Author Archives: Jon Paulien

Paul and Homosexuality (LGBT 11)

I’ve been a little distracted lately with the Annual Council of SDAs, so I have had to set aside this series on LGBTIQ and the church for a while. It’s time to get back to it, an issue that is not going away and one where most Christians have shallow or distorted knowledge. God always wants to operate on the basis of truth, but on issues like this, truth is sometimes hard to come by. I know I still have a lot to learn, but what I have learned so far seems to be very helpful to people whose opinion I respect and trust. So let me continue looking at some key biblical texts.

The most explicit and seemingly harshest condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible is found in Romans 1. Here’s the crucial portion: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Rom 1:24-28). Homosexual actions are here condemned as a “dishonoring of their bodies,” as “dishonorable passions,” as “contrary to nature,” and as “what ought not to be done.” Many take this passage as license to condemn those who are “different” in the harshest terms possible. If God pours out His wrath against homosexuals (Rom 1:18), we ought to do the same. But before we blindly follow that kind of reading, let’s take a closer look at this passage in its context.

First of all, in Romans 1 the wrath of God is not poured out because of homosexuality. Homosexuality is not the cause of God’s wrath, it is the outcome of God’s wrath. Notice Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” The core reason that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven is that human being suppress the truth about God. Even if they don’t have Bibles, nature itself is evidence enough that God exists and that He is powerful (Rom 1:19-20). And if that is true, then human beings should honor Him and be loyal to Him. But “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21). Instead of honoring God they became fools and made images of the created world to worship instead (Rom 1:22-23). So the core reason that God’s wrath is poured out is human rebellion. Deep in their hearts human beings knew God, but they turned away from Him and lost their reason.

But what is the wrath of God? For Paul, it is not God’s violent response to human rebellion, it is His turning away from sinners and allowing them to reap the consequences of their own choices. Three times in the following paragraph Paul says, “Therefore God gave up. . . to impurity. . . .” “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. . . .” “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). Why does God give them up? “Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25). Homosexuality is not the cause of God’s wrath, it is the outcome of God’s wrath. It is clear that Paul holds a very negative view of homosexual activity. It is contrary to the order of creation and an evidence of human brokenness. But the core reason for the wrath of God is not homosexual activity, it is suppressing the truth about God and refusing to be thankful for what we have all received from God. So homosexual activity is condemned in Scripture as a result of God’s wrath, not the cause of it. When it comes to dealing with people who struggle with their sexual and gender identity, such distinctions are very important.

The Day After (AC18-12)

In case you had not heard, the compliance documents and procedures we have been talking about this last week were voted by the GCEC to the tune of 185-124, about a 60% majority. If you are wondering what will happen now, go back and read the last two blogs (AC18-10 and AC18-11) where I explore that. The odds are the vote will have little impact over the short run. The long run is less certain.

If you are rejoicing today, rejoice! Savor it with all your might. God has given us deep capacity for both joy and sadness. Days of sadness will come for you again, so take the days of joy to heart and remember them when the dark days come. But if you run across someone who is sad or even devastated today and you feel tempted to gloat or tell them sternly that they will now be rewarded for their rebellion, reject the feeling, it did not come from God. God weeps with those who weep. In times of rejoicing we have a surplus of energy to comfort the heartbroken and sooth the fears and anxieties of others. Don’t miss that opportunity today.

If you feel sad or devastated today, know that God loves freedom so much that He even allows human beings to take away the freedom of others. It was God who centuries ago allowed the papacy to win the battle of the Christianities and dominate the Christian world for over a thousand years. If God could somehow continue His mission in the darkness of the Middle Ages, this small setback yesterday is a piece of cake to him. If there are no humans that you can trust, know that God remains trustworthy, even in the midst of human freedom and its consequences. Stay close to Him and you will be all right.

