by Erv Taylor  |  10 October 2018  |  

Dr. Jon Paulien made the major presentation during the Loma Linda University Church (LLUC) Saturday morning, October 6, 2018, discussion of the Adventist General Conference (GC) compliance proposal. Dr. Paulien is Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean of the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

His presentation was made to about 1100 individuals present in the LLUC sanctuary using a series of slides. These slides were graciously made available to Adventist Today by Dr. Paulien so that this brief report of his presentation would be as accurate as possible. For his assistance, Adventist Today wishes to express its sincere thanks to him..

His remarks were entitled “Annual Council ‘Unity’ Proposal.” Unity was enclosed by quotation marks. The presentation was organized around twelve topics: (1) “Presenter’s Assumptions,” (2) “Proposal for Annual Council,” (3) “SDA Organization,” (4) “Protestant Principle,” “(5) “The Last Decade,” (6) “What the GC Learned,” (7) “The Last Year,” (8) “Why This Proposal?,” (9) “Toward an SDA Papacy?,” (10) “Where Will It Take Us,” (11) “If This Does Not Pass,” and (12) “NT Leadership.”

Dr. Paulien began his remarks with a statement about the “presenter’s assumptions.” He stated that he is speaking from a journalistic perspective and assumes that the “collective wisdom” of the church should be exercised in any discussion of unity.

In the section on SDA organization, he highlighted several episodes in the history of how Seventh-day Adventism has been organized. In 1860, it was noted that the church was divided between anti-organization members and pro-organization adherents. The anti- group focused on an understanding that the “Bible does not authorize the development of an organization” and therefore it should be not be done. The often-heard quotation from this group was that “the moment we become organized, that moment we will become Babylon.” The pro- organization group, led by James White, argued that the “Bible does not forbid” organization. The pro- party won in 1861 and then again in 1863. As the church grew, the organization of Adventism “became highly centralized.” It is at this time that Ellen White expressed concerns about the wisdom of such centralization.

Dr. Paulien noted that, in 1900, the church faced the problem of over-centralization. To address that problem, church leadership of this era could have chosen from three alternative ways of proceeding. These were the models of (1) Congregational, with no authority above the level of the local church, (2) Episcopal, with decision-making centered at the top of a hierarchy and decisions being passed down all the way to bottom with local churches at the bottom, and (3) Presbyterian, with power being passed both up and down a hierarchy of organizational levels.

In 1901 and 1903, the Adventist organization created a hybrid solution with elements from both the Episcopal and Presbyterian models. The Adventist hybrid employed a hierarchy of levels with power being passed both up and down from what eventually became five levels: General Conference (GC), division, union conference, local conference and local church. In the SDA formulation, there were erected what Dr. Paulien characterized as “fire walls,” which protected each level from interference on certain matters from the higher levels in the hierarchy. For example, the GC has no power to tell a local church who they can or cannot have as members of that particular church. Membership is completely in the hands of local churches. He did not mention there are a number of examples of higher organizational levels in Adventism wanting a particular individual to be disfellowshipped by a local church and the local church refusing to do that.

In a discussion of the nature of the “Protestant Principle,” he pointed out that the principle of the “Priesthood of All Believers” tends to separation and localization. He noted there are only two church bodies which have a truly worldwide membership and focus. One is the Roman Catholic Church. The other is the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In this, Dr. Paulien suggests that we are part of a “Grand Experiment” to see if the Adventist hybrid organizational model will work when challenged. He indicated that our “Grand Experiment” is now being “stretched to the limit.”

He asks whether to have the Adventist hybrid continue to function must we “centralize to stay together”? He asks if it perhaps time to form “Regional Churches.” He stated that it would be difficult for Adventism to retain the vision of a church with a worldwide mission if it exists in separate organizational pieces. He thus argues that if there is a need to hold together, but then asks how can that be maintained. 

He concludes that the GC in the Adventist system has indeed been given authority, but what happens when it attempts to exercise that authority is confronted with publicly expressed opposition based on the conscience of Adventists at lower levels in the Adventist organizational hierarchy?

In the section addressing “The Last Decade,” Dr. Paulien noted that, the GC administration put to a vote at the 2015 GC session a motion which would have, if the vote had been positive, resulted in giving individual unions the right to make independent judgments with regard to the ordination of women. The motion lost. The result of this vote has led to what Dr. Paulien characterized as an “IMPASSE” (he used capital letters.) This impasse pits “matters of conscience” in unions, conferences, and among individual members, against this institutional decision.

His point might be expanded to state that the implication of this is that to many, this vote, from an ethical perspective, is considered invalid on its face, because it violates the principle of treating women equally. This would mean that women called to the gospel ministry who are affirmed in that calling by a local consensus should be recognized for their calling and thus should be ordained as ministers in the Seventh-day Church. Based on this determination at the local level, any objection by the Adventist GC would thus be rendered of no effect.

A timeline presented by Dr. Paulien notes that in 2015, the GC put the question of women’s ordination to the vote of a General Session and the “World Church said ‘No.'” Parts of the church continued the practice of ordaining women. In 2016, the GC sought to utilize what the GC president called the “Nuclear Option,” which involved a process of dissolving union conferences which went against the 2015 decision. This attempt of the GC failed. In 2017, the GC proposed imposing a “loyalty oath” which would have stripped union conference officials from a voice at the GC level. The 2017 “loyalty oath” proposal failed.

