The General Conference Secretariat released two documents last night (Sunday 25th) regarding church governance and unity that are to be considered by church leaders at the Annual Council business meeting in October. The documents are:
“During Annual Council this year we plan to discuss how best to address divergence from the current policy,” General Conference executive secretary G.T. Ng said Friday in an e-mail to members of the General Conference Executive Committee, comprised of church leaders from around the world who will gather in Silver Spring, Maryland, for Annual Council on Oct. 5 to 12. “Please prayerfully review these documents as they provide a foundation for these discussions.”
The tone for the document is set by this statement.
"We are united by our:
- Commitment to Christ
- Common biblical beliefs
- Shared passion for mission to the world
- Joint weekly study of the Sabbath School Bible Study Guide
- Interdependent worldwide organizational structure
- Mutually agreed-upon practices and policies"
Subsequent highlights of the Statement document are:
In sum, the lesson of the Jerusalem Council is that, in the Church, diversity of practice can be allowed, but only after a representative body has agreed to allow some variation. A key New Testament principle emerges from both this episode and that of the widows and deacons: decision-making issues with implications that may extend beyond the local or regional should be collective, rather than unilateral (Page 5).
No organizational unit has a right, unilaterally, to take decisions on important matters or 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 both are contingent on “compliance with denominational practices and policies” and “can be reviewed, revised, amended, or withdrawn by the level of organization that granted it” (B 05, paragraph 3.). Even though unions have their own constituencies and constitutions, in the interdependent Adventist system of church governance, the responsibility to comply with world Church practices and policies supersedes all other considerations (page 7).
Acting Collaboratively, Not Unilaterally
Longstanding Adventist practice, reflecting the model found in the book of Acts, is to let diversity flourish whenever possible, but to reserve to the world Church decisions to allow diversity in matters of significance. However, once representatives from around the world, meeting and discussing together in good faith, have jointly made a decision, that decision must be respected. Unilateral action at the union and conference levels diminishes “the worldwide identity, harmony and unity of the Church.”23
Decisions taken at the world Church level are binding on all levels of structure. In the Adventist system of church governance, the GC Session is and always has been the supreme authority in the Church. In ascribing highest authority to the GC Session, Seventh-day Adventists are applying the biblical model found in Acts, while also following the counsel of Ellen G White, who writes about the authority of the General Conference in the strongest terms and with great consistency over nearly four decades (Page 8).
Unilateral action on important matters is contrary to the biblical model and to longstanding Adventist practice. The divisiveness latent within unilateralism is inconsistent with the biblical model (page 10).
Unilateral decision-making was a particular concern of Ellen G White; she consistently warned against it over many years. Her repeated testimonies indicate that overly independent, unilateral action is a particular danger to the Remnant Church in its end-time mission.
Moreover, Ellen White makes it plain that unilateralism can arise not just from independent-mindedness but sometimes from the influence of evil forces, and that its effects will be damaging. Of many testimonies to this effect, two stand out. In 1888, she cautions that in the “last days” there would be “among the remnant . . . those who wish to move independently of the body, [and] who are not willing to be subject to the body of the church.” Yet, she warns: “It is a delusion of the enemy for anyone to feel that he can disconnect from the body . . . and think he is doing God’s work. We are one body, and every member is to be united to the body" (page 11).
Criteria for ordination have always been set by the world Church. The 1990 GC Session considered at length whether or not to permit female pastors to be ordained and took a definite action: “we do not approve ordination of women to the gospel ministry.” Proposals came to both the 1995 and 2015 GC Sessions to allow regional variation at the division or union level of the gender-limited policy, but both were rejected. It is incorrect to assert that there is nothing in denominational policy to stop unions from ordaining females to gospel ministry. Such ordinations have been explicitly disallowed by a GC Session action, a decision reinforced by two other GC Session votes (page 12).
A second foundational principle is that ordination in Adventist ecclesiology and practice is undoubtedly for life, except in wholly unusual circumstances. Ministerial credentials are not necessarily held for life, but where there is a change in credential, it is because a pastor has moved into a line of work that is distinctly not pastoral or spiritual and it does not affect his ordination. Ministerial credentials can be restored if the line of work alters.43 Thus, the type of work a pastor does is temporary, but ordination is permanent. It can only become void as a result of disciplinary action. If a pastor’s status could be changed by administrators, there would be potential for abuse of power. Instead, it can be revoked only for apostasy or moral failings. In all other circumstances, ordination is for life, and cannot be given up on individual impulse (page 13).
If pastors qualify for ministerial credentials, they must receive them, rather than another credential or license. GC Working Policy excludes any other possibility. Some church members may perhaps feel that credentials are merely procedural matters. However, all deviations from GC Working Policy are of concern to the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a whole (page 13).
Another is the principle of reciprocity. Where there is input into decision-making and all parties have discussed and deliberated in good faith, the final decision must be accepted by all those who had input into making it. If everyone were to defy decisions they disagreed with, there would be no point in having a decision-making process. To take part in a process, and then to disregard it if it does not go our way, is contrary to the biblical principles of unity and mutual submission (page 13).
Two things come to mind after reviewing these two documents:
- This is a much-needed corrective to Unions and Conferences who have pressed ahead with their agendas in spite of a threefold expression of will from the world church in formal setting (1990, 1995, 2015).
- This response from the General Conference answers a repeated question that Fulcrum7 has heard from around the world. "Does our leadership even care about these rogue ordination actions that have taken place in the NAD and Europe?" The answer is "They do."
May God bless our church with a long overdue call to accountability, and a renewed sense of purpose to work together. Under God's blessing, we will discover that discipline is not only necessary, is is absolutely essential to unity. It is also a necessary means to spiritual maturity.