From Union Conferences to their Presidents: General Conference Considers “Targeted Killing”

Do you enjoy intense drama? If so, please take note of the differences between how the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists related to its Executive Committee, which consists of several hundred members from all parts of the world, in 2017 and in 2018. The contrast could not be more breathtaking!

It gave the delegates to last year’s Annual Council a proposal about encouraging compliance with denominational policies, especially about ordaining women, at the beginning of the meeting in which they were expected to vote for or against it. It did this even though many delegates had requested an opportunity to study it beforehand. In July of this year, the GC made public a proposal on the same topic, which the Annual Council will consider in October. This difference in timing of virtually three months is nothing less than an administrative Copernican revolution. We should acknowledge, appreciate, and applaud it. I most certainly do!

This gift to us of an opportunity to discuss the proposal creates for us an obligation to do so. I have tried to spark such conversations on two previous occasions. In the first, on the Adventist Today website, I argued against reminding the entire Executive Committee that it publicly reprimanded one of its own members every time he or she speaks about anything. This kind of “naming and shaming” is more Communist and Amish than it is Adventist and this is how it should stay. On the second occasion, I contended on Spectrum that the members of the Executive Committee should not decide to reprimand each other publicly with simple majorities that can be as slim as one percent or even one vote.

As every successful pastor knows, treating small majorities as though they are large mandates divides groups and discredits leaders. In this article, my third, I contend that deciding not to aim the canons of compliance at union conferences but at their presidents is a desperate and doomed attempt finally to find a place where the exercise of coercive administrative power will work. This is what specialists call “targeted killing.” It succeeds in some well understood circumstances. Trying to subdue union conferences by subverting their presidents is not among them.

The first context for the expression “targeted killing” is warfare. It refers to the tactic of defeating a population by destroying its leaders. From there it has spread to other settings in which people speak the word “target” literally and the word “killing” metaphorically.

“Targeted killing” is effective. It is remarkable, for instance, how swiftly a group of rowdy students settles down when only its ringleaders are disciplined. Many people easily comply when their leaders are compelled.

It is more accurate to say that “targeted killing” typically succeeds in some settings but not in others. On the one hand, it usually works if a leader is emotionally distant from the members of a relatively small and heterogeneous group with an organizational structure that is simple and informal. On the other hand, it usually does not work when a leader is emotionally close to the members of larger and more homogenous groups with an organizational structure that is complex and formal. In such circumstances, it can be counted on to stiffen resolve and stimulate resistance. Union Conferences are in the second category.

A more subtle and significant factor should also be pondered. It is that, at least since the time of Ezekiel and the other ancient Hebrew prophets, biblical people have tried to abandon the practice of punishing a group for the wrongdoing of an individual and vice versa. Partly because of this long struggle, modern societies usually think of corporations as accountably distinct from the individuals who lead them. Rarely, for instance, are the officers of a corporation prosecuted for what it does unless they, themselves, as individuals, have demonstrably broken the law. Just as it took thousands of years to make slavery illegal, it has taken millennia to make punishing anyone other than the offender unacceptable. Penalizing their presidents for what Union Conferences do reverses this progress.

The proposal we are considering addresses this issue. It states that the Union Conference president “represents both the voice of the union constituency and the voice of the world Church and who is an ex officio member of the General Conference Executive Committee.” This must be said. It must also be said that Union Conference presidents are not appointed by the General Conference as are presidents of Divisions (who are formally Vice Presidents of the General Conference for specific regions). Union Conference presidents are elected by their constituents to whom they are primarily accountable. These elections, not General Conference invitations, make them ex officio members of the General Conference Executive Committee with all the rights and responsibilities.

It is not the case that presidents are merely the messengers of Union Conferences who can vote in the meetings of the General Conference Executive Committee only as their constituents prefer. They can resign and they can vote in harmony with their consciences and accept whatever penalties their constituents impose. It does mean that punishing Union Conference presidents is complicated and hazardous. The General Conference Executive Committee should do this only as a last resort and solely for the president’s own wrongdoing.

