Possible Modification of Doctrinal Document, Challenging Trends Discussed by Leaders at Denomination’s Annual Meeting
By Adventist Today News Team, October 16, 2013
No final decisions were made as steps were taken this week toward possibly revising the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The document officially describes the denomination's basic doctrines and can only be changed by a General Conference (GC) Session held every five years with delegates elected by national denominational bodies in each country around the globe. The meeting which began last week is the annual council of the executive committee that governs the denomination between sessions.
Today (October 15) the committee simply took the next step in a five-year process to better articulate the church’s core beliefs, using clearer—and frequently more inclusive—language. Theologians led committee members through a reading of an edited draft of all 28 Fundamental Beliefs prepared by a review committee appointed in 2011. Pastor Ben Schoun, a GC vice president who chaired the discussion, reminded delegates that the draft is “not the final copy” and urged them not to spend the afternoon debating semantics. He also encouraged committee members to conduct discussions in their regions and submit further edits by June 1, 2014.
The review was launched because some delegates at the 2010 GC Session expressed a concern that the paragraph on creation was not strong enough. It came as no surprise, then, that Fundamental Belief Number 6 received the most red ink. One proposed edit to the paragraph on creation replaces, “In six days, the Lord made …” with “In a recent, six-day creation, the Lord made …” Another suggested change specifies that creation took place within the span of “six literal days.” The word “literal” closes what some Adventists have claimed is an interpretive loophole that allows theistic evolution to explain the Genesis origins account.
The draft reviewed by the committee also replaces the first verse of Genesis, which states, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth,” with a passage from Exodus 20, which says God created “the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.” This change reflects a fuller understanding of the original Hebrew by separating the creation of the “cosmos” (universe) from the creation of life on earth, church leaders said. Adventist theologians believe Genesis 1:1 may refer to creation in a broader sense (see Job 38:7), whereas Exodus 20:11, the draft states, “seems to restrict the creative act to what took place during the six days of creation.”
The draft "doesn’t bring anything new to the belief. It just states with a firmer voice, or a more clear voice, what we have always believed,” said Dr. Artur Stele, a GC vice president who co-chaired the review and serves as director of the denomination's Biblical Research Institute. Overall, the draft proposes changes—most of which are minor and editorial in nature—to 18 of the denomination’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs.
Another propose revision is the gender-neutral language that shows up consistently throughout the draft. For example, “man and “mankind” now read “human” and “humanity.” In providing background on the new language, Stele explained, “we wanted to determine whether the suggestion was biblical or just reflecting the spirit of the day." After a close study of Hebrew usage in the Old Testament, “you cannot conclude words such as 'man' only refer to the masculine gender.” Even in the New Testament, Stele said, inclusivity is the clear biblical intent. The original Greek word “man” was always gender-neutral until the modern era. “It means human being,” he said.
The draft also seeks to clarify the denomination’s belief on marriage and family, suggesting that the phrase “a man and a woman” replace the current word “partners” to ensure that the denomination’s definition of marriage cannot apply to same-sex unions. The new version “removes any ambiguity” that could be “misused” by Adventists supporting gay, lesbian or transgender marriages. Changes to Fundamental Belief Number 23 also include removing the word “disciplinarian” when urging parents to emulate Christ’s relationship with humanity when raising their children.
The draft also does away with outdated English vocabulary and usage. “Which” frequently becomes “that” and “gracious” is now used to describe God, instead of “beneficent.” Another change replaces the archaic word “fruitage” with “fruit.”
Stele told the executive committee that the draft only includes proposed changes that “deepen” the statement, refrain from “elaborations of ideas already present” or present key ideas currently missing. The review group also looked for ways to clarify or condense the beliefs. Suggestions were rejected that “primarily promoted a personal agenda,” he said. The review committee will prepare a second draft of the document for the 2014 annual meeting and a decision will be made at that meeting as to whether or not to pass on the revisions for consideration at the 2015 GC Session.
