Is there a Fundamental Shift in Church Governance Coming?

There are changes happening in our church. Changes that are subtle and leading in a worrying direction.

At the last General Conference Session in San Antonio our church went through a process (considered by many as flawed) that resulted in the decision not to allow Divisions to ordain women in their territories where deemed appropriate. However, what has happened since should cause us to pause and ask the question, “Where is our church headed?”

Since San Antonio in 2015, we have seen the church continue to grow and go about its business. But we have also seen a hardening with regards to governance processes, application of some policies and a greater focus on non-compliance.

How do we balance the needs of a 20+ million member church with the need to keep unity across such a diverse church and continue to pursue mission? And how does an administration entrusted with the implementation of decisions made by church councils deal with such complexity?

Those watching will have noted that the discussion has moved away from the ordination issue to one of governance and compliance. The question being asked now is, “How do we discipline those unions or entities deemed to be out of compliance?” One remedy considered early on by the General Conference administration was to make non-complying union conferences into union missions. This would then give a Division the right to replace the union’s leadership. In this way they could get men and women who would do their bidding. However, for good reason, this idea was dropped.

What was eventually considered as the best way forward by General Conference administration was put before the members of the General Conference’s executive committee during the Annual Council meetings in 2017. The key element of this was to remove both voice and vote of the leaders of those unions considered to be non-complying and to require a loyalty oath to be signed by all members. After much discussion the document was referred back. However, the reason for its referral back were many and varied and it is not clear as to whether it was purely on constitutional grounds, because the members were opposed to where this approach would take the church, or if they thought that it just needed more work.

Recently, the General Conference Administrative Committee (ADCOM) put forward a document creating a network of five compliance review committees to make sure that Adventists around the world comply with General Conference Session and Annual Council actions. (Actions voted at these meetings usually become policy.)This document is to be brought to the 2018 Annual Council for its ratification.1 Its inquisitorial committees will have the work of evaluating compliance and enforcing the punitive measures for noncompliance.However, what does the membership of these committees look like? Is there a separation of powers from those making the rules (policies), those being asked to adjudicate compliance to the rules, and those issuing the punishment?2 Is the principle of innocent until proven guilty being applied?3 And what about the issue of conscience?

At the heart of this governance issue are these questions: Should policy, compliance, and coercion be the way to solve an issue that is for many one of conscience?4 And do we want to see our church shift to a coercive approach for resolving these types of issues? After all, if it weren’t for people such as Martin Luther, who did not comply with the policies of the Catholic Church in his day, would there have been a Reformation and, for that matter, a Seventh-day Adventist Church?

A rigid application of policy doesn’t always work well on the edges of the church where there is experimentation for the advancement of the gospel. It is often a willingness to go outside of policy that has resulted in moving the church forward. For example, if D. A. Robinson, when leader of the South African field in the late 1800s, had followed established policy there would have been no change to the departmental model now used by the church today.5 Neither, I believe, would we have had unions. And our policy not to ordain women doesn’t work in China where God is using women to lead the church because in China we can’t get enough men to be pastors there.6 This is a missional issue.

Policy cannot just be prescriptive, particularly when it comes to operational matters, if the church is to develop and grow and be faithful to its purpose. It also needs to be permissive. History shows that policy often follows practice. That it should serves mission and not the other way around. And so we need an approach to policy, and even some church decisions, that is firstly challenged by the question, “Does this help or hinder our missionary purpose, or is it neutral to the cause?” rather than questions that are based on control, compliance, or coercion.

So what is going wrong here? Could it be that our priorities have become more about order and rules? Are they being driven by an ideological outcome rather than a missional one?

When we look at our history as a church we find our roots in the Anabaptist movement where issues of conscience were respected and difference of opinion was accommodated. From the start our church was on the cutting edge, learning and growing. It was not afraid to tackle the tough questions and used a process of dialogue and study as evidenced by the Sabbath Conferences of 1848. Neither was it encumbered by a lot of rules. And eventually, through a collegial process, a solution was found.

This is not the first time that our church has had to deal with the issue of policy and compliance. In 1883 the then General Conference President, George I. Butler, reported on the development of a church manual. Some had advocated for this because it was thought to help young ministers. And yet this attempt to codify the activities of Seventh-day Adventist churches into policy was voted down. Notice the rationale given for why it was rejected.

