by Alvin Masarira  |  03 June 2020  |

Ellen White wrote in 1875: “Christ would have His followers brought together in church capacity, observing order, having rules and discipline, and all subject one to another, esteeming others better than themselves” 3T 445.

However, the church leaders then were reluctant to produce a book of rules for church governance, even though the General Conference Session at that time was convened annually, and delegates voted on matters of church order and life. The 1882 General Conference, in session, finally voted that a document be prepared, entitled “Instructions to Church Officers,” to be printed in the Review and Herald (Dec 26, 1882) or in tract form. There was growing realization that order was necessary if the organization was to function effectively, and the guiding principles were to be put into printed form.

However, the 1883 General Conference session delegates rejected the idea of putting these into a permanent form, such as a church manual. The fear was that a manual might formalize the church and take from its pastors their individual freedom to deal with matters of order as they desired. Though the church officially declined to adopt a manual, leaders from time to time gathered together in book or booklet form the generally accepted rules of church life.

In 1907 a 184-page book was published by pioneer J. N. Loughborough entitled The Church, Its Organization, Order and Discipline, which dealt with many of the topics now covered by the Church Manual. And as the church worldwide grew rapidly in the early 20th century, it was increasingly recognized that there was a need for a manual for worldwide use by its pastors and lay members. In 1931, the General Conference Committee voted to publish one. J. L. McElhany, later president of the General Conference, prepared the manuscript, which was published in 1932. Ever since then, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has had a Church Manual, which gets revised and updated every five years at a General Conference Session.

A Divine Book?

The current Church Manual is the 19th Edition, from 2015. There were plans to issue the 20th Edition at the 2020 General Conference Session, which has been postponed to 2021. In the section “Authority and Function of the Church Manual” the 19th says:

The Church Manual has existed in its current format since 1932. It describes the operation and functions of local churches and their relationship to denominational structures in which they hold membership. The Church Manual also expresses the Church’s understanding of Christian life and church governance and discipline based on biblical principles and the authority of duly assembled General Conference Sessions. God has ordained that representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority.” 9T 261 The standards and practices of the Church are based upon the principles of the Holy Scriptures. The principles, underscored by the Spirit of Prophecy, are set forth in this Church Manual. They are to be followed in all matters pertaining to the administration and operation of local churches. No attempt should be made to set up standards of membership or to make, or attempt to enforce, rules or regulations for local church operations that are contrary to these decisions adopted by the General Conference in Session and that are set forth in this Church Manual. (emphasis added)

This is indeed a huge claim of authority given to the Church Manual, and a simple perusal reveals that it is not just a book on administrative matters of the church but has been infused with doctrinal issues. Many quotations from the writings of Ellen White (and the Bible) are used to buttress the rules and regulations outlined in the Church Manual. It has been observed over the past few decades that General Conference has transformed the Church Manual from just an administrative policy document to almost a theological document. It has reached a point where a perception is created in many local churches that adopting a procedure that differs from the one prescribed in the Church Manual is the same as violating Scripture—even if the departure makes sense.

One example that comes to my mind was a heated debate we had in my church over the size of the organizing committee at church elections time. The Church Manual says the size of the organizing committee should be 5 to 7 more than the size of the church board. This would have meant a committee of about 30 members (in a church with maybe 50 active members). Someone proposed a smaller size committee which would be less cumbersome. This resulted in a heated debate until the Church Manual conformists won the day. Their argument was simply this: “The Church Manual says so.”

The Church Manual finds its greatest application at local church level. The local church is considered, in Adventist-speak, to be the “most powerful” level in the church system, although this authority is delegated to conference administration (at business sessions) and some have argued that the delegation has for all practical purposes taken away this authority from the local churches.

Can This Book Adapt?

It is important to note that when the first Church Manual was voted into existence in 1932, and when subsequent revisions were done, no one had the COVID-19 global pandemic in mind. The church is now challenged, and a question being grappled with is: how should we apply church policy when the external environment might be prohibitive to following its rules precisely? This question is being asked loudly at local church level with respect to the application of some aspects of the Church Manual. The current crisis has in many places stopped church gatherings. Believers worship in their homes, or on line. There is no general in-person interaction between people, no church board or business meetings, no committee meetings and of course no services such as the Lord’s Supper or baptism.

It is not an overstatement to say that because of the crisis, the Church Manual too is in some areas in crisis. The Church Manual (and church policy in general) was designed to regulate church life under normal conditions. The moment conditions changed, it became evident that some aspects of the Church Manual will have limited application, and the church needs to quickly figure out how these should be applied under such strange conditions. The optimists among us would be quick to say this is a temporary bleep and things will go back to normal and the Church Manual will be fully applicable again. But this crisis has exposed the fact that organisations (and churches) are never prepared for times such as these. And who says this is the only such crisis the world will experience? It would not surprise anyone if more crises occur in the future.

This crisis raises a number of questions which the Church Manual is not able to fully answer.

