On this website church historian George Knight published, some two weeks ago, an astonished and impassioned critique of a decision made by General Conference leadership. The decision establishes several new committees for policing lower-level policy-compliance and doctrinal orthodoxy, all with a view to maintaining the leadership’s ideal of Christian unity as uniformity. Knight’s critique was based on a report that was published here, unofficially, on August 23.
Now the General Conference has issued its own news release on these committees. That release, available here, neither mentions nor analyzes Knight’s criticisms. It is as though dissent from the tithe-paying Adventist public, even dissent from one of the church’s most respected historians, is not only resented but also studiously ignored. What is clear by now, unfortunately, is that all this exemplifies top leadership’s habitual response — or lack of response — to questions about its authoritarian manner of church administration.
One way to characterize all this is to note its palpable — its shameless — inattention to truth. All thoughtful Adventists have had access for two weeks to Knight’s most recent analysis. But numerous other analyses of dubious uses of power, over the entire period since the present administration came to office in 2010, have circulated widely, most often through the independent Adventist press. The church’s top leadership, though doubtless aware of these criticisms, has again and again failed to offer thoughtful, public responses. Little effort, perhaps none, has gone into defending the authoritarian leadership style through appeals to New Testament ecclesiology or the story of pioneer Adventism. This is so even though the critics have themselves appealed to these sources in setting forth their own views, and thus made available to all the arguments for a more flexible and less arrogant approach to leadership. An attempt to refute criticisms from below might well be in order; instead, they are ignored — treated, that is, with a kind of contempt.
“Fear not!” is a constant New Testament refrain. But I am put in mind of James Comey’s take on what he calls a “dangerous time” in America. It is a time, he says, when “fundamental truth is questioned” and “unethical behavior is ignored, excused, or rewarded.” Truly “ethical” leaders, he says, “welcome” questions. They build “workplaces where standards are high and fear is low.” He then adds: “Without a fundamental commitment to truth…we are lost.” When I take this in — in a full-blooded way — I just do feel a bit afraid. The General Conference leadership’s refusal to engage in conversation, let alone moderate its plunge into authoritarianism, augurs ill, at least in the short term, for our church’s future. What thoughtful — by which I mean biblically literate — Adventist can begin to be comfortable with what is now coming down from high places?
I grew up on Ellen White’s remark that we “have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.” From appearances, it seems that top leadership is ignoring much of our past history, including the part that renounces “kingly power.” Then there’s the direct insistence of Jesus himself, who, according to the Gospels, condemns those rulers who “lord it over others” and “flaunt their power over those under them.” Whoever wants to be great in the kingdom, he declares, must be a “servant,” not a lord. This cannot mean, of course, that administrators must cease to administrate; but it does count — decisively — against self-satisfied, distrustful, diversity-despising authoritarianism.
Leaders who do not give evidence of regard for these points, or even acknowledge fellow church members who beg them to pay attention, are leaders we may excusably think of as having abandoned truthfulness.
Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
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