While brethren who have favored a manual have ever contended that such a work was not to be anything like a creed or a discipline, or to have authority to settle disputed points, but was only to be considered as a book containing hints for the help of those of little experience, yet it must be evident that such a work, issued under the auspices of the General Conference, would at once carry with it much weight of authority, and would be consulted by most of our younger ministers. It would gradually shape and mold the whole body; and those who did not follow it would be considered out of harmony with established principles of church order. And, really, is this not the object of the manual? And what would be the use of one if not to accomplish such a result? But would this result, on the whole, be a benefit? Would our ministers be broader, more original, more self-reliant men? Could they be better depended on in great emergencies? Would their spiritual experiences likely be deeper and their judgment more reliable? We think the tendency all the other way.”7

One of the concerns expressed here was that a manual would become a coercive instrument and that “those who did not follow it would be considered out of harmony with established principles of church order.” And while there is no mention of punitive action it is not beyond the scope of possible outcomes. This was not seen as desirable for the church at the time. Judging from the events of the last few years, Elder Butler’s fears were not without merit in that policy could be used to limit the church and hinder its mission.

So where to from here for our church? What will the members of the General Conference’s Annual Council do with the proposed actions brought to the 2018 Annual Meetings in October? Will they vote for a fundamental shift in the way the church deals with its issues? Or will we see a recommendation for a more creative approach that is more consistent with our roots, where dialogue and community are valued and where the processes of mutuality, collegiality, and respect, which contribute to our shared mission, are employed.

Notes & References:

2. A more recent document from GC ADCOM shows that these committees are not constructed to ensure independence.

3. Note the following clause: “General Conference Session action, may seek recourse through processes already provided for in the General Conference Working Policy. The process of seeking recourse and the “Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions” shall run concurrently.” (Lines 22-25)

4. Nearly 42% of the delegates at the 2015 General Conference Session voted in support of women being ordained. Many of this 42% supported the action because they believe that gender equality in ministry is a moral issue.

5. In his letter to D. A. Robinson, White focused on the dilemma caused by centralization. In reference to a “pioneer to a new mission field,” he said: “If he consults with the Board in everything he will be forced sometimes to vary from instruction. If he does not consult them he will get the credit of moving independently. Whichever way he does, he will wish he had done the other.” In a letter to Percy Magan, W. C. White said that “mother has been cautioned not to give sanction to any arrangement in connection with this [missionary] enterprise by which one class of men or of institutions shall lay binding restrictions upon another class of men or institutions; that His servants in one part of the world should not dictate to or lay restrictions upon His servants in another part of the great harvest field” (W. C. White to Percy T. Magan, March 8, 1900, Letter Book 15, Ellen G. White Estate Office.

6. In 1895 Ellen White gave the following counsel: "Be sure that God has not laid upon those who remain away from these foreign fields of labor, the burden of criticizing the ones on the ground where the work is being done. Those who are not on the ground know nothing about the necessities of the situation, and if they cannot say anything to help those who are on the ground, let them not hinder but show their wisdom by the eloquence of silence, and attend to the work that is close at hand….Let the Lord work with the men who are on the ground, and let those who are not on the ground walk humbly with God lest they get out of their place and lose their bearings" (Ellen G. White, Special Instruction to Ministers and Workers [Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald, 1895], 33.

7. George I. Butler, “No Church Manual,” Review and Herald, November 27, 1883, pp 745, 746.

Brad Kemp is CEO for Adventist Media in Australia.


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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Well said Brad! The process you are describing is the process of institutionalisation which is to be firmly resisted as is the process of clericalisation.

The sooner Adventists adopt a lateral or nested concentric circle model of ecclesial organisation instead of a hierarchical model the better we will be. The way we think and talk about ecclesial organisation has a strong influence on how we act. Many years ago, my former lecturer on ‘Ecumenical Trends’, BB Beach wrote a book with his father on Adventist polity and organization. In that book the authors spoke of Adventist organisation in terms of Ezekiel’s vision of wheels within wheels.

We should change from talking of lower and higher levels and begin to talk of various spheres of influence in Adventist ecclesial organisation. It remains true that a sisterhood of congregations equals a conference; a sisterhood of conferences remains a union conference; and a sisterhood of union conferences compose the General Conference comprising the sum of its Divisions. It would remain true that the larger spheres of influence within our organisation could step in to assist people toward resolution of issues within mutually agreed guidelines.

I know a little about hierarchy. Cousins of various degrees have functioned or still do in the Scottish landed gentry, the court of Queen Elizabeth, and as tribal African chiefs. But Christ said, “It shall not be so among you.” And He means it. The use of power and authority is what our societies are often about. That’s why Australia has had 5 Prime Ministers in 6 years. But it shall not be so among you. Adventists must serve each other and our world. We must continue the mission and ministry of Christ until it is finished.

