church, since for protestant churches there was no longer a pope. But as the sovereigns lost power, something had to be done. So every regional church has its own structure. Sometimes headed by a bishop (e.g. Berlin-Brandenburg), sometimes a so-called president (e.g. Hessen-Nassau). These regional churches determine many of their practices independently. Their superstructure (EKD) provides the needed unity for public relations.
Both models of church governance have proven reliable. Both churches have millions of members and could serve as an example for us. However, in our case, a decision should be made soon, for the current situation is unsustainable and unbearable. The “representative” model is outdated, because it is not applicable to our church. It served us well in the first phase of our history, but the number of delegates alone gets us into trouble. Where would we find suitable venues to host business sessions for delegates if we don’t want to radically reduce their number? The San Antonio vote on women’s ordination has shown that it is irresponsible to allow one cultural group to enforce its views on another group that holds different cultural norms and convictions on the basis of numbers alone. We haven’t yet seen the damage that has been done by that vote. Today, only days after the vote, I have received the first reports of requests for the removal of membership. These people tell me: “The church of San Antonio is not my church anymore!” And we are not talking about frustrated female pastors.
So what should we do? Could church history help us? What we do not want is another pope, that is clear. The delegate structure has reached its limitations. I would suggest an Adventist version of congregationalist federalism: “Unionism.” Unio = to unite, or more clearer: union = alliance, bond (esp. of states or churches with similar confessions). And that is exactly what is meant. We should aim at building relatively independent regional churches: an Adventist Church in Europe, an Adventist Church in North-America, South-America, Africa etc. This world alliance could replace the now existing General Conference. What competence this world alliance or the regional Churches could or should have, should be left to experts. I just want to insert a practical solution from church history into the overdue discussion.
Now is the time: the “kairos” of Texas provides a real opportunity. Let us not stay deaf to the wake-up-call of history. If we tarry any longer, we will have to face schisms (another lessons from church history). If, for example, the already existing resolutions on women’s ordination in several fields will continue to be implemented (and there is no reason to doubt that that will be the case), then the organizational structure of our church will fail. That is exactly what my model aims to prevent. We have to change our form of organization. And in order to avoid the contentious term congregationalism, I have decided to speak of “unionism.” A continental (regional) church could make intelligent decisions on its own, not only as far as ordination is concerned. Our “Adventist Church in Europe,” for example, could determine its own week-of-prayer-edition, still championing the world-theme, but adapted to our cultural needs. The same applies to quotations and didactical questions of the Sabbath School quarterly.
The last day of business sessions in San Antonio saw just that kind of change to the Church Manual. Divisions were given the possibility to determine questions on their own without having to refer them on to the General Conference. This could be a first step. I appeal to all leaders of divisions and administrations, to initiate a bold structural change. If we don’t succeed in adapting our structure to accommodate healthy growth, we will soon witness qualitative and quantitative erosion. This kind of exodus has already begun in Europe and is beginning to be visible in the United States. The more cultural differences manifest themselves one-sidedly, the more minority groups will shrink in number. It is high time to initiate concrete steps. Whoever wants to keep our church from serious damage has to act—now!
Lothar E. Träder, Ph.D., is a retired pastor, teacher and former rector of Marienhöhe, an Adventist boarding school in Darmstadt, Hesse. He holds a doctorate in church history, and has served the Adventist Church in Germany in a variety of capacities over the past 50 years. Translated from German by Dennis Meier.