3. Diversity and Authority in the SDA Church

            Study of Church Governance and Unity  by GC Secretariat           
                         published September 25, 2016 
 ( PDF file )


      3.  Diversity and Authority in the SDA Church

   Seventh-day Adventists follow this New Testament model, drawing also on the writings of Ellen G White. We believe the authority granted the Church by Jesus enables church leaders to make decisions that bind all members; we further believe that the apostles affirmed the principle [ end of page 13 ] of collective decision-making by leaders representing the whole body of believers. In furtherance of this principle, we collectively subordinate ourselves to decisions taken at General Conference Sessions, which have always been representative bodies, and by Annual Councils, whose membership became representative of the world Church in the second half of the twentieth century. These bodies are our highest authorities, reflecting both the model of the Jerusalem Council and Ellen G White’s explicit counsel (see below, pp 19-26, 31-32, 36-37). Adventists further follow the New Testament model in providing, as we do, for as much diversity as possible without imperiling unity. This arises, both from our biblical understanding and from a longstanding recognition that, in the words of William A Spicer, who served as one of the executive officers of the GC for an unequalled 27 years, “The details of organization may vary according to conditions and work,” but should always be subject to “the spiritual gift of order and of government” (and subsequent generations of church leaders have concurred). (53Decision-making takes place at the local and regional levels as much as possible, but major decisions which have wider implications— including decisions about diversity—are taken at the highest level by representative bodies.

   Unity in diversity is a vital characteristic of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Church encourages/maintains diversity in three ways: (a) by assigning authority to different levels of structure, (b) by prescribing policy only when necessary, and (c) by allowing diversity of ecclesiastical practice where there is consensus. 

      a.  Delegated Authority

   Adventist ecclesiastical polity, as defined and described in GC Working Policy, is unique. While there is a hierarchy of organizational units, “internal governance” is not hierarchical but rather “representative in form with executive responsibility and authority assigned to a variety of entities and institutions and their respective constituencies, boards, and officers through constitutions or articles of incorporation, bylaws, and operating policies and guidelines” (B 05, 1.). 

   Each organizational unit with a “defined membership, also known as a constituency” (local church, mission/conference, and union), has certain “elements of organizational authority and responsibility” delegated to it; these differ at each of “the various levels of denominational organization” (B 05, 2. and 6.). Each unit is typically a member of the constituency of the unit immediately above it (with the unions comprising the GC constituency). Not only does each constituency-based unit have certain powers, but, in addition, members of its constituency participate both in its own “deliberation and decision-making” process and in the selection of delegates who represent their unit in the decision-making process of units at higher levels of structure (B 05, 2. and 4.). Frequent consultation between officers of different levels is strongly encouraged in Working Policy, beyond the formally mandated processes (B 40 20; 40 25; 45 05). The “representative character of church organization” (B 40 10) means that every unit “is dependent to some extent on the realm of authority exercised by other levels of organization” and that its identity “cannot be fully defined or viewed in isolation from its relationships with . . . other levels of denominational organization.” Furthermore, “each level of organization exercises a realm of final authority and responsibility that may have implications for other levels of organization.” (B 05, 6. and 8.) [ end of page 14 ]

   In sum, the decision-making process at each level involves input from other levels. Unlike traditional hierarchical denominations, authority derives from the lowest level of structure (the local church) and flows upward through constituency-based units to the highest level, the General Conference, but the GC then has plenary authority, within mutually prescribed and agreed limits, over all the elements of the world Church; as part of its exercise of authority, the GC delegates some powers to lower levels. In the words of a recent world Church statement, “the Seventh-day Adventist Church has developed on the principle of interdependence rather than independence.” (54) As a veteran administrator put it nearly 75 years ago, in our ecclesiastical polity, “believer is united to believer, church to church, conference to conference, union to union, in one church organization throughout the entire world.” (55) 

   Inherent in our system of representative, consultative, consensus-based decision-making is that organizational units and church-member representatives have input into the decisions of organizations at higher levels of structure. However, having had input, reciprocity means that there must be acceptance of the collective decision. Also inherent in the system, then, is that the authority of an organizational unit at any level is plenary in its territory, encompassing all constituent or component organizations at lower levels. The latter are bound by the decisions of the higher-level units of which they form a part, and of any executive committees entrusted by Working Policy with far-reaching authority. These include, of course, the GC Executive Committee. 