To any of you who are thinking of leaving the Seventh-day Adventist Church today I ask, “Where will you go?” Where else can you find the unique package of ideas that John the Revelator prophesied would be mission critical in the last days of earth’s history? And if you think you can live without that, know that no matter where you go, religious politics will follow you. It will be same old same old wherever you go. God did some amazing things for the SDA pioneers more than 150 years ago. They needed to organize their religion in order to more efficiently proclaim what God was doing in the world. That was the right thing to do. Religion is a human attempt to honor and proclaim a mighty act of God, and as such it is a beautiful thing. But over time all human institutions become more focused on their own survival than on the original mission, even when they are feeling really pious. But feeble and defective as they are, religious institutions still bear witness to elements of the original mission. For that reason, the disciples never left Judaism. Luther never left the Catholic Church. And Ellen White never left the Methodist Church. They were all thrown out. God arranged things so they had no choice. I doubt things are that drastic now, but if it should happen to you, that will be God’s sign that He has something better for you. In the meantime, set your face to the tasks God has set before you today. Even when things seem out of control, God is still in control.

What Do I Hope Will Happen? (AC18-11)

I trust the collective wisdom of church leadership, but voted decisions of the church have not always proven to be good for the church. The 2014 decision to put an up or down vote on the floor of the San Antonio session has in retrospect proved to be a big mistake with escalating consequences. And 2014 is far from the first such mistake. Ellen White spoke about this in Testimonies, volume 9, page 278: “Many matters have been taken up and carried by vote, that have involved far more than was anticipated and far more than those who voted would have been willing to assent to had they taken time to consider the question from all sides.” When documents are so controversial that they split the leadership of the church down the middle (GCDO’s recent 32-30 vote to put these documents on the floor of GCEC), I am very uncomfortable seeing these documents voted and implemented. When nearly half of those at the heart of the mission do not approve the danger of this being a mistake that will cause serous unintended consequences is high.

The reality is that the early church did not operate by vote, they operated by consensus. The only vote mentioned in the Bible (to my knowledge) is mentioned in Acts 26:10. There we are told that Paul cast his vote in the Sanhedrin in favor of punishing Stephen (who ended up stoned to death). The early church operated by consensus, talking things over until a solution appeared that most or all of the leaders could agree with. This is what happened in Acts 15. Having said that, it is probably impossible to govern a voluntary organization of 20 million members by consensus. But there is an alternative. Making all substantive actions dependent on a super-majority of two-thirds or even 75%. If 75% are needed to approve something, leaders will have to work hard to find common ground and will be less likely to push actions that can split the church. But that is a discussion for another day.

So what happens if these documents are approved? I would hope that they would be implemented on the Gamaliel Principle. In Acts 5:29-39, the Sanhedrin determined to execute the apostles for preaching Jesus as the Messiah. Gamaliel, one of the most respected members of the Sanhedrin, warned against that. He indicated that if the apostles work was of God, it would succeed regardless of what the Sanhedrin did with the apostles. If their work was not of God, it would fail. In other words he was saying, “Put these differences in God’s hands. Let Him demonstrate that this new direction has His blessing. Don’t put yourselves in the place of God.” Such an approach would allow for some reprimand and even punishment, but in the end allow the diversity to live and prove itself. Coercing the conscience does more harm than the behavior you are trying to control.

But what if these documents and procedures don’t pass, what if they are rejected? Are we doomed to have drama every Fall until the Lord comes? Surely there is a better alternative. If these documents fail (it looks to me as if it could go either way), I suggest members on all sides lay aside pride and go back to 2010 in spirit. In sports this is sometimes called a “do over.” Knowing what we know now, what would we have done differently? Do we love each other enough to respect the consciences of all? Is there a way to treat women equally without ordaining them? There are proposals out there that accomplish that. Perhaps with both sides tweaking such proposals we can come to a consensus that frees all consciences to pursue the mission of the church without reservations. We can respect the biblical convictions of both sides and find a way forward together. Ordination, after all, is not a biblical concept (the 2015 document voted in San Antonio stated exactly that) and adds no power or prestige to a pastor. It merely indicates that the person has the church’s approval to speak in its behalf. In a practical sense the church has already given that approval the day it hires a person. So ordination is more of an honorary element than a functional one. Would we split the church over who gets a badge of honor and who does not? Seems rather silly when you put it that way. In my view, the way out of the current impasse is to reverse the actions all have taken since 2010, at least in theory, and see if there is a middle road that we could have chosen then. Perhaps it is not too late to choose it now.

