“Policies do not dictate what we believe, but they should govern the actions of church leaders. Church leaders have an ethical responsibility to abide by the decisions made jointly by the representatives of the world church.”
Published on: 01-03-2019
Have you ever noticed that sometimes honest people can view the same event differently? Their perceptions about what transpired vary greatly. It’s also possible that misperceptions repeated often enough can become reality in our minds. Since we are all human, this sometimes happens in the church.
Misperceptions are running rampant on social media about the document “Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions,” recently voted at the 2018 Annual Council.
Some have even made the exaggerated claim that the General Conference (GC) desires to control what happens at the local church level, and that no one is safe from its tentacles of control. The document has been called “papal,” “anti-Protestant,” and “unbiblical.” This, of course, is not only unfortunate, but not true.
Let’s consider seven common misperceptions about the current discussion over the document voted by the General Conference Executive Committee at the 2018 Annual Council and compare these misperceptions with the facts of the document.
Misperception 1: The document is an overreach by the General Conference to centralize power.
Fact: The document actually states, “Planning for and ensuring compliance shall initially be entrusted to the entity closest to the matter” (p. 1, line 25).
The intent of the document is to allow the entity closest to the issue of noncompliance to handle the matter. Rather than a centralization of power, it encourages the opposite. It urges all issues of policy noncompliance to be solved at the local level. If this is not possible, the next-highest level of church organization may become involved.
For example, if a local church has an issue of noncompliance with a voted policy, the local conference has the responsibility to work with the church to resolve the issue. If a conference has a challenge with noncompliance that it cannot or will not solve, the union conference/mission can become involved in working out a solution. This is true for each level of church organization.
If there is noncompliance regarding a General Conference session or Executive Committee voted action that remains unresolved, GC representatives may become involved in discussions with the entity to resolve the issue.
Misperception 2: The document uses a nonbiblical method of coercion.
Fact: The document does just the opposite. Here is what the document states: “Administrators dealing with any matter of noncompliance shall exercise Christian due process, which will include much prayer and dialogue” (p. 2, line 35).
The document is designed to be redemptive, not punitive. It provides for a process of dialogue, prayer, and counsel to determine how best to solve the matter of noncompliance. The purpose of the document is not to punish noncompliant entities, but to establish a process whereby issues of noncompliance can be resolved. It follows the scriptural pattern of reconciliation and resolution as outlined in Matthew 18.
Misperception 3: The document is a heavy-handed authoritarian approach to problem solving.
Fact: The document provides for tolerance. It allows administrators of the entity that is perceived to be out of compliance a 60-day period to further dialogue and offer solutions to the challenging situation (p. 2, line 14).
The due process provisions in the document encourage discussion and prayerful consideration on how to solve noncompliance issues. Rather than a heavy-handed, dictatorial mandate, the document assures a process of collaboration and seeks to find solutions to problems of noncompliance. Some may feel that 60 days is a short period of time to resolve complex issues. In fact, this time period provides specificity so that noncompliance does not go on endlessly without some resolution. A specific time frame fosters dialogue and facilitates problem solving.
The proposed “warnings” and “reprimands” are designed to enable entities to think of the seriousness of noncompliance to voted actions of the world church and to encourage them to come back into harmony with the world church. Any warning, reprimand, or other consequences must be voted by the General Conference Executive Committee with worldwide representation.
Misperception 4: The final vote of authority regarding consequences rests in Silver Spring, Maryland, with the GC Administrative Committee.
Fact: The document clearly states, “If, after the organization closest to the matter has been unable to resolve a compliance issue and the General Conference Compliance Review Committee has recommended consequences, only the General Conference Executive Committee and/or the General Conference in session has authority to implement the recommendation (p. 3, lines 27-30).
Misperception 5: This document changes the culture of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and inhibits freedom of conscience.
Fact: When an individual chooses to go contrary to the voted policies of the corporate body, typically there are consequences. Policy does not dictate what an individual believes; it should, though, govern the actions of leaders.
The document voted at Annual Council does not change the culture of the Adventist Church. It preserves the integrity of the organizational structure and the voted actions of the worldwide body. What will change the culture of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is if votes of the General Conference in session and its Executive Committee are not respected. If each entity from the local church to local conferences, union conferences, and divisions does not respect the decisions of the corporate church, the church will be led into organizational chaos, fragmentation, disunity, and congregationalism.
The issue before the church is whether it desires to remain as a united worldwide body, valuing the collective decisions of the General Conference in session and its Executive Committee, or whether it will become a loosely connected body of organizational entities.
Misperception 6: The General Conference does not have any entity to oversee its activities and actions.
Fact: The General Conference is answerable to the GC Executive Committee. This is why regular reports are given during the Spring Meeting and Annual Council. In addition, the General Conference is regularly audited for financial compliance by the independent and well-respected auditing firm, Maner & Costerisan.
During the 2018 Spring Meeting representatives from Maner & Costerisan reported that the General Conference was in compliance with the General Conference Working Policy regarding financial matters.
Also during the 2018 Spring Meeting, as part of the financial reports, GC Treasury presented the “Accountability for Use of Tithe” report. This, along with the report from Maner & Costerisan, can be read in the May 2018 GC Executive Committee Newsletter.
Misperception 7: The document is unbiblical. It places policy above Scripture and is therefore contrary to the Protestant Reformation in that it violates freedom of conscience.
Fact: Church organization is a fundamental principle of New Testament teaching. The church is held together by the Holy Spirit through a common commitment to Christ, a shared belief in biblical teachings, a passion for mission, and a worldwide church organization. If any one of these is subtly undermined, the entire church is in danger.
Without church organization, congregationalism will run rampant. As in the days of the judges, “everyone will do right in their own eyes” (see Judges 17:6; 21:25). The policies of the church never dictate or supersede an individual’s conscience. Believers are free to follow the dictates of their conscience. There will be times when honest people see things differently; I have friends on both sides of the current debate. Although policies do not shape our conscience, they do govern our actions as leaders of God’s church.
Policies are agreements about the way the church will operate. They determine how an international, global family will function. Church leaders have an ethical responsibility to abide by the decisions made jointly by representatives of the world church at a General Conference session. If the actions of a General Conference session or GC Executive Committee make little difference, our entire system of church governance is called into question.
Policies are not unchangeable biblical teachings and should never be elevated above biblical truth. They are operating principles that delegates to a General Conference session or Executive Committee can change, and at times have changed. If change to any policy passed by the General Conference in session or to Executive Committee actions is made, it should be made by the same body where it was voted. If a representative group of leaders wish to see a policy reexamined, they can make an appeal to the General Conference Executive Committee.
Where the Battle Isn’t
Misperceptions never serve us well. They lead us to operate from fear in a world of illusion. Worst of all, they deter us from the mission of the church to live and preach the gospel to fulfill the mission of Christ.
Believing misperceptions causes us to fight where the battle isn’t rather than focusing our spiritual energies and attention on reaching lost people to prepare men and women for the coming of our Lord.
May the living Christ so fill our hearts and guide our thinking that we focus on the thing that really matters: souls saved eternally for His kingdom.