An Open Letter to Non-Compliant Church Leaders

On October 14, 2018, from my quiet home nestled in the rugged forests of north Idaho, I watched online with deep interest the many speeches – for and against – the controversial non-compliance document voted upon at our Annual Council in Battle Creek, Michigan. As we all know, the final tally was 185 for, 124 against. The gist of this document states that church leaders who choose not to abide by voted decisions of General Conference Sessions or Executive Committee actions should be properly disciplined.

Shortly after the October 14 vote, NAD officials stated publicly that they were against the document, in spite of the vote. Although prior votes against ordaining women occurred during the 1990, 1995, and 2015 General Conference sessions, NAD leaders essentially declared, “We can’t submit to those votes. We’re still going to ordain women.” The Pacific Union Conference also produced a video taking a similar stand for the ordination of women, and against non-compliance disciplinary procedures.   

These church leaders are basically saying, “Our consciences tell us that it is fair and right to ordain women, and that we must not discriminate against them, regardless of what the World Church votes.” To some, the possibility that the General Conference would actually enforce compliance is considered ‘papal,’ ‘an abuse of power,’ ‘anti-Protestant,’ ‘heavy handed,’ or even a prelude to persecution.  

If I was on the floor at the Annual Council on October 14 and had a chance to speak at a microphone, I would have said something like this:  

To those of you who are against the compliance document, I want to ask this question: If the vote goes your way, and the document is voted down, how would you feel if the GC decided to ignore your votes and set up compliance committees anyway? Would you think that was fair and right? I assume not. On the other hand, if the vote doesn’t go your way, are you willing to abide by it?  

Recent NAD/PUC and other post-vote statements from a growing number of conferences and unions make it clear that the answer of many is, “No, we won’t abide by a vote that we disagree with.”

 This is why I’m writing this open letter.

To my respected brothers and sisters in the NAD, PUC, and throughout the world field, this doesn’t seem right to a large host of Seventh-day Adventists within the NAD and around the world who are watching this unfolding controversy. Angels are watching, too, as is the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit. Again, I realize that many of your consciences are telling you to do what you are doing, but we have consciences, too. And our consciences are telling us that what you are doing isn’t right. Notice this key quote from the Spirit of Prophecy:

 At times, when a small group of men entrusted with the general management of the work have, in the name of the General Conference, sought to carry out unwise plans and to restrict God's work, I have said that I could no longer regard the voice of the General Conference, represented by these few men, as the voice of God. But this is not saying that the decisions of a General Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field, should not be respected. God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority. The error that some are in danger of committing, is in giving to the mind and judgment of one man, or of a small group of men, the full measure of authority and influence that God has vested in His church, in the judgment and voice of the General Conference assembled to plan for the prosperity and advancement of His work. 9T, 261

 It’s no secret that prior to 1901, the General Conference was top heavy. A “small group of men” made decisions which did not reflect the mind of God. But then a change was made, and responsibilities were more evenly distributed. Now, decisions are made by “an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field.” According to the Spirit of Prophecy, such decisions “have authority”—and this is the very authority which “God has vested in His church.”

But what if we personally disagree with such decisions?

What then?

 Here’s an inspired answer: 

But when, in a General Conference, the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence, contrary to the decision of the general body. 9T, 260 

 Personally, I believe in the Spirit of Prophecy. For me, I’ve settled that issue. “Believe His prophets,” says the Bible in 2 Chronicles 20:20. In the inspired paragraph quoted above, we have God’s counsel saying that even if we disagree, “private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered.” To me, this is the crux of the matter. We humans are naturally stubborn. I’ve seen this tendency in myself, too. Yet God is working with me—big time—and I’m slowly learning the lesson of surrendering to, rather than stubbornly resisting, His will.  

When I read what many of our church leaders have stated about events on October 14, it seems that many feel it is a “virtue” to stand firmly for women’s ordination, and against the vote, no matter what the cost. They stress that they must follow their “values.” Yet God’s messenger wrote that, “Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence, contrary to the decision of the general body.” “Never” means “never.” The Spirit of Prophecy also warns that:   

There have ever been in the church those who are constantly inclined toward individual independence. They seem unable to realize that independence of spirit is liable to lead the human agent to have too much confidence in himself and to trust in his own judgment rather than to respect the counsel and highly esteem the judgment of his brethren, especially of those in the offices that God has appointed for the leadership of His people. God has invested His church with special authority and power which no one can be justified in disregarding and despising, for he who does this despises the voice of God. AA, 163, 164 

 Here we are told that some “seem unable to realize” the danger of “independence of spirit.” By contrast, God says we should “respect the counsel and highly esteem the judgment of [our] brethren, especially of those in the offices that God has appointed for the leadership of His people.” Again, it is “God” who “has invested His church with special authority and power,” which “no one can be justified in disregarding and despising, for he who does despises the voice of God.” “No one” is justified in such a course. “No one” means not one.  

 This makes me shudder.

 What shall be the end of these things?

 No doubt you’ve heard the proverbial saying, “The devil is in the details.” Which details is our ancient enemy in the midst of?

