The Seventh-day Adventist Church is living through interesting and difficult times. For the past three years much of its top administrative energy has been spent on the issue of compliance as the road to unity.
Before beginning the first major section of this paper I will set forth several thoughts that should be self-evident.
• A true Christian church is a voluntary society. People join it, and even work for it, because they desire to and feel called of God.
• The only basis for Christian unity is the clear teaching of the Bible, mutual trust, and the love of God.
• Unity and compliance are not the same thing. Compliance may be forced but genuine unity can never be forced.
• Christian unity is never based on distrust, fear, threats, punishment, or shaming.
• Ellen White had it right historically when she wrote that “the very beginning of the great apostasy was in seeking to supplement the authority of God by that of the church” (GC pp. 289-290).
• Throughout history the only times churches have had to use force or threats of force to create unity is when they lacked a clear word from the Lord.
• Such is the unfortunate case in the Adventist Church in 2018.
• As a result, it is with sadness that I feel compelled to write yet another article on the current crisis in Adventism. As a church we need to not only admit the seriousness of the issues that the denomination is facing, but our leaders will need the courage of the prophets and apostles to face them firmly.
In passing, two positive points should be noted. First, Thomas Lemon, the general vice president of the General Conference who chaired the Unity Oversight Committee up through Annual Council 2017, indicated to that body that as part of his responsibilities he had visited with the administrators of three divisions deemed to be out of compliance regarding women’s ordination (WO). Lemon said of his visits that “there was not one person who gave any hint of being in rebellion….Concern but not rebellion. We are children of God and we are in this together….I heard an understanding of mission and a commitment to mission that would warm your heart. Commitment to mission is very, very strong” among those asserted to be noncompliant on WO. A second positive fact to recognize as the denomination moves toward Annual Council 2018 is that all parties in the current Adventist difficulty believe in the necessity of ecclesiastical authority in the world church. The ongoing debate relates to the proper and improper uses of authority at the various levels of administration.
The Adventist FBI
The “text” for this section is “as circumstances warrant, this process may be used as a model by other levels of church organization.” That quotation comes from a July 17, 2018, action of the General Conference Administrative Committee (ADCOM) titled “Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions” that is to come up for vote at Annual Council 2018. That document had been preceded by one released on April 11 by the General Conference leadership and division presidents titled “An Invitation to Uplift Jesus.” The April release had extremely little to say about uplifting Jesus (unless uplifting Jesus is interpreted as uplifting the very obvious bias of the writers of the document), and a great deal to say about what some at the top believe to be heresies. While it was directed at independent ministries, it put on notice those who did not line up with the selected issues, interpretations, and biases of the document that they could not expect approval of the church. It signaled an aggressive stand against those designated by those in power to be in theological noncompliance, and thus set the stage for the July 17 document that described the procedures that would be used to bring those church leaders into line who were deemed to be out of “compliance.” While beginning with “the administrative level of the Church closest to the matter,” cases of recalcitrant noncompliance would end up at “the appropriate General Conference Review Committee,” which could warn and reprimand and eventually recommend removal of the offender.
The July 17 document that set up the procedures was followed by an August 14, 2018, ADCOM action establishing five General Conference review committees, with responsibilities for overseeing infractions of 1) General Conference Core Policies; 2) Doctrine, Policies, Statements, and Guidelines for Church Organizations and Institutions Teaching Creation/Origins; 3) Doctrine, Policies, Statements, and Guidelines Regarding Homosexuality; 4) Distinctive Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church; and 5) Doctrine, Policies, Statements, and Guidelines Regarding Issues of Ordination.
The least one can say is that the August document represents a massive amount of investigative machinery and places the denomination’s top administrators in a parallel role to the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation, America’s foremost investigative and law enforcement agency). One only has to wonder how the denomination has managed to get along in relative unity without it for more than 150 years. One is also left to wonder why these five areas (particularly numbers 2, 3, and 5 — the last of which is not even a biblical issue) were chosen when there are probably dozens of other excellent candidates for possible investigative committees. For true compliant enforcement it seems that every form of noncompliance should have its own committee. In fact, I believe that I personally could have a field day in coming up with a score or so of additional areas that could call for the investigation of those suspected to be out of compliance with the Working Policy (and I suppose the Bible). But then I guess somebody at a higher level than me has to select the really important things to enforce. The main thing seems to be that we have something to enforce.
As I read the July 17 document several sentences jumped off the page. First, “all perceived non-compliance shall officially be identified and reported by the Administrative Committee of a conference and/or union and/or division successively to the next higher organization” (italics supplied). I am not exactly certain of all that entails, but it does seem to imply that we had best be watching one another and reporting what we find. And the sentence is not limited in its focus. It plainly states that “all perceived non-compliance” is to be “identified and reported.” That ought to keep the investigative types busy. The denomination might actually have to hire more investigators to fulfill that order. Not to report “all” would be an act of noncompliance in itself.
