by Ronald Lawson, Ph.D. | 28 September 2018 |
I was surprised in 1990 when The Christian Century, a magazine that has as its primary audience the mainline Protestant denominations in the USA (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Evangelical Lutherans, the Reformed Church, etc.) asked me to write an account of the Adventist General Conference Session that was scheduled for that year for their readers. I wrote another similar account for them in 2000. These two papers have just been uploaded to my web-site, www.RonaldLawson.net. You are invited to read them if they interest you. Here is a summary of each of them to whet your appetite.
1990: A Watershed for Seventh-day Adventism
After attending the Session, my assessment was that it had been a watershed for our church. It is worth our while to go back 28 years to examine the events and decisions of that Session. By the way, the editors of the magazine apparently decided that while they were eager to publish my paper, they preferred a less dramatic title, and named it “Geopolitics within Seventh-day Adventism.”
Assuming that most of the readers of the magazine would not know much about the origins and early history of Adventism, I began with a summary of that before arriving at the 1990 Session, where I began by explaining it is both a celebration and a business session, and that while delegates come from all over the world at tremendous travel and accommodation cost, the real power lies with the nominating committee.
The first big surprise of the 1990 Session was that the then president of the General Conference, Neal Wilson, who had made it clear that he was ready to continue for a third term, was not re-elected. In his place the nominating committee chose what would have been the first black president of the church—only to have him decline the nomination. It then came up with an equally large surprise, choosing not a major figure at the General Conference or a division president to succeed Wilson, but instead the president of the Carolina Conference, Robert Folkenberg.
The next dramatic issue was a vote over whether to permit the ordination of women pastors—the first such vote. This came after a long, varied history of licensing women as pastors in Adventism, and ordaining women elders. But neither the outgoing nor the incoming GC president chose to take a stand supporting the change, and the leadership in the divisions of the world church located in the Developing World in general opposed it, resulting in a strong negative vote, and huge disappointment and disillusionment among many women, especially younger women members from the developed eorld. Ironically, the session then made major changes in what the licensed pastors were permitted to do, with the result that the licensed women pastors were subsequently allowed to do almost everything that the ordained male pastors could do—the major difference was that licensed pastors were not permitted to be the president of any unit within the structure of the church, from conference to General Conference. Consequently, it seemed that the key reason for refusing women the recognition of their gifts that had always been available to men was to keep administrative power in the hands of males.
Another new issue was the realization that HIV-AIDS was no longer “the gay plague” which the church saw unkindly as a result of sin, but that large numbers of African Adventists, including pastors and administrators, were also acquiring the disease, so that it suddenly became an Adventist concern. (It seemed that promiscuous sex among heterosexuals was not regarded as nearly as sinful as sex among homosexuals.)
Clearly issues for the future would extend much further than AIDS: power in the church may not have been shifting to include women as well as men, but it was certainly moving rapidly towards the Developing World. Indeed, not only had the first choice for GC President been a descendant of both Hispanics and Afro-Caribbeans—he had been the president of the Inter-American Division—but the man ultimately chosen, Robert Folkenberg, though white and American-born, had grown up and spent most of his career in that same Division, and was elected with strong support from both that division and also the South American Division.
Greatly aware of the geographic shift in power, the leadership began to proclaim the need for “unity,” and to use that as an excuse for supporting certain policy decisions. They also embraced “global strategy” and called for fostering outreach in various new ways in the “10-40 Degrees Northern Quadrant” so that our big failure to take the Gospel, which we identified with the Adventist message and all our doctrines, to the whole world could be overcome, and finally allow Jesus, who by now must surely be rather impatient with our efforts, to return.
The GC Session, 2000
In 2000 I was asked again to write a report of the General Conference Session in 2000 for Christian Century. This time I called the paper “Celebration and Challenge.”
Since Adventism had had to appoint a new GC president as recently as 1999, it was taken for granted that the new president would be re-elected. Elder Folkenberg had been obliged to resign suddenly as a result of having to admit to the Annual Council of the Church that he was being blackmailed by a business partner because he was engaged in activity that was highly inappropriate for a GC President, and especially for one who had, at the 150th anniversary of 1844 in 1994, proclaimed that “We still Believe” that Christ is coming soon. His replacement was Dr Jan Paulsen, a Norwegian and the first GC President with an earned doctorate—in his case from a famous German university.
Adventists had celebrated unbelievably rapid growth—they had passed 11 million members in 1999, and for the first time their official membership exceeded that of Mormons, who had started 20 years earlier than them. Mission was the central focus, and as a result the bulk of the growth was in the Developing World. I had to address the issue of competition between Adventist missions and those of other churches. On the one hand, we had proclaimed that the missions of other churches and mission societies were part of spreading the Gospel to the world, and yet at the same time we insisted that our peculiar message had to go everywhere, we were not willing to share up the territory with others, each concentrating on their own segment, but insisted on competing with all the others, and on attempting to “steal their sheep.”
Once again there was considerable attention to social issues. After two sessions in a row when votes that would have allowed for the ordination of women, first in the whole church, and second in the divisions where leaders felt they were ready for it, had both been defeated by a coalition of delegates primarily from the Developing World, everyone was strongly aware of the divisions within the church over this issue. But after the two defeats, the supporters of women clergy were not inclined to risk another devastating defeat at this session. Instead, the main issue was divorce—a vote on a recommendation from a committee that the rules preventing Adventists caught in abusive or unhappy marriages from divorcing and remarrying when they found the opportunity to find real happiness be relaxed. Once again delegates from the developing world, led by Dr Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, an American-domiciled Ghanaian, initially defeated the proposal. However, an Australian delegate, noting that most of those delegates were missing from the business session on the Friday morning towards the end of the GC session, moved successfully that it be voted on again in a somewhat different format, and the change then passed. This legalized what many American churches had in fact been practicing for a couple of decades.
During his Sabbath morning sermon on July 1 on the theme “Knowing the Time,” outgoing General Conference secretary Ralph Thompson, a West Indian, deeply offended both the lesbian and gay Adventists and their supporters who were present when he listed the recent prominence of homosexual issues in society as a sign of the collapse of moral standards and the end of the world. Several walked out, some in tears, feeling public and spiritual rejection yet again. An Adventist columnist in the Toronto Star, writing about the session in his column, commented on the irony of a preacher declaring that homosexuality was a sin “even as a closeted gay member play[ed] heavenly background music to the preacher’s thunderings.”
It was true, then, that the rapid growth of Adventism, with its juxtaposition of large numbers of poor and uneducated converts in the developing world with considerable professionalization among second and third generation members in the developed world, and the changing balance among these regions in the world church have created considerable pluralism and related tensions. The tensions are especially strong when cultural differences shape opposing attitudes towards social and behavioral issues. Church leaders were therefore justified in their fear of disunity. This fear was going to limit what was accomplished under the presidency of Jan Paulsen: for example, though he personally supported the ordination of women, his fear of causing disunity prevented him from coming out strongly in support of it. Yet when I visited many countries in the developing world, I was told by many members there, in contradistinction to what the leaders there told me, that if the church leadership in the General Conference made it clear that they wanted the ordination of women to become the Adventist practice, of course they would then support it! I believe that Paulsen missed the opportunity he had because of his caution.
In the end he’s going to heal it all, the personal and the universal. If the parable in Matthew 25:31–46 is to be taken seriously, all he asks in the meantime is that rather than exclude and blame, we pitch in and help the victims of sin, just as he did while on this earth.
Ronald Lawson is a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, and a sociologist studying urban conflicts and sectarian religions. He is retired from Queens College, CUNY, and now lives and works in Asheville, NC.