October 7, 2016:    As the top officers of the Adventist denomination finalized their recommendation about how to deal with union conferences about differences on ordination, a number of public statements were made by various groups expressing concern and pleading for caution. Last night the 78 General Conference (GC) and Division officers voted a document entitled “Procedures in Church Reconciliation” which is scheduled for consideration by the full 343 members of the GC executive committee next Tuesday (October 11), according to a news release from the GC communication staff.

The proposed procedures document outline five steps to be taken when there are conflicts over policy. First, the executive officers of the GC “should meet with the leaders of the subsidiary entity … to pray together, and to listen to each other.” Second, a larger group “including lay people, pastors, and administrators from the entity and the broader Church … meet at least twice over a period of six months … to listen to each other, pray together, and study God’s will from His Word and the Spirit of Prophecy.” Third, “If after six months of discussion the matter has not been resolved” the GC executive officers “should write a pastoral letter encouraging the executive officers and the governing body of the entity to lead their organization to be faithful to the biblical principles … in the Fundamental Beliefs, voted actions and working policies of the Church.” Fourth, “If these letters still don’t resolve the matter,” the GC executive officers “should again meet with the executive officers and the governing body of the entity.” Fifth, if the process does not resolve the matter, the GC executive committee “will need to consider the conflict resolution procedures referred to in recommendation 2 below.”

Recommendation 2 is simply a request to the GC Administrative Committee “to recommend to 2017 Annual Council procedural steps to be followed in the event that a resolution of the conflict is not achieved” through the five steps listed above. In other words, there is no agreement among the GC and Division officers as to what to do next.

Reaction to the Earlier Documents

Earlier this week, the religion faculty of Loma Linda University joined the statement released earlier this week by the seminary faculty at Andrews University. “After prayerful and careful reading and discussion of the recent document A Study of Church Governance and Unity the Loma Linda University School of Religion faculty voted their unanimous support to the statement released by the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on September 30.” It quoted the seminary statement, “We have serious concerns about the recent document … and its portrayal of the nature and authority of the church.”

Dr. Bill Johnsson, the respected long-time editor of the Adventist Review and a New Testament scholar, is retired in Loma Linda and met with the religion faculty as they discussed the document. He told the group that it was the “worst document ever to come from the General Conference” and lamented the “lack of process” in its creation. He stated that whole approach to the issue “is madness.”

Sources have told Adventist Today of many Adventist leaders from union conferences all over the world who have privately expressed deep concern about the documents and the general approach being taken by a few top officials. Most are unwilling to go on the record, but the Norwegian Union Conference leaders have released a five-page response statement. The study “seeks, it claims, to develop unity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” the response says. But, “it has a number of weaknesses and is likely to contribute to the splitting of the church. … An attempt to coerce unions to comply with General Conference Working Policy is likely to set in motion a series of uncontrollable and unpredictable events.”

The major weakness of the lengthy GC Study document is “oversimplification of the issue under consideration” [the denomination’s approach to the ordination of women]. “It is a dangerous oversimplification based on pragmatic rather than moral and spiritual considerations.” It points out that “those unions which have ordained female pastors or stopped ordaining altogether, do so because they are convinced that the Bible tells them to treat men and women equally. Their decisions are not grounded in policy, but in spiritual and moral obligation.”

“The document does not properly take into account the theological understanding that has motivated unions to a course of action different to the stipulations of the Working Policy. This failure in understanding means that the document will not actually provide a basis for stronger unity, but rather the contrary.”

The response points out that “the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC)” which gave in-depth biblical study to the topic prior to last year’s GC Session, ended up “presenting two opposite understandings of the biblical material on the ordination of women [and] concluded both views are legitimate.” It stated that it is “futile now to call upon Working Policy to deny that diversity” which was recognized two years ago.

The Norwegian Union leaders described possible outcomes that could result in anything but unity in the denomination. (1) It is probable that the GC officers hope that the union conferences will return to compliance with the Working Policy, but that is “an unlikely outcome, given the biblical, moral and … legal obligations felt by some unions that they have to treat men and women equally.” (2) The GC “tries to replace union leadership in the unions that do not comply [and it] may turn out to be impossible to accomplish because the actions of these unions  are an expression of the convictions of the members.” (3) The GC leadership “will lose further credibility among large segments of the membership because of the handling of the situation.” (4) “The Church will split. The affected unions may sever connections with” the GC. “A domino effect may take place where many other unions leave.”

The Association of Adventist Women, an international organization that includes both church members and denominational employees, on Tuesday (October 4) released a statement of “serious concerns” voted by its board. “It is our conviction that unity is always best preserved by allowing diversity of practice even as we hold fundamental truths in common,” the statement said. “We also believe that church governance can easily fall prey to influences that suggest the leadership has more decision-making power than allowed in Scripture or in the writings of Ellen G. White. … We call on the leaders who have taken upon themselves the preparation of these documents that will, most surely, guarantee division rather than the sought-after unity, to reconsider how they are planning to use these documents and we invite them to call on the Body of Christ to discuss these documents at all levels of church organization before any votes are taken to bring these matters before another world session.”

Dr. George R. Knight, the well-respected church historian retired from the seminar faculty at Andrews University, is scheduled to lead a seminar for the GC executive committee on Sunday and Monday. It is part of the regular routine at the Annual Council sessions to provide in-service education for the church administrators and governing body members who attend, and Knight’s announced topic is about Adventist education. In fact, he has recently completed a new book which the Adventist Review has stated is the “textbook” for the class. It is entitled Educating for Eternity: A Seventh-day Adventist Philosophy of Education and those attending these meetings have had an assignment to read the book in advance.

Knight has also released to Adventist Today two papers that are more directly related to the policy conflicts that will end up being the central focus of this annual meeting. They are available here: “The Role of Union Conferences”, and “The Anti-organizational People Organize in Spite of Themselves.”