By Loren Seibold

I don’t expect this year’s Annual Council to mark the dissolution of our denomination. But there is potentially much at stake here, which is why we’ll be watching this General Conference Executive Committee with interest.

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The members of the General Conference Executive Committee are a cultural stew: some Western leaders, but a majority from the developing world, the global south, and the former Soviet bloc. Members from Western countries aren’t afraid to speak up and challenge the leadership—largely, it appears to me, without fear of retribution. Those who come from the developing world, from countries where both government and religion generally operate with an authoritarian leadership style, are more careful and less questioning. They tend to vote as their leaders advise. That’s why the Unity in Mission document received a majority vote of approval last year. And as long as the screws aren’t tightened too much , I suspect they’ll vote with the GC leadership this year, too.

We as yet have no idea what will be presented. But while we wait for it, let’s take a look at who thinks they’ve got the high ground in this conflict, and why.

Policy, History, Theology and Money

A friend of mine, who’s something of a denominational policy wonk, made this interesting observation. He said that policies generally aren’t written to solve disputes over policies. It’s expected that, if you belong to this club, you’re going to go along with the policies that we’ve written, using the procedures we’ve all agreed to. Policies aren’t designed for situations where there are challenges and disputes, and they’re generally not punitive. The organization operates on mutual trust: that we will all honor our policies because … well, because they’re our policies.

Between 1901 and 1903 the denomination (with Ellen White’s help) redesigned the Adventist structure such that union conference’s regional authority would dilute the “kingly power” of the General Conference and allow more localized decision-making. But in the century since then, this intention has not been designed into policy to the extent that some of us now wish it had been. Our denomination has taken some steps toward a less hierarchical, more distributed, decision-making structure, yet for some reason (I’m not exactly sure why) there has been a refusal to apply this to the question of women’s ordination. Historical intentions should shape policies, but if they haven’t, church leaders feel that they must base their decisions on policy, not on history or theology.

It seems to me very clear that it was intended in 1901-1903 for union conferences to provide leadership in a way that takes into consideration local needs, which would be impossible for a worldwide group to do—such as deciding if a particular region wants to ordain women for ministry. But the policies since then haven’t developed along those lines. I hate to make this observation, but I fear I must: if you’re only considering policy as it stands now, the General Conference has the high ground in this dispute. GC policy outlines the criteria for fitness to be ordained; the unions then implement those policies for their territory—policies which right now excludes women.

Women’s ordination is but one example. A friend in Silver Spring, commenting on these conflicts between authority and autonomy, said to me, “… and women’s ordination is simple in comparison with some of the conflicts we could be facing in the future.”

A centralized authority may seem out of sync with what our founders intended back in 1901-1903, which is why union conferences believe that they have the high ground with regard to history. (Check out the papers presented at the Unity Conference to understand this more fully.) But the GC has applicable policies, plus a high-profile vote on women’s ordination in the 2015 GC session. That—not history—is what church leaders have to work with.

The union conferences of the Western church, those who want to ordain women, do have a high-point card in their deck. About 7% of the world membership is in the North American Division, 3% in Europe and 3% in Australia and New Zealand—but this 13% or so generates 54% of the world’s tithe. Money is power, whether the policy says that or not.

Could these opposing forces result in a fracturing of the denominational structure? Possibly. But I’m less worried about that, than I am that cultural inflexibility will lead more members of the Western church to vote with their pocketbooks and with their feet.

Could these opposing forces result in a fracturing of the denominational structure? Possibly. But I’m less worried about that, than I am that cultural inflexibility will lead more members of the Western church to vote with their pocketbooks and with their feet.

In the Courts

I am terrified lest our church judicatories lawyer up against one another. I have seen some civil suits at close range, and the only winners are the attorneys. Lawsuits within denominations generate bad feelings and bad PR. But that hasn’t stopped it from happening.

For a number of years what most often landed religious groups in court was child sexual abuse lawsuits. That’s still a major problem, but this past year more religious groups went to court over property disputes than anything else. One interesting ecclesiastical property dispute for our purposes has to do with congregations suing denominational leaders about leaving their denomination, while retaining ownership of their church building. Almost every denominationally-connected congregation builds a church building, pays for it, and then hands the title over to denominational headquarters. But what about when either the congregation, or the denomination, changes in ways that make an ongoing relationship difficult?

The conflict between the General Conference and women-ordaining union conferences isn’t about property. Unlike congregations, union conferences in the United States own their own buildings and other union institutions. It’s worth looking at, though, because it’s a question that some have raised: what if church entities go to court against one another? Do these property cases tell us anything about our own intra-church disputes. Probably not much.

