Arthur G. Keough Conference — Adventist Church for the 21st Century: Re-examining Church Identity, Unity, and Authority

Arthur G. Keough Conference — Adventist Church for the 21st Century: Re-examining Church Identity, Unity, and Authority

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October 24, 2019

The Arthur G. Keough Conference, a signature event of the Washington Adventist University Religion Department, took place September 20–21, 2019. This year’s theme centered around discussions about the identity, unity, and authority of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The intent of the event was to bring together a diverse group to address specific issues and challenges the church faces and develop together fresh and viable models of church governance and organization. The goal, to inspire and stimulate necessary healthy changes and greater vitality of the denomination.

Keynote addresses, panel discussions, and participation from those in attendance all centered around these questions regarding the current Seventh-day Adventist organization.

• What in your view should the Adventist Church look like in the 21st century?

• How in practical terms should the authority and church governance be understood and exercised in our denominational polity?

• How in your view should our global denominational organization be shaped to respond more effectively and equitably to the needs and the challenges of the time?

• What viable, functional model of church governance can you propose? What shape should it take?

• Which model of church governance (procedural or policy modifications) in your view can insure the unity of the denomination as well as the protection and free exercise of individual and communal conscience (at times when entire unions or divisions may find themselves in disagreement with policy statements affirmed by a higher body, for example on such issues as women’s ordination)? 

• How would you propose to address conscientious minority dissent and issues of diversity and inclusiveness?

• What actionable proposals and effective mechanisms of conflict resolution and shared governance would you suggest?

• In your proposed model of church organization what will be the status and the degree of authority of the local congregation, local/regional conference, unions, and divisions? What reforms in the nature of their relationship and status can you propose?

• What role should the General Conference assume in your model? 

• Thus, how would you articulate, in practical terms, the most essential steps necessary at this time in our denominational history for strengthening church unity, protecting its rich diversity, and humbly seeking together to understand the nature of authority given to us by Christ “to build up and not tear down” (2 Cor 10:8; 13:10).  

Presenters and panelists included keynote speakers Dr. Jiří Moskala, Dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, and Pastor Ray Tetz, Pacific Union Conference director of communication and community engagement. Also participating were: Pastor Alexander Barrientos, Potomac Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; Elder Lowell Cooper, former vice-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; Dr. Olive Hemmings, professor, Department of Religion, Washington Adventist University; Dr. Marissa Leslie, MD, Adventist Health Care Systems, Shady Grove Hospital; Pastor Charles Sandefur, former president of ADRA International; Dr. Ramone Griffith, Allegheny East Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and Tiffany Llewellyn, president & founder, Adventists for Social Justice. Student panelists included Sonny Moretta, Sinedinga Sokupa, Naomy Rodrigues and Eneah Fite. Moderators for the event were: Dr. Mikhail M. Kulakov, professor, Department of Religion, Washington Adventist University and Bogdan Scur, interim chair, Department of Religion, Washington Adventist University.

The sessions in the full-day conference on Friday, September 20, focused on “Church Governance & Exercise of Authority: Actionable Proposals” with panel discussions that included young pastors’ perspectives as well as views from students, lay leaders, and WAU faculty on the “Future of the Church and Shared Governance.”

On Friday evening, Dr. Jiří Moskala presented a keynote address followed by a panel discussion on “Respect for Conscientious Dissent: Actionable Proposals.”

The intent of the Keough Conference organizers was to make Friday’s sessions accessible for a wider audience via live streaming on the Washington Adventist University’s Facebook page. Some of Friday’s sessions did appear on the WAU Facebook page, however the audio is not clear and visuals provided by the keynote speakers blurred.

The presentations and panel discussions on the second day of the conference were held at Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church with a live stream available through the church’s website.

The morning Sabbath School session was titled “Adventist Church for the 21st Century: Actionable Proposals” with panelists Elder Lowell Cooper, Dr. Olive Hemmings, Dr. Marissa Lesley, Pastor Alex Barrientos, Dr. Jiří Moskala, Pastor Ray Tetz, and Professor Bogdan Scur.

