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. And sometimes, even in the context of the church, change is necessary. For example, it may be about time that your church begins to use a software such as CCB that can help organize and manage events in the church all in one place.

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.

6 thoughts on “How Will All This Be Good For the Church? (AC18-8)

  1. Nathan L Krause

    I appreciate the balanced perspective you have articulated here. Another factor in this big picture which complicates the whole thing is the apparent (or perceived) misrepresentation of the TOSC which occurred in San Antonio, 2015.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      GC leadership points to the publication of the three TOSC positions ahead of time, but TOSC’s work was not the foundation of the action, so you at least partly right.

  2. Paul Carlson

    “And, like it or not, the majority of members around the world … ”

    Hi Jon, two questions to perhaps a clarify some things. I’m just thinking out loud. 🙂

    1) A majority of the elected representatives in 2015 voted to not allow divisions (GC administrative units) to make decisions about ordination without regard to gender. But did a majority of members (lay members?) around the world make the decision to actually *detail* what kind of consequence should happen for those unions who acted differently than GC wanted them to? Maybe I missed something. It seems to me that the actual decision for “consequences” has been on the level of Annual Council, with most of the inspiration and prompting from GC Ad Com, etc. Is that “the majority of members around the world”?

    2) Is there any collective wisdom to weigh the relative strength of a union whose constituency has a very high percentage of lay representation versus that of a GC session which has a relatively much lower percentage of lay leadership, but which is mostly delegates elected to represent institutional and organizational sub-divisions of the church? I guess I’m asking about that from the view point of the theoretical “firewall.” How good is the firewall? (if there is any legal basis for it.)

    Just wondering 🙂

    P.S. I was a student of yours in seminary back in the late ’80s. Good memories!

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      The question on the floor in 2015 was whether or not divisions could have flexibility on issues like ordination. The question since then is what to do if entities take official actions contrary to that voted decision. It was felt that this poll supported taking “some” action, but did not give detailed advice on what that action should be.
      According to a professional poll, 52% of members in South America favor women’s ordination, but I suspect the union presidents voted otherwise in the poll the GC took. So the “will of the people” is still a bit suspect, and I’d prefer we not take punitive actions based on a slim majority. That is a formula for division and pain.


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