On October 25, 2018, a specially called meeting occurred at the main auditorium of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan. North American Division (NAD) president Dan Jackson, Seminary dean Jiri Moskala, and Andrews University president Andrea Luxton each reacted negatively to the Compliance policy voted by the General Conference Executive Committee on October 14.
The bulk of the hour-and-a-half meeting with students and faculty consisted of a question and answer session. This article considers an illuminating exchange between Jackson and a Seminary student from Kenya. The substance of that question and answer was:
AFRICAN PASTOR: Why do you participate in a representative democratic process, but when the result does not come out the way you desire, you disregard that representative democratic process?
NAD PRESIDENT: You respect a democratically reached decision, and that's fine for people from your culture. Americans don't think that way.
(The verbal exchange can be reviewed by watching the video or in the transcription included at the end of this article.1)
The NAD president praised the pastor for his African culture but then told him that, being from Africa, he wouldn't understand American thinking. The NAD president asserted as an example of this different thinking his refusal to take strong action to address the unauthorized actions of Southeastern California Conference (SECC) disregarding the world church. The NAD president stated that, were he to attempt to remove conference officers in Southeastern California Conference (who have exceeded their authority in electing a woman president, among other things.2), that he, the NAD president, would be ripped limb-from-limb by the SECC constituency.
In my opinion, the NAD president's response is glaringly condescending, elitist, and maybe worse. But my goal is to react practically and pastorally to the president's expressed understanding of church governance. So long as he and fellow travelers press forward the radical understanding of church governance they are acting on, there is little hope for unity in the world body.
Are Representative Democratic Processes Optional for the Church?
What conclusion can be drawn from the comments of the NAD president but that, in his view, democratic processes are to be disregarded when there is strong opposition to a voted action? And yet, how can the church function in a representative democratic fashion if decisions reached through that process are ignored? These processes are foundational to civilized people. It is extremely destabilizing and disunifying for the president of the NAD to act on such views.
God has gifted the Seventh-day Adventist Church with a unique system of church governance. It has served us well. The system is not arbitrary; it has not been invented on the fly. Ellen White describes it:
Every member of the church has a voice in choosing officers of the church. The church chooses the officers of the state conferences. Delegates chosen by the state conferences choose the officers of the union conferences, and delegates chosen by the union conferences choose the officers of the general conference. By this arrangement every conference, every institution, every church and every individual, either directly or through representatives, has a voice in the election of the men who bear the chief responsibilities in the General Conference (Testimonies, vol. 8, pp. 236-237).
The Church Manual highlights an important fact:
In Seventh-day Adventist Church structure, no organization determines its own status, nor does it function as if it had no obligations to the Church family beyond its boundaries (Church Manual, p. 27).
The Seventh-day Adventist form of governance is representative, which recognizes that authority rests in the membership and is expressed through duly elected representatives at each level of organization, with executive responsibility delegated to representative bodies and officers for the governing of the church at each separate level (Ibid., p. 26).
The Adventist form of church governance distributes authority, not to popes or bishops, but to the members and to their representatives. Ultimate authority remains with the largest representative group, the meeting in General Conference Session. Ours is not a loose confederation of national churches. The church is global. Representative democratic process is essential to Adventist church governance.
What the current NAD president appears to propose would mean for the church to operate as a loose grouping of national churches rather than a united global church. He seems to call for an African church, an American Church, an Asian church, and so on. Once we go down that road, what keeps us from becoming a buffet of churches so loosely connected as to not be connected? That approach would take us backwards to the book of Judges where everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
Cultural Bubble Churches?
The NAD president seems to propose that the church reinvent itself as a collection of disparate entities, each one ecclesiologically sovereign over its own cultural bubble. Accordingly, he suggests that the NAD exists in a cultural bubble where representative democratic votes can be ignored when we disagree, while Adventists in Africa exist in a different cultural bubble where members go along with what is voted.
Or, perhaps the NAD president was trying to say that North Americans have not become united over the question of women's ordination yet. That would be true. But for the past several years NAD officers have communicated to the world field that Americans are essentially united on the question, which argues against understanding the NAD president's comments that way.
If that is what he meant, it should be remembered that several years were given to studying the issue before the 2015 General Conference Session. That was the time to work toward a consensus. And yet, the arguments of the NAD in support of women's ordination have never been persuasive to the majority of North Americans, let alone the majority of world church members. Christians need to exercise the humility to surrender a point when we've not made our case.
In either case, the fact is that entities in the NAD and in TED are acting in open disregard for the 2015 vote. Is it permissible for church members in the NAD to disregard such votes? We cannot continue that way. The overwhelming percentage of North American members, and of Adventists everywhere on planet earth, continues to strongly support the representative democratic process which has been so successful in advancing the work of God.
The practice of disregarding certain votes letting church belief and practice conform to differing cultural expectations in different corners of the globe would be an abandonment of our mission to take a unified three angel’s message to all the world. Fragment the church, and the worldwide mission is over.
The 2018 Annual Council Decision
But let's turn to the subject of the Seminary meeting--the 2018 Annual Council decision to initiate a process for holding insubordinate entities accountable. What are the facts?
Far from the General Conference making an authoritarian power grab on October 14, what has been happening is that the pro-women's ordination faction which controls the NAD/TED (Trans-European Division) leadership group, is usurping authorities never granted it. By its voted actions it is imposing its will upon the denomination. Leaders in these regions which are ordaining women or creating unauthorized credentials, are acting out a radicalized, unauthorized change in Adventist church governance.
If, in the end, that faction is successful, the church will have abandoned its God-given representative system and the mission it supports. Laying aside our longstanding representative democratic processes when we don't like the outcome of the process will create chaos. If the divisions and unions do not respect these mutually-agreed decision-making processes, what basis remains for conferences and local churches to respect them? This is why the General Conference Executive Committee is intervening.