The annual meeting began Friday (October 11) with an observance of the 125th anniversary of the 1888 GC Session, which is remembered as a theological milestone in the history of the denomination. It was the scene of a series of doctrinal debates which served to refocus Adventist faith away from an early sectarian bent toward a more evangelical foundation in "righteousness by faith." Cofounder Ellen G. White encouraged a new generation of younger preachers in presenting a more evangelical understanding of salvation much to the consternation of the GC officers at the time. In the aftermath she wrote her classic biography of Christ, The Desire of Ages, and the most widely-distributed of her books, Steps to Christ, which was initially issued by a major Christian publisher and not a denominational publishing housing.
"Jesus has become my sufficiency," Dr. Ganoune Diop, an Adventist theologian raised as a Muslim in his native Senegal, told the committee. He contrasted the faith of his childhood with his adult Christian belief in a Lord who died to redeem broken and sinful humanity. Diop currently serves as the denomination's representative to the United Nations. Other sermons on the same theme included one by Stele on Old Testament stories of God's mercy and grace, another by Dr. Lael Caesar, an associate editor of the Adventist Review, focusing on the meaning in the stories about Christ reaching out to and healing lepers, and another by a young pastor from Maine, Shawn Brace.
Back and forth themes about change, innovation and new challenges facing the denomination, as well as concern about holding onto Seventh-day Adventist traditions, were laced throughout the meeting. During an in-service education event for church administrators just prior to the meeting (with almost all of the members present), a management consultant cited by the Wall Street Journal as "the world's most influential business thinker," Gary Hamel urged Adventist leaders to create a climate of innovation at every level of the denomination, to facilitate experimentation as crucial to the future of the organization. "We don't worship tradition," he stated. "We worship a risen Lord."
As the committee worshiped together last Sabbath (October 12), Pastor Ted Wilson, the GC president, both affirmed the Christ-centered emphasis of the 1888 anniversary and cautioned against change that might lead to abandoning Bible teachings. "There are those inside the church and outside the church who wish to change the very beliefs we have held sacred and change the character of the Seventh-day Adventist Church itself," he warned. "People who want to turn the grace of God into something vile thus denying Jesus Himself, even though they pretend to lift up His name."
He pointed to changing social attitudes toward homosexuality. "The acquiescence to homosexuality that is pervading so many societies today is nothing more than the old immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah that is in complete opposition to God's Holy Word and, according to the Bible, will result in not receiving eternal life for those who reject God's loving and saving efforts to turn them away from sinful behavior."
Official reports also reflected the challenges and tensions operating within the denomination. Membership is over 18 million now, reported Pastor G. T. Ng, executive secretary of the GC, with 1.1 million baptisms in the last year. There are 6.6 million members in Africa, 5.8 million in Latin America and 3.4 million in Asia, where growth is rapid. There are about 2 million in North America, Europe and the South Pacific where growth is slower although remarkable compared to other denominations.
The need to generate more grassroots support for mission projects and engage young adults in the planning, funding and implementation of these projects was a key element in the report of GC Treasurer Robert Lemon. In 2012 the tithe returned in North America increased by only one percent, while in the rest of the world it increased by 4.4 percent. Giving to mission offerings increased by 6 percent in the rest of the world and declined by 2.6 percent in North America.
Lemon proposed that the special offering taken at the time of 2015 GC Session be dedicated to projects overseen by Adventists under 25 years of age. He asked that a committee made up three-quarters of members under 25 years of age select the projects. "It's time that we tell our young people that we not only trust them to do the work, but we also trust them to make decisions as to how to spend the money of the church," Lemon told the committee.
Many other items were on the agenda for the meetings which have lasted for more than two weeks. For reasons concerning which Adventist Today has received no explanation, the denomination's official news service, Adventist News Network (ANN), has not released any of the actual documents as it has in past years. A new ANN web site was rolled out just prior to these meetings which has improved graphics, but the information value of the downloadable items is significantly decreased.