The Time Has Come for Restructuring the Adventist Church

The time has come. Every rapidly-growing organization will have to face the question of whether its structure is still befitting of its mission. Churches are no exception to this rule. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has oscillated for several decades between two forms of governance: centralism and/or federalism. As a church historian I have attentively observed that development.

Already at the 1995 Utrecht General Conference Session, Robert Folkenberg played the centralist card when he got voted in as “first officer,” not “primus inter pares” (first among equals). The church had presumably learned lessons from recent controversy over differing views on doctrine and didn’t want to face another Glacier View as happened with Desmond Ford. Robert Folkenberg oversaw a clear shift towards centralism. There was not yet an Adventist pope in sight, only some shady contours. That is why resistance within the General Conference administration was substantial. I still remember the long queue at the microphones. In vain, the motion was voted.

At the same General Conference Session an opposing motion was put forward—the North American Division’s motion to ordain women. Specifically, the motion was to leave it to the divisions to decide the matter, which was voted down. That motion clearly aimed for federalism. So two clearly opposing motions were being put forth at that session.

Every observer could see the problem that had arisen, so the General Conference, over the next few years, initiated several commissions to study this problem. For instance, at the 2004 Year-End Meeting a commission was organized to study steps towards an administrative restructuring of the church. The committee was asked to present its findings only six months later. The church clearly felt a sense of urgency. In autumn 2005 a permanent commission was even initiated. Jan Paulsen’s reason for this group was the rapid growth of the church. As he said: “there must be a better, more effective and efficient way of doing church.”

Against that backdrop we immediately hear a word that rings alarm bells for administrators (the NAD’s motion in 1995 was indeed aiming for self-determination): congregationalism. Why is that term so controversial? Congregationalism connotes deconstruction of an existing structure—in this case the dissolution of a worldwide Adventist Church structure, shifting power and resources towards the local church. That can hardly be a solution for our denomination, but something has to happen, and quickly. San Antonio doesn’t leave us with any other conclusion. We can’t allow theological and ecclesiological concerns to be determined by majority culture.

Our Church Manual lists different forms of church government and decides in favor of a representative form of church constitution. But it is precisely that model of governance that now faces its own limitations. By sheer quantity alone, delegates of certain regions can block any motion just doesn’t suit their theological convictions or cultural habits. Other regions have to acquiesce, even if their cultural environment is different. The vote on the motion to make women’s ordination regional has demonstrated that fact unequivocally.

What can we learn from church history? In Germany we have two dominant churches: the Roman-Catholic and the Lutheran Church. They have completely different forms of governance. The Roman-Catholic church champions a centralistic structure with a pope in Rome, while the Lutheran Church (or better, churches) favor a federalist solution. The different federal churches (Landeskirche) are allied under the roof of the “Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland” (EKD), with a president. The regional churches owe their existence to the influence of Luther himself. He determined the principalities of the different geographical regions to be the administrative heads of the church, since for protestant churches there was no longer a pope. But as the sovereigns lost power, something had to be done. So every regional church has its own structure. Sometimes headed by a bishop (e.g. Berlin-Brandenburg), sometimes a so-called president (e.g. Hessen-Nassau). These regional churches determine many of their practices independently. Their superstructure (EKD) provides the needed unity for public relations.

Both models of church governance have proven reliable. Both churches have millions of members and could serve as an example for us. However, in our case, a decision should be made soon, for the current situation is unsustainable and unbearable. The “representative” model is outdated, because it is not applicable to our church. It served us well in the first phase of our history, but the number of delegates alone gets us into trouble. Where would we find suitable venues to host business sessions for delegates if we don’t want to radically reduce their number? The San Antonio vote on women’s ordination has shown that it is irresponsible to allow one cultural group to enforce its views on another group that holds different cultural norms and convictions on the basis of numbers alone. We haven’t yet seen the damage that has been done by that vote. Today, only days after the vote, I have received the first reports of requests for the removal of membership. These people tell me: “The church of San Antonio is not my church anymore!” And we are not talking about frustrated female pastors.

So what should we do? Could church history help us? What we do not want is another pope, that is clear. The delegate structure has reached its limitations. I would suggest an Adventist version of congregationalist federalism: “Unionism.” Unio = to unite, or more clearer: union = alliance, bond (esp. of states or churches with similar confessions). And that is exactly what is meant. We should aim at building relatively independent regional churches: an Adventist Church in Europe, an Adventist Church in North-America, South-America, Africa etc. This world alliance could replace the now existing General Conference. What competence this world alliance or the regional Churches could or should have, should be left to experts. I just want to insert a practical solution from church history into the overdue discussion.

