How Democratic is the Adventist Church? – On The GC Presidential Election (I)

[Roy Branson, “In memoriam” (1937-2015)]

By exercising the right to vote, General Conference delegates from all over the world re-affirmed the democratic structure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They overwhelmingly elected incumbent General Conference president Ted N. C. Wilson to another five years in office. Estimates indicated that more than 80 percent of some 2,400 delegates voted in favor of keeping Wilson in his position as leader of the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference, following lengthy discussion at the General Conference session in San Antonio, Texas.

But the main question here is not whether the Adventist Church is democratic but rather what kind of democracy it incarnates. And this question is larger, more important and complex than the informal and almost trivial referendum still going on, even after the election, regarding Elder Wilson himself. By personal profile or political instinct and calculation he is identifying himself with the expectations and desires of the majority of Adventists. We cannot blame him for this. The vast majority of Adventists have chosen Elder Wilson as a GC president who really represents them. But representativeness and the right to vote are only the first step of a mature democratic system. According to Giovanni Sartori (a renowned Italian Law professor, emeritus of Colombia University and of the University of Florence), in addition to representativeness a mature democratic system needs to have and to promote three other fundamental characteristics.

1. Continuous, critical member participation

The key role of church members is to participate in church life, not merely choosing their leaders during elections. Members have an obligation to become informed and to think by themselves about public issues, structural defects, institutional imbalances, historical drifts or sociological and theological paradigm shifts. They need to watch carefully how their church representatives use their powers, and to express their own opinions and interests. Membership “analytical participation” should never be confused with or reduced to membership “practical participation”. While the second one is abundantly present and euphorically promoted by this GC presidency, the first one is systematically neglected and discouraged. But both are necessary for balance in the church system. The first cannot be substituted by the second without serious consequences – as is happening right now in these same San Antonio GC meetings regarding some crucial issues on the table. If this occurs the membership is destined to become a purely blind enforcer of initiatives and programs it has not contributed to create, correct and orient toward its own needs and vision.

A vital form of participation comes through active membership in local involvement, bottom-up initiatives and non-institutional activities that parallel what happens in what we call “civil society.”  It is important that women participate fully both in local churches and administration, as lay members and as full pastors and leaders. This requires efforts by the whole organization to educate women about their democratic rights and responsibilities, improve their pastoral and administrative skills, represent their common interests and involve them fully in all aspects of the church's life. In a democratic system participation in the various proposed initiatives should be voluntary. No one should be forced to join a program against their will. Local and territory-based initiatives are vital organizations in a democracy, and democracy is stronger when believers become active and permanently involved members in such initiatives.
 
2. Tolerance and respect of “De facto” internal alternatives

In a democratic system every person has certain basic rights that the administration cannot take away from them.  These rights are guaranteed by the State and international law and should be also guaranteed by the church system itself. Every church member has the right to have a personal interpretation of the shared belief system and of the administrative orientation of the church, and to say and write about them as he or she considers necessary.  No one can tell you what you must think, believe and say except through a consensual, mutual and contractual negotiation. In addition to the freedom to choose your own religion the church system should also guarantee the personal interpretation of it within that same religion.  Everyone is free to worship and practice the chosen religion as they see fit. Every individual has the right to enjoy their own spirituality, along with other members of their sub-group, even if their sub-group is a minority. There must be freedom and pluralism in the mass media. You should be able to choose between different sources of news and opinions – selecting among the various alternatives that the church system itself allows and facilitates. You have the right to associate with other people and to form and join organizations of your own choice. You have the right to assemble freely and to protest church actions. No one should support a church initiative because they are pressured or threatened by others. Democracy depends on church member participation in all these ways.  But participation must be peaceful, respectful of the church regulations, and tolerant of the different views of other groups and individuals. A democratic church is never administratively or theologically homogeneous. The free external and internal alternatives shouldn't be considered a threat but rather the guarantee of a healthy and balanced system. Excessively constrained church systems are often the prelude to self-referential and autocratic institutions.   