I pray for revival and re-formation!

Yes, I do believe that Adventist financial policies should be adhered to. These are at times dishonoured, especially in the global south.

And yes, I am troubled when fellow believers flaunt their disbelief in our distinctive teachings. These distinctive often could be presented in a more accurate and persuasive manner.

And yes, I still believe in a literal and recent 6 day creation week.

And yes, I believe that all transformed believers should live chastely, no matter what their fleshly nature is telling them. We need to find our identity in Christ and not in some gendered identity. Yet we all have much to learn and unlearn about how to deal with people caught in sexual sins.

Finally, Adventists everywhere need to reject any clericalism that would seek to conquer by dividing believers into two castes - lay and clergy. We must not assert a man’s right to be head of the church and especially of the women as this would create a harem not a congregation. Nor should we campaign for a women’s right to be head either. Rather, we must stand for God’s right to choose whom he will to lead his people. It is our role as his people to discern whom God has chosen and to affirm, bless and consecrate those individuals of both genders in a rite of appointment to pastoral leadership.

The very best tool we have to achieve similar fundamental understandings about these matters is education. Education is the stuff of revival and reformation.

May God preserve us from coersion and control, and a putting down of some and a raising up of others. All you are brothers, our Lord said of his male disciples. Educate, educate, educate!!


Our ideology should be missions, not compliance. We should be constantly pursuing a closer relationship with God where all are allowed to minister as the Holy Spirit wishes, not according to the sex-limited views of some. After all, the Gospel is the ultimate story of freedom and empowerment.

For anyone who doesn’t think the Church Manual is not already used in a restrictive and prohibitive manner, just try changing the order of service that is outlined in the church bulletin each week, or restructuring the way church officers are selected, or modifying the role of the church board. At my church we consciously chose to leave the model outlined in the church manual and we have never regretted it. We have neither a Church Board or a Nominating Committee. How are we doing? Absolutely great! We’re the most energetic, mission-focused church I have ever attended. We also don’t pass offering plates or make long offering appeals and our budget has always been in the black.


This is what everyone will be aguishly waiting for. But the answer cannot be predicted unless we learned about ALL politics that are behind the scenes and actually driving all the sophisticated and complex maneuvers and manipulations by the GC in order to implement their machiavelic plan.

Dr. Knight’s article, here at Spectrum, was a great and handy preparation for the incoming event, worth reading:


Christ founded an invitational church. man has created a purge environment. What ever happened to “Come into Me?” The loss of tithe will be the wake up call. Ted has used travel money as bait. To Rome no less. Congregationalism is just a Fall Council away.


One way for Ted Wilson and Mark Finley to attempt to bolster the legitimacy of the massive oversight committee system they propose is to come clean on what they believe regarding the Trinity. They should make some effort to assure us that the proposed committee charged with enforcing compliance regarding women’s ordination will not wittingly or unwittingly promote Arianism.

We now know that the Theology of Ordination Committee (TOSC) was chock full of Arians. Since 2015, Committee member Ingo Sorke has done the honorable thing and come clean and is no longer teaching at Southwestern Adventist University. Matthew L. Tinkham, Jr.'s scholarly essay exposes many of the TOSC members, including Sorke, as advocates of neo-subordinationism, which is a newfangled twist on Subordinationism, one of the three great Arian heresies. And there are other Committee members not identified by Tinkham, such as David Read, who have feely disclosed that they are Neo-Subordinationists.

That the TOSC members opposed to women’s ordination were deeply influenced by Arianism suggests that the resulting argument formulated in opposition to women’s ordination, together with the San Antonio vote, should be rejected or at least questioned. How can the proposed massive oversight committee charged with enforcing compliance regarding women’s ordination be legitimate if Arianism is illegitimate?

One attempt toward this end would be for Wilson and Finley to expressly reject male headship theory, including its principal component, neo-subordinationism, embrace Trinitarianism, and attempt to offer an alternative theology in opposition to women’s ordination. We do not know what that alternative theology could possibly be. Another attempt toward this end would be for them to advocate the cultural argument in opposition to women’s ordination and throw their heretofore-urged Arian-influenced theological argument into the trash can. But proponents of women’s ordination have always freely acknowledged the limited legitimacy of the cultural argument and thus do not seek to implement women’s ordination in unreceptive cultures. I think that either option would be difficult for Wilson and Finley to do.