Elder Cooper opened the discussion with remarks that addressed the question of what the picture of the church should be in the 21st century. He believes that the picture of the church should be one of Jesus. If Jesus is what the world sees, then the church has succeeded. He stated that it can be very tempting to look at the church in terms of organizational structure, but that God’s mission is one of ministry not structure.

He also addressed the meaning of the word authority. “Authority isn’t a good word in our day,” he said. “We live in such a hyper-individualized society that has a single view — authority as control over.” Cooper asked that rather than control over, the panel and participants at the conference define the word authority as freedom to participate. In the discussion of what authority should be at the local church and what authority should there be at the General Conference, authority is freedom to participate. He translated that concept into church organization structure with the idea that no element of church structure has inherent authority.

Authority is shared. For example, within the current church structure the local churches have the freedom to admit members, the freedom to choose their own leadership and the freedom to design a pattern of ministry that fits their local community. While at the General Conference level, the freedom to decide what Adventists believe is given to the General Conference in Session and the world-wide family has the freedom to decide how Seventh-day Adventists express their understanding of scripture.

Cooper doesn’t believe that there should be a shift in the structure of authority within the church. He believes that in times of tension, the parts of the church body should spend a lot of time in collaboration and support of each other. Ultimately, the mission of the church is to make it look like Jesus has come back to our communities.

Professor Olive Hemmings began her comments with the statement, “I believe that the church should begin to travel at least a 10-year path to the model of the early church. The early church was a Spirit-filled church.” She went on to explain that Pentecost was the beginning of the early church. They were trying to reform Judaism. They were trying to tell them what the Messiah means. Hemmings believes that the work is not about spreading the doctrine, not about indoctrinating people into norms and policies. The work is to let the world experience the great liberation in Christ.

Pastor Alex Barrientos shared his observation that leadership dominates our ecclesiology. He offered the idea that the function of ministry is a people to people thing rather than making decisions and making people do things in light of those decisions. In Pastor Barrientos’ viewpoint, policies have become an excuse for the lack of relationships that we have with people.

Pastor Alexander Barrientos from the Potomac Conference participated in several panel discussions about the identity, unity, and authority of the Adventist Church at the 2019 Keough Conference at Washington Adventist University.


Dr. Marissa Leslie’s contributions to the panel focused on community. “In my practice,” she said, “I see that people’s health outcomes are much better when they are part of a community.” She believes that people often focus on nuclear family and forget about wider family. Our churches should focus on what our communities need. It is important to be a vital member of the community.

Moskala focused his views on the idea we are all under the authority of God. “We are all accountable to God,” he stated. “It’s not my word or your word, only God’s word.” He also brought the thought that when people speak of authority they are often speaking of leadership. True leadership, he explained, is creating space — space for others that they can flourish and do their best. Moskala recounted the story of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 stating that the bones needed two things: first to hear the word of the Lord and second to be brought to life with the Spirit of God.  

Professor Bogdan Scur included in his remarks that we need to remember that we are not just under God’s authority, but also carry authority. “We are authorized by God to do the mission,” he stated.

The complete morning session discussion can be viewed here.

Pastor Ray Tetz was the speaker for the Sabbath church service. Tetz’s sermon “Behold the Beloved” focused on a story in the book of John.

“Now, there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary, the wife of Cleophus, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother and the disciples standing by whom he loved, he sayeth unto his mother, woman, behold your son. Then, sayeth he unto the disciple, behold thy mother. And from that hour, that disciple took her unto his own home” (John 19:26-27, NKJV).

“In this moment,” Tetz explained, “Jesus is establishing a framework for unity between the past and the future, between the old and the new. From the cross, Mary the mother of Jesus, and representing everything that has gone before is commanded by Jesus to take the disciple that Jesus loves as her son, and to embrace the urgency of his calling and mission.”

According to Tetz, this is how and where the search for unity must start. Everyone stands together at the cross on the same side. During this complex time for the church, relationships to the past and plans for the future are all difficult things. The Adventist Church and other Christian churches are experiencing a crisis of identity.  

