The following text was submitted as a comment on the Adventist Review’s recent “Questions Regarding the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Its Leadership” essay, but was not accepted for publication.
Dear General Conference Communication Department:
The web site of the Center for Adventist Research, at Andrews University, lists the late Dr. Raymond Cottrell as “one of the leading theologians and intellectuals of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination during the last half of the 20th century.” Dr. Cottrell served as associate editor of both the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary series and the Review and Herald magazine, for example, as well as holding many other denominational offices.
In his 1998 essay, “The Ethos of Adventism,” Cottrell says this about Adventist administrative structure:
"Within local Seventh-day Adventist conferences governance is representative. The congregations appoint delegates to a conference session at which they elect conference officers and make basic decisions with respect to the operation of the conference. At times this process is aborted when delegates representing higher echelons of the hierarchy veto the delegates’ preferences. The GC also has the power to suspend a conference if it does not comply with GC policy, and has, upon occasion, threatened to do so.
"Above the local conference level Adventist polity is strictly hierarchical. There is no provision by which church members or congregations can express preferences or participate in the process of governance. The local conference executive committee appoints delegates to its union session, the union executive committee to its division session, and the division executive committee to sessions of the GC. Each delegation to the next higher level consists primarily of members of the hierarchy. Lay persons appointed by each executive committee, which is part of the hierarchy, thus represent the hierarchy, not the members or their congregations.
"Instead of the three Adventist administrative levels between the local congregation and the GC, most Protestant churches have only one, or in some instances two, between congregations and their highest administrative authority. Through their congregations the members collectively constitute the supreme authority. Congregations participate in the election of officers for each of their higher administrative levels. Ultimate authority thus flows up (rather than down from the top, as in a hierarchy). Fewer administrative levels, and participation in the election of officers and in the formation of policy at all levels thus bring leaders and grass roots members closer together.
“In two major respects the polity and governance of the Seventh-day Adventist Church are essentially the same as those of the Roman Catholic Church rather than Protestant churches. Both are hierarchical rather than democratic. Both are universal (“catholic,” with a lower case “c”) rather than national. Official awareness of this trend was reflected in Neal Wilson’s jocular reference to his vice presidents as “cardinals” at the 1985 session of the GC in New Orleans, and references to him as “pope” at the 1987 Spring Meeting of the GC. The Adventist hierarchy is a self-contained, self-operating, self-perpetuating system remote from, and immune to, members and congregations.”
It doesn’t seem feasible, given Dr. Cottrell’s hard-earned status as a definitive SDA insider, to merely dismiss his carefully woven analysis.
At the same time, if what he wrote is even partially true, the responses to some of the questions above, particularly the 2nd one, may not be as neatly threaded as they first appear to be, and may require a more self-effacing response from the denomination.
Can we expect to get one? It should not be too difficult for the SDA church to produce. After all, it’s not exactly as if it’s never erred.
P.S. I’ve got to give it up to Elder Wilson for the current, “Mountain Man” look. I honestly wonder what inspires the beard. Is it a more fundamentalist look for a more fundamentalist time?