For over 150 years the Seventh-day Adventist Church has faithfully preached the message of Revelation 13 that near the end of time “all the world marveled and followed the beast,” who had recovered from the deadly wound (13:3, NKJV). And at the heart of the Adventist concern was verse 7’s prophecy that the beast would “make war with the saints” and “overcome them.”
What was not predicted by the Adventist evangelists was that the General Conference leadership would be joining the beast in its eschatological crusade, with the denomination’s president leading the charge.
The latest move in that direction came on August 14, 2018, when the General Conference Administrative Committee (ADCOM) voted a document creating a network of five compliance review committees to make sure that Adventists around the world behave themselves according to the General Conference’s interpretation of the 28 fundamental beliefs (which is apparently now viewed as a creed) and the denomination’s working policy.
The committees have been tasked with enforcing the punitive measures for noncompliance set forth in ADCOM’s July 17 document titled “Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions,” which is to come before Annual Council 2018. One interesting point is that the five committees have been appointed before the basic document has been approved. A second is that committee memberships are weighted in a way to guarantee that they will come up with a “correct” solution. The machinery and documents for making war on any saints who are out of harmony with the General Conference (president) will be in place if the proposal is voted into policy in October.
On the day after the oversight committee system report was released I received an email from a close student of Roman Catholic ecclesiology. The author noted that “this truly reminds me of RCC [Roman Catholic Church] curia in Vatican. It is unbelievable. Only people who have zero sense of history can move in this direction.”
Being somewhat imprecise in my understanding of just how the Curia functions, I got out my Catholic Dictionary. Under “Curia, Roman” I read: “The whole ensemble of administrative and judicial offices through which the Pope directs the operations of the Catholic Church….Pope John XXIII spoke of the Curia as his right hand, through which the Vicar of Christ mainly exercises his primacy over the universal Church.” In Adventism it is ADCOM that is taking on the role of the Curia. As such, it is, as it is presently utilized by the denomination’s leader, one more way to follow the beast.
Iwas so fascinated with that definition that I decided to look up the Catholic Dictionary’s definition of “inquisition.” I discovered that it was “the special court or tribunal appointed by the Catholic Church to discover and suppress heresy and to punish heretics.” Once again the current leader of Adventism is right on track. But, I must say, it is a wonder to me that a person who loves The Great Controversy so much could take the path he is creating.
One of the more interesting facts of history is that it took the bishops of Rome 600 years to develop an effective papacy with control over the worldwide church, while Silver Spring is on track to do so in a little more than 150.
Of course, none of the recent ADCOM documents allude to the comparisons raised above. To the contrary, they are couched in sanctified God talk, such as “to honor and exalt Jesus,” “a sacred trust” exists between those “being led by the Spirit,” and “after much prayer.” Sounds spiritual. But make no mistake, the Roman Catholic leaders used the same sort of verbiage. After all, it sells ideas to sincere Christians who are unaware of church history.
It should also be noted that the July 17 punitive proposal of ADCOM is mild in its recommendations and procedures in relation to the failed proposals of the past two annual councils. Much of the forceful language has been toned down to make it easier to vote for. Thus the proposal to go before Annual Council 2018 is made to appear quite orthodox, orderly, and mild. But it should be seen as an entering wedge to codify centralized authority without the necessary checks and balances. I will be covering such eventualities in a future article tentatively titled “The Adventist FBI and the Sticky Wicket Thicket.”
Last year I was falsely accused of calling the General Conference president Hitler, which resulted in the Michigan Conference president banning my books from the Adventist Book Centers under his control. While that accusation was false, it is true that our leader’s tactics are increasingly taking on dictatorial aspects, such as:
- Deceptively manipulating the voting among GCDO (General Conference and Division Officers) members to get the 2017 document before the Annual Council on a technically “legal” basis.
- The removal of subordinates who disagree, creating an atmosphere of fear and distrust.
- Use of financial incentives to those sectors of the church that fall into line and implying financial threats to those who don’t. (It needs to be remembered that the GC distributes a lot of money worldwide.)
- Having General Conference in-house emails checked to discover “leaks” and other improprieties.
- Shouting, sometimes extensively, at those who refuse to follow the party line.
- And so on.
Now I must admit that my mind in all of these things has probably been biased by the fact that for more than two decades I taught a course in the history of religious liberty and by a lifelong habit of studying the totalitarian mind through extensive reading of biographies of Stalin, Mao, and Hitler, and related literature. While some may see that background as perverting my ideas in the current situation, I prefer to view them as enlightening them. At any rate, we are looking at a church that is increasingly losing its system of checks and balances in favor of unquestionable and unchallengeable rule from the top. One can only wonder what the good lady who wrote that “it has been a necessity to organize Union Conferences, that the General Conference shall not exercise dictation over all the separate conferences” (MS 26, 1903, italics supplied) would think about the current ADCOM initiatives. Here it needs to be pointed out that the real problem of “one-man-rule” is that if that one person is off the track he or she will lead the entire world church astray in the direction of his or her personal issues. Serious problems do need to be handled by the proper bodies, but Adventism’s organizational structure has been wise in limiting damage through regional enforcement. And if one region gets off-center the others are in place to eventually pull it back. But if the whole church goes wrong because of over-centralization there will be no checks and balances to correct the situation.
