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.