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IV. Authority in Spirit of Prophecy
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Study of Church Governance and Unity
by GC Secretariat 
published September 25, 2016 
 ( PDF file )
 
IV.   Authority in the Spirit of Prophecy
  GC Working Policy mandates that all denominational organizations and institutions are to “recognize the authority of the General Conference Session as the highest authority of the Seventhday Adventist Church under God” (B 10 22). This overarching authority of the GC Session was upheld by Ellen G White; indeed, the just-quoted proviso in Working Policy derives from her statements. However, there has been some confusion about what she wrote concerning authority in the Adventist Church, so a brief analysis follows. 
 
   At first sight it can seem that Ellen White’s views on the authority of the General Conference or of General Conference Sessions changed; certainly some have alleged this and claimed, in consequence, that some very clear statements can be discounted. (79) In fact, a consistent thread runs through her writings on this subject.
 
    1.   The 1875 Testimonies ‚Äč
  The first statements on the authority of the Church and the General Conference are from 1875. (80) In a testimony rebuking Charles Lee (one of the first Swedish-American Adventists) for his “individual independence,” she declared: “God has made His church a channel of light, and through it He communicates His purposes and His will. He does not give one an experience independent of the church. He does not give one man a knowledge of His will for the entire church, while the church, Christ’s body, is left in darkness.” (81) What is implicit here she makes explicit later in the lengthy testimony: “God has invested His church with special authority and power which no one can be justified in disregarding and despising, for in so doing he despises the voice of God.”(82) In a separate testimony (also from 1875), Ellen White writes in similar terms: “God has bestowed the highest power under heaven upon His church. It is the voice of God in His united people . . . [and] is to be respected.” (83) Back in the testimony to Lee, White continues: 
 
  The word of God does not give license for one man to set up his judgment in opposition to the judgment of the church, neither is he allowed to urge his opinions against  [ end of page 20 ] the opinions of the church. If there were no church discipline and government, the church would go to fragments; it could not hold together as a body. There have ever been individuals of independent minds who have claimed that they were right, that God had especially taught, impressed, and led them. Each has a theory of his own, views peculiar to himself, and each claims that his views are in accordance with the word of God. Each one has a different theory and faith, yet each claims special light from God. These draw away from the body. (84  
 
  In these testimonies Ellen White emphasizes that the Church is a body of believers so that, though at times God inspires individuals, they should work through the body. They ought not to elevate their personal views above the collective views, but should seek to persuade the rest of the body of believers; and, until successful, they should submit to the authority of the body. 
This view was developed in another testimony published later that year, written to George Butler, who had been GC president earlier in the 1870s, but had reached misguided conclusions about presidential authority. She counseled Butler: 
I have been shown that no man’s judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any one man. But when the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority that God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered. Your error was in persistently maintaining your private judgment of your duty against the voice of the highest authority the Lord has upon the earth. . . . You firmly maintained that you had done right in following your own convictions of duty. You considered it a virtue in you to persistently maintain your position of independence. You did not seem to have a true sense of the power that God has given to His church in the voice of the General Conference. You thought that in responding to the call made to you by the General Conference you were submitting to the judgment and mind of one man. You accordingly manifested an independence, a set, willful spirit, which was all wrong. (85) 
Testimonies, Vol. 3, page 492.
 
She later added: “You greatly err in giving to one man’s mind and judgment that authority and influence which God has invested in His church in the judgment and voice of the General Conference.” (86
 