Now is the time: the “kairos” of Texas provides a real opportunity. Let us not stay deaf to the wake-up-call of history. If we tarry any longer, we will have to face schisms (another lessons from church history). If, for example, the already existing resolutions on women’s ordination in several fields will continue to be implemented (and there is no reason to doubt that that will be the case), then the organizational structure of our church will fail. That is exactly what my model aims to prevent. We have to change our form of organization. And in order to avoid the contentious term congregationalism, I have decided to speak of “unionism.” A continental (regional) church could make intelligent decisions on its own, not only as far as ordination is concerned. Our “Adventist Church in Europe,” for example, could determine its own week-of-prayer-edition, still championing the world-theme, but adapted to our cultural needs. The same applies to quotations and didactical questions of the Sabbath School quarterly.

The last day of business sessions in San Antonio saw just that kind of change to the Church Manual. Divisions were given the possibility to determine questions on their own without having to refer them on to the General Conference. This could be a first step. I appeal to all leaders of divisions and administrations, to initiate a bold structural change. If we don’t succeed in adapting our structure to accommodate healthy growth, we will soon witness qualitative and quantitative erosion. This kind of exodus has already begun in Europe and is beginning to be visible in the United States. The more cultural differences manifest themselves one-sidedly, the more minority groups will shrink in number. It is high time to initiate concrete steps. Whoever wants to keep our church from serious damage has to act—now!


Lothar E. Träder, Ph.D., is a retired pastor, teacher and former rector of Marienhöhe, an Adventist boarding school in Darmstadt, Hesse. He holds a doctorate in church history, and has served the Adventist Church in Germany in a variety of capacities over the past 50 years. Translated from German by Dennis Meier.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Wise old man, competent, no dream, looks at the reality. AMEN


The principle behind what is being proposed here was already addressed in San Antonio and the answer from the delegates of the world church was “no.” What part of no do you not understand?


I’m sure he is right. This would be the only way to save the world wide Adventist church. Just it might be too late already. I know of many people leaving the San Antonio Church in these days. Problem is also that the president seems to be more interested in cleansing than in saving.


I concur. However, I see this as only possible in a de facto manner. I do not see entrenched power as willing to decentralize as it has demonstrated a bias toward increasing, not decreasing, its power and influence. Each division will need to seize the right to self determination as the recent General Conference vote has made clear it will not be granted. If the various world divisions are not prepared to do that, then whether or not federalism is a good idea, it becomes moot. Perhaps the march toward greater centralization of power and the image of the beast is unstoppable.

Both liberals and conservatives should be alarmed at this. Perhaps they do not realize that just like secular politicians, church leaders can play off one group against the other in order to consolidate power and eventually neither group has a viable voice in how things are done. While power dangles the tempting fruit of granting what one group wants over another, we should recognize the trap and work together to limit that kind of power.


the part dictated by certain divisions over other divisions on the basis of sheer numbers…

a federation is what keeps canada united, and it seems to be working well…we have an equalization payment system, in which wealthier provinces submit payments to poorer provinces, the goal being to “equalize” services like education and healthcare throughout the federation…

i think the one thing that could be more effective than a federation is genuine understanding and empathy among divisions for concerns that don’t match their own…i think this would fit the bible paradigm of members submitting to one another…but san antonio has shown that divisions now in the ascendancy in terms of numbers are not interested in thinking of the needs of other divisions…therefore we may need a new firewall of protection against the exercise of group kingly power…


I can’t imagine that any doctrinal unity would exist among worldwide Adventists for many decades if we changed to a unionism form of government. The strength of our church is the worldwide agreement among us. It would even be easier for a regional union to go so far as to renounce the Sabbath which was renounced by the Worldwide Church of God not that long ago. I personally was dismayed to learn in San Antonio that a simple majority vote authorizes changes in our fundamental beliefs. At least we in North America cannot on our own drop Sabbath but I’d much prefer a super majority vote to change fundamental beliefs. Women’s ordination of course was not presented as a fundamental belief.

