In every organization’s history there are inflection points where its future trajectory is in question. I suggest we are at one of those points in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
"The constituencies—church members—of certain union conferences have voted to ordain women. The General Conference says, “That is against policy. You must stop and conform.” (The GC probably values policy adherence more than anything because that is its ersatz control mechanism, having no real power or control otherwise.) The unions say, “Ordination is in our purview, and our constituents think ordaining women is the right thing to do in pursuing mission where we live.”
Positions taken and decisions made in the near future will determine the nature of our church for a long time to come. Along the way, there will be a struggle to arrive at a good place.
The nose of the camel is now under the tent. The camel’s nose is represented by “The Sentence” in the by-now-infamous “unity” document adopted by the GC Executive Committee at the recent Annual Council.
"The Sentence" says, “For the biblical principles as expressed in the Fundamental Beliefs or voted actions and policies of a worldwide nature, the General Conference will become involved” (underlining supplied) (This article does not delve into the tempting discussion of the document’s equation of voted actions and working policies with biblical principles, a concept mentioned four times in the document.).
"The Sentence" follows a description of the process to be followed when a church entity has “overlooked or ignored the biblical principles as expressed in the Fundamental Beliefs, voted actions, or working policies of the Church.” The process spells out how the next higher church organization will work with an errant entity to bring about “reconciliation.”
I believe "The Sentence" is the crux of the “unity” document. It is the insertion of the camel’s nose under the tent. Actually, any tent. There is no reason whatsoever to think that the “unity” action taken by the GC would be limited to the current issue of unions ordaining women. It provides for the GC to intervene directly with any entity of the church, potentially bypassing the role of a division, a union, a conference, or other entity. Does not this sentence open the door for the GC to intervene directly with a congregation, a college, an academy, or a hospital? Does this not give the GC carte blanche to intervene in any situation of alleged noncompliance with “Fundamental Beliefs, voted actions, or working policies” in which the GC asserts the next higher organization has not taken appropriate action? Let me be blunt. This was an ill-advised action. It needs to be rolled back.
So let me pose a hypothetical about the most obvious current situation. Suppose the North American Division, as the next higher organization, goes to the Columbia and Pacific Unions and asks them to reverse their positions and actions on the ordination of women. Suppose those unions decline to reverse course. Further suppose that the NAD leaders then go to the NAD Executive Committee and ask it to discipline those unions in some way. Suppose the NAD Executive Committee declines.
The next step under the “unity” document would be for the GC to interact directly with the unions. The body of the camel would follow its nose into the tent. But what if no matter what the GC might do with the structure and/or leadership of the unions, it cannot change the minds of the constituents, the representatives of the 376,000 church members who are the constituencies of those two unions?
This hypothetical series of events would lead to a troubling scenario. We do not know how it would work legally or practically at a point of impasse between the GC and hundreds of thousands of church members. It is quite unpredictable. But I would be shocked if attorneys are not now involved behind the scenes. The GC and the unions are very likely exploring what is actually legally possible under the governing documents of our unique legal structure. In the context of a spiritual fellowship, the development of competing, internal legal strategies would be a very, very bad sign.
Beware. The camel’s nose is now inside the tent.
The Trojan Horse
Alongside the camel rolls the Trojan Horse. Inside the horse lurk two things.
First, lurks a risk that the Seventh-day Adventist Church will become a more hierarchal, authoritarian organization. The siren call of hierarchical authority seems to have lured the GC in the 19th century and, in modern times, ever since the Merikay Silver court case of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In pursuit of a line of legal defense in that litigation, GC and NAD officials testified in depositions that the church is indeed a hierarchical organization with authority flowing down.
Apparently Church leaders decided, perhaps as counseled by attorneys, to say that the Seventh-day Adventist Church governance had suddenly transmogrified into hierarchical form! They just failed to tell the rest of us!
In my opinion, some GC leaders started to believe their own story and have tried ever since to paper over the gaps in hierarchical control created by the independent constituencies and separate corporations of the unions and conferences.
So in the last few decades, we have seen model bylaws promoted. We have seen votes saying that all entities are required to abide by the policies of the GC. These initiatives have attempted to create a paper substitute for actual corporate control.
It is time to quite openly name this trend for what it is and call a halt to it. We exist as a fellowship of believers who find sufficient common ground in our belief system to stick together in worship and mission. If policy showdowns become the medium of achieving “unity,” we are in trouble indeed.
So I believe that inside the “unity” Trojan Horse are behaviors intended to advance the authoritarian agenda.
I have experience with a small manifestation of this authoritarian tendency. As a partner in FaithSearch Partners, I manage executive searches for faith-based organizations. In one of our recent SDA higher education presidential searches, we encountered an unexplained delay in getting started with the project. It finally emerged that the General Conference president had inserted himself into the decision-making process of the university and its board chair, the president of one of our large unions. The GC president instructed that they should not use search consultants but to follow a process he specified. This interference had created a delay.
I was astounded that the president of the GC would insert himself into the decision of a university board—a university operated by a union conference—as to how it would select its next president. My reaction was that this was a vast overreach, a blatant attempt at micromanagement, and a display of authoritarianism. I suggested to the union president that I hoped he was quite perturbed. He was. And to his credit, he rebuffed this gambit.
