For many years in my presentations and discussions I have called for a clear position from our church leadership on the subject of “constitution.” Finally, it has happened.
Our church constitution dates back to a time when we counted in the hundreds of thousands. Now membership has grown to about 20 million. It is becoming obvious that many, not just the governing bodies, are dealing with the question of an inevitable and necessary change. In the meantime, the pressure has been felt and various committees have been dealing with this in recent years. Results have only sparsely become known, which is presumably one reason that no paper has yet unambiguously answered the basic question “What organizational structure should our church choose?”
There are only two models Christian denominations throughout history have used to organize themselves upon: the centralist and the federalist constitution. Both have proven successful in different variations. The Roman Catholic Church has been practicing the centralist constitution for almost 2000 years — with great success. The Protestant churches have chosen the federalist variant — with great success, too. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has finally made a choice: there is no doubt that world church leadership has chosen the centralist structure.
This had already become apparent in the presidency of Robert Folkenberg. He had himself elected as "first officer" at the 1995 General Conference Session in Utrecht. This meant that he was no longer just primus inter pares, but that the Vice Presidents were also reporting to him. I still recall the long line of speakers at the microphones — some GC officers, headed by Neal Wilson — who vehemently argued against the President's proposal. It was in vain, though. The request was voted through.
Jan Paulsen tried to halt this trend (e.g., by setting up a number of special committees), but with no success. He only managed to slow down the progress. And now, under Ted Wilson’s leadership, the train is at full speed. Wilson has set the course towards centralism so obviously that there is no doubt about it anymore.
The first attempt at Annual Council 2017 failed. The majority of members, in an attempt to avert uproar, were not ready to approve the "Unity Document." Personally, I think many were in line with the proposal but wanted to avoid the open confrontation that would follow.
Presumably, many hoped that a revised text would find a majority of supporters in 2018, taking raised objections into account for a renewed draft. It seems a lot of people were wrong about that. The new documents are even clearer in their intention. Ted Wilson wants a centrally organized church. He is taking another dash at his vision of a "Uniformed Church" with a document that threatens punishments (warning, public reprimand, removal from office). A more awkward approach is hardly conceivable. It would be simpler — and more honest! — if one would clearly and precisely say what this is all about. The famous popes pushing the centralistic agenda of power in the Roman Catholic Church (Gregory VII, Bonifaz VIII) were of a more direct nature.
The problem of our church, as it presents itself right now, is the inability of those who have recognized the problem and taken a stand on it to offer any hint on how to avert the disaster. The excellent books by William G. Johnsson, Where Are We Headed?, and of Reindar Bruinsma, Facing Doubt, do not offer help in this area.
What should/could we laypeople do to avert organizational catholization? George Knight is silent on that point, too. It doesn’t really help if the foremost spokesman of the current opposition gets lost in analysis without solution! Similarly, the 2017 London Unity Conference of the inner-church opposition showed clear agreement in the analysis, but no way toward a solution. The general lament, which seems to be hardly more than a therapeutic session and a compilation of helpful Ellen G. White quotations, won’t do the job either. I have read the pronouncements on both sides of the issue and they both have an impressive arsenal of quotational ammunition which they aim at each other. At the end of the day, each side keeps on believing its own ammunition factory.
The two German Union presidents have taken a clear position in their published statement. They have explained why they will reject the two motions in Battle Creek next month. They want their churches to know what is at stake now. It is indeed very flattering for them if they are celebrated in publications in the United States as the two "Martin Luthers of the 21st century" (albeit with no “Elector of Saxony" in sight to hold his protecting hands over them!).
Now is the time for North American Adventists to take a courageous step forward.
Anyone who thinks that I am just drawing a gloomy picture should take a second and impartial look at our church. The documents that will be forwarded for vote this autumn are but the harbingers of change. This change has not only to do with unity allegedly at risk, but is part of the trend toward institutionalism — a typical threat for any second-century church or movement. Here in Germany, it began with nomenclature: the change of our church’s name from “Gemeinschaft (community) der STA” to “Freikirche (free church) der STA”; from “Prediger” (preacher) to “Pastor” (pastor); from “Vorsteher” to the international term “president.” It would have been wiser not to choose the American nomenclature, but rather a biblical one. We’d do better to call them “bishops” than “presidents,” but I am certain we have that coming, too.
