“Reformatio in Capite et in Membris” — 17 Questions That Need an Answer

In 1378 the Great Papal Schism was a fact. The Western Roman Catholic Church was split. Two popes, later three, anathematized each other, all claiming to be the one and only true head of the church.

The scandal gave rise to the Conciliar Movement. Its aim was to restore unity. The watch cry was “Reformatio in Capite et in Membris” (reform in head and members). The need for reform was greatest at the top. It was the top that caused the schism. The popes perceived the Conciliar Movement as a challenge to “proper” church authority. For this reason Pope Pius II in 1460 condemned Conciliarism in his bull “Execrabilis.

The General Conference (GC) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has for years promoted Revival and Reformation. It is still unclear what specific reforms are wanted. Does the need for reform also include the “head” or only the members? I have not read or heard GC President Ted Wilson mention the need of any reform “in capite.”

After the GC session in San Antonio (SA) in 2015 the focus shifted to the need for unity, understood as submission of personal conscience to church authority and church rules.

On the surface women's ordination (WO) is the issue. After the GC decided to accuse the Unions that allow ordination of women of being non-compliant rebels, the main issue is authority. GC leaders promote a hierarchical understanding of church organization, where the “lower” levels are obliged to obey and submit to the “higher” levels. The wish to control from the top has become prominent in articles and speeches, as well as actions.

The GC's accusations against some Unions reveal that they see their role as an authoritarian father attempting to discipline his naughty kids. They claim to be the highest Church Authority, speaking on behalf of The Holy Spirit. Their task is to bring the Unions in line with the Church Family's house rules.

WO is now reduced to a simple law-and-order question of policy compliance. The fact that WO is a complex, multifaceted issue, is ignored. Presenting reductionist reasoning as a premise, the GC hopes nobody will discover that an invalid premise will never deliver a valid conclusion.

Some Unions may succumb to pressure and accept this premise. They may view themselves as inferior to the Grand Inquisitors now traveling the world to conduct “conversations” with the naughty Unions. Then collegiality will have lost to hierarchy.

We need to question these premises. Collegiality must be restored. The GC must be brought back to realize they are a service institution, not a control and command center. The Unions need to proactively turn the tables, take the initiative, and call the GC to account. The GC must be required to answer questions about the Inquisition process, the presuppositions, and assumptions that fuel it.

Ideally, we need an independent Unity Oversight Committee (UOC) that is free to critically evaluate the whole process, and especially the role of the GC leadership. This is, of course, wishful thinking. The list of the present UOC members, almost all of them GC personnel, leaves no doubt that this committee will ask none of the important questions. They have only one task: Bring the Unions to submit to the will of God and the global church, defined by the GC as policy compliance.

If the present UOC are in doubt about what happens if their conclusions do not satisfy the GC leaders, let them remember Thomas Lemon. After his honest remarks at the 2017 GC Annual Council, it did not take many hours before he no longer was chair of the UOC. A brief conversation with the GC President took care of that. That act alone speaks louder than a million words about the ability of the UOC to conduct independent oversight evaluations.

We need a UOC with competent members, independent of the GC leadership, including at least 50% women. They must address the underlying ideas and assumptions of the non-compliance allegations, starting at the top of the authority pyramid: the motives, authority, ideology, and agenda of the GC leadership.

Here are 17 points of concern:

1) Why was the question about allowing Divisions to decide on WO brought to a vote in San Antonio, knowing that the Adventist Church is already polarized on this issue? A simple yes/no vote on a complex issue only serves to deepen the split. The tense situation was willfully aggravated. Is this wise leadership?

2) Is the SA vote valid—not only technically, but also ideologically and ethically? If this is a complex question of conscience, since when did the Adventist Church decide such questions by a simple majority vote?

3) If it is merely a policy issue, why not change policy to bring it into harmony with reality? Do policies serve mission, or is mission the slave of policies?

4) If it is a policy compliance issue, why does the GC refuse to comply with the GC Working Policy that leaves the handling of such issues to the Divisions? What are the consequences for GC leaders that arbitrarily violate policies?

5) If ordaining women is an issue of theological heresy, what is the orthodox position? When did the Adventist Church decide that ordaining women is heretical?

6) What is the material difference between male ordained and female commissioned ministers?

7) If Male Headship ideology is the philosophical basis for prohibiting WO, why has the GC not openly supported or repudiated it?

8) Who has decided that some Unions are non-compliant, and by what kind of process? Should the GC's opinion on votes and policies be accepted as the final verdict on the Unions' assumed “guilt?” When did the GC acquire, as their prerogative, the power of definition and the right to act as a tribunal? The guilty verdict was handed down before the case was investigated. Is this abuse of authority and power?