However, he points out, Jesus’ plan and message are that together we should go forward just as he commanded his mother (a representative of the church of the past) and the beloved disciple (the church of the future) to go forward together. In spite of the complex issues facing the church, through the grievances, suffering, disappointments, and discouragements, the church is in the business of saving people, not losing people.

Tetz reminded everyone that the Keough Conference consciously brought together church leaders and scholars of many years with young people who are passionate and articulate about their faith. Adding that something that everyone learned was that we need each other's perspectives to move forward in unity. Standing together at the cross is where that begins because that’s where we belong.

View Pastor Ray Tetz’s sermon on the Sligo Church’s YouTube Channel.

The afternoon session focused on “Conflict Resolution & Shared Governance: Actionable Proposals.” Questions addressed by the panel included:

• How would you propose to address conscientious minority dissent and issues of diversity and inclusiveness?

• What actionable proposals and effective mechanisms of conflict resolution and shared governance would you suggest?

Elder Cooper began the panel session with a short review of his remarks on authority in the church structure from the morning panel session. The authority in the church has been distributed throughout the structure. Authority is shared. No one level has complete authority. However, now when it comes to dissent and conflict it is especially difficult in the Seventh-day Adventist Church because we have such a priority value on unity.

He made the point that dissent is an important part of collective life. The church functions as a living body and dissent is a part of that. It’s necessary to learn how as a church to be comfortable with that. It is easy for leaders to look upon dissent as disloyalty. It is important to listen to, appreciate, and understand conscientious dissent and work toward resolution.

Cooper gave an example of a conscientious dissent in Romans 14 where Paul addresses a situation of two groups both with conscientious convictions in conflict with one another. In addressing it Paul did not say one side is right and one side is wrong. He did not take a vote in the matter. Instead, he advised them to pursue the things that make for peace and uphold one another. He allowed both convictions to be maintained together.

Cecilia Ramos, who graduated from Washington Adventist University with a degree in Theology, offered a short look at some of the history of the Adventist Church with the view that similar root issues are surfacing in the church today.

“I believe that there are at least two lessons that we can learn from our past that can inform our future,” she said. “First, if a current organizational model is not working, we should not be afraid to change it.”

Her second point was regarding centralization of power in the General Conference. “The General Conference’s role,” she suggested, “would be better served by helping the church arrive at solutions that represent the church as a whole and not just a fraction of it. Solutions that would help everyone to feel intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally safe and not keep some marginalized left wondering if they even belong.”

Moskala spoke about the gospel being a central issue in conflict resolution. It is important to listen to each other, tolerate each other, and to help one another. He also spoke of the importance of the testimony of others. The ability and willingness of others to come in and testify on behalf is part of conflict resolution.

Hemmings emphasized the gospel of inclusion and that the message to those in the early church was that the covenant existed for all who would accept it. She also stated that the way to solve conflicts is not to walk away. “If you see there is a problem in church you cannot solve it by walking away. It’s your responsibility to stay and fight to make things new.”

Barrientos spoke about some of the issues that show up from the point of view of youth in the church. “The world preaches inclusiveness, open-mindedness, not being so caged in and closed-minded,” he said. “When you enter the church, you see people doing the exact opposite.” He continued that the world preaches inclusiveness, but when you enter the church it is all about exclusivity. When young people are coming from a world that is inclusive to a spiritual family that is exclusive it causes conflict.

Student panelist Naomy Rodrigues added that from the youth perspective, one of the biggest keys to conflict resolution was a listening ear and remembering that the reason we are here is to bring people to Christ.

Professor Bogdan Scur asked why, as a denomination, should we be surprised by disagreements and conflicts. He pointed out that God created diversity among us. He purposed that perhaps as a denomination we should determine what are the essential hermeneutics. What are the things that we have to agree on? What are the things we don’t have to agree on? Conflict resolution could include identifying what non-essentials can be left for individuals to determine for themselves.

See the complete panel discussion here.

The 2019 Keough Lectureship focused on bringing together people of different views and age groups for a healthy and generous conversation about some of the important issues facing the Seventh-day Adventist Church today.

 

Fonda Seifert is associate editor for SpectrumMagazine.org

Image credits: Video stills.

 

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