Watching Coercion and Attempted Control
by Jack Hoehn, 11 October 2017
Jack watched the Monday afternoon GC Annual Council session.
One of the problems with being retired is that now I can spend half of the day watching the General Conference (GC) of SDA Annual Council, Monday afternoon, October 9, 2017. The afternoon’s agenda was about a document on how to enforce the General Conference’s will on the rest of the church, and I am not unbiased. I don’t like the changes being made by the organization of my church. I was watching with a critical eye. I found what I was looking for. And yes, I prayed about it, so you can read on if you want to.
I tuned in with Elder Ted Wilson leading his vetted and barcoded congregation. (You had to have your barcode badge approved before you were approved to vote or talk). He chose a hymn from the century he favors, then told them how fast to sing, when men should sing, when women should sing. He has a small button and is able to turn on and off his microphone at his will, which he did several times during the song to hear his nice singing voice. He directed the singing from his chair with waving hand motions. The man seems very comfortable being in control, even of song service.
Then he instructed them to pray “for the Holy Spirit to fill the room.” A pious thought, but again, he was directing their prayers. (There are a number of other things that they could and perhaps should have prayed for. But it is helpful to have a sense of God’s approval before you try to lead the church where you are certain it must go.)
Procedural actions were then taken, before any of the document to be voted had been divulged to the group, which appear to be strategies to maintain control over the meeting and its agenda. Before the divisive proposals were presented, he introduced several measures that could reduce the chance for opposition to his intended outcome.
- No breaks permitted. (Why? Because during breaks opponents are given a chance to caucus and discuss in private strategies. I also feel some sympathy for those older men with normal male aging problems asked to sit for so long; some may vote just to get a chance for a break!)
- No clapping permitted. (Because clapping can give some idea of the group’s opinion, that may or may not sway other voters, although he then asked for them to clap in appreciation for an approved veteran churchman. Again, clap when I permit it.)
- Everyone who wishes may express their opinion. Great. We will be open and transparent. Wonderful. But we will limit your time to talk to two minutes! (This ensures that complex and difficult ideas will be forced into truncated sound bites, less influential than completed thoughts and arguments.) (It was asked to be increased to three minutes, but this was not approved by vote.)
- Before any of the voters were able to see the proposed action, the chair suggested to set a time limit on the debate to 3½ hours total. This included the slow reading of the multiple-page document, and longer support talks by his staffers. (This seems another pressure tactic to force an issue before a chance to fully digest and consider the possible complexities of an action. Some constitutions require actions be given to members a minimum of two weeks before a vote can be taken. That was clearly not the case here.) This limit was fairly strongly opposed from the floor. “It gives the impression that we are in a hurry to take the action; it can cause a lot of problems if we hurry; this is one of the most important items in the agenda; give us the time to discuss this.” Ending the debate at “5:30 pm” was NOT approved. The chairman imposed his will that this issue had to be voted today/tonight but agreed to go longer than 5:30 pm into the evening if the members demanded it. (Later in the afternoon he softened and said, yes, if needed they could bring it back tomorrow, as opposition increased.)
- “The final vote (already determined there would be one) will be by secret ballot.” Only “official members of the General Conference Executive Committee” could vote, so only those members (not the invited emeritus members) could vote. Up to three different votes were provided for. (To be sure of the “right outcome,” no matter how many “secret ballots” were needed? And why should this be done in secret? Why not openly and honestly share differences of opinion? Perhaps both sides of these issues prefer “secret ballots” but again public voting of who voted and why would be more transparent.)
Not about Women’s Ordination, except It Is
Several times it was stated that this attempt to create a way to punish “non-compliant” divisions, unions, conferences, and perhaps congregations, was not “just about women’s ordination.” But everyone knew that was the issue. They were being asked to give the General Conference a way of forcing “compliance” with women’s ordination, mostly.