9) The aim of the “Unity in Mission” document in 2016 and the “Loyalty” document in 2017 is to execute punishment based on an arbitrary and unsubstantiated guilty verdict by the GC. If non-compliance is not proven through an independent process of investigation, how can the validity of this allegation be acknowledged as a fact?

10) Both documents were presented to the GC Executive Committee (GCEC) at the last minute, the Chair explicitly refusing requests from the members to study the documents before they were brought to the floor. In addition, one must look at the tactics used in 2017 to secure that the “Loyalty” document was presented to the GCEC at all, despite being first voted down in the GC Division Officer’s (GCDO) committee. There is also the fact that this document was not the product of the UOC, but was handed to them by GC officers, to be presented as if it was the product of the UOC. How could these, in my opinion, politically motivated, and possibly unethical, dishonest, and manipulative tactics pass without being strongly rebuked? Why were not the people responsible for these manipulations held accountable for their ethically questionable actions? These issues must be assessed from an ethical point of view. Should leaders be allowed to continue in their positions after they have repeatedly practiced unethical, deceptive, and manipulative tactics?

11) The core question of unity must be studied. Are true spiritual unity and organizational uniformity the same? When the GC President speaks about unity and church authority, he assumes that biblical unity in Christ and policy-enforced uniformity are the same. Nor does he distinguish between appropriate church authority, which is always limited, and inappropriate authority that does not recognize any limits. He assumes that in both areas the latter is the true definition of the former. Are these ideas in harmony with Adventist understandings of unity and authority?

12) The pivotal issue of using threats of punishment and coercion in ecclesiastical matters, must take center stage; as well as demands to suppress personal conscientiously held convictions and freedom of speech. These methods are in conflict with the New Testament, the Reformers, and the Adventist Church's historically strong defense of conscience as a sacred core Christian value. The Adventist Church has traditionally preached that use of threats and coercion in religious matters, even if disguised as a pious call for submission to law-and-order and obedience, is a core marker of apostasy. Is it OK when our own leaders do this?

13) There is a serious conflict of interest in the present UOC. Top GC officers, including the GC President, are listed as ex officio members. They have played a vital role in the process leading up to the SA vote; they have been the main accusers of the Unions for being non-compliant; and they have vociferously proclaimed their guilt. As members of the UOC, they are acting as judges in their own case. They seriously compromise the UOC's task of doing a fair oversight evaluation. This is a challenge to the credibility of the rest of the members, not only the UOC's, but also their personal ethical reputation is at stake.

14) The GC hides behind the SA vote by GC in session, promoting themselves as merely duty-bound executors of that vote. This picture is false. The GC started the process; they ordered the TOSC project (and ignored its results); they decided to bring the issue to the GC in session; they formulated the text of the vote; they introduced the item at the session; they chose not to have somebody present the results of the TOSC studies; they did not invite female pastors from China or elsewhere to tell their stories; they have interpreted the vote to mean a general prohibition against WO. Simply put, the GC orchestrated the process in order to obtain a vote to their liking, they have interpreted the vote to their liking, and they have acted upon that interpretation to their own liking. Will the UOC look into and evaluate the realities and not only the formalities of the SA vote, and how the GC has used it to promote their own agenda?

15) Will the UOC address the logical irony and implication of the SA vote? The fact that the question of whether or not Divisions should be allowed to decide on WO in their territories, was an implicit and tacit acceptance of the principle of WO. If WO was considered to be wrong, for whatever reason, there would be no point in asking this question. The premise for the question is that WO is OK in the Adventist Church. In fact, the GC in session, by its vote in SA, has now affirmed that WO is OK. It only remains for the GC leaders to discover and accept this fact — and to abandon their illogical crusade and leave the Unions alone. Will that happen?

16) Our top GC leaders have chosen to be the accusers of the brethren. Their accusations are aimed at Unions who do their best to preach the Gospel where they are. By doing this the GC leaders point the finger of the accuser back at themselves. Why do they do this?

17) We need to ask the tough, but important question: Are top GC leaders guiding us into institutional apostasy? Warped ideas of authority lead to control and loss of freedom of conscience and expression. That is institutional apostasy. The red line in the sand appears whenpersonal conscience is downplayed, and use of threats and coercion try to enforce uniform compliance with man-made rules, presented in a religious garb.

When uniformity and coerced submission to rules become more important than respect for personal conscience and practical flexibility, I sense that we are about to cross that red line. In his speech at the Lisbon Leadership Conference in February 2018, the GC President promoted such ideas, even indicating that The Spirit agreed with him on this point. These ideas are now authoritatively spread to the global church as the President's speech is being published through all available official Adventist channels. Sadly these ideas contradict the fundamental principles of the Gospel that call for the sacred freedom of conscience and a voluntary spiritual unity in Christ in diversity. Is this the way we want our leaders to lead our church?

