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Is there a Fundamental Shift in Church Governance Coming?


There are changes happening in our church. Changes that are subtle and leading in a worrying direction.

At the last General Conference Session in San Antonio our church went through a process (considered by many as flawed) that resulted in the decision not to allow Divisions to ordain women in their territories where deemed appropriate. However, what has happened since should cause us to pause and ask the question, “Where is our church headed?”

Since San Antonio in 2015, we have seen the church continue to grow and go about its business. But we have also seen a hardening with regards to governance processes, application of some policies and a greater focus on non-compliance.

How do we balance the needs of a 20+ million member church with the need to keep unity across such a diverse church and continue to pursue mission? And how does an administration entrusted with the implementation of decisions made by church councils deal with such complexity?

Those watching will have noted that the discussion has moved away from the ordination issue to one of governance and compliance. The question being asked now is, “How do we discipline those unions or entities deemed to be out of compliance?” One remedy considered early on by the General Conference administration was to make non-complying union conferences into union missions. This would then give a Division the right to replace the union’s leadership. In this way they could get men and women who would do their bidding. However, for good reason, this idea was dropped.

What was eventually considered as the best way forward by General Conference administration was put before the members of the General Conference’s executive committee during the Annual Council meetings in 2017. The key element of this was to remove both voice and vote of the leaders of those unions considered to be non-complying and to require a loyalty oath to be signed by all members. After much discussion the document was referred back. However, the reason for its referral back were many and varied and it is not clear as to whether it was purely on constitutional grounds, because the members were opposed to where this approach would take the church, or if they thought that it just needed more work.

Recently, the General Conference Administrative Committee (ADCOM) put forward a document creating a network of five compliance review committees to make sure that Adventists around the world comply with General Conference Session and Annual Council actions. (Actions voted at these meetings usually become policy.)This document is to be brought to the 2018 Annual Council for its ratification.1 Its inquisitorial committees will have the work of evaluating compliance and enforcing the punitive measures for noncompliance.However, what does the membership of these committees look like? Is there a separation of powers from those making the rules (policies), those being asked to adjudicate compliance to the rules, and those issuing the punishment?2 Is the principle of innocent until proven guilty being applied?3 And what about the issue of conscience?

At the heart of this governance issue are these questions: Should policy, compliance, and coercion be the way to solve an issue that is for many one of conscience?4 And do we want to see our church shift to a coercive approach for resolving these types of issues? After all, if it weren’t for people such as Martin Luther, who did not comply with the policies of the Catholic Church in his day, would there have been a Reformation and, for that matter, a Seventh-day Adventist Church?

A rigid application of policy doesn’t always work well on the edges of the church where there is experimentation for the advancement of the gospel. It is often a willingness to go outside of policy that has resulted in moving the church forward. For example, if D. A. Robinson, when leader of the South African field in the late 1800s, had followed established policy there would have been no change to the departmental model now used by the church today.5 Neither, I believe, would we have had unions. And our policy not to ordain women doesn’t work in China where God is using women to lead the church because in China we can’t get enough men to be pastors there.6 This is a missional issue.

Policy cannot just be prescriptive, particularly when it comes to operational matters, if the church is to develop and grow and be faithful to its purpose. It also needs to be permissive. History shows that policy often follows practice. That it should serves mission and not the other way around. And so we need an approach to policy, and even some church decisions, that is firstly challenged by the question, “Does this help or hinder our missionary purpose, or is it neutral to the cause?” rather than questions that are based on control, compliance, or coercion.

So what is going wrong here? Could it be that our priorities have become more about order and rules? Are they being driven by an ideological outcome rather than a missional one?

When we look at our history as a church we find our roots in the Anabaptist movement where issues of conscience were respected and difference of opinion was accommodated. From the start our church was on the cutting edge, learning and growing. It was not afraid to tackle the tough questions and used a process of dialogue and study as evidenced by the Sabbath Conferences of 1848. Neither was it encumbered by a lot of rules. And eventually, through a collegial process, a solution was found.