A second sentence that caught my attention was the last one: “As circumstances warrant, this process may be used as a model by other levels of Church organization.” Now there is a thought that challenges one to work out its consequences. After all, it sets forth the idea that the investigative system established in Silver Spring could also be helpful in each of the divisions. But if it is good for the divisions, it only follows that such machinery should be set up in each union, each conference, and perhaps in each local church. Now I am not sure if all five committees could be set up at each level, but the July 17 document seems to imply it.
The grand result could be viewed positively as a change of mission and focus for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. With all that machinery we might not have time for much else but watching one another at every level and reporting our findings to the next highest level. That should be guaranteed to stamp out noncompliance and establish “unity.” That brings me to the Sticky Wicket Thicket.
The Sticky Wicket Thicket
When I came up with that title I wasn’t exactly certain what a Sticky Wicket Thicket was, but I surmised that once voted into denominational law, the July 17 action could create a massive complex of issues (a thicket) that could have unintended and hidden consequences. That is, it could get sticky for some who voted for it, since now the machinery would be in place for all kinds of investigations into noncompliance besides those specified in the five committees. Since then, Merriam-Webster has come to my aid in defining a “sticky wicket” as “a difficult problem or situation.”
The “text” for this part of my presentation comes from Testimonies for the Church: “In no conference should propositions be rushed through without time being taken by the brethren to weigh carefully all sides of the question. Because the president of a conference suggested certain plans, it has sometimes been considered unnecessary to consult the Lord about them. Thus propositions have been accepted that were not for the spiritual benefit of the believers and that involved far more than was apparent at the first casual consideration…. Many, 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” (9T, p. 278, italics supplied).
Now it must be admitted that the big effort the last three years has been largely to discipline those union presidents who have been noncompliant on the single issue of women’s ordination. And some folks can get quite worked up on the topic. But, and here is the sticky part, the focus of the punitive machinery this year may change in the future. And in the process some who voted for the measure could become its next target.
Here is a case in point: I remember last year watching the televised proceedings of the Annual Council. One North American conference president who was dead set against the ordination of women made at least one very forceful speech in favor of the punishment of noncompliance. Yet it had come up in his conference nominating committee that he had been laundering tithe money for a self-supporting institution — an action that is definitely out of harmony (i.e. noncompliant) with the Working Policy. (He was re-elected in spite of the problem, because he was “God’s man.”) He desired the punitive measures to be in place for what he was against, but probably never thought that he could (and should) be the next target. That would be a sticky wicket event.
It is easy to be in a noncompliant situation with the denomination’s massive Working Policy. In 2016, for example, the General Conference Auditing Service found that 81% of the denomination’s units were out of harmony with the denomination’s core financial policies. Some were not serious issues, but others were. At any rate, 81% is a lot of noncompliance. And that 81% represents merely one of myriad ways to be noncompliant.
Even the General Conference president gets tripped up on the multitude of ways one can go wrong. I pointed that fact out last year in another article, in which I noted that the General Conference president was involved in “a case of blatant noncompliance with the Working Policy to punish noncompliance” when he sought to initiate discipline of the “noncompliant unions” at the level of the General Conference when the Working Policy plainly states that it is the business of the divisions.
Unfortunately, what appears to be the defining issue of the present administration thus far has been the General Conference president’s failure to report the findings of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) to the 2015 General Conference Session after paying hundreds of thousands of dollars of tithe funds on the project that was to solve the issue once and for all. But the findings of the carefully selected committee were out of harmony with his ideas on the topic and he did not report them to the session before the divisive vote was taken. He failed to mention that a super majority (62 for and 32 opposed) of the TOSC committee and nearly all of the world division reports favored permitting divisions the option of ordaining women. One result has been ongoing turbulence in the denomination and the three-year search for the proper way to punish noncompliance.
Now I am not saying that the president was out of policy when he ordered the study. He was probably well within the boundaries of the Working Policy on that point. And it could be argued, perhaps with some difficulty, that technically he was not out of harmony with policy when he withheld the information. I would suggest that the point at stake is not policy noncompliance. It is rather moral noncompliance on two counts: 1) wasting sacred tithe money, and 2) wasting three years of additional money and time on the issue when the church should be pulling together to put all of its energy and talent into its assigned mission. In the end, it seems that in the courts of heaven moral noncompliance may be deemed more serious than Working Policy noncompliance.