The process that this proposal recommends begins by attending to both the Union Conference, or analogous organization, and its president. As it continues, the process progressively narrows its focus until only the president is its target. That the tapering of the aim eventually becomes so pinpointed that it excludes not only the noncompliant Union Conference but all of its other delegates to the General Conference Executive Committee is evident from the following:

In instances where a president has been removed from the membership of the committee “for cause,” other members of the General Conference Executive Committee from that union shall continue to exercise full privileges without mention of reprimand.

What does “for cause” mean? Does it include, for example, merely serving as the president of a Union Conference that is out of compliance with General Conference policies on the one issue of ordaining women without regard to how profound and permanent its support of the denomination otherwise is?

There is a difference between trying to do the will of God and trying to take the place of God. It is my own personal conviction that any answer to this question other than a resounding “No!” takes a running leap across this boundary and lands way over on the other side. Yet, thankfully, I am not the Judge and the One who is has mercy on us all.

A proposal is perfect when none of its bad features can be changed for the better without changing any of its good ones for the worse. Although I indicated in my first article that this proposal favorably impresses me in a number of important ways, I do not believe that it is perfect in this sense. I am of the view that three changes can help it without hurting it. Listing them in the reverse sequence of my articles these are:

  1. Publicly reprimand only noncompliant organizations and not their leaders.
  2. Decide to reprimand them publicly only with supermajorities of the votes.
  3. Formally and informally reprimand them in public only once for each instance of noncompliance.

It is difficult to compel compliance in churches without disfellowshipping members, defrocking ministers, and disbanding organizations. It is good not to do these things unless we are certain that in specific cases we will not cause more problems than we solve. It is better not to threaten such painful outcomes unless we are able and willing to bring them about. It is best to keep in mind the weakness of coercive power and the strength of persuasive power in voluntary organizations.

Dr. David Larson is Professor of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
1 Like

I agree with the good Doctor, we should avoid the puerile attempt to verbally shame non-compliant Union Presidents. It’s unseemly!

We should simply provide each of committee member with a pile of rubber bands on the table and when a “said” President dare speak, we should shoot rubber bands at him. This would be a more dignified ( and fun ) approach to the problem.


The burning question is —Why does a corporate body formed in the name of Christ stand as the judge of his fellow man on any issue of policy that is without moral content.? We are all sinners saved by Grace alone. We stand in Judgment against the Ten not the 28 and its recent definition and expansion. He that is without sin cast the first vote.


Who talks like this about the church? It would seem that a professor of religion at one of our universities could discuss this political issue more effectively otherwise. Who but the most die-hard anti-GC crowd is appealed to by such a comparison?


It is a very complex issue, because this is a very focused rule which might work in the USA, but how about countries which have a totally different legal system. There are many countries which a religious organisation like the SDA, has to abide with the laws of not only the country, but the religious legislation which defines how they can operate.


Coercive compulsion never works - the early church and reformation church are good reminders that it never works. When you apply pressure via coercion, you only influence visible behaviour. It is extremely rare that thought changes. During periods of oppression, people take their non-compliant behaviour “underground” or “behind closed doors.” In effect the governing body appears to have compliance because they can no longer see the non-compliance. This can lead down a situation of “watchers” and “watcher watchers” and “watcher watcher watchers”, and beyond. With apologies to Ronald Reagan…tear down that wall, Mr Wilson, before you build it.


When any entity seeks compliance through force, intimidation, or depravation that entity is demonstrating characteristics of the Beast.


As I recall, Ellen W. talked exactly like this at the penultimate turn of the century–for exactly the same problem–and the “kingly” (her term) GC president promptly resigned.

If only.


So will this address Seventh Day Adventist who worship on Sunday, and not Saturday. In 2011 Somoa, convert to its original time. Adventist did not change, instead they keep Sunday, because they regard the changing of times and days as a sign. Yet, to me this is a problem which must be addressed, because I have lost a few days in traveling, and kept Sabbath as the day appears on the calender of the country I am in.


Why should Union Presidents maintain their positions when they have defied the decision of a higher authority?


