Theological and Organizational Rigidity
by Edward Reifsnyder
The funeral for my neighbor and friend Jeff was held in his church, a congregation of the United Church of Christ. As we sat quietly before the service, not knowing anything about that denomination, I did a search on my phone. The denomination has evolved over more than three hundred years by mergers of four different denominations, including a merger in 1648 of the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
But there was a historical tidbit that caught my eye. The denomination’s website said, “The Christian Churches sprang up in the late 1700s and early 1800s in reaction to the theological and organizational rigidity of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches of the time.”
Is there an echo in the room? “Theological and organizational rigidity.” The Seventh-day Adventist Church is beginning to feel more that way to me. It feels like the dynamics in our denomination are tending toward rigidity.
Let’s look at some specifics.
We have seen a flurry of activity to amend the Fundamental Beliefs, with the purpose of tightening the belief statements, moving toward a more dogmatic theology. Increased theological rigidity.
Rigid attitudes seem to be on the ascendency in some quarters of our fellowship. We see calls suggesting that those who don’t believe just as they believe should leave the church – or even be thrown out. More theological rigidity.
We are witnessing a drift toward a more hierarchical denomination, led by a GC President who seems to have those tendencies. It is my belief that unless courageous people just say “no,” our organizational culture will undergo subtle, or not so subtle, changes toward a more authoritarian hierarchy. Organizational rigidity.
I predict that in the future we will see even more authoritarian tendencies in the world church. It is well known that some of the Divisions of the General Conference are operated in a very authoritarian style. The man (man, of course) at the top runs the show. In those parts of the world where that is true, the concept of distributed authority is not as strong as in the NAD and other cultures. This authoritarian phenomenon is part and parcel of some cultures. As the NAD becomes a smaller and smaller proportion of the world church, we will see new power dynamics. In fact, we already are. The subject of shifting international Adventist geopolitics is a subject worthy of deeper exploration than this writing. Growing organizational rigidity.
We have seen the threats of undefined-but-dire discipline to enforce a non-theological policy about the ordination of women. More organizational rigidity.
We have seen work by a task force on church organization that has identified with the potential of up to $130 million in annual cost savings that could be realized in the NAD by adopting certain reorganization options. Well, maybe you haven’t seen that because the work has not publicized or openly discussed. The task force was appointed in 2014 and performed serious analysis. (You can find information at NAD organizational study. Click on the Resources tab to find study material.) But, at this point no action toward serious reform is visible. To my knowledge the reorganization options do not appear to be under discussion.
Organizational rigidity prevents serious consideration of major organizational efficiencies, because it calls for drastic change, including the elimination of jobs, functions and possibly the relocation of some activities. Experience tells me that change in faith-based organizations is even harder than change in other human endeavors. Further, turf protection is alive and well in Christendom. And, to be fair, church leaders are probably distracted right now.
Reorganization, while doable, is difficult. Accordingly, the level of avoidance of the effort, pain and disruption is sky high. So we will likely remain inefficient and continue to demonstrate poor stewardship of our resources in the face of knowledge that we could free up dollars for mission purposes other than supporting bureaucracy. Still more organizational rigidity. Or should I say calcification?
In Bill Johnsson’s recent thought-provoking book, Where are We Headed? Bill says, “Changes are coming in Adventist church structure – big changes. The changes are inevitable, but the question is: Will we see what lies ahead and be bold enough to make adjustments, or will we be overtaken – not to say overwhelmed – by the tsunami of change?” Johnsson also addresses issues related to theological rigidity.
Is the membership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church okay with increasing theological and organizational rigidity? Are we seeing this drift toward rigidity because many members actually have a longing for a more authoritarian leadership and organization, which seems to be the trend in the international political realm recently ? Or are we too divided to set any meaningful new direction? Do we members feel powerless to bring about desirable changes? Do we feel that the way governance works in our system effectively prevents meaningful change? Do we feel that all major decisions are in the hands of the “workers?” What is going on here?
I, for one, am not okay with the trend toward rigidity. It is not a characteristic I desire in a Christian fellowship. I believe we should push back against the forces of rigidity. But I guarantee you things will not change unless we the membership demand it.
What do you think?
Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant. He and his wife Janelle live in Fort Collins, Colorado.