by Monte Sahlin

By AT News Team, October 14, 2014

After considerable debate, a majority vote of the governing body of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination adopted recommendations to change the wording of key doctrines. The language of paragraph 6 on the doctrine of creation was adjusted to emphasize that creation was a “recent” event that took place during “six literal days.” But, the changes in the denomination's Statement of Fundamental Beliefs do not become official unless they are voted by the delegates to the General Conference (GC) Session next summer.

The doctrine on creation currently states, “In six days the Lord made ‘the heaven and the earth’ and all living things upon the earth, and rested on the seventh day of that first week.” The proposal for a revised doctrine reads: “In a recent six-day creation the Lord made ‘the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them’ and rested on the seventh day.”

Leaders of the denomination insisted on inserting the word “recent” to establish the biblical belief that creation occurred thousands of years ago, as opposed to the conflicting beliefs of evolutionists who say the earth is at least four billion years old. The phrase “six literal days” is significant to church leaders because it conveys that each day of creation is one literal day. The denominational leaders expressed concern that if Adventists adopt the position that creation was not an event of six literal days, they will abandon one of the denomination’s central beliefs, that the Sabbath is a 24-hour period of rest.

The vote was 179 to 15, with 5 abstentions, to adopt the revised language. The move to clarify the church’s position comes at a time when an increasing number of Adventists, including some in the denomination’s academic institutions, "are subscribing to theistic evolution, a view that acknowledges God and science are responsible for creation," stated the Adventist News Network, the official news service of the denomination.

The denomination's top officer, Pastor Ted Wilson, president of the GC, has made it a priority to affirm the doctrine of a literal, six-day creation. He clearly expressed his viewpoint in a major speech to more than 400 Bible and science teachers, and other denominational employees, which met in Nevada two months ago. Quoting from the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White, a co-founder of the denomination in the 19th century, Wilson urged believers to “hold firmly to a literal, recent creation and absolutely reject theistic and general evolutionary theory.”

Wilson’s position is supported by the denomination's Biblical Research Institute (BRI). Scholars there have maintained that the church’s identity will be at risk if the doctrine is not revised to give additional emphasis to the idea of a literal, six-day creation. Should theistic evolution become more widely accepted, scholars at the BRI stated in a paper, “we will be in danger of losing the biblical foundation for the Sabbath and our understanding of salvation.”

The process for revising the doctrinal statement began in 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia, when delegates to the 59th GC Session voted to request changes. A committee was appointed to review the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs and incorporate language from a 2004 statement affirming Creation as well as seek input from Bible scholars around the world. That committee is chaired by Dr. Artur Stele, a former seminary dean now a GC vice president and head of the BRI.

Relatively few of the 330 executive committee members at Monday's meeting commented on the proposal. Dr. David Trim, the denomination's official historian, cautioned that the proposed wording which states that the six literal days of creation, together with the Sabbath, “constituted a week as we experience it today,” could be subject to a variety of interpretations.

Shirley Chang, a lay member from North America, said adding the word “recent” seemed out of context. Dr. Bertil Wiklander, who retired recently as president of the denomination's Trans-European Division, took issue with the insertion of the word “historical” to describe the creation account. He said the church is better off with the original statement, because the revised belief “could take the meaning that the account belongs to history.”

The doctrine of creation was the most-discussed item among several revisions being proposed for the Fundamental Beliefs statement on Sunday and Monday. The denomination had no official doctrinal creed until 1980 when it voted a statement of 27 Fundamental Beliefs under the leadership of Pastor Neal Wilson, then GC president, who said revisions would be needed periodically. In 2005 a GC Session added the a 28th doctrine entitled “Growing in Christ.”

In an effort to introduce more inclusive language it had been proposed on Sunday to revise the first paragraph in the doctrinal statement as follows: “The Holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, are the written Word of God, given by divine inspiration through holy persons of God who spoke and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit,” … removing "holy men," the traditional language. On Monday some of the committee members still objected to "persons" instead of "men," but the proposed revisions were voted.

Later in the day Stele came back and said that Pastor Mark Finley, a well-known retired evangelist present at the meeting, had suggested some wording that might satisfy everyone. The change was presented verbally without even being shown on a slide, and despite the fact that some in the auditorium could not hear it, the new language was voted unanimously. It substituted the gender-neutral phrase "inspired authors" instead of either "men" or "persons."

In this week’s proposal, none of the doctrines were changed substantially. Language is proposed for the first time in the doctrine of marriage and the family acknowledging that single adults are valued too: God “embraces both single and married persons.” It is also proposed to replace “marriage partners” with “a man and a woman.” In the doctrine of Christian behavior it is proposed to replace language saying that godly people act in harmony “with the principles of heaven.” The new language reads that they act in harmony “with biblical principles in all aspects of personal and social life.” Most of the modifications were simple edits, such as deleting redundancies, adopting more inclusive language and fixing punctuation.

On Monday afternoon proposals for revising the Church Manual were presented. The Church Manual is a policy book for local congregations in the Adventist denomination.

"The largest amount of debate was for an amendment to the Reasons for Church Discipline," reported Adventist Today editor J. David Newman. Church Discipline is a policy that defines when a congregation may vote to kick out a member or suspend them from holding office as a lay leader.

The proposed revision was to language defining sexual misconduct as a reason to discipline a church member: “Any act of sexual intimacy outside of the marriage relationship and/or non-consensual acts of sexual intimacy within a marriage whether those acts are legal or illegal. Such acts include but are not limited to child sexual abuse, including sexual abuse of the vulnerable. Marriage is defined as a public, lawfully binding, monogamous, heterosexual relationship between one male and one female." This new language would replace this old statement: "Violation of the seventh commandment of the law of God as it relates to the marriage institution, the Christian home, and biblical standards of moral conduct."

"This brought much debate," Newman reported. Some committee members wanted the language about "violation of the seventh commandment" reinstated. "Finally, someone moved that this section be referred back to the Church Manual Committee. The vote was 94 for sending it back and 96 against, which brought gasps from the committee. The chair said that it should go back since it was so close. Someone reminded him that the whole document had been voted the previous day except for this item. This ended the debate in some confusion, although it is likely the Church Manual Committee will end up studying this item again."

Monday morning the GC Treasurer’s report was presented by Robert Lemon. He pointed out how thrifty the GC is. The membership of the denomination has more than doubled since 1995. Over the same period the organization has grown from 11 world division, 94 union conferences and 459 local conferences to 13 world divisions, 125 union conferences and 602 local conferences. At the same time the staff of the GC increased by only five individuals from 282 to 287.

Lemon also reminded the committee that the GC is learning to live with less income from North America. The GC used to receive 10 percent of all the Tithe given by members in North America, but beginning in 2012 the amount was reduced to 8 percent, and the percentage will be reduced a little each year until it gets to 6 percent in 2020. This means that the GC must rely more on the rest of the worldwide denomination for its funding.

Dr. Neils-Erik Andreasen was presented an Award of Excellence by the GC education department for his 20 years as president of Andrews University, the longest tenure of any president at the institution. "They did not say that in 2006 the chairman of the board for Andrews University [a GC officer] convinced Andreasen to resign by telling him that otherwise the board would fire him," recalled Adventist Today editor Newman. "Andreasen tendered his resignation, but when the board found out they refused to accept his resignation and Andreasen eventually withdrew his resignation. Eight years later he is still at the helm."