By Loren Seibold  |  25 October 2018  |  

I said it before the GC ExCom. I will say it again.

That thing they voted in Battle Creek? It probably won’t affect your life in this church very much at all.

Unless, that is, you let it.

Please understand: I’m not saying there aren’t dangers here. Yes, the “compliance committees” could be used for bullying, and probably will be.

I would still argue, though, that they’re not nearly as threatening as many fear. Some of us are so upset right now that we’re crediting the General Conference with more power than it has. Again: we are not little children, and the General Conference is not our daddy who gets to spank us. We are part of a huge collective of churches, with two levels of governing constituencies between us and the General Conference.

The power to be an effective Christian presence in our communities is still, in every way that matters, local.

Yes, this vote has alienated the western church, by which I mean North America, Europe and Australia/New Zealand. When the history of Elder Ted Wilson’s tenure is written, this will prove to be the primary indictment of him: that he didn’t seek win-win solutions that were readily available and could have maintained greater denominational harmony. He talked about unity while constantly provoking disunity. That he seems to see his provocations as part of an inevitable “shaking” is probably the most disturbing point of his theology, and disqualifies him to be a unifier.

But while Elder Wilson has exacerbated this divide, he didn’t create it. That this was a democratic vote should tell you this isn’t “our” church anymore. Several of my overseas friends were quite frank with me that there exists some resentment in the church in the developing world. They use words like “colonialism,” but the essence of it is something like this: “The western church has always made the rules, then changed them when it suited it. While we can’t control all aspects of the western church—which, by the way, Elder Wilson implies in his stock sermon is immersed in heresy and error and immorality—we will at least insist that they follow what we voted.”

I think Battle Creek may prove to be a moment of clarity for the western church. Those western church leaders who were thinking that they could find a solution by being reasonable and patient and cooperative are under that illusion no longer. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are leaders in the NAD and Europe who are a bit relieved right now. They know where they stand. They are no longer caught in the middle. They now have the evidence they need to justify acting in the interest of their own constituencies.

Some of these leaders may take this opportunity to back out of the fray. They will fight battles that the GC picks with them, but they might just not take it all so seriously anymore, instead turning their attention back to their regions and doing what their constituents need.

Eventually, if their presidents get kicked off the GC ExCom, some union conference executive committees might unilaterally decide to quit sending the GC quite as much money as they did before. More Adventist World magazines will go into the trash unread. And more people might submit their offerings to their local conference without calling it “tithe.”

For my part, I’m not quite willing to let Elder Wilson even define the General Conference. Even as he rends the church asunder, west from global south, there are still people in Silver Spring doing amazing things. The missions departments led by people like Gary Krause aren’t just doing business as usual: they’re doing innovative, interesting things. At every meeting missions associate Doug Venn is describing astonishingly creative happenings in urban evangelism and church planting all over the world. ADRA, though it suffered when Elder Wilson made a disastrous leadership change at the beginning of his term, is recovering under Jonathan Duffy. The GC communications department, which includes the Adventist News Network, has defended a free press: it broadcasts what were once private meetings to the world and lets people like me attend them and write about them.

I know that there are a lot of us who clench up each time Elder Wilson says a word. But you need to know that Elder Wilson has presided over one of the most successful phases in our denomination’s history—as long as you measure that outside of the western church. He’s a white man, but he’s the world church’s white man. He knows how to talk to the rest of the world better than he does to our part of it. And the church overseas is healthy and growing. An amazing amount of church planting and church growth has happened under his watch, and according to the GC secretary’s report we’re now claiming 21 million members.

(I will also suggest that he’s carefully confined his personal oversight to a narrow set of theological ideas, without looking too closely at how leaders are actually running the church in Africa and Asia, which isn’t always very well.)

