Study of Church Governance and Unity by GC Secretariat |
published September 25, 2016 ( PDF file )
The apostle Peter, concluding the second of two epistles written to encourage early Christians, presages the events of the latter days, and then poses a crucial question: “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?” (2 Peter 3:11 NIV)
This is a key question for Seventh-day Adventists, too, not just in general but in the particular context of how we collectively conduct ourselves and relate to each other. Having surveyed relevant teachings of Jesus, the apostles, and Ellen G White; early church practice; and Adventist practice and policy—how, then, should we live? How should we act? What does all this mean for us today?
As we consider Ellen G White’s counsel, it is vital to note that the situation which prompted prophetic censure, of “two or three men” trying to control all aspects of the church’s mission, or “merely a half a dozen” at the world headquarters seeking “to be a ruling and a controlling power,” is a world away from the situation today. In the 1890s, GC administration was effectively obliged to take an interest in every local field because it interacted directly with conference presidents, but it took an unhealthy interest, intervening almost dictatorially at times and limiting local initiative, while conference presidents were not represented on a tiny and utterly unrepresentative GC Executive Committee.
Today, in contrast, there are, in addition to several hundred local conferences and missions, a total of 135 unions and 13 divisions, each with defined authority in its territory and its own executive committee, making collaborative decisions (while unions also have constituencies, which have their own sessions). Every union president sits on the GC Executive Committee, which additionally includes frontline workers and lay people from every division, and youth representation. Its several hundred members are of both genders and are drawn from around the world. Thus, even between GC Sessions (when over two thousand delegates from every union do business), a body representative of the world Church takes major decisions delivering “the [ end of page 34 ] judgment and voice of the General Conference,” while reserving the most important matters to the GC Session, “the highest authority that God has upon the earth,” whose judgment is definitive. (157)
As we have seen, denominational policy results from deliberations by representatives from around the world. Ignoring what was commonly agreed upon sets a dangerous precedent in organizational terms. It also strikes a serious blow against unity.
a. Invalid Ordinations
Criteria for ordination, as noted earlier, have always been set by the world Church: initially by GC Sessions, but by the GC Executive Committee since 1930 when responsibility for the selection of candidates for ordination was devolved to unions, who would apply the criteria set by the world Church.(158) For the first sixty years of the denomination’s history, women regularly received ministerial licenses, while since 1981 they have been commissioned as ministers, but women have never been ordained to gospel ministry, which the Seventh-day Adventist Church has consistently regarded as qualitatively different to licensing or commissioning.(159) The 1881 GC Session briefly debated a subcommittee’s proposal to allow the ordination of women, but referred it to the GC Executive Committee, where it died. The issue did not come to a Session again until 1990. That year’s GC Session considered at length whether or not to permit female pastors to be ordained and did more than decline to change the status quo; it took a definite action: “we do not approve ordination of women to the gospel ministry”. (160)Proposals came to both the 1995 and 2015 GC Sessions to allow regional variation of the gender-limited policy, but both were rejected. (161) It is thus incorrect to assert that there is nothing in denominational policy to stop unions from ordaining females to gospel ministry. Such ordinations have been explicitly disallowed by a GC Session action, a decision reinforced by two other GC Session votes.
b. Credentials and Licenses
What, however, of the unorthodox credentialing practices? Is it perhaps the case that the world Church has not taken a position on them? As we have seen, in the absence of an agreed and stated view, organizational units could continue to act. In fact, however, these are practices about which the world Church has deliberated and pronounced, meaning that it is necessary for all to accept the decision of the wider body.
