A Watershed for Seventh-day Adventism

For PDF click here: A Watershed for Seventh-day Adventism

Ronald Lawson

Over 2,500 delegates from 184 countries participated in the­ quinquennial General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church ­in Indianapolis, July 5-14, 1990. The session was marked by impassioned debates and dramatic, unexpected election results. By its close it was­ clear that Adventism had reached a turning point and that others lay ahead.

Origins and Beliefs

When the prediction of Baptist lay-preacher, William Miller, that ­Christ would return on October 22, 1844 proved false, his movement, which­ had drawn upwards of 50,000 followers in the American northeast, shattered. ­One fragment, guided by a young visionary, Ellen White, reinterpreted the­ prophecy: the pre-advent judgment had begun in heaven on that day. However, ­the appearance of the Bridegroom would not be long delayed. Meanwhile, it­ was their special task to warn the world to prepare for that event. This ­involved calling Christians to a strict observance of the commandments,­ especially the neglected Saturday Sabbath. The name they chose when they formally organized in 1863, Seventh-day Adventists, thus highlighted their­ most significant peculiar doctrines. Ellen White also urged the waiting­ saints to keep their minds clear and their bodies healthy by abstaining­ from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and flesh foods, for they had a great­ deal to do for the Lord.

Expansion and Centralization

The call to observe the Sabbath was especially difficult in the ­nineteenth century, when a six-day working week was almost universal.­ Nevertheless, the commitment of Adventists to tell their neighbors and to ­support evangelists and missionaries with a strict system of tithing­ resulted in numerical growth and geographical expansion, first in the U.S. ­and then abroad. Wherever they went they tried, as part of their outreach, ­to establish schools and “sanitariums”, which eventually developed into ­extensive networks of educational and medical institutions.

Unlike the mainstream Protestant denominations, Adventist missionary­ work did not culminate in the spinning off of independent national­ churches, but instead helped build a highly centralized system whose ­headquarters, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, relocated­ last year to Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside Washington D.C. The ­president of the General Conference, in recent court testimony, stated that ­the Adventist church was second only to the Roman Catholic church in the ­hierarchical nature of its structure. This structure is arranged in geographically-based administrative layers, with churches being grouped in­ conferences, conferences in unions (which comprise several states or a­ smaller nation), and the unions in the eleven divisions of the General­ Conference. These administrative units, together with the educational, ­medical, publishing and food processing institutions whose boards they­ control, employ more than 111,000 persons.

Because tithes are not retained at the congregational level, but are­ passed up the structure, the hierarchy has had considerable flexibility to ­redistribute funds from the wealthier parts of the world church to the­ newer and poorer segments, and thus to orchestrate expansion. Its control­ over finances and its voice in the choice of leaders at lower levels also­ enables it to exercise considerable control over the operation of the ­church as a whole. This is so in spite of a representative feature, where ­delegates from the constituent bodies choose the committees which select ­the officers and department heads at each level. Constituency meetings, ­especially those at the higher levels of the organizational pyramid, have­ proved unlikely to act independently because the delegates have not been ­elected but have either been chosen because they hold certain positions or ­been appointed by those holding such positions–that is, the vast majority ­of delegates at constituency meetings above the conference level have been ­church employees.

The result of such influence by an American-based hierarchy has been a highly Americanized church. The vast majority of General Conference ­personnel have been Americans, the flow of funds, personnel, and theology­ has been outwards from America, and even the hymnals have almost everywhere­ been dominated by translations of American hymns.

This pattern has continued in spite of the fact that in recent decades­ the proportion of the world membership residing in America has fallen­ sharply as accessions there have been eclipsed by rapid growth in Latin­ America, sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, and parts ­of Asia. North Americans had dominated numerically for the first half­-century, making up 91.0% of the membership in 1890, and had formed a­ majority (51.7%) as recently as 1920; but by the end of 1979 they had­ declined to 17.7% of the total, and in 1989 to only 12.0%. Demographically, ­ the members in North America and the rest of the developed world are aging, ­ while the membership in the developing countries is much younger. These ­changes in the numerical balance, together with the increasing replacement ­of missionaries by nationals in leadership positions at the lower levels of­ church structure, inevitably raised the issue of when and to what extent ­the distribution of leadership and other staff at headquarters would be­ modified to reflect world membership. At the General Conference Session in­1985 an African graduate student studying in America pointedly asked when­ the Adventist church would follow the papal lead in appointing African­ “cardinals”. Many wondered then whether such stirrings would develop into a­ chorus at the 1990 session.

