Is Schism in the Adventist Church Unavoidable?

Despite the current opposition in the Seventh-day Adventist Church to the equal treatment of women in ministry, equality will eventually become the norm. It is simply a matter of time. In the meantime, the first question is: how much pain and damage will be inflicted on the church in the process? Secondly: Can the church stay united until the equal treatment of women in ministry is accepted as the norm?

I think not.

I will explain the reasons for my pessimistic outlook, but first some background.

No reason to doubt the motives of the General Conference

The motives of the General Conference leadership are clear. They want to see the current crisis resolved and make sure the church stays ‘united’ around a particular set of doctrinal positions. The current proposal to achieve that ‘unity’ is based on an optimistic view of three issues:

1. That the proposal will be voted at Annual Council 2018.

2. That every decision of the General Conference is right and should be adhered to.

3. That the so-called ‘non-compliant unions’ will back down, given enough pressure.

Optimism regarding the first point may be warranted. Optimism regarding the two last points is not.

The proposal will be voted

The General Conference leadership seem to be optimistic that the proposal set forth in the document entitled “Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions” will be voted. There seem to be at least three reasons for this optimism.

1. The demographic of the global Adventist family

The General Conference leadership may well be confident that they have the backing of a huge majority of the global membership. The numeric strength of Adventism in the USA, Australasia, and Europe accounts for approximately 10% of the total membership of the world church. (According to the 2017 Statistical Report, the two European divisions, South Pacific Division, and the North American Division had a combined membership of 1,992,830 by December 31, 2016. Global membership stood at 20,008,779). The unions that work for equal treatment of women in ministry represent a tiny minority. The rest of the world church is either against equal treatment of women in ministry or indifferent to the issue.

2. The results of the world survey regarding compliance

The results from the world survey regarding compliance with voted actions of the General Conference show a strong support for some kind of response to non-compliance. These results give the General Conference leadership a reason to believe that their current proposal will be supported.

3. Avoiding the administrative blunders of Annual Council 2017

This year the General Conference has been careful to avoid the administrative blunders that preceded the debate on compliance at Annual Council 2017. The unorthodox way in which last year’s document was put on the agenda and the fact that delegates were not able to read it and reflect on it before they were asked to vote on it, enraged even representatives who perhaps otherwise would have been supportive of the proposal.

So, there may be good reasons why the General Conference leadership is optimistic that their proposals will be voted.

However, there are two presuppositions underlying the proposals that might undermine such optimism.

1. Every action of the General Conference Session is a right decision

The measures suggested in the current proposals for dealing with non-compliance presuppose that all actions of the General Conference Session and Executive Committee are the result of sound thinking, and that they should be adhered to regardless of circumstances. There is strong historical evidence that taking such an optimistic view of General Conference decisions is unwarranted.

Here’s just one piece of evidence. The 1888 General Conference Session took an action that required practical experience in canvassing before a person could enter Bible work or the ministry. Ellen G. White opposed the proposal, to no avail. Later she wrote these words to an evangelist by the name of R. A. Underwood:

It was not right for the conference to pass it. It was not in God’s order, and this resolution will fall powerless to the ground. I shall not sustain it, for I would not be found working against God. This is not God’s way of working, and I will not give it countenance for a moment.—Manuscript Release No. 105, Letter 22, 1889, pp. 10-11. (To R. A. Underwood, January 18, 1889.) {2MR 62.1}

If the current proposals from the General Conference had been in place in 1888, Ellen G. White would have been out of compliance on the issue cited above, and if she had persisted, she might have faced exclusion from the church.

Clearly not every action of the General Conference Session is good, and we do not need Ellen White’s prophetic wisdom to understand that. It is both optimistic and unbiblical to believe that every decision of our democratically elected bodies is inerrant.

2. The non-compliant unions will back down, given enough pressure

Both the General Conference leadership and the most active opponents to equal treatment of women in ministry, believe that unions who are now perceived to be non-compliant will change their stance in response to the severe measures proposed in the document to be put before Annual Council in October.

