A House Built on Sand: The Fallacies in “A Study of Church Governance and Unity”
By Dr. Keith A. Burton, October 14, 2016: We are living in an age of confusion. A divisive spirit belched from the belly of the arch-deceiver is wreaking havoc in our world, our nation and our church. This is the same divisive spirit behind Brexit, the Syrian civil war, and the conflict in Ukraine. It is the same divisive spirit that has emboldened the deplorable xenophobic, misogynic and racist masses who rally behind their Republican leader, Donald Trump. It is the same divisive spirit that is threatening to split the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
This spirit of division is evidently at work in the document deceptively titled, “A Study of Church Governance and Unity,” released by the General Conference Secretariat. I know this is a strong accusation, but I will make my case and am willing to repent if I am proven wrong. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to briefly respond to the document because the future of the church to which I have devoted my life and ministry is in jeopardy. As a result of this document, I have heard accounts of people who have decided to “turn in their cards” and leave the denomination; I’ve communicated with pastors who are seeking other denominational options; I’ve even had to explain things to near and dear family members who do not see denominational affiliation as a prerequisite to salvation.
As I mentioned earlier, this response is intentionally brief. Some may believe that a hefty argument deserves a response in kind, but I am chiefly concerned with the foundations of the argument itself. If the foundation is weak or baseless, there is no need to dismantle a building from the top brick down—shake the foundation and the entire argument tumbles.
The argumentative foundation for this document is built on a single premise buttressed by two hermeneutical theories. The first is based on the account of the so called “Jerusalem Conference” in Acts 15 and the second is derived from selected statements from the writings of Ellen G. White. The anonymous writers of the document use these as a basis to forward the following thesis: “The General Conference speaks for God, and when they make a decision every Seventh-day Adventist institution should fall in line.” My task is to see if their sources support this conclusion.
Questionable Interpretation of Acts 15
After analyzing Acts 15, the paper proposes this principle: “In the Church, diversity of practice can be allowed, but only after a representative body has agreed to allow some variation.” (SCGU, 13) This may sound reasonable on the surface, but let’s take a look at the passage again.
The core issue involved circumcision as a prerequisite to salvation (Acts 15:1). At this time, Christianity was still seen as an intricate part of Judaism and some were concerned about the growing number of Gentiles who were embracing Christ as the Messiah. From what we deduce from the final decision, other sub issues may have included fornication and dietary restrictions. Albeit, after Peter shared that uncircumcised Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit, in the same manner as the circumcised Jews (15:7-11), the committee decided that they would not burden mission with cultural restrictions (15:19-20). As a result, the work went forth in an accommodative fashion.
Notice the following about the account. First is the reality that there were several people who confused culture with salvation (15:1, 5). I have no doubt that these people were sincere, but in building a wall between people and Christ they were obstructing the work of the gospel. The text does not disclose how many held this position, but the fact that there was plenty discussion (15:7) indicates that there may have been a significant number.
Second is the spirit of grace that accompanied the decision. In summarizing the decision, James made it clear that the work of the church was to enhance and not restrict mission (15:19). As such, even though an influential section of the church may be steadfast on a certain position, it should not be imposed on the majority if it hurts mission.
This leads to a third observation about personal freedom after the decision. There is nothing to suggest that those in favor of circumcision stopped circumcising. Ironically, the fact that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised did not even stop Paul from circumcising Timothy in the very next chapter (16:3)! Further, in one of his letters to the Corinthians, Paul lays out a careful argument for why he disagreed with the prohibition against meat offered to idols (1 Cor 8:4-8).
Paul fully understood that mission trumps tradition, and those in the business of recruiting souls for the Kingdom cannot be constrained by restrictive orthopraxis. Indeed, many confuse orthodoxy with orthopraxy. However, in a church that is led by the Spirit of God, there is no room for dictatorial edicts that stifle conscience. When James shared the decision, he was fully aware that there were heterodox positions in the assembly. Nonetheless, as a leader in tune with the Spirit, he understood that his responsibility was to get out of the Spirit’s way.
In the context of Acts, the true message of Acts 15 seems crystal clear. This is a book that celebrates the work of the gospel extending to the entire world through spectacular and non-traditional means. With this in mind, it is disheartening to see that when the writers of “A Study of Church Governance and Unity” looked at this story, they completely glossed over the message about how the Spirit works in diverse ways, they ignored the message of cultural accommodation, and all they saw was a political process. Why? Because it served their political purpose.
Interestingly, even their application of the political scenario is incorrect. This was not “a representative body” democratically agreeing to “allow some variation.” As the text explicitly states, this was James’ decision, and his alone (see Acts 15:19). James did listen to counsel, but following the judicial tradition in which authority is invested in one person, the resolution was his. Ominously, whether wittingly or unwittingly, could this be the real political intent behind the document?
