Origins, Culture, and Structure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church: Keys to Understanding the Rejection of the General Conference Compliance Document in the North American Division

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Introduction

To understand the response in the North American Division (NAD) to the "compliance document" voted at the 2018 Annual Council of the General Conference,1 it is important to review core values espoused in the United States.2,3 Previously, a compelling paper explained to the audience in North America the context in Latin America that influenced how members understand their role in relation to the church.4 In contrast, through this paper I aim to contribute to the dialogue by elucidating for the readers around the world, but especially in Latin America, the culture and socio-political-religious context in North America.

Using archival research and key informant interviews, I examine the interaction of religion, culture, and American values, combined with a discussion of the origins of the church and its Protestant roots. Additionally, I review the organizational structure of the church, including analysis of authority and limitations to highlight the underlying reasons for the reaction to what some members in the NAD consider a shift towards a hierarchical and centralized church that is both contrary to the tenets of Protestantism and the original vision for the Adventist Church.

Review of Literature

a. Religion, Culture, and American Values

Religion and culture are intricately related.5 Religion may be part of culture, constitute culture, include and transcend culture, be influenced by culture, shape culture, or interact with culture.6 For example, whereas religion for Jews is about the collective or community and biological heritage, for Protestants it is about personal or individual beliefs.7 Key American values include equality, independence, and individualism, with Thomas Jefferson and John Locke espousing philosophies that would shape public discourse in the United States.8 Similarly, American thought has been influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mills, who argued against the “tyranny of the majority,” a caution against using a simple majority vote when considering the rights of people.9 The commitment to equity, equality, and non-discrimination in the United States, although not perfect, has strengthened over the years. The church in the NAD has also struggled with race and gender issues, at times with mixed results.10

b. Origin of the Adventist Church and Protestant Ethics

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has its cradle in the United States, where people seek above all to protect the freedom of individual conscience and the right to self-determination, with a non-negotiable conviction of not rendering allegiance to any king or submission to any religious figure.11 As a Protestant church, the guiding principle of “sola scriptura” (and not tradition) is also of import.12 Furthermore, the pioneers of the Adventist Church harbored apprehension towards anything autocratic or "institutional." In fact, the Adventist pioneers did not want to establish dogmas or organizational structures, so much so that they did not even want to give a name to the newly formed denomination.13

c. Decentralized Church Organization

It is against this socio-cultural backdrop that the church in 1901, with the support of Ellen G. White, established a decentralized organizational structure consisting of four components (not levels): 1) the local church, 2) the conference (or mission), 3) the union, and 4) the General Conference (GC). Note: Divisions are merely administrative offices attached to the General Conference. Per policy, each of these four structures have specific authority and competencies that cannot be violated or assumed by the others. For example, policies prescribed that the definition of membership or who can exercise a position in the local church falls exclusively within the purview of the local church without interference from the conference. Likewise, the definition or decisions about ordination belongs exclusively to the Unions.14

d. The Vote at the 2015 General Conference Session

The proposal stated that scholars of "the General Conference have carefully studied the Bible and Ellen G. White's writings regarding the ordination of women and have not reached consensus about whether the ministerial ordination for women is affirmed or denied unilaterally.15 That is, the GC considered it pertinent to remind participants that the question was not a theological issue. The specific question reads as follows: “Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? Yes or no.”16 Clearly, the question was simply an administrative proposal to transfer the ordination decisions (of women) to the Divisions (i.e. to the GC). Since the proposal was not approved, it means that there was no change to the existing policy, and, therefore, ordination decisions remain the domain of the Unions.17

Discussion

This section is prepared with a sense of “cultural humility,” a humble and respectful attitude toward people of other cultures while challenging my own personal cultural biases.18

1. Practical Implications of Church Organizational Structures and Authority.

While in the NAD the delimitation of authority and competencies for each of the four denominational structures has generally worked, that has not been the case in other regions. For example, in Latin America, church members tend to believe that the Unions or Conferences (or missions) have authority over the churches.19 Likewise, at the Union level, church members assume that the Union has authority over the Conferences (or missions), and that the Division has authority over the Unions.

This can be seen in the area of financial management, with policies that essentially require that the local church remit 40% of the church offerings (non-earmarked funds) to the conference.20 Members would be surprised that the distribution of funds is not doctrinal and even more astounded to discover that congregations in the NAD keep 100% of their local offering. Interestingly, this variance in administrative policy has not been questioned in current efforts to bring unity and uniformity across the world church.

