Category Archives: Current Events

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.

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.

A Short History of SDA Organization (AC18-3)

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.

Proposal for Annual Council Next Week (AC18-2)

Two documents are coming up for discussion and vote at the Annual Council of Seventh-day Adventists next week (probably Sunday, October 11). The first spells out the consequences for any entity of the church whose official actions are out of harmony with world church policies. You can read that document here (https://news.adventist.org/fileadmin/news.adventist.org/files/news/documents/113G-Regard-for-and-Practice-of-General-Conference-Session-and-General-Conference-Executive-Committee-Actions.pdf). A second document lays out terms of reference for “compliance committees” that would be tasked to investigate charges of “non-compliance.” These are less interesting but posted here (https://news.adventist.org/fileadmin/news.adventist.org/files/news/documents/Compliance-Committees-Terms-of-Reference.pdf). The General Conference raise eyebrows by appointing five “compliance committees” a month later, before the documents calling for them were even approved. https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/general-conference-issues-statement-compliance-committees. While at first glance all these proposals and actions seem quite alarming, many safeguards have been built in to the processes to prevent many avenues for manipulation and abuse of these regulations and committees. I will try to explain this as we move along.

I share the key points of the first document here. It concerns what should happen when any entity of the church (institutional executive boards or committees) determines that it or another entity is out of compliance with some policy or belief of the church. A number of principles are stated first. 1) Complaints must arise by vote of an executive committee of the church and be expressed in writing. These are executive committees of conferences, unions, divisions and the General Conference Administrative Committee (also known as GCADCOM– a body of roughly 25 people that runs the day to day operations of the General Conference). Complaints are not to be taken seriously if arising from an individual or a committee outside the above parameters. And they must be made in writing. These are extremely important safeguards against abuse (and any regulation like this has potential for manipulation and abuse of power so safeguards are critical). These investigations are not to be based on disgruntled individuals or vague accusations.

2) Oversight for compliance falls to the nearest entity to the complaint. If a problem arises in a church, that is the responsibility of the conference, if a problem arises in a conference that is the responsibility of the union above it. If a problem arises in a union that is the responsibility of the division above it and so forth. If the problem is not resolved at that level it can be addressed at the levels above it and so on up the chain. The location of last resort is the GCADCOM, which could vote to refer the issue to the appropriate compliance committee for investigation and recommendation. A side note: for those not familiar with the SDA Church structure, there are six levels. The lowest level is the church member, then local churches, then conferences, then unions, then divisions and then the General Conference itself. The idea is that addressing problems should happen at the nearest level, but this document sets up a mechanism for higher entities to deal with lower issues if it is felt that intermediate entities are not dealing with the problem. That is a major change in church practice.

3) The process for dealing with non-compliance is to involve prayer and dialogue, confirmation of all charges and responses in writing, allowance of 60 days for a suspect entity to explain what they are doing, change it, or lay out a plan for change. The document calls for all that to be done in a supportive atmosphere, even allowing an extra 30 days when needed. If that process fails it is bumped up to the next higher entity (union, division or GCADCOM). If GCADCOM cannot resolve the issue it is referred to the appropriate compliance committee to investigate, work with the non-compliant entity, or recommend consequences for continued non-compliance. There is also room for an appeal of such a recommendation.

If GCADCOM concludes that there is continued non-compliance in the entity under review, it can recommend to the GC Executive Committee (GCEC– at Annual Council) consequences of progressive severity. 1) A warning to the entity, not just its president, that it is out of compliance and could face consequences. 2) If that does not change anything, the GCEC could vote a public reprimand. This would mean that at future meetings of the GCEC, the president of that entity would be placed in a “reprimanded” category on the attendee list and a public announcement of the same would occur at the commencement of the week-long meeting. This is a softening of the original proposal to make a public announcement of reprimand every time the president of the non-compliant entity gets up to speak. 3) If the non-compliance continues, at the next meeting the president of that entity could be “removed for cause.” The concept of “cause” is expanded from moral impropriety to non-compliance with a particular policy, but would require a two-thirds majority to implement, so this would be hard to do. If the president of a non-compliant union, for example, is removed from membership on the GCEC, other members of that union who are on the GCEC would retain their voice and vote. In terms of the Pacific Union, people like Pastor Randy Roberts and LLU President Richard Hart would retain their voice and vote even if the president of their union (currently Ricardo Graham) lost his position on the committee. And conference presidents from that union would retain voice in the meeting, as appropriate under current regulations.

