I live and attend church in Michigan. This makes me a member of the Michigan Conference, which provides some legitimacy for me to comment on affairs within this conference. Michigan has earned the label of being the most conservative conference in the North American Division (NAD). I’m not sure whether this designation is good or bad. But over the past few years, actions taken by my conference have caused not only Michiganders, but also the larger Adventist community in the NAD, some unease.
In August 2009, the Michigan Conference Executive Committee (MCEC) raised eyebrows when it unilaterally declared that La Sierra University (LSU), an Adventist institution of higher learning, was in apostasy, contending that the school and its board of trustees had tolerated the teaching of evolution. What made the MCEC declaration peculiar was that, of the 58 conferences in the NAD, it alone took this grave step.
Apostasy usually requires abandonment or renunciation of a cardinal belief. LSU never renounced its or the church’s position on evolution, and vehemently denied the accusation of abandonment. Anybody with a cursory acquaintance of the higher education environment knows that scholars are highly protective of their academic field. It is safe to postulate that teachers in higher education, who often have terminal degrees in their areas of specialization, know more about their subjects than pastor-administrators unacquainted with the subjects or how best to impart content to their students.
University professors tend to demonstrate acute academic integrity, almost at par with religious belief. So, in the La Sierra debate, it became a clash of honesty – to the “truths” of one’s academic training and religion. Here lies one of the key paradoxes of Adventist education. The church has almost a worshipful respect for education and teaches its members to drink deep from its well. But it is from this trough of knowledge acquisition that uncomfortable questions get asked and some in church circles demand that boundaries be built. I do not recall any of the LSU biology teachers stating that the church should not have a position on evolution. What the teachers would not do was misrepresent the facts of evolution as they understood them.
But this was not good enough for the MCEC. The Conference not only tagged LSU with apostasy, it took the additional step of removing the school from conference employee subsidy. As they put it, they did not want “to see our youth sacrificed on the altars of evolution and skepticism”. With this step, the Michigan Conference employees whose children attended LSU effectively had to pay full tuition or have their child transfer to another Adventist institution. If LSU was the only Adventist university offering their child’s major, and they couldn’t afford full tuition, then the only recourse for these students was transfer to an affordable non-Adventist school.
One wonders whether the MCEC truly believes that LSU is so evil that it could be better for Adventist students attend to attend non-Adventist schools. When our conference forces these students to go to non-Adventists schools, what altar are they sacrificing on?
Two years after this policy was instituted the La Sierra University student choir toured some Midwestern Adventist high schools. Before the tour commenced, the choir sought and obtained the usual permissions to perform at selected schools, including academies in the Michigan Conference. At some point during the tour the Michigan Conference Board of Education learned of the scheduled performance at a Michigan academy. The board then rescinded the prior permission, knowing that the tour was already in progress.
When this became public and the Adventist “world” began decrying the callous refusal to allow the choir to perform, the conference issued a memo justifying their action and casting LSU and its student choir as “promoters of faith destroying evolution”. At the same time they compared the Michigan conference to “a mother bird … flapping her wings in the face of a threat”. But there is a better imagery of the mother bird. She gathers her children, all of them, under her wings. She does not toss some of her own outside the protection of her sacred wings, just because she can. Reading the conference memo, one would think that the LSU choristers were an evil horde on a mission, instead of college students from Seventh-day Adventist homes, whose only crime was being members of an Adventist university student choir.
There is something very wrong with this picture. The idea of Conference Board of Education members voting to deny young adults the opportunity to perform at another Adventist school, ostensibly because they perceived these students as potential agents of heresy – is unsettling.
When the Michigan Conference banned George Knight’s books from Michigan Adventist Book Centers early this summer, our conference had come full circle in confirming our unenviable status as outlier among the 58 NAD conferences. George Knight made some unflattering but appropriate comparisons between the General Conference, the medieval Catholic Pope and Nazi Germany. And that ruffled some hyper-sensitive feathers on the MCEC. So, as if on cue, these leaders came out, book-banning guns blazing, to show their power. But, within a week the rashness of their action had caught up with them, and Dr Knight’s books were quietly returned to the ABC shelves.
For a while I could not comprehend these erratic pronouncements from my conference elders, but it is becoming clearer now. I think it hinges on the MCECs conception of authority and what to do with it. Elder Gallimore's September 2017 editorial in the conference newsletter, Michigan Memo, titled Freedom Authority and the Church helped clarify things for me. The editorial is a thinly veiled support for President Wilson's attempts to supplant the will of Unions who affirm women who feel called to ministry, by ordaining them – just like their colleagues who happen to be men.
In this editorial Elder Gallimore implies that once a policy is voted at the GC it attains infallibility. This is the argument that equates the GC with the voice of God. Surely Elder Gallimore is aware of the nuances in the many E.G. White declarations referencing the General Conference and the voice of God. Consider Mrs. White's 1901 statement: The people have lost confidence in those who have management of the work. Yet we hear that the voice of the [General Conference] is the voice of God. Every time I have heard this, I have thought that it was almost blasphemy. The voice of the [General Conference] ought to be the voice of God, but it is not. ("Regarding the Southern Work," MS 37, April 1901)
Another is her classic1909 pronouncement, penned six years before her death, which demonstrates the caveats she attached to those statements:
At times, when a small group of men entrusted with the general management of the work have, in the name of the General Conference sought to carry out unwise plans and to restrict God's work, I have said that I could no longer regard the voice of these few men, as the voice of God. But this is not saying that the decisions of a General Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed representative men from all parts of world field should not be respected. God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority. (E. G. White, Testimonies, vol. 9, 260-261)
The quote above shows clearly that E.G. White did not give the GC a blank check in its use of authority. If she were alive today, she would see through the manipulation of data presented to the general gathering of the world church as an example of a few men using the gathered many to rubber stamp their own wishes.
In his short piece Elder Gallimore uses the word “authority” 12 times. And I don’t think this is coincidental. The message seems to be: authority needs to be exercised. What is the good of power if left unused?
But wise leaders use their powers judiciously. Decisions we make have consequences and, in all church relationship matters, the wise leaders keep a keen eye for the overall good. The wellbeing of the total church should supersede the injured theological sensibilities of our leaders. Our current leaders have demonstrated the impulse to divide, instead of uniting. They seem to exhibit too much willingness in singling out some members of our Adventist family and making them the “other”. It is time the conference woke up to its actual responsibility – healing the wound, instead of continually tearing us apart.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthey Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/authors/matthew-quartey.
Image Credit: Gerry Chudleigh/NAD