   The authority of the Executive Committee should be self-evident from the nature of the system, but it is made explicit in the Church’s policy documents. Since some have questioned whether these govern unions, however, it may be helpful to show, from these documents, that the authority of the GC Executive Committee applies not only to divisions, but also to unions, and in consequence to conferences and missions. 

   Unions are the members of the General Conference.(56) Thus, the provisions of the GC Constitution and Bylaws apply to and are binding on unions. Article III of the GC Constitution mandates that “Each division of the General Conference . . . shall act in full harmony with the General Conference Constitution and Bylaws, the General Conference Working Policy, and actions of the Executive Committee” so that “actions of division committees shall, of necessity, be in harmony with and complementary to the decisions of the General Conference in Session, and the actions of the General Conference Executive Committee between Sessions.” (57) Article I of the Bylaws extends this, in turn, to unions, providing that “all organizations and institutions within a division’s territory,” while “responsible to their respective executive committees/boards,” must still “operate in harmony with division and General Conference Executive Committee actions and policies.” (58) Article XIII of the Bylaws further empowers an “Annual Council” of the Executive Committee to transact certain world Church business, including “the adoption of policies that may be necessary in the operation of the worldwide work.” (59)  This is the specific warrant for Working Policy, but the other provisions cited make it clear that policies approved by the GC Executive Committee apply to unions. Unmistakably, then, unions are constitutionally obliged to act in harmony with GC Working Policy. Furthermore, the Constitution and Bylaws specify that the GC Executive Committee “speaks for the world Church” because its membership “includes representatives of all the divisions of the world field and the presidents of all unions” and is representative of the world field  [ end of page 15 ]  not only geographically, for in addition to administrators, it includes pastors, other “frontline” workers, laypeople, and “young adults.” (60) In consequence: “The authority . . . of the General Conference Executive Committee is the authority of the world Church.” (61) These are significant stipulations in their own right, but the Constitution’s elevation (Article III) of the authority of the GC Executive Committee “between Sessions” adds further weight to Working Policy, since its provisions all derive from Annual Council actions. ​

   GC Working Policy itself underscores the constitutional provisos. It is described as “the authoritative voice of the Church in all matters pertaining to the mission and to the administration of the work of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in all parts of the world” (B 15 05). Strict adherence to Policy is required of “all organizations in every part of the world field,” with “work in every organization [to] be administered in full harmony with the policies of the General Conference and of the divisions” (B 15 10, 1). All conference/mission, union and division “Officers and administrators” are, moreover, “expected to work in harmony with the General Conference Working Policy” (B 15 15). Crucially, too, “departure from these policies” requires “prior approval from the General Conference Executive Committee” (B 15 10, 1). 

   What, then, does GC Working Policy indicate about the authority of constituency-based organizational units vis-à-vis the GC or division executive committees? No mission, conference, or union has a right to take unilateral decisions on important matters, or to depart from decisions taken by units at a higher level of structure with wider authority. While the local church, the conference/mission, and the union each have their own constituency and constitution, their status “is not self-generated, automatic, or perpetual.” Instead, it “is granted to a constituency as a trust . . . by an executive committee or a constituency session at higher levels of denominational organization” (B 05, 3.), only “by vote of the appropriate constituency [or] actions of properly authorized executive committees” (B 10 25). Recognition as a conference/mission or union brings with it decision-making authority in defined areas and the right of representation at higher levels of denominational structure, but “status” is contingent on “compliance with denominational practices and policies” and “can be reviewed, revised, amended, or withdrawn by the level of organization that granted it” (B 05, 3.). 

   In sum, it is very clear that even though unions have their own constituencies and their own constitutions, in the interdependent Adventist system of church governance they do not have a right to disregard actions of GC Sessions or policies voted by the GC Executive Committee. This is true, too, of other organizational units. The responsibility of unions, conferences and missions, and local churches to comply with world Church “practices and policies” supersedes all other considerations. 