Current GC Working Policy states that the ministerial credential is “Issued to ministerial employees who have demonstrated a divine call to ministry and have been ordained to the gospel ministry” (E 5 10, 1. a). It thus provides that pastors who have been ordained should receive the ministerial credential, though not specifying that it must be issued. GC Working Policy further stipulates that a commissioned minister credential will be issued to certain types of church worker “unless they hold ministerial credentials” (E 5 10, 2.a), which means that workers holding ministerial credentials are not to receive commissioned minister credentials; and it states that “Licensed ministers are on the path toward ordination to the gospel ministry” (E 05 10, 3), which invalidates the award of a ministerial license to one who has been ordained. [ end of page 35 ]
It must be acknowledged that GC Working Policy does not contemplate the current situation in which either (a) pastors who have been ordained are requesting and/or are being issued with commissioned minister credentials or ministerial licenses, or (b) pastors are not being ordained at all and being commissioned or licensed instead. Such practices are not explicitly prohibited in Working Policy. Yet relevant issues have been considered by the world Church and been the subject of “the judgment and voice of the General Conference.” Pertinent principles, and the world Church actions associated with them, are sketched out below.
First, a statement approved by the GC Executive Committee in 1930, then embodied in GC Working Policy, sets out a foundational principle: that “any shadow of uncertainty in the matter of what ministerial credentials stand for in one field reflects a shadow upon all credentials, and is a matter of general denominational concern.” (162) Where there is any question about policy’s provisions, then, the GC Executive Committee is obliged to take an interest and reach a verdict.
A second foundational principle is that ordination in Adventist ecclesiology and practice undoubtedly is for life, except in wholly unusual circumstances. Ministerial credentials are not necessarily held for life; however, where there is a change in credential it is because a pastor has moved into a line of work that is conspicuously not pastoral or spiritual and it does not affect his ordination—ministerial credentials can be restored if the line of work alters. The ordination itself can only become void as a result of disciplinary action.
The question of the permanence of ministerial ordination did not arise in an Adventist context for many years. Elders’ ordination provides the first precedent. The 1885 GC Session had to deal with a question that, after twenty years, had arisen in local church practice, namely whether “an elder of a church upon removing to another church [could] be elected to the eldership of this last church without re-ordination?”(163) As delegates acknowledged, there was “a difference in practice in different conferences,” but after considerable discussion they agreed a common way forward: if an elder was “re-elected,” in his local church, “or properly elected elder of another church, his ordination shall stand good. He need not be re-ordained.” This followed from a principle that was explicitly adopted: the elder’s “ordination shall stand good for all time, except in case of apostasy.” (164) This is an example of the way ordination, for elders as well as for pastors, has been regarded for most of our history as a matter in which consistency across the world Church is important.
It is likely that early Adventists regarded the duration of the elder’s ordination as applying also to the minister’s ordination as well. Eventually, in 1938, the GC Executive Committee voted: “That it be ever recognized that while ordination to the ministry is for life, the call to administrative service is temporary, therefore, those chosen for administrative responsibility from time to time, should ever hold themselves in readiness cheerfully to engage in full-time ministerial service when called again to do so.”(165) Four years later, this proviso (with slightly revised wording) was formally added to GC Working Policy: “those who are ordained to this sacred work” of “gospel ministry . . . should recognize that while ordination to the ministry is for life, the call to administrative service is temporary; therefore, those chosen for administrative responsibility from time to time, should ever hold themselves in readiness cheerfully to engage in full-time ministerial service when called again to do so.” (166) It has been in GC Working Policy ever since. (167) [ end of page 36 ]
The lifelong nature of ordination was taken for granted in the 1938 action; its main focus was to make plain that, precisely because of its enduring nature, ministers might become administrators but be called back to pastoral duties again. It is an important point because, while policy currently stipulates that ministerial credentials will normally be given up if an ordained pastor is neither engaged in nor administering pastoral or evangelistic work, this does not void his ordination. (168) This is clearly implied in the stipulation by the 1938 and 1942 GC Executive Committee actions (and GC Working Policy), “that . . . ordination to the ministry is for life,” but it was, moreover, made explicit in guidelines issued by Annual Council in 1975. These were “not guidelines for the ordination of persons to the ministry” (that being governed by GC Working Policy) but were “to assist committees in the issuance of ministerial credentials to those already ordained, especially those whose areas of work appear not to require the service of ordained ministers.” The guidelines specified: “Where because of the nature of the duties they are performing, the Ministerial Credentials of ordained workers are not continued or renewed, their ordination is not thereby invalidated [emphasis supplied], nor is any reflection intended or cast upon their lives or their service.” (169)
In other words, the type of work a pastor does is temporary, but ordination is permanent. It is an important and positive point. If a pastor’s status could be changed by administrators, there would be potential for abuse of power. Instead, the denomination’s recognition of a pastor’s call to gospel ministry and his ordination can be altered only in limited, exceptional, and unfortunate circumstances.
