Following nearly six hours of discussion and debate, a majority of members of the Executive Committee of the General Conference (GC) of Seventh-day Adventists voted during their Annual Council meeting to send a document entitled Procedures for Reconciliation and Adherence in Church Governance: Phase II, back to the Unity in Mission Oversight Committee for further review.
“The body has spoken,” said Pastor Ted Wilson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “It will go back to the committee. By God’s grace, we will find a way of bringing something together again.”
The scope of the second document
The document outlines the second phase of a process of reconciliation voted during last year’s Annual Council that sought to initiate standard procedures for maintaining Church unity in matters involving non-compliance. Areas addressed include fundamental beliefs, voted actions or working policies of the Church. Phase I, voted at the 2016 Annual Council, sought to provide a “pastoral” approach involving dialogue and a greater understanding among those involved.
The Phase II document emphasises the Executive Committee’s commitment to “preserve the governance and organisational structure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church on all levels” in the context of “godly forbearance, Christian charity and redemptive grace”. Introductory paragraphs also highlight a commitment on the part of the Executive Committee to “the continued forbearance and discussion process”, which offers “additional time to find solutions”.
“I believe that the Church has been forbearing,” said Pastor Wilson during the day’s discussion. “Our purpose is to redeem. But we have to respect what the world Church votes.”
Policy within the Church
The Phase II document that was referred back to the originating committee also makes an unapologetic case for the need of Church policy, anchoring its roots in biblical references, along with principles articulated by Church co-founder Ellen White. “Throughout Scripture, organisation has been a priority for God’s people,” says the document. “Church organisation is also a clear biblical mandate and foundational biblical teaching for God’s end-time people.”
While recognising that “the policies of the Church are not infallible”, the document explains that policies offer “the best judgement of a representative group of Church leaders at a given time on how denominational entities live and work together”. The General Conference Working Policy is the result of votes taken by representatives from around the world during either the General Conference in session every five years, or during the annual meeting of the Executive Committee.
The Phase II document is built on existing voted policies such as B 15 05, which clarifies “the authoritative voice” of General Conference Working Policy and B 15 10, which requires global adherence to Working Policy. The document recognises “non-compliant practices can be very complex expressions of cultural, ethnic, theological, communication and economic values, beliefs, and practices”, and “differentiates non-compliant practices into three categories”.
Category 1 deals with the 28 fundamental beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Category 2 deals with voted actions of the General Conference Executive Committee that are “designed for global implementation” and which if not implemented “would adversely impact Church unity”. Category 3 involves “policies, initiatives and practices that are local in nature, and not in violation of actions voted in General Conference Session or voted by the General Conference Executive Committee and would not impact Church unity.”
Background to the document
An introductory report was given by Pastor Thomas Lemon, GC general vice president, and chair of the Unity in Mission Oversight Committee, who was tasked with facilitating follow-up to the voted 2016 Unity in Mission document. “We took the process that you voted last year as a pastoral mandate, an opportunity to engage with people all around the world,” he said.
Throughout the year, invitations to meet and dialogue came from the North American Division (NAD), Trans-European Division (TED), Inter-European Division (EUD), and South Pacific Division (SPD). Pastor Lemon met with the first three, but scheduling conflicts kept him from meeting with the SPD.
Pastor Lemon said while there are compliance issues, he saw “no sign of rebellion” in his interactions with the entities he engaged with. “Unity and the commitment to the message of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is as strong as I have ever seen,” he said.
Pastor Lemon also introduced the Phase II document, emphasising that it came through the Unity in Mission Oversight Committee, was then discussed by the Administrative Committee of the General Conference (ADCOM), and was finally referred to General Conference and Division Officers (GCDO) before coming to the Annual Council Executive Committee today. [pullquote]
Prior to discussion from the floor, Dr G T Ng, GC executive secretary, explained that while the document addresses the matter of the ordination of women to ministry and “was triggered” by the issue, it is much broader in scope and “it is about governance”. He also reminded members that “personal conscience is not on trial, but Church governance is”.
Juan Prestol-Puesán, world Church treasurer, also offered introductory words, explaining that he favours the ordination of women as a personal conviction. “However, there is one more overwhelming, superseding conviction—staying together,” he said. “My personal conviction needs to be subservient to what holds the body together.”
Comments from the floor
Discussion of the proposed document began with Pastor Wilson reminding committee members of decorum, explaining that the discussion would be held in the spirit of charity and respect.
The 14-page document was read aloud by Hensley Moorooven, GC associate secretary. The committee members and invitees then addressed comments to the chair from various microphones on the floor, in the order which they scanned their badges in a system logging comments.
Comments were diverse and varied in their perspectives on the material in the proposed document. Both Church leaders and lay committee members from around the world spoke openly, and at times passionately, in favour or in opposition to the document.
Some urged the Committee to approve the document and move forward, while others supported referring the document back to a committee for further refinement. Those supporting referral raised questions about the constitutionality of certain segments of the document. Still others asked for refined language in the Phase II document.
One thing was clear: despite strong convictions on both sides of the matter, no-one suggested a split within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “I want to give this body some assurance,” said Dan Jackson, president of the North American Division. “We have absolutely no intention to split the Adventist Church and to start our own church in North America. We will not split from this Church. We are committed to the work of this Church both in North America and around the world.”
Votes and actions
The major vote of the day resulted from a motion to refer the document to the General Conference Constitution and By-laws Committee. The motion suggested potential conflicts between the document and provisions within the GC Constitution and By-laws. The action was subsequently amended to refer the document back to the Unity in Mission Oversight Committee, and was voted on by secret ballot, carrying 184 to 114.
Noting the item will not come up for discussion by the Executive Committee until the 2018 Annual Council, Pastor Wilson said that there was still a challenge in terms of those who were not in compliance, asking members to pray. “We will hope to come back with something that helps all of us toward our goal of mission,” he said.
Read the full document, Procedures for Reconciliation and Adherence in Church Governance: Phase II.