3. A clear distinction between the Executive (government) and the Institutions

Democracy is a system of rule by written laws and established regulations, not by individuals or by ideological groups. In a democracy, the rule of regulation protects the rights of church members, maintains order, and limits the power of the Executive or other groups of power. All church members are equal under the church regulation and bylaws.  No one may be discriminated against on the basis of their race, spirituality, ethnic group, or gender.  No one can be treated arbitrarily. If you are accused or sanctioned, you have the right to know the charges against you, and to be presumed innocent until proven responsible according to the church regulation. Anyone charged with a fault has the right to a fair, speedy, and public process by an impartial committee. No one is above the law or above a critical formal or informal assessment, not even an elected president.  The bylaw is fairly, impartially, and consistently enforced, by committees that should at least be partially independent of the Executive. The rule of regulation and bylaws places limits on the power of the Executive. No Executive official may violate these limits. No president, minister, or local leader can tell a committee how to decide a case.  Office holders cannot use their power and influence to orient the membership after their own ideology. The personal convictions and opinions of the GC president or of other Executive leaders, though important and partially unavoidable, should never completely coincide with the institutional decisions and orientations. The Executive should facilitate and guarantee a clear distinction between our leaders' personal convictions, that are necessarily individual and exclusive, and the institutional choices that are necessarily general and inclusive.

The critical assessment of our church democracy, after these three additional traits as suggested by Sartori, shows that we are unduly rejoicing for a very deficient church democratic system, concentrated short-sightedly and almost exclusively in the transparency of the vote. But we are not promoting and improving the administrative maturity of the voters. More specifically this brief critical assessment evidences that the new elected GC president, even if he is not imputable for having been re-elected, certainly is imputable for not having done anything important to make the church grow institutionally and administratively. And if the GC presidency is more an administrative than a spiritual role we can easily conclude that elder Wilson has been elected for the wrong reasons. No surprise in this. It happens often in church history.  And as you can't get blood from a stone, you cannot ask from a deficient democratic system true solutions for real challenges it has been unable to diagnose and to articulate. Elder Wilson’s undeniably positive accent toward more functionality, coherence and efficiency in the church's internal life and mission – a fact tightly linked to his self-referential and unreflective conservative religious profile – could soon start functioning as a boomerang against himself and against the whole church. We are just beginning to see and count the deleterious effects of such shortsighted and divisive administrative attitudes and of such an overbearing and theologically bold profile. This GC president’s pragmatic strategies have probably increased the quantity of what we do but not certainly the quality of what we are as a world church, neither administratively nor theologically.

But I wouldn't give this presidency more credit than it really deserves. The church destiny is bigger than the GC presidential profile and wishes. By the “heterogeneity of means” we know that the end result of processes and events is never what people diligently prepare for it to be. So the final Adventist profile in South America, Europe or elsewhere will not be that of this presidency or of the Biblical Research Institute but rather what local pastors and churches, in various countries, with various difficulties and existential and spiritual suffering, are trying to build up in answer to the concrete, specific and unique needs of the people they serve. And all this in contrast to the abstract decisions that the GC in general and the GC presidency in particular, are taking in the name of a modern Adventist universal ideology.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6955
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Thank you Hanz Gutierrez for your thoughtful… and I believe accurate and much needed… analysis of our SDA political system.

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After witnessing the results of yesterday’s divisively-polarized vote (fervent applause and heightened emotional outbursts) I was sick at heart and deeply saddened. This morning, after reading this enlightened and encouraging response I am once again at peace and filled with a hopeful vision of how we might return our focus to the gentle Jesus and His great love for All of His children. Thank you so much, Dr. Gutierrez.

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Patti, I share your sentiments fully, and as a woman, I, too, was sick at heart and deeply saddened, But as with you, I was also greatly encouraged by Dr. Gutierrez’s article because I was reminded once again, as he so eloquently stated, that God’s purpose for His church can neither be controlled, manipulated nor contained. To think that common sense alone is not strong enough to show people that you cannot hail a system “democratic” that votes to exclude such a large portion of its church members, is sickening enough, but that responses were ‘fervent applause and heightened emotional outbursts’ is nothing short of shocking. I can assure you that I am going to spread this article like wildfire! THANK YOU, Dr. Gutierrez!!

