Skip to content

Church Democracy and Orthodox Faith


Church Democracy and Orthodox Faith: Are Claims of Being Democratic Always Supported by a Democratic Mindset?

The words democracy and democratic are, in the Western world, loaded with many positive associations. These words have the flavor of freedom, self-government, and absence of tyranny. We, The People, are independent, not subject to any self-proclaimed authority, whether they be autocratic kings by the grace of God, or any other form of authority not subject to our own will.

Historically, we look back to Athens as the cradle of democracy, even if that society was far from being democratic in our modern sense of the term. Of course, women and slaves were excluded from participating in the political discussions and decisions. Even in more recent times, the new Western democracies were born in class societies that still upheld social distinction between those who were considered “qualified” and “unqualified” to take part in the democratic processes.

Claims and Reality

The official name of former East-Germany was DDR — Deutsche Demokratische Republik. The regime was a suppressive dictatorship, and the STASI (secret police) and their numerous secret informants among the population were continually searching for political dissidents and individuals planning to flee their socialist democratic paradise and seek refuge in corrupt western capitalist countries. To stem the flow of apostates, a wall was built in Berlin, and the border between the two German countries was the most heavily fortified border in Europe. The wall was aptly named “Die Schutzmauer,” a wall of protection against all Western political, cultural, and economic heresies.

In Romania, the democratically elected president, Nicolae Ceaușescu, ruled the country with an iron fist, loyally supported by his SECURITATE secret police, always on the lookout for people that did not submit to the officially approved line of conformity and uniformity. Of course, the country was democratic.

In Albania, considered by Western Communists to be the Bright Beacon of socialism, Enver Hoxha made sure that the beacon shone brightly into every home and institution, so that no heterodox ideas or dissidence were allowed to dim the brightness of the beacon. Of course, this country also displayed a true democracy.

The Soviet-Union thought they were entitled to the democracy label. Their edition was what has been called “democratic centralism.” In this system, local party people were allowed to submit their input to the Central Committee of top leaders, who made all the final decisions and had all real power in their hands. Everyone was required to submit to and obey their decisions. The way this system operated, there were no incentives to promote any idea that was not already firmly in harmony with the ideas and policies of the top leaders. Elections consistently showed popular support to be around 99%, an overwhelmingly strong democratic support. Since no other parties were allowed on the ballot, the results were a given.

However, in the background hovered the specter of the GULAG-archipelago, a network of forced labor camps in Siberia where many people simply vanished, and only a few lived to see their families again. In the local communities, the secret agents of KGB were ever present, searching to discover and capture enemies of the revolution and the state.

Today we still have allegedly democratic countries like DPRK, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, PRC, the People's Republic of China, and the Republic of Cuba, all staging elections and displaying massive popular support in their parade grounds.

Calling yourself democratic apparently does not automatically reflect reality.

The Democratic Mindset

Having a “democratic mindset” is characterized by efforts to allow all opinions and points of view a fair opportunity to speak in the public square, and subjecting all of them to critical evaluation, before a decision is made. If a case is up for a vote, all options will be fairly presented, explained, and evaluated with no bias for one as opposed to the others. The democratic mindset will acknowledge and respect the vital importance of supplying the voters, well ahead of the vote, with all relevant information necessary to cast an informed, well thought-through, and responsible vote.

As the examples mentioned above show, a non-democratic mindset may very well operate forcefully within a system that claims to be democratic. This mindset is characterized by a propensity to decide the issues in advance, openly or in more subtle ways, by “working the system” in such ways as to secure the desired and pre-determined outcome of the formal vote. The system has a formal appearance of being democratic, but in reality it operates on non-democratic principles. We may call this a fake democracy.

In political democratic systems, voting is usually used to settle political questions. In cases where there is general agreement, the votes may give 90-100% support. Such decisions will have a strong democratic base. In cases that are not particularly controversial or very important, a simple majority vote (50% + 1) may be used. Many cases fall in this category.

Some cases are particularly important, involving important principles, like the rights of minorities, or are highly controversial. Such cases demand a “qualified majority vote.” A simple majority vote will not secure sufficient democratic legitimacy. The “qualified vote” requires a majority well over the 50% dividing line. The percentage may vary, but is often a minimum of two-thirds, or 75%, but may also be higher, e.g. a super majority of 90%.