Compliance Review Committees have been appointed to oversee five areas: 1) The teaching creation/origins, 2) policies regarding homosexuality and 3) ordination, 4) GC core policies (particularly concerned with finances), and 5) distinctive beliefs. The current membership of those committees can be found here (https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/general-conference-issues-statement-compliance-committees.). We will have more to say about these later.

The big unresolved question for me is: Who holds the president and/or GCADCOM accountable? No mention of such is made in this document, which suggests a top-down privilege that has high potential for abuse and manipulation. Based on past experience, the first line of defense when a president is “out of compliance” is the General Conference Treasurer, who needs to sign all financial transactions (money is a major compliance issue of course). The General Counsel’s office, with its team of lawyers, also keeps watch on the president. If the GCADCOM does something inappropriate, the GCDO (General Conference and Division Officers Committee—about 70 people) reviews all GCADCOM decisions before they get on the floor of the GCEC. A couple days ago the GCDO voted to pass on the above documents by a vote of 32 in favor, 30 opposed, and 2 abstentions, a razor-thin margin. It appears that top leaders of the church are divided on the usefulness of these documents. Going forward without address who holds the president and GCADCOM accountable may be one reason for the great hesitation, even among those who helped craft the document. Next time, a short history of SDA Church organization is needed to understand what is happening now.

Annual Council 2018 Preview (AC18-1)

Today at 10:30 AM PDT I will be presenting a journalistic overview of the documents being presented at the General Conference (of SDAs) Annual Council in Battle Creek and their history in the larger setting of current issues in the Adventist Church. http://lluc.org/watch-live.html I thought it would be helpful to put these things in writing as we approach the day of the fateful vote. For those who are not Seventh-day Adventists, you may want to take a on this series regarding the Adventist Church, although it is a fascinating account of how large voluntary groups address difficult issues (see Acts 15 for a similar situation—Pastor Roberts will be preaching on that text at 9 AM and 11:45 AM this morning, also live streamed). I will post a summary of my remarks in twelve parts beginning here. My series on LGBTIQ issues is not over, but I am taking a break to bring this material to you.

Pastor Roberts of the Loma Linda University Church has asked me to perform this task because he was not able to secure a speaker from among those who created the document. He asked me to study all available materials, interview as many key people as I could (for background on condition of anonymity) and report as objectively and fairly as possible. So this is a journalistic report. I will do my best not to color the account with my own opinions, but share the essence of the documents and the larger context that brought them into existence, along with the forces in the church that were driving leadership in this direction. Journalism seems increasingly under threat these days, but it is still useful in educating the public to the issues behind the strident voices in a community. I will share my own views on a penal this afternoon at 3 PM.

I bring a major assumption to the task. First, I personally trust the collective wisdom of SDA Church leadership. I have differences of opinion with many church leaders, but collectively they tend to get things fairly right, even if their processes and motivations are not always understood in the trenches. If you don’t agree with my assumption, you may not like where I will be going, but I take that assumption from knowing all the key players and seeing how they operate behind closed doors. There is one major exception to this compliment, which I will share as we move along.

Much of this presentation will likely be new to most people. As I have interviewed people I have been startled at how badly I myself misread the documents the first couple of times. The original document on regard for and practice of GC actions is here: https://news.adventist.org/fileadmin/news.adventist.org/files/news/documents/113G-Regard-for-and-Practice-of-General-Conference-Session-and-General-Conference-Executive-Committee-Actions.pdf One reason the document has been widely misread, even by independent media is that it is extremely dense. The intent was a half-page document, but after a long period of working over it, the committee ended up with three pages and nearly every word or phrase was fought over. So each word is probably significant to somebody on the Unity Oversight Committee. Every word and phrase is a potential battleground. So I needed people to walk me through the document and explain its significance. Before that I read selectively, focusing on things that jumper out at me. And I read it through a distorted lens of opinion pouring out from at least five media sources (AR, ANN, Spectrum, Adventist Today, Fulcrum7). After some oral explanation, the document looked very different to me, and I will do my best to explain in this series. The document will be voted up or down on Sunday October 14.

