A Good Outcome to an Impossible Problem
By Loren Seibold, October 9. 2017: I’d like to tell you that I’m going to stay up all night to give you every minute detail of the discussion today. Alas, that won’t happen. It was a long day—we didn’t leave until after 7 PM—and we got there about that time this morning! I’ve got a headache and a sore back from sitting in a straight chair typing all day. I hope you’ll be content with a précis.
The short answer: the outcome was a good one—from my point of view. The document (my associate, Bjorn Karlman, (there is a passable copy here, though not excellent quality) more or less demanded that every member of the GC Executive Committee would have to sign an oath to be fully loyal to the policies of the General Conference. All policies? Elder Ted Wilson said, in passing, that some policies are obviously more important than others. (Yes, that raises the question of who gets to decide. See Alvin Masarira’s excellent article on this topic.) We know which one the leaders thought was important.
Yes, I know that the vote in San Antonio didn’t create a policy. But women’s ordination was the cause célèbre, and it was surely what many wanted to stop. The document included a specific reference to “actions voted by the GC in session” alongside policies.
From the beginning of the discussion of the 14-page document, certain concerns emerged. Many of the members who spoke claimed to want some kind of enforcement, but this wasn’t the kind of enforcement they had envisioned. The document that Elder Wilson’s team produced, after all, came down to this: you sign this document, or you get removed from the General Conference Executive Committee or blocked from functioning as a delegate to future GC Sessions.
Now, please remember that the idea of a loyalty oath, with the punishment being removal from the General Conference Executive Committee, had to be approved before they could ask people to sign it. That’s where it got bogged down.
Last year, with the “Unity in Mission” document, many members spoke against it, but it was adopted anyway. So when I heard speaker after speaker raising questions about this document, I was still convinced that the silent majority was going to go right along with Elder Ted Wilson’s pressuring, as they did last year. But the objections were substantial—and they kept coming. How could a leader say his union conference would be obedient to the GC, when it is his constituents who elect him and decide about policies? Don’t they have some say in this? Doesn’t that make them accountable from above, as in a corporate chart, rather than from below, to the constituency and church members that he serves? Would such an enforcement even be permitted by the GC constitution and bylaws? Is this process Christian—to make someone sign their name to be loyal to the church policy? What does it say about trust? Several mentioned that they live in cultures were loyalty oaths were historically about dangerous suppression of freedom of conscience.
The biggest complaint? You sprung this on us at the last minute, absolutely refusing requests to see it even yesterday though you knew it would be controversial, and then ask us to decide right here and now. That’s not how our system is supposed to work.
Some of the leaders who presented last year’s document, as well as this one, had said that this had nothing to do with women’s ordination. (Indeed, neither mentioned it even once.) But everyone knew that there was no other “policy violation” that had resulted in the same level of concern by Elder Wilson. The GCAS—the General Conference Auditing Service—had earlier in the day said that as many as 81% of their audits showed non-compliance with financial policy, evidently a rate maintained over several years. Yet that wasn’t the non-compliance our president was worried about.
There were several leaders who had a major influence in today’s discussion. Pastor Thomas Müller of the Danish Union Conference and Pastor Brad Kemp of the New Zealand-Pacific Union Conference were relentless. Each raised thoughtful objections. Even after their allotted two minutes of speaking time, each kept coming back with points of order and comments on amendments. These fellows did a good work: I’m a fan. Dr. Lowell Cooper (a retired GC vice president) made a perceptive analysis—5 points in two minutes, all of them strong. When Dr. Jan Paulsen (the former GC president) came to the microphone and said “I don’t see the hand of God in this,” the room was reverently silent: people were now listening to him in a way they didn’t at San Antonio. Both Bill Knott (editor of the Adventist Review) and David Trim (GC director of archives, statistics and research) showed the skill to make just the right suggestion at just the right time. TV evangelist Doug Batchelor was strong in his denunciation of the entities that have ordained women pastors and in support of the punitive document, and I was afraid that his outsized reputation in the developing world would swing votes. But that didn’t happen. Elder Ted Wilson, for the very first time that I can remember, didn’t get what he wanted.
But my hero is my own union conference president, Dr. Dave Weigley, who—at just the right time—made the motion that the document, because it had so many possible conflicts with the constitution and bylaws, should be sent to that committee. There was a rather long loop around the barn—an amendment having to do with which committee it should go to—but in the end, a motion to send it to the Unity in Mission Oversight Committee was voted 184 to 114.
Let me say something controversial: I don’t disagree that there should be consequences for non-compliance with policy. I don’t think you do, either: If you heard of a union conference somewhere in the world where the officers were getting rich by underhanded means, for example, wouldn’t you want consequences? (Let me be clear that I don’t regard ordaining women in the same category as embezzlement: I’m just giving an easy example.)
But this document came across as mean-spirited and ham-handed—and probably illegal to boot. It had real conflicts with our denominational constitution and bylaws. (Remember that changes to the GC constitution and bylaws can only be made at a GC Session!)
So this vote does, perhaps, kick the can down the road. But there are times when it is important to wait until clarity emerges. I know some of the folks around me were deeply disappointed. And I am sympathetic with them: I know what it’s like to be disappointed about something you feel strongly about. I respect their feelings, though I don’t agree with them. These folks wanted order and obedience. They are tired of waiting. Who isn’t? It’s been hanging over our heads for a while, no matter which side of the aisle you are on.
Why did the document get sent back? Hard to say. Perhaps union conference presidents, those who weren’t even ordaining women, were thinking, “What if they discovered some non-compliance in my union?” Some might have worried that members in the NAD and TED might have been very dispirited by such a harsh action, and that itself might hurt unity. Others may have recognized the down side of authoritarian leadership. Though I think most in the room had the same complaints: not enough time to study the document, worries about its constitutionality, the heavy-handedness, and the lack of trust it implied.
Since I announced this outcome on Facebook, several people have written me notes asking, “But doesn’t that just put it off? It’s not defeated, it’s just delayed.”
A man was about to be executed by the king. Just as the executioner was slipping the rope around his neck, he shouted out, “King, if you suspend my sentence for one year, in that year I will teach your horse to talk.” The king was intrigued. He ordered the man marched under guard to the royal stables, where he was put in with the king’s horse. Someone asked the man, “Why would you make such a stupid deal? You’re going to fail and be executed anyway!” The man replied. “A lot of things can happen in a year. The king might die. Some new information could get my sentence reversed. And who knows? The horse might even begin to talk!”
Who knows what might happen in a year? A delay will calm emotions. Sending it back to committee will almost assuredly lead to a better approach to dealing with non-compliance. It will force people to rethink the whole fight, and the effect it might have on our mission. Leaders, whole organizations, might change. It has, I hope, suggested to Elder Wilson and his team, that they might seek win-win solutions rather than win-lose.
So while we shouldn’t gloat, I count this delay a win for thoughtfulness and freedom, and give credit to the Holy Spirit—who is talked about a lot in denominational meetings, but not as often attended to.
Loren Seibold is a pastor, and Executive Editor of Adventist Today.