This is also far too optimistic. Of course it may be that the General Conference leadership is aware that such optimism is unwarranted. If that is the case, the only other explanation for their proposals is that they believe exclusion of these unions will ultimately ‘purify’ the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Some unions have already ordained female pastors to the ministry, other unions have stopped ordaining altogether. Both actions have been made in order to fulfil what these churches believe to be a moral, ethical, and spiritual obligation and do their best to stay in step with the world church. The current proposal includes a three-step model, which begins with a warning, continues with public reprimand, and ends up with a proposal to exclude the entity in question from the sisterhood of churches. It is highly unlikely that any of these unions will begin discriminating against women regardless of the consequences the General Conference is threatening.

This leads me to the pessimistic conclusion that a schism in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is already unavoidable or will become unavoidable if the current proposals are voted at Annual Council.

There are at least three reasons for arriving at the conclusion that a schism is already unavoidable.

1. Exclusion is the logical goal for the proposed procedures

I have already noted that there is no reason to doubt the honorable motives of the men in leadership at the General Conference. However, despite their assurances that they want reconciliation and redemption, and their reports that the “prayerful process continues,” the proposal recommends the use of the most drastic disciplinary measures available to the church. If my analysis is correct and the non-compliant unions do not back down, then a formalization of the existing splits within the church is the only possible outcome of this conflict. A schism will become inevitable.

Some have maintained that the proposals in the “Regard for” document, are a paper tiger. They suggest that the proposals are merely a display of harsh measures. Once the issues are transferred to the compliance committees, they believe that the contentious issues will be forgotten. This is most unlikely.

Once voted, these proposals will have the status of policy even if they are not voted as such. Then the General Conference will be obliged to deliver. If not, the General Conference will be non-compliant regarding its own compliance procedure. The General Conference will be trapped by its own proposal with no way out. The conflict then takes on its own dynamic where no-one can halt the damaging chain of events, because leadership feel they must respect the voted actions.

2. The General Conference has authority over unions only as long as their constituencies permit the GC to have such authority

The second reason for believing that schism is unavoidable is the voluntary nature of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The General Conference has authority over its members only as long as members accept such authority. This applies to the unions, which are the ‘members’ of the General Conference. The same principle certainly applies to individuals. The church does not have any authority over the individual member unless that person accepts that authority.

Because of the process by which the General Conference leadership has handled the situation regarding female pastors post San Antonio, the General Conference has very low credibility with large segments of the membership in Australasia, Europe, and the USA. They see the current proposals as unreasonable and unacceptable. For this reason, many members in these areas have already mentally distanced themselves from the General Conference as an entity to which they would give respect and authority in their lives — and to which they would offer regular financial support. These sentiments would be present in upcoming union constituency meetings across the USA, Europe, and Australasia. Given that situation, it would not be surprising if a union decides to withdraw its membership from the General Conference, even if this is rather unlikely at present.

For now, leaders in the Western countries are probably more inclined to let the proposals from the General Conference run their course and face the possibility of exclusion at a future General Conference Session. It is much easier for leaders to defend an exclusion from the sisterhood of churches than to actively withdraw from that fellowship.

3. Denied room to practice what is regarded as a moral and ethical mandate

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, many Adventists in the West are losing patience. They see equal treatment of women in ministry as a moral, ethical, and spiritual mandate to which they must be true, and they believe that their inability to do this is both hindering the mission of the church and losing them support in the societies they seek to serve.

The work to gain acceptance for this belief in the world church has gone on for many decades. The General Conference Sessions in Utrecht in 1995 and in San Antonio in 2015 rejected proposals for individual divisions to honor the faith of their own constituencies and the needs of mission in their territories in the matter of equal treatment of women in ministry. Since the San Antonio vote, the General Conference administration has rejected two specific requests to create an alternative ministerial credential without regard to gender.

Members in some areas of the church feel that the General Conference has denied them the opportunity to make a legitimate change for too long. They see no signs that the situation will be addressed in a constructive manner any time soon. The result is that many members no longer respect the General Conference and see a split as a better option than seeing their locally elected leaders in whom they have confidence, being humiliated for standing up for human dignity.

A ray of hope

My analysis gives very little reason to believe that a schism within the Seventh-day Adventist Church is avoidable. Nevertheless, it still might be possible to turn things around. Even if the chances are very slim that the General Conference leadership or Executive Committee will use any of the available options in a situation that already seems to be out of control, here are the options I see:

1. The General Conference Executive Committee could reject the current proposal regarding compliance. This is a rather unlikely outcome of the upcoming Annual Council, but it is still possible. If every member of the committee takes personal responsibility for rejecting the proposal, we could still avoid a split church.

