By Loren Seibold  |  20 September 2019  |  

Elder Wilson’s first sermon to the world church in 2010 was predictive of the kind of leadership he would practice. Beyond a few manufactured trivialities (reading non-Adventist authors, meditation) he showed that his leadership style would involve enforcing upon the church his personal understanding of Adventist orthodoxy. This sense of himself as “the first minister” (his father’s description of himself when GC president) came through when he began to call himself “President of the World Church of Seventh-day Adventists” instead of “President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists,” which may seem a small difference, but is actually quite revelatory of who he is. 

Ever since taking office in 2010, Elder Wilson has pushed the church from crisis to crisis, making churchmen (still all men) from different divisions opponents of one another. It came to a boil last October in Battle Creek when he pushed through the General Conference Executive Committee a compliance process to enforce his favorite orthodoxies, by means of hand-picked committees at the very top of the church. Despite his insistence that he was only carrying out the vote of 2015 General Conference Session, the compliance committees struck many as a personal and slightly vindictive act on his part, and perhaps for that very reason clumsily executed.

And now that the church has suffered through it, now that the church is decidedly divided between south and west, a rumor appears that he wants to suspend or (per some sources) retract the whole business. 

And I’m not sure we should be happy about that. 

Why End Compliance Committees?

When I talked to retired GC Vice President Lowell Cooper recently, he said, “I suspect… that the administration began to realize that the Compliance Committee process would collapse of its own weight. Nor could the volume of non-compliance matters be satisfactorily addressed by a small group at the GC.” 

Here’s the thing; I’m certain that Dr. Cooper and many others expressed these very concerns to the core group of leaders when the plan was first conceived. I heard them stated by many in the meetings I attended. Why would Elder Wilson’s ADCOM now suddenly wake up to it, after they’ve put church leaders through this hellish fight? Could there be another reason why the compliance process is now being rethunk? 

A few weeks before Spectrum broke the story that ADCOM had voted to recommend to the GC Executive Committee some sort of cessation or suspension of the compliance committees (the details aren’t yet clear), someone with a friend in the General Conference office told me that when Elder Wilson had visited some of the world divisions that most support him, he was told that the compliance committee process was unpopular, and that his chance of reelection would be diminished.

It is impossible to know how accurate this explanation is. That the church of Africa, Asia and Latin America, whose leaders supported him so strongly last autumn, should now complain about the compliance process, seems odd. But the part about reelection has a ring of truth. Most everyone agrees that Elder Wilson is not just someone who got stuck with the job: he is a man who has a strong sense of entitlement to the office of President of the World Church of Seventh-day Adventists. 

So if there really is an end to compliance committees, it raises this question: Is church policy being shaped for the purpose of getting a 70-year-old man reelected to office? And how soon after reelection would he bring back a restyled disciplinary process, with now five new years to enforce compliance upon the noncompliant? 

Why Should Leaders Change Their Minds?

When I heard the compliance process discussed in Battle Creek last year, it was in the large terms of the church’s authority to enforce General Conference “doctrines, policies, statements and guidelines”. Later I learned that the process had been organized into several committees reflecting some of Elder Wilson’s oft-mentioned issues: ordination, homosexuality, creation/origins, distinctive beliefs, and GC core policies. The first four describe problems that Elder Wilson has often, in many sermons and articles, scolded the North American Division, Europe and Australia/NZ church about. 

What was missing in the compliance discussion was any specific reference to enforcing ethical institutional behavior in general, particularly in light of a report from General Conference Auditing Service at the 2017 fall meeting that there was a high rate of noncompliance with policies they audit. Here at Adventist Today we receive an astonishing volume of reports of corruption, theft and nepotism in the developing world church. If even a quarter of them are true, the church has a big problem. (Many of us assume that auditing catches every attempt to steal or cheat. But what doesn’t get recorded accurately on books, or cash passed hand-to-hand, is difficult or impossible to audit.) 

