The Secretary’s Office of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (GC) has released a sweeping document on church governance and authority in advance of the 2017 Annual Council of the GC Executive Committee. The 50-page document, “A Study of Church Governance and Unity,” was prepared by the executive officers of the General Conference with research and writing from the General Conference’s Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research.
The document combines snippets of biblical material, excerpts from the writings of Ellen White, and accounts of Seventh-day Adventist history. Its stated intent is to “inform and guide the church regarding policies concerning the ordaining and credentialing of Seventh-day Adventist pastors.” The document has drawn strong criticism for its literal demonizing of several territories of the world church.
General Conference Secretariat circulated the document and a shorter companion summary document to Executive Committee members, who will be asked to approve the document at the Committee’s second meeting since the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio Texas. During that session, delegates voted down a motion to allow divisions to make provision to ordain women in their territories. Since then a spate of diverse practices on credentialing pastors, particularly women, has drawn the concern of the General Conference’s top leaders. The two documents are a response.
The longer document may be summarized by twenty key assertions made within the text:
The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists is God’s highest authority on earth.
Christ has given the Church “plenary power,” and when it is the expression of the entire Church rather than an individual, there is no justification for resisting the authority of the whole body of believers.
Unity is one of the most important doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, ultimately achieved through deference to the body with the highest organizational authority, the General Conference.
Seventh-day Adventists are united by their commitment to Christ, common biblical beliefs, shared mission, joint weekly study of the Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, interdependent worldwide organizational structure, and mutually agreed practices and policies
The General Conference Working Policy is the Church’s vehicle for promoting unity and mission (ever more so since the 2015 ordination vote at General Conference Session).
Statements or other actions approved by a GC Session or the GC Executive Committee are considered an expression of Church policy.
The GC Executive Committee has delegated to unions responsibility for selecting candidates for ordination, based on the criteria set by the world Church.
The world Church (i.e. the General Conference) has set ordination criteria since 1879.
Diversity of practice can be allowed, but only after a representative body has agreed to allow some variation.
Organizational units and church-member representatives have input into the decisions of organizations at higher levels of structure. However, having had input, reciprocity means that there must be acceptance of the collective decision.
Strict adherence to Policy is required of “all organizations in every part of the world field."
No world field may depart from decisions taken by units at higher levels of structure with wider authority. The status of local fields “is not self-generated, automatic, or perpetual,” but “is granted to a constituency as a trust.”
Unilateral action on important matters is contrary to the biblical model and to longstanding Adventist practice. Further, it is a satanic distraction.
Ordination is qualitatively different than commissioning or credentialing.
The ordination of women has been explicitly disallowed by a GC Session action, a decision reinforced by two other GC Session votes.
Ministerial credentials are temporary; ordination is permanent (except in cases of discipline).
Recent moves to exclusively license (commission) pastors are contrary to policies voted both by the GC Executive Committee and by GC Sessions.
Because ordination is the Church’s recognition of a divine calling, it cannot be given up on individual impulse.
Ordained pastors cannot be turned, retrospectively, into commissioned pastors or licensed pastors, and if they qualify for a ministerial credential, then they must receive it, rather than another credential or license. GC Working Policy excludes any other possibility.
GC Working Policy can be amended, and its provisions can be waived in certain circumstances, but either requires consultation and consensus.
The document contains 88 references to biblical passages. Of those references, there are twelve unabridged, direct quotes of Scripture verses. Several more references excerpt small portions of biblical texts. Most instances are parenthetical references to books, chapters, and verses without textual material supplied. Of the 88 scriptural references, there are no full passages in their biblical contexts.
Ellen G. White receives 189 references by name in the document. Of the paper’s 187 endnotes, 118 cite or pertain to the writings of Ellen White. Extended quotations from her writings permeate the document.
When one considers the specific language employed to make the assertions the document makes, one gets the sense that submission to authority is viewed as paramount. Those entities running afoul of the document's ideal are also characterized as influenced by evil. Below, some of the document’s terms (and cognates in some cases) are listed by frequency of occurrence:
Policy - 127
General Conference - 122
Authority - 109
Christ - 108
Executive Committee - 78
Private judgment vs. corporate judgment - 54
Mission of the Church - 30
Gospel - 29 (16 instances of policy concerning “gospel ministry”; 7 references to book or article titles; 1 reference to “everlasting gospel”)
Unilateral - 27
Govern (and governing power) - 21
Surrender - 14
Submission - 14
Satan - 12
Require (including “require adherence”) - 10
Binding - 6
Obliged - 6
Mandate - 5
Compliance - 4
Obey - 2
Defer - 2
Evil forces - 2
Yield - 1
The document has drawn many reactions, among them, strong condemnation for its literal demonization of many church entities. Page 33 of the document delves deep into statements from Ellen White on what she saw as evil forces and extrapolates to those church entities that have ordained women: “Ellen White makes it plain,” the document states, “that unilateralism can arise not just from independent-mindedness, but sometimes from the influence of evil forces.”
The document pointedly and repeatedly refers to Californian Adventists in the 1870s and 1880s who demonstrated independent-mindedness and suggests that they were influenced by satanic powers. (In August 2012, the Pacific Union Conference based in California voted to authorize the ordination of women despite an in-person appeal from General Conference President Ted N. C. Wilson not to do so.)
Speaking of the Adventists in 19th century California, the document cites Ellen White’s admonition:
She warns that “those who . . . do not labor to have harmony of purpose and action are verily doing the work of Satan, not the work of God” and continues in similar vein: “It is a delusion of the enemy for anyone to feel that he can disconnect from the body and work on an independent scale of his own and think he is doing God’s work.
The thinly-veiled accusation that those organizational units that have ordained women are under satanic influence elicited criticism from one contemporary California pastor.
“It is never appropriate to suggest someone who behaves or thinks differently than yourself is under satanic influence,” wrote Trevan Osborn, an associate pastor at the Azure Hills Church in California.
Osborn called the language “toxic, manipulative, coercive, and horrifying on every level.”
He called for wholesale rejection of vilifying language. “[Let’s] wholly embrace one another as God's children just trying to do what we think is right,” he said.
For some, the document called to mind the presidential campaign in the United States. Writing in a Facebook group created to support the ordination of women in Adventism, Cherry Ashlock wrote,
GC says: We are following the will of God to purge and protect the church. What I hear: [To borrow language from a current great mind and rising global political star], 'Believe us! We are the only ones who can save the church and make it great again. It's a beautiful thing'!"
Among some who approved of the document, the question was what next steps the church would take. Richard P. Mendoza, a pastor in the Michigan Conference, wrote in response to the document's publication on the Adventist Review's website,
We just need to impliment the process and call the disenters (sic) into account and give them the choice of copplying (sic) with the WILL of the Body express in General Conference Session 2015 or dissfellowship (sic) or dissolve those members or churches, replace church leaders who will not comply and be supportive of the World Chuch's decision."
The 2016 Annual Council, October 8-15 at the General Conference Headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, will put the document before the GC Executive Committee for approval, including language that accuses many Adventists of being swayed by Satan.
Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
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