The majority of the Seventh-day Adventist world church, now located in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, have been under centuries of political, religious, and family hierarchy structures, and in some places more than others, the corruption and abuse of power of politicians and religious leaders have influenced and shaped a culture that is not able to assimilate life in any other way. Our current church conflict mostly lies over an improper understanding of representative church governance1 that in practice is only a mere reflection of a culture that reflects this influence.
In North America and Eastern Europe territories on the other hand, where the representative model is much more familiar and better practiced, hierarchical imposition of uniformity by a mere majority vote is considered nonsense. Thus, world church unity is at risk due to a great breach of cultural understanding and practice of representative governance.
The hierarchical territories of the world church demand that everyone be ‘obligated’ to conform to the ‘higher authority,’ while a ‘true-representative’ model allows for ‘unity in diversity’ with room for independence and/or variance without being out of compliance or considered rebels; the system allows for such separate yet unified action or actions.
This is one of the main reasons why the GC feels empowered by the majority, to undo the very core structure of representative church governance adopted in 1901,2 which I may add, was supported by our own Ellen G. White under a similar circumstance in which the president of the GC and a few of his administrators exercised too much ‘kingly power’ that the new representative system would eliminate.
Recently, the General Conference has moved to take more authority and the territories in the minority have started to react by publishing articles, open letters, and making official statements, while the majority would not even think to speak against the maximum authority, for it’ll be considered an act of disrespect and direct attack to God that is represented under the higher authority.
The Real Problem
What is the real problem behind a GC president feeling very confident in how he is leading the world church in this hierarchical, kingly power-like direction?
The heart of the problem lies in that about 90%3 of the world church membership is outside of the North America and Western European territories. If you live in the 10% minority territory just digest for a moment: you practically have little or no influence anymore! That’s why I was not surprised by the results of the survey of the world leadership4 recently conducted by the GC where the majority supported a top-down compliance control and the president therefore acted very confidently towards pursuing a hierarchical reorganization.
I’m writing this paper as one who comes from that newer majority territory of the world church and at the same time as one who has lived, learned, experienced, and enjoyed the new minority and their understanding of representative governance model. So, bear with me as I will try to explain the cultural mindset of Latin America: SAD (South American Division) and IAD (Inter-American Division). It is not my intention to hurt anybody in particular as this is not a personal attack to anyone or to any part of the organization. This is just a simple description of facts as I have personally experienced and I’m willing to be corrected. This is not a generalization either since I know of people, especially the younger generation, who do not participate in this hierarchical pattern.
If you haven’t lived in a Latin American country for a significant period of time (not just visited or read about it) you would have a hard time understanding the hierarchical mindset that for hundreds of years has subjugated this culture. Spaniards conquered Inter American and South American territories and imposed the Catholic religion while killing people ‘in the name of God’ if they did not convert to Christianity. Thousands of Indians were robbed of their riches, lands, and freedom. They used fear through the Inquisition5 and other torchers to accomplish ‘unity’ and ‘obedience’ to the church hierarchical governance structure and beliefs. This is how Christendom6 was brought to this continent.
In politics these countries elect the most unexpected leaders, many (if not all) of them corrupt. Socialist ideology permeates in some countries and citizens that have never personally experienced the horrors of a political perfect storm, socialism and corruption, which is a synonym for ‘abuse of power,’ continue to abound.
In religion, the majority of Latin America continues to be largely Catholic7 and thus hierarchy and the concept of ‘maximum church authority’ is imbedded in the minds of the population and not completely abandoned by those who convert to Adventism. I say this because the concept of ‘reverence’ for example is not much different than the Catholic medieval imposed control concept that also offers reverence to their priests all the way to their ‘maximum authority’: The Pope.8
At home, the concept of hierarchy, although not as bad with the new generations, still reflects the patriarchal model where men are in control and women are ‘under’ or have less authority, and in some cases no authority. Unfortunately, this concept many times is defended with the Bible when several texts are taken out of cultural and situational contexts.
Why isn’t the abuse of authority labeled “Non-Compliant”?
The picture turns more difficult to grasp when we look at the day-to-day operations of our churches, pastoring, and administration. One day I asked one of my friends who was a dean at one of our schools of theology, “What are you preparing your students to be?” He was confused about my ‘obvious’ question. Eventually he answered: “To be pastors!” I said to him: “Nope, you’re not preparing pastors, you’re sending ‘collectors’ instead.”
If you live in South and Central American territories, most if not all of our local church pastors are obligated to distribute what they call the “evangelistic book of the year,” or quarter! As well as other publications depending on the Conference or Union mandates. The regional church printing press produces a set number of books that every pastor must impose to their members. Furthermore, in most regions (if not all), the cost of these books is being deducted from the pastor’s paycheck to make sure he distributes them and if he can’t collect he may end up with no salary until everyone pays him back for the books. So, church members sometimes hide from their pastors like they do from collectors. How sad is this? Can you imagine trying this practice in North America or Europe? Several employers of our church would end up in jail for breaking human resource and payroll laws. Not so in Latin America.
Furthermore, the tithe of every church employee is automatically deducted! Never an opportunity for individuals to personally worship through giving. I have personally asked several leaders why they do this. Their answer was, “It has always been done this way.” Someone even told me, “we will go broke if we don’t do this because people won’t return their tithe!” Really? If a pastor or a church administrator is not convinced to return tithe and offerings then they should not hold a church position! If you don’t believe in an organization to the point of giving your resources then you shouldn’t be part of it: is a personal decision!
