Annual Council Tuesday: The Struggle for Unity

Tuesday Morning

While Monday largely shied away from controversial issues, Elder Mark Finley’s worship devotional on Tuesday morning, brought them kicking and screaming back before the Annual Council.  At first, the message sounded like a good, basic Sanctuary sermon from Hebrews 8.  Yet, Elder Finley seemed to veer off his message to directly confront the unity struggle facing the world church.

He moved from a world full of uncertainty to a call for “decisions that affect the world church” be made “together.”  He called for the church leaders to come to the presence of Jesus where solutions are found: on our knees.  He kindly chastised some for “running from committee to committee with little time in the word, microseconds in prayer” when Jesus stands waiting in the Heavenly sanctuary for us.  He noted the pride, arrogance and lack of fellowship that have overtaken some and finished with an appeal song.

The weight of the afternoon discussion was felt by all of us present as the song played.  Would those present, including some out of harmony and in rebellion against the guidance of the world church surrender their pride?  Would those standing for truth do so with appropriate doses of mercy?  Stayed tuned for the answer to these questions.

Following Elder Finley’s impassioned plea, the council moved onto more mundane matters.  First up were suggestions to the church manual, all of which were voted on and approved together.  Some interesting items included a clarification that the General Conference could in fact create a test of fellowship for members and that alternative methods of tithe payment could include electronic giving.  Elder Wilson then jumped in between agenda items to note that Adventist-laymen's Services & Industries (ASI) was going to be working in further cooperation with the world church and regional divisions.

The next agenda item was similar to Monday afternoon’s open forum.  The topic this time, youth/young adult attrition, was introduced with data from David Trim, Director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research for the GC.  While the good news is that the average Adventist globally is about 32, in North America that number rises all the way to 51.  While some of that can be due to better longevity, the rest is due to the fact, that the church is losing young adults at alarming rates according to one survey of many former Adventists.

What can be done?  The delegates had many ideas and some decent suggestions.  Mike Ryan, who led the forum suggested maybe having a Total Member Involvement initiative specifically for young adults.  Clinton Wahlen, Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute shared how his local church has “In Touch Ministry” where it keeps contact with its young people that go away to school via care packages and letters.  Otherwise, when they leave home, they leave the church.

Others focused on more philosophical aspects. Ed Zinke, a former associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, referenced the Sabbath sermon where Pastor Michael Hasel had pointed the finger at secularism and the abandonment of the Bible as the foundation for life and thought.  According to Zinke, we need to get back to a focus on the 3 Angel’s Messages or else we will go the way of the churches where the only attendees are a few 80 year old ladies.

Once the open forum was over, the council returned to reports from various ministries.  Larry Evans, the Special Needs Assistant, shared about the exciting work the church has been doing in reaching to those with disabilities with moving stories about God’s work in the hearts of all his children.  Others shared on the work of the church’s Global Mission work, including Clifmond Shameerudeen who shared on the cultural forms being used to introduce the world’s Hindus to the Adventist message.  His presentation left some questions about the line between connecting with the culture and yet not compromising our theological philosophy.

The morning closed with a special award given to Bill & Gayle (posthumously) Tucker for their work with Adventist television and trilingual preview of Tell the World.

GC security then closed the auditorium (except to the press) in anticipation for the great battle to take place this afternoon on the issue of unity and local unions ordaining women against the working policy of the world church.

Tuesday Afternoon

Those who tuned into the live feed at the start of the afternoon business session expecting some fireworks were not disappointed.  

However, the fireworks came not from the issue of church unity and discipline but rather from a video presentation of the 2025 GC Session winning city of St. Louis, Missouri.  While the 2020 host, Indianapolis, Indiana, made a valiant attempt to go back-to-back, the delegates decided to bring a little diversity and go beyond the Eastern Time Zone.

Following the council’s choice for a host city, most everyone (without the official published agenda) assumed the delegates would get right into tackling the messy business of church unity and discipline. Yet, there still remained one more item, a testimony time on one of the charities started by a GC employee.  By this time, the twitter complainers had increased and perhaps the GC had received some nasty emails.