At this juncture we come to another interesting aspect of how Adventism is attempting to follow the beast in making war on the saints. It is of special interest that a long line of Roman Pontiffs have been unified on the idea that noncompliance is always a problem with those individuals and levels of the church below their exalted office. That is exactly the position of the current General Conference leadership. One result historically has been inquisition and heresy trials for those at “lower” levels in the worldwide organization. It takes little insight when reading the July 17 document (“Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions”) to see the same mentality at work. While the investigation of those in noncompliance is to begin with the level of organization nearest the problem, if it is not solved at that level the punitive responsibility always moves to the “next higher level of Church organization” until it finally arrives at the highest level, the General Conference, which will be granted, if the document is approved, a progressive three-step program of warning, reprimanding, and removing the offending individuals, all by simple majority vote. The wording of ADCOM’s proposal is fascinating. One example is the last sentence under the reprimand section which notes that “each time the union president exercises his right of voice to address the General Conference Executive Committee, the members will be informed that the speaker has been given a public reprimand.” The document concludes with the idea that the system of oversight committees “may be used as a model by other levels of Church organization.”
That last suggestion is a pregnant one, especially when it is realized that down through the history of the Roman Catholic Church it has all too often been those at the top of the hierarchy who have needed to be reprimanded and removed. Protestants, including Adventists, have had no problem seeing that point.
Now, however, the time has come to apply that truth to Adventism, which needs to thoroughly investigate the General Conference president through those committees that may now be established at the lower realms of the church. After all, noncompliance of policy has been a practice of the current denominational leader when it suits his purpose. And the issues for investigation and possible reprimand and censure are many. For example, the blatant and deceptive manipulation of the GCDO vote to get the desired noncompliance document on the agenda for Annual Council 2017.
When challenged in public on that point, the president replied before a televised audience that “that is how democracy works.” If all of the tactics used by the GC president to obtain that vote were put on the table, the statement would have to be revised to read “that is how democracy worked in Germany in the 1930s.” While such tactics lent a façade of legality to the Leader’s dictates, the result was that the nation soon had no democracy at all. Another important issue that needs a thorough investigation is the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars of sacred tithe funds on the TOSC (Theology of Ordination Study Committee) study and then not reporting the results to the General Conference session before the crucial vote in 2015 that has divided the church for the past three years. It is no small thing when one person has the power and the audacity to massively misuse the church’s funds.
Those issues and many others cry for investigation. The result could easily be that every time the current General Conference president rises to speak in an annual council that “the members will be informed that the speaker has been given a public reprimand.” Of course, some investigative committees might opt for removal once all the facts of highhandedness are on the table.
The point is that those at the top are not immune to noncompliance or the need for church discipline. It is not unidirectional. And, it might be added in passing, neither is theological heresy. The document entitled “An Invitation to Uplift Jesus,” released on April 11, 2018, without going through the Executive Committee, highlighted problems that somebody at the top believed to be heresies on what might be thought of as the theological left of the church. What that controversial document (which had almost nothing to say about uplifting Jesus) failed to address are problematic heresies on Adventism’s theological right, such as anti-trinitarianism and Last Generation Theology (which contradicts not only many Ellen White positions, but also central Bible teachings). All too often those concerned with orthodoxy have focused in one direction. Of course, at times such a one-sided focus is due to the fact that the initiators of such endeavors have leanings toward heresies in the opposite camp. At any rate, here is another issue that needs to be thought through before any organization opens up its siege guns on real or perceived heresy.
I am afraid that I am in trouble again this year for following the General Conference president’s counsel to read The Great Controversy. Last year I was led astray when I took seriously a statement claiming that “the very beginning of the great apostasy was in seeking to supplement the authority of God by that of the church” (pp. 289-290). This year my problems began when I read the chapter on the “Protest of the Princes” (pp. 197-210). Reading that chapter is permissible, but I am afraid that taking it seriously may be problematic, especially if one reads it in the context of the obvious rush of Adventism’s top leadership toward what I last year labeled “the Roman Catholic Temptation.”
I have had the unfortunate experience of reading that inspired chapter in the light of the greatest power grab in Adventist history, and one of the boldest in the history of the Christian church. In that context my mind began to equate the protesting princes that saved the Reformation from defeat in terms of the “princes” of the Adventist church — its union presidents, division presidents, and others on the GC Executive Committee. The name “Protestant” came into being because those Lutheran princes had the “guts” to follow and stand up for their convictions, no matter what the consequences to themselves or their livelihoods. I will quote a few passages from The Great Controversy that helped me see things more clearly.