These fundamental questions cannot safely be ignored. The GC may ignore them, only to find themselves marginalized in a divided church of their own making. As long as the assumed premises remain questionable, the ensuing compliance process and the final conclusions of the UOC will be equally questionable. For these reasons, the GC's effort of going after the Unions must be taken seriously, but not in the sense that the GC take it seriously. I am afraid that by now it is too late to save the present GC leadership's prestige, reputation, and legacy. By now it is the reputation of the corporate Seventh-day Adventist Church that is in danger. That danger does not come from the Unions that want to ordain women; it comes from GC officers willing to use coercion and split the church to prevent it.

If the UOC will not raise these questions, the Unions should do so. The GC leadership must be confronted and held accountable for all their assumptions and the processes they have started based on these assumptions. Ethics is more important than policies and personal prestige.

“Reformatio in capite et in membris”? Yes, we need that. Especially “in capite.”

Edwin Torkelsen is a retired historian who worked for the National Archives in Norway. He also taught Medieval History in the University of Oslo, and was an Associate Professor of History in the University of Trondheim with a special interest in the development of the ecclesiastical, jurisdictional, theological, doctrinal, and political ideologies of the Medieval church. He is a member of the Tyrifjord Adventist Church in Norway.

Image: Thomas Lemon, former chair of the Unity Oversight Committee, gives the UOC’s report to the Executive Committee at the GC Annual Council, October 9, 2017. Photo by Mylon Medley, courtesy of ANN.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8792

Excellent questions, Prof. Torkelsen. Excellent. We need answers.


What you have said is so true. There are distraction being presented as vital to church unity, but the obsession is POWER, power not only on earth but in heaven. Power that the “vicar of Christ” or GC President is the highest authority on earth, that is dangerous. There is only one authority, and that is God! But to justify the current administration view, God has been reduced into a Greek version, Zues as supreme, with Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit reduced to second and third in line, all subject to the Supreme Leader. We need to follow the example of Jesus Christ, because He said, “if you have seen me, you have seen the Father”.


Prof. Torkelsen

This may be one of the most important articles ever to appear on this blog site! Thanks!! And we know that many of the GC personnel keep track of what transpires on this site. Two GC people have personally confirmed this so I trust there is much energy and thought put into understanding and reacting to this article.

I think this electronic ghetto would have more clout were it to press toward the centre of Adventist thinking rather than flurt with the radical edges of Adventist thinking. Many of its readers, if they are at all like me, would feel greatly comforted if we could be certain that both the writers and the commentariat on this blog were committed to pressing together rather than flying apart on our own theological and ethical tangents.

The call for the GC to become a service institution rather than a command and control centre is well made! This echoes 1 Pet 5:2,3 - “Sheperd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by constraint but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly, nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”

The allusion to the Conciliar Movement of the 14th and 15th centuries is very appropriate.

Yes, the call for prayer for “Revival and Reformation” may lack specifics. Yet it is also true that the Spirit will work in surprising and unconventional ways. Adventists have seen themselves as a revivalist movement within Christianity. This can only be true if revival by the life-giving Spirit of God is continually happening in our own midst first. And such revival is always accompanied by individual and corporate re-formation ie. at the personal and organizational level.

On the organizational level Adventist organization is often represented as an authority pyramid, just as this article does. I believe that the Spirit is wanting to bring a corporate re-formation to us. Instead of understanding Adventist organization in this way I believe it to be more accurate if we thought and spoke of Adventist organization as being composed of wheels within wheels Ezekiel style. Thus instead of talking of the higher levels of organization ie. the GC and Divisions, and by implication the lower levels we should talk of spheres of influence, whether a global sphere of influence such as the GC has, a regional sphere of influence, or a district sphere of influence.

I have always imagined that the very term ‘Conference’ and ‘General Conference’ is a pledge that the entity in question will confer with its sub-entities. Thus the General Conference has a responsibility for the smooth co-ordination of its various constituent Divisions; the Divisions in turn have responsibility for the co-ordination of the constituent Unions within its sphere etc.

“The GC must be required to answer questions about the Inquisition [Unity Oversight] process, the presuppositions and the assumptions that fuel it.” This is all part of the collegiality of believers, something I called for on this site some months ago.


Discerning, incisive questions that may point to (for some people) very ‘uncomfortable’ answers, but which are unlikely to be willingly forthcoming from certain quarters.


Agreed. The article maintains, directly or indirectly, that there is at present a great need for humility, transparency and honesty at the top level of the SDA Church; i.e. authentic values-virtues servant leadership. Edwin Torkelsen has shone ‘a bright light into the dark recesses of power’.


That’s exactly it, Power & Control. Nothing but these two.

The position of a GC President is administrative. He is just a manager. The danger starts when the GP Prez starts behaving as being some kind of spiritual guru, someone who defines theology and doctrines for rest the of the Church. Which is exactly what this administration have been seeking. And this has to stop!