2. The General Conference Executive Committee could vote that the General Conference leadership must put forward a proposal for a new ministerial credential without regard to gender to be used in areas where the church decides to use this credential. If a member of the General Conference Executive Committee moves such a proposal, the Committee could not easily brush it aside.

3. The General Conference Executive Committee could vote to begin exploring changes to the General Conference Constitution and Bylaws to ensure greater autonomy within the Divisions. Such a move could possibly keep the church together, albeit in a somewhat looser fashion than the centralized power of the current constitution.

I am sure many Seventh-day Adventists around the globe will be very uncomfortable in reading this analysis and my pessimistic view of the current crisis. Proponents and opponents of equal rights for women in ministry are united in the passionate concern for the church to stay united. However, in the current situation it is vital to analyze the possible outcomes of the proposals that the General Conference leadership is inviting the Executive Committee to accept. The likelihood that the proposals in the “Regard for” document will achieve unity is probably non-existent. We all need to recognize that.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is undoubtedly facing its worst threat to unity in many decades. There is nothing in the current proposals from the General Conference leaders that indicates that we are on track to stay united. However, I still hope and pray that the General Conference Executive Committee has the courage to take the church in a new direction and away from the present disastrous trajectory.

Tor Tjeransen has his theological training from Newbold College and holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University. He has served as a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church since 1982. From 2000-2010 he was the president of the Norwegian Union Conference. He is currently serving as the communication director for that union. He is married to Elsie Tjeransen, a Certified Public Accountant. They share a passion for photography and have two adult sons.

Photo by Maxime Le Conte des Floris on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9046
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Some good points here. It’s s pity that more voices can’t be added to the protest given that 99 percent of Adventist are oblivious to these happenings. They are being kept in obscurity by the Adventist press and know practically nothing about Adventist Today. If they are dimlyvaeare if Spectrum Magazine, they have been influenced to believe that the editorial office is located in hell!

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Thanks so much for a very clear sighted treatment of the topic in hand. I especially appreciate your 3 points. But I can’t follow you to your conclusion that schism is unavoidable.

As I write I am attending our conference camp meeting in Queensland, Australia. Just this morning a well known retired Adventist administrator and theologian from Europe spoke directly to the question of whether there may be schism in the Adventist movement in the future. His response to the question was that in his opinion schism would not happen. Rather, Adventists will continue to bleed away from our midst.

I think the history of schismatics speaks for itself. They amount to nothing or almost so!

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My favorite early church Messenger gave us this advice: “We cannot take a position that the unity of the church consists in viewing every text of Scripture in the very same light. The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and root out disagreement. These resolutions may conceal the discord, but they cannot quench it and establish perfect agreement. Nothing can perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christ like forbearance.”
Quoted from inistry Magazine, Dec. 1997

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True. Submission to authority, at every level of the bureaucracy, is all voluntary. If a separation from the GC were to take place in the USA, Australasia and Europe it would be decided bottom up. Starting with individual members of congregations in every local conference that compose the Union. It will hurt those below before the damage reaches the top.

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Absolutely let us have a schism!

Let the NAD, the European Divisions and the South Pacific Division
rescind from this denominational,dictatorship.

We are the money spigot for the world wide church.

Soon our African and South American brethren will,come, hat in hand,begging to be reunited with us so they can again access our largesse.

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Indeed, and it is best to be clear, ‘forbearance’ can only be by the majority, never the minority. The minority has nothing for and with which to forebear.

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Positions have hardened on both sides. The article is fairly clear and probably on target.

I don’t think with the present situation that schism is avoidable. In such cases in the past, the par that leaves eventually falls apart. Sad situation.

I don’t think that WO is inevitable. That is a bit of liberal fantasy.

