Alvin Masarira  |  7 February 2018  |  

In 1995 William Johnsson, the Adventist Review editor (1982–2006),  published a book entitled The Fragmenting of Adventism. Whether by design or by coincidence, that was the year of the General Conference Session in Utrecht where was first discussed whether divisions should be allowed to decide independently about the ordination of female ministers. Like no other issue since the 1888 General Conference Session, this question has caused serious tensions within the Adventist Church.

In his book Dr Johnsson speculates on what the Adventist world church could look like by 2020—a quarter century in the future. He thought that (1) the Spanish language would predominate instead of English, (2) whites would be a minority (3) the General Conference president would be of Asian origin (4) a significant number of pastors would be female (5) the church would have new organizational systems instead of local and union conferences (6) the church would have a reorganized financial structure, and (7) the General Conference would act as the source of ideas and spiritual leadership, rather than exercising centralized administration.

The 1990s was an exciting period in world history. The Iron Curtain (that thick ideological, military and political line) between the Soviet-led communist empire and the Western empire came down in Europe. Communism crumbled in Europe, as evidenced by the reunification of Germany. Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years as the Apartheid regime came to an end in South Africa. The use of the internet and cellphones was growing. At the head of the General Conference was Robert Folkenberg, who drove the use of technology in the world church. Through his regular email updates about his work and his travels, the average church member, no matter where he or she was, could see what the General Conference and its president were doing. There was a sense of optimism: this seemed to be an era of perestroika (reforms or restructuring) and glasnost (openness) within the Adventist Church. Some of us in the church were confident that the GC Session of 2000 (or at the latest, 2005) would finally vote to allow the ordination of female ministers, as well as begin to work on some of the restructuring that is greatly needed in the world church.  

It’s been 23 years since The Fragmenting of Adventism was published—two years away from Johnsson’s target of 2020—and it is remarkable how many of William Johnsson’s prognoses haven’t come true. Besides the decline of English as the dominant language, and the church membership browner and less white, not much has changed. In some areas, gains made prior to 1995 have been lost as the church has taken a more conservative path. It has been argued that the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference Session was the most decisive in our history; but it may be that San Antonio will be even more significant because of the lasting denominational aftershocks and divisions it has left us.

It is with this history in mind that the establishment of the Unity in Missions Oversight Committee at the 2016 GC Annual Council is a reason for concern. On the surface “Unity in Missions” sounds a noble idea: a certain kind of unity in missions would seem necessary for the church to finish the work. But soon after its establishment the “in Missions” part of the name was no longer highlighted, and more emphasis placed on “Oversight” It is now usually referred to as the “Unity Oversight Committee”. 

In 2017 this committee brought to Annual Council a document called “Procedures for Reconciliation and Adherence in Church Governance Phase II,” whose objective was to police and enforce compliance with voted actions of the General Conference Sessions and of the General Conference Executive Committee. While the document wasn’t adopted, it shows that Johnsson’s seventh prediction—that the General Conference would evolve to be less an administrative body and instead concentrate on general spiritual leadership—has definitely not come true. On the contrary, the General Conference has worked hard to shift more and more authority to itself.

Every General Conference president I have heard—there have been five since I became conscious of the existence of such an office, from Robert H. Pierson to Ted N.C, Wilson—has said that one of his biggest tasks is organizational unity: how to keep this “old ship of Zion” united and on course. Some have approached the task with more elegance and grace than others. Some have understood the difference between unity and uniformity; others have not. Some have understood that it isn’t a General Conference president’s task to be “God’s bodyguard”; others have not. Some have understood that God can use apparently contradictory or opposing views and situations (as the Holy Spirit sees fit) to achieve His purpose; others have not.

After “Procedures for Reconciliation and Adherence in Church Governance Phase II” was in essence rejected by the GC Executive Committee in October 2017, the Unity Oversight Committee has come up with a revised proposal which it considers to be open and transparent, and in which the views of the Seventh-day Adventist world Church are taken into account.

The process appears to be premised on results of a six-question survey of Union and Division presidents, as well as visits to these regions, presumably to solicit the views of some leaders on what to do with those other church leaders who do not comply with voted actions of GC sessions or the GC EXCOM. The Unity Oversight Committee questionnaire asked that the union conference and division leaders express the views of their constituencies, not their own personal views.

How a division or union conference president, whose constituency in some cases numbers in the hundreds of thousands, would be able to reflect the views of the membership is a question the process does not answer. For a church member to have appropriate views on the survey questions—views that their division/union conference leaders are supposed to reflect—would require that the constituency first have a chance to engage with the issues which have led us to this point, which would in turn require that the divisions/union conferences educate and listen to the people in their territories. As we saw with the TOSC process, it is more likely that the majority of leaders will simply take these questions to an Executive Committees—or to a select few colleagues—and present those opinions as the opinions of their constituencies.

Although the Unity Oversight Committee speaks in general terms about “voted actions of the General Conference Session and Executive Committee,” everyone knows that this committee was formed to deal with parts of the world church considered rebellious on the issue of women’s ordination. It is common knowledge that the current General Conference leadership is opposed to women ordination (be they female deacons, elders, or pastors).

To push a preferred and personal position borders on abuse of authority and process. There is evidence of numerous policy violations, as well as disregard of actions voted by executive committees, across many sectors of the world church. Even the General Conference itself has been found to be non-compliant with some of its own decisions and policies. But there have been no oversight committees formed to deal with these other numerous cases of non-compliance.

It is my feeling that trying to create unity in the church via a policing and enforcement document will not succeed, especially on non-doctrinal matters. Punitive measures on issues that are not part of our core fundamental belief are overkill, and could create feelings of resentment towards the General Conference. Church workers, such as division or union conference leaders might not be able to openly express that resentment, but many lay members are losing respect for the General Conference.

The Unity Oversight Committee sets a bad precedent. Could one now expect that the General Conference establishes similar committees whenever there are areas of disagreement in the church, and impose similar punitive measures in other areas of non-compliance? For example, some local churches do not remit tithes to the conference treasury on time, and some only after a visit from the conference officers. Should representatives of such congregations also lose “voice and vote” on the conference executive committee (as proposed by the Unity Oversight Committee for GC EXCOM members)?

The General Conference leadership needs to stop giving the impression that the issue of women’s ordination is a matter of salvation, much less one that will destroy this church. It is their attempts at enforcement that have led to the biggest divisions and tensions within the church. It is beyond my comprehension how the ordination of female pastors in Iceland or Norway (ordinations only valid within their territories) would have any impact whatsoever on the church in, say, southern Africa, where I am. Even here we have cases of neighboring local congregations a few streets apart, both served by the same pastor, one of which has ordained female elders and the other does not. Both churches function well, and there is no chaos or collapse in the pastoral district.

It would be better for the Unity Oversight Committee to revise its mandate, and focus on developing strategies that would utilize the richness of our diversity as a church to make the mission of the church more effective.

Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.

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