Is Schism in the Adventist Church Unavoidable?

Is Schism in the Adventist Church Unavoidable?

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Published:
September 27, 2018

Despite the current opposition in the Seventh-day Adventist Church to the equal treatment of women in ministry, equality will eventually become the norm. It is simply a matter of time. In the meantime, the first question is: how much pain and damage will be inflicted on the church in the process? Secondly: Can the church stay united until the equal treatment of women in ministry is accepted as the norm?

I think not.

I will explain the reasons for my pessimistic outlook, but first some background.

No reason to doubt the motives of the General Conference

The motives of the General Conference leadership are clear. They want to see the current crisis resolved and make sure the church stays ‘united’ around a particular set of doctrinal positions. The current proposal to achieve that ‘unity’ is based on an optimistic view of three issues:

1. That the proposal will be voted at Annual Council 2018.

2. That every decision of the General Conference is right and should be adhered to.

3. That the so-called ‘non-compliant unions’ will back down, given enough pressure.

Optimism regarding the first point may be warranted. Optimism regarding the two last points is not.

The proposal will be voted

The General Conference leadership seem to be optimistic that the proposal set forth in the document entitled “Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions” will be voted. There seem to be at least three reasons for this optimism.

1. The demographic of the global Adventist family

The General Conference leadership may well be confident that they have the backing of a huge majority of the global membership. The numeric strength of Adventism in the USA, Australasia, and Europe accounts for approximately 10% of the total membership of the world church. (According to the 2017 Statistical Report, the two European divisions, South Pacific Division, and the North American Division had a combined membership of 1,992,830 by December 31, 2016. Global membership stood at 20,008,779). The unions that work for equal treatment of women in ministry represent a tiny minority. The rest of the world church is either against equal treatment of women in ministry or indifferent to the issue.

2. The results of the world survey regarding compliance

The results from the world survey regarding compliance with voted actions of the General Conference show a strong support for some kind of response to non-compliance. These results give the General Conference leadership a reason to believe that their current proposal will be supported.

3. Avoiding the administrative blunders of Annual Council 2017

This year the General Conference has been careful to avoid the administrative blunders that preceded the debate on compliance at Annual Council 2017. The unorthodox way in which last year’s document was put on the agenda and the fact that delegates were not able to read it and reflect on it before they were asked to vote on it, enraged even representatives who perhaps otherwise would have been supportive of the proposal.

So, there may be good reasons why the General Conference leadership is optimistic that their proposals will be voted.

However, there are two presuppositions underlying the proposals that might undermine such optimism.

1. Every action of the General Conference Session is a right decision

The measures suggested in the current proposals for dealing with non-compliance presuppose that all actions of the General Conference Session and Executive Committee are the result of sound thinking, and that they should be adhered to regardless of circumstances. There is strong historical evidence that taking such an optimistic view of General Conference decisions is unwarranted.

Here’s just one piece of evidence. The 1888 General Conference Session took an action that required practical experience in canvassing before a person could enter Bible work or the ministry. Ellen G. White opposed the proposal, to no avail. Later she wrote these words to an evangelist by the name of R. A. Underwood:

It was not right for the conference to pass it. It was not in God’s order, and this resolution will fall powerless to the ground. I shall not sustain it, for I would not be found working against God. This is not God’s way of working, and I will not give it countenance for a moment.—Manuscript Release No. 105, Letter 22, 1889, pp. 10-11. (To R. A. Underwood, January 18, 1889.) {2MR 62.1}

If the current proposals from the General Conference had been in place in 1888, Ellen G. White would have been out of compliance on the issue cited above, and if she had persisted, she might have faced exclusion from the church.

Clearly not every action of the General Conference Session is good, and we do not need Ellen White’s prophetic wisdom to understand that. It is both optimistic and unbiblical to believe that every decision of our democratically elected bodies is inerrant.

2. The non-compliant unions will back down, given enough pressure

Both the General Conference leadership and the most active opponents to equal treatment of women in ministry, believe that unions who are now perceived to be non-compliant will change their stance in response to the severe measures proposed in the document to be put before Annual Council in October.

This is also far too optimistic. Of course it may be that the General Conference leadership is aware that such optimism is unwarranted. If that is the case, the only other explanation for their proposals is that they believe exclusion of these unions will ultimately ‘purify’ the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Some unions have already ordained female pastors to the ministry, other unions have stopped ordaining altogether. Both actions have been made in order to fulfil what these churches believe to be a moral, ethical, and spiritual obligation and do their best to stay in step with the world church. The current proposal includes a three-step model, which begins with a warning, continues with public reprimand, and ends up with a proposal to exclude the entity in question from the sisterhood of churches. It is highly unlikely that any of these unions will begin discriminating against women regardless of the consequences the General Conference is threatening.

This leads me to the pessimistic conclusion that a schism in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is already unavoidable or will become unavoidable if the current proposals are voted at Annual Council.

There are at least three reasons for arriving at the conclusion that a schism is already unavoidable.

