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Church Manual Study During Sabbath Worship? How About No.

Adventist Church Manual

During the 2010 General Conference Annual Council, Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders made this statement: “We recognize that we have not always placed priority on seeking God through Prayer and his word… At times in our busyness doing good things, we have neglected the most important thing—knowing Him.” 

From this admission was birthed the program “Revival and Reformation: Believe His Prophets,” that provides daily readings of Bible chapters and Ellen White’s writings for Seventh-day Adventist church members. However, since many Adventists do not have Ellen White’s books in their libraries as they do Bibles, the initiative primarily focuses on reviving members’ reading of scriptures—individually and corporately. While the program has run uninterrupted since its launch, and Adventists globally adhere to it, its effectiveness is yet to be assessed.

Similarly, in early 2024, some churches in the East Kenya Union Conference, East and Central Africa Division of the Adventist Church, agreed to begin reading portions of the church manual every Sabbath in church. Union, conference and field presidents lead with regular Thursday Zoom meetings, purportedly to assess, among other things, if all leaders have understood the content.

The Sabbath manual readings came at the direction of union, conference, and field leaders of the church, who informally communicated the decision in meetings with local church leaders without citing any official action mandating the readings.

The leaders argued that church members needed familiarity with the church manual’s contents in order to support the church’s actions. They further reasoned reading the church manual in churches would help members would know how to handle issues with proper decorum.

In the spring of 2023, church members camped outside the offices of The Central Rift Valley Conference, alleging financial mismanagement and lewdness in the conference, and that conference leaders had dealt poorly with pastors. The church members marched to the conference headquarters to demand answers and give ultimatums. Clips of the incident captured by the press can be watched here (in both English and Kiswahili).

Instead of church members confronting field and conference officers in such unorthodox ways, leaders hoped that by reading the church manual together, they would follow proper protocol.

But was a lack of manual reading the cause of that behavior? 

The Haftarah

I see connections between this scenario and the haftarah practice in Jewish worship services. Rabbi Peretz Rodman provides an interesting insight regarding worship routines at synagogues since ancient times: “Traditionally, on Shabbat and holiday mornings, a selection from one of the biblical books of the Prophets is read after the Torah reading,” he says. “The portion is known as the haftarah… While the Torah reading cycle proceeds from Genesis through Deuteronomy, covering the entire Five Books of Moses, only selected passages from the Prophets make it into the haftarah cycle.” 

Rodman states that while the entire Pentateuch is read in worship reading cycle, the selected portions of the Prophets depend on the reader. He observes that while “the Torah… is the ultimate source of law; the haftarah… presents the words of the Prophets, who provided moral instruction and uplift.”

On this basis, Jesus’ taking the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and reading from it in Nazareth could perhaps be a reading from the Prophets to fulfill the haftarah for that day’s worship. Looked at from this angle, Acts 13:27, too, could be illustrating the haftarah, while 15:21 is concerned with the reading of the Torah. Each of these verses lays emphasis on the different reading which were both observed during the worship meetings.

How do these observations about the haftarah and Bible readings relate to Adventists and the church manual?

J.N. Loughborough wrote The Church: Its Organization, Order and Discipline (1907), a precursor to the Seventh-day Adventist church manual. All the way till 1932, Adventists opposed a church manual for several reasons, just as formal organization of the church had been looked upon with suspicion in the formative years of the church. Chief among the reasons was fear that a formal document could turn out to be a creed. They also worried that the manual would limit the Holy Spirit in dealing with issues as they arose. 

A manual would bring uniformity in action when what the church needed in the view of many was unity. Further, the manual would determine a Christian’s standards, and consequently, require action against those who did not measure up. In sum, the document would be authoritative enough to rival or supersede the Bible. They worried this could lead the church to accepting something other than the Bible as the only normative text for the faith and practice of the believer.

So when Loughborough wrote his treatise, he was quick to point out in it that creeds were “a direct departure from the Protestant rule of taking ‘the Bible, and the Bible alone, as the standard of faith.’” He asserted that his composition was meant to introduce “order among Seventh-day Adventists… and which order has saved this cause from the confusion Satan otherwise would have produced among the people; and which confusion would now soon appear should the Lord’s ‘established’ and ‘perfected’ order be disregarded.” 

His was an effort to present and sustain order in the operations and polity of the church.

To date, the church manual (first published in 1932), has been a categorical text for the observance of that order. 

The opening paragraph of chapter one, “Why a Church Manual,” in the 20th edition (revised 2022) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, states that “order is achieved through principles and regulations that guide the Church in its internal operations and in the fulfillment of its mission to the world. In order for it to be a successful ecclesiastical organization at the service of the Lord and humanity, it needs order, rule, and discipline.”

Moreover, the General Conference has “through the years voted important changes concerning the Church Manual… [so as to conduct] the worldwide work of the Church ‘decently and in order,’” the manual says. This demonstrates that the manual is not static like the Bible, but is adjusted according to the current situational development and need.

This raises the question of how the church manual should be regarded. In principle, it is a book that provides instructions and information on church life. It describes how matters should be handled to maintain order in the body of believers. It provides a means of unifying the global church in its handling of situations and subjects that affect the worldwide body.

If so, the manual should remain a reference book for approaching issues not explicitly clarified in scripture. Its application can assist the church in avoiding disparities in how local jurisdictions handle the issues the manual covers.

The manual is in no way intended to be a source of belief and practice like the Bible, to be read each Sabbath across the Adventist denomination. Demanding its regular Sabbath reading not only elevates the manual to the Bible’s level, but also implies it is inspired like the Bible. 

By its own admission, the church manual is revisable. It changes its positions on church life as occasions demand. Because of that flexibility, it lacks justification for constant, regular study.

The apostolic church’s weekly readings of the biblical law and prophets (see Acts 15:21; 13:27), might be equated to East Kenya Union’s mandated reading of the church manual across Adventist congregations today. The practice has elevated a basic, fluid text to the level of scripture for reading and reference during worship services. This use is heretical.

Suggestions

Perhaps church manual readings on Sabbath should be relegated to special leadership or membership training sessions convened on special occasions. It should be treated the same as any training that requires special arrangements for specific groups of people.

The church manual is, at the end of the day, a policy book. It is improper to dedicate holy, precious moments of worship to take people through a policy document. Unless part of a college course on polity, regular study of the church manual will be meaningless and unimpactful. Few church members—if any—will be interested in learning, let alone following, every chapter and section of the church manual.

More to the point, church leadership needs to identify particular challenges facing local churches or rungs of leadership, and identify ways of handling the issues directly. The unconventional reactions of church members in isolated cases do not indicate a widespread lack of understanding of the manual.

Church manual readings during Sabbath worship services violate the sanctity of Sabbath hours. Worshippers gather to hear God’s word and respond in various ways with appreciation and joy for what God means to them. It is both degrading and confusing to dedicate worship hours to studying the church manual. 

About the author

Bruce Kebariko (a pseudonym) is a Seventh-day Adventist district pastor in East Africa. More from Bruce Kebariko.
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