   The exercise of authority at different levels inevitably results in some diversity of practice. However, “individual units of the Church are given freedom to function in ways appropriate to their role and culture,” as long as these are “in harmony with the teachings and policies of the Church, and the actions of the world Church in the General Conference Executive Committee or in General Conference Session” (B 10 25). Thus, GC Working Policy allows diversity of practice within certain broad parameters and so it is simply not the case that complying with church policy means uniformity rather than unity. GC Working Policy is wide-ranging, however, and reserves to Annual Councils or GC Sessions the right to determine major aspects of ecclesiastical practice,  [ end of page 16 ] including relationships between organizations at different levels. As a result, diversity arising from the devolution of authority is mostly local in nature. It follows that examples of global diversity of practice arise from decisions both taken and not taken by the world Church.

      b.   Tacit Diversity

   We have seen that the GC Constitution, Bylaws and Working Policy grant extensive powers to representative bodies of the world Church: to GC Sessions and to the GC Executive Committee between Sessions. However, the world Church simply has not considered, or pronounced on, a great many topics. In the absence of definite policy provisions, diversity exists—what could be termed tacit diversity (or unspecified diversity), since the diverse practices arise from church leaders’ lack of action, rather than their explicit approval. Still, where policy is silent, a range of practices can and do flourish. 

   For example: church members all around the globe praise God with music and song during Sabbath School and divine service. But worship music in the Middle East is different to that in Southern Asia, and in both regions it typically differs from church music in Western countries. This has little to do with perceived differences between “classical” and “contemporary” styles, for that rift exists in all three regions, but is expressed differently in each, which reflects that regional variations go beyond the merely stylistic: tonal and rhythmic concepts are very different. The style, layout and decoration of church buildings in general, and sanctuaries in particular, can vary significantly, as well. And while the majority of church members probably dress well for church, “dressing well” means different things in different localities. Postures in prayer that are acceptable in some places are perceived as disrespectful in others. The Adventist Church universally teaches that a plant-based diet is the healthiest option and the biblical ideal, but both the incidence of vegetarianism and its interpretation (whether it includes eggs, milk, or fish) vary globally. In contrast, use of alcohol and tobacco are official Adventist tests of fellowship everywhere. Such examples of passively allowed diversity could be multiplied. When a GC Session or the GC Executive Committee has formally taken a stance on an issue, however, that cannot simply be ignored. 

       c.   Active Diversity

   Finally, a number of variances from policy have been officially permitted, resulting in what could be termed active diversity, since it arises because of positive action rather than by default.

   Sometimes instances of active diversity have been specific regional variations permitted in particular fields. For example, the GC Executive Committee in 1962 approved a request from the Middle East Division to abolish unions in its territory and have the division headquarters work directly with the missions. This was a very significant variance in terms of Adventist ecclesiastical polity and it lasted for the rest of the division’s life (it was dissolved in 1970). It reflected the realities of mission in this heavily Islamic territory, including, as the division officers noted, “the small constituency and the need for concentrated effort in the Middle East Division”. (62)

   There are also, however, instances in GC Working Policy of, in effect, blanket variations from standard policy that any local union or conference/mission is permitted to adopt, in the [ end of page 17 ] interest of mission in its particular context. These include some models of organization that were once controversial (such as the union of churches) because they involved adaptation of the structure adopted at the 1901 GC Session. However, after prolonged consideration by the world Church, over a period of many years, provision was made in GC Working Policy for four “Alternatives in organizational structure” (B 10 28). This allowed diversity at the global level as a response to the challenges arising in diverse cultures and societies. Today the 1901 structure remains the official “standard model” of organization, but variant organizational models have been implemented in several divisions, and their potential utilization is widely accepted (though not widely adopted). A decision by the world Church permitted system-wide diversity of practice, on a case-by-case basis, while preserving standard practice. 

   As a report to the 2012 Annual Council commented, in practice “organizations have adapted General Conference and/or division working policy in a manner that reveals considerable diversity of application.” (63) In and of itself, this is not necessarily problematic: as a recent GC commission on denominational structure reported, the “ideal” of “a single system of uniform structure and procedures” in the world Church is attractive, but is very “difficult to achieve . . . because of vast differences in cultural and political environments, in the availability and use of technology, and in the needs or expectations that various areas and groups of members have from organizational structure.” (64)Consequently, the (unrealistic) expectation “that every entity of the world will look and function exactly like every other entity of its type” could “in itself become an impediment to mission.” (65) As these quotations from GC Executive Committee minutes reveal, GC Working Policy is not a straitjacket. The world Church has not infrequently permitted variations in response to particular regional challenges: these variances have been granted not lightly or casually, but carefully and prayerfully, often after considerable discussion. 