The General Conference Session of 1990

While the primary purpose of a General Conference Session is to­ conduct business, it is also a celebration of Adventism and its progress, a ­fair where church publishers, departments, educational and medical ­institutions, and unofficial “self-supporting ministries” show their wares and garner support, an old-fashioned revival meeting, and a “family ­gathering” where church employees, in particular, meet former school-mates ­and colleagues. Church officials, delegates and their families, support ­staff, and laity crowd the corridors in numbers that encourage local restaurants to create vegetarian menus and advertise that Sabbath meals may ­be paid for in advance: the attendance at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis ­on the final Sabbath this year was estimated at over 40,000. Since each of ­the units finance the travel and accommodation costs of its delegation, no­ one knows the total cost of a session to the denomination, but this year it­ was estimated as “certainly in eight digits.”

Because of the air of celebration about the proceedings, with upbeat­ multimedia reports of progress from each of the world divisions and a final­ mission pageant featuring delegates in national costume, there is always a ­strong tendency to focus on encouraging news rather than to address­ worrying issues. There was a great deal of joy in Indianapolis concerning ­the success of the “Harvest ’90” outreach program, which had aimed at ­adding two million members to the church during the 1985-1990 quinquennium ­but had, in fact, achieved over 2.5 million baptisms, bringing the official­ world membership to 6.4 million: the average annual net growth rate during­ the quinquennium had climbed to 6.9% from a low of 4.8% twenty-five years ­earlier. However, there was no attempt to wrestle with the weaknesses of­ the program. It had, in effect, created a competition between divisions­ which ultimately placed pastors, especially those in developing countries, ­ under great pressure to win converts. The result was that they often ­baptized people who barely understood what they were doing and failed to ­nurture them afterwards because program objectives forced them to shift ­their attention to new baptismal prospects. The program also resulted in an ­apostasy rate that was much higher than admitted, since pastors and­ administrators under pressure to perform well were naturally loath to­ report failures, and consequently grossly inflated growth statistics.­ Similarly, the two separate racially segregated unions in South Africa each ­gave its own report which stressed its progress without informing the­ delegates of the existence of apartheid in the church or attempting to ­address in any way the issues raised by this situation.

The main business of a General Conference Session is to elect the­ officers and departmental heads at both the General Conference and division­ levels and to make changes in the constitution of the church and in the ­Church Manual. Delegates caucus separately, by division, on the opening day­ of the session to elect their quota of members to the Nominating Committee, ­which sits throughout the session. This committee, which collectively ­comprises less than one-tenth of the delegates and where the presidents of­ the 85 unions form the largest category, nominates one person for each­ position. Its choices are then normally ratified without question on the­ session floor. The other delegates debate and vote on the other issues on ­the session agenda.

Election Surprises

The drama of the 1990 session began with the election of the president ­of the General Conference. This was the first time since 1922 that an incumbent willing to run for another term was not re-elected. The world ­membership had doubled during Neal C. Wilson’s twelve years in office, but ­his authoritarian management style had alienated several constituencies, he ­was identified with several demoralizing theological and financial crises ­that had marred his record, his age, 70, was against him in spite of his ­astounding vigor, and there was a widespread sense of deep crisis and need ­for new directions in spite of the acknowledged progress under his­ leadership. Perhaps most of all, the growth of the church in developing ­countries, which Wilson had fostered so determinedly, had created an ­internationalization of the profile of the denomination that now needed to­ be matched in leadership.

The actual choice to replace Wilson was very surprising, and the ­process proved to be nerve-wracking. The representatives of the two largest­ divisions, which are both Latin-dominated, emerged as the strongest bloc on ­the nominating committee. The presidents of the unions of North America, ­ who had traditionally been politically dominant on this committee, found­ themselves virtually powerless. The committee first nominated George Brown, ­a West Indian who was president of the Inter-American Division [IAD], which ­consists of the Latin countries from Mexico to Venezuela plus all of the­ Caribbean countries. He was the first black and the first member from the­ Third World ever to be nominated as world president. However, after­ considering the nomination for three hours, he declined the post.

