Geography makes a world of difference in how Seventh-day Adventists define church. As Adventists, we all believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ; we have the same belief about what happens when we die; we are all committed to the idea of sharing the gospel with those who don’t know Jesus. The list goes on. But exactly how we go about doing church and how we view church authority is radically different depending on where we live. As a delegate, I was fascinated with watching these differences play out during the General Conference, especially on the ordination of woman as deacons, required church business meetings and passion.
Ordination of Women as Deacons
Much of the session was spent debating proposed changes to the Church Manual something that can only be done at the General Conference in session. There were ninety-five proposed changes and all except ordination of deaconesses looked perfunctory. Given the history of ordination for women pastors and elders I expected this to be contentious, but had no idea it would play out the way it did. The original proposal would have allowed the ordination of deaconesses at the discretion of the individual thirteen world divisions. Early in the debate a delegate from the Netherlands proposed modified language that would require ordination of deaconesses to be the same as it is required for deacons. The debate on this new language was vigorous on both sides. When it was time to vote, I assumed it would be defeated. In less than eight minutes there were two votes and the modified language treating male and female deacons equally became part of the church manual. This did not please General Conference leadership.
Over several days, there were a number of other items that were referred back to the session Church Manual committee.(1) The meeting was open to all delegates, though only the committee members could vote.
One of the issues discussed was the deaconess vote. The GC leadership continued to be concerned many of the delegates did not really understand what they approved and there were likely to be problems in some divisions. Ultimately, the decision was made not to revisit the issue, but rather to leave some wiggle room in a companion section of the Manual. There is a fear that in some parts of the world this issue alone could drive members out of the church and into one of the fringe movements that rub shoulders with Adventism. While perhaps being an issue for some in the western world, certainly no one would flee to a fringe movement.
While I am glad leadership honored the vote I was also pleased they were concerned with the cultural sensitivities. It also occurred to me that perhaps we are approaching a time where the non-western world, now the majority, will need to be sensitive to the Western World.
Kone Allah-Ridy, from the West-Central Africa Division, waits to speak at the GC Session. [Photo: Gerry Chudleigh/ANN]
Church Business Meetings
The old Church Manual recommended business meetings should be held either monthly or quarterly, but had no requirement for regularly scheduled meetings. In practice many churches in North America hold business meetings only when necessary. There was a sense that a specific standard needed to be specified and it was proposed that each church be required to have a business meeting at least once per year, but could be held more often at the discretion of the pastor and or church board. The moment debate opened delegates lined up to speak.
Undersecteary Homer Trecartin, reads from the Church Manual. [Photo: Robert East/ANN]
Church leaders from non-western countries pleaded to have the manual require meetings more than once a year. A motion was made for quarterly meetings. It was discussed and went down to defeat. Immediately a new proposal was made requiring two meetings per year. After further vigorous discussion it too was defeated and ultimately the annual meeting requirement won.
The curious thing about this whole debate though, was the difference in how the Church Manual is used and perceived in various parts of the world. The reason leaders wanted to increase the frequency was that it would ensure members would come to business meetings. In many parts of the world, face-to-face meetings are more critical, mail service is not as efficient, literacy rates are lower, there is a lack of internet, and other technologies, making communication more difficult. For many of these countries the Church Manual has almost the status of cannon law. If the pastor or the conference calls a business meeting and it is not required in the manual, members may not show up. If it is required by the manual, they will show up. In the western world the manual is treated more as an adviser or perhaps a description of best practices. As several speakers pointed out, in many western churches increasing the frequency of required meetings would likely be a burden on members and decrease attendance.
Each day’s session started at 8:00 AM with a one hour devotional. I was up early to attend most, but I confess not all, even though they had some of the best speakers during General Conference. While in session, delegates were asked to sit with our divisional delegations. As a member of the North American Division delegation, I note that for the morning sessions our section had a significantly smaller attendance than any of the other world divisions.
Delegates Rachelle Chapman, from the South Pacific Division, and Steve Moran (in orange shirt) from the North America Division vote during the Thursday morning business meeting. [Photo: Robert East/ANN]
In the evenings each division showed a short video highlighting what God was doing in their part of the world. Inter-America’s report told the story of how on a single day there was a division wide initiative to feed the needy. In a single day they provided one million meals. While they are the largest division with 3.2 million members they are also one of the poorer divisions and still accomplished this selfless feat. This same division is also baptizing more new members each year than any other division. I could not help but wonder if we, who live in North America, who have much more abundance, could or would support such an effort to think of serving the poor as evangelism. Given our membership, it would require a coordinated effort to make and serve about 300,000 meals in a single day to match what they did. I know we have the resources, but I am not sure we have the will.
Finally we have this curious delicate balance. North America contains less than 7% of the world church membership but still provides approximately 50% of the General Conference funding. There are things we can and should learn from each other. If we in the western world could capture the passion for spreading the gospel we could transform our communities. If those outside the western world could have cultural sensitivity to the western world it would be much easier to address things like the ordination of women and the authority of the church manual.
Steve Moran works in Silicon Valley. He is the head elder of his church and a member of the Central California Conference Executive Committee.
Top Photo: Robert East/ANN
1. This committee exists only for the duration of the General Conference session to address issues or amendments that are to complex to be done on the main delegate floor. They make recommendations that are brought back to the body of delegates for debate and voting.