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i think it should be pointed out that a split along the lines being suggested here would likely be disaster for australia, europe and the US…this article is speaking from a progressive perspective, and erroneously assumes that rank and file church members would uniformly follow their conferences, unions or divisions out of the GC fold…but in NAD alone, there are probably thousands of conservatives who would sever ties with their local conferences in order to stay connected with the GC…i think it is likely that the same thing exists in australia and europe, as well…

there are many conservatives who support their local conferences because it’s part of their religion to do so even though they see things they disagree with…but this loyalty would cease to exist if they see their conferences, unions and divisions split from the GC fold…along with this severed loyalty would be severed financial support, which is already tenuous given the many conservative independent ministries that compete for tithe dollars…

in addition, progressives don’t, as a rule, seem to transmit adventism to their offspring well…there are many examples of church-going, church-supporting progressives entering their retirement yrs whose children have had nothing to do with the church for many yrs…and while this has been a long-standing concern, nothing has seemed to work…i don’t see that women or even LGBT pastors have the potential to stem this tide…millennials in large numbers seem to congregate within GYC and other conservative concerns…

leaders in australia, europe and the US can put up a brave front…but the truth is that severance from the world church will likely be a death sentence within a generation or two…progressives need conservatives to keep the church thing going…

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Tor Tjeransen has written an excellent article with clear reasoning. I agree that the internal logic of the GC’s actions over the past three years have very successfully made the GC paint themselves into a corner from where there is no escape without getting their feet all messed up with their own paint. The GC has become logical captives to the results of their own schemes.

The author then weighs the possible against the likely outcomes. All the parameters mentioned that point in the direction of an apparent unavoidable schism, are based on demography and political considerations. I agree that these parameters logically point in that direction, especially because these parameters have been actively used as tools to promote the political agenda of the GC leaders.

However, there is also another parameter that is not tied to demography and human ecclesiastical power politics. That is the Spirit-parameter, which is not so easily manipulated through human scheming. The "church" is not only the organization. It is first and foremost the spiritual community of believers that share the same faith and hope. The organization is not an end itself; it is only a tool to facilitate spreading that faith and hope to all the world. I find it highly unlikely that this spiritual community will allow itself to be split by some politically motivated bureaucratic schemes and votes by some church council.

The organized "world church," embodied in the GC as we know it today, may appear to fall because its leaders over the past three years, and longer, have willfully followed a course in that direction. That course has been set by these leaders themselves. They could have chosen another course, but they did not do so. One day they will be called to account for setting this course through being non-compliant with the biblical principles that form the only foundation of true unity in a spiritual faith community.

I think that we sometimes, in the heat of our arguments, may fail to properly estimate the strength of the spiritual unity that binds the community of believers together with the bonds of love and mutual respect. Even if there will be cracks in the present organization, my brothers in Africa and I in Europe will still be true brothers and sisters in Christ. We will all still be Seventh-Day Adventists in true spiritual unity with each other, no matter what happens to the present organizational structure and those who think that this structure is the only possible one. There are still other and more viable alternatives to our present ever increasing monolithic structure.

But change is seldom achieved unless circumstances force us to rethink our positions. Perhaps God has other plans that we have not seen yet? He pointed the way in 1901, advising us that a decentralized structure is more efficient, more flexible, and more mission focused than a centralized hierarchical structure. If that was God’s plan in 1901, perhaps he will somehow point us back to that plan again in 2018? In a way, compared to the developments in the 1890s, the outcome of the GC session in 1901 was a very unlikely miracle. If God saw to it that such a miracle could be effected in 1901, why not also in 2018?

It may very well be that our present structure of organization will “fall” because it simply has failed to fulfill its mission objectives. But God’s “church,” his global family of believers united as brothers and sisters in Christ, will never fail or fall. Out of an apparent crisis the Spirit may lead us to a new order of things that will in a much better way allow the Spirit to lead us on the only level where our real mission is accomplished, the level of an intimate and personal relationship between God and his family of modern-day disciples.

The GC as we know it today may disappear; but if so, it will most likely be replaced by a new structure that will carry on the work of mission in all the areas of activity our work is carried out today, only more efficiently, better adapted to local needs, more people-focused, and less fettered by rigid counter-productive policies.

That may require a new crew at the helm of the ship that has a new and different vision of both church, mission, and the role of organization, leadership, and policies. Where we see no way forward, God still have many options.

A crisis is not a tragedy; it may be a turning point, a new opportunity to do better today and tomorrow than we did yesterday.