   GC Working Policy includes two sub-sections entitled “Structural Flexibility” and “Alternatives in Organizational Structure.” (66These provide for variations to the structure approved at the 1901 GC Session, which had four levels of constituency-based units, three with similar staffing. This model served well and there was reluctance to alter it, but eventually, as the Church expanded geographically, it no longer seemed ideal in some parts of the world. Local leaders identified ways mission could be served by adjusting the standard 1901 model. Some of the “alternatives” were initially controversial and faced opposition over a number of years, and not all were approved by world Church leaders. (67

   For example, the union of churches model of structure was first mooted in 1967 as an ad hoc response by the Southern European Division (SED) to a particular set of circumstances in Austria, though the organization of the country as the first “union of churches” was not taken unilaterally by SED, but only after consultation with and approval by the GC Officers. (68) The GC Executive Committee at Annual Council only approved adding the union of churches to the list of possible organizations, as a variation of the union conference/union mission (rather than as a status granted to individual unions) in 1983 (and thus the first warrant in GC Working Policy was not until 1984). The language of the Executive Committee action approving this variance expressed disapproval of it. (“The Church does not encourage the organizational arrangement termed union of churches . . .”). (69) This language went into GC Working Policy and was retained for 24 years. (70)   [ end of page 18 ]

   By 1999, attitudes were shifting: a report to the GC and Division Officers (GCDO) proposed allowing four variances in structure (broadly similar though not identical to those currently allowed for in GC Working Policy) and this was recommended to Annual Council. (71) Yet despite GCDO’s support, no action was taken by the GC Executive Committee at this time. Not until 2007, when the Commission on Ministries, Services, and Structures (appointed 2005) finally reported, did Annual Council at last add provisions for “Structural Flexibility” and “Alternatives in Organizational Structure” to GC Working Policy, thus officially endorsing the four specified “alternatives” and removing the previous censorious language. (72) Today, the 1901 structure remains the “standard model,” both officially, (73) and in practice around the world field; but the union of churches and other alternative organizational models are stipulated in Working Policy without any negative implication, they have been implemented in several divisions, and their potential utilization is widely accepted (though not widely adopted). (74) A considered decision at the world Church level permitted system-wide diversity of practice, in a minority of cases, as a response to challenges in particular missional contexts, all while still preserving the standard practice. 

   Crucially, all the variances discussed were authorized by the world Church. They reflect decisions taken after representatives of all Seventh-day Adventists, meeting together, agreed that some Adventists could organize differently. “Structural relationships in the Seventh-day Adventist Church are dynamic,” but they change “not by independent initiative but through deliberative, consultative, and collaborative action.”(75) This, again, is in keeping with the example of the Jerusalem Council, which allowed significant diversity after all had discussed it and reached a consensus.

     4.   Acting Collaboratively, not Unilaterally

   In sum, longstanding Adventist practice, reflecting the model found in the book of Acts, is to let diversity flourish whenever possible, but to reserve to the world Church decisions about whether to allow diversity in matters of significance. The Adventist equivalent of the Jerusalem Council traditionally was a GC Session, but, as the denomination expanded, a greater role has been accorded to the GC Executive Committee, which is now, in its defined areas of authority, equivalent to the Jerusalem Council, for both are representative bodies, reflective of the Church as a whole. 

   We have seen that diversity of practice exists where the world Church has not spoken or where a representative body has deliberated and agreed to allow some variation in particular places or situations. But what happens where issues arise from cultural diversity and the world Church has spoken, and its collective decision has been not to allow diverse practices? After world Church representative bodies, composed of delegates from around the world, meeting and discussing together in good faith, have made a decision, that decision must be respected. To be sure, world Church leaders recently acknowledged “the need for and legitimacy of local adaptation of policies and procedures that facilitate the mission while not diminishing the worldwide identity, harmony and unity of the Church.” (76) But unilateral action at the union and conference levels does diminish “the worldwide identity, harmony and unity of the Church.” Rather than affirming diversity, such unilateral action rejects it and rejects the reciprocity that is at the heart of the system.   [ end of page 19 ]