Accordingly, I fear that Wilson, Finley, and their like-minded colleagues will not make any effort to present themselves as orthodox Trinitarians. I do not see how the proposed committee could possibly succeed in subjugating Seventh-day Adventist Church entities that are ordaining women if constantly met with the riposte: “I am sorry, but we believe in the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Let us not neglect this important teaching. You need to come clean on what you believe before we move on to various matters of governance you wish to discuss.”


I would hope so! The gigantic monster needs to be disassembled. It seems that it may implode at this AC/18.
But, again, we don’t know what the plan is and how well it has been implemented to make sure that TW’s wishes pass successfully and become “law.” You, better than anyone else, know how these things work…


The current focus of the GC is on non-compliance, but
IN WHICH AREAS? that is the question. They are mostly
areas of conscience in relation to belief.
Clear and proven cases of corruption, fraud, academic
misrepresentation, etc. at high levels in the church seem
to be completely ignored. Not only has compliance become
an end in itself, but a useful tool to sanction those who don’t
follow group-think and are intent to hold leadership to account.


I stopped attending church over 25 yrs ago. Last year I started keeping Sabbath again, and shortly there after started to attend church. It took me some time to find a church that I was comfortable with, that was full of contributors not consumers. The “leadership” of the church, in pushing for uniformity, is going to create a church body of consumers. People who are satisfied to attend weekly, consume the message and go home. That is not the mission we were given. We are to spread the gospel throughout the world.
In large organisation’s the HO (GC) is responsible for strategy. Regional offices (Divisions) are responsible for adapting the strategy to local conditions. Every part of the organisation below that (Unions, Conferences, Churches and members) are responsible for the tactics and execution. Even in the miltary this is the case. You can’t dictate tactics and execution from the “helicopter view”.
The other thing HO (GC) is responsible is providing corporate services to ensure the other parts of the organisation can execute with excellence. By not being a service provider they are hampering the ability of the rest of the organisation to to fulfill it’s mission.
Fundamental to all of the issues around governance is Trust. Without trust, all organisation’s breakdown. A lack of trust slows response times, people second guess behaviors and burdens the whole organisation. An example: If I don’t trust you to do a job, I will double check everything you produce, doubling the work for each level of the organisation. I will shorten the time you have to do the work, so I have time to check your work. A lack of trust is crippling to any organisation. We live in a time where churches, governments and business has betrayed trust placed in them. People don’t trust authority. Now more than ever the Church Leadership should be transparent, even to the point of being “naked” with their motives and actions.
Mission is the mission. Uniformity, unity of behaviour, unity of thought are not the goal. Unity of purpose is the goal and this will be manifested in different ways, in different environments, and different circumstances.


We are asked by God to pay tithes. He doesn’t say we only do that if we approve of how it is spent. Those who misuse tithe money or offering money are accountable to God for those actions.

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God bless you Robelle! Thanks for joining us again. Your family’s back yard swimming pool has a special place in my memory. For one Friday afternoon my school classmates including your brother Graeme dumped me and my mono-zygotic twin sib into that watery grave in honour of our sixteenth birthday.


What conscience?

The GC leadership has increasingly shown a loss of conscience. As if that were not bad enough, they have shown no remorse either.


This question was answered in 1901 when with 69,000 members worldwide, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination formed 15 Union Conferences and 1 Union Mission, the 15 Union Conferences were made answerable to their local constituencies made up of the Local Conferences assigned to them for management, thus eliminating any direct role of the General Conference with regard to managing the local conferences.

Actually, the church continues on a steady decline in church growth since 1980, when Elder Wilson’s father, then GC President for the first time in church history secured a vote of the General Conference to adopt a statement of Seventh-day Adventist fundamental beliefs. It has been down hill ever since. This is not an opinion but the result of a GC study in 2001.

According to this study, the overall growth rate of the SDA church between 1980 and 2001 declined during the decade closest to 2001, the half-decade closest to 2001, and the year just prior to 2001.

Then the study predicted church membership going forward year by year until 2032, which the spreadsheet appears to have run out of space on the page. Today claimed 20 million members should have been reached in 2010, the year the current Elder Wilson became president. And seven years from now, the membership is projected to be 52 million, rather than perhaps half of that, as long as more and more areas of the world show no members dying. The denomination’s archivist and statistician during the 2015 General Conference session reported that areas of the world where no Adventist dies and other dubious membership claims make his report less than dependable.

The issue at hand, it would seem, is how to marshal leadership to address the collapse of denominational growth over the past nearly forty years, nearly half of which have been under the Wilson family vision for Seventh-day Adventism. The Wilson family focus on reestablish strong central authority has proven disastrous for church growth. It is time for a new vision for the denomination. Is it not the truest sense of revival and reformation to turn to the Union Conferences to lead the church in their fields and see how this makes fertile soil for the seeds of the Spirit to prosper? We can do worse by continuing with the current Wilson family vision.