Ellen White’s position in 1875 is plain. Church members were obliged to defer to divinely constituted authority, but in the Seventh-day Adventist Church the highest authority is not entrusted to one man—a point explicated in a fourth testimony from 1875, in which she states plainly that “one man’s mind, one man’s judgment, is not sufficient to be trusted.”(87) Instead “God has invested” divine “authority and influence . . . in the judgment and voice of the General Conference.” It is “the General Conference,” she explicitly states, that is “the highest authority that God has upon the earth.” But what did she mean by “General Conference”? Today, Adventists would probably understand it to mean the permanent overarching organization and world headquarters. In our first two or three decades, however, there was almost no permanent structure or staff. (88) When church members and church leaders wrote of the “General Conference” in these early years, they typically meant the GC Session. This fits with Ellen White’s contextual comments: negative about individual exercise of authority, positive about it being exercised by the Church as the collective body of  [ end of page 21 ]  believers. Furthermore, the “call made to” Butler, which he wrongly viewed as coming from one man, actually was the action of a GC Session. (89) 
   What Ellen White is saying, then, in these 1875 testimonies, is that when a General Conference Session, which represents the entire body of believers, deliberates and reaches a decision, then, if church members’ “private judgment” is different to the verdict of the body, they must not “maintain” their “judgment in opposition to the judgment of the church.” Instead they are obliged to harken to “the voice of the highest authority the Lord has upon the earth,” “surrender” their “independence,” and defer to the common decision. 
     end    
 
      2.   Developments in the 1890s
During a ten-year period (1891-1901) Ellen White made a number of statements about the authority of the General Conference that apparently contradict those she made in the 1870s. Some have argued that “it is clear that sometimes Ellen White considered the decisions of the General Conference to represent God’s leading and sometimes she did not.”(90) The context of the statements makes it clear, however, that her views remained essentially consonant with those of 1875: her concern was with claims to exercise ecclesiastical authority by one man, or (in the 1890s) by a small group, rather than the entire body of Adventist believers. This becomes clearer if we distinguish between different possible meanings of “General Conference”: the GC administration (the president and permanent staff around him) which in the 1890s had a permanent existence; the GC Executive Committee (which in this period was tiny); and the GC Session. Ellen G White consistently held the GC Session to be the voice of God—even in the 1890s. It was the “GC” in the first two senses which she denied represented the voice of God, rather than the Session—there is little or no evidence that she ever altered her 1875 view that the Session spoke with the authority of God. 
 
The context was the growth in the denomination and in its permanent administration in the 1880s and 1890s. From 1863 to 1883, there were only three officers, who usually held other positions in denominational employ, and the GC Executive Committee (usually called simply “the GC Committee”) also had just three members, not including the secretary or treasurer. But in 1883 the secretary’s position was split in two, because handling correspondence had become a specialist job, while two members were added to the Executive Committee. From 1887, three subordinate secretaries supported the secretary in various administrative tasks—testimony to the burgeoning complexity of administration, which reflected in turn the expansion out from the United States. From six conferences in 1863, all in North America, by 1889 there were 36 conferences and missions, the latter a new creation, functionally equivalent to a conference but requiring support from the American “home” base; these organizational units were located on four continents; and by 1889 one could for the first time speak meaningfully of a “GC administration.” But while the headquarters thereafter had a permanent and largely full-time staff it was still relatively small. (91) The GC Committee membership gradually increased in the 1890s, but in 1900 still only numbered 13, of whom 11 were from North America, yet the denomination now had 46 conferences and missions and, with a large number of mission stations, had a presence on all six inhabited continents. In any case, the five members who lived in Battle Creek transacted most of the business. The committee was definitely not a representative body for a worldwide church. (92
 [ end of page 22 ]
Ellen White clearly distinguished between the GC administration and the GC Session. As early as 1891, she felt “obliged to take the position that there was not the voice of God in the General Conference” — but she did not end there. She actually wrote “that there was not the voice of God in the General Conference management and decisions. Methods and plans would be devised that God did not sanction, and yet [the GC president] made it appear that the decisions of the General Conference were as the voice of God.” (93) The problem, then, was with those managing the GC: or GC administration, as we would now say. The problem was that this meant control was concentrated in just a few hands, rather than a representative body, as Ellen White points out: “One or more men gave assent to measures laid out before the board or councils, but all the time they decided they would have their own way and carry out the matter as they chose.” Furthermore, the president was unduly swayed by two other officers — hence Ellen White’s comment that the president’s “advisers were blinding his eyes” and her verdict: “Many of the positions taken, going forth as the voice of the General Conference, have been the voice of one, two, or three men who were misleading the Conference.” (94) 
 
