By Loren Seibold, October 27, 2016:

#NADYEM16. In case you’re wondering, that’s the hashtag for “North American Division Year-End Meetings, 2016.” Every autumn, just a week or two after Adventist leaders from the whole world gather at Silver Spring for the General Conference’s Annual Council, leaders from across this Division (the United States, Canada and Bermuda) gather here to, well, mostly to listen to stuff, and now and then vote about something.

An anticipative exploration. After covering the Annual Council a couple of weeks ago, and looking forward to another week of church leadership meetings, I couldn’t get this question out of my head. When a Seventh-day Adventist denominational body votes on something—for now, let’s leave that “something” open—what is happening? The question might sound vague, but it conceals ethical and theological questions.

  1. It may mean merely that what we’re considering seems to us a sensible way forward, a good decision based on pooled wisdom and experience. That doesn’t mean the proposal hasn’t involved prayer, but that it certainly has unfolded out of the judgment of thoughtful people. Maybe the given decision reverses what earlier groups voted. And later, this vote may not seem like it was such a good idea, and be changed by another group. But in each case it is decided on its own merits with guidance from our religious principles, as any good decision should be.
  2. Let’s posit a stronger Divine influence in mix. We may think of our decision as a partnership between God and us, as in “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). There is an element of risk in any decision made by human beings. Will this institution we’re spending millions to build actually serve God well? Is it financially viable? In this scenario, we still try to do due diligence, but we assign more of the risk to God. Yet here we’re beginning to dampen our feet in some swampy mud. For if God is there to minimize the risk, whose fault is it if we fail? Can we learn anything at all from such an arrangement?
  3. I have on several occasions heard a church leader say, “I know this idea/institution/program/building project doesn’t make any sense from a human point of view.” He may go so far as to acknowledge that we don’t have the money, we don’t see the way forward, we’re not sure exactly what we’re wanting to achieve, our leadership is uncertain but with this proposal (which is often, I’ve noticed, drawn from some recommendation from Ellen White that the proponent thinks still applies to our contemporary world), we’d better “step out in faith, as our pioneers did, as the Bible heroes did, and God will reward us and crown our efforts with success.”
    I like faith, but this introduction raises my defenses. Not only does it lack much chance of succeeding, but here we are likely to see manipulation. I was once in a conference committee where the president got voted down, so sent us to our knees three times until we changed our votes. I remember him saying, “Please understand that despite your doubts, I have prayed for hours about this, and am absolutely certain this is God’s path for us.” It wasn’t at all certain of that—unless you believe it was God’s will that we waste hundreds of thousands of member-donated dollars on a stupid idea. But not to worry: he got a promotion, and never stuck around to defend his conviction.
  4. In meetings like the recent  #GCAC16, we go to yet another level. The first sign of this happening is that it will be introduced by a quote about the General Conference being the highest authority of God on earth.
    Here is introduced an element of permanence and unchangeableness. We are taken back to the foundations of our faith, often by employing a church history that simplifies the uncertainties in the historical record, or a certain interpretation of Scripture that ignores the parts that don’t fit. It is submitted to the body that there is only one decision that is possible if we are to be in God’s will. We are locked in. No nuance is allowed, because looked at through the lens that the leader holds up for us, all is black and white.

Here, we come perilously close to claiming we know the mind of God, for now and all time. For example, if God doesn’t want women ordained, then even if the vote was close, even if a leader used his positional influence, threats, and political maneuvering to make that case, once the vote is taken we have at that moment decided the mind of God on the matter. Such a decision, by its nature, cannot, should not, ever be changed. God, we are led to believe, doesn’t mess about with uncertainties. If he has let us decide his opinion on women in ministry, he’s not about to change it. There is no need to bring it up again, and anyone who thinks differently is simply disobedient.

Yet there have been hundreds of changes that have been voted by the GC through the decades. Contradictory decisions. Which introduces another possibility: that we, perhaps, make up God’s mind by our vote? If the GC is the highest authority under God on earth, does God choose to go along with what we decide, because his highest authority here has decided it? That is the only option: otherwise, the denomination is under a cloud of guilt every time it has decided wrongly, and would God let that stand among his highest authority on earth? Perhaps it is true that “what is bound on earth is bound in heaven”?

I was thinking recently of the possibility that before too long, marijuana will be legal in all 50 states. Put yourself in the position of a man who has spent years of his life in prison for possessing or selling some quantity of it. At the time he was imprisoned, it was because his actions were considered a moral infraction, one so severe it would deprive him of his liberty for years. Suddenly it is no infraction at all. His only comfort can be that he was a victim of fallible man-made laws, subject to change.

But the church under a General Conference vote has no such comfort. The law we have broken should we go against a GC vote, even if it only about policy, is God’s law. And, as we’ve seen in recent meetings, we make very little differentiation between the kind of thing we apply these authoritative votes to: doctrine, policy, fundamental beliefs, interpretations of the Bible or Ellen White. They are mashed together into an instruction that puts you not just in or out of agreement with the church, but in or out of the will of God.

There is danger here. Church authority and decision-making deserve some ethical and theological analysis.

Year End Meeting business session kicked off today at around 3. There’s a difference between this meeting and the GC Annual Council meeting. This one is friendly.

About 15 delegates under 30 in the audience, all chosen because they were student body presidents of their Adventist colleges. (Out of about 200 delegates). May not seem like much, but it is an improvement over the past.

President’s Report: I’m so impressed by the skills of our NAD president, Elder Dan Jackson. His report today was as graceful as crossing a river full of piranhas by stepping on the stones. But, with his good humor and healthy gospel faith, it was more like dancing across the stepping stones.

The plans themselves were about church planting with an urban thrust, compassionate ministries, strengthening education, supporting the hospital systems—nothing novel or unusual, but solidly defensible. Several times Jackson protested that there were no bad feelings between the NAD and the GC. That the NAD moving to its own office building has nothing to do with animosity, or about losing a vote. That the NAD’s hiring more female pastors was in full accord with all the GC policies.

But then offhand bits like this: “In this Division, we believe in both women and men.” Another remark that he doesn’t like it when the brethren come up with an idea after just a few weeks of work and assume that it’s a good idea, which brought to mind the fiasco of the Unity in Mission document of just a few weeks ago. A strong statement on the need for people with objections to stand up and speak their minds, that if you don’t speak your mind, you’re no help to the meeting. The frequently repeated “All are needed, all are wanted.” His goal to “create a culture that provides for safe, open dialogue, flexibility and room for all, while developing an increasing professionalism and accountability.” A comment about the indefensible division between clergy and laity, which earned applause. And that “outreach means going, not staying. I am not opposed to 28 nights in a hall. But the idea that the work of the church is to invite people to join us in a building that we happen to own—that’s not where we ought to be.”

All of this is a contrast to the GC Annual Council, where nearly everything happening up front of any consequence was about conformity, control, obedience, uniformity, tradition, certainty, and discipline. It was clear to me that in spite of his talk of unity and peace, Elder Ted Wilson prefers a church with very little wiggle room for individual judicatories. Elder Jackson seems to appreciate our freedom in Christ. We need to pray for him.

The NAD Executive Secretary’s (Alex Bryant’s) report, was routine. Check out our Facebook or Twitter feed for more details about membership (1,231,000) and growth (1.35% a year now).

“Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation”: If you’re wondering if it’s going to come up, the answer is yes. But, as one NAD worker told me, “We’re giving it very little time, because we decided we didn’t want to let Ted Wilson set our agenda and derail us from our mission.” I like that! Don’t let your opponents define you. Don’t let them keep you from reaching their goal just so they can reach theirs.

Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.