I could supply more illustrations, but the point has been made. This whole FBI thing is a Sticky Wicket Thicket with a multitude of implications. A friend recently wrote me that “I am not sure the other division leaders would like to have their divisions come under the microscope.” After all, reports of “issues” in some sectors of the church in what used to be thought of as the “mission field” have consistently indicated problematic people and issues. How much FBI work can the denomination tolerate?
Some Concluding Thoughts
While many of us are saddened by the recent initiatives of the current General Conference leadership, others see the same initiatives as a sign of a failed administration. The hard right Fulcrum 7, for example, recently published an article in which it noted that “by forming these five committees, Wilson is surrendering. He realizes that he has lost the battle on discipline and is looking for a way to retreat without appearing to have given up altogether. The time-honored procedure to make something go away is to refer it to a committee. Let’s be clear: no effective discipline of anyone about anything will ever emerge from any of those committees. They’ve been designed and populated with the goal of burying the possibility of meaningful discipline.” They are nothing but “a face-saving retreat, a peace with honor.”
It appears that those folks are the “true believers” who have fueled the not-so-healthy side of the church down through the ages. While I agree with them that we are looking at the signs of a failed presidency, I do not think that we should see the 2018 recommendations as toothless. To the contrary, they are aimed at, and constructed in a manner to be effective with, their chosen victims. After that, of course, as described above, the machinery can be used on whatever target those in power deem to be worthy of its attentions.
At this point I would like to review some of the ideas with which I opened this article:
• The only basis for Christian unity is the clear teaching of the Bible, mutual trust, and the love of God.
• Christian unity is never based on distrust, fear, threats, punishment, or shaming.
• Ellen White noted that “the very beginning of the great apostasy was in seeking to supplement the authority of God with that of the church” (GC pp. 289-290). She might have been wrong on that point, but I doubt it.
• Throughout history the only times churches have had to use force and threats of force to create unity is when they lacked a clear word from the Lord.
We live in serious times. The future shape of Adventism is what is at stake at Annual Council 2018. We need to pray for our church, its General Conference president, and the members of the General Conference Executive Committee that they might think twice (or a dozen times) before voting into policy “laws” that will take all of us down a well-beaten historical road that has always led to some very unchristian procedures in the name of Christ, that has confused spiritual unity with ecclesiastical compliance. May God help His church!
I will close with a few new “memory verses”:
• “Laws and rules are being made at the centers of the work that will soon be broken into atoms….If the cords are drawn much tighter, if the rules are made much finer, if men continue to bind their fellow-laborers closer and closer to the commandments of men, many will be stirred by the Spirit of God to break every shackle, and assert their liberty in Christ Jesus….With [some strong administrators] it is rule or ruin” (EGW, RH, July 23, 1895, p. 465).
• Speaking to the situation in the 1890s, Ellen White wrote that “the General Conference is itself becoming corrupted with wrong sentiments and principles….They were determined to bring the individuals to their terms; they would rule or ruin….
“The high-handed power that has been developed as though position has made men gods, makes me afraid, and ought to cause fear. It is a curse wherever and by whomsoever it is exercised. This lording it over God’s heritage will create such a disgust of man’s jurisdiction that a state of insubordination will result….
“The spirit of domination is extending to the presidents of our conferences. If a man is sanguine [confident] of his own powers and seeks to exercise dominion over his brethren, feeling he is invested with authority to make his will the ruling power, the best and only safe course is to remove him” (TM, pp. 359-362).
• With the long view of history in mind, James White wrote that “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).
• And his wife noted that “the church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and the will, and thus root out disagreement. These resolutions may conceal the discord, but they cannot quench it and establish perfect agreement. Nothing can perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christ-like forbearance” (EGW, Ms 24, 1892, italics supplied).
MAY GOD GRANT ANNUAL COUNCIL 2018 THAT SPIRIT.
An afterthought — three points to be remembered as we move toward Annual Council 2018 are:
1. The initiatives of the GC administration, if voted, will create a toxic environment in the church.
2. No one will be exempt from possible investigation and punitive action.
3. The first victim of this new hierarchical environment is Annual Council 2018, since the September 18 actions have activated two of the committees before the enforcement structures proposed on July 17 have even been voted. Thus AC 2018 has been rendered irrelevant if the September 18 action is not successfully challenged.
These are indeed serious and unprecedented times in the history of Adventism. The GC Executive Committee needs not only to vote down the July 17 proposal but also to disestablish the five committees appointed on August 14.
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).
Image credit: SpectrumMagazine.org
Adventism’s Shocking Fulfillment of Prophecy, Aug. 28, 2018
General Conference Issues Statement on Compliance Committees, Sept. 11, 2018
ADCOM’s Overreach, Sept. 20, 2018
ADCOM Action Renders Annual Council 2018 Irrelevant, Sept. 20, 2018
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