In my view, the president of the General Conference is not the chief executive officer of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The president is just the chief executive officer of the General Conference, a corporation, a service organization that manages certain activities for the benefit of the wider church body because that is the most efficient way to do it. The management of money. Retirement plans. Benefit programs. Departmental support. The flow of missionaries. The oversight of accreditation of schools. Providing governance to a few GC institutions. Arranging and facilitating the gathering of the church every five years to do its collective business. Providing inspiration and creating a tone. These are the matters for the GC. But in my view, the GC is not a controlling corporate entity, nor should it be.
Power in our church is distributed. Intentionally. Our Church in 1901 made a very conscious decision to distribute the power precisely to prevent overreach by the GC. And now, lurking inside the Trojan Horse, seemingly lurks a compulsion to change that arrangement.
Make no mistake. The tendency to assert authority is the issue we now face. The women’s ordination issue has morphed into a control/power issue. The boundaries that have defined our fellowship for 100 years are under assault.
The second thing lurking inside the Trojan Horse is "Male Headship" theology. That aberrant doctrine is not part of our belief system. You can search authoritative sources of our beliefs and you will not find it.
The risk is that male headship may intrude into the church through “squatter’s rights.” It could be nurtured in our midst, not through inclusion in our Fundamental Beliefs or by any kind of vote, but by efforts to promote practical applications of male headship. Thus, this alien belief could come informally under the back of the tent while the camel is coming in under the front of the tent and could become our practice, even if not our stated belief.
Beware the Trojan Horse.
The Other Shoe
The “unity” document suspends a shoe in the air, ready to drop.
The “unity” document’s first recommendation prescribes a process: (1) listening and praying, (2) consultation with a “wider group” over six months, (3) writing “pastoral” letters (no doubt vetted by lawyers) to the offending entity, and (4) listening and praying again.
If the conflict has not been resolved at the end of the four steps above, then the second recommendation in the “unity” document would come into play. This recommendation empowers the General Conference Administrative Committee to recommend to the 2017 Annual Council a course of action if “unity” has not been achieved.
In other words, between now and October, the GC will be developing strategy and tactics to recommend to the world church in the event “unity” has not been achieved by the NAD. What would those strategies and tactics look like? I do not know. I hear things like hostile take-overs of unions. Or forming shadow unions. Or converting unions into missions under GC control. Or using the threat of loss of tax-exempt status under the church’s umbrella exemption. Or loss of use of the Seventh-day Adventist name. Maybe something more creative.
Any of those tactics would, in my opinion, have a potentially serious impact on hundreds of thousands of members. Does the GC leadership really believe it could make retaliatory moves against unions without adverse effects among the 226,000 members of the Pacific Union and the 150,000 members of the Columbia Union (not even taking into account the members other unions in Europe and China)? Does GC leadership think it can institute punitive measures against union leaders and corporations while those 376,000 members of the North American Church stand meekly by? I believe that, instead of bringing reconciliation and unity, such measures will create much greater and more damaging conflict.
When the constituency of a union conference votes, it is expressing the desires of church members regarding the mission and ministry of the Church where the members live and worship. Short of apostasy, you would think the GC would hesitate to think its views are more important than those of the members in a territory of the Church. And how can you apostatize over policy unless someone is of the opinion that policy is of equal value with belief?
Is the General Conference leadership willing to alienate thousands upon thousands of members in its quest for uniformity? Does the General Conference leadership really think policy is of equal value with belief? Is the General Conference leadership surreptitiously trying to promote a particular doctrinal view of the ordination of women when our theologians generally take the position that it is not a doctrinal issue? Does the General Conference leadership think it knows better than the member constituents what is best for their territories? Does the General Conference leadership think that perceived policy variances are just cause for a potentially explosive conflict in our church?
Perhaps GC leadership thinks some serious losses are acceptable in order to make a point. Maybe they think significant damage among our membership is worth it to achieve their objectives. Maybe the other divisions around the world are supportive of such a course of action. I pray not.
For me, the most poignant moment of the NAD Year-end Meeting occurred when Don Livesay, president of the Lake Union Conference, asked for those in the auditorium to stand if they had a son, daughter, or other young acquaintance who was rethinking his/her relationship with our church because of the current dynamics. It was very sobering that probably 90 percent of the audience stood.
Beware the Other Shoe.
The Camel, the Trojan Horse, and the Other Shoe are all realities in play now. The next couple of years, at least, will be tense and bumpy. They will be full of ambiguity. It may not feel like church. It is interesting how threatening language and conflict can be wrapped in the most spiritual of terminology. But none of this feels spiritual at all. This feels like corporate warfare. And over what? Disagreements about policy? Power? Distribution of authority? Uniformity? Doctrine? Rule of the majority? The GC president feeling personally rebuffed by two union constituencies? All the above? What precisely lies at the root of this?
We are facing a pivotal moment in the history of this denomination. What is at stake is the very nature of our fellowship. I want to be a member of a fellowship of believers. I do not want to belong to an authoritarian hierarchy. So some things are worth fighting for.
Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant, president of The Reifsnyder Group, and senior vice-president of FaithSearch Partners. He and his wife Janelle live in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have two daughters.
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