However, let us not be deluded by thinking a different family vision is needed. What is needed is to never again to leave the church at the risk of the thinking of a single family. Would it not be right to double down now on 1901 thinking and remove the remnant of colonialism by freeing the Division leaders from their role as ceremonial Vice Presidents of the General Conference? Let’s truly make them independent, answerable to the new, territorial constituencies constituted from the Union Conferences in their territory. And then let the Division offices elect the General Conference president, renewable annually. And let the various service desks at the General Conference be for the most part dissolved and their work distributed to the division offices around the world. Detials. really, once the Division are truly no longer colonial officers of the empire.

Talk about a fundamental shift in church governance, this would surely do that.


William Noel, it’s encouraging to ‘hear’ that grace, common sense, goodwill
and the Spirit enable you to operate your church without the Church Manual
and a Church Board.
Other churches may not be as blessed, without these ‘fixtures’, as you are,
particularly large churches where life becomes more ‘complex’.
If someone, for example, insists on driving on the left side of the road instead
of the right (or vice versa) , road rules (and by analogy the Church Manual
and the Church Board) may in fact prove to be very useful, and not irrelevant.

the withdrawal of the nuclear option, as conceded by TW himself at AC2016 (if i’m remembering correctly), may be an admission by the GC that what appears to be their top down governance paradigm may not be legally viable…after-all, any union dismantled for noncompliance over an ordination issue would surely contest such an action in a secular court, if necessary…

if this is true, and i think there’s a good chance it is, it really means that subsequent measures, including the proposed compliance review committees, are all a gigantic nothing burger…

so the answer to the question in the title of this article may very well be “no, there is not a fundamental shift in church governance coming”…

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Excellent analysis. Thank you! Yet it will be interesting to see how all this turns out. I very much doubt that the Five Compliance Review Committees will be any more effective than the previous coercive measures.0


Thank you so much Brad for your timely comments and expressing what I and others I am sure consider a level of thinking worthy of our high calling. That being one that promotes the main objectives of ensuring the work we are commissioned to do happens with a governance model that enables not demands or silences through dishonesty and fear. We need more women and men like yourself who are in positions to influence on a broader scale for the changes necessary to avoid the shoals of politics and bureaucracy that destroy rather than build.


I didn’t say we had thrown-out the Church Manual. We’ve simply adopted some things that work better. Just because a church is larger and things seem more complicated doesn’t mean your church is operating effectively or efficiently. Size breeds bureaucracy, ineffectiveness and contempt for innovation. An organization that stops re-inventing itself soon loses vitality.

To increase focus on mission and being effective we divided the work of the Church Board into two teams: Administrative and Spiritual Focus. The names describe what they do. The Admin Team handles the business affairs of the church while the Spiritual Focus team promotes and guides ministries. We replaced the Nominating Committee with a Connections Team that operates on an as-needed basis. We encourage people to serve as the Holy Spirit equips and motivates them. You don’t serve for a one-year term, but for as long as you feel God wants you to serve and you are effective. It is an amazingly effective approach, in part because it turns the process of picking church leaders from a popularity contest into one that depends on God’s guidance.

It is highly unlikely that a large church will be able to adopt the model that exists at my church simply because it is to hard to reform an ineffective bureaucracy before it collapses. Yet it is working so well that our conference’s leadership is promoting it for adoption in smaller and new churches so it can become their operating model.


I agree with you that having Wilson, Finley and others who are opposed to the ordination of women should present a sound theological basis for it because the arguments presented thus far and supposedly based on scripture have been thoroughly refuted. Still, I think their greater and far more difficult challenge will be finding a scriptural basis for the compliance structure. Nothing even remotely like it existed in the early church because the power of God was present and where the power of God is absent is where we see men trying to fill the void with their concepts of administration and policy. So our greater challenge is not policy, rules or even the ordination of women, but seeking the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to guide and empower us. Some will argue that a person rising to a position of authority in the church structure is sufficient evidence that they are being guided by the Holy Spirit. However, those of us who have worked within the church structure and worked with it from the outside know from hard experience that assumption is often false.


I wish I could be as optimistic because the effort to halt the ordination of women has neither stopped or slowed down, but merely has morphed from a spear into an octopus that is finding ways to wrap its’ tentacles around what it wishes to destroy. I am fearful of how much damage will be done to the church before it is halted.

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