Oh, how Satan would rejoice if he could succeed in his efforts to get in among this people and disorganize the work at a time when thorough organization is essential and will be the greatest power to keep out spurious uprisings and to refute claims not endorsed by the Word of God! LDE, 47

 We should ponder this prayerfully. First, Satan wants “to get in” and “disorganize” our church. This is his satanic plan. But God points in the opposite direction. He knows that “thorough organization is essential” and that it is needed to become “the greatest power to keep out spurious uprisings.” Spurious uprisings? Are we are witnessing this today within God’s Church?  

Brothers and sisters, we should all realize that we each have front row seats in The Great Controversy. Not only that, but we are all Players in the Game. EGW also wrote: 

Divisions will come in the church. Two parties will be developed. The wheat and tares grow up together for the harvest. Last Day Events, 172 

 The sober reality is that “Divisions” have come. “Two parties” are being developed. On the bright side, this has been predicted in the Spirit of Prophecy. Nothing surprises God. He knows the end from the beginning, and He has told us that such a state of things would arrive. Just to clarify—I’ve also learned from reading my Bible (see Matthew 7:1) that it is not my place to condemn anyone. That is God’s work; but we must be discerning. While we should love everyone, and not judge others, we must also seek to agree with what God says. Notice this: 

Satan well knows that success can only attend order and harmonious action. He well knows that everything connected with heaven is in perfect order, that subjection and thorough discipline mark the movements of the angelic host. It is his studied effort to lead professed Christians just as far from heaven's arrangement as he can; therefore he deceives even the professed people of God and makes them believe that order and discipline are enemies to spirituality… 

All the efforts made to establish order are considered dangerous, a restriction of rightful liberty, and hence are feared as popery. These deceived souls consider it a virtue to boast of their freedom to think and act independently. They will not take any man's say-so. They are amenable to no man. Counsels to the Church, 245

 Shockingly, these are the exact arguments we are hearing today against “all the efforts” to establish compliance! This isn’t a good sign. Any process to discipline the non-compliant is “considered dangerous, a restriction of rightful liberty” and is to be “feared as popery.” Once again, our prophetess has supernaturally hit the proverbial nail on the head. She also wrote that those who think that “order and discipline are enemies to spirituality” are “deceived souls” who have succumbed to Satan’s “studied effort” to trick us on this exact point. How frightening. Again, while we shouldn’t judge individuals, we must beware of Satan’s arts. Deception is subtle—especially self-deception. I know what this is like, for it has happened to me in the past. We should pray for each other, and for ourselves, that God will open blind eyes.

Unless the churches are so organized that they can carry out and enforce order, they have nothing to hope for in the future. Last Day Events, 46.

 Here God’s messenger wrote that “enforcing order” isn’t one of Lucifer’s malicious tricks. It is God’s will. Without it, we have “nothing to hope for in the future.”  

I’m a father. My wife’s name is Kristin, and our children are Seth (age 14) and Abby (age 10). Kristin and I love our children more than words can express, and we are doing our best to teach them the way of the Lord. In our home, we have family worship every morning and evening. Although our family isn’t perfect, our children are submissive and cooperative. We also enjoy lots of hugs, kisses, and proper affection. Overall, our home is a peaceful place.  

One time, when Seth was only three years old, he became upset and threw himself down on the floor, throwing a little temper tantrum. I won’t go into details, but his bottom soon felt the discipline of, not the NAD, but of DAD. Thankfully, he was quickly cured of such antics. Was I acting papal? Anti-Protestant? Restrictive of his liberty? I don’t think so. Jesus Christ Himself is a loving, firm disciplinarian, who says to His last, Laodicean Church: 

As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline: be earnest therefore, and repent (Revelation 3:19).

Here our Lord Jesus Christ tells Laodiceans that rebuke and discipline are a sign of His love. Because I lovingly disciplined little Seth, this has contributed to peace and unity in our home.

Think of it. Lucifer’s problem was his refusal to humbly submit to God’s legitimate authority. In Heaven, “he determined never again to acknowledge the authority of Christ.” PP, 41. Those who receive the mark of the beast refuse to keep the Sabbath, which is “a sign of [God’s] authority.” GC, 449. The 5th commandment “also enjoins respect for ministers and rulers and for all others to whom God has delegated authority.” PP, 308. Thus refusing to respect authority is a violation of God’s law. It’s a deep sin issue. And as we all know, those who persistently choose the perilous paths of sin place themselves on the devil’s side.  

Consider this: 

If pride and selfishness were laid aside, five minutes would remove most difficulties. Early Writings, 119

 Think of it—this whole mess can be solved in five minutes! In this light, I make this open appeal to my fellow ‘non-compliant’ church leaders in our conferences, unions, and divisions. Why not simply say:

 God loves and values men and women equally.

 Jesus Christ suffered and died for us all, and we will continue to encourage women in biblical ministry roles.

 But we won’t ordain them.

 We respect the vote.

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Pastor Steve Wohlberg is a graduate of La Sierra College (1982) and Andrews Seminary (1985). He was ordained as a Seventh-day Adventist minister in the Dakota Conference (1991), and is now the Speaker/Director of White Horse Media. White Horse Media is a supportive ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a member of ASI.