  Similar attitudes are evident in an 1895 statement: “The voice of the General Conference has been represented as an authority to be heeded as the voice of the Holy Spirit. But when the members of the G.C. Committee become entangled in business affairs and financial perplexities, the sacred, elevated character of their work is in a great degree lost.” (95) There were, it must be remembered, only seven members of the GC Committee at this time and evidently the committee could too easily be sidetracked, as a result. In a testimony written later in 1895, Ellen White writes, with some bitterness: “As for your book committee, under the present administration, with the men who now preside, I would not entrust to them, for publication in books, the light given me of God . . . . As for the voice of the General Conference, there is no voice from God through that body that is reliable.” She uses the term “General Conference” when speaking of the body in Battle Creek and states that God does not speak through it. The GC Session had met in 1895, but more than eight months before this testimony; not only is it unlikely, then, that she is describing it, but also her earlier comments are revealing: it was “the present administration,” and the committees it had chosen, which were the problem. (96
 
This distinction between Session and administration emerges, too, from what seems to be a strident renunciation of the 1875 view that God spoke to His people on earth in the voice of the GC. Writing from Australia to friends in the US, in the middle of 1898, Ellen White bluntly states that “it has been some years since I have considered the General Conference as the voice of God,” later bemoaning that she does not have a “stronger faith . . . in Battle Creek and the working of the cause of God in the institutions there.”(97) Not only is the reference to Battle Creek (site of the GC headquarters but of neither the past 1897 GC Session nor the upcoming 1899 Session) and “the institutions there” telling, but so, too, is the date of the letter: nearly 18 months after the 1897 Session. Palpably, she is writing, again, about the GC administration and perhaps the unrepresentative Executive Committee, not the Session, against which Ellen White had still to issue any strictures.
  [ end of page 23 ]
     3.   The 1901 Statements
 In 1901, around that year’s epochal GC Session, Ellen White made strong statements about the voice of the General Conference and about kingly power that helped shape the future development of Adventist ecclesiastical organization. Yet they have also been misunderstood. (98)
 
Speaking in the opening meeting of the Session, on April 2, she indignantly rejects the claim of a few men “to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be,” a view to which she returns in a testimony written two days after the Session ended: “For men to claim that the voice of their councils in their past management is the voice of God seems to me to be almost blasphemy.” (99) These are two stark rebukes but the context of her other remarks to the 1901 Session make it plain that they refer to the over-concentration of authority in the administration and Executive Committee during the preceding decade, not to the GC Session and, indeed, not to the GC Committee and administration that emerged after 1901. 
 
The first statement was made to support Ellen White’s goal of major structural reform; she follows it immediately with an appeal: “What we want now is a reorganization. We want to begin at the foundation, and to build upon a different principle.”(100She goes on to express regret that the church leaders, assembled from around the world for the Session, were not more involved in making plans, and affirms: “There are to be more than one or two or three men to consider the whole vast field.” Later she adds: “Now I want to say, God has not put any kingly power in our ranks to control this or that branch of the work. The work has been greatly restricted by the efforts to control it in every line. ” (101)
 
Her Session speech articulates views similar to those expressed to a small group of church leaders on the previous afternoon, April 1st. (102) In that address she begins with the striking observation: “Over and over again men have said, ‘The voice of the Conference is the voice of God; therefore, everything must be referred to the Conference. The Conference must permit or restrict in the various lines of work.’” But she rejects this view: “As the matter has been presented to me, there is a narrow compass, and within this narrow compass . . . are those who would like to exercise kingly power. But the work carried on all over the field demands an entirely different course of action.” She subsequently states: “The burden of the work in this broad field should not rest upon two or three men;” and later reiterates: “God wants us to come to the place where we shall be united in the work, where the whole burden will not be laid on two or three men.” (103) She insists on “an entire change, an entire new organization,” including a General Conference “committee that shall take in not merely a half a dozen that are to be a ruling and a controlling power, but . . . the voice of those that are placed in responsibilities in our educational interests, in our Sanitarium,” so “that every institution, that bears a responsibility, bear a voice in the working of this cause which they have a decided interest in.” (104
 
