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Viewpoint: A Time to Mourn – The Death of the General Conference


In 1966, the late, great folk-singer Phil Ochs joined Allen Ginsberg in famously declaring the Vietnam War over. His pronouncement occurred nearly three years before Nixon got around to pulling out American troops and nine years before the actual end of the war. In explaining this seeming foolishness, Ochs said:

At a certain point you keep saying, ‘indecent, indecent,’ and the words lose their meaning. It’s just the sound of syllables; it’s not a word any more. So last June, some of us in America declared the war over from the bottom up and celebrated the end of the war. We’ve been celebrating ever since… It is the use of absurdities, the use of a form of street theater, rather than just straight moral protest. The use of the theatrical is changing reality in your heads.”

For Ochs, announcing the war over was not irrationality, but a moral imperative, an act of empowerment. It was a responsibility to envision the end of unjust violence and, in imagining it to be so, to help make it a reality. 

When I was asked to join the RIP GC: An Adventist Funeral team, I understood the undertaking to be one of protest against a church system that now stands in the way of the very essence of the gospel. However, declaring the General Conference (GC) and its moral authority dead is much more than simply using absurdities. The assertion carries with it a wide range of theological and emotional significance, particularly for those who have been deeply hurt at the General Conference’s hands. Their experiences must not be overlooked. Further, this protest must be informed by those who know first hand what it means to be systematically disempowered and excluded from their congregations and communities.

What follows does not represent a definitive stance of the RIP GC leadership team. Rather, it is my understanding of the Seventh-day Adventist administrative body’s delinquency in upholding the gospel, and its failure to the people it has shunned and hurt. It is a call to join and hear their voices, to act in power and protest.

Fundamental to Christianity are the connected concepts of reconciliation and liberation. The entire Christian narrative hinges on the idea that God has created and interacted with the world for the purpose of reconciling humanity with the divine, with each other, and with the whole of creation. However, the world as it is impedes that kind of unity.

Human political, economic, theological, and cultural systems fight against the reconciliation of Christ. Christians are called to the work of liberation, to the tearing down of oppressive systems and to the ideological freedom provided by such acts. It is on this theological foundation that I say the General Conference is dead.

I do not mean this idealistically in some imagined future. I mean that as a vessel of the life given through Christ, as an agent of moral authority to discuss the will of God, the General Conference has worked against the gospel’s call for reconciliation and is anti-Christian. Therefore, in a very real way, the GC and its moral authority are dead.

Still, any realist can see that General Conference President Ted Wilson and his associates continue to assert their authority as leaders of a Christian movement. The conflicting realities of the General Conference’s demise and its continued assertions of legitimacy present a Christian imperative to tear down the oppressive power structure in an act of righteous liberation. We are called to reconciliation–not with the General Conference, but with the larger body of Christ–those enacting the Kin-dom of God, the community of shalom.

Who Should Be Liberated?

In the creation account, God is said to have made humanity, “In his image” (Gen. 1:27). This places in each person the image of God, regardless of gender, race, sexual identity, or economic status. Therefore, through our encounter with others, we encounter the divine. This is problematic for the Adventist Church, in which individuals are excluded on the basis of gender, race, sexual identity, and economic status. Proverbs 17:5 notes, “Those who mock the poor insult their Maker.”

Anyone who excludes LGBTQ individuals from the church or women from leadership refuses to recognize their dignity and denies the image of God in them.

The biblical narrative offers a similar scenario. When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, their captors considered them less-than-human. They denied their dignity. God demonstrated her character by entering into human politics to liberate them. Therefore, when we ask who should be liberated, the first answer is, those who are excluded, the people who have been arbitrarily marginalized. It is only then that a true image of God can be seen in the church.  

This also does something to the people who have not been excluded; we are also liberated. It offers us an opportunity to see God and to identify where divinity is being oppressed. It changes our perspectives and opens our eyes to the meaning of the gospel.  

The funeral is a space to heal and mourn. Funerals offer rituals of closure that prepare us for life after the funeral. In that sense, this ritual is meant to liberate us all.

We need pastors and congregations faithful enough to boldly speak the gospel, a narrative with political implications. In this case, liberation requires a dive into church politics. Let those with ears to hear listen to the marginalized, and cultivate and strategically wield the political power necessary to fight for the gospel in practical terms.

What Should Be Reconciled?

Some of our critics have said that our form of protest attempts to tear apart what we should consider sacred. They claim that division in the church (meaning the GC) is wrong. I maintain that the GC is not what needs to be reconciled. We don’t need to be reconciled to the GC, we need to be reconciled to God, to each other, and to all of creation. That is the overarching reconciliation intended by the whole of the Christian narrative. Practically, this means understanding ourselves as part of an ecumenical Christian movement and part of the world movement for peace and justice. We must be reconciled to the image of God in the people around us–to the prophets of racial justice, the martyrs of LGBTQ rights, and the saints of feminism.

What Does This Practically Imply?

What does it mean to declare the GC dead? First, it means seeing ourselves free of the General Conference as a theologizing body. In this summer’s General Conference Session we saw an example of how a majority vote ruled against the gospel to exclude women pastors. The gospel does not conform to majority opinion; it is most often found on the margins with the oppressed.

Second, the death of the GC gives us all back our birthright to Adventism, and drops us in the broader, deeper waters of Christianity. Our friends at Church 1.0 in San Francisco are a majority Adventist community outside of the General Conference, a safe space for LGBTQ individuals and others who have been marginalized. With the GC dead, they are no more and no less Adventist than any of us. We are reunited as family. For those hoping for regional jurisdiction on ordination, the power is now in your hands.

Finally, it means we are left to figure out what to do as members of the body of Christ. Perhaps, with the GC’s demise, some will declare Adventism itself dead. Others will walk away from the church. Some will find beautiful hope and help shape a future I am too nearsighted to imagine. The results of the death of the GC are up to you. They require sifting and imagining. They require action and liberation.  

What Future Do We Envision?

Whatever might happen, the death of the GC brings with it a warning for all of us. The death caused by a refusal to see God in the other and a stubborn ambition to exclude could be our death as well. Whatever future we move towards, if it is one of the gospel, it must be most interested in the plight of those on the margins. It must reject oppression and must prioritize Christian service to all.


Sterling Spence is lead singer for the indie folk-rock band, Coyote Bandits, a graduate of La Sierra University (Religious Studies & Business Management), and a student at the Graduate Theological Union (MA Ethics and Social Theory). Sterling grew up in the Pleasant Hill Adventist Academy and Seventh-day Adventist Church near the offices of the Northern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.


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