What about labor abuse? This is a very common and normal way of doing business in Latin America and not any different in our church institutions, unfortunately. One day, while visiting South America, I was surprised that one friend came home around 11:00 p.m. after work. I naively said, “Wow, you’re surely going to have a bigger paycheck this week with all the over time?” My friend looked at me like if I was drunk or something, and said, “Are you crazy? Do you think that they will ever do that? Even worse, if I don’t complete this last-minute project I was given today and due tomorrow, I will be fired for not being loyal to the work of God! I know you want things to be right, but here we can’t do much about our realities, we’re stuck and if we don’t obey we don’t have a job, and then we can’t feed our families.” How horrible is this? Can we please add this to the “Non-Compliance” list as well?
Pastors wives are given what we would call in this side of the world a ‘job description.’ An itinerary of all of what they are required to do but without pay. It is not a matter of choice, it is an obligation! I call this a modern way of camouflaged slavery. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the wife of a pastor supporting her husband. After all, when someone marries a pastor there’s a certain amount of understanding that she is going to be in the spotlight. But for a local Conference or Union to dictate what they must do or else is just another cultural practice that some wives and pastors are not very happy with, but they can’t speak out, they have to keep quiet to protect the husband’s job.
Is this ethically correct? Furthermore, at the most recent worker’s meeting the South American Division requested that every employee and pastor sign an ethics document in front of a notary (I guess to make sure they know the seriousness of the authority their superiors have). In this document, which is spiritually well-dressed, every worker is expected to surrender any books they’ve written and all musicians are required to give up all royalty rights to the church, among other things. Now, there are some companies that have the right to do this but it is not forced, it is a matter of choice. In reading this ethics document I don’t see any of the above-discussed labor abuse addressed at all. Why are they so preoccupied with making people sign an ethics document when their own leaders are being unethical with their labor abuses and human rights practices? Can we continue to blame culture? How long are these practices going to continue? It’s totally out of compliance no matter what culture you’re in.
We don’t have the space to discuss the case of lifetime appointed leaders that remain in their leadership positions like a Pope or a Supreme Court judge. I’m not sure that this is very healthy with any organization, even worse in our church. One time one of these leaders expressed the correct concept of a servant leader when I interviewed him to complete a research paper on the subject. He said, “it is easy to try to keep a position when you know that a younger person could do a better job than you. That’s when you are tested, when you’re willing to be a servant leader. It is hard to repeat the words of John the Baptist when he said ‘He must increase and I must decrease’!” Wow! How inspiring! My question to this leader is: Can you apply this principle in your own life? Why don’t you give an opportunity to another younger and able leader? I’ve known this leader since I was a college student and he was still holding this high and influential position (and I’m a grandpa now). “…whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.” Matthew 23:3
A very delicate situation of sexual harassment to a minor was confessed to me while visiting one of our institutions as a speaker. I knew I could not get anywhere since not even the nation had sufficient legal support to protect this delicate case. Eventually this situation ended up protecting the aggressor and getting rid of the minor to avoid a scandal among the institution. I felt so helpless and sorry for the victim. But it is sad to say that this is just one of many situations that are the ‘normal’ in a patriarchal and hierarchical culture.
Since the majority of our church membership is located among cultures of patriarchal and hierarchical structures, their leaders will continue to carry ‘business as usual’ and will have a hard time and little regard for understanding the demands to respect representative, non-centralized governance that currently is supposed to be able to resolve our cultural differences. This is not to say that in North America and Europe things are 100% perfect.
Should we then bow down to the majority of the world church? Should we allow the majority for the sake of democracy to practice discrimination? Let’s not forget that at one point Christian protestant pilgrims in North America, with the Bible in hand, practiced human slavery of Black people, they also killed Native Americans and took away their land. They later practiced segregation and discrimination which has not yet ended. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past. A woman is not a second-class citizen and surely is not second class in God’s creation. There are not hierarchies in God’s kingdom.
Two years ago, I was listening to a Muslim Mosque leader speak to us right after the San Bernardino terrorist attack at Loma Linda University. He explained how pacifistic and culturally-inclusive their message is, so I asked him, “Why did your parishioner act so aggressive to the point of killing innocent people right before Christmas if your message is contrary to what he did?” He responded, “Not all Muslims read and understand the Qur’an in the same way as we wish they did.” Wow! That was a blow to my face because we as Christians have the same problem. Even more damaging, some of our leaders sincerely study their Bibles and decide they will understand it in a very particular and different way and will carry on with their agenda to the point of damaging the church! May God forsake them, and perhaps I should be spared by Jesus’ grace if I’m found wrong, too.
A year and a half ago, I conducted a survey to our Latin American church members regarding the issue at stake: women’s ordination, among other influential topics. The results do not reflect what the church leaders are voting. The majority (52%) approve the ordination of women to the ministry while 48% oppose. However, out of the 48% who oppose, 20% of those will not object that other territories ordain women, which increases the majority approval rate. Only 36% of those who oppose do it on a personal biblical study.9 However, the majority of the TOSC study group determined that this is not a theological issue,10 even if those who oppose continue to argue the point.
It is time for a change. Let us please stop this struggle over who has power over whom, to stop this nonsense system of oversight committees that instead of accomplishing unity will only bring about more distraction to our mission. I know the current GC approach is just business as usual outside of NAD and Europe, but this really will not fix our current problems. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” Philippians 2:5-7 (NKJV). “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you…” Matthew 20:25-26 NKJV.
Notes & References:
1. A recent survey conducted in Latin America also demonstrated a lack of understanding of representative governance model: https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2017/07/11/latin-america-narrowly-supports-women%25E2%2580%2599s-ordination
2. “The Role of Union Conferences in Relation to Higher Authorities” in Spectrum Magazine website, October 7, 2016. http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2016/10/07/role-union-conferences-relation-higher-authorities
Hugo F. Chinchay Sr., MBA, is recently retired from Loma Linda University School of Religion and is currently in the MDiv program at La Sierra University.
Image Credit: Unsplash / Jeppe Hove Jensen
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