No One in “Rebellion,” But “Non-Compliant”
Tom Lemon seems to be a GC front man for enforcing “unity” (conformity). How the GC was going to deal with “non-conformity” was first met by “pastoral counseling.” “I have met with three divisions” (there are four who wish to continue or start ordaining women). “It was a blessed experience… I got to be a pastor again… Not one (division, union, conference) was in rebellion… they were concerned but not rebellious.”
And then he revealed that some of the best contacts were outside of the official meetings. “You know that sometimes you get more done in the hallways than in the hall.” (A very interesting statement at a meeting when “no breaks” and “no hallway discussions” had been decreed.)
The multi-page document was finally passed out and read word for word from the front. This did give the delegates at least a chance for the first time for almost all of them, to read it, but also reduced the time available to rebut it. Lines of two-minute speakers quickly formed at microphones with the majority of the short speeches asking for more time, and for changes to be made to this plan. A minority said that we needed it now, as they had to enforce orthodoxy from heretical groups and prevent terrible issues such as homosexuals’ becoming ministers in their divisions. No proponents mentioned it was, also, to prevent anyone from ordaining women. (Although I took my own break and missed if two or three times married evangelist Doug Batchelor said anything about the fitness of women for ministry.) The simplistic fixed Bible interpretation that yesterday’s advice controls today’s issues versus progressive revelation of truth by the Holy Spirit in the Bible and continuing beyond remains the main issue at hand.
Vote Manipulation with Absentee Votes?
Pastor Randy Roberts from Loma Linda University church then directly asked Elder Ted Wilson to explain how this document got approval to be presented, when he had information suggesting that the General Conference Division Officers (GCDO) members who had to approve it had first voted against presenting the document (YES 25/ NO 29), and only later when absent committee members were canvassed to add their votes did it pass (YES 36/NO 35) by a one-vote margin!
Pastor Roberts asked for an explanation of why (if it was so divisive that it was almost a vote split) it was being presented. And was it appropriate if something was presented to a meeting of the GCDO and lost, for the chairman to add absentee members’ votes afterwards to tip the balance the other way? Elder Wilson did not deny the factuality of the information. In a Trumpian response, his concern was mostly about “the leak” of the (admittedly accurate) information. He then said that when he presented this proposal to his GCDO committee he had stated that he would also canvas non-present members. And that in a democracy “one vote was enough” to decide an issue (if you can scramble and canvass enough votes to have it go your way, that is).
Others will analyze the “116-17G” proposal better, but it appears that the core of the action proposed was to find a way to force lower SDA organizations to do what the General Conference wishes, both in implementing actions taken every five years when in Session, and all the GC Executive Committee (formed of administrators and handpicked token lay and clerical members) the rest of the time. Ted Wilson admitted that at present they can identify “non-compliance” with their decisions but there was no way to “enforce” it, so they needed some teeth to bite with instead of just growling. Here are the proposed ways to punish those not in compliance with the GC actions:
- All GC Executive Committee members forced to annually sign a statement that they were in full compliance with all GC policies (including women’s non-ordination).
- If they did not sign, OR if they signed and were “found (by whom?) to actually not be in compliance” (i.e., ordaining women or commissioning all pastors instead of ordaining them),
their ability to be on the GC Executive committee would be “suspended”; their division/union/conference would be asked to send someone else (if their organization did not. . . ?). Non-signing church administrators would forfeit GC Executive Committee membership voice, vote, and subcommittee participation, until they “come into compliance.”
- All delegates to the General Conference would likewise be required to sign the same statement that they were all in 100% compliance with: all fundamental beliefs of the church (so that those fundamental beliefs could never be changed) and all GC Policies that the GC considered significant. (This part was challenged from the floor as non-constitutional, since instead of the unions’ appointing delegates as they are now empowered to do, they would be asked to “nominate” delegates to the General Conference who would approve or disapprove the delegates. Since the General Conference in Session is the body supervising the top church administrators, requiring the delegates to be “approved” by those administrators appears to put the “foxes” fully in charge of the “hen house!”)
