Seventh-day Adventist growth reached the point in the late 1850s where organization of some sort seemed a necessity. Nevertheless, a sizable number of leaders was opposed to it, believing that church organization of any kind would turn the movement into “Babylon,” an organization hostile to God’s mission for the world. They argued that the since the Bible does not require the followers of Christ to organize themselves, the believers should not do so. On the other side, spurred on by James White, other Adventist leaders argued that since the Bible does not forbid organization, and common sense required it, the movement needed to organize. The pro-organization group won out and the Seventh-day Adventist Church was formed over a two-year period, in 1861 and 1863.
As the church continued to grow, the organization grew highly centralized, with top to bottom power centering in the president and a handful of officers. Ellen White became concerned about this development for two reasons. She feared the creation of an authoritarian culture within leadership and she feared it would result in the coercing of conscience. So the church was moved to considered once more how it would or should be organized.
There have been three main options for church organization in the course of Christian history. First, there is congregationalism, in which local churches are essentially independent of each other. Although they may form loose connections with other churches, there is no over-arching authoritative body. The second type of organization is often called episcopal, where authority resides at the top and flows down from there. This kind of organization works best when a people see the leadership as being directly guided by God. The best-known organization of this type is the Roman Catholic Church. The system works because Catholics see the pope as “inspired” when he speaks ex-cathedra, from the holy chair. And most church leaders operate under vows of obedience (SDA leaders chose not to take a step in that direction last year). So the Roman Catholic Church has stayed united through the centuries.
The third type of church organization is the Presbyterian, which has a central organization, but the authority flows up from below and there are “firewalls” at each level that prevent top leadership from dictating to lower levels. While congregationalism emphasizes local needs and perspective, and the episcopal system emphasizes centralized control, the Presbyterian approaches operates on a tension between global and local authority and concerns. The firewalls preserve much to local control.
In 1901 to 1903, the SDA Church created something of a hybrid of the three systems, but ended up closest to Presbyterian model. While the General Conference is concerned with matters that affect the whole world church, the formation of unions between the conferences and the General Conference provided for provide for more diversity of approach when carrying out the church’s mission. So the formation of unions was intended to care for local needs and prevent the formation of “kingly power” at the top. The basis for this type of organization was not in the Bible, the Bible offers some basic principles of leadership and offers some examples or organization, but it offers little systematic guidance as to just how the church ought to organize itself. So the SDA Church created a system, with encouragement from Ellen White that balanced global concerns and central control with diversity of focus and decentralization of power.