With the happier agenda items out of the way, it was time for what everyone had come for—the discussion and vote on the church unity and discipline document.  A collective hush fell over all present (the auditorium was packed with delegates, invitees and guests) as Elder Ted Wilson, the GC President introduced the topic at hand.

After praising the diversity of the world church, Elder Wilson reminded those watching that our God, is a God of order and therefore when a local entity is at variance with the world church, the ministry of reconciliation based on 2 Cor. 5:18,19 must be applied.  Elder Wilson then implored the delegates to support and vote in favor of the proposal which would commit the church to a redemptive process for those out of variance with policy.  With that, copies of the document were passed out and it was read aloud to all present.

Once the document was given a public airing, the session then took a little stretch break in preparation for the battle that lay ahead.  Mike Ryan, former GC Vice President, stepped up to chair the meeting.  However, before he began his duties as chair, Ryan made his own logical plea in defense of the document.  Calling it bigger than the issue of women’s ordination, Ryan described the document as the start of a way to deal with many examples of variance, women’s ordination being merely one clear test.  Ryan closed by emphasizing that the consequences for non-variance were still under discussion.

With the preliminaries out of the way, the floor opened to any delegates or invitees wishing to speak.  Most of those who stepped up to the microphone were western delegates opposed to the proposal.  Men like SDA Theological Seminary dean Jiri Moskala, argued both that the church was violating its own fundamental beliefs by “discriminating” on the basis of gender but also that the GC’s action here was comparable to the Roman Catholic Church’s execution of John Huss.  Needless to say, hyperbole and logical fallacies were in widespread use throughout the afternoon’s discussion.

Other Western leaders argued against the document on the grounds it equated working policy with the fundamental beliefs of the church.  Ryan interjected at different points to clarify while the two aren’t equal, non-adherence takes different forms and must be dealt with.  Ian Sweeney (TED), nearly brought the room to riot when he accused those in support of the document as being catalysts for the shaking and placed the blame for discord at the feet of the GC for showing “poor leadership.”  Dan Jackson (NAD) spoke against the document by questioning whether it truly contributed to the unity of the world church.

A few of the faithful in support of leadership spoke as well.  Dan Houghton & Natasha Dysinger both from the GC called out the critics who were simply “re-litigating” the women’s ordination issue they lost in San Antonio.  Clinton Wahlen, from the GC quoted a woman in one of the rebellious conferences as saying that while her local leadership accused the GC of acting like kings, it was her rebellious local leadership that were in fact the ones with kingly power.  Finally, G T Ng from the GC scorned those who said the document would split the church and were prophesying doom if it passed. 

The opponents of the proposal struck back.  Tom Evans (NAD) compared the GC’s 3-page document to Nancy Pelosi’s 2000+ page healthcare bill passed back in 2010 and predicted that “within 10 or 15 years we will be ordaining women in Nairobi”, a direct threat to the traditionalist African divisions.  G. Alexander Bryant (NAD) noted that “policy” at one point promoted segregation and therefore analogized the document to potentially being in the same vein.  Don Livesay (NAD) furthered the opposition with an attempt to amend the document, but this was shot down by delegates on both sides of the proposal.

It Passes

Once the heated rhetoric had been dissipated via the 2-minute time limit, it was time for the delegates to vote and the decision to be announced.  After about 5-10 minutes, Ryan announced the votes were in.  After first giving the totals of who had voted, Ryan declared that out of 291 valid votes “169 yes, 122 no.”  The proposal had passed.  After a quick calculation, the percentage appears to be nearly identical to the vote in San Antonio on allowing divisions permission to decide ordination for themselves.

Apparently a decent majority of the church is intent on unity in these key issues.  Elder Wilson then spoke to a greatly subdued crowd about the need for unity and prayed that the church might be reconciled in spite of this divisive battle.