For me the biggest surprise is that no one is really defending the document and its parallel document on the formation of compliance committees. Why? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it is because no one, even on the committee, is excited about this document. It represents a hard-fought compromise. It is not exactly what anyone wanted. Nevertheless, there is a good chance it will pass on October 14. Why? And how did we get to this place? Stay tuned.

Waco and My Family

In spite of many differences, Koresh’s free-wheeling use of proof-texts from the Bible, interspersed with quotations from Ellen White, mean he was a bit more Adventist than most Adventists would like. The Branch Davidians kept the Sabbath, were vegetarians, abstained from tobacco, alcohol and most drugs, were constantly talking about Bible prophecy, and believed that the King James Bible was the only true and authoritative version. The Branch Davidians were culturally very similar to the most conservative of Adventists.

This came home powerfully to me when my family and I spent two weeks in New York City in 1999. As a family we stayed in a small apartment behind and above my childhood church, now called Church of the Advent Hope, in Manhattan. One evening the kids (12, 14 and 17 at the time) got a little bored, so I went down the street and rented the documentary “Waco: Rules of Engagement.” I had seen it at a scholarly conference (where I met James Tabor) some time before and thought they would find it interesting. The documentary includes footage of both federal attacks and also video from inside the compound between the two attacks (February 28 and April 19).

My children were not easily frightened by videos, but this documentary completely traumatized them. They couldn’t sleep the whole night afterward. When I questioned them about it later, they emphasized several things. The Davidians inside the compound talked and acted so “Adventist.” As children in Sabbath School they had been taught that the end-time persecution was coming, and it would affect them personally. To them the video was evidence that what they had been taught was beginning to happen. So when my children saw the charred bodies of Davidian children, they identified very strongly with them and feared that the end-time persecution was about to happen. Koresh in many ways deviated strongly from Adventism, but the similarities are troubling. While commitment and faithfulness are important things, in an end-time context they can be carried too far.

Eschatology and the Last Day Prophet

Eschatology and the Last Day Prophet

As time passed after Waco, I learned more about the theology of David Koresh. Koresh did not have much formal training in the Bible, but he had the ability to memorize large portions of the Bible and to explain in a convincing manner texts that puzzled most people, like the Seals and Trumpets of Revelation and chapter 11 of the book of Daniel. Koresh was particularly fascinated by the seven seals of Revelation. In many ways he was a man of contradictions. He could enforce strict dietary rules on his community, but break them on a whim. He could be lovable one moment and scary the next. He was funny sometimes and deadly serious at other times. He was very spiritual much of the time but could be quite carnal at other times. This led some to call him “the sinful Messiah.”

Koresh did not believe that he was Jesus Christ re-incarnated, as many have come to think, but he believed he was the end-time Cyrus (Koresh) who would come from the east (Isa 45:1-4; Dan 11:44-45; Rev 16:12) and be God’s final messenger on earth. He considered himself the last in a line of such messengers as Luther, John Knox, John Wesley, Ellen White and Victor Houteff, the founder of the breakaway Adventist movement (“Shepherd’s Rod”) that spawned the Branch Davidians (see accompanying photo). He reported that on a trip to Jerusalem in 1985, God gave him a vision of seven angels anointing him (the biblical Cyrus was God’s anointed messenger [Isa 45:1] as the last living prophet on earth. The Bible, in his view, was full of clues as to just when and how Jesus would return and how His people were to prepare. End-time salvation would come from believing Koresh’s message regarding the seven seals of Revelation (Rev 6:1 – 8:1), which he considered the last message to a lost world. The practical aspect of the message was to “endure to the end, no matter what the cost” (Matt 10:22), and so find end-time salvation. He was raising up an exclusive end-time people who would become God’s sole channel of salvation. They were the bearers of “present truth.”

As God’s last-day prophet, he anticipated a violent, apocalyptic end to his life. Death was not something he feared, he believed it was part of the path God had laid out for him. His death would come at the hands of end-time “Babylon” (Rev 17:1-5). He saw that Babylon everywhere; in mainstream religion, the US government, and even in his former spiritual home, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Apparently his view of God allowed him to believe that taking up arms to defend “the truth” was in harmony with God’s plan for the end of time. In this belief he deviated greatly from the end-time convictions of Seventh-day Adventists, who have been largely pacifist from the beginning. SDAs believe that deliverance in the end-time will not come from guns, but from direct deliverance by God.