What shall we make of the NAD president's analogy of lions rending leaders limb-from-limb? The action of the SECC Conference in making Ms. Roberts "president" is illegitimate. The next higher level body would be entirely justified in removing "for cause" officers which have disregarded the required wording for the constitution and bylaws for that Conference. But in the case of the SECC, the next higher group is the Pacific Union, which is also in rebellion. The next level after that is the North American Division.
No one forced the current NAD president to serve as president. Those who accept leadership responsibilities will at times need to risk being pulled apart by lions. In such cases it will clarify to call to mind Aaron's excuse for creating the golden calf, and the inspired rejoinder:
Aaron endeavored to shield himself by relating the clamors of the people; that if he had not complied with their wishes, he would have been put to death. . . . If Aaron had had courage to stand for the right, irrespective of consequences, he could have prevented that apostasy. If he had unswervingly maintained his own allegiance to God, if he had cited the people to the perils of Sinai, and had reminded them of their solemn covenant with God to obey His law, the evil would have been checked. But his compliance with the desires of the people and the calm assurance with which he proceeded to carry out their plans, emboldened them to go to greater lengths in sin than had before entered their minds (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 321, 324).
Possibly Jackson would have been torn limb-from-limb by the people. He might have been rewarded with a better resurrection (Hebrews 10:35). But a major difference between his situation and ours today is that, while Aaron was reticent to construct the golden calf, the current NAD president is immovably determined to implement women's ordination.
Cowardice is only a soft form of rebellion. The hard form refuses all overtures of reason and duty and plows onward creating wreckage. It is time for the NAD/TED to stand down and accept the decision of the world church. There are no signals that this is in the offing.
In conclusion, I want to assure the pastor from Africa that most North Americans do not think as described by the NAD president. We do follow a representative democratic process of church governance. Any other course than this destroys the fabric of our unity as a global body.
What the world church now faces is that some leadership in NAD/TED have a radicalized understanding of church governance and so have acted with relentless determination in an illegitimate manner. They are determined to obtain the goal to which they are captive and by which they hold the church captive.
The church has to decide whether it will stop them or surrender to their usurpation of power.
AFRICAN PASTOR: "Why allow yourself to be a part of a process and we call it democracy where a vote is taken and after the vote, you say, No, it is not my way so I have to do my way? . . You've come from the Annual Council and everybody has given their perspective, a vote has been taken, and it did not come out the way your expect, and you say, you know what? We are not taking that, we will still do what we want to do. Maybe the vote was wrong, but this is a question many are asking, especially a pastor like me who comes from Africa. Most of the Africans who spoke had a different perspective. . . but the question is, why can't you from the white world say, this is our stand, we're not taking this thing to a vote, this is how its going to be, instead of going to a vote, a vote that did not turn out in your favor, and then say, no, we still have the direction that we want?
NAD PRESIDENT: "The fact that one says I didn't agree with the vote does not mean that that individual is saying I'm not still on the team. It's difficult because people have consciences. I don't know where you are from in Africa, but if I knew I would respect you and your culture.
AFRICAN PASTOR: "Nairobi."
NAD PRESIDENT: "Nairobi. It's a lovely city. But I respect you and I respect your culture. You're right to feel that way. You would not do that in Nairobi. Once the decision has been made, that's the end of the story.
AFRICAN PASTOR: "We've always done that."
NAD PRESIDENT: "You would not understand the reaction in North America. But that doesn't mean that you have now become a lesser being, not at all. You are steeped and rooted in the culture of Kenya, which is a beautiful culture. But North Americans don't think like that. And that's part of the problem in the church. The North American Division is not going to rise up in rebellion against the General Conference because of this. As a matter of fact, the misinterpretation of the actions of the North American Division is so flagrant that it's very unfortunate. But all you have to do is watch the news and you understand how North Americans think. North Americans have very great reactions to different things. And that's the same in the church.
"Because I say it, doesn't mean anything, and I'm the president of the North American Division.
"I had a division president from Africa come to me and say, 'When Sandra Roberts was elected president in Southeastern California Conference, why did you not go there, throw out the officers, call a new constituency, and put a new president in?' And I said to him, some time ago I went on safari in Kenya and I came around the corner of the safari and I saw 26 lions laying in the sun. And I said to the driver, 'Oh, stop the van and let me get out so I can go and pet those lions.' He said, 'That's fine. We will send your head to Australia, your arms to, you know, each part of the body,' so I said, 'My friend, if I tried to do what you suggested I do in Southeastern California, they would send my head to Australia, my arms...' It's different. And that's where I believe my church, as much as I value the friendship and the brotherhood--ubuntu--with my brothers and sisters in Africa, we're not the same and we need to come to an appreciation of one another's culture.
"And, to be honest, the church needs to grow up and recognize the divergences, not doctrinally, it's already true missionally, were very different in our approaches, but the church must grow up to the place where it says, if these people have been called by God to do mission in that area, we need to give them the freedom to do it ecclesiastically; we'll never do it theologically."
2. The SECC is duty bound to include in its constitution and bylaws the requirement set by the world church that the president of that conference be an "ordained minister of experience" (General Conference Working Policy 2014-2015, p. 208, Model Conference Bylaws, Article VI--Officers, Sec. 1. a., bold print required wording). This requirement means that the office of conference president is held by a spiritually qualified male ("He stands at the head of the gospel ministry in the conference and is the chief elder, or overseer, of all the churches," Church Manual, 2015 ed., p. 31). Motions, and by extension, nominations to office are limited by the constitution and bylaws. Nor is SECC authorized to create its own credentials or ordain women.
Larry is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor in the Pacific Northwest.