By Gary Patterson, September 19, 2017:     

In January this year the denomination’s General Conference (GC) administrators initiated a new communication venture with the members of the GC executive committee in the form of an online digital newsletter. Such attempts at information flow are to be lauded, given the distance which exists both physically and perceptually, between the GC headquarters and the church, spread throughout a world.  Making use of the ubiquity and immediacy – to say nothing of the economy – of online communication, is a wise move.

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There are, however, certain caveats which need to be addressed in this venture. First among these is understanding what the GC executive committee is. The GC session is the authority under which the GC as a constituent body operates. However, between sessions, as established in article XIII of the GC bylaws, an executive committee is to act on behalf of the GC in session. Membership of this body includes representatives of all the divisions, and the presidents of all the union conferences and union missions.

This body meets once a year in Annual Council and considers major items affecting the world church. An additional, but less inclusive gathering, known as the Spring Meeting, addresses primarily financial and auditing issues as well as a limited range of other business. But it is at this point that confusion begins to enter the picture as to just what the GC executive committee consists of. As article XIII.4 states, “Any fifteen members of the Executive Committee including an officer of the General Conference, shall after due notice to available members, constitute a quorum of the Executive Committee for the disposition of routine items.” As thus constituted, it is a very small and inside group of the full executive committee, centered in the GC office personnel.

While it is obvious that “routine items” must be dealt with on a regular basis outside the full meetings of the executive committee, both for the time and travel issues involved in calling a full meeting of all members, yet it is at this point where definitions and perceptions begin to cloud the issue. First, on the part of administration, there is the determination as to what falls into the category of “routine items.” And second, on the part of the perception of some outside the GC office, there is the notion that anything emanating from that office is authoritative and final, given that the GC has spoken.

Furthermore, the new digital newsletter is not just minutes of the executive committee in either its full membership, or one of its very limited guises. Rather, it is an inside presentation of the opinions of executive leadership on wide ranging issues. While it is both good and important to present such opinions and perspectives, they are not official positions of the world church. And taking them as such runs the risk of harking back to the early 1900’s when Ellen White protested against the GC impeding the work, as it was being run by a small group at headquarters. It was precisely this problem that brought about the creation of union conferences as separate constituent units authorized to operate the work of the church in their established territories.

With this in mind, it is significant to look at what effect this new online newsletter is having, or attempting to have, on its audience. While it would seem that items of concern to the world church would be carefully studied, seeking input from various viewpoints, this is not the position that the newsletter specifically, and administration in general takes. A case in point is the process which led to the action taken near the end of the 2016 Annual Council regarding the so called “Unity Document.”

Not only was a time frame of only a few hours devoted to the action, but much of the time, late in the day, was taken by GC leadership presenting the document with a one-sided viewpoint. There was no studied opposing analysis allowed, and any expression of differing views was confined to floor discussion, granting only two minutes per speaker. Furthermore, requests for delaying the vote to give more time for study were ignored, as well as the fact that the proposed action in the document was itself a direct violation of the provisions of existing policy B 95.

One of the provisions of the “Unity Document” was that the matter should come again to the Annual Council in 2017. It would appear that the materials being presented in the digital newsletter to members of the executive committee are leading up to this issue coming again to the agenda of the Annual Council. Unfortunately, the material provided is again, not only skewed and lopsided, but also inaccurate in its assertions.

In the August 2017 Newsletter, David Trim provides a helpful documented history of the emergence and development of union conferences in the denomination. However, at the conclusion of the article he states, “As we have seen, unions are not merely components of the General Conference; they constitute the General Conference. This is why their constitutions, by laws, and working policies must harmonize with those of the General Conference.”

This conclusion is unwarranted by the fact that both the union conferences and the GC have different constituencies and constitutions. Union conferences do not constitute the GC. Furthermore, they do not serve as the constituency of the GC, which is made up of the delegates to the GC Sessions. While it is true that many of the delegates do hold positions in union conferences, delegates also come from local conferences, lay members, pastors and institutions of the church.

Trim goes on to say, “When the General Conference makes a decision, it is not something unions can depart from … because the General Conference, in a real sense, is not distinct from the unions.” Such a position is directly in conflict with the reason why union conferences were formed in 1901 with the intense advocacy of Ellen White. As she indicated at the 1901 GC Session, “the place, the circumstances, the interest, the morel sentiment of the people, will have to decide in many cases the course of action to be pursued…those who are right on the ground are to decide what shall be done.” (GC Bulletin, 1901, p. 70). Structure itself points to the inherent conflict in such conclusions regarding the clear separation between constituent groups. If indeed the GC is not distinct from the union conferences, as Trim concludes, then why do they have separate constitutions?

