By Loren Seibold  |  5 October 2018  |  

Our denomination is suffering a fever right now. Everywhere you look, people are on a boil: frightened and angry over Elder Wilson’s compliance proposals.  

It’s disappointing how tone-deaf our GC leaders seem to be. But “the Adventist FBI”? The GC as the “beast that would ‘make war with the saints’ and ‘overcomes them’”? “The most serious issue Adventism has ever faced”?

Could we be getting a bit overheated?

Let me be clear: these so-called compliance committees that Elder Wilson and his fellow wizards in Silver Spring are concocting are against everything that some of us have wanted to believe our church stands for. We’ve thought our church democratic and Spirit-led, but this initiative appears almost papal in its ecclesiasticism. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest our pioneers—including Ellen White herself—wouldn’t have approved.

As an aside, please remember that what is happening now is probably a natural step in organizational maturity. Control is what denominations lust after when they get old and fat. It’s an effort to take control of aging, like waking up one day realizing you’re just about over the hill, and so ordering a bunch of useless vitamins.

Of course, we should oppose what they’re doing. It’s lousy policy. Judicatories and even a few congregations have appropriately weighed in against this.

But right now I want to say to you, in a calm and soothing voice, that I suspect it’s not going to be as calamitous as we’re fearing.

So sit in front of a fan, swab your forehead with a cool cloth, sip an iced Postum, and read on.

Five Reasons to Worry a Little Less

It may not pass. Yes, it’s true that majority of the GC ExCom delegates are from the developing world, and that the church there generally has a higher tolerance for authoritarianism than the western church does. But this may be even too much even for them. Some of these leaders went along with Elder Wilson’s initial proposals two years ago because they were angry with what they saw as the western church’s failure to comply with the San Antonio vote on women’s ordination. But they may realize this time around that the expanded reach of these compliance committees will go beyond women’s ordination and reach out for them, too.

The most likely result is not a down vote, but the even more enervating “send it back to committee.” Putting things off is a very constructive strategy.

It’s unlikely they’ll get all they want. A document had been floating around just before the 2016 Autumn Council called “A Study of Church Governance and Unity.” It was long, tendentious, and overreaching. But even before the meeting started, wiser people had recast it into the more compact “Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation.” That wasn’t good either, but it was better than the first try because it had a procedure that had to be worked through before the General Conference could start getting all disciplinary on us.

My point is that rarely do things get accepted without modification. There’s been an enormous backlash to this most recent proposal. Already fairly toothless (see below) it’s not unlikely that either before the meeting, or during it, even more of its teeth will be pulled. It is at least possible that if it isn’t rejected, it could be modified into impotence.

It spells out a long process, which may never actually result in anything. Lots of committees get set up in that building. They generate huge quantities of words and frequent flier miles. But few ever make a difference to the average person in the pew.

Sometimes, these committees don’t even finish what they start. 2016’s “Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation.” had a number of specific steps that included listening, praying, counseling, letters, more listening and praying, more counseling. Yet in 2017 Elder Wilson got up and presented phase two (the loyalty-oath document) as taking the next step from that one. Danish Union president Elder Thomas Müller made a very simple observation: we have no evidence that you completed phase one! Elder Wilson dismissed him as being too picky, but Müller was right: phase one was not completed before presenting phase two, which was one of the reasons phase two was sent back to committee.

There’s not much they can do even if it passes. Before you rev your engines too far into the red zone, read the document. Yes, it uses parent-to-child language. With words like “warning” and “discipline” and a “public reprimand” for naughty presidents, it sounds like a manual for high school students. It’s at least condescending, and possibly a little insulting.

But what can these committees do when it comes right down to it?

The main tool is trying to embarrass people. A public blacklist. But why should our leaders be embarrassed for standing for truth and freedom? (I’d love to see being blacklisted a point of pride—a whole row of union presidents at the microphone requesting it!)

The document uses the word “removal” rather ominously, but that’s not removal of a conference or union leader from his job—only a constituency or duly-appointed executive committee can do that—but his removal from the GC ExCom. And it’s not even clear that can legally be done!

As I explained in an earlier piece, the constitution and bylaws of church judicatories don’t allow the GC to step in and take over the unions. Which is one reason why, even after the disappointing vote in San Antonio, the unions that had strong leaders and constituencies kept ordaining women anyway.

