by Loren Seibold

The Unity Conference has, in its first day, quite exceeded my expectations. Honestly, here’s what I’m excited about: all of the papers were so thoughtful and contributive, that I can’t wait for you to read them! And read them you will! The links to the papers are below my précis of today’s presentations.

My big takeaway for the day is that the church has gone back and forth between strong central authority, and a looser structure, but that there’s plenty in our history, in Ellen White, and in our policy to make a strong, clear case for a diverse church with regional and cultural flexibility.

Anyway, read on.

Reorganisation of Church Structure, 1901-03: Some Observations
by Barry Oliver,
Former South Pacific Division President, and Avondale College Lecturer

Main point:

Unity and diversity are both important parts of church structure. In the 1901-1903 reorganization Ellen White, having experienced leaders like G.I. Butler, pushed for a less centralized church leadership structure. Butler had opined that “There is not an institution among us, not a periodical issued, not a Conference or society, not a mission field connected with our work, that [the General Conference] has not a right to advise and counsel and investigate. It is the highest authority of an earthly character among Seventh-day Adventists.” Ellen White responded that “A sick man’s mind has had a controlling power over the General Conference committee… He thinks his position gives him such power that his voice is infallible.” She said that “the president of the General Conference could not possibly ‘understand the situation as well as you who are on the ground.'” As a result, union conferences were formed, and decision-making was moved from the GC to the union conferences. 


  • “Diversity was positive when it enhanced the potential of the church to reach diverse ‘nations, tongues, and peoples,’ and led to decentralization of decision-making. It was negative when it caused chaos and confusion, such as was the case with the multiplication of auxiliary organizations. Unity was positive when it bound the church into oneness in Christ. It was negative when it was interpreted to require uniformity and unnecessary centralization of authority.”
  • “Unity was necessary in order to encompass the dimensions of the mission of the church. There was no way for the Seventh-day Adventist Church with its emphasis on world-wide evangelization to succeed in that task unless there was unity of purpose, belief, and action. …But in 1901 the principle of diversity was more determinative than the principle of unity in the establishment of an additional level of administration, and by delegating some functions which had previously been performed by the General Conference to union conferences. The emphasis was on the need to recognize diversity by decentralization. Past growth had made the recognition of diversity necessary, but projected future growth made provision for diversity imperative.”
  • “Whenever the need to promote unity was prioritized to the extent that it disrupted the maintenance of equilibrium between the principles of unity and diversity, and diversity was not taken into consideration as it should have been, centralization was the result.”

Surprising fact:

“The title of the chief officer of the General Conference was to be ‘Chairman of the Board’ rather than ‘President’. At the 1903 General Conference session the title ‘President’ was reinstated.”

Download Oliver paper here.

Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle Over Authority + 9.5 Theses
by George R. Knight,
Professor Emeritus, Andrews University

Main point: A rather large study of authority in the Adventist church, starting with Adventism’s approach to biblical authority, then Ellen White’s thoughts on authority, and the development of authoritative structures in the church. (Read Knight’s 9.5 Theses here).


  • “The Seventh-day Adventist Church has for many years recognized that God calls both men and women to pastoral ministry. The only difference is that the church has opted to call one ordination and the other commissioning. Such non-biblical verbal gymnastics must lead the angels to scratch their heads in bewilderment.”
  • “Regarding Matthew 18, the September 2016 documents produced by the General Conference Secretariat claim that ‘Seventh-day Adventists believe the authority granted to the Church by Jesus enables Church leaders to make decisions that bind all members.’ Such leadership decisions, the documents note, are made ‘at GC Sessions and Annual Councils.’ That is an interesting perspective, especially in the light of the Roman Catholic Church usage of that passage and its parallel in Matthew 16 to teach that whatever the church votes on earth is ratified in heaven. But the Greek in the verse actually says that “whatever you bind on the earth will have been bound in heaven.” (cf. NASB). The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary has it correct when it notes that “even here Heaven’s ratification of the decision on earth will take place only if the decision is made in harmony with the principles of Heaven.”
  • “A third category of human authority she had to face in the 1888 era was the drive at the Minneapolis session to solve the theological and biblical issues by establishing the denomination’s official position through a formal vote of the General Conference in session. As usual, Ellen White had words for the denomination on that topic. ‘The church,’ she penned, ‘may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and thus root out disagreement. These resolutions may conceal the discord, but they cannot quench it and establish perfect agreement. Nothing can perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christlike forbearance.'”

Surprising Fact:

Re the 2016 autumn council document “A Study of Church Governance and Unity.” “The General Conference presidential offices had to step outside of policy to make its case for punishing those it deemed to be outside of policy. After all, the Working Policy spells out in unmistakable language that dissolution of unions must begin at the division level. But if the division is not likely to come up with the ‘proper’ answer, alternatives must be used. The selected alternative, in this case, was for presidential to step outside of policy to accomplish the task. So we have a case of blatant noncompliance with the Working Policy to punish noncompliance. Obviously, what is needed is a new policy that allows the General Conference president to initiate actions against anybody deemed deserving of such attention. Such a policy, of course, would be a major step toward papalism and unrestricted kingly power.… To put it mildly, the leadership of the General Conference has backed itself into an extraordinary situation in the evolution (or revolution) in Adventist authority.”

Download Knight paper here.