Magazines such as ours exist at least in part because here we don’t feel good enough about the church as it is, and we want to talk about it. Meanwhile, many other parts of the world love belonging to this worldwide thing: the big meetings where Elder Wilson appears, the pageantry, the impressive growth statistics. And yes, the mission money. He is met in Africa on the runway with limousines, red carpets, and heads of state, in Latin America with stadium-sized pageants. For now, at least, congregations over there are growing and thriving. Young adults are joining the church, not fleeing it.

I don’t know how much credit Elder Wilson gets for this, but I’m also fairly sure our floundering decline over here can’t be laid entirely at his feet.

Right now everyone is talking about freedom to let the Holy Spirit lead within our field. But wait a doggone minute. Aren’t there things you’d like to see fixed in the church, that could be best fixed from the top? If I said, “So, how do you feel about corruption in the church in India and Africa?” you’d say, “We need to crack down on that.” One young pastor friend of mine wrote on Facebook, “It’s known that neither Amazing Facts nor the Michigan Conference will baptize someone wearing a wedding band. So who will be the first to report Amazing Facts and the Michigan Conference to the compliance committee for their recalcitrant refusal to accept the voted GC policy on wedding bands?”

That is to say, it all depends (to recompose an old cliche) on whose policies are being gored. Some of us think Elder Wilson picked the wrong issues to unify us around. But there are still problems of corruption and undemocratic leadership that I wish The Church would investigate. There are conservative violations of policy, too, and I’d like to see how those are adjudicated by the compliance committees.

What if the compliance committees actually turn out to accomplish some things we need to see done?

So are unspeakable things about to happen to us here? The dawn of the Silver Spring Inquisition? You’d think so from reading a few of our loudest voices. But I’m going to opine that the compliance committees may be more symbol than reality. I say again: the GC can’t fire Dave Weigley or Ricardo Graham. Only a constituency meeting in the Columbia Union Conference or the Pacific Union Conference can do that. As long as these leaders don’t weary in well doing, in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.

Additionally, all of this is going to take some time. A crackdown on those unions where women are being ordained is likely. But it starts with a warning. Then a reprimand. Then removal of the president from the GC ExCom. By which time it’s 2020. And who knows what’s going to happen then?

Is the “worldwideness” of the Seventh-day Adventist church weakening? Probably. But we’ve got enough problems here that we need to address, problems that we can’t blame on anyone else, and it’s time we got back to them. In case you’ve not studied the demographics lately, the NAD church is in trouble. What will survive, it seems to me, are institutions, like our hospitals and more successful universities.

Yet the sad fact for me, as a pastor, is that the majority (yes, you read that right) of our NAD congregations are small and weak, and that is a reality that we all seem determined to ignore.

Our biggest problem in North America is not with the GC. It is with congregations. Our large congregations thrive because most are built around institutions. But hundreds of medium-sized congregations can’t keep people because of internal conflicts, lack of resources, or poor leadership. Thousands of tiny congregations are boarding up the doors. The old evangelism isn’t working, and no one knows how to attract new members like we used to. The young are becoming scarce: almost any photo of almost any NAD congregation would show mostly gray heads.

In the global south, people are joining the church. The picture of most African or Latin American churches would show lots of young adults and children. Meanwhile, they are continually told the lie, from the very top of the denomination, that we over here are liberal and immoral and don’t believe the doctrines anymore. So you can’t blame them for feeling a bit superior, and a bit stubborn when we ask them to accommodate our cultural needs.

I’m not saying that the compliance committees are benign. I’m just asking that we don’t overreact. The church is still local, and it needs your local attention. Between controversial votes in the General Conference, and making sure your Pathfinders are learning something and having fun, the success of the Pathfinder club should win your attention by a big margin. If the Kindergarten Sabbath School no longer has a teacher because you got fed up and quit over something that happened in a GC committee meeting in Michigan, well, that’s not Elder Wilson’s problem. It’s yours.

When the indictment against us is written, it will be that we didn’t resist strongly enough letting denominational politics set the context for our faith. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission,” and that’s worth adapting for our current situation: this brouhaha only has as much power over us as we let it have.

Loren Seibold is a pastor and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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