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Thursday at the London Unity Conference: Transformational Moments in the History of Church Authority


And so it began, the Unity 2017 Conference, with worship, of course. Gary Patterson, retired General Conference field secretary, known to many in the room for his insightful interpretation of church policy, showed his pastoral side with a creative devotional on the book of John, on light in the darkness, on the women to whom Christ made his most significant announcements. It was the woman at the well to whom Jesus first personally declared his Messiahship. It was to Mary that Jesus appeared upon his resurrection. Patterson closed with a video of Alicia Patterson impersonating Mary telling of her love for Jesus — the most alive person she had ever known —explaining how Jesus freed her from the boxes into which society had put her, into which she had put herself. How hearing Jesus tell Simon that wherever Jesus’ story would be told, her story would be part of it. Jesus’ words in Simon’s house coming back to her, giving her new life, new understanding of herself, a prostitute no longer. Her story would be part of His story wherever it was told.

In what could be considered the most prophetic presentation of the day, retired South Pacific Division President Barry Oliver started the historical conversation with observations on the 1901-03 reorganization of church structure and the creation of union conferences. The fast growth of the church in its first forty years quickly overwhelmed the simple organization that had been put into place in the 1860s. Institutional growth brought challenges, too, since the institutions were incorporated independently. Meanwhile there was increased centralization of administrative control. George Butler, president of the General Conference from 1871-1874 and again from 1880-1888, described the principles upon which the organization of the church was established, declaring:

Supervision embraces all its [the General Conference’s] interests in every part of the world. There is not an institution among us, not a periodical issued, not a Conference or society, not a mission field connected with our work, that it has not a right to advise and counsel and investigate. It is the highest authority of an earthly character among Seventh-day Adventists.

Ellen White’s evaluation of Butler brought expressions of “Wow” from the audience. Oliver quoted her saying:

A sick man’s mind has had a controlling power over the General Conference committee and the ministers have been the shadow and echo of Elder Butler about as long as it is healthy and good for the cause. Envy, evil surmissings, jealousies have been working like leaven until the whole lump seemed to be leavened. . . . He thinks his position gives him such power that his voice is infallible.

Financial crisis in the late 1890s added to the woes of the denomination. For all these reasons, the 1901 General Conference saw a major reorganization of the church structure. Ellen White called for change “right here and right now” but she left it to the assembled delegates to determine how that change would be accomplished. The experiments in two far off places led to key changes. In South Africa, departments were created to handle various aspects of the work and in Australia union conferences were established. When both areas had asked the General Conference about moving forward with these ideas, no was the response that had come back (after very long delays due to the slowness of communication via ocean liners). But by the time the answer came back, the ideas were already established and successful. Adventist organization benefitted from the experiments of those “on the ground” as Mrs. White liked to say. She thought people close to the situation understood what was needed, perhaps better than those far away at the General Conference.

Decentralization was a key concept to A.G. Daniells for reorganization. He thought those “on the ground” should bear the burden of administration and have the prerogative of decision making, seeing the union structure as the manner in which to accomplish that.

Oliver concluded with fifteen learnings from history for the contemporary church. “Both unity and diversity can have negative and positive impacts on the mission of the Church,” he said. “Diversity is positive when its acceptance enhances the potential of the church to reach diverse ‘nations, tongues, and peoples,’ and decentralized decision-making is practiced. It is negative when it is taken too far, appropriate organizational boundaries are not respected and its results in syncretism. Unity is positive when it binds the Church into oneness in Christ. It is negative when it is interpreted to require uniformity and unnecessary centralization of authority.”

He said that in the reforms of 1901 Daniells “affirmed that it was not the intention of the General Conference committee to deal directly with the affairs of any Union Conference. Daniells’ answer to the centralization of power in the General Conference committee was that the committee was not going to make executive decisions. It was going to be a fostering, advisory board whose interest was co-ordination, not supervision. By 1903 Daniells was speaking as though he still held the “advisory concept of the GC executive committee. But in practice no longer was its role merely advisory. A change of attitude had taken place.”