In conclusion, let me briefly reflect on some research I did a few years ago on the leadership language of the New Testament. I studied many books and articles on the subject and did my own wrestling with the New Testament (I ended up with more than a hundred footnotes). What fascinated me in this study was that there are only three passages in the New Testament that give specific principles on how church leadership should function. One of these was more localized, Acts 20:17-35. The other two are core to everything, Matthew 20:25-28 and John 13:13-15. I will close with these two passages, which are self-explanatory. Matt 20:25-28 (context James and John– parallel Mark 10:42-45): “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” John 13:13-15: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”

If These Proposals Are Voted, Where Will They Take Us? (AC18-10)

In reaction to the documents being proposed at Annual Council next week, two main possible outcomes seem to be envisioned; peace with honor and massive centralization of church authority with serious consequences. Those who wrote the document (and many conservatives on issues like women’s ordination) hope for the former, that these processes will achieve peace with honor, a solution to the impasse that has been in place for several years. The processes introduced in the documents provide church leadership a way to show that it is doing something without actually hurting the parts of the church that would be affected by the processes. The long process of working over the documents resulted in many safeguards being introduced against “kingly power.” In reality very little is likely to happen as a result of these new processes.

A careful analysis of the documents seems to support this view of things. In reality, compliance committee action is so cumbersome it is unlikely to get far in most cases. First a recommendation has to move up the ladder from conferences to the GCADCOM. If ADCOM can agree that the problem is serious, they will then refer to the appropriate compliance committee. The committee will then engage the organization that is under scrutiny to investigate the charges, exercise diplomacy, engage in prayer, listening and conversation, allow 60-90 days for a counter-proposal that could resolve the issue. If after all these attempts the problem is resolved the committee will recommend that ADCOM close the case and give its blessing on whatever action had been in question. If the problem is unresolved, the compliance committee can recommend that an entity is “out of compliance” and should be dealt with. If the GCADCOM accepts the recommendation (no sure thing), it would be referred to GCDO (ADCOM plus division officers—about 70 people) which meets once a year before the Annual Council begins. If GCDO accepts the recommendation that an entity is dangerously out of compliance (no sure thing), it is passed on to the Executive Committee (GCEC—300 members from around the world for action at Annual Council. If GCEC approves (no sure thing), the entity receives a warning. If nothing changes, a similar process the following year can result in a reprimand to the president of that entity. If nothing changes, a similar process the following year could result in the president being removed from membership in the GCEC. And that would have to occur on the basis of a two-thirds vote, perhaps a little more likely than the impeachment of an American president in the Senate, but unlikely nevertheless. The safeguards built into the system are such diversity at the lower levels of the church is unlikely to be much affected. Something has been done, but it is a something that, in itself, won’t hinder the work among the minority. The main damage would be psychological and spiritual, the loss of people who would see the whole process as evidence that the church no longer deserves their respect and support.

But what about the more ominous outcome, a slippery slope leading to massive and unintended (by most at least) consequences for the church. This fear arises from a lack of trust in the collective wisdom of church leadership. Is that lack of trust founded? It depends on who you speak to. I don’t think things are this bad, but humor me for a moment on what could happen. Once this process is voted, it will be treated with all the status of policy even if it is not at that level (guidelines). Leadership would then come under pressure from the minority to compel recalcitrant unions to come around even if the process fails to achieve that. The case can be made that leadership itself is out of compliance if any entity is out of compliance and not forced to recant. Pressure could build to vote unions out of the fellowship, in which case a “unity document” could end up splitting the church. Unions out of compliance love the church and want to be part of it. They would never choose to leave, but some might not mind being kicked out and accept that as the will of God. The unity documents could then have forced the very schism in the church that they were designed to avoid.