Ministerial ordination can be annulled for apostasy or for moral failings. Initially, this was simply taken for granted, and was not explicitly provided for. Yet it has been the case at least since the 1870s. Wolcott H. Littlejohn, who had been ordained in 1871, was disfellowshipped in 1876 and evidently it was assumed that this made his ordination null, because two and a half years later, after he had been restored to membership, he was reordained at the 1878 GC Session (something no longer allowed by Working Policy).( 170) In 1897, the GC Executive Committee took an action revoking the credentials of a pastor due to improper relationships with “young ladies.” (171) But there was as yet no explicit provision for making ordination null; not until 1941 was the basis for annulling ordination and removing credentials added to policy. That year’s GC Session voted that, in the case of a “moral fall by any minister . . . he has by that transgression made void his ordination . . . In such case the conference which last issued him credentials shall annul his ordination and withdraw his credentials.” (172) A few months later, Annual Council voted to add the following provision to GC Working Policy:
In the case of apostasy on the part of any minister . . . it is to be recognized that he has by such disloyalty proved himself unworthy of a place or part in the gospel ministry of this church. In such case the conference employing him shall annul his ordination and withdraw his credentials, thus divesting him of all authority and privileges that pertain to the gospel ministry. (173)
In 1946, the language of GC Working Policy was amended to declare that, by certain actions, including moral fall or apostasy, a minister had “by that transgression made void his ordination to the sacred office of the ministry.” Ever since, the language in Working Policy has been that of the ordination being “made void.” (174) On rare occasions, ministerial credentials have been suspended or withdrawn without the ordination itself being declared null or void. (175) GC [ end of page 37 ] Working Policy does currently allow the ministerial credential to be temporarily withdrawn (L 60 25, 1). More typically, however, the withdrawing of credentials has been associated with what was termed either the annulment (up to 1981) or the voiding of ordination. (176) These are, however, the only exceptions to the lifelong validity of ordination.
In sum, the only circumstances in which Adventist Church policy or practice countenances a change of credential for an ordained pastor is if he leaves pastoral work (whether temporarily or permanently); if he suffers a moral fall or apostatizes; or if he resigns his ordination. If these do not apply, then the existing provisions of GC Working Policy (as analyzed above) prevail: “ministerial employees who . . . have been ordained to the gospel ministry” are to be issued with ministerial credentials; but neither commissioned minister credentials nor ministerial licenses are to be issued to church workers who have been ordained. Ordained pastors cannot be turned, retrospectively, into commissioned pastors or licensed pastors, and if they qualify for a ministerial credential then they must receive it, rather than another credential or license. GC Working Policy excludes any other possibility.
In theory, a union or conference could vote that, thenceforth, it would only issue licenses to new pastors, because, in certain circumstances, a licensed minister can perform the functions of an ordained minister. Such a decision would have serious implications for the future, since presidents of unions and conferences must be ordained, but additionally, in any case, GC Working Policy and the Church Manual allow for such a decision to be made, even in theory, only further to decisions by a division executive committee. Given that no division executive committee has taken an action allowing a union of churches or conference entirely to delegate the ministerial functions of the ordained pastor to the licensed pastor, recent moves to exclusively license pastors are contrary to policies voted both by the GC Executive Committee and by GC Sessions. (177) It should be noted, too, that even if taken with the blessing of a division executive committee, such actions would be against the spirit of GC Working Policy, given its plain statement: “Licensed ministers are on the path toward ordination to the gospel ministry” (E 05 05, 3).