Circumstances Change the Relations of Things: Ellen White’s Attitude toward Theological Continuity and Change and its Implication for, and Application to, Issues of Church Authority, Policy and Structure

by Rolf Pöhler (ThD), 
Professor (Systematics), Theological Advisor of the North German Union Conference

Main point:

Dr. Pöhler helpfully provided this summary: “An analysis of Ellen White’s attitude on doctrinal development leads to a better understanding of her volatile relationship toward the structure, authority and policies of the Adventist church. Her view on organizational readjustment, situational reevaluation and conscientious nonconformity may help the church find adequate solutions to the current impasse between certain church entities.” Recurring Ellen White quote: “Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relations of things.”


  • “White’s role in the development of Adventist theology may be described as ‘formative, not normative.'”
  • “In Ellen White’s view, divine truth is eternal, changeless and immovable. At the same time, it is infinite and inexhaustible, capable of unlimited expansion, ever developing and unfolding in its meaning. Because of the progressive and advancing nature of truth, the church should see a continual advancement in the knowledge of truth.… According to White, Seventh-day Adventists must ever remain open and receptive to new light. Such increasing insight into truth usually will be in addition to previous beliefs, providing a clearer understanding of the word of God. At times, however, new light will be in conflict with our expositions of Scripture, with long-cherished opinions and long-established traditions. In other words, though new light does not contradict old light, it does collide with erroneous doctrines and misinterpretations of the word of God.”
  • “As there is a kind of hierarchy with regard to truth – with core beliefs being distinguished from, and superior to, peripheral views –, so we must also admit to a certain hierarchy of policies and procedures, where the application of foundational principles is dependent on tangible needs and particular circumstances. This inference from Ellen White’s view on theological continuity and change is supported by the following statement from the prophet’s pen: ‘The place, the circumstances, the interest, the moral sentiment of the people, will have to decide in many cases the course of action to be pursued.’ This calls for openness and flexibility on the part of the worldwide Adventist church with regard to its rules and regulations, policies and practices, organization and structure. They must not be treated like a “Codex Iuris Canonici” and invested with quasi-divine authority.”

Surprising fact: 

In the 1890’s, Ellen White wrote, “We hear that the voice of the [General] Conference is the voice of God. Every time I have heard this, I have thought it was almost blasphemy.” This is quite a contrast to the quotes about the General Conference’s authority that we usually hear.

Download Pöhler paper here.

General Conference Working Policy: The Challenge of Enforcement and the Opportunity for Development
by Lowell Cooper (DMin), 
General Vice President, General Conference (Retired)

Main point:

Dr. Cooper is something of a canon lawyer with regard to Adventist policy. He feels that by discussing topics like women’s ordination as theological topics, we’ve missed opportunities to find workable ways through some of our problems by means of policy development. 


  • “Further theological study on the question of ordination will not result in consensus regarding ordination. The Church will have to live with widely divergent views. This does not need to threaten unity since the Church already recognizes diverse practices in other matters and has agreed to varying practices regarding the election and ordination of women as local church elders.… Unity and diversity are not necessarily conflicting concepts, they can co-exist in meaningful partnership. Diversity of sound in a choir or orchestra does not ruin the music. Any organization with the size and global presence of the Seventhday Adventist Church must make room for differing practices even while rigorously protecting its unity.”
  • “Policy is the result of the collective pursuit for unity, not the cause of it.”
  • “We have recognized disciplinary provisions for church members, employees and elected officials. What about organizational units? Policy is rather sparse in this regard. It provides for one disciplinary measure—dissolution or dismissal of an organization from the Seventh-day Adventist family of organizations. There are no intermediate sanctions. Compliance is assumed by virtue of belonging to the family.”
  • “When that environment changes, fixed and immovable policies become redundant and possibly obstructive. It is for this reason that policy enforcement needs to be balanced with policy development.”
  • “The Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) addressed theological considerations about ordination and produced a very helpful Consensus Statement on the Seventh-day Adventist Theology of Ordination. However, TOSC did not address denominational policy and practices in light of the theology of ordination statement.”
  • “The 1990 General Conference Session decision has been rightfully described as a decision against ministerial ordination for women. What is often left out, intentionally or otherwise, is that the basis of the decision was ‘the lack of wide spread support’ and ‘the possible risk of disunity, dissension , and diversion from the mission of the church…’ The reason that prompted the decision should indicate that any further discussion of the matter must consider the issues of support and unity/disunity. The Church has spent its energies on looking for a theological answer that might ensure unity. That answer has proved elusive. The Church must now determine how it will address unity in the presence of continuing theological differences.”

Surprising Fact:

“I am indebted to Kevin Burton whose unpublished paper cites information provided by the General Conference in 1906, 1916 and 1926 to the United States Bureau of the Census. The following statement appeared under the information about Seventh-day Adventists: ‘Membership in the conferences or the ministry is open to both sexes although there are very few female ministers.’ … It would appear from this that there were no leadership or ministry roles for which women were ineligible.”

Download Cooper paper here.

On the schedule for tomorrow?

Ellen White and her Understanding of Unity/Disunity
Wendy Jackson (PhD)
Lecturer in Ministry and Theology, Avondale College

What is Jesus Saying in John 17?
Roy Adams (PhD)
Teacher, pastor, theology professor (Systematics), administrator, author, Associate Editor, Review (Retired)

Towards a Theology of Unity
John Brunt (PhD)
New Testament Theologian, Academic Administrator, Pastor (Retired)

Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today

To comment, click here.