1. Exclusion is the logical goal for the proposed procedures

I have already noted that there is no reason to doubt the honorable motives of the men in leadership at the General Conference. However, despite their assurances that they want reconciliation and redemption, and their reports that the “prayerful process continues,” the proposal recommends the use of the most drastic disciplinary measures available to the church. If my analysis is correct and the non-compliant unions do not back down, then a formalization of the existing splits within the church is the only possible outcome of this conflict. A schism will become inevitable.

Some have maintained that the proposals in the “Regard for” document, are a paper tiger. They suggest that the proposals are merely a display of harsh measures. Once the issues are transferred to the compliance committees, they believe that the contentious issues will be forgotten. This is most unlikely.

Once voted, these proposals will have the status of policy even if they are not voted as such. Then the General Conference will be obliged to deliver. If not, the General Conference will be non-compliant regarding its own compliance procedure. The General Conference will be trapped by its own proposal with no way out. The conflict then takes on its own dynamic where no-one can halt the damaging chain of events, because leadership feel they must respect the voted actions.

2. The General Conference has authority over unions only as long as their constituencies permit the GC to have such authority

The second reason for believing that schism is unavoidable is the voluntary nature of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The General Conference has authority over its members only as long as members accept such authority. This applies to the unions, which are the ‘members’ of the General Conference. The same principle certainly applies to individuals. The church does not have any authority over the individual member unless that person accepts that authority.

Because of the process by which the General Conference leadership has handled the situation regarding female pastors post San Antonio, the General Conference has very low credibility with large segments of the membership in Australasia, Europe, and the USA. They see the current proposals as unreasonable and unacceptable. For this reason, many members in these areas have already mentally distanced themselves from the General Conference as an entity to which they would give respect and authority in their lives — and to which they would offer regular financial support. These sentiments would be present in upcoming union constituency meetings across the USA, Europe, and Australasia. Given that situation, it would not be surprising if a union decides to withdraw its membership from the General Conference, even if this is rather unlikely at present.

For now, leaders in the Western countries are probably more inclined to let the proposals from the General Conference run their course and face the possibility of exclusion at a future General Conference Session. It is much easier for leaders to defend an exclusion from the sisterhood of churches than to actively withdraw from that fellowship.

3. Denied room to practice what is regarded as a moral and ethical mandate

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, many Adventists in the West are losing patience. They see equal treatment of women in ministry as a moral, ethical, and spiritual mandate to which they must be true, and they believe that their inability to do this is both hindering the mission of the church and losing them support in the societies they seek to serve.

The work to gain acceptance for this belief in the world church has gone on for many decades. The General Conference Sessions in Utrecht in 1995 and in San Antonio in 2015 rejected proposals for individual divisions to honor the faith of their own constituencies and the needs of mission in their territories in the matter of equal treatment of women in ministry. Since the San Antonio vote, the General Conference administration has rejected two specific requests to create an alternative ministerial credential without regard to gender.

Members in some areas of the church feel that the General Conference has denied them the opportunity to make a legitimate change for too long. They see no signs that the situation will be addressed in a constructive manner any time soon. The result is that many members no longer respect the General Conference and see a split as a better option than seeing their locally elected leaders in whom they have confidence, being humiliated for standing up for human dignity.

A ray of hope

My analysis gives very little reason to believe that a schism within the Seventh-day Adventist Church is avoidable. Nevertheless, it still might be possible to turn things around. Even if the chances are very slim that the General Conference leadership or Executive Committee will use any of the available options in a situation that already seems to be out of control, here are the options I see:

1. The General Conference Executive Committee could reject the current proposal regarding compliance. This is a rather unlikely outcome of the upcoming Annual Council, but it is still possible. If every member of the committee takes personal responsibility for rejecting the proposal, we could still avoid a split church.

2. The General Conference Executive Committee could vote that the General Conference leadership must put forward a proposal for a new ministerial credential without regard to gender to be used in areas where the church decides to use this credential. If a member of the General Conference Executive Committee moves such a proposal, the Committee could not easily brush it aside.

3. The General Conference Executive Committee could vote to begin exploring changes to the General Conference Constitution and Bylaws to ensure greater autonomy within the Divisions. Such a move could possibly keep the church together, albeit in a somewhat looser fashion than the centralized power of the current constitution.

I am sure many Seventh-day Adventists around the globe will be very uncomfortable in reading this analysis and my pessimistic view of the current crisis. Proponents and opponents of equal rights for women in ministry are united in the passionate concern for the church to stay united. However, in the current situation it is vital to analyze the possible outcomes of the proposals that the General Conference leadership is inviting the Executive Committee to accept. The likelihood that the proposals in the “Regard for” document will achieve unity is probably non-existent. We all need to recognize that.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is undoubtedly facing its worst threat to unity in many decades. There is nothing in the current proposals from the General Conference leaders that indicates that we are on track to stay united. However, I still hope and pray that the General Conference Executive Committee has the courage to take the church in a new direction and away from the present disastrous trajectory.

 

Tor Tjeransen has his theological training from Newbold College and holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University. He has served as a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church since 1982. From 2000-2010 he was the president of the Norwegian Union Conference. He is currently serving as the communication director for that union. He is married to Elsie Tjeransen, a Certified Public Accountant. They share a passion for photography and have two adult sons.

Photo by Maxime Le Conte des Floris on Unsplash

 

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