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Talk about church protocol. How about this? The church doesn’t have money available to ordain ministers in half of the churches that need them now. Men who go through theology training are being turned down right and left because of this. So, if it were decided to ordain women, there would be no great outpouring of women being the answer to saving the world. They would just replace a man here and there, becoming just another pastor for a church or most likely, several churches.

Your ideas of women pastors is worldly (Inappropriate & judgmental. - webEd) and sentimental, but has no reality or even practicality as an answer to evangelizing the world.

Let us also consider that the comments made that the church is going against the Holy Spirit by denying women ordination, is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. To attribute a working of satan to the Holy Spirit is just that, as the Bible clearly defines ordination and headship. The only support for WO is from men who see themselves as great intellectuals, and those who blindly follow them.

Well! This article did it for me. This calibre of writing is something I affirm and applaud. I have now subscribed to Spectrum. Thanks for including Dr. Gutierrez’ article.

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I wish every sda church member and gc session delegate understood how the devil may blind a whole church membership of Laodicia into thinking the Lord is leading our decisions by false consensuses or votes when it is the same Satan dividing us. How blind is the angel of Laodicia not to see what I now call “Pilates Oscillation or Vascillating Syndrome?” Yes or No vote has intrinsic quality of dividing voters. Pilate in a dictatorial regime had no one to consult on a decision with everlasting repercursions. Yes was supposed to be for Jesus, No for Barabas. Result of Jewish democratic voting became sucidal to the Jewish nation. When Satan leads Church leaders to seek a false consensus in support of a dictatorial decision imposed systematically on unsuspecting delegates in the latter’s partial or full lack of knowledge of factors and pagan theologies supporting their seemingly democratic “NO” vote, quenquenial results may be just as suicidal to a system that is deaf to democratic voices. This is especially insidious whenever prayers, Christlikeness, respect, focus on mission and unity are called for from the unsuspecting masses to support aristocracy and sacredotalistic despotism which may end up causing a majority of professed followers of Christ to re-crucify their very Savior and Lord in a vote that is not supported by scripture or its proper interpretation, but backed by false theology derived from Pagan Rome, espoused and used by Roman Papal system to support its position of religio-political-undemocratic power over the faithfuls. It is the same false thelogy reformers adhered to and SDA Church pioneers, except Ellen G White of course, from their Methodism, Mormonism and other Protestant churches’ backgrounds. It is that heathen unbiblical theology which has become devil’s dirty rag under the carpets of SDA Church top leadership, used to divide the church into two categories based on whether they subscribe to headship theology or not. The two groups emerging from San Antonio’s NO Vote to WOM must for the next five years interpret 1 Timothy 2 and 3 as well as 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 vs 33, 34 variantly. Those who choose to see the eternal headship of God the Father over the eternal submssion of His Eternal Son in Genesis 1 & 2 are free to see the same as the ground for the headship of Adam over his wife Eve and see the same as the reason for male headship and female submission to men in family, church and society. That is the hidden official interpretation of these texts by the incumbents; and, the elected must at least support the same even if they don’t believe it. Hence majority of the elected will come from mostly the very incumbents. It is politically speaking a system of recycling incumbents in their positions and offices. This is important as friend must support friends on the way by vote back to that office. The more friends one creates in one’s tenure of office, the higher the chances. So to amass adequate support a referendum against women must be strategized by the erudite technocrats. This must start with a theological quarrel over women’s ordination. Five years of TOSC studying the Bible will yield nothing but a false consensus over the theology of ordination which is not present in Holy Scriptures, but by amalgamation of unrelated Bible texts. Such a statement of Theological consensus on ordination is final. No gc session delegates will be allowed to question it or contribute to it. The major role of delegates is to vote not to think or reflect on what is passed down to them from the top. In fact the referendum strategy requires that a delegate is timed to speak only for two minutes and no more and during that short time of speaking to very important motions, the delegate must observe meticulously and cautiously the parliamentary rules of order which the church leadership adheres to when in business and not in worships. The major goal is to secure a vote against women’s ordination by the end of the day. While the value of the ddelegate is the blood of Christ and the image of God in Christ-likeness of character all the time through out eternity, when in business leadership reduces a delegate’s value to the value of a vote. Just as the “Pilate’s Oscillation or Vascillating Syndrome” informs us, even so, it required prior secret autocratic machinations and strategies to increase the number of Union Conferences that would supply greater support in the nominating committee to ensure that headship theology is well support ed by divisions and union conferences worldwide. What surprises one is that Ellen G White never taught headship authority of males over females in churches. She never quoted the texts leadership is quoting to support headship theology. Again the 28 SDA fundamental beliefs never teach headship from Genesis or from Pauline scriptures. Even our Universities never teach headship theology in their curriculars. The question one poses is: "Why doesn’t the GC leadership not give the truth to the GC Session delegates of 2015 as GC leadership knows it as to what is the true interpretation of Paul and Genesis when correctly exegeted within context and according to the SDA Method of Bible Study Document (MBSD) of 1986? We do accept the “NO” Vote now as our church postion on Women Ordination. But the theology supporting this vote is questionable and yet elitist sarcedotalism has adamantly and undemocratically secured its way to both office(s) and to a desired theological and political position in disfavor of women in ministry and against their ordination to the same. Alas Laodicia! Won’t Jesus spew us out of His mouth? Consider this question prayerfully and gather boldnes from the Holy Spirit to shed light on the Dragon, that old serpent threatening to devour the angels of Lodecia and looming stealthily to blind its membership by hyperactivity in missions while potentially or practically lost in the bid to respect the elders at the top of the system without respecting the Lord of those elders who is gender inclusive in His Gospel ministry.