Apart from such formalism, there are structural indications to where the journey will go. A few years ago, the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) was a fairly independent institution. Now it more closely resembles an Adventist version of the Congregation of Faith of the Catholic Church, defining what believers around the world have to believe. The BRI claims to pass verdict on the teaching qualifications of individual lecturers, and even recommends their removal in certain countries, which was formerly the sole responsibility of the employer, not of a remote-controlled institution. The catholic Congregation of Faith does have something called "freedom in research and teaching," but one does wonder why the rehabilitation of Galileo Galilei took the curia a couple of centuries. How will the BRI fare in the future?
To make things worse, at the beginning of this year, Ted Wilson expressed himself in an unmistakably dictatorial manner in a speech to church leaders. This "Lisbon Speech" is solid evidence of his firm commitment to a centralized church (Feb. 6, 2018, Lisbon, Global Leadership Summit).
Now one could argue that all these observations are but unfortunate misunderstandings. Maybe Ted Wilson just expressed himself ambiguously. But when you talk to people who know him personally, the picture is more revealing. Privately he may be “a good sport,” a guy like you and me. His private hobby of collecting vintage cars makes him highly sympathetic. But the moment he speaks and acts as first officer, he is a different person. As such, he seems to be driven with an almost fanatical sense of mission.
My impression is that he wants to be the one preparing the Adventist Church for the return of Christ. The sifting of the Church serves this purpose, notwithstanding the fact that sifting in the Bible is an action done by God alone (see the parable of the tares and the wheat). Wilson’s proximity to Last Generation Theology is also conspicuous. Losing parts of the Adventist churches in the process of sifting seems to be mere collateral damage on the way to a true remnant church.
The attentive observer will notice something at this point. Robert Pierson often used the same vocabulary in his presidency: Reformation and Revival. He, like Ted Wilson, meant not Reformation, but Restoration. Back then, a solution was found that could serve well today. But it is very difficult to send a person with that strong a sense of mission into retirement, as charming of a solution as it may be.
However, all my deliberations have to do with the church, not with individual people. I’ve never had the opportunity to speak to Ted Wilson personally. Apart from a short correspondence, I had no contact with him. That was different with his father, Neal Wilson. I visited him after my meeting with Desmond Ford and Walter Rea and left Washington strengthened in faith. The two hours with Neal Wilson strengthened my trust in church leadership a lot. That was long ago, though.
Back to the subject of solutions. Why isn’t it possible to discuss structural church models that could take us out of the current impasse? For years I have been pleading for a model of "continental churches." I have often outlined the details of this model in my presentations and writings (e.g. in Spectrum in 2011). Support for this model is growing, but not in administration. I suggest a "Seventh-day Adventist Church in Europe," one in North America, one in South America, etc. and all of these united in a "World Alliance of Adventist Churches" instead of the current General Conference. That would follow the Lutheran model. Women's ordination in such a model wouldn’t have made it to the top of the agenda. Concerns about the dangers of congregationalism could also be invalidated. I have explained and described this in detail in a number of presentations. These are sound concepts of church structure that could save us from papalism.
As a prerequisite, however, the present proposals of the GC on the subject of "unity" have to be rejected. Once again, let me make it very clear: the vote in Battle Creek in October 2018 is not about the ordination of women, nor about a procedure for preserving unity. It will be a most fundamental choice. Do we steer this church into centralism, Yes or No? Whether or not we will have a pope-like president very much depends on the outcome of this vote: will we have a president who leads the church with the help of a well-oiled Congregation of Faith — or a church still firmly established on the legacy of the Reformation?
We are far from achieving our goals. Even if the proposals are rejected in October, it does not mean that the issue is off the table. Whether Ted Wilson solves the question of church constitution or only achieves interim results does not make much of a difference. We have to attack the question now or in the near future. We still have the chance to develop a “non-centralistic" model. I want to let my “interjection” end on two words: finally and still. Finally the time has come for a clear decision. The GC leadership leaves no doubt about their choice. We can still prevent the “papal turn.” It will depend on this choice whether for many brothers and sisters this church will remain their spiritual home.
Lothar E. Träder, Ph.D., is a retired pastor, teacher and former rector of Marienhöhe, an Adventist boarding school in Darmstadt. His doctorate is in church history and he has served the Adventist church in Germany in many committees over the past 50 years.
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