This scenario reminds me of a story. An Arab in the marketplace of Baghdad was horrified to find himself face to face with Death. Death had terrible look on his face. The man was so frightened he jumped on his horse and rode all the way out of Baghdad to Samarra. Someone else approached Death and asked him why he had given the man such a frightening look. Death replied that he was not trying to frighten the man, he was just surprised. “I was surprised to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him in Samarra tonight.” In fleeing to Samarra the man assured the very outcome that he was trying to avoid. All actions have a reaction and in church history many outcomes ended up far from what those who made those decisions intended. This could be the case with these Annual Council documents. I hope and pray not.

Are Compliance Committees a Step Toward an Adventist Papacy? (AC18-9)

Many are concerned that the proposals coming before the Annual Council are an unwarranted step toward excessive centralization of control, an Adventist Papacy or dictatorship. For them voting these documents is another mistake like the action in 2014. To me, this is overstating the situation. The compliance committees are not arbitrary bodies with the power to search out and punish individuals and groups all over the world. They are actually sub-committees of the GC Administrative Committee. All GC committees are appointed by the ADCOM, so this is not an unusual action. What is unusual is that such an appointment is so widely publicized and so widely noticed. In a sense, these committees do not change anything. They are like consultants to GCADCOM, researching and processing issues that would otherwise have to be dealt with by a single body. The compliance committees cannot investigate any issue unless it is referred to them by the GCADCOM. They cannot investigate complaints and charges coming from individuals or even groups. All compliance complaints must come from a duly constituted executive committee action. They must be the product of more than even the biblical “two or three witnesses.” The compliance committees respond to actions or formal requests from conference, union, or division committees as processed by GCADCOM. As long as they are limited to the GC level, they are not likely to do much harm. But should compliance committees become a reality at all levels of the church, the “authoritarian culture” that Ellen White feared could become a reality in the church.

The idea for compliance committees arose in response to statements made in the floor discussion at the GCEC in 2017. They are an attempt at even-handedness in terms of the compliance issues that would be addressed. And those issues are about more than just ordination. An even bigger issue is finances. People have confidence in the church because it operates on tight financial compliance rules. But as the church has expanded problems in the financial area are increasing and the existing system did not seem capable of dealing with non-compliance in financial matters as each country tends to handle such things differently. The compliance committees are designed as investigative bodies that are supposed to do more than just recommend punishments. They are also tasked with diplomacy, trying to find solutions to problems. In the terms of reference, their primary task is to listen, talk and seek solutions. If they find there is actually no problem, or the problem has been fixed, they can decline to recommend action against an entity or institution. If they find there is a ongoing problem, they can recommend accordingly to GCADCOM, and the warnings, reprimands, and other penalties come into play. But they have no direct authority on their own, they only have power to recommend to the GCADCOM and from there to GCDO and GCEC. So the compliance committees actually add an additional layer of consideration and process. It is not a dictatorial or papal approach.

One of the greatest misunderstandings about these proposals is the idea that it has to do with individuals. A colleague of mine said to me recently, “Maybe neither of us will be working here anymore next year.” Such a conclusion is easy to draw from the panic in many of the media reports. But individuals and interest groups are excluded from lodging complaints with the compliance committees and their terms of reference clearly specify that individuals and groups are not in the cross-hairs of these committees as such. They are concerned with non-compliance in official voted actions of institutional executive committees. As the terms of reference state: “GC compliance review committee with doctrine, policies, statements, and guidelines for church organizations and institutions. . .
. . . teaching creation/origins
. . . regarding homosexuality
. . . regarding issues of ordination
. . . with GC core policies
. . . with distinctive beliefs”

The compliance committees are dealing with issues related to institutions when they take official positions against the church, its teachings and its policies. Example of this are the following: Choosing to ordain women before the world church makes that an option, conferences choosing to withhold tithe for their own use, single signatures on major financial transactions (where one person has total control), or a church body deciding they no longer believe in the Trinity. Two committees have already been tasked to act, the one on ordination and the one on core policies. A third issue is in discussion and may been announced shortly, but does not yet have the votes.