(This whole comment is excessive in its judgmentalism. Tone down your language. Because you are new I will not delete the comment but it is very problematic in tone. - webEd)

Having indicated that I am now a subscriber, I must reply to something the good Dr. has said: the “final profile” of the denomination will be that of local pastors and churches. This is correct. I have been a “local” pastor for almost 47 years, and who in most any community knows or has a care of who the Conference President/officers (at any level) are? What matters is that at the local level the church needs to assist the community in coming to know Jesus, who reveals the character/nature of the Father, and it is the reclamation of these dear ones that God so hungers for: he longs to have his universe back from its thralldom to Satan.

Point 1 speaks to active participation and local involvement, and bottom-up initiatives. This needs to go far beyond running with the “latest” Conference/administrative “program”, even if it does come down from someone/some office located in the GC building. In my experience no one in the nosebleed section of administration ever asked anyone at a local level, pastor or member, what they thought about anything, yet we are expected to “push” the latest with alacrity. As we begin a new 5-year administrative era I believe it is time that at the local level we began, as E.E. Cleveland once put so succinctly, to “advertise Christ,” and that administrators somewhere “up there” began seriously communicating with we who are on the front lines as to our perspective on what needs to happen “here” so Jesus can return.

Make sense? I hope so.

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Thank you Hanz! I’m always looking forward to your thought-provoking editorials. And, I agree that there is a democratic deficiency in religious organizations like the SDA church.

But, is the self-consciousness of Adventism (the majority position) as God’s literal historical remnant; as the “lead actor” in the divine-cosmic play (of historical necessity), compatible with the idea of democracy? How can Adventism, with it’s “precisely” defined FB’s; it’s epistemic overreach (as I see it) as the royal and universal path to truth with capital “T”; it’s essentialist (absolutist) statements about nature and history as a whole, fit into a democratic paradigm that fosters diversity, equality, and the thriving of minorities? Is this version of Adventism even compatible with the idea of a “community of people” wrestling with reflections and practices of meaning-making?