This idea of unionism I fear would weaken our church. If persons leave the church over a cultural issue then I fail to see a commitment to the church when there is NO other church existing with similar beliefs. A fish doesn’t jump out of the water just because the water gets warmer. A fish dies when it jumps out of the water. We should not endanger the church by accommodating persons choosing to leave the only viable church simply because of cultural differences.


Ted Wilson’s version of Adventism exalts uniformity for uniformity’s sake.

It doesn’t matter if we are irrelevant, fail the gospel commission by teaching perfectionism and salvation by works, decide who can baptize who based on a piece of paper, lose 50% of new members in a 5-year period or are bogged down by meaningless parliamentary procedures and technicalities.

What “really” matters is that we are (failing miserably) TOGETHER. And if we fail and Jesus doesn’t come soon, it will be because we corporately/institutionally didn’t manage to create a “more perfect union.”


It once was, but it no longer reflects reality. Top-down enforced unity (read: uniformity) will not rescue, but destroy the Church. Face up to it.


when the water gets too warm, all fish boil to death who stay…in this instance, staying confers no advantage over jumping out…


[quote=“George, post:7, topic:9061”]
This idea of unionism I fear would weaken our church.
[/quote]If this Denomination is lead by God, as many verociously claim, then it would not be weakened by an organisational form that is more accommodating of the broad range of cultures within which the Gospel finds itself. If this organisation be led by some other spirit one need not be concerned re: being weakened. Remember, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.

Trust God.


Because we all know…Jesus can only return based on what the Adventist church does, or doesn’t do.

Please…SDA’s get it together so more wars, starvation and misery can end. The whole world is counting on YOU!


If such a thing does happen, it won’t happen as an organizational decision. It will be forced upon us.

I can think of several things, not necessarily related to doctrine, that could force such a change. Some examples:

• Costly ascending liability, as is happening in the RC church.
• A takeover of the GC by leaders who don’t have the same standards of Western ethical business practice that we expect.
• A threat to institutions with a lot of money, such as LLU or the Adventist Health Care systems.

But if anyone is dreaming that Dr. Wilson is just going to say to Annual Council one day, “Let’s vote for a less centralized structure,” you’re kidding yourself.


a church at its best is is home to those who believe that Christ is Lord not a dictator. we have been bought with a price beyond all human readoning. At best we are an adopted family. We have been freed from the bondage of self aggrandizement. why should we trade that freedom for the bondsge of institutionalism? Particularly one that claims to be the structure that finally resolves the sin problem. Jesus taught us to pray-- our Father. Note that the prayer is in the plural. If God is our Father, we are kin. The true church is the kinship of all believers. we call that ecumenical ism. let’s try it, it would be revolutionary. inter Varsity has been a noble attempt. In the face of man’s condition and the realization of God’s redemptive love, let us put aside every weight that would divide us. let us truly accept the Gospel as our only creed…That is what is so amazing about Grace.Seeing up close and personal what pain the lack of Grace can cause. we now know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely…It took 45 Million to demonstrate that doctrine and culture has trumped Grace. We are redeemed individually not corporately. That is the deadest of all apples. Tom Z


If the minority had control over the majority, that would be fearsome. Like Myanmar. Or China. But not in the Adventist church. No thank you.

God has established the delegate system to be the ultimate authority for His church on earth. Trust His system.


That’s exactly how I feel about this issue at times. And other times it just feels like a mess. :anguished:

The only dividing (restructuring) will be the wheat from the tares.


If a church decides not only continue to discriminate but also to prohibit others to end the discrimination…what are we called to do in that case? We are called to seek first the kingdom and its righteousness.


“God has established the delegate system to be the ultimate authority for His church on earth. Trust His system.”

Hmm. Nor sure I saw that listed in the 10 Commandments. (trying to be a little humorous, not cutting).

As the author noted (and more clearly expressed in the paper by Gerry Chudleigh and worth reading) our system developed over a period of time. It wasn’t just revealed as whole. In 1901 there were some specific changes to the system. The author is suggesting other changes.

While I may not agree with the author, I don’t see anything in here that says the minority controls the majority, nor do I see anything that would lead to a result that makes our church similar to Myanmar or China. I’ll also note, that Jesus Christ rejected the system in place for one based upon love, forgiveness and sacrifice of self.


[quote=“marianne_faust, post:18, topic:9061”]
We are called to seek first the kingdom and its righteousness.[/quote]

Yes that’s the part I agree with and try to do when I’m disappointed with what is going on in our world church and in everyday life as well.

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