Whether or not you like this proposed system, it is not the establishment of an Adventist papacy. The church is not changing its doctrines. It is not significantly changing its structures. It is certainly a move in the direction of centralization. Many leaders believes that such an action is needed at this time because of the perceived slide toward congregationalism (the protestant tendency). Some fears are stoked by the perception that current GC President Ted Wilson is the most powerful president in the last hundred years and that he will use these processes to coerce consciences and enforce uniformity. But the system is filled with safeguards. The hot debate over these issues among top leaders is not for nothing. Those who do not trust Elder Wilson, whether conservative or liberal think of him as supremely powerful. But he is not as powerful as both sides assume. I am confident that he does not feel very powerful right now. This proposal is not what he was hoping for. It is the product of collective wisdom, collective debate and collective decision. With all of their flaws these proposals are the best that UOC could come up with in a year of work. So the big question is: If these proposals are voted next week, where will they take the SDA Church?

How Will All This Be Good For the Church? (AC18-8)

To answer this question it is important to review briefly how the General Conference works, how it goes about making decisions. One thing that may not be widely understood among church members is that GC leaders are not generally free to act in an arbitrary fashion. Actions are constrained by what members want and by the actions of previous committees. The church has gradually developed a detailed approach to elections and decision making. In other words, it has agreed on methods of making decisions and of choosing leaders. You and I may not like every decision or every leader, but as two recent American presidents have said, “Elections have consequences.” If you don’t like what the current leaders and systems are doing, you can encouraged your leaders to press for changes or help elect different leaders. The process of change is not an easy one, but over time change can come.

Every Seventh-day Adventist leader has an area of responsibility that is clearly marked out. Pastors are responsible for their local churches. Local conferences are responsible for all the churches in a state or region. Unions are responsible for all the conferences within their territory. Divisions are responsible for all the unions in their territory. And the General Conference is tasked with the issues that concern the entire world church. So leaders at the GC level are tasked to look at the world picture. And, like it or not, the majority of members around the world felt that the situation of non-compliance could not simply be ignored. The world church needed to do SOMETHING. There needed to be consequences for non-compliance. The documents being proposed exist because the world church requested them. They are certainly not perfect, and it is possible that no one is completely happy with this approach, but it was felt that listening to the voice of the church was critical. And a majority of members were frustrated that the GC did not seem to be doing anything. So with this document the GC is trying to show that it IS doing something. To not try would be perceived as a dereliction of duty.

But there is another danger. To be too rigid or to hold too tightly to policy could damage the mission in parts of the world where the majority’s perspective may not be perceived as helpful. The church finds itself caught between those demanding “something” to keep us together and those who feel that they need more flexibility. The goal of these documents is to walk the middle of the debate (whether or not they have succeeded is what the debate will be all about). These documents attempt to do “something” while doing a minimum of harm to the minority in the church. Church leaders feel caught between doing “nothing” and doing “something” that splits the church. The reality is: The substantial majority of church leadership would prefer something other than these documents. But the documents themselves represent a hard-fought compromise. This is what all sides could agree on as “something” that would not be too damaging to the church in other ways.

What is driving the need for “something?” Why are so many church members determined to rein in things being done in other continents of the world? Why not just live and let live? One thing is a fear of what some Adventists call “humanism.” By that they mean everyone believing whatever they want to believe, everyone deciding the truth for themselves. A second driving force is fear of congregationalism, the church fragmenting into small loosely-connected groupings. What the majority of members around the world are saying is that they want the church stay together doctrinally (against “humanism”) and they want the church to stay together structurally (against “congregationalism”). The leaders of the church at the GC level were elected to carry out the consensus of the church membership and that consensus is that the people want to stay together. Actually, that is probably a consensus throughout the church, but people differ as to how best to accomplish that and how much diversity can be allowed. There is provision for diversity in current structure, but finding a place for diversity is not always an easy process. The church is open to dialogue and conversation, but it takes a lot of time and there are a lot of hoops to pass through.