Observation and key informant interviews exposed the reality that field presidents throughout Latin American regions may often be revered as if they had special powers or authority. First-hand witnessing of the jostling for appointments or “calls” to the “superior or higher level” is indicative of the mindset that the pastor, presidents, or even employees or departmental directors at the conference, unions, divisions or the General Conference, have “greater authority” the “higher” they are in the organizational structure. This perhaps is a product of an inheritance of the culture and Catholic tradition whereby ordination is conferred by ranks: the first level is the ordination of a deacon, the second is the ordination of a priest, and the third is the ordination of a bishop. However, scripture does not support the idea of having different levels or categories of ordination.21

2. Contrasting Cultural Values in the United States and Latin America.

The “compliance document” garnered the support of Inter America and South America, territories that historically are not aligned with Protestantism, including safe-guarding the individual conscience over loyalty to human regulations or institutional structures. Furthermore, the “compliance document” was approved with the support of territories marked by “machismo,” a well-studied cultural phenomenon prevalent among men in Latin America (or of Latin American heritage), that essentially gives men pre-eminence over women.22

This contrasts with the reality of the North American Division, and is why such a "compliance document" will be very difficult to accept. It is not a rejection of the world church or a desire to affect global church unity, but rather, it is rejected because the document and its motivation and intentions contravene the vision of the pioneers of the church of a non-hierarchical and decentralized church in addition to violating key American and protestant values of individual conscience and equality. Attempting to share the gospel in the NAD context, while simultaneously denying women the right of being full and equal partners in Kingdom building without clear scriptural basis, is likely to cause the church significant repudiation and scorn.

3. Theology of Ordination Study Committee.

The theological question regarding women’s ordination was largely answered by the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC). Perspective #1 of ordaining "only qualified men" is the option with the least number of voters, with only 33.7 percent of TOSC members endorsing that option (32 of 95). Options #2 and #3, both favorable to the ordination of women as pastors, was endorsed by 69 percent of the TOSC members (i.e. 40 and 22 of 95, respectively).23,24 The conclusions of the TOSC are even more relevant to the ongoing debate considering that the “compliance document” was approved with an even smaller margin of 185 of 311 voters (59.4%).25


Source: General Conference, Theology of Ordination Study Committee (2014).

Conclusion

Central to understanding the reaction of the church in North America to the “compliance document” and proposals to create vigilance and surveillance mechanisms and compliance committees to "force unity," is to remember the genesis of the church. The analysis included the following considerations:

1. American values: The values of self-determination, independence, and equality that are central to the American identity.

2. Protestant principles: Includes the sanctity of individual conscience, something of extreme importance to Adventists.

3. Institutions: Church members know that their fore-parents, the pioneers of the church, opposed centralized governance and rejected the idea of placing institutions over individuals.

4. Church structure: Members have generational knowledge of the organizational structure established in 1901, with inter-related structures, each with defined and limited authority and competencies.

Recommendations

1. Promote unity through “cultural humility,” which would lead every church member to learn more about others while acknowledging their own cultural prejudice and biases. Cultural humility suggests that there is room to accept variances in administrative and non-doctrinal issues.

2. Translate and disseminate research conducted by the TOSC, which informs the church that the reason for the ongoing debate, ordination of women, is not a theological question.

3. Promote decision-making that is mindful of the “tyranny of the majority,” particularly in non-doctrinal issues. Adventists should be first to speak out against traditional rule-making that values winning over converging.

4. Recognize that the church has not always been on the right side of social issues in the past, which should be a driving factor in ensuring that the same mistakes are not repeated as it relates to women ordination.

5. A renewed emphasis on “servant leadership” should lead to re-imagining the organizational leadership chart of the church, with those entrusted with greater responsibilities depicted at the center or at the bottom to emphasize their support and service/servant roles, but certainly not at the top.

A genuine dialogue is more likely to restore trust and unity, to which this paper hopes to contribute. Now is not the time to criticize or point fingers at our own or at others. Rather, it is prudent to remember the wise words: "Leave them alone, because if this plan or action belongs to men, it will perish; but if it is from God, you cannot destroy them; lest you find yourself fighting against God" (Acts 5:38-39).