It might perhaps be argued that an ordained pastor could repudiate his ordination without it being intended, or taken by his employing organization, as “dissidence” (which is grounds for voiding of ordination, in which case, of course, reemployment as a pastor is prohibited). (178) If that were the case, ordained pastors might request to be commissioned (though given the Policy provision that licentiates “are on the path toward ordination to the gospel ministry” [E 05 10, 3] they could not credibly request licensing). Because ordination is the Church’s recognition of a divine calling, it cannot be given up on individual impulse. Thus, what would have to be repudiated would be a pastor’s entire vocation and his calling to ministry. Even if one were to accept such a process as theoretically permissible, however, presently no pastor with ministerial credentials has denied his call to ministry; and it seems highly unlikely that any pastor would do that. Repudiation is not actively prohibited but certainly GC Working Policy does not countenance such a course of action.
This brings us to the final and perhaps most important point. For, after all, GC Working Policy can be amended, and its provisions can be waived in certain circumstances, but either requires consultation and consensus. Organizations that have departed from Adventist practice in credentialing and licensing have done so without consulting and taking counsel — and that, too, is [ end of page 38 ] a departure (perhaps a more egregious one) from our established practice. Given that credentials and licenses have for many years been regulated by the GC Executive Committee, rather than GC Sessions, the divergent organizations might plead that they are not defying “the highest authority that God has upon the earth.” However, the world Church has established common policies for all, in meetings of the GC Executive Committee. Of course, policies are not like the Fundamental Beliefs. There should be some flexibility, permitting local responses to particular situations. As we have already seen, however, this is allowed for in GC Working Policy (see above, pp 13-17). While generally requiring strict adherence, it provides that local organizations can adapt, even depart from, the policies—but this requires “prior approval from the General Conference Executive Committee” (B 15 10, 1). Such approval has not been granted. If unions wish to vary the mutually agreed rules for managing the pastorate, they should raise the matter in the appropriate forum.
The Apostle Peter posed a rhetorical question (quoted at the start of this section) to the first-century Christian church. His answer is highly relevant for the 21st-century Adventist Church: “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.” For, truly, as Seventh-day Adventists, “we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.” And so we, too, should “be diligent to be found by Him without spot, or blemish, and at peace.” (2 Pet 3:11-13 NIV; 3:14 ESV, emphasis supplied). Another question highly relevant to Adventists today is one that Ellen G White put to church members 135 years ago (quoted above, p 5), but that bears repeating: “What are we doing to preserve unity in the bonds of peace?” (179)
All the matters surveyed in this section are ones on which the world Church has pronounced in a series of clear decisions by Annual Councils or Sessions. Action taken without counsel, or contrary to counsel, distracts from mission and leads to disunity, which precludes peace.
What does this all mean for us as Seventh-day Adventists? The New Testament model points to the need for collaborative decision-making and for a united agreement to allow diversity of practice. For many years, GC Working Policy has done likewise, reflecting the teaching of the Bible. In our ecclesiastical polity, there are clear functional equivalents of New Testament decision-making bodies. These include meetings of all the apostles or “the apostles and elders” (Acts 15:6, 22–3, cf. 1:15, 6:6). Most significant is what Ellen G White calls “a general council of the entire body of believers, made up of appointed delegates from the various local churches, with the apostles and elders in positions of leading responsibility.”(180) The first Adventist equivalent to such a council has been the GC Session, but in the last half-century or so there has been a second, the GC Executive Committee, when dealing with certain defined aspects of church governance. Our policy documents assert both the supremacy of a Session, and the authority of the GC Executive Committee in many circumstances. Ellen G White’s prophetic counsel confirms that the GC Session has a unique authority, while her assertion of the significance of a meeting of representatives of “all parts of the field” upholds the Executive Committee as having significant authority, too, albeit less than a Session. (181) The GC Constitution, Bylaws, and Working Policy harmonize with the Holy Scriptures and the Spirit of Prophecy. All point to the importance of collective deliberation and decision-making. [ end of page 39 ]
Consultation among a large leadership group that is representative of the body of believers is a key Adventist principle in dealing with important matters. Another is reciprocity, which allows for accountability. Where there is participation in decision-making and all parties have discussed and deliberated in good faith, the final decision must be accepted by all those who contributed to making it. All parties must adhere to policies into which they all had input. This is fundamental.