Ellen White’s rebuke about what “we once believed the General Conference to be” develops her sustained criticisms of the 1890s rather than being a denunciation of the GC Session, as her other statements on April 1 and 2, 1901, makes clear; but it was also Ellen White’s reproof to those church leaders who, to her dismay, had “over and over again” quoted her 1875 statements against those who disagreed with them, her counsels of the 1890s notwithstanding! Her other negative comment about the voice of God was written post-Session but likewise plainly refers to  [ end of page 24 ]  the preceding years, evident in her reference to the “past management” of the men whose claims to speak with divine authority she denounces as blasphemous. There is no contradiction between her counsels of 1875 and her views in 1901. Just as in 1875 she had cautioned against granting too much authority to individuals, so in 1901 she warns against unrepresentative or uncounseled authority, exercised by individuals (“kingly power”) or tiny groups of leaders (“two or three men”). It is such leadership, the abuses of which she had reproved repeatedly in the 1890s, which in 1901 she makes clear cannot claim to be “the voice of God.” 
 
Far from downplaying the authority of a GC Session, Ellen White turned to the 1901 Session to reform the church’s polity, and especially its higher administration, to enhance the Adventist Church’s mission effectiveness. And the representatives of the whole body duly delivered, thanks in part to Ellen White’s charge to them: “There must be a renovation, a reorganization.” (105
 
Many reforms of great significance were adopted by the 1901 Session. (106) They included the creation of unions throughout North America as well as in Australia and Europe, with provision for the creation of many more, for, in the new organizational model, conferences became members of union constituencies, with unions now becoming the constituent members of the General Conference. That unions had considerable authority delegated to them (discussed above) was partly the fruit of Ellen White’s counsel against over-concentration of authority in too few hands, but so too was a major reform of the GC Executive Committee. She had urged that “a power and strength must be brought into the committees” by expanding the membership and that the “men who are standing at the head of our various institutions . . . and of the Conferences in different localities . . . [should] stand as representative men, to have a voice in molding and fashioning the plans that shall be carried out.”(107) The GC Executive Committee’s membership was increased to 25, virtually doubled, with dedicated representation for health work leaders; in addition, every union president became an ex officio member, with the recognition that, as new unions were organized, so the membership would steadily increase. The Committee thus became much more representative and reflected Ellen G White’s desire that regional voices should be heard in “molding and fashioning” plans. (108)
 
Ellen White commented on the change in 1901, counselling her own son to stop pursuing a dispute with GC leaders.
 I am again much burdened as I see you selecting words from writings that I have sent you, and using them to force decisions that the brethren do not regard with clearness. . . . Your course would have been the course to be pursued if no change had been made in the General Conference. But a change has been made, and many more changes will be made and great developments will be seen. . . . Remember, Edson, that you are not to carry your own ideas against the judgment of the brethren and the general interests of the cause. (109
There was not one rule for the Whites and one for others. The need to submit to counsel applied equally, and Ellen White’s respect for the authority of GC administration had clearly been restored.
 
Footnotes:   79 to 109
79.  E.g., Gerry Chudleigh, Who runs the Church? Understanding the Unity, Structure and Authority of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Lincoln, NE: AdventSource, [2013]), 27–30.

80.  Cf. George E. Rice, “The church: Voice of God?”, Ministry 60:12 (Dec. 1987): 4.

81.  White, Testimonies, 3:414, and also cf. 433 (later in the same testimony) and 450–51 (from another testimony from 1875, cited separately below), both of which make similar points using similar language. The identity of Lee as the recipient was supplied by the Ellen G. White Estate, drawing on documents in their possession.