I must have the page missing in my thesaurus that lists “kingly” as a synonym of “targeted killing.”

Well said Dave!

I wonder if the whole three of your articles on this topic could be gathered together and distributed to every member of the GC Executive Committee.

What do you think?



Ted, I don’t see that Harry claimed that “kingly” is a synonym of “targeted killing”…or do you have a larger, more important, point??


Peter Marks. I like the idea. Perhaps we could have two more articles for total of five. The fourth one be about the proposal’s good idea of creating Compliance Committees and the fifth would be a “Liturgy for Celebrating Church Unity and Reprimanding Noncompliant Clergy.” The last would not be the least bit satirical. It would make some serious recommendations about things that would make the special worship service dignified, beautiful and focused on the theme of “Church Unity,” I’d be happy for someone else to write them!

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Doppig: This is a good question to which there can be several good answers depending upon which aspects of this case we are highlighting.

My answer in this part of the discussion is that the union conference and the union conference president are not the same thing. For this reason, the union conference should be punished for what it does wrong, the union conference president should be punished for what he or she does wrong and they both should be punished for what they both do wrong,

One of my objections to this proposal is that it begins by holding both the union conference and the union conference president accountable; however, it ends up holding only the president accountable for what they both have done.

This is a serious mistake; however, it can be easily be corrected without damaging the good parts of proposal.

Thanks again!

Members of the SDA Church should register their outrage at the very proposal of reprimands at anyone advocating for inclusion at whatever level of membership. Such paranoia by GC administrators needs to stopped and nipped in the bud immediately. There should be no allowance for the germination of such thought to grow or fester. Ar GC administrators that threatened and insecure that the only options considered for their hangup on control is to publicly humiliate those who think differently than they do. When leadership is more hung-up on policy at the expense of people than using policy to elevate people/membership we have a problem of priorities. Our administrators are reverting to 4 year old childlike bulling behavior - my way or I’m going to throw a temper tantrum to blame you and make you look bad. It really time to grow up and act like the adults we profess to be.


Carlo Schroeder

Although this discussion is not designed to address it, the issue you have brought to our attention is both interesting and important, You say that you have “kept Sabbath as the day it appears on the calendar of the country I am in.” This is exactly what you should do, If you do anything else, the people in the country you are in won’t learn from you that Sabbath comes at the end of the week as its culmination and that every earlier day leads up to it.


LeRoy B. Washington. Although we need to think about the best way to register our outrage, I agree that we should. The difficulty is that a small number (not all!) General Conference leaders have repeatedly threatened “grave consequences” to those regions of the church which persist in ordaining women only to learn the hard way that they cannot make good on their threats without causing more problems than they solve. They therefore need someone or some group that is more vulnerable to their use of coercive administrative power Their choice is the Union Conference presidents; however, this won’t work either. No attempt to solve this problem by pressuring people will.

This issue is a pastoral opportunity rather than an administrative difficulty and the only solution is to treat it as such.


If one keeps Sunday instead of Sabbath due to the position of the time zone or travel and remain concerned about their status in the eyes of God, they should expect to have 10 stars deducted from their crown one day…or worse. Legalism is about one’s concern about their legal status with God as the basis of their salvation. It is time for our church to grow up, let go of such concerns and get the Good News message straight! Relationship, NOT rule keeping. Take no one to task, but let everyone be convinced in their own mind, not using coercive force on others. Now there’s a thought, President Wilson.


I agree. No page missing here. The antecedent for the descriptive term “kingly” by Ellen White would be the GC president in her time, but in the case of “targeted killing,” it points to “non-compliant” Union Conference presidents in our time. Therefore, the use of a thesaurus may be good for other educational purposes, but the author was not providing a synonym, equating the two terms. I don’t agree with the current leadership position or methods, and I am very concerned about the potential damage they could inflict on our church by punitive and coercive actions taken to discipline Union presidents. This doesn’t make me “diehard anti-GC.” At least Dr. Larson is raising the discussion in his articles and offering ideas about possible solutions, something that seems to be lacking from GC leadership. Ob mutatio Tempus…