Many pray for the Autumn Council in October. We pray that God’s will be done; but God never forces his will on anybody. We pray for the Spirit to lead; but the Spirit’s voice is not always listened to. When God was ready to lead Israel into the Promised Land, the majority voted to remain in the desert for forty long years. That freedom of choice God will also give the 2018 Autumn Council.

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It seems to me that, at least in the North American Division, that there IS Unity in Diversity.
Some Unions have chosen along with Paul that there will be no differences in status in
God’s Kingdom among genders.
Other Unions have chosen to NOT see things Paul’s way and will continue to make
differences among genders.
These views DO cause differences in the Unions as to how they will approach presenting
Christ in the North American Division territories. The Gospel Commission is to present the
Good News of Jesus Christ, introducing Jesus Christ. If one has NOT been introduced to
Jesus Christ and made Him their friend, they will NOT be ready when Jesus Christ comes
in person to rescue His own from Planet Earth.
However, each Union has stated they are in the business of presenting Christ. It is just that
some Unions will have MANY MORE harvesters in the wheat fields gathering in the sheaves
than some other Unions will allow to work at harvesting.

We should NOT allow the Silver Springs personnel to interfere with the Unity in Diversity that
we presently find in the North American Division. And, thereby interfere with the announcing
of the Good News of Jesus Christ in North America.
AND, we should NOT ALLOW the Silver Springs personnel to interfere with the North
American Division’s Educational System – grades K through University Doctoral Programs.
THESE are Educational Systems located in the Unions of the North American Division and
should NOT be under the control of personnel at Silver Springs.

I would hope there would be the SAME Unity in Diversity in other Divisions of the world.

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Let us remember the truely big issues facing SDA’ism and organized Christianity in general

1 - Having an elite ruling class of males
2 - Attitudes towards the LGBTQ community
3 - Denial of the long ages of life on Earth
4 - Denial of the true origins of the Bible and of the EGW writings

There will always be a clientele that wants the certainty of having a pope, a catechism, and a process for declaring any threatening person a heretic and excommunicating them. This group doesn’t really care about truth, just about being special and secure.

They make up the bulk of the SDA LDS JW RC and evangelical Christian churches and they are all purifying their respective groups to make sure that truth seekers stay away

Why should the SDA be any different?

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Do you mean the news title or the development within the Adventist church today?

I guess that Elder Bruinsma expressed opinion (far away from Europe) was - pastorally justified - over-cautious. He has a clear overview on the ongoing process in the world church!

Watching this drama a huge number of Adventists in Europe have already inwardly* resigned!
(*inwardly or mentally - wich is rather a business expression).

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I would prefer to avoid naming names! Let’s just deal with the issues! Thanks!!

High regard for your preference, but this is an open discussion forum, and the said (my good friend) is reporting - through his social networks - from Qld. My remark dealt 100% with the issue.

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If a split comes, it will not be a clean split along the lines suggested. This is what I fear most as it will not only split unions from divisions, conferences from unions, churches from conferences, and churches in two. It also has the potential to split families (Luke 12:53). Like it or not, members of our own families may have different viewpoints to our own.

If a split comes, then let the parting be amicable and not acrimonious. Whish those that depart from us God’s blessing. Do not allow bridges to be burnt and pray that any split will be temporary.

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That is exactly why the schism will be so painful and destructive. It is a schism that is completely avoidable, yet is being forced on the membership. There has to be weeping in Heaven over what is being done by those who feel they must control the church instead of being controlled by the Holy Spirit, who calls all to be empowered and serve as He decides and not according to the dictates of men.

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The current approach by the General Conference to enforce compliance, in particular on the issue of the ordination of women, is eerily similar to the political practices of liberal/socialist parties in governments around the world. The tactic is both simple and brutal: call-out the person you are accusing at every turn so they will be shamed into compliance. If they won’t back-down, increase the volume and force of your attacks. If you still don’t succeed, question their reputation and attack their character.

In America we have been witnessing this pattern exercised by Democrats against all of their opponents for so long that it no longer seems offensive. But in recent days the brutal objective of such actions has been exposed by the extreme venom, lying and political manipulations of the Democratic Party in their attacks on Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Do we dare risk the same thing happening within the church? I wish not, yet it is happening. It is the same evil at work pursuing the same course of action and using the same tactics, just in the church. Will we tolerate it? Is it time for the opponents to travel to Battle Creek and protest?

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