The question was posed: “Why did [the] 2017 Proposal Fail?” Dr. Paulien identified four reasons: (1) “Lack of Transparency,” (2) “No Review and Feedback,” (3) “Single Issue Focus” and (4) it was “Contrary to Policy!” referring to working policies which prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender. Under “What GC Learned,” there were four lessons that the failure of the 2017 proposal taught the GC. According to Paulien, they are that any new proposal (1) “Must Be Transparent,” (2) “Must Be Even-Handed,” (3) “Must Be Legal and Complaint: Not Above [the] Law,” (4) “Must Listen Carefully to Church (People).” Last year the GC undertook what was characterized as “Listening and Feedback.” The GC said that the results of a poll of church leadership on a world-wide basis were that “66% Wanted to Do Something” and this became the “Will of [the] Worldwide Membership.”

As part of the “Listening and Feedback” process, there was the counsel that from a “Legal Perspective” the GC “Can’t Take Away [the] Voice and Vote” from representatives of the organizational entities below the GC in the hierarchy. Also, there was “Transparency” shown, in that the proposal now being considered was “Published Widely” and was “Translated into 20 Languages.” The proposal was also characterized as “Even-Handed” in that it addressed what were considered at the GC level to be “All Areas of Non-Compliance” and thus this proposal set up “Five Compliance Committees” dealing with five areas at issue in addition to the women’s ordination issue.

Under the category of “Why This Proposal?,” Dr. Paulien indicated that the “GC Leaders in “Look[ing] at [the] World Picture [of Adventism]” felt that there was a “Need to Do Something.” But in acting on that need, the GC “Leadership [is[ at an IMPASSE.” He suggests that the GC has two options: One would have them “Doing Nothing.” The second option is “Splitting with [Adventist] Church. Dr. Paulien views the goals of the proposal document as, on one hand, “Listen to the Majority and Do Something while doing a “Minimum of Harm to [the] Minority.”

He asked, “What Is Driving the Something? In his view the “Something” is (1) a “Fear of “Humanism” and (2) a “Fear of Congregationalism.” He suggests that “The People Want to Stay Together” both “Doctrinally (vs. “Humanism”) and Structurally (vs. Congregationalism). Dr. Paulien suggests that there are two possible outcomes to this IMPASSE. The first would be “Peace with Honor,” which would employ “The Gamaliel Principle.” He quotes a possible solution based on Acts 5:34-39, ESV, when “a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel . . . said. . . ‘take care what you are about to do . . . let them [in our current modern case, those advocating the ordination of women] alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail, but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!'” The Gamaliel Principle would put this matter “in God’s Hands.” To move forward with any decision “Go to [a] Super-Majority which would “ensure [that] the Violations are Egregious.”

If the proposal before the 2018 Annual Council fails, the recommendation of Dr. Paulien is to “Go Back to 2011 . . . Lay Aside Pride and “Do Over.” Find a Way Out of the IMPASSE, Double Down on [the] Methodist Model. Preserve Unity [in] Diversity.”

He ended his presentation with the topic of “N[ew] T[estament] Leadership” citing Matthew 20:25-28, where “Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you.'”     

I conclude this report with the expression of one person’s opinion of Professor Paulien’s presentation. These comments are made with the hope that many other opinions will be expressed by many others in the comments feature of the AT web site.

Dr. Paulien occupies an important place on the inside of the ecclesiastical system of contemporary corporate Adventism. He knows much about how the politics and power structures in official Adventism function. For someone in that position, this public presentation may legitimately be viewed as amazingly candid. He probably did the best that anyone wishing to continue to operate within the Adventist political system could do, given self-imposed constraints. In the opinion of this writer, Dr. Paulien’s approach to this issue was evenhanded, avoiding interpretations which favored either the right or left wings of a very polarized Adventist Church. In doing that, he, of course, ran the risk of having both ends of the Adventist spectrum of belief on these matters object to some of his statements. If that has happened or will happen as reports of his presentation make the rounds of the Adventist rumor network and independent media, he indicated that this would mean that he was successful in the balance he sought to bring to his presentation.

From the perspective of someone on the progressive side of Adventism, in a few instances it might be said that his statements occasioned some puzzlement or concern. One concern might be about what he did not say. Others on that side of the issue might question the completeness of his interpretation of what motivates the GC leadership in seeking to develop the control structures outlined in the compliance documents. Also, in several places, he uses the term “The People” without defining to which “People” he is referencing.

As noted already, he has suggested that what will be driving the Annual Council deliberations is a conflict between the consciences of many Adventists in the First World concerning equal treatment for women clergy versus the perceived need by the current GC leadership cadre for compliance with statements voted by a world-wide church with an overwhelming majority of its members living in the Third World. Conscience vs. compliance. One core issue is which one of these will be deemed more important by those who gather for the 2018 Annual Council. The GC president and the group around him resident in Silver Spring, Maryland, are risking schism if the GC president, who seems to believe he sits at the top of the Adventist Church, handles this conflict badly. His track record up to now does not inspire confidence.

There is also a back story making the rounds that the current GC president would welcome schism because of his apparent understanding that a “shaking” in the Seventh-day Adventist Church needs to happen before Jesus can return and that his actions can precipitate that “shaking” and the second coming. If this is true, it constitutes a serious hazard in getting this conflict “resolved” without a bitter schism taking place.

The vote(s) at the Annual Council this week will tell the story of whether biblical principle and conscience or dictatorial coercion and compliance will prevail. Reasonable accommodation and destructive schism are possibilities. The way that these kinds of conflicts are typically handled in bureaucratic institutions who have some reasonable individuals somewhere in upper reaches of the political power hierarchy argues that this document should be referred back to the committee which crafted it so they can make changes based on input from both sides of the disagreement over what should be done. This would allow some type of compromise to be reached behind closed doors that, on one hand, will save face at the GC for those who demand “action now,” while, on the other, suspending any attempt which would be made to prevent parts of the First World Church who wish to continue ordaining women to the gospel ministry from doing so without hindrance.  

Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He has served as the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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