- “‘Let us reject this decree,’ said the princes. ‘In matters of conscience the majority has no power’” (p. 201, italics supplied).
- “‘We protest…before God, our only Creator, Preserver, Redeemer, and Saviour, and who will one day be our Judge, as well as before all men and all creatures, that we…neither consent nor adhere in any manner whatsoever to the proposed decree, in anything that is contrary to God, to His holy word, to our right conscience, to the salvation of our souls’” (pp. 202-203).
- “A deep impression was made upon the Diet [by the protesting princes]. The majority were filled with amazement and alarm at the boldness of the protesters” (p. 203). [While it was admittedly disruptive of usual procedures to stand and present their protest before the council, that tactic was the only way of accomplishing their goal of saving the Reformation.]
- “‘The principles contained in this celebrated Protest…constitute the very essence of Protestantism. Now this Protest opposes two abuses of man in matters of faith: the first is the intrusion of the civil magistrate, and the second the arbitrary authority of the church’” (pp. 203-204, italics supplied).
In the current Adventist context I was particularly impressed by the testimony of John of Saxony: “‘God forbid…that you should exclude me. I am resolved to do what is right, without troubling myself about my crown. I desire to confess the Lord. My electoral hat and my ermine are not so precious to me as the cross of Jesus Christ’” (p. 207).
I have highlighted John of Saxony because in the Adventist context many leaders are afraid of standing for the right for fear of losing their jobs. And that fear is a serious reality in 2018, given the highhanded approach of the denomination’s president. But to betray our church and its future along with our conscience makes our positions and our very selves meaningless.
The nature of Adventism in the future is what is at stake in October. We will either stand against the drive toward papalism at Annual Council 2018 while we have the opportunity or fall with the church we love. In the language of Ellen White in the Kellogg crisis, “This is the iceberg, Meet it.” And it must be met firmly if Adventism is to avoid continuing its drift into a one-sided Roman Catholic ecclesiology.
The idea of standing brings to mind the quotation that the current General Conference president read to the assembled delegates of the Executive Committee in the first presentation at Annual Council 2016’s pre-meetings. “The greatest want of the world,” he read, “is the want of men — men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall” (Ed 57, italics supplied). I followed him, presenting a message the second hour. As I sat there waiting my turn I distinctly remember thinking to myself during his reading of that quotation that I was fully in harmony with its sentiments but that the president and I were standing by different poles.
That quotation brings me to some final questions. First, what is the church? Second, what is its biblical mission? Third, what is genuine church unity? Fourth, is there any more effective way to create disunity in the church than the path chosen by the General Conference president? Fifth, when will Adventism begin to hold its top leadership accountable for the misuse of power and money? Sixth, when will the princes of the church say enough is enough and that it is time for ADCOM and the Executive Committee to get back to the mission of the church instead of going off on a tangent largely directed by the stubborn will of one man? Lastly, what is my role (especially if I am a leader) in the drama playing out in Adventism today?
The preceding discussion indicates that 2018 is not the most tranquil time in Adventist history. But the church has been through difficult times before. And, as in the past, we need to pray that God will guide the church we love through the present crisis. It is His church and we are His servants. And it is in that spirit that we must move forward, praying for both our leaders and the denomination itself as we move toward the crucial October meetings.
I will close out this discussion with three “memory verses”:
- “In a land of boasted freedom of thought and of conscience, like ours, church force cannot produce unity; but has caused divisions, and has given rise to religious sects and parties almost innumerable” (James White, ST, June 4, 1874, italics supplied).
- “In no conference should propositions be rushed through without time being taken by the brethren to weigh carefully all sides of the question….Very many matters have been taken up and carried by vote, that have involved far more than was anticipated and far more than those who voted would have been willing to assent to had they taken time to consider the question from all sides” (EGW, 9T, p. 278, italics supplied).
- “God has not put any kingly power in our ranks to control this or that branch of the work. The work has been greatly restricted by the efforts to control it in every line….If the work had not been so restricted by an impediment here, and an impediment there, and on the other side an impediment, it would have gone forth in its majesty” (EGW, GCB, 1901, p. 26).
George R. Knight has served the church as a university professor, pastor, school administrator, and an elementary and secondary teacher. His last assignment was Andrews University where he taught for 30 years. Knight is an avid student of both the Bible and Adventist history. He has written over 45 books and edited another 40. In addition to Bible commentaries, including the one for the Sabbath School lessons on Galatians and Romans, he has written on the historical development of Adventist organizational structure and the need for reform within the denomination. His most recent books include Adventist Authority Wars, Ordination, and the Roman Catholic Temptation (August 2017) and End-Time Events and The Last Generation: The Explosive 1950s (April 2018).
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