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Triggering Public Reprimands: Simple Majorities are Not Enough


I thank the top leaders of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church for circulating a proposal about encouraging compliance with denominational policies long before the several hundred members of the General Conference Executive Committee will vote it up, down, or sideways at October’s 2018 Annual Council. Although this is standard practice in many denominations, it has been less frequent in our circles. This is a new and better day for which I am grateful.

In an article on Adventist Today’s website, I made the strongest case I could for eliminating that part of the proposal which states that the Executive Committee must be reminded that a leader has been publicly reprimanded each time he or she addresses it about any matter.  

In what follows, I do the same thing for changing the required consensus for publicly reprimanding a leader from a simple majority to a supermajority. This is because few things cause more discord than requiring little support for great penalties. The combination of maximal punishment and minimal justification shreds unity.

No society which makes it easy to be hard on people flourishes. Mild penalties and low thresholds work. So do high penalties and high thresholds. Linking high penalties and low thresholds has never worked and it never will because it is too unfair and impractical. Yet this is what the proposal we are considering recommends.

As we try to gauge the severity of the proposed penalties, we need to keep in mind the difference between reprimanding and shaming. It resides in their dissimilar purposes. In a word, the purpose of reprimanding is to remediate but the purpose of shaming is to humiliate.

One condemns what a person has done, the other contorts who a person is. One addresses the action, the other redresses the actor. One is a way of disciplining, the other is a way of eliminating. One is an acclamation of hope, the other is a declaration of hopelessness.  

Repetition and publicity are two of the defining characteristics of shaming. Reprimanding occurs once per incident and in private. Shaming hammers the individual again and again in public with the blunt instrument of humiliation for the same wrongdoing. The goal of shaming is to shatter the self; its aim is to cause a person to despise his own self or her own self while others destroy it.  The process is brutal and total. It is psychologically lethal. I invite those who believe that I am exaggerating to read Robert Jay Lifton’s books.

The public and repetitive characteristic of the penalty the proposal recommends amounts to shaming even though it speaks of it as reprimanding. It is true that the noncompliant leader is to be publicly reprimanded only once, however, the Executive Committee will be reminded that he has been reprimanded every time he is recognized to speak. He will be humiliated this way again and again until either he retires or Jesus returns.

If voters have more than two alternatives, a simple majority is the same as a plurality. It is the option that receives at least one more vote than any of the alternatives even if this is less than fifty percent. If there are only two options, as in either “yes” or “no,” a simple majority is the same as an absolute majority. This is at least at least fifty-one percent.

A super majority is much more than fifty one percent. Sixty-six or seventy-five percent are common, however, in theory, a super majority could be up to ninety-nine percent. One hundred percent is a unanimous decision.

I believe that a supermajority should be no more than twenty percentage points less than the number of them with which a group typically makes its decisions. Although this formula is arbitrary, it is not capricious. I think that most people would agree that only ten points less is too demanding and that thirty points less is not demanding enough. Although I do not have statistical data to confirm this hunch, I think that most people would find twenty points intuitively plausible.

Because the Executive Committee makes most of its decisions with at least ninety five percent of the votes, this formula suggests that its supermajority should be seventy-five. In other words, before the ordeal of unending humiliation begins in a particular case, at least three of the four members of the Executive Committee who vote on the matter should be thoroughly convinced that this is God’s will. Anything less than this will eventually rip it apart.

Simple majorities work in obligatory organizations with command cultures in which coercive power is feared. They do not work in voluntary organizations with collegial cultures in which persuasive power is revered.  

It has been both amusing and agonizing over the past few years to watch the increasing frustration of some denominational leaders who think that they are governing within the first kind of organization when in fact they are supposed to be serving in the second. They seem not to understand that the church is a voluntary organization with members who pay some of their own to help them do their work. Members find it perplexing when denominational employees threaten them with “grave consequences” and the like. Who works for whom?

Leaders must lead because pushing gets them nowhere. Even if the General Conference shuts down some union conferences and local conferences and creates new ones, there won’t be mass compliance. Some will leave, however, most of those who would do this have already gone and those who still appear aren’t going to disappear. Many will switch to the new conferences and unions and many others will find other ways to support the denomination’s worldwide endeavors. Those who take the third option will learn much about how to do this from supporting ministries such as the Three Angels Broadcasting Network, Amazing Facts, and Adventist-laymen’s Services & Industries (ASI).

The great Advent Movement will keep on moving! The primary difference will be that it will have spent millions of dollars to end up where it already is. The same controversies will resurface. This is because issues which are not resolved always return.

No one can predict what will happen if the General Conference Executive Committee removes “for cause” a highly respected union conference president because much will depend upon the circumstances. My best guess is that more financial resources will flow around the General Conference rather than through it. We might end up like we were before the 1901 reorganization when the General Conference helped to coordinate what often were for all practical purposes independent supporting ministries. Yet even this setback won’t stop the great Advent movement.

Supermajorities might prolong the practice of endlessly humiliating leaders who act out of moral conviction without hurting anyone, however, even this won’t last for long. The overwhelming number of Adventists around the world love people more than policies and together we will stop this unworthy practice. When it comes to denominational unity, we will convert the priority from compliance to the General Conference to reliance on God.  “Oh, Happy Day!”


Dr. David Larson is Professor of Religion at Loma Linda University.

Photo by Davide Ragusa / Unsplash

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