 

Notes & References:

1. The official title of the document is Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions.  However, the document is called “compliance document” by the official church news organization, Adventist News Network. Retrieved from https://news.adventist.org/en/all-news/news/go/2018-10-14/annual-council-delegates-vote-to-adopt-compliance-document/

2. North American Division (2018). North American Division 2018 Year-end Meeting Response to the Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions. Retrieved from https://www.nadadventist.org/sites/default/files/2018-11/Writing%20Committee%20Report-Final.rev__0.pdf

3. For Latin American audience, additional information regarding the context of the birth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church can be obtained from a book in Spanish by Enoch de Oliveira entitled La Mano de Dios al Timón (God’s Hands at the Wheel) ISBN-10: 1611613418

4. Chinchay, H. (2018). Why the General Conference and Church Leaders Support Hierarchy? Retrieved from https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2018/why-do-general-conference-and-world-church-leaders-support-hierarchy

5. Hopkins, D. N. (2005). Being human: Race, culture, and religion. Fortress press

6. Saroglou, V., & Cohen, A. B. (2011). Psychology of culture and religion: Introduction to the JCCP special issue. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology42(8), 1309-1319.

7. Cohen, A. B., & Hill, P. C. (2007). Religion as culture: Religious individualism and collectivism among American Catholics, Jews, and Protestants. Journal of Personality75(4), 709-742.

8. Those new to American history may gain additional insights by becoming familiar with Thomas Jefferson and John Locke and their philosophy on role of government. For an introduction, read Foundations of American Government: http://www.ushistory.org/gov/2.asp

9. Josephson, P. B. (2014). Tyranny of the Majority. The Encyclopedia of Political Thought, 3747-3748

10. Hollancid, Cleran, "Seventh-Day Adventists and ‘Race’ Relations in the U.S.: The Case of Black-White Structural Segregation" (2016). Dissertations. 1419. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/dissertations/1419

11. The intent here is not to glorify American values. The author recognizes the prophetic role that the United States will have as described by the Spirit of Prophecy.

12. Donkor, K. Contemporary Responses to Sola Scriptura: Implications for Adventist Theology. In Biblical Research Institute General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved from http://adventistbiblicalresearch.org/sites/default/files/pdf/Contemporary_Responses_to_Sola_Scriptura_0.pdf

13. General Conference, Office of Archives, Statistics and Research (2016). About the name Seventh-day Adventist. Retrieved from https://www.adventistarchives.org/about-the-name-seventh-day-adventist

14. For a comprehensive analysis of the policies and regulations of the church and its form of governance, please read a seminal article by Dr. Garry Patterson entitled What is Happening with the Ordination of Women as Pastors. Retrieved from https://atoday.org/analysis-of-what-is-happening-with-the-ordination-of-women-pastors/

15. White, J. (2015). The Ordination Question Before General Conference 2015 Delegates. Retrieved from https://www.scribd.com/document/270047490/The-Ordination-Question-Before-General-Conference-2015-Delegates

16. Ibid

17. Chudleigh, G. (2013). Who Runs the Church. Understanding the Unity, Structure, and Authority of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Retrieved from https://session.adventistfaith.org/uploaded_assets/454468

18. Tervalon, M., & Murray-Garcia, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: A critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of health care for the poor and underserved9(2), 117-125

19. Many of the “local fields” in Latin America are organized as “missions” as opposed to “conferences,” which may have implications for power and authority and how local churches relate to missions or how missions related to the Union.

20. Inter-American Division. Inter-America: 60-20-20 Giving Plan Proves Successful. Retrieved from https://www.interamerica.org/2007/10/inter-america-60-20-20-giving-plan-proves-successful/

21. Jankiewicz, D. (2013). The Problem of Ordination: Lessons from Early Christian History. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1078&context=theology-christian-philosophy-pubs

22. Mayo, Y. (1997). Machismo, fatherhood and the Latino family: Understanding the concept. Journal of Multicultural Social Work5(1-2), 49-61

23. General Conference, Study Committee (2014) Theology of Ordination. Retrieved from https://www.adventistarchives.org/final-tosc-report.pdf

24. The TOSC was not designed to be “representative” of geographic regions. Instead, it represented respected scholars and church administrators that were charged with studying the matter of women’s ordination. The fact that it did not include “equal” number of representatives from each geographic region should not detract from the research and findings.

25. North American Division (2018). Document Voted at Annual Council Outlines process for Dealing with Non-Compliant Church Entities. Retrieved from https://www.nadadventist.org/news/document-voted-annual-council-outlines-process-dealing-non-compliant-church-entities

 

Ed McField is a PK (Pastors Kid), son of missionaries who served in Inter-American Division for over 30 years. He has worked and lived in several countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. He consults on healthcare administration and conducts research on social and public policy, culture, and health, with a focus on vulnerable populations. He is an active church member.

Image: Pexels.com

 

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