The nominating committee then turned to the man whom they had earlier­ elected to chair their deliberations, Robert S. Folkenberg. He is a son of­ missionary parents who spent most of his life and career in ­Spanish-speaking parts of the IAD, but had served as president of a conference in the American South for the past five years. At age 49, he was ­the youngest person elected to the post since 1901, and was also the first­ person to be elevated to that post directly from that of conference­ president since the church had been restructured and divisions created in 1901. An American who is bilingual, known, and trusted in Latin America was­ an ideal choice for a period of transition from American dominance to­ greater international representation. Folkenberg was identified with­ change, for he had published a call for structural change in Ministry a ­year earlier–an article that had at that time been dubbed “political ­suicide” by insiders used to the caution of Adventist administrators. Yet­ he also represented continuity, for he had been close to Wilson, who had ­probably been behind his election as nominating committee chair, and had ­played a prominent part in some of Wilson’s recent initiatives. Moreover, ­as committee chair, he had initially maneuvered to have Wilson re-elected ­until he found this route impossible. Nevertheless, he had not been on ­anyone’s list of possible candidates for president before the session­ began.

Given the new balance of power on the Nominating Committee, the ­overall result of the elections was to make the General Conference­ noticeably more international in personnel. An African was elected as a­ Vice-president for the first time, thus achieving the “cardinal” status­ denied in 1985, while white Americans among the Vice-presidents were­ reduced to two out of five, an all-time low. Two of the departments, ­education and church ministries, were headed by Latins–another major ­change.

Ordination of Women Pastors

The question of whether to allow the ordination of women as ministers ­was the major issue facing the business sessions. This was the culmination ­of almost two decades of study and debate in which the General Conference ­leadership had played an uncharacteristically indecisive role. The general ­issue of women in ministry had first been raised, mainly but not solely in ­North America, in the early seventies, with questions concerning whether ­women could be ordained either as ministers or as elders within ­congregations.  Some congregations began to ordain women as elders even though the issue had not been addressed officially. The General Conference­ responded in 1974 by arranging a conference of theologians to explore these ­matters. When these found no biblical objections to ordaining women, the ­way was prepared for the bureaucratic changes to be made to allow the­ ordination of women as elders. Today 1,100 women elders have been appointed ­in North American congregations and the practice has spread to other­ divisions, especially in Europe and Australasia. However, although the ­North American division, led at that time by future General Conference­ President Neal Wilson, established special seminary fellowships to­ encourage women to enter the ministry, progress towards their ordination as­ ministers proved to be much slower.

The new atmosphere resulted in increased numbers of women seminarians, ­many of whom outshone the men in their classes. However, these women found ­that after graduation and the usual two or three years pre-ordination­ service as a “licensed minister” their male classmates were being ordained­ but they were not–because the issue of ordination of women had not been­ officially settled. As continuing licensed ministers, their roles were­ normally limited to being associate pastors of churches, hospital­ chaplains, or religion teachers, and their functions were also restricted.­ Meanwhile, conservatives had mobilized opposition to women’s ordination, with the wives of older and retired ministers playing an especially ­prominent part.

The General Conference was eventually forced to return to the issue­ because of increasing debate, especially once the Potomac Conference, in­ which it was situated, allowed its women pastors to baptize–a function­ that had previously been regarded as a prerogative of ordained ministers.­ However, rather than taking a stand on the issue and then endeavoring to­ persuade the church to proceed accordingly, Wilson vacillated, frozen by a­ fear of pluralism and disunity. Declaring that the whole international­ church must act uniformly, he called the first of three commissions of­ administrators and theologians, with representatives from each of the world divisions, to consider the issue in 1984. Since the categories represented­ were so male-dominated, it took special quotas to lift the proportion of­ women commission members to 25%. Meanwhile, Wilson himself adopted a ­neutral stance. The lack of leadership allowed cultural prejudices to surface. While there was consensus that there was no explicit scriptural ­directive concerning the ordination of women, the representatives from­ Latin America and Africa and others who were conservative on this issue­ interpreted this as prohibiting a change of policy, while representatives, and especially theologians, from North America, Europe and Australasia were ­inclined to interpret this as allowing innovation. When all three ­commissions (in 1984, 1988, and 1989) proved inconclusive, the ­administrators of the General Conference and divisions, meeting in their ­Annual Council in the Fall of 1989, opted to recommend that the General ­Conference Session vote against ordaining women on the grounds that it was ­opposed by a majority of the divisions and that to proceed risked­ “disunity, dissension, and diversion from the mission of the church.”

With such a recommendation, the advocates of women’s ordination ­decided that their only hope was to persuade the session to allow any ­division that opted for it to proceed unilaterally. An emotional debate­ changed few minds. Delegates from the Third World were unmoved by North American pleas for understanding that this had become for them a moral issue, and that a decision against ordination could further alienate their­ younger members. Neither were they willing to grant one division permission­ to do something that others need not adopt: indeed, some North American delegates detected an air of “Americans dominated us for a long time, but­ now it is our turn.” Many delegates resented the fact that while their­ speeches were limited to two minutes, Wilson was allowed to speak in favor­ of the motion for half an hour. After this last word the motion not to ordain women was endorsed by a lopsided vote of 1,173 to 377.

Many of those most intimately involved in the issue had been excluded ­from the vote by the system, for only 230 of the 2,644 delegates (8.7%)­ were women. Some of them had plead with Folkenberg to use his unexpected election as an excuse to table the issue for another five years during­ which time they hoped he would try to prepare the way for change, but he­ chose to remain aloof from the debate. Such an action would have alienated ­his Latin supporters.

Ironically, the session then joined in the process of removing most of­ the functional distinctions between ordained and licensed ministers. The­ conferences had agreed to put a hold on women baptizing when the first ­women’s commission was called in 1984. However, the constituencies of two­ conferences became so impatient with the failure to reach agreement by 1988­ that they voted to permit women pastors to conduct both baptisms and­ marriages. Wilson decided to accept this as a fait accompli, and rammed it ­through the 1989 Annual Council against intense Latin opposition, with the­ added stipulation that this decision was final and therefore did not have ­to be taken to the General Conference Session. However, the change ­concerning marriages required an amendment to the Church Manual, which did ­need session approval. After a long and heavy debate, which concluded with­ lengthy speeches from Wilson and the head of the General Conference­ Ministerial Association, this time pleading for an exception to meet the  needs of North America, the change was voted 776 to 494. This vote showed ­clearly that the delegates were voting in blocs: almost no delegates from­ the Latin American or African divisions voted for the motion.

With these changes the only functions that a licensed woman pastor ­cannot perform are the formal organization of churches and the ordination ­of others. The bottom line has been clarified: power. Most of the ­leadership, committee, and delegate posts are restricted to ordained­ persons, and thus to males. Those eligible to exercise power within ­Adventism are still restricted to a very limited category.


Perhaps the most notable omission from the session’s agenda was any ­discussion of AIDS. Adventists have been slow to become involved with the ­victims of this disease, for they have associated it with unworthy people. ­Their hospitals have not attempted to be at the forefront in treating it, ­and indeed some in Africa have been cavalier in their use of untested blood for transfusions; American members who have contracted the disease have­ often been shunned; and church leaders in Africa have assumed that this is­ not an issue affecting Adventists. The General Conference did form an AIDS­ Committee, which included major experts among its lay members. However, the­ latter have become increasingly frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the committee. Being aware of the AIDS statistics in Africa, of the rapid ­growth of the church there, and of studies that suggest that the ­promiscuity of African Christians is not markedly less than that of­ non-Christians, they concluded that AIDS must be impacting the church there­ severely and that it is imperative that Adventists give it priority.­ Consequently, they agitated to have the issue placed on the agenda of the­ session. Their failure in this respect has completed their disillusionment­ with the AIDS Committee–they regard the time they have spent there as largely wasted.

Looming Issues

If one reads between the lines of the General Conference Session­ election results, decisions, and reports, there are clear signs of serious ­issues ahead which the new administration must face.

As the numerical balance within the world church has shifted ­dramatically in the last two decades, there has been mounting discussion of­ who should control decision-making, those with the members or those with­ the money. This was brought into the open in the report of the General Conference secretary, while the treasurer underlined the issue when he­ reported that “tithe from the North American Division comprises nearly 97­ percent of all tithe received by the General Conference.” The concentration ­of recent growth among the poor (including the growth in North America, ­where it has occurred mostly among recent immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia) has accentuated a drop in per capita giving, which­ declined by 3.9% between 1984 and 1989 without adjustment for inflation. ­The other main component of this statistic has been a tendency among­ Americans to switch their giving from “tithe”, which all flows out of the local congregation, to “offerings”, which can be directed to local or ­”self-supporting” projects, as they have become increasingly disillusioned ­with central management. A major question, then, is how North Americans ­will respond financially to the new politics, which has increased the power­ of those with large numbers of members at the expense of those who have ­been bankrolling the system.

Many of the more active North American women found the General­ Conference Session a wrenching experience. Some of these have since decided ­to reduce their involvement in the church, while others have chosen to­ resign their membership, saying that just as they would not belong to a club that discriminates racially, neither can they continue in a church ­that discriminates against women. Many more of these women, and indeed many­ men, state that they are deeply concerned over how their daughters will ­respond to the ordination decision. There is abundant evidence that large­ numbers of younger Adventists in North America feel alienated from their ­church, not seeing its relevance to their lives. The refusal of the church ­to take a stand on what is to them a central, moral issue, is likely to ­increase their alienation. The ordination of women is one such issue for many younger members, especially females. Many of them have followed it­ closely; they have observed the trauma of these years of uncertainty and disappointment to the women pastors, seeing many of them sag under the­ pressures and resign from the ministry, turn to hospital chaplaincy or, in ­one case, commit suicide. The flow of women to the seminary is therefore ­likely to decline. Women are the foot-soldiers of the Adventist church: ­ they make up two-thirds of the membership, they are much more likely than­ men to be spiritual and committed–and they have in the past been much less ­likely to lapse into cynicism. The ordination issue has touched many of ­them closely. To what extent will their long-term trust and commitment to ­the church be undermined by the decisions of this session?

A major leadership theme at this session was the need to protect and ­foster unity. The secretary warned that “we cannot afford to fragment inter­national churches. This miracle of a united worldwide Seventh-day Adventist­ family will have to be maintained at all cost.” The ordination of women was ­rejected on the grounds that it might risk disunity. Resolutions were­ introduced that sought to encourage uniformity in behavior. One was passed­ reaffirming the delegates’ acceptance of the “counsel from God” given ­through Ellen White and committing them to “live by the principles ­contained in it.” But when another resolution attempted to detail guidelines for Sabbath observance, some complained that it was an attempt ­to establish an Adventist “Mishnah”. Its teeth were removed by an amendment­ that, rather than voting to accept the statement, merely acknowledged its ­receipt. It seems likely that the decision concerning the ordination of­ women will also be undermined–from below. Two conferences in North ­America, anticipating a negative decision in Indianapolis, voted before the­ session to schedule constituency meetings for the Fall which would then ­consider proceeding with the ordination of their women pastors. Since the presidents of these conferences publicly dubbed this a “moral issue”, it­ will probably be difficult for them now to reverse positions, in spite of a ­warning from the head of the General Conference Ministerial Association­ during the debates that any unilateral action would be tantamount to rebellion.

The agenda which emphasized a rigid reading of “unity” was set by the ­outgoing administration and supported directly by the address with which Wilson opened the Session. But in his sermon on the final day of the ­session, Folkenberg replaced Wilson’s equation of unity and uniformity with­ “unity in diversity” and “unity is not uniformity.”  Moreover, Folkenberg ­has taken a stand for reducing the staff of the General Conference because­ of the shortage of funds and widespread demands that more tithe be retained­ at lower levels, and is already implementing this policy vigorously. The ­General Conference is consequently likely to become more specialized and the lower levels relatively more powerful.

“Global Strategy”, a new program of evangelism, was introduced at this ­session. Its innovative emphasis could change Adventism considerably. In ­their efforts to spread the “everlasting gospel” of Revelation 14:7, which­ they identify as their message, Adventists have focused on only one segment­ of the verse, “to every nation.” They have frequently expressed pride that­ they have congregations in 184 of the 215 countries and areas officially ­recognized by the United Nations, and observed that this means that the ­Gospel Commission is nearing fulfillment, which is a key indication that­ the Lord will soon return. However, they have now concluded that they have­ neglected the rest of the verse: “to every…tribe, language, and people.” ­Their analysis divided the population of the world into some 5,000 ­ethnolinguistic or demographic groupings of one million people each. It ­found that they had at least one church in 3,200 of these but no presence ­in the other 1,800. “Global Strategy” aims at targeting the latter groups ­so that they can all be reached by the year 2000–a huge task. One result ­of the past concern for numerical goals was to focus funds on areas where ­growth was easiest–which were often those where Adventist work was already­ well established. Because Global Strategy will divert funds to unentered, ­more difficult, situations, it may have the result of slowing the­ growth-rate. It is likely that this program will also redirect Adventists­ from their previous practice, where they often concentrated primarily on winning converts from other churches, to attempting to evangelize many ­groups which have had very little contact with Christianity. One of the­ first initiatives in preparation for this program was to establish an­ ­Institute of Islamic Studies so that Adventists might improve their­ understanding of Muslims and be better prepared to capitalize on the­ commonalities between their faiths.


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