Revisiting Gerry Chudleigh’s “Who Runs the Church?”

Editor’s Note: Gerry Chudleigh passed away in 2015. This summary of his seminal work on church governance is as timely today as it was when published in 2013. It was provided to us by Ray Tetz, who succeeded Gerry as Communication Director for the Pacific Union Conference.

When in 2013 Gerry Chudleigh published his book, Who Runs the Church? it was a question only relatively few were asking. Today, just five years later, it’s on the minds of many — just exactly who does run the church? Where exactly does true church authority lie? Is it top-down or bottom-up? Who has the ultimate say — is it the president or the membership? And exactly how should this actually work?

With all the current talk of imposing compliance, oversight committees, and punitive sanctions, it’s not surprising that even local churches are questioning what is happening to the church we love. Is this really the way we want to operate? Does leadership have the right to demand such measures? Would Jesus want us to be acting this way?

Back to basics

Chudleigh takes us back to basics and examines where we came from and our historic biblical position. He reminds us that early Adventists were very much against organization and creeds because of their experience at the hands of the denominations they came from — they were often censured and disfellowshipped for believing and preaching Jesus’ soon return. As a result, “the joyful unity early Adventists experienced developed outside of, and in opposition to, organized religion, both Catholic and Protestant.”1

While the need for some limited organization became apparent, especially in terms of the church holding rights to property, there was still opposition. Says Chudleigh, “Because organization was causing some to leave the already small band of Adventists, the church organized slowly and cautiously. Adventists never entirely abandoned their fear of religious authority, and that fear is the key to understanding the structures of the Adventist church, both the structure created in 1863 and the current structure, created in 1901.”2

Power concentrated in the General Conference

As the church grew, however, power became more and more concentrated at the General Conference in Battle Creek. Why was this a problem? Chudleigh gives five main reasons:

1. Centralized authority prevented local leadership development.

2. Centralized authority ignored the leading of God through the Holy Spirit.

3. Centralized authority prevented adaptation.

4. Centralized authority caused time delays.

5. Centralized authority caused centralized fatigue.3

The result of this over-concentration of power in the General Conference was that the church was hindered and the mission damaged, so much so that Ellen White spoke strongly against the leadership, and stated flatly that the voice of God no longer spoke through the General Conference. This led to a complete structural overhaul in 1901. Chudleigh observes, “Ellen White assured them she had no special instructions on how the church should be organized, but then spoke for an hour and a half on the need to completely rebuild church structure, to eliminate ‘kingly power’ — in the GC, the state conferences and the ancillary organizations — and to restore unity.”4

Autonomous unions

The highlight of 1901 was the creation of autonomous unions, organizations that had their own constituencies and were deliberately placed beyond the ability of the General Conference to control. In fact, in the constitutions of those newly-formed unions, the General Conference was not even mentioned. And as Chudleigh notes, “When an organization (such as a union or conference) answers to its own constituency, no one but its own constituency can determine its decisions.” On the same page he also quotes the clear perspective of Ellen White, “‘It has been a necessity to organize union conferences, that the General Conference shall not exercise dictation over all the separate conferences.’ (Ellen White, Manuscript 26, April 3, 1903).”5

In order that there should be no doubt regarding the intention and the consequences, Chudleigh spells it out:

“1. Each union had its own constitution and bylaws and was to be governed by its own constituency. 2. The officers of each union were to be elected by their own union constituency, and, therefore, could not be controlled, replaced or disciplined by the GC.” Even more tellingly, he continues by saying:

“To put it as bluntly as possible, after 1901, the General Conference could vote whatever it wanted unions and conferences to do, or not do, but the unions and conferences were autonomous and could do what they believed would best advance the work of God in their fields. The GC executive committee, or the General Conference in business session, could vote to fire a union president or conference president, or vote to merge a union or conference with another one, but their vote would change nothing: the union or conference would still exist and the member delegates could elect whoever they wanted as president.”6

Chudleigh also spells out the results in terms of how this decentralization of power and authority worked in practice:

“1. Local churches have the final authority to decide how donations to local

congregations (but not tithe) will be spent, to plan local evangelism, and to decide who will be members of that congregation. No other church body, including the local conference, the union conference or the General Conference has the authority to override local decisions in those areas. 2. Local conferences have the final authority to budget expenditures from tithe, to form and disband local churches and schools, to hire, fire and supervise pastors and teachers, and to own and control property related to those local institutions. 3. Union conferences own and operate colleges and universities and grant approvals where conferences desire continuity, cooperation or uniformity, such as the approval of candidates for ordination. 4. Divisions do not have separate constituencies or bylaws, and their officers are elected at GC session by the General Conference constituency, so they are administrative units of the General Conference. 5. The General Conference administers the worldwide budget, which is critical to the growth of the church around the world, especially in mission areas — areas of the world church funded to some extent by tithe and donations from other parts of the world.”7

Power drifts

However, since 1901 there has been a gradual shift back to the GC of the power lost in 1901. Chudleigh states the problem, and asks the question: “A large part of the authority that was distributed to the Unions in 1901 seems to have drifted back to the General Conference. Why? How?”8

Chudleigh points to three main factors he believes are primarily responsible for the drift back to a centralized, top-down hierarchical system: Ellen White’s “highest authority” statements, model constitutions and bylaws, and leadership initiatives.