These “teeth” requested by the General Conference officers were then surrounded with page after page of limited Bible quotes and selected Ellen G. White quotations assuring us that the General Conference is “the authoritative voice of the Church in all matters pertaining to the mission and administration of the work of the SDA denomination in all parts of the world.” And in fact, the GC in Session is to be considered “the voice of God.” The GC Executive Committee and the General Conference in session are then equated. The General Conference Executive Committee membership is largely controlled by the president of the General Conference. (If these last few sentences do not bother you, you’d better go read something else.)
The proposed document even quoted from The Desire of Ages: “He called men, not to authority, but to service.” “The angels of heaven do not come to the earth to rule.” Apparently, the president’s men are oblivious to the fact that this whole document is based on seeking to establish “authority” by the GC president and his partners to “rule the church” in every corner of earth! This is clearly a power document, about “who is the greatest,” “who is in charge.”
If no voting GC members will be permitted who oppose existing church policies, and no invitees to GC meetings will be permitted who are opposed to church policies—THEN NO OPPOSITION CAN BE POSSIBLE! This turns GC into a monolithic organization, suitable for a Soviet Commissariat, where all motions of the supreme commander were approved by 99.9% majorities! This is conscience control, this is debate control, this is member control by administration. This is protection of the SDA “organization” from its SDA members. A delegate from the floor voiced that this whole document was the same corrupt ideas as America’s 1950’s political control scandal known as McCarthyism.
Two women spoke in favor of the motion; one younger woman wanted the church to have authority like she has in her home to tell her children what to do, and the other wished to “get the issue behind them.” A mother worried about disobedient toddlers is not a suitable model for control of adult church members. A desire to “get the issue behind us” is naïve at best. Gender equality will not ever be “behind” the present generation. Other women, several of color, spoke earnestly against the document.
The Voiceless Are Not Toothless
Some invited, approved attendees at this meeting were given “voice.” If you had the correct badge the minders would let you speak. Others at the meeting and all of us local church members had no seat in their comfortable conference halls, and have not been given any “voice” in these deliberations. Our elected officers on this sad day did not vote down and rebuke this power grab. They “voted to return the document to the committee.” This means next year it will come again. Some consider this a modest victory against coercive control. Perhaps it is.
Coercive control is, however, a synonym for abusive power and control. It is a fact that controlling abusers use multiple tactics to exert power and control over their victims. Those who exercise it tend to keep doing it, so we will see this again. Unless the Spirit of God is truly permitted by the abusers to change and control them. Sadly, this happens only when abusers are challenged by an intervention removing the abused from their power. (There could be opportunities for service away from the church’s administration in prison ministries or army chaplaincies for those church administrators still interested in being involved in systems of absolute control.) The General Conference, however, was intended to be a coordinating and service organization, not a command and control organization.
Our church’s top administrators obviously want us all to support them and approve of their actions. Their opinions, even if passed by only one scrounged-up vote in small committees, are to be imposed on the unfortunate rest of us who have no voice in their votes.
Although church members have no voice in their deliberations, in fact, we all can vote. I will be voting. My vote is that any SDA church organization that permits a self-serving, central-authority-imposing, status-quo-fixing document, which is a blatant conscience-trampling power grab, to become SDA policy will not see any of the Lord’s tithes or my offerings from me. My support will be entirely for my local congregation or other congregations, other organizations, other movements of God in the world resisting attempts to maintain male-dominated abusive power and control over the church of the living God.
Jack Hoehn is a frequent contributor to both the print and on-line versions of Adventist Today. He has served on the Adventist Today Foundation board since 2012. He and his wife Deanne live in Walla Walla, Washington. He has a BA/Religion major from Pacific Union College, and a MD from Loma Linda University. He was a Licensed Minister of the SDA church for 13 years when serving as a missionary doctor in Africa. His patients know him as John B. Hoehn, M.D.