This is all to say that the compliance committees, should they pass, are only as powerful as we let them be. We’re not little children, and Elder Wilson isn’t our daddy who gets to spank us. We’re part of a huge collective of churches—the huge collective of churches that supplies money to keep the GC going, to be blunt about it.

As for the threat of taking away voting rights from my union conference president: first, I don’t think they’ll actually do it. And second (this a word of advice in Elder Wilson’s ear) if you really want whole unions to see the GC as irrelevant and unhelpful and to quit sending you money—if you want to go down in history as the GC administration that alienated entire divisions of the church—taking away the union president’s representative voice is the perfect place to start.

Elder Wilson will eventually be gone. Germany’s BMV conference asked the question first, Iowa-Missouri recently followed them and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it from others: Would Elder Wilson survive a no-confidence vote from his own ExCom?

It’s unlikely there’s going to be a vote of no-confidence in Elder Wilson at Battle Creek: GC ExCom members are too kind for that. But that doesn’t mean that they will submit to these top-down power plays. Within a couple of years will come an opportunity for a change. One of the main reasons for removing Elder Wilson from a position of authority is not that he is in any way a bad man—he is in fact a good and spiritual man—but that he has shown poor leadership in proposing to dismantle the church’s historic stance on distributed power and democratically-mediated Holy Spirit leadership, in order to achieve the dubious goal of “unity”.

If It Keeps ‘Em Off the Streets…

Again, Ted Wilson isn’t Darth Vader. He’s a decent man whose excessive regard for the church organization, personal bent toward authoritarianism, and illusion of manifest destiny for himself in this office has led him into a decidedly unAdventist style of leadership. He’s gone from powerful figure to tragic figure, and sadly, now, risks being seen as a leader who’s hard to take seriously.

This is all unfortunate to be sure—but, it seems to me, more embarrassing than threatening. And if it does pass? Then may the GC leadership team sit in compliance committee meetings 18 hours a day. May they craft gloriously threatening documents, with endless quotes by Ellen White. (You remember Ellen—the woman who started this denomination?) May they loom over the church like buzzards on the branch of a dead tree, looking down long, threatening beaks at us.

But the fact is they know little about the church out here. They view it from a few acres of ground in Silver Spring, MD. The church is moving on without them.

Like you, I deeply appreciate the calm and articulate statements on the matter by individuals and judicatories around the world.

At other moments, I confess, I let myself indulge a feeling of satisfying indignation against the compliance party. How good self-righteousness feels!

But let’s not settle so deeply into our indignation that we reward the GC leaders with more power than they actually have.

Act from Strength

About women’s ordination, few are changing their minds. I hope, however, that some who oppose women’s ordination may have begun to feel concern about the authoritarian overreach of the GC, which is why I wouldn’t rule out rejection of the compliance committee project.

But should that not happen—should the GC ExCom vote the whole silly package—here’s what we need to do:

We need to strengthen our union conference presidents and union conference committees.

  • Let your union president know that you’ve got his back. Tell him that you support him, and that you don’t care if he can’t vote on the GC ExCom, as long as he leads the work in your territory.
  • Let him know that if, after making his best speech at Battle Creek, these policies get passed anyway, you expect him to do what is needed for the good of the church in the union conference he leads.
  • Assure him that no matter your personal stand on women’s ordination and other controversial theological touchpoints, none of us want the sort of Seventh-day Catholicism that seems to be on offer right now.
  • Tell him you’re praying for him—and then do it. (Contrary to popular belief, prayers from 12501 Old Columbia Pike are no more powerful than those emerging from your house or church.)

The GC doesn’t exist to force the church into compliance, but to be a resource for us. In fact, we out here have the responsibility to monitor the GC leaders’ compliance with the Holy Spirit’s leading. I would love for our representatives to find a way to hold the GC officers accountable for the chaos they’ve wreaked on the church since 2015.

Of course, if it does all go away, as I’m hoping, we’ll all congratulate ourselves, like the dog who barks at the window and thinks he’s saved your life from the mailman.

But I’m pretty sure God will have had a hand in it, too. So let’s trust Him and see how He works it all out.

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

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