For example, who elected and appointed the church leaders in the house churches currently meeting for regular worship? Before someone asks, “Are house churches real churches?” it would be wise to go to the book of Acts to see that house churches were the only churches then. For the first 300 years of early Christianity until Constantine legalized Christianity and churches moved into larger buildings, Christians typically met in homes. The Dura-Europos, a private house in Dura-Europos in Syria, was excavated in the 1930s and was found to have been used as a Christian meeting place in AD 232, with one small room serving as a baptistry, creating the current style of church seen today.

Which elders ensure doctrinal purity of the sermons or presentations every Sabbath in homes? How should the believers have the Lord’s Supper? Can each family have its own Lord’s Supper service? What about those homes where no one is an ordained elder—since the Church Manual prescribes that only an ordained elder/pastor can lead out in communion? What about baptisms? What about single parent (single mother) households, given the schizophrenic view held by many Adventists on the issue of women in ministry? Do we have a dress-code and music guidelines“for the house churches? For those churches that are due to have elections of new officers soon, should they even bother?

If I Were the Devil

At the General Conference Session 2000 in Toronto, George Knight, Professor of Church History at the SDA Theological Seminary (Andrews University) delivered a very powerful and iconic presentation entitled “If I Were the Devil”. He highlighted 13 issues that he believes the devil would use to disrupt growth and development in the Adventist Church. This presentation was already powerful 20 years ago, but it has become even more relevant today. I will highlight only 4 of his 13 points that I feel speak to our situation today. The italicized comments in brackets are mine:

  • If I were the Devil, I would put my best energies into getting the church to reject the ideas and plans of the coming generation (the church has often marginalized the ideas of the youth, including doing church differently). . . .
  • If I were the Devil, I would downplay the importance of new technologies in finishing the church’s work (technology was demonized in some Adventist circles, but today we all rush to social media to do Church on Sabbath). . . .
  • If I were the Devil, I would make pastors and administrators the centre of the work of the church (with Conference offices, leaders and pastors limited in what they can do, some churches are in a leadership crisis, not knowing what to do). . . .
  • If I were the Devil, I would create more administrative levels and generate more administrators (the pandemic will demand cuts in administration overheads).

It is therefore evident that our Church Manual and some of our policies are not relevant or implementable during a crisis. That demands boldness on the part of leaders to recognise that their role in not to guard and protect policy, but first of all to understand what the original intent of the policy was, and then make the relevant changes for it to be applicable under prevailing conditions. Here are some changes that I suggest will need to be adopted:

  • A family should be able to conduct the Lord’s Supper in their home, whether there is an ordained elder in that home or not. There is no Biblical basis to insist that only an ordained elder can lead out. That requirement came as the church was grappling with the issue of ordination (in the 1860/70 era) and church order.
  • Each home church can decide on how to run their services. The local church leadership can be consulted for advice if needed.
  • If a local church would like to run a joint online service or program (e.g. on the Zoom platform), they should be able to invite any guest speaker/presenter they want without having to go through an onerous Service Request process through the local (or union) conference. The “Service Request“ process was designed in order to regularize travel and employing organizations’ scheduling. Where no travel is necessary, the process should be as simple as making a phone call and arranging with the guest speaker.
  • The nature of church elections (for local church officers) should drastically change. Those who are due to elect officers for next year should rather use the time to develop their “Local Church 3-Year Strategic Plan”. The annual (or biannual) ritual of electing people to office without a solid church strategy has resulted in weak, ineffective and, in some cases, incompetent leadership. Before people are appointed to office, there should be a strategy they should align themselves to. This pandemic is asking us difficult questions. What is the role and purpose of your church in the next three years? What’s your relevance and mission in the community you are located in?
  • The relationship between the various levels of the church (from local church to General Conference) needs to be reviewed. This would need to be a separate discussion altogether that would go beyond just the Church Manual.

Is the current Church Manual crisis-friendly? The answer is a definite NO. Not because of anyone’s fault, but simply because it was designed for the “old-normal”. There is need for a thorough review of, and changes to, the Church Manual to ensure there is enough flexibility that would empower local churches to operate during times such as these. The development of our massive policy infrastructure over the last 157 years might have been necessitated by the growing global complexity, but has resulted in very limited room for innovation and decision-making authority at local church level. This is also true for all levels of the church, as these too are bound by the many policies.

Maybe this crisis is pushing the church to its original ideal condition in the Book of Acts. There was no strong centralised authority similar to the General Conference, and none of its numerous policies. The Apostle Paul, for example, would go into an unentered area, establish a church, appoint local leadership and empower them to lead as they were led by the Holy Spirit. Occasionally he would write them a letter to encourage or correct or admonish them. The “General Conference”—the leadership in Jerusalem—kept its distance.

The organisation should have faith that God will lead and guide His church through the local leadership, and local leadership should have the authority to make administrative decisions based on prevailing circumstances. The General Conference should rather focus on the theological foundation that unites global Adventism. That is why the conflation of theological and administrative issues in the current Church Manual is not ideal. It has transformed the Church Manual from a merely policy and administrative to a theological document. It should therefore be revised and updated for it to be relevant for times such as these.

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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