Most members feel that for unions to take arbitrary actions in opposition to world decisions is a step toward congregationalism. This doesn’t play well around the world. The widespread feeling is that when a vote is taken, it needs to mean something. Church policy is the result of processes that have been organized and developed over decades of conversation and listening. The idea of governing by committees is a strong safeguard against arbitrariness and abuse. So in the end, it is argued, policy is a product of the church’s constituency. But that argument needs a caveat. Policy must never master us, we need to master policy. Policy should serve the mission, mission shouldn’t serve policy. When a policy doesn’t work for a sizable minority of the church, forcing a bad policy on many leads to frustration and disunity. But modifying policy so that it serves a larger percentage of the church supports unity.

Developments Over the Last Year (AC18-7)

After the Executive Committee meeting sent back the document a year ago, the leadership and membership of the Unity Oversight Committee was changed and the Committee was tasked to start over and find a better answer to the question, “How should the General Conference respond to non-compliance in entities and institutions of the church?” Many people would have preferred the UOC revisit the decisions in 2014 and 2015 that precipitated the current chain of events. Many would also have preferred the committee revisit the work of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee. But those issues were not in its terms of reference. Its sole mission was to determine the consequences for non-compliance. So whatever document they might have come up with, it was not their job to change the church’s direction, it was to guide the church in how to respond when entities were not in compliance with actions of a GC session or GCEC have already been taken. The documents being proposed are probably not the ones that would have occurred if the committee’s work were open-ended. The documents being put into play were the product of the original question.

The UOC began its work with listening and gathering feedback. It studied transcripts of speeches made at the GCEC in 2017. Every comment was probed for insight into how the world church was reacting to the actions of leadership at all levels. Then the Executive Committee members were polled as to whether there should be consequences for non-compliance and, if so, what kind of consequences there ought to be. Each member of the GCEC was asked not to give their own personal opinions, but to vote on the basis of how they thought the bulk of their members would vote. They were to “vote your constituency.” In the interests of transparency, the results of the poll were shared openly and the polling method came under some criticism, but the results were nevertheless taken seriously by the UOC. The most significant finding was that 66% of the GCEC members thought that there should be consequences for being out of compliance with church policy, in other words, the UOC should do “something.”

It was also agreed that that “something” should be legal and compliant in its own right. It was clear that a loyalty oath would be hard to sell. It was also clear that church policies did not allow for members of an executive committee to be stripped of voice and vote. A leadership that was seeking worldwide compliance needed to abide by its own rules. So legal counsel was sought in all the gray areas. One further legal issue was the accusation on the part of some that the vote in San Antonio (2015) had somehow been “rigged.” While there are anecdotes about parts of the world where leaders dictated how delegates should vote and also that some delegates were deliberately sabotaging the electronic voting system, the actual evidence of rigging has not proven conclusive. But the simple fact that these charges were explored was part of a heightened sense that legality and compliance is a two-way street and that leadership should also be accountable (although that language did not make it into the proposal, at least not explicitly).

Unlike the previous year, as soon as documents were voted or amended this year, they were immediately published online and translated into the twenty languages of the GCEC so that church members in general and GCEC members in particular would have months of time to go over the documents, ask questions and offer feedback. And feedback there has been, some of it quite hot!

The process being suggested also attempts to be even-handed with regard to the issues of non-compliance to be dealt with. This explains the five compliance committees which were selected on the basis of the five major concerns of members around the world: Creation/evolution, ordination, homosexuality, core policies particularly in the area of finances, and distinctive Adventist beliefs. Of those five topics the two considered the most urgent were ordination and church finances, so those two committees have already been tasked with assignments.

But that still leaves open the question, why these documents and not some other remedy? Was this the very best that leadership could come up with? And most importantly, will this be good for the church? We’ll get into these questions next time.

