Study of Church Governance and Unity by GC Secretariat
published September 25, 2016
In the Scriptures and the Spirit of Prophecy, unity in Christ is surpassingly important. God’s message to His people in biblical times and His remnant church at the end of time, conveyed by the pens of inspiration, cannot be ignored. The implications for our governance are clear. We are to work collaboratively and unitedly, rather than unilaterally. Only when we are united will we succeed in making disciples and building up the Church. Even more profoundly, our unity is the litmus test of our claim to follow Jesus Christ, as He Himself declared (John 17:23).
What, however, is the connection between the unity and policy? Having laid the biblical foundations for our understanding of church unity and governance, it will be helpful to say something about the nature of Adventist Church policy, in which we apply biblical principles and patterns to the Church visible in an attempt to make it conform as closely as possible to what Christ would have His Church be.
a. Adventist Policy Documents
The governing documents of the Seventh-day Adventist Church have all been approved by either a GC Session or the GC Executive Committee. A common shorthand for these documents is “policy,” but they include more than just the General Conference’s Working Policy and Mission Statement, which were created by the GC Executive Committee, can be amended only by that body meeting in an Annual Council (or by a GC Session), and are published in an annually updated one-volume edition as General Conference Working Policy. Other policy documents include the GC Constitution and Bylaws (included in the published Working Policy), which originated with and can only be changed by a GC Session; the constitutions and bylaws, or operating policies, of the GC’s member unions and their respective conferences and missions; the “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists” and the Church Manual (both of which also can only be amended by [end page 7] a GC Session); and several divisions’ own versions of Working Policy (applying and sometimes expanding the provisions of GC Working Policy to their contexts). Finally, statements or other actions approved by a GC Session or the GC Executive Committee are also considered an expression of Church policy. (31)
The different documents apply to different spheres: the Fundamental Beliefs are solely doctrinal; the Church Manual governs procedures and policies at the level of the local church (though sometimes with implications for broader policy and other levels of structure); the GC Constitution, Bylaws, and Working Policy deal with policies and procedures at the regional and global levels, and with the interrelationship of different levels of structure. (32) This study draws on the GC Constitution and Bylaws, GC Working Policy, GC Session actions, statements voted by the GC Executive Committee, and, to a lesser extent, the Fundamental Beliefs and Church Manual.
b. The Character of Working Policy
The importance of the Constitution and Fundamental Beliefs is widely appreciated, but, as noted earlier, GC Working Policy is widely misunderstood—this is true both of its nature and of its role in the Church. Some regard it as administrative trivia, but others almost as like medieval canon law, while those who stress conformity to its stipulations can be portrayed as legalists. Unlike the Mosaic Law, however, the provisions of Adventist Church policy are not a series of divine mandates, requirements for salvation, or regulations for daily life. Unlike canon law (the legal code of the Roman Catholic Church), they do not operate at the level of civil law and are not enforced by the courts. Although GC Working Policy does primarily relate to administration and undoubtedly deals with some minutiae, it is not trivial.
Throughout the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, all its governing documents have been subject to revision, which reflects that they are imperfect, as any attempt to apply heavenly principles to the earthly Church visible is bound to be. Policies—even if agreed to by representative bodies, following consultation at different levels of denominational structure, and after sustained debate and deliberation—can only achieve so much. Church leaders are aware that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6 NKJV); they affirm that Church policies must not impede mission; they accept that policy does not apply perfectly to all cases and circumstances (and for this reason there are processes in place to allow for it to be varied; see pp 18-20 below); and, finally, they acknowledge that Seventh-day Adventist policies, as the human creation of a dynamic movement, can always be improved and often require updating. These caveats notwithstanding, policies provide a clear record of what representatives of the world Church have discussed and agreed is essential for the global body of believers to engage effectively in mission and ministry. “Christ would have His followers brought together in church capacity, observing order, having rules and discipline.” (33)
In addition to its general role in regulating the administration of a worldwide denomination, GC Working Policy has a particular (and particularly important) role to play in building unity and community among Seventh-day Adventist Christians. As one church leader, explaining Adventist policies to church members, wrote 85 years ago, “a well-defined working policy” was “one strong factor in binding and cementing the personnel of the body of Seventh-day Adventists together as one in purpose in Christ.”(34) Of course, unity is about relationships: the believer’s with Christ and [end of page 8] with other church members; and those of church organizations and institutions to each other, and to the wider whole. Policies cannot fully do justice to human emotions and so policies, alone, will not produce unity. A recent report to the GC Executive Committee recognizes that “the relationship among entities of the Church is more than a matter of law and policy” and thus “attempts to codify that relationship will always be inadequate.” As it affirms, the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s “primary strength” is neither its policies nor “its structure but . . . its collective desire to live out a commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”(35) An important part of the role of church leadership is to facilitate the living out of that commitment to Christ, and the fashioning of that unity among us for which the Son petitioned the Father. But the decisions made with those goalsin mind become policy, which thus has a role to play in building unity in the Church.
From the movement’s earliest days, Seventh-day Adventist leaders have been keenly aware of the need for unity, and denominational policy has always been one of the means to achieve it. In the 1850s and 1860s, as Seventh-day Adventists gradually coalesced into a distinct denomination, the other sects and denominations that emerged from Millerism were constantly fragmenting, their witness to the Second Advent undermined by their tendency towards heated disagreement and self-destruction. Their example had to be avoided.(36) Geographical dispersