Thursday at the London Unity Conference: Transformational Moments in the History of Church Authority

And so it began, the Unity 2017 Conference, with worship, of course. Gary Patterson, retired General Conference field secretary, known to many in the room for his insightful interpretation of church policy, showed his pastoral side with a creative devotional on the book of John, on light in the darkness, on the women to whom Christ made his most significant announcements. It was the woman at the well to whom Jesus first personally declared his Messiahship. It was to Mary that Jesus appeared upon his resurrection. Patterson closed with a video of Alicia Patterson impersonating Mary telling of her love for Jesus — the most alive person she had ever known —explaining how Jesus freed her from the boxes into which society had put her, into which she had put herself. How hearing Jesus tell Simon that wherever Jesus’ story would be told, her story would be part of it. Jesus’ words in Simon’s house coming back to her, giving her new life, new understanding of herself, a prostitute no longer. Her story would be part of His story wherever it was told.

In what could be considered the most prophetic presentation of the day, retired South Pacific Division President Barry Oliver started the historical conversation with observations on the 1901-03 reorganization of church structure and the creation of union conferences. The fast growth of the church in its first forty years quickly overwhelmed the simple organization that had been put into place in the 1860s. Institutional growth brought challenges, too, since the institutions were incorporated independently. Meanwhile there was increased centralization of administrative control. George Butler, president of the General Conference from 1871-1874 and again from 1880-1888, described the principles upon which the organization of the church was established, declaring:

Supervision embraces all its [the General Conference’s] interests in every part of the world. There is not an institution among us, not a periodical issued, not a Conference or society, not a mission field connected with our work, that it has not a right to advise and counsel and investigate. It is the highest authority of an earthly character among Seventh-day Adventists.

Ellen White’s evaluation of Butler brought expressions of “Wow” from the audience. Oliver quoted her saying:

A sick man’s mind has had a controlling power over the General Conference committee and the ministers have been the shadow and echo of Elder Butler about as long as it is healthy and good for the cause. Envy, evil surmissings, jealousies have been working like leaven until the whole lump seemed to be leavened. . . . He thinks his position gives him such power that his voice is infallible.

Financial crisis in the late 1890s added to the woes of the denomination. For all these reasons, the 1901 General Conference saw a major reorganization of the church structure. Ellen White called for change “right here and right now” but she left it to the assembled delegates to determine how that change would be accomplished. The experiments in two far off places led to key changes. In South Africa, departments were created to handle various aspects of the work and in Australia union conferences were established. When both areas had asked the General Conference about moving forward with these ideas, no was the response that had come back (after very long delays due to the slowness of communication via ocean liners). But by the time the answer came back, the ideas were already established and successful. Adventist organization benefitted from the experiments of those “on the ground” as Mrs. White liked to say. She thought people close to the situation understood what was needed, perhaps better than those far away at the General Conference.

Decentralization was a key concept to A.G. Daniells for reorganization. He thought those “on the ground” should bear the burden of administration and have the prerogative of decision making, seeing the union structure as the manner in which to accomplish that.

Oliver concluded with fifteen learnings from history for the contemporary church. “Both unity and diversity can have negative and positive impacts on the mission of the Church,” he said. “Diversity is positive when its acceptance enhances the potential of the church to reach diverse ‘nations, tongues, and peoples,’ and decentralized decision-making is practiced. It is negative when it is taken too far, appropriate organizational boundaries are not respected and its results in syncretism. Unity is positive when it binds the Church into oneness in Christ. It is negative when it is interpreted to require uniformity and unnecessary centralization of authority.”

He said that in the reforms of 1901 Daniells “affirmed that it was not the intention of the General Conference committee to deal directly with the affairs of any Union Conference. Daniells’ answer to the centralization of power in the General Conference committee was that the committee was not going to make executive decisions. It was going to be a fostering, advisory board whose interest was co-ordination, not supervision. By 1903 Daniells was speaking as though he still held the “advisory concept of the GC executive committee. But in practice no longer was its role merely advisory. A change of attitude had taken place.”

His last point was the need for adaptability and flexibility to the fulfillment of the mission of the church. “Not everything is to be done the same way everywhere. When there is no direct “Thus saith the Lord” the Church must be flexible if it is to be true to its reason for existence.”

Round table discussions followed each presentation with prepared questions provided for suggested conversation starters.

Retired historian George Knight was up next. He asked how the Seventh-day Adventist Church went from distaining church organization in its earliest days to becoming one of the most highly organized churches in Christian history. Knight said that James White helped to shape two transformational moments. Early Adventists feared “Babylon” which was seen as the persecuting power of organized churches. But in the 1850s, James White began to emphasize an alternate meaning of Babylon. According to Knight, White let it be known that he was sick and tired of the cry of Babylon whenever anyone mentioned organization. “Bro. Confusion makes a most egregious blunder in calling a system, which is in harmony with the Bible and good sense, Babylon. As Babylon signifies confusion, our erroring brother has the very word stamped upon his own forehead. And we venture to say that there is not another people under heaven more worthy of the brand of Babylon than those professing the Advent faith who reject Bible order. Is it not high time that we as a people heartily embrace everything that is good and right in the churches?” he quotes White writing. Knight said that new emphasis by White toward understanding Babylon as confusion went far in paving the way for the “Sabbatarians to organize as a religious body, legally own property, pay pastors on a regular basis, assign pastors to locations where they were needed, and develop a system for transferring membership”.

The second transformation that helped Adventists to organize had to do with “moving beyond the biblical literalism of White’s earlier days when he believed that the Bible must explicitly spell out each aspect of church organization. In 1859, James White argued that “we should not be afraid of that system which is not opposed by the Bible, and is approved by sound sense.” Knight said with this White came to a new hermeneutic that moved “from a principle of Bible interpretation that held that the only things Scripture allowed were those things it explicitly approved to a hermeneutic that allowed for developments that did not contradict the Bible and were in harmony with common sense.

“Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle Over Authority + 9.5 Theses,” was the title of Knight’s talk. He began and ended with references to this, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenburg Castle Church door. While there is much talk of Luther’s emphasis on salvation by faith, Knight said Luther’s action was meant to contest the authority the Catholic Church had assumed over God’s authority. Similarly he said, the Adventist Church discussion of ordination prioritizes church authority over God’s calling. It is God who calls individuals to the ministry, he emphasized. For the church to insist on its own authority over God’s calling is similarly destructive.

In his tour of recent Adventist church history since 1980, Knight talked of the significance of the model union conference constitutions and bylaws to enforcing conformity and how they became increasingly restrictive with non-negotiable words printed in bold. Knight faulted the General Conference leadership for not appropriately presenting the findings of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee to the General Conference Session in San Antonio, and most recently in voting an action at the Annual Council of 2016 that essentially created new policy to deal with the unions that have ordained women when policy already exists to handle the situation.

He stopped his recent story to say that the originator of Adventist church structure claimed in 1874 that “organization was designed to secure unity of action, and as a protection from imposture. It was never intended as a scourge to compel obedience.”

To close, he returned to Martin Luther’s example and offered his own 9.5 thesis on church reformation saying “The current atmosphere of confrontation in Adventism has not been brought about by the unions, but by the General Conference leadership and its non-biblical and manipulative tactics.” He said, “the October 2017 meetings may help the worldwide Adventist Church decide whether it wants to move more toward an Adventist Ecclesiology or toward a more Roman variety. Also, “The so-called nonconforming unions must stand together, come into line with General Conference demands or go down one by one.”

You can download the individual papers on the Unity Conference website here. Additionally, the next issue of Spectrum (Vol. 45, No. 2) will be a special edition containing all of the papers from the conference.

Bonnie Dwyer is Editor of Spectrum.

Image Credit: adventistunity2017.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8060
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Thank you Spectrum for daily reports.

Very credentialed participants with compelling messages. However, the real pathology lies to the answer of the question, “Why did these individuals wait until their retirement to be active and vocal?” Do we acquire knowledge instantaneously the day after retiring?

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This seems to be a very common phenomenon.

I’m sure it can’t possibily have anything to do with job security or retirement…:wink:

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These compelling provocative quotes from our church forbears and our church prophet clearly propose a decentralization of church structure and a de-emphasis on a controlling pope-like figure pontificating to all, his narrow viewpoints and agendas.

The predominance of retirees is a woeful comment on the dire lack of freedom of speech and the free exchange of viewpoints by church employees.

Neal Wilson’s vindictive and venomous withholding of Walter Rea’s justly earned pension and benefits because of his ( later authenticated and vindicated ) exposure of EGW’s plagiarism, sent a dire warning to all future whistleblowers and truth tellers. It was only when REA promised no further research or publication that his justly earned benefits were restored.

Neal Wilson’s son will have no compunction on future vindictive retaliations against those currently employed who hold diverse views.

That church employees, in a claustrophobic climate of compelled conformity, would feel so MUZZLED, so as not to participate in this London conference,
is a chilling commentary on the calamatous current state of Adventism!

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Excellent work—and a tremendous amount of it, too. I doubt that these meetings will effect much change, immediately, but it will affect the thinking of those who, in turn, will be in conversation with other thinking people. Even though many have complained—both about who were allowed to attend the meetings and about those who were more or less uninvited, I don’t think that these discussions could have been had, otherwise. Both Adventist Today and Spectrum have been producing terrific recaps without being editorial. A highlight, via Barry Oliver (and Ellen White): [quote=“spectrumbot, post:1, topic:13661”]
A sick man’s mind has had a controlling power over the General Conference committee
[/quote]. Thank you.

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Thanks Bonnie for the timely info… Spectrum is once again the news leader and deeply appreciated.
It is indeed a sad commentary on our church that people are constrained in expressing their deepest insights and ideas in a public way while working within the church. Please do not blame these brave and wise men who now share their views. Listen and ponder. The Christian church 600+ years ago had the inquisition to keep people pure. Given time and power some in the GC would try it on again. Power corrupts and Christian leaders all have been tempted. We would do well to study our history and learn… Thanks George Knight for your courage and the clarity of your presentation. Blessings. Jim

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And so Korah, Dathan, and Abiram once again take their stand.

Lord, please look favorably on Ted Wilson and other leaders that you have raised up for this time in history. Please deal quickly with these hostile individuals who use their credentials and privilege to assail your leaders. Please guard the minds and hearts of your church’s constituency from the fallout that will ensue. Please bring true unity back to your people. Amen.

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Amen, sibling! I find it astounding that this is a hill on which so many wish to make their last stand, as it were. We’re not talking “pillar of the faith” doctrine here. If the GC session had voted to repudiate the Sabbath or the IJ, there would be merit in speaking out and refusing to acquiesce to heresy, but this issue is not of that caliber, and there is no valid reason to defy the will of the body. But there has been a spirit of rebellion fomenting in the church for some time, and this was apparently the catalyst (although not the one I would have predicted) that set them off. When George Knight compares the GC leadership to Nazis, you know he’s gone off the rails.

But, the conspiracy theorists will have their way, and claim that various forms of manipulation, coercion, and other questionable tactics were used to achieve the desired results, so that it really wasn’t the will of the body. But political maneuvering in the past to achieve liberal goals was perfectly acceptable, of course. Comparing the SA vote to the election of Putin? Really? Beam me up!

May the Lord have mercy on His church.

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The will of the body? Interesting that you should be so completely oblivious to the political maneuvering done before and during the GC and imagine that what was voted was the will of the body. It was not and that is the issue. Who do you imagine set the agenda? Do you imagine that the election of Putin is the will of the people. When you set the agenda and what the vote will be you can easily determine the outcome.

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emphasized text[quote=“OmegaRising, post:7, topic:13661”]
Lord, please look favorably on Ted Wilson and other leaders that you have raised up for this time in history. Please deal quickly with these hostile individuals who use their credentials and privilege to assail your leaders. Please guard the minds and hearts of your church’s constituency from the fallout that will ensue. the truth about our church history.[/quote]

Sorry, couldn’t resist…!

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“Please bring true unity back to your people. Amen.”

If God is truly in control of His “church” then the outcome must be what He wills…whatever that entails.

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Men and women have fought for equality and equal access for women to vote, to have custody of their children in divorce, to own property, to be educated, to have access to careers in higher education, law, medicine, firefighting, lawmaking, business leadership, and on and on according to their gifts.

The argument that women have different reproductive equipment has never translated to a sub-par brain or access to the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, insights, talents, and abilities to preach and minister. Of all denominations, the one led and spiritually nurtured by a preaching, teaching woman, Adventists should be equal opportunity supporters to the Gifts of the Spirit. To do otherwise is to attack her spiritual leadership and that of every woman who has been led by the Holy Spirit into ministry.

The deniers access to the Holy Spirit for everyone should get off their high horses of “just get over it and move on” and acknowledge that the Holy Spirit does, indeed, gift women with Spiritual Gifts for preaching, leading, ministry, and spiritual authority. The Holy Spirit is a higher calling than any church policy. To subvert power from the Holy Spirit to a man-made faulty organization on earth is to subvert the Holy Spirit’s Divine Right to call any person, anywhere and anytime to spiritual ministry. Period.

I’m deeply troubled by the superficial argument that men and women are “different.” Of course! That’s why both have spiritual gifts of ministry to reach and teach everyone with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Spirit is Omnipotent and knows who needs to be reached and how and provides Spiritual Gifts, starting with Pentecost, to reach the world through BOTH men and women in spiritual ministry and leadership.

Why would a man-made organization’s policy cut the hand of the Lord short? We are in troubling times. Why limit the numbers of harvesters?

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