When they go to court in the United States, congregations often lose their property to the denomination. In many denominations (such as ours) policies say that property is held in trust not for the local congregation, but for the denomination. Never mind that Aunt Hilda gave most of the money to build First Episcopal Church because she loved the congregation. Never mind that the denomination has become completely out of sync with the theology and mission of First Episcopal’s members—and we know Aunt Hilda would also have been furious that the Episcopal denomination has become so liberal. Doesn’t matter. In the end, their possession of a property title, and a few lines of policy, wins for the denomination.

Denominational officials have sometimes pursued these cases with enthusiasm, and when they do, they end up looking like the bad guys. The presiding bishop of one denomination decreed that properties of breakaway congregations could be sold to anyone except those who used to worship there. One Protestant congregation that wanted to break away because they felt their denomination had become too liberal, was sold at a bargain to a synagogue, even though the congregation was willing to buy it again for more money. Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, a place where my wife and I used to enjoy attending concerts when we lived in the Bay Area, left the Presbyterian Church (USA) and had to pay the PCUSA $8.89 million for their church’s property and membership fees.

Would we get a similar outcome in a legal dispute between a denomination and lower judicatories? The situations aren’t really comparable. You’ve probably heard threats on the anti-women’s ordination websites that the GC is about to come down hard on the disobedient unions, fire the officers and take them over them over, lock, stock and barrel. But it appears, at least at first look, that the way our union conferences are set up makes them more autonomous than many suppose. For one thing, though they are joined ecclesiastically by policies, union conferences and the GC have completely separate corporations.

Please understand that while the North American Division isn’t a separate institution from the GC, the union conferences are. I’m not an expert, but I’ve talked to people who say that there is nothing in the constitution and by-laws that, should it come to an all out fight, lets the General Conference automatically take over the unions. For one thing, while the unions are the GC’s constituency, the GC isn’t the union conference’s constituency, nor can the GC choose the union conference’s constituency for them! The two are sufficiently separated that all we can say is that the union conferences’ support of the GC is a matter of trust, of relationship, not just legality. Presumably the GC could kick the Pacific Union out of the denomination, but I have yet to see the evidence that Elder Ted Wilson (or someone he appoints) could simply walk in and sit in Elder Ricardo Graham’s office chair.

Anyway, courts try to avoid getting in the middle of ecclesiastical disputes. When they do, they generally only want to know who followed denominational constitution and bylaws. Just pray mightily that such a thing never happens to us.

Held Together by Trust

There is one thing that has puzzled me over the past eight years, however. As I said earlier, an organization like ours is held together by policies, and those policies are built and implemented on trust. I’ve seen a lot of work on policies, but I’ve been disappointed at how little intentional effort I’ve seen to build trust.

I’ve seen a lot of work on policies, but I’ve been disappointed at how little effort there’s been to build trust.

Please note that all of this conflict has arisen since Elder Ted Wilson took office. Rather than trying to find a conciliatory center, he’s pulled the church in one direction, with fairly little sensitivity to Western church needs. He is, sadly, not an especially trusted person in the NAD right now, and that doesn’t seem to bother him.

My friend Dr. Smuts van Rooyen said in a recent letter that “matters of GC authority and denominational unity that have recently arisen are structures of deceit meant to deflect from the immoral way the church is treating women.” I disagree with one part of that: authority is the issue, not a deflection. Those against women’s ordination are not woman-haters. They are good and reasonable men, but they are men who want to retain power in the situation and setting that the denomination finds itself in. They want to win the argument. They put it in terms of unity, or say it’s about following the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy. But there is no greater lust, nor none to which its participants are so blind, than that for power, control, and status in the service of God, in which to be right and prove others wrong appears righteous and necessary.

If you want to see how that desire to be right warps men’s minds, please note that many who espouse headship theology have gone so far as to deny the Trinity and even the Divinity of Jesus Christ in support of the notion that women are spiritually inferior to men. What but the lust to be victorious in the argument—to pridefully make your ideas win out over the ideas of others—could account for a willingness to depart so far from Christian orthodoxy?

This has more to do with selfishness in temperament and culture than it does with proof texts and Ellen White passages. Study groups like the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, and all the books parsing the texts and quotes, are engaged in an unwinnable argument. Because gender in ministry is only the presenting issue right now. The real problem is the same one expressed by the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees in the gospels: how to keep those in authority still in authority, in the face of legitimate theological, ethical and spiritual challenges.

Part 3: Monte Sahlin on the GCEC agenda.

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

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