This is not the first time that our church has had to deal with the issue of policy and compliance. In 1883 the then General Conference President, George I. Butler, reported on the development of a church manual. Some had advocated for this because it was thought to help young ministers. And yet this attempt to codify the activities of Seventh-day Adventist churches into policy was voted down. Notice the rationale given for why it was rejected.

While brethren who have favored a manual have ever contended that such a work was not to be anything like a creed or a discipline, or to have authority to settle disputed points, but was only to be considered as a book containing hints for the help of those of little experience, yet it must be evident that such a work, issued under the auspices of the General Conference, would at once carry with it much weight of authority, and would be consulted by most of our younger ministers. It would gradually shape and mold the whole body; and those who did not follow it would be considered out of harmony with established principles of church order. And, really, is this not the object of the manual? And what would be the use of one if not to accomplish such a result? But would this result, on the whole, be a benefit? Would our ministers be broader, more original, more self-reliant men? Could they be better depended on in great emergencies? Would their spiritual experiences likely be deeper and their judgment more reliable? We think the tendency all the other way.”7

One of the concerns expressed here was that a manual would become a coercive instrument and that “those who did not follow it would be considered out of harmony with established principles of church order.” And while there is no mention of punitive action it is not beyond the scope of possible outcomes. This was not seen as desirable for the church at the time. Judging from the events of the last few years, Elder Butler’s fears were not without merit in that policy could be used to limit the church and hinder its mission.

So where to from here for our church? What will the members of the General Conference’s Annual Council do with the proposed actions brought to the 2018 Annual Meetings in October? Will they vote for a fundamental shift in the way the church deals with its issues? Or will we see a recommendation for a more creative approach that is more consistent with our roots, where dialogue and community are valued and where the processes of mutuality, collegiality, and respect, which contribute to our shared mission, are employed.


Notes & References:

2. A more recent document from GC ADCOM shows that these committees are not constructed to ensure independence.

3. Note the following clause: “General Conference Session action, may seek recourse through processes already provided for in the General Conference Working Policy. The process of seeking recourse and the “Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions” shall run concurrently.” (Lines 22-25)

4. Nearly 42% of the delegates at the 2015 General Conference Session voted in support of women being ordained. Many of this 42% supported the action because they believe that gender equality in ministry is a moral issue.

5. In his letter to D. A. Robinson, White focused on the dilemma caused by centralization. In reference to a “pioneer to a new mission field,” he said: “If he consults with the Board in everything he will be forced sometimes to vary from instruction. If he does not consult them he will get the credit of moving independently. Whichever way he does, he will wish he had done the other.” In a letter to Percy Magan, W. C. White said that “mother has been cautioned not to give sanction to any arrangement in connection with this [missionary] enterprise by which one class of men or of institutions shall lay binding restrictions upon another class of men or institutions; that His servants in one part of the world should not dictate to or lay restrictions upon His servants in another part of the great harvest field” (W. C. White to Percy T. Magan, March 8, 1900, Letter Book 15, Ellen G. White Estate Office.

6. In 1895 Ellen White gave the following counsel: "Be sure that God has not laid upon those who remain away from these foreign fields of labor, the burden of criticizing the ones on the ground where the work is being done. Those who are not on the ground know nothing about the necessities of the situation, and if they cannot say anything to help those who are on the ground, let them not hinder but show their wisdom by the eloquence of silence, and attend to the work that is close at hand….Let the Lord work with the men who are on the ground, and let those who are not on the ground walk humbly with God lest they get out of their place and lose their bearings" (Ellen G. White, Special Instruction to Ministers and Workers [Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald, 1895], 33.

7. George I. Butler, “No Church Manual,” Review and Herald, November 27, 1883, pp 745, 746.


Brad Kemp is CEO for Adventist Media in Australia.



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