His last point was the need for adaptability and flexibility to the fulfillment of the mission of the church. “Not everything is to be done the same way everywhere. When there is no direct “Thus saith the Lord” the Church must be flexible if it is to be true to its reason for existence.”

Round table discussions followed each presentation with prepared questions provided for suggested conversation starters.

Retired historian George Knight was up next. He asked how the Seventh-day Adventist Church went from distaining church organization in its earliest days to becoming one of the most highly organized churches in Christian history. Knight said that James White helped to shape two transformational moments. Early Adventists feared “Babylon” which was seen as the persecuting power of organized churches. But in the 1850s, James White began to emphasize an alternate meaning of Babylon. According to Knight, White let it be known that he was sick and tired of the cry of Babylon whenever anyone mentioned organization. “Bro. Confusion makes a most egregious blunder in calling a system, which is in harmony with the Bible and good sense, Babylon. As Babylon signifies confusion, our erroring brother has the very word stamped upon his own forehead. And we venture to say that there is not another people under heaven more worthy of the brand of Babylon than those professing the Advent faith who reject Bible order. Is it not high time that we as a people heartily embrace everything that is good and right in the churches?” he quotes White writing. Knight said that new emphasis by White toward understanding Babylon as confusion went far in paving the way for the “Sabbatarians to organize as a religious body, legally own property, pay pastors on a regular basis, assign pastors to locations where they were needed, and develop a system for transferring membership”.

The second transformation that helped Adventists to organize had to do with “moving beyond the biblical literalism of White’s earlier days when he believed that the Bible must explicitly spell out each aspect of church organization. In 1859, James White argued that “we should not be afraid of that system which is not opposed by the Bible, and is approved by sound sense.” Knight said with this White came to a new hermeneutic that moved “from a principle of Bible interpretation that held that the only things Scripture allowed were those things it explicitly approved to a hermeneutic that allowed for developments that did not contradict the Bible and were in harmony with common sense.

“Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle Over Authority + 9.5 Theses,” was the title of Knight’s talk. He began and ended with references to this, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenburg Castle Church door. While there is much talk of Luther’s emphasis on salvation by faith, Knight said Luther’s action was meant to contest the authority the Catholic Church had assumed over God’s authority. Similarly he said, the Adventist Church discussion of ordination prioritizes church authority over God’s calling. It is God who calls individuals to the ministry, he emphasized. For the church to insist on its own authority over God’s calling is similarly destructive.

In his tour of recent Adventist church history since 1980, Knight talked of the significance of the model union conference constitutions and bylaws to enforcing conformity and how they became increasingly restrictive with non-negotiable words printed in bold. Knight faulted the General Conference leadership for not appropriately presenting the findings of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee to the General Conference Session in San Antonio, and most recently in voting an action at the Annual Council of 2016 that essentially created new policy to deal with the unions that have ordained women when policy already exists to handle the situation.

He stopped his recent story to say that the originator of Adventist church structure claimed in 1874 that “organization was designed to secure unity of action, and as a protection from imposture. It was never intended as a scourge to compel obedience.”

To close, he returned to Martin Luther’s example and offered his own 9.5 thesis on church reformation saying “The current atmosphere of confrontation in Adventism has not been brought about by the unions, but by the General Conference leadership and its non-biblical and manipulative tactics.” He said, “the October 2017 meetings may help the worldwide Adventist Church decide whether it wants to move more toward an Adventist Ecclesiology or toward a more Roman variety. Also, “The so-called nonconforming unions must stand together, come into line with General Conference demands or go down one by one.”

You can download the individual papers on the Unity Conference website here. Additionally, the next issue of Spectrum (Vol. 45, No. 2) will be a special edition containing all of the papers from the conference.


Bonnie Dwyer is Editor of Spectrum.

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