There is a serious risk in using simple majority voting in cases that are complex, controversial, involve principles, or the rights of a minority. Such votes may not supply a sufficient majority to make them democratically legitimate. If a case like this is pressured into the mold of a simple majority vote, the result will be that a minor majority enforces its will on a major minority. We call that a “majority dictatorship.”

For people coming from cultures accustomed to a single powerful authority governance type, this may appear acceptable. Their thinking will tell them, “Let the majority decide,” because they think that a vote in and of itself proves that the whole process is “democratic.”

In mature democracies, the rights of the minority will be accommodated, for the simple reason that the minority is equally a part of the whole as the majority. A true democracy proves its strength in its exceptions, not in draconian rules that aim at stifling dissent and disenfranchise its minorities.

Some people will not participate in activities that go against their conscience. True democracies esteem the value of personal conscience, and will not force them to relinquish it, but rather, as far as possible, accommodate conscientiously held convictions. Examples are schools and universities that reschedule exams for Adventists to other days than Sabbath, workplaces that allow Adventists to have Sabbath off and work on Sundays instead, conscientious objectors that may do civil service instead of military service, and health personnel that will be relieved of their duties and not forced to be involved in abortions.

Is the Church a Democracy?

A religious denomination is not equal to a secular civil society. The main difference is that members of a nation state are either born into that society, or by immigration become naturalized citizens. The first group never had a say in their entry into that society. The second group have voluntarily chosen to become members. Both groups are subject to the laws of the land, and the state has means of coercion that may be applied if they refuse to comply. However, both groups have the option to become refugees and leave the country if they so choose.

A religious denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is basically different. It is a completely voluntary association of, mostly, like-minded people who share a common faith. All its operations are based only on voluntary support and co-operation among its members, and between members and their elected leaders. The church has no power to tax its members and no effectual means of coercing them into anything. Authority is based on membership trust, not divine rights of leaders. Unruly individuals may be disfellowshipped by the local church, but never by any superior authority. The church has no police force, no military, no established judicial system that includes the power to accuse, judge, and punish.

However, in the Middle Ages the Roman Church acquired many of the characteristics of the secular power that we came to call a “state.” The pope was king in his papal lands, and is so today in the country named The Holy See, or the Vatican. The church developed all the paraphernalia of a secular state, laws, courts of justice, taxation, even a separate group of “citizens,” the clergy, being exempted from secular judicial authority. The Church had diplomats assigned to foreign powers, waged wars, recruited mercenary soldiers, and in the mid-1300s about 60% of the expenses of the Avignon papacy were for military purposes. The Roman Church is not, and never was, a democracy.

Hopefully the Seventh-day Adventist Church does not aspire to any of that.

Or does it….? To some degree? In using certain methods of governance? In its appeals to submission and compliance with laws and rules? In documents recommending use of coercion against “rebels”? In erecting a system of surveillance similar to the Medieval inquisition, with both a central and regional network of commissioners tasked to make sure there is no deviance from policies and other rules?

A Spiritual Democratic Mindset

All organizations need some kind of governance structure. But such structures can be widely different. In 1873 “the General Conference adopted George I. Butler’s leadership philosophy, which officially centralized ecclesiastical authority within one person” (Kevin A. Burton's 2015 MA Thesis, “Centralized for Protection: George I. Butler and His Philosophy of One-person Leadership,” p. [3] Andrews University). Later our church thought better of it, and repudiated this notion, but the basic idea remained alive and well until the GC in session in 1901 introduced the present system of unions as a buffer against the concentrated power and dominating aspirations of the GC administration. I will not repeat this well-known history.

My main point is that a voluntary faith community that aspires to safeguard its spiritual unity ought to, as far as possible, base its governance on consensus. If leaders succumb to the temptation of doing governance by simple majority votes only, no matter what the issues are, the result will be that a fast growing minority of the members may/will feel overruled and marginalized. The church will then display the characteristics of a majority dictatorship, very far from a true spiritual democracy. The risk will be high that marginalized members may choose to leave an organization that they perceive as acting like a state, even an undemocratic state.

Wise leadership will understand that a church is not a military unit that will submit unquestioningly to a command structure of governance. They will also understand that the governance of a church cannot blindly emulate the political democratic governance methods of a secular state.

A faith community exists solely on the basis of voluntary adherence of its members to their common faith. A faith-based community cannot for long be successfully governed from the top through coercive measures and demands for compliance with statements, voted decisions, rules and policies. It cannot and will not accept threats and attempts at whipping them into compliance. Such methods can only be used where there is no escape. The only thing that will prevent any member from leaving is their own voluntary adherence to the common faith.