In a representative and consultative process, we cannot accept what we agree with and set aside what we disagree with. We have to accept all decisions, the good with the bad, remembering that in others’ eyes our perceptions of these may be reversed. As Ellen G White counseled a discontented church member shortly after the General Conference was founded: “You should have submitted to the judgment of the church. If they decided wrong, God could take hold of this matter in His own time and vindicate the right.”(182) This is not an issue of “liberty of conscience,” for the Church is a voluntary organization and no one is or can be legally compelled to accept any of its decisions—but when representatives of all regions and all points of view have had input into discussions, the decision of the whole body is binding on those who have entered into deliberations, either in person or through their representatives. This is not only the New Testament model; it is also a matter of ethical conduct.
If everyone defies decisions that they disagree with, there is no point in having a decision making process. To take part in a process, and then to disregard it if it does not go our way is contrary to the biblical principles of unity and of mutual submission (especially since, implicit in that latter concept, is that we are bound, at some point, to disagree with something, but are enjoined to accept it anyway).
Equality and unity in Christ oblige church members and church leaders to make decisions together and then to respect fellow brothers and sisters in Jesus by respecting the decisions that have been reached together. As the GC Executive Committee articulated the situation in 2012, Seventh-day Adventists have a “collective desire to live out a commitment to . . . Jesus Christ. Such a commitment embraces a call to community.”(183) Communities can only function if all the members agree together that they will accept communal decisions; otherwise there is not community, but disunity.
Thus, if a GC Session or, in certain areas of responsibility, the GC Executive Committee, permits variations, then we accept that verdict; but where it does not, we accept that decision also. Ordination is plainly an important matter, since pastoral ministry is so fundamental to the life of the Church. The criteria for ordination have, as noted earlier, been set by the world Church, first by Sessions, subsequently by Annual Councils, for most of our history: thus, by longstanding practice as well as policy, we have deemed this a matter for the world Church—for joint decision making. The same is true of regulations for pastoral credentials and licenses.
Furthermore, ordination has recently been treated as a matter of particular, global import. The Theology of Ordination Study Committee’s meetings in 2013-2014 were the culmination of a worldwide study process—one that, while not wholly unprecedented, was exceptional. From 1973 to 1989, “five special committees or commissions considered the ‘role of women in the Church,’” but none fully “did . . . justice to the theological question that was at stake” and none reflected “the global nature of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.” The study process in the last quinquennium [ end of page 40 ] was “the first time that the worldwide Church has explored the theology of ordination.” Voices from around the world and from all sides were heard; the arguments and supporting documents of all perspectives were made freely available online to church members for their own study and prayerful consideration. The process was unmatched in both breadth and depth. (184)
When, after such a process, a GC Session takes a decision, one obviously intended to apply to the world (since variation of practice was part of the motion put to the Session), it cannot be disregarded. The decision cannot be called a matter of little significance on which everyone could reasonably go their own way. That is because we all, together, considered it, and collectively decided it was not such a matter, but one in which we should act together. The biblical principle of unity in decision-making requires compliance. Whatever our views as individuals, “private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered.” (185)
Continue to next section VII. Conclusion
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