Thank you for writing this! You articulated the thoughts and feelings that have been jumbling around in my brain. To stand up to the GC will take courage and conviction. I agree it must be done. My prayers are with those who are in a position to do just that.


Harrpa –
Maybe there are a LOT of FEARS on the part of Administrative personnel.
Fear that they will get their TERMINATION papers. With that loss of income,
loss of “Perks”, loss of Retirement Benefits.
SCARY because they will have to get a “REAL JOB” on the Job Market. Does
their Resume have “anything” in it that anyone sees will promote their company?

Standing up and saying, “Let’s rethink this thing through” might take them to the
SHEOL of having to relay on God for their next meal.


VMy specific question still stands. Are churches who ordain women as local elders out of compliance? This not authorized in the church manual but was voted at GC ExCom in 1984. Rationale for local elders should also cover serving as ordained pastors!


i think this outstanding article provides very good reasons for splitting from the GC altogether, and developing a new form of organization…

the bottom line is that a vote on WO was defeated at a GC session…people who aren’t interested in conforming to that vote should do what 10 of the 12 tribes of israel did when king rehoboam made demands that they couldn’t stomach - they should simply leave…

we know that god worked with both parts of a split israel…i think this means that he’ll work with both parts of a split adventism…

this issue with WO has gone on long enough…valuable energy has been wasted…people are only becoming more and more hardened…it’s time to split, and move on…


Ted Wilson’s pursuit of “Unity” seems, IMHO, to have only fractured the church more than ever. It remains tragically unsuccessful.

The type of compliance and method TW has proposed to achieve it will only further damage the church, I fear.


Here it is once again. If you disagree please just leave. Once again we are seeing this as the answer over and over.


well, if we’re seeing it over and over, maybe it’s time to sit up and take notice…

i think there comes a point where trying to make things work does more harm than good…i think everyone who’s ever broken up with a significant other knows this…yes, there’s pain and heartache in the short term…but there’s also new opportunities for the long term…and when retrospect has had a chance to develop, it’s possible to see that a split should have happened sooner rather than later…



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Well this article seems specifically to be talking to the divisions, unions, and perhaps the conferences. As a lay member, I have attempted to get in touch with Ted Wilson myself. I thought perhaps if someone would just sit down and have a nice conversation with him then he would see the damage that he is doing to the church. But it is impossible to get in touch with him. He’s far too insulated from the average member.



Harrpa this gives you a clue. When someone is fast to saying “adios,” it is indicative of the quality of their relationship. If someone attends church because of the fellowship and their interpersonal relationships, then they are apt to enter into negotiations. Those who attend church for other reasons, such as to relieve shame and guilt or to appease an authority, then they are apt to say “adios.”

It has nothing to do with the church as much as a reflection of the quality of relationship one has with the church.

Right Jeremy?


UOC was not a GC in session item but went thru the ExCom


A group of us. Non employees. What are they gonna do, fire us? GC leadership needs to be held accountable to and by the people they serve. Held accountable for what is tantamount to abuse of power and unethical behavior. The engineering of and run up to the SA vote in 2015 was an absolute travesty, as this article aptly outlines. And the travesty continues, with enforced uniformity now being masqueraded as Christian unity. What a farce!

GC leadership are the ones who need to be held accountable and essentially put in their proper place, not the supposedly rebellious unions.




wrong elmer…most local churches in a split, in which relationships are actually forged, are going to remain intact…that is, relationships that actually matter are all going to stay just the way they are…but of course, for those who are infatuated with being part of a world denomination of 20 million, there may need to be adjustments…although if what appears to be the anti-TW part of the church, but also the pro-TW part, stays together, which i think is likely, there will still still be an international element in each part of the split…what this is really saying is that the only thing that will change is the worldwide tally in each part of the split…i don’t think most healthy people are maintaining some kind of a relationship with a faceless, nameless number…

but let me ask you this, elmer…do you think it’s healthy for people to constantly beat up on its leader the way so many do here on spectrum…take this article, for instance…there isn’t even one indication that what TW is trying to do, or has tried to do in the past, is being done from a perspective of dedication or devotion to adventism and its structures…i think TW’s leadership is being portrayed as a rogue, out-of-control leadership that is refusing “to comply with GC Working Policy”, but has “chosen to be the accusers of the brethren”…and that’s just for starters…

wouldn’t it be a healthy thing for people who are constantly beating up on TW leave, and continue with their brand of adventism that doesn’t include a TW…what about the pro-TW part…isn’t it healthier for them to be in a situation where they can know that a church-wide vote will be respected by everyone who willing takes part in that vote…

if you say to me that it’s healthier for people to stay in a relationship that obviously cannot be salvaged, than to part amicably, i’ll say to you that you’re the only psychiatrist or psychologist i’ve ever heard make that claim…