A faith community is based on freedom of choice. Leaders have no physical power over members, and therefore they should never act as if they have such power.

The only spiritual and democratically legitimate form of governance in a faith community is through consensus-based co-operative methods. Leadership must be expressed though guidance, education, information, conversations, arguments, reasoning, exchange of ideas, listening, admonitions, invitations, new perspectives, deeper insights, broadened visions, encouragements, and personal spiritual example. All these efforts aim at increased understanding that may result in shared convictions. We may appeal to and pray for the guidance of the Spirit, but never assume that only a few on one side of the issue are actually led by the Spirit.

If leadership is truly spiritual it will display beyond a doubt the fruits of the Spirit. Demands for “loyalty” and submission to authority, no matter who or what that authority is or claims to be, will naturally be perceived as spiritual coercive attempts to stifle or marginalize personal conscience. If leaders want to retain members, this can only be attained through the individual convictions of the individual members, never through commands to submit to rules. True spiritual unity is secured only through shared internal personal convictions, never through external bureaucratic pressure. “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still” (origin of quote unknown).

Spiritual Unity In Christ

The spiritual unity of a faith community needs to reflect the shared spiritual convictions of the members, not only the ideas and understandings of a faction of the members, or of certain influential leaders, or smaller groups of pastors and administrators. Spiritual democratic governance will encompass all members, not divide them by a simple majority vote.

This task is challenging. A bureaucrat used to thinking in orderly tables and columns may find it impossible. Freedom of thought within a religious community has never been appreciated by bureaucrats that want simple order and control. Uniformity better meets these criteria than the more flimsy idea of unity in diversity. However, the Gifts of the Spirit are diverse, but all are given by the same unifying Spirit. So, why are we so afraid of the concept of unity in diversity when the Godhead, the Spirit, and all creation display an overwhelming unity in diversity?

In a Christian church democracy no leader has more authority than she/he is granted by the members. She/he can accomplish nothing based on her/his own assumed authority, nor by pointing to the authority invested in her/his office. A leader can never claim that her/his ideas stem directly from the Spirit, and that submission to the Spirit's leading will simply result in compliance with her/his ideas. It is not the leaders that decide whether or not they are led by the Spirit. That can only be assessed by the members they are called to serve.

Spiritual unity in Christ comes when members of the faith community are led to assemble around Christ, the only head and leader of the church, their common faith and convictions, While still in this world, it will be utopian and naive to think that all will believe uniformly in every detail. But this is the testing ground of our spiritual unity. The nature and quality of our unity in Christ will reveal itself in our ability to tolerate that my neighbor member may have a conviction that is slightly different from mine — and still love that neighbor as myself. The test of unity will never be compliance with policies, but our willingness to love and accept each other despite our differences.

The Orthodox Faith

Varied nuances of opinions are never threats to our faith. A conformed, monolithic interpretation of established and codified orthodox faith that leaves no room for diversity of understandings, are the real and serious threat to unity.

If that is what we want, we may just as well close down our schools today, forget the advice we have received about critical thinking that will not settle for just repeating what others have thought, and discard the lofty ideal of being true to duty and truth, though the heavens fall. All we need is that creed our pioneers feared and abhorred, and fulfill John Loughborough's prediction of what would follow — measure each other against that creed, establish an inquisition to root out independent thinking, and start persecuting everyone not in conformity with our ideas.

Ellen White warned us against what has been termed the Omega apostasy. She trembled, but never disclosed the nature of that apostasy. Books have been written, speculations focusing on Eastern spirituality making inroads in our church.

A delusion leading to apostasy will probably not be just a repetition of what has happened before. Who will be fooled by something that we know so well? To be effective a delusion must be of an unsuspected and unexpected nature and source, garbed in the clothing of a shining angel.

I will not speculate, just wait and see. But let me confess that a thought has come to me: could that delusion possibly have to do with the question of authority in our church? The whole Great Controversy story, from beginning to end, has its focus on the question of authority and governance.


Edwin Torkelsen is a retired historian who worked for the National Archives in Norway. He also taught Medieval History in the University of Oslo and was an Associate Professor of History in the University of Trondheim with a special interest in the development of the ecclesiastical, jurisdictional, theological, doctrinal, and political ideologies of the Medieval church. He is a member of the Tyrifjord Adventist Church in Norway.

Photo by Preston Goff on Unsplash


We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.