Why the Proposal in 2017 Failed and What the GC Learned from that Failure (AC18-6)

Why did the proposal laying out consequences for non-compliance in 2017 fail? There were a number of reasons. First of all, there was a lack of transparency in the process. The Unity Oversight Committee, which had been tasked with coming up with a document, “received” it from an unspecified location (presumably above) only three days before the Council. The GCEC only got the 14-page document at the time when discussion and voting was to begin. No translations were available, so GCEC members whose first language was other than English had to absorb the document in English (or with simultaneous audio translation) while listening to the discussion and trying to make up their minds all at the same time. Obviously, the document had not received significant review or feedback from UOC, GDCO, or GCEC, so people did not feel ready to assess its implications. While the document was general in focus, it seemed clear that it was aimed primarily at unions who were ordaining women. In the course of discussion, Legal Counsel revealed that 81% of church entities were out of compliance with some policy or other, particularly in the area of finances. So the document did not seem to cover most cases. Questions were also raised whether it was according to policy to remove voice and vote from a member of the GCEC. The latter objection raised the possibility that the document designed to enforce compliance was itself out of compliance. So the GCEC returned the document to UOC for further consideration over the following year.

General Conference leadership learned a great deal from that failure, specifically four things. 1) GC actions need to be transparent. Springing a document on the GCEC at the last minute smelled of manipulation and possibly even an attempt to deceive people into voting for something they didn’t have time to understand. The GCEC made it clear that was unacceptable. 2) GCEC made it clear that leadership needed to be even-handed. A massive new bureaucracy to simply deal with a pet issue of top leadership made no sense, especially when there was widespread violation of policy in other areas. 3) If leadership wanted to have any credibility in dealing with compliance issues, it needed to be legal and compliant itself. Leadership is not above the law. 4) Leadership attempting to force issues or solve problems without wide feedback will not work, not matter how well-intended. Leadership must listen to all levels of the church before acting in behalf of the whole church. Some people wonder if leadership is capable of learning from its mistakes. The actions and events of the following year would help to answer that question.

Key Events of the Last Decade (AC18-5)

Around 2010 the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists requested to be allowed to ordain women in its territory. They argued that it was procedural and not doctrinal (as earlier studies had indicated) so would not need a formal action from the GCEC or a quinquennial session. When Jan Paulsen was reluctant to move forward at that time the request was renewed under the new administration of Ted Wilson. This request, small though it seemed at the time, was the small thing that led to the much larger issue of church governance that we face today. After GC leadership consulted with Legal Counsel, the Division was informed that they did not have the right to deviate from GC consensus. They were just an arm of the General Conference, their authority came from above, they had no constituency (a group of members who elect officials and give guidance). They were not free to make independent decisions.

When this decision was handed down, the lights went on at several unions around the world. Unions have constituencies, their authority flows up from below and they had the constituted authority to decide who could be ordained in their territories. So two North American Unions, first the Columbia Union (mid-Atlantic states) and then the Pacific Union (southwestern states), called constituencies to determine whether they should move forward in ordaining women. The GC president attended both meetings requesting that the constituencies not move forward on such an action. But both constituencies voted by a rough margin of 4 to 1 to move forward in ordaining women in their territories. Others in Europe and NAD voted to ordain, but wait to implement, or initiated creative solutions such as abolishing ordination or creating a new credential that both men and women could hold. General Conference leadership blamed the presidents for allowing such a vote. In their view union presidents are not only subject to their constituencies but also represent the world church and should exercise their authority subject to world church actions. In other words, union presidents have a dual role, they could have simply said, “It is not within my authority to allow this vote.” GC leadership believed that the union presidents involved had failed in their dual commission.

What all this was going on, the GC commissioned TOSC– the theology of ordination study committee and requested all to await its findings in 2015. But several unions refused to wait any longer. So the question arose as to how the world church should respond to these actions. While top leadership wanted to take significant action against the unions, many others preferred other options. So as a compromise, leadership agree to propose a “yes” or “no” vote at the General Conference in San Antonio (2015) on whether divisions could be allowed to decide ordination issues within their territory. After serious debate the measure was passed on to the 2015 session by the GECE in 2014. It was a grand compromise. Many hoped that if the delegates to the session (about 2000 from around the world) voted “yes” everyone could do what they thought the mission required in their territories and everyone would be happy.