He then outlines Ellen White’s changing position on the General Conference as the voice of God, culminating in her clear view that she could no longer state this was so. While she made different statements at different times, as Chudleigh comments, “it is clear that sometimes Ellen White considered the decisions of the General Conference to represent God’s leading and sometimes she did not.… It is apparent that whether she did or didn’t believe the GC in session was God’s highest authority on earth, she did not believe it was necessary for that group to be the final word on how ministry was done around the world. She made it clear that God can give wisdom to union and local committees as well as He can give wisdom to the GC committee or GC delegates in session.”9

Next, he considers how the development of model constitutions and bylaws gradually gave more and more authority and control to the General Conference. He traces the way in which union constitutions and bylaws have changed, with the last example being, “Finally, according to the Model Constitution for Unions in the 2006 GC/NAD Working Policy, the unions

can make changes to their own constitutions and bylaws, with these limitations: ‘Article VIII — Amendments. This constitution shall not be amended except to conform to the model union conference constitution when it is amended by action of the General Conference Executive Committee at an Annual Council. This union conference shall amend its constitution from time to time at regularly called constituency meetings, any such changes to conform to the model union conference constitution.’”10 In this way the unions are made totally subject to the General Conference, which is in complete contravention of their intended function.

Chudleigh then finally observes how General Conference leadership initiatives have tended to give the impression of a top-down hierarchy — when ideas and policies are generated at the GC and then sent out to other units, it appears that this is where ultimate authority lies. While there is nothing wrong in generating good policies and programs, as Chudleigh comments, “every time the GC creates a committee, institute, program or policy, especially one that the unions around the world appreciate, adopt, and use, the image of the GC as the top of the chain of command — the final authority — is strengthened.”11

Not a top-down power structure

Chudleigh’s ultimate conclusion is found in his Appendix A, when he outlines his experience as a church worker. “So, year after year, the church goes on functioning without a hierarchical structure, and year after year the vast majority of members seem to believe it is hierarchical. This is most evident when members complain that higher levels of church administration are not stepping in to fix something the members think should be different at lower levels. But it is not at all surprising that members, including some pastors and a few popular Adventist web bloggers, do not understand Adventist church structure. I know of no other organization on earth that has the non-hierarchical division of authority that our pioneers built into the Adventist church in 1901.”12

This is in direct contrast to the current General Conference’s plans to impose sanctions on unions for supposed “non-compliance,” plans that demand complete acquiescence with a top-down authority structure that uses oversight committees to police the church, plans that circumvent even the General Conference Executive Committee to ensure the will of the president and his supporters is obeyed. If such plans are accepted, our church will have ceased to be a body of believers united by Christ and will become what we have deplored since our inception — a religious organization based on imposed authority and coercion through power.

One last quote from Ellen White that Gerry used in his masterful analysis: “‘The secret of unity is found in the equality of believers in Christ.’ (Review and Herald, Dec. 22, 1891, par. 8).”13 For Gerry that was the true essence of unity that binds us together — the equality of believers in Christ.

Were he writing today, I believe Chudleigh would conclude that no church structure that imposes authority from above, that seeks to dictate on matters of conscience, and that would even think about sanctioning fellow brothers and sisters in Jesus for “non-compliance” — no such system should ever be considered by those who follow the Lamb. Jesus said, “Among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26 NLT).

Who Runs the Church? by Gerry Chudleigh is available in booklet form through AdventSource ( or as a downloadable pdf from Spectrum below:

Notes & References:

9. Chudleigh, p. 30. See also his Appendix B.

12. Chudleigh, p. 40. The other appendices are worth reading too.

13. Chudleigh, p. 20.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The hypocrisy, and ill intentions of this GC are in no way hidden. What is mind boggling, though, is that nobody is doing a thing about their violation of the principle described in the quote above. I mean, for Heavens’ sake, this was EGW protecting the real Church from the GC if it ever became a dictatorial monster. And it did! Now it actually IS!

The quote above should be read before and after every single meeting in Battle Creek, so that the bearded guys may be defeated in their malicious intent of stealing the Unions of their fundamental rights.

I hope the Unions will state clearly their rights, and will fight fiercely to defeat the dictatorial monster the GC has become! GO UNIONS, GO!


The late Gerry Chudleigh was a prophetic voice in Adventism.

See also Chudleigh’s free ebook:


Is it time for church members, who are attorneys at law, to closely examine
where and how the GC are overstepping/disregarding its own constitution
and by-laws?