I doubt that those who last year so full-throatedly supported compliance committees have now dropped their opposition to women’s ordination, homosexuality and evolution. Something else is going on. Could it be that some world church leaders woke up one day and thought, “Wait a minute. As long as the compliance committees are going after the disobedient NAD, that’s cool. But what if compliance committees shift focus and begin digging into things going on in our fields that we’d rather not have exposed?” After all, “General Conference core policies” is a rather broad category. 

Finally, what is the role of the NAD’s vote last autumn to drop its share of tithe going to the GC to 2%, to match the contribution of all of the other divisions? A sudden loss of revenue could affect not just attitudes of world leaders, who were the recipients of most of that in mission moneys, but their votes as well. 

Answer for Your Actions

Right now there are people throughout the church saying, “If it is true that the compliance process might be pulled back, what a relief! Thank goodness they saw the light!”  I’m not quite ready to say that, because I’m not sure anyone really has seen the light. I’d first like to know why it’s being pulled back—and when it will reappear in a new form or with a new name.

(Reminder: we don’t know precisely what came out of that committee; whether it will be brought to the GC Executive Committee next month; or whether it will be accepted. Though I have been able to substantiate that the matter was talked about, we’re dealing with sketchy information.)

In the last two years of trying to enforce compliance, Elder Wilson strained relationships throughout the church. Under the heading of church unity he pitted regions and leaders against one another. What he owes the church is not a policy readjustment to get reelected, or to take pressure off of his supporters, but an apology for putting the church through this fight. If Elder Wilson says, “I was wrong. The church shouldn’t be so hierarchical. I repent of the authoritarian way I’ve gone about things. Let’s give the regions of the church more autonomy in some matters, like women’s ordination. GC-enforced compliance isn’t a good idea,” perhaps I’ll think differently. 

But I’m not holding my breath. Lacking evidence of such a come-to-Jesus moment, I think I might rather see him stand at Indianapolis and have to defend what he started. 

Some of you are saying, “After arguing against this, why would you now say the opposite?” Because I never thought that the compliance committees were all that dangerous anyway, and I said so. While I’m sure it aggravated some church leaders’ ulcers, many in the western church (by which I mean the NAD, Europe and Australia/NZ) ignored the GC’s challenges to women’s ordination. The NAD even cut off money to the GC, which is extraordinarily bold. 

Some have even cherished a hope that the GC’s overreach would lead to more regionalism, that in reaction our part of the church could shape even more of our own “policies, statements and guidelines.” Please remember that GC policy as it stands doesn’t allow the president’s office to take over union conferences, only to expel them from the organization.

(A note for another discussion: I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see proposals emerge to change GC policy so that it could take over unions. You heard it here first.)

I hope that if this does come up at next month’s GC Excom, brave church leaders will rise up on their shiny black wingtips and ask hard questions. Why did you put us through all that conflict, pitting world church regions against one another, rather than trying to find win-win solutions that would bring us into harmony? Are you now admitting you were wrong about the General Conference as a tool for enforcement and punishment? Why didn’t you listen when many of us told you this wasn’t a good solution? Is there another agenda here—perhaps to smooth the way for your reelection? And most importantly: will we see this or something like it resurrected later on? 

There are big things only the General Conference can do, such as rooting out corruption. The compliance committees, though, were never intended for big purposes but, as Dr. Cooper told me, “an intention to discipline, in some way, those unions that had proceeded with the ordination of women to ministry.” We need to ask why ADCOM is now frantically backing away from what Elder Wilson thought last year was such a good idea that he was willing to alienate many of us from the church. 

Dear Adventist Today readers: I’m inserting this note to tell you that we are right now conducting our autumn fundraiser. Adventist Today is largely a volunteer organization, but if we’re going to continue to provide you with stimulating news—often news you get nowhere else—and fascinating commentary by some of the best writers in the denomination, we do need some financial support. If you want to see us continue to do the journalism that you’ve been accustomed to from Adventist Today, become an AT member now or or give us a one-time gift. Loren Seibold, Executive Editor, Adventist Today website and magazine.

Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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