I didn’t see it then and neither did anyone else, apparently. But this action would have led to an impasse either way. If the delegates in San Antonio had voted “yes” it would have violated the consciences of those who believed that ordaining women is a crime against the teaching of the Bible. On the other hand, a “no” vote violated the consciences of those who believe that treating women unequally is a crime against the clear teachings of the gospel. So a vote was set up in such a way that either result would create a crisis of conscience for a significant minority in the worldwide church. In retrospect, the action in 2014 appears to have been a serious mistake. A mistake that might be difficult to walk back. The “no” vote in San Antonio has kept us in crisis ever since.

In 2016 some top leaders proposed a “nuclear option,” to either replace the leadership of the unions that were ordaining women with leadership more amenable to the GC line or to disband the unions, set up new ones and ask churches, conferences and members to transfer their membership to the new entity. For legal and other reasons, the initiative failed, never even coming to GCDO or the GCEC. Instead a mild action of prayer, consultation and appeal was voted with the promise of a more severe response to come the following year. Then at the GCEC in 2017, a proposal was brought that would have required all GCEC members to sign a loyalty oath or be publically shamed and suffer the loss of voice and vote in the meeting. The action was seriously resisted by GCDO, passing only by a vote of 36 to 35. After vigorous debate, the attempt to discipline the non-compliant unions was sent back for further review, which is a mild way of saying that it failed. And so the impasse continued.

Unique Challenge to SDA Organization: The Protestant Principle (AC18-4)

A major factor in SDA organization is the fact that Seventh-day Adventists are Protestants and Protestants believe in the “priesthood of all believers.” Unlike Old Testament Israel, the New Testament considers all believers to be priests under the High Priest, Jesus Christ. This principle tends toward localization and fragmentation in organizations with a certain suspicion of any human in authority over others. Proof of the pudding is the fact that Protestant denominations tend to fracture over all kinds of relatively minor things. Even such well known denominations as the Lutherans, Baptists and Methodists are divided into many denominations, the Lutherans into as many as a hundred. As a result, the SDA Church is the only major Protestant denomination with a truly worldwide structure. The only worldwide Christian body that is larger is the Roman Catholic Church. And to compound the tendency to fragmentation, Seventh-day Adventism is on the free-will fringe of Protestantism. So Adventism adds to its Protestantism a strong emphasis on religious liberty and individual conscience. So the SDA denomination is a grand experiment. A Protestant, free-will denomination with a worldwide structure. As the Church gets bigger and bigger that structure is being stretched to the limit. Can Adventists find a way to hold together? Or will it inevitably fragment into regional churches on the Lutheran model?

A Protestant, free-will church will have a tendency to drift toward separation and localization, unless there is something driving in the other direction. That something else is also embedded in Adventist theology and culture. That is the sense of a worldwide mission. The biblical remnant (Rev 12:17) is called to proclaim an end-time gospel message to every nation, tribe, language and people (Rev 14:6). This sense of worldwide mission is a counterpoint to the free-will Protestant principle. The blended style of Adventist organization (tension between global and localized authority) arises from a tension within SDA theology. But the problem with a worldwide structure is that if it becomes too rigid in its operation, it does not allow for the kind of diversity that meets people of various backgrounds where they are. The struggle between the unity a world church needs and the flexibility that the mission requires at the regional level is a tension at the heart of Adventism. And that tension is being played out in the backlash that the recent General Conference proposals have received.

For those who value diversity, the idea of regional Adventist churches linked together under facilitative leadership is very attractive. But the worldwide mission of the SDA Church would be much harder to achieve if the movement fragmented. The SDA mission calls us to hold together, but how? The documents being presented next week are the attempt of a committee to balance competing interests in the General Conference leadership itself and produce a process that can counter the tendency to fragmentation and help hold the Church together. And everyone, I think, recognizes that, structured the way it is, the Church has delegated considerable authority to the General Conference institutions and processes, but that the GC has no authority over individual conscience. How to respect both the authority of top leadership and individual conscience is the context for this battle. And it seems even top leadership is divided down the middle.