Selective Interpretation of Ellen G. White
As it relates to the counsel of Ellen G. White, “A Study of Church Governance and Unity” proposes the following: “’The judgment and voice of the General Conference’ represent ‘the authority and influence that God has vested in His church…, and most importantly, ‘private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered’.” (page 29) Yes, this is exactly what the document says—including the words “most importantly”!
Did Ellen G. White say these things? Absolutely (apart from the “most importantly” bit)! Does a contextual examination of her writings suggest that these are inflexible edicts? Absolutely not! This is the same Ellen G. White who said about the same General Conference, “For men to claim that the voice of their councils in their past management is the voice of God seems to me to be almost blasphemy.” (Manuscript 35, 1901; Manuscript Releases, Volume 17, page 250)
The careful reader has probably noticed that the quote in which the General Conference is accused of near blasphemy is taken from the very document that my essay finds fault with. One could reason that if the authors of “A Study of Church Governance and Unity” wanted to push an agenda, they could have omitted the evidence that goes against their thesis. However, while this may have been the strategy in the pre-Google age when the vast volumes of Ellen G. White’s writings were under carefully supervised lock and key, it is difficult to use those tactics in our information age.
What we have in our possession, is a document that provides the pretense of fairness by providing White’s contrary statements about the General Conference. Without a doubt, she clearly states that the General Conference is God’s representative. Contrarily, the evidence is clear that she also says the General Conference is not God’s representative. So which is it?
The authors dealt with this obvious contradiction by approaching the issue chronologically and concluding that she said it did before she said it doesn’t and then she said it does. In other words, the documents in which she said it does are chronologically located between the ones in which she said it does not. Indeed, it is true that the original statement was made in 1875. However, it is also true that there are a series of statements around the turn of the twentieth century in which she says the General Conference did not speak for God. And then we have a final statement in 1909 where she declares that it does.
Nonetheless, a chronological approach to the statements only serves the purpose of those who wish to manipulate Mrs. White’s words for their own political agendas. The fact that she changed her mind about the authority of the General Conference on at least two occasions is evidence that her final position should not be viewed as perpetual canon law. In case we have not realized, Ellen G. White has been dead for over one hundred years and the General Conference is still operating—without her.
In my estimation, if the authors of “A Study of Church Governance and Unity” really wanted to use Ellen G. White as a source for decision making, they would have been more honest in their application of her writings. Given the fact that she is not present in our midst to personally address the issue, the hermeneutical process should have been driven by context rather than chronology.
To be fair, the document does address the contexts in which White viewed the General Conference negatively, but it is done in a way that supports their chronological framework. It’s almost like a game of “musical chairs” in which the person who cannot find a seat when the music stops playing is the loser. As far as the authors are concerned, the prophetic music stopped playing when Ellen G. White died and her opinion about the authority of the General Conference is forever frozen in time.
Unfortunately, this chronological emphasis fails to apply the relevant question to our contemporary context: “Does the current General Conference behave like the one that speaks for God, or the one that doesn’t speak for God?” What would Ellen G. White have said to this General Conference?
While we may have our personal convictions, we will never know in which camp Ellen G. White would have placed this current administration. Nonetheless, even if she were still around, we already have a guide for spiritual decision making, and that is the Bible. Further, we already have an unmovable basis that should inform our decision making, and that is the Kingdom. No, I didn’t forget about the “Gospel,” I’m simply acknowledge that the Gospel we share is about the Kingdom over which Jesus our Lord and Savior reigns supreme.
This radical Kingdom has no earthly comparison. There is no place for sexism, classism, racism, or authoritarianism in this Kingdom (Gal 3:28). The negative spirit of division is not welcome in this kingdom, because it is bathed in the Positive Spirit of unity—not uniformity, but unity. Those who are a part of the Kingdom are committed to rescue the perishing by any means necessary. As we see in Acts 15, this may mean adapting different cultural approaches that some may not understand. Nonetheless, when the Spirit speaks, Kingdom people recognize His voice.
As a denomination, we celebrate the Spirit’s work through Ellen G. White. At the same time, we acknowledge that to claim that she is the only one through whom the Spirit speaks is tantamount to idolatry. In addition to Ellen G. White, the undiscriminating Spirit has poured Himself out on a cadre of women who are doing the work of specialized ministry. Nobody can look at the work in China and other parts of the world and conclude otherwise. This is not the time for the church leadership to politically strive for kingly power, this is the time to submit to the leadership of our King through the Spirit.
To paraphrase the words of Acts 15:28, it has already seemed good to the Holy Spirit to use women for His Glory, when will it seem good to us? As you meditate on these words, never forget that “a tree is known by its fruit.”
Keith Augustus Burton, Ph.D., is an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and serves as a professor in the School of Religion at Oakwood University, an Adventist institution in Huntsville, Alabama.