Now … if the the next G. C. president were to secure a massively majority vote at a G. C. session supporting his request that as G. C. President he personally is authorized to compel all Union Conferences world wide to ordain both women and men to the ministry, that vote would not give him any standing with the elected Union Conference officers. In such a case Union Conferences whose constituency ask them to only ordain men, could and word continue with impunity to do so.

In short, the constituency of the General Conference is independent from and does not speak in place of the constituency of any Union Conference, or any Local Conference. By design. Still.



I think basic principles of governance should be followed as mentioned in 1901, because God ordained the structure. But let us be also practical, in some countries the government likes structure, while in others the government’s prefer segmentation.

Let’s be blunt. We are at a crossroads as a fellowship/church. The chips are down (can you say that in an Adventist context?). To key off the wisdom of Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Make no mistake, we are at a fork. This is the moment when union presidents must act on our behalf to meet the centralization monster head on, no holds barred. The statements must be loud, clear, bold, and as much “in your face” as is consistent with Christianity. This may go against the grain of SDA culture, but is necessary at this moment. We must turn the tide of creeping authoritarianism, and this is the time.

I do not want to be in an authoritarian church. Period. I just wish I had a vote.

In addition to saying “NO” right now, it is also time to roll back the model bylaws. I don’t know how that gets done, but it needs doing. They represent a contravention of the 1901 intent.


Crass, blatant, autocratic, ego centric, and ill advised, are the obvious characteristics of the current President. But the chilling reality is that so many are in his pocket. Gonadal leadership would be a joke if it were not so sad and dangerous.


Which President are you referring to?.. Maybe to both?.. :wink: :innocent:

Ted and Donald fit the bill. In this case I was directly speaking of Ted.

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Thanks, Raymond, for the incisive outline of Chudleigh’s book—and for posting his book.

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This booklet should be a part of every packet at Autumn Council and required reading for every vote.

Gerry’s research is more pertinent than ever. I have printed both his booklets out and consider them incredibly on-point in relevance to and addressing the major disruptions of unity in our church.

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The sheer volume and scope of the material attributed to Ellen White is fueling this struggle beyond measure.

Here is a recent sample of Ellen White material from Fulcrum7:

Even if all our leading men should refuse light and truth, that door will still remain open. The Lord will raise up men who will give the people the message for this time".

TM 107

If God abhors one sin above another, of which His people are guilty, it is doing nothing in case of an emergency. Indifference and neutrality in a religious crisis is regarded of God as a grievous crime, and equal to the very worst type of hostility against God" (14).
Testimonies Vol3 p.281

In The Track of Romanism

This hardheartedness on the part of men who claim to believe the truth Satan charges to the influence of the truth itself, and thus men become disgusted and turn from the truth. For this reason no man should have a responsible connection with our institutions who thinks it no important matter whether he has a heart of flesh or a heart of steel. Men think they are representing the justice of God, but they do not represent His tenderness and the great love wherewith He has loved us. Their human invention originating with the specious devices of Satan, appears fair enough to the blinded eyes of men, because it is inherent in their nature. A lie, believed, practiced, becomes a truth to them. Thus the purpose of the satanic agencies is accomplished, that men should reach these conclusions through the working of their own inventive minds. But how do men fall into such error? By starting with false premises, and then bringing everything to bear to prove the error true. In some cases the first principles have a measure of truth interwoven with the error, but it does not lead to any just action, and this is why men are misled. In order to reign and become a power, they employ Satan’s methods to justify their own.

“We shall be called to meet those who notwithstanding definite reproof and warning through the Testimonies have gone on in an evil course. We are bidden of God to hold ourselves separate and distinct from these men who have not given heed to His warning… For they deceive , if possible , the very elect.
‐Letter 330, November 11, 1906 & Manuscript Releases, vol. 7, p. 196

“Ye shall know them by their fruits.” Even the tares have a lesson to teach. They are of Satan’s sowing, and if left unchecked, spoil the wheat by their rank growth.
{SpM 186.4}

If the heart of the work becomes corrupt, the whole church, in its various branches and interests, scattered abroad over the face of the earth, suffers in consequence.”
Testimonies, vol. 4, p 210.

“In our work, we need men of moral independence, uncontaminated and unshackled, so that when a principle of religion or duty is at stake they will stand firm in defense of the truth. We need men who will not hold their peace when they see evils coming in and wrongs being done. We need men who will refuse to give consent by silence to unjust actions.”
(E. G. White, Manuscript Releases, Vol.9, Letter 116, 1905)

“We shall be called to meet those who notwithstanding definite reproof and warning through the Testimonies have gone on in an evil course. We are bidden of God to hold ourselves separate and distinct from these men who have not given heed to His warning… For they deceive , if possible , the very elect.
‐Letter 330, November 11, 1906 & Manuscript Releases, vol. 7, 196

This house is divided and Ellen White cannot unite it.

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