Further exploring the authority of the GC, George Rice, in the July 2017 issue of the News Letter, examines the various statements of Ellen White regarding the GC as the “Voice of God.” As he states, “Although in 1875 Ellen White considered the General Conference and the decisions made by this body as ‘the highest authority the Lord has upon earth,’ less than 20 years later her attitude was quite different.”

Indeed, this is true. In a letter written in 1896, she states, “The voice from Battle Creek, which has been regarded as authority in counseling how the work should be done, is no longer the voice of God.” (Letter 4, 1896, Manuscript Release 17:185 & 186) Two years later she observes, “It has been some years since I have considered the General Conference as the voice of God.” (Letter 77, 1898, Manuscript Release 17:216) As the 1901 General Conference session drew near, she observed, “The voice of the conference ought to be the voice of God, but it is not.” (Manuscript 37, 1901, Sermons and Talks, 159 & 160). And even after the 1901 reorganization of the GC and the establishment of union conferences, her concern continued to the 1903 session as well.

Unfortunately, after a good start an at analysis of her thinking on the matter, Rice attempts to follow a line of reasoning which states that after the 1901 reorganization of the structure of the church, she was pleased with what was happening. But it is not so. In 1906 she states, “The ways and works that have been developed in Battle Creek since the General Conference of 1901, cause me to tremble for those who are there; for many have been acting as if blinded by satanic agencies.” (SpTB07 – Testimonies for the Church Containing Messages of Warning and Instruction to Seventh-day Adventists 1906, p 52) And again in 1907 she observes, “The exercise of authority has been carried to such extremes that it is now time to call a halt… Man power is not to rule the church of Christ.” (Loma Linda Messages, p 221)

Rice concludes his analysis stating, “Following the re-organization of the Church in 1901, Ellen White again viewed the General Conference, particularly the General Conference in Session as the ‘highest authority on earth.’” Even if this were an accurate assessment, which the above comments do not indicate, we would be dealing with an “on again – off again” situation with no way of knowing which it is at any given point in time. Furthermore, we would be in a foolish contest trying to see who could come up with the latest quote for or against GC authority.

In an adaptation of the GC Secretariat document, “A Study of Church Governance and Unity,” an article in the June 2017 News Letter states, “Since 1930, the GC Executive Committee has delegated to unions responsibility for selecting candidates for ordination, based on the criteria set by the world Church.” What the article fails to address, however, is that there are fifteen such criteria listed in policy L 50 1, none of which in any way refer to gender as one of the criteria.

Then the article makes the accusation that, “A few unions, however, in effect claim the right to set criteria for ordination.” This charge is simply groundless. No union conference has made or sought to make changes in these fifteen criteria, which have been and continue to be the basis for selection of those being ordained. Furthermore, the article attempts to tie this charge to the actions of the 1990, 1995 and 2015 GC votes on the issue. But what it fails to note is that the policy has not been changed following any of these three sessions.

Regarding the authority and decisions of GC, there is a persistent perception that the GC has a policy or vote forbidding the ordination of women to ministry, but such is not the case. No such action exists, nor has it existed in the history of the church, despite those who seek to say that it does. The most prevalent of this notion of a prohibition is that the actions of the 1990, 1995 and 2015 sessions forbid the ordination of women. The motions presented at all three of these sessions was to authorize the ordination of women. These motions failed to pass on all three occasions. But when a motion fails, it simply goes away. It does not create the opposite of the intent of the motion. Therefore, the result neither establishes nor forbids the practice of ordaining women in these sessions. As President Wilson stated following the vote in 2015, nothing has changed.

It was Ellen White, herself, that stated, “It is the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God. (6T 322; R&H 1/15/1901) Further, GC Working Policy BA 60 05 supports this stance. “The church rejects any system or philosophy which discriminates against anyone on the basis of race, color, or gender. The church bases its position on principles clearly enunciated in the Bible, the writings of Ellen G. White, and the official pronouncements of the General Conference.”

If it is truly unity that we seek, perhaps a good place to start would be by following our policy rejecting discrimination. And perhaps it would be helpful to hear from the News Letter some balancing opinions and articles.

Dr. Gary Patterson retired as a GC officer and has served as assistant to the president of the North American Division, president in two local conferences and senior pastor of a number of churches. He continues to serve from time to time as an interim pastor in a number of churches.

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