Democracy requires principles of equality, protection of minorities, a dialogical attitude of mutual perspective-taking, a bottom-up power structure with “checks and balances”, division of labour, a transparent and procedural form of decision-making, and a civil society and public sphere that encourages opposition and free dialogue.

How can principles of a constitutional democracy harmonize with a fundamentalist religious self-understanding? How can fundamentalist doctrines ever cope with the fact of cultural and cognitive pluralism, the “facts” of modern science, and egalitarian principles?

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A little hard to follow your train of thought, but I THINK I basically agree with you, except for the judgmental tone!

Sorry to say, American democracy is pretty far from the ideal at the present moment - and the more history I read, I think it never has really lived up to its ideals.

Nevertheless, the thing I think bothers me most about this church that I am a 4th generation member of (with three more generations following me), is the repression of questions or discussion of points that may not be clear; the fear of saying anything different from the standard thought. I hear people, especially in my age group, who want to hear more sermons about the Old Landmarks. I like to hear new things, new thoughts, something to awaken my mind. This is hard to do in most places. That’s why I am so thankful for Spectrum and AToday, in spite of the Old Landmark commenters that constantly try to stop such discussion!

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Hanz is writing as a philosopher on the subject matter - enlightening as usual.

Myself, I am pondering the presidential election from a statistical viewpoint. According to reports there were about 80 votes against the nomination of TW in the nominating committe - an unusually high number for Adventist election processes. However, the name prevailed.

In the public election - electronic voting / secret ballot were denied, attempts to send back the nomination to the committee were cut short.

1700 - 1900 delegates of round about 2500 actually were present and voted in open ballot - i.e. for everybody to see who did not vote for TW.

  • Where were the other delegates? How might they have voted? Could there have been a systematic error, or would it be random? We will never know.

Of those who voted somewhere between 80 and 95% (these are the figures I heard) were voting for TW. The actual number we will never know.

I don’t doubt that the majority wanted TW. But in terms of democracy … let’s assume for this thought experiment (and somewhat unfairly) the lower numbers: 80% of 1700 are 1360 or 54% of the delegates that vote for TW. Only this figure can pretty sure. Anything above is estimate.

It’s still - definitely the majority - and yet there is a not so democratic taste with the discrepancy between the numbers claimed … as well as the procedure.

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I took a refresher U.S. history college course some years ago and remember where the professor had to inform most of the students, in the class, that the United States was a republic , not a democracy. It has a representative form of government.
So at this GC convention there were some 2000+ delegates voting…The majority 80% voted for the person who is way out of favor with the regulars of this forum and voted down by 60 % for the WO issue that the regulars were promoting.
This democracy idea is basically unrealistic fantasy unless someone can turn the 18 million member SDA denomination into a 100% voting plebiscite. Until then there will be no ceasing of complaints from many.

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JFranklin,

I appreciate you posting on this thread. I thought I replied early this morning to you, and if it made it to the page, I conclude that the web editor thought it inappropriate and deleted it. I will not repeat the essence of my original reply. However, I will share what you posted here with some in the “nosebleed section”

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I am so pleased to see Spectrum post this article.

This end portion is what I have been posting. What basically takes place at the local church level is determined by the agenda of that staff, and the quality of the sermons and Sabbath school classes.

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I was hoping that this thread would have gotten more mileage from Spectrum readers. I sense that it is very significant considering the position of the author and article content. I think it would be interesting to discuss/analyze why it did get so little attention.

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Just how oppressive and/or coercive is the institution when almost 40% can go out the back door, 40% voted yes on WO, many do not have to attend communion services, many on the books do not attend services regularly. How about tithe? How many local SDA church treasurers request financial documents of members to see if they are returning 10% of whatever gross or net income? How can anyone label the institutional system oppressive when there is basically no quality control surveys/polls to assess the attitudes or opinions of the members?

In Poland, Adventist church leaders this year deleted the word “democracy” from all publications. The question, how democratic are Adventists in Poland, the answer is: the polish adventist church is not a democracy since 20 January 2015. They know better. It is shocking what they do. What to do, to be Democracy in Polish Union. Please answer me.

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