   Decisions taken at the world Church level are binding on all levels of structure; where there are apparent exceptions they are typically in areas where policy is silent or where the world Church has devolved powers to other levels (but the delegation of authority itself points to the overarching authority of the world Church). When it comes to the interrelationship of different levels of structure, the work of general departments, regulating the credentialing and licensing of church workers, the employment of International Service Employees, and broad financial policies, the GC Executive Committee generally takes decisions, but the GC Session the is supreme authority in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and in the Adventist Church polity and it always has been. This is mandated by the GC Constitution, Bylaws, and Working Policy. (77Yet these documents are, as they acknowledge, a means to an ends, which is to preserve “oneness in mission, purpose, and belief” while maintaining biblical truth and upholding Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. (78) The key point, then, is that in ascribing highest authority on earth to the GC Session, Seventh-day Adventists are applying the biblical model found in Acts: the decision of a group that is representative of the whole body of believers should be followed. Furthermore, Adventists are also following the counsel of Ellen G White, who writes about this issue in the strongest terms.

     Footnotes:   53  to  78

53.  W. A. Spicer, “Gospel Order, No. 1, The Divine Principle of Organization,” Review and Herald 86/12 (March 25, 1909): 5. Spicer was GC Secretary at the time he wrote this, an office he held for 19 years, followed by eight as President. The GC Executive Committee, just over a century later, similarly endorsed the principle of allowing variations, “according to conditions and work”: “The General Conference and Its Divisions,” GCC Minutes, 2012:68.

54.  “Statement on Church Polity, Procedures, and the Resolution of Disagreements in the Light of Recent Actions on Ministerial Ordination,” Annual Council, Oct. 16, 2012, GCC Minutes 2012: 205–208 quotation at 206.

55.  Oliver O. Montgomery, Principles of Church Organization and Administration (Takoma Park, Washington, D. C.: Review & Herald Publishing, 1942), 98.

56.  Constitution, art. IV.

57.  Constitution, art. III.

58.  General Conference Bylaws, art. I, sec. 4.

59.  Bylaws, art. XIII, sec. 2.a.

60.  Bylaws, art. XIII, sec. 1.a; Constitution, art. VIII, sec. 1.b.

61.  Bylaws, art. XIII, sec. 1.a.

62.  Middle East Division Committee, Apr. 17 and May 16, 1962, actions 62/34 and 62/47, Division Committee Minutes, pp. 954, 957. GCC Minutes, May 3, 1962, pp.1238.

63.  “The General Conference and Its Divisions,” GCC Minutes, 2012: 63, with examples on 63–64.

64.  “Principles and Practices in Organizational Flexibility for Seventh-day Adventist Denominational Structure,” Report of the Commission on Ministries, Services, and Structures, Annual Council, Oct. 15, 2007, GCC Minutes, 2007: 139–64, quotation at 143.

65.  “The General Conference and Its Divisions,” GCC Minutes, 2012: 68.

66.  WP B 10 27 and B 10 28. 46

67.  On the 1901 Session, see n. 107 and above pp. 22-23. The approved variations in the organizational model are summarized in WP B 10 28, nos. 2–5.

68.  See, e.g., GC Officers Meetings, Aug. 21 and 31, 1967, GC Officers Minutes, 1967: 244, 256–57: the title originally suggested was “Austrian Union of Seventh-day Adventist Churches” (Ibid., 256) but was immediately simplified: see Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook 1968, 237.

69.  Annual Council, Oct. 7, 1983, GCC Minutes, 1983: 293–95, at 293. Vote on 293, quote on 294.

70.  It first appears in WP (1984), B 10 05; it appears for the last time in WP (2006–2007), B 85 05.

71.  General Conference and Division Officers, Mar. 9, 1999, in ADCOM Minutes, 1999: 68–69 (action), 72ff. (copy of report: “Variations in Administrative Relationships Within Seventh-day Adventist Denominational Structure,” 11 pp).

72.  They first appear in WP (2007–2008), B 10 27–28. The actions adding the new sections were taken Oct. 15, 2007, see GCC Minutes, 2007: 155–58.

73.  WP BA 10 28, no. 1.

74.  As of 2015 there were 14 unions of churches, in five divisions (ESD, EUD, IAD, SAD and TED), out of 132 unions of all kinds, i.e., 11% of the total. See Annual Statistical Report, 152 (2016), 8, table 15.

75.  “The General Conference and Its Divisions,” GCC Minutes, 2012:69.
 76.  Ibid., 68.

77.  WP B 10 22; cf. Constitution, art. III; Bylaws, art. XIII, sec. 1.a.

78.  WP B 40 05, cf. B 05, 1; and A 05 05, A 09 05.


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III - Diversity, Unity and Authority