82.  Testimonies, 3:417.

83.  Ibid., 450.

84.  Ibid., 428.

85.  Testimonies, 3:492. The identity of Butler as the recipient was, again, supplied by the Ellen G. White Estate, though it is fairly clear from the language of the testimony and the context.

86.  Ibid., 493.

87.  Ibid., 445.

88.  See D. J. B. Trim, “Fit for purpose? The General Conference Secretariat and Seventh-day Adventist mission in historical purpose,” Journal of Adventist Mission Studies 11/2 (Fall 2015): 184.

89.  Special meetings, August 17, 1875, GC Session minutes, pp. 90-91.

90.  Chudleigh, Who runs the Church?, 30.

91.  Trim, “Fit for purpose,” 184–85; Cf. George Knight, Organizing for mission and growth: The development of Adventist church structure. Hagerstown, Md.: RHPA, 2006), 75.
 
92.  Joe Engelkemier, “Independent Ministries: Should they cooperate with church leaders?,” part 3, “A look at ‘kingly power,’ responsibility, and unity,” Adventist Review 166/51 (Dec. 21, 1989): 17; Seventhday Adventist Yearbook: 1890, 53, 115, and 1893, 60; “Statistics of European Union Conference” and “Summary of Statistics of Conferences and Missions for the Year Ending Dec. 31, 1900,” GCB 4, extra, no. 6 (April 9, 1901): 161–63.

93.  White, “Board and Council meetings,” n.d., MS 33, 1891.

94.  White, MS 33, 1891. See Rice, “The church,” 5.

95.  White, “Relation of the G. C. Committee to Business Interests,” n.d., MS 33, 1895.

96.  White, “Concerning the Review and Herald Publishing Association,” Oct. 12, 1895, MS 57, 1895.

97.  White to Brother and Sister Waggoner, Aug. 26, 1898, Letter 77, 1898.  [ end of page 46 ]

98.  See Engelkemier, “Independent Ministries,” 16–17; cf. Chudleigh, Who runs the Church?, 29.

99.  “General Conference Proceedings,” Thirty-fourth Session, 1st meeting, April 2, 1901, in GCB 4, extra, 1 (April 3, 1901): 25; MS 35, 1901 (cited n. 4).

100.  “General Conference Proceedings,” 25.
101.  Ibid., 25, 26.

102.  A. G. Daniells commented after her speech (“General Conference Proceedings,” 27, cited in n. 100): “A number of the brethren . . . met yesterday in an informal way . . . . Sister White was present and spoke very plainly to us. . . . We received substantially the same instruction that has been given us to-day.”

103.  White, “Talk by Mrs E. G. White in College Library, April 1, 1901,” MS 43, 1901.

104.  This is not in Ellen White’s prepared text (MS 43, 1901, cited in n. 104) but she certainly departed from the text at points, extemporizing, as is evident at multiple points in the shorthand notes of her address taken by C. C. Crisler (who was then President Irwin’s private secretary but later Ellen White’s), from which these statements are taken: “Talk of Mrs E. G. White, before representative brethren, in the College Library, April 1, 1901,” MS 43a, 1901.

105.  April 2, 1901, in “General Conference Proceedings,” 26 (cited in n. 99).

106.  The authoritative study of the 1901 Session and the organizational model it introduced is Barry Oliver, SDA Organizational Structure: Past, Present and Future (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1989).

107.  April 2, 1901, in “General Conference Proceedings,” 25 (cited in n. 99).

108.  See Richard W. Schwarz and Floyd Greenleaf, Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, rev. ed. (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2000), 277.

109.  White to J. Edson White, June, 1901 (two-part letter, no date specified for first part, June 5 for second), Letter 54, 1901. In the June 5 continuation, Ellen White reiterated her sentiments for emphasis: “It hurts me to think that you are using words which I wrote prior to the Conference. Since the Conference, great changes have been made.”
 
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