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Could the Solution to the Church’s Stalemate Come Out of Africa?


The night before the historic October 14, 2018 Annual Council vote that enacted a compliance/ shaming policy, a friend called to tell me the contentious proposal was likely to pass. My friend’s “reliable” informant relayed that a key voting bloc, weary of being ensnared by the non-ordination parts of the compliance document, and on the verge of voting “no,” had been unofficially assured that enforcement would be narrowly targeted. Thus mollified, this group would now side with the President.

At the time I chalked this off to one more conspiracy theory. But the next day as I sat through the long procession of African delegates pledging to vote “yes,” I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.

At the previous year’s Annual Council, only a handful of delegates from the three African Divisions had bothered to speak at all. And when the vote came that defeated the measure, the results seemed to mirror the depth of their unease. A few hours prior to that vote, the definition of noncompliance had been broadened to include other issues that implicated over 80% of all world church entities. What changed?

None of the essential dynamics changed during the past year. But now Elder Wilson has, admittedly through process influence, secured his coveted vote, with a major assist from the African church. But as the post-vote depression begins to lift, so too are the prospects that the Divisions and Unions who deplore the discrimination emblematic of the newly passed compliance policy and the undue influences used to secure it will find a lasting solution to curtailing this abuse.

I see two components to permanently resolving this stand-off. In the near term those “non-compliant” administrative units need to affirm their current non-discriminatory ordination policy. The North American Division (NAD), Inter-European Division (EUD) and Trans-European Divisions (TED) — and nearly all the Unions within these divisions — have expressed serious concerns about the vote, and more importantly assured their female pastors of continued support. If no changes are made by the Unions who had refused to discriminate against women pastors, the status quo ante continues, and Ted Wilson is checkmated. This is particularly germane since the Divisions and Unions have ratification responsibilities after the Annual Council vote.

But we need to go beyond stalemate or escalation. We need a solution that endures. And that road needs to pass through the three African Divisions. Ted Wilson and the GC have succeeded in this divisive effort only because of the unwavering and near total support of this constituency. It’s a symbiotic relationship that has been mutually beneficial to Wilson and the African church leadership. The president’s right-of-center positions align with the many male-dominated sub-Saharan African communities. But this is not new. What is new is the nearly reflexive support the African church leaders have given to this GC president.

There are several reasons for the deference observed among African Division leaders towards President Wilson, but there is little credence to the oft repeated postulate that African leaders are paying the Western church back for some past colonial or neocolonial “debts.” This would only make sense if the African church was withholding a vital material good that the West needed and could only be supplied by Africa. Instead, in the Women’s Ordination disagreement, where this tendency has been most evident, African leadership seems unwilling or unable to let the Western church chart a different untethered path.

The African leaders’ relationship with Pastor Wilson is driven by his personality, and a generational shared vision between him and his African counterparts. Theology is only a small part of the dominant anxiety among the African leaders. The real animus is anchored in money. The African church is exploding with young membership, but it lacks a commensurate financial base to fund the basic needs of a growing church. And Africa is not alone in this situation. This is a phenomenon seen in many developing countries. African leaders, like their counterparts in other church communities, are desperate to attract enough of an ever-dwindling funding source and see the GC as their only option. This is a situation President Wilson has capitalized on.

Wilson has exploited two things in dealing with the African leaders: the bully pulpit and the power of the purse. Both were used to the max heading into San Antonio. The president went on his “African Tour” where, in countries like Uganda and Zimbabwe, he provided funds to local Adventist institutions. In Uganda he met with the country’s president. In Zimbabwe, he told the Adventists gathered in the stadium that Mugabe, who was the country’s president at the time, was “appointed by God.”

As the de facto face and voice of the world church, Wilson has the luxury of picking his time and place in dealings with the African church. He pits Divisions against one another by who he appears to favor. For example, in 2017 and early 2018, Rwanda and Ghana respectively were the sites for the Pentecost Evangelistic campaigns. These campaigns are supposedly under the umbrella of the Total Member Involvement team which gets significant funding from the GC. At the end of the Rwanda campaign, over 100,000 were baptized. Elder Wilson showed up as was advertised from the beginning and participated in the mass baptism.

The Ghana campaign this year also widely advertised that the GC president would take part in the final baptism. But Ghana, with “only” 50,000-plus, did not meet its goal to baptize over 100,000 new members. President Wilson did not show up because other pressing engagements took him away. What has not been discussed regarding the different outcomes between the two campaigns is that they were funded significantly differently. It is situations like these that often make the leaders in Africa careful to not get on the wrong side of the one controlling the purse.

Similarly, President Wilson has shown loyalty to African leaders even if they have proven to be ethically challenged. He initially refused to accept the resignation of then SID president, Paul Ratsara, even after Ratsara had confessed that a ghost writer was involved in his doctoral dissertation. Wilson thus demonstrated to African leaders his indispensability.

This is background to the dynamics of why African leaders continually support President Wilson. It is not only the larger world that is becoming a global village. Our Adventist universe is likewise increasingly intertwining our destinies. We in the Western church should therefore pay careful attention to what happens in other Divisions if we desire a global church. The Western church in general doesn’t oppose the African church’s preference for a male only ordination stance if practiced in their territories. But under present church governance rules, their choice seems to bind the West as well.

One solution to this dilemma requires leveling the playing field. The Western church, especially the NAD, should have a targeted engagement strategy with Unions in the three African Divisions to reduce or eliminate the GC’s influence monopoly in Africa. This could begin in three areas:

1. Higher education. At present, there is a vast mismatch between the laity and its leaders in Africa. The median age of church membership in the three Divisions is between 27 and 35 across the continent, but the average age of Union and Division leaders is around 60 years. If resources are provided in education it will target in the future those who would tend to be more progressive in their outlook. Every African Division has at least one, often two universities that need help. But funding should not be restricted to only Adventist-specific schools. We should also help organize the many Adventist fellowships in the large prestigious state universities because these invariably are the future stakeholders in the African politic. We find the Adventist Fellowship phenomena in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, to name a few.

2. Healthcare. Presently there is no higher or existential need in Africa than healthcare. The church has a few hospitals dotted throughout Africa, but hundreds of clinics, where life and death negotiations are made daily with scant resources. These cry out for help.

3. Church buildings. Sometimes one wonders why we conduct such massive evangelistic campaigns in Africa anymore. We spend large sums up front baptizing thousands of new members, only to see half the number exit the revolving door in less than three months. The number one reason for this huge drop off is lack of meeting places. The usual practice after a large campaign that establishes a new church is to rent classroom space for church services on Sabbaths. What the African church needs is modest assistance to accommodate the huge influx of new members from Sabbath to Sabbath.

A meeting to coordinate needs assessment should be convened in Europe, the U.S. or in Africa, with a broad spectrum of stakeholders from the African church, to look for solutions. This involves money, so how should it be funded? We could start with the NAD, which for years has sent more tithe money to the GC than their obligations require. Part of that money has been used in Africa by the GC to subvert NAD’s values. We should stop sending extra funds to the GC. The withheld funds could shore up our future interests in Africa. The European divisions and others similarly inclined could find ways to fund this project.

Is this a call to the “West” to do an end-run around the GC to help Africa in order to get the African church to see things our way? Why, Yes! Is this bribery? Maybe. But it would be bribery only to the extent that the prevailing GC operation could be similarly construed. In that sense this proposal would constitute bribery with conscience. Whatever the monetary cost to the Western church, it may turn out to be money well spent if it contributes to our global Adventist togetherness.


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.

Photo by Slava Bowman on Unsplash


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