Adventists are reading with interest two documents released on Sunday by the General Conference. According to Adventist News Network, General Conference executive secretary G.T. Ng stated, “During Annual Council this year we plan to discuss how best to address divergence from the current policy.”
“A Study of Church Governance and Unity” is a 50 page study. Section headings discuss unity, policy, diversity, authority, authority in the Spirit of Prophecy, unilateralism, and application. The shorter document summarizes the longer.
Since the General Conference vote in 2015 in which delegates forbade divisions of the Church from ordaining women to the gospel ministry, several Unions and Conferences have acted unilaterally toward the world church. A wide range of approaches have been implemented, including inflating the commissioned credential to parity with the ordained minister, the outright ordination of women, changing ordained credentials for commissioned ones, and more. All undermine the unity and mission of the Church.
The Council of Adventist Pastors recommends that readers peruse the full documents (linked to at the end of this article). We also believe that readers will be interested in our highlighting some of the material now being studied by church leaders.
“Policies provide a clear record of what representatives of the world Church have discussed and agreed is essential for the global body to engage effectively in mission and ministry” (p. 9).
“Policy also expresses our unity, for, in the succinct words of a recent statement by world Church leaders, ‘General Conference Session actions and voted policies are agreements that the body of Christ make together’” (p. 9, emphasis in original).
“When God’s people determine whether or not to allow diverse approaches among them, they should make their decision collectively and collaboratively, not unilaterally” (p. 12).
Far from being inessential, policies are a concrete expression of the unity of the Church. It is because the Church invests energy in creating policy that the Church is able to operate an effective global program, and to do so coherently. When variations are permitted, such should be determined on the basis of collective decision-making, not unilateral action.
DECISIONS APPLY TO DIVISIONS, UNIONS, CONFERENCES
Inherent in our system of representative, consultative, consensus-based decision-making is that organizational units and church-member representatives have input into the decisions of organizations at higher levels of structure. However, having had input, reciprocity means that there must be acceptance of the collective decision. Also inherent in the system, then, is that the authority of an organizational unit at any level is plenary in its territory, encompassing all constituent or component organizations at lower levels. The latter are bound by the decisions of the higher-level units of which they form a part, and of any executive committees entrusted by Working Policy with far-reaching authority. . . .the authority of the GC Executive Committee applies not only to divisions, but also to unions, and in consequence to conferences and missions. . . . unions are constitutionally obliged to act in harmony with GC Working Policy (p. 15).
No mission, conference, or union has a right to take unilateral decisions on important matters, or to depart from decisions taken by units at a higher level of structure with wider authority. . . Recognition as a conference/mission or union brings with it decision-making authority in defined areas and the right of representation at higher levels of denominational structure, but ‘status’ is contingent on ‘compliance with denominational practices and policies’ and ‘can be reviewed, revised, amended, or withdrawn by the level of organization that granted it’ (B 05, 3). (p. 16).
These are clear statements that the authority of each part of the church structure attached to the General Conference is derived from it. A decision limiting what a division can do also limits what that division’s unions, that union’s conferences, and that conference’s local churches can do. Authority is limited and derived; we are a world church.
The document also reminds us that the status of a division, union, or conference is subject to that unit’s “compliance with denominational practices and policies.” The document draws an important parallel between Ellen White’s warnings referring to the unilateral actions of J.H. Kellogg and “the current circumstances of unilateral action by Church organizational units.” The GC then says “overly independent, unilateral action poses a special danger to the Seventh-day Adventist Church” (p. 31).
DANGER AND COMPLIANCE
When, after such a process [referring to the TOSC study and GC session voted decision. pp. 40, 41], a GC Session takes a decision, one obviously intended to apply to to the world (since variation in practice was part of the motion put to the Session), it cannot be disregarded. The decision cannot be called a matter of little significance on which everyone could reasonably go their own way. That is because we all, together, considered it, and collectively decided it was not such a matter, but one in which we should act together. The biblical principle of unity in decision-making requires compliance. Whatever our views as individuals, ‘private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered (p. 41).
If we were to sacrifice the overarching principle of representative, collegial, consensus-based decision-making—if we were to accept that organizational units can act unilaterally—then our whole ecclesiastical polity and system of church governance would be in danger of breaking down. Unions would decline to follow divisions’ guidance; conferences will ignore unions when it suits them; local churches would flout conferences or missions (Ibid.).
Longtime readers of OrdinationTruth.com will recognize in the above statements things we have been saying since 2013. At that time the Pacific Union constituency session vote to disregard the 1990 decision not to ordain women was still fresh in our minds and the NPUC was telling members they were going to embark on a plan to “educate members” about a position on women’s ordination which was contrary to that of the world church, and then hold a special constituency session to vote on it. In other words, threatened unilateral action by the Union prompted us to act. We have engaged in a process of study and published those results in support of the world church. The sample quotations above (and there are many more in the documents) help us know that these issues are well understood and that the world church, after much forbearance, is ready to bring Spirit-led correction.
Here are the General Conference documents available for downloading:
A Study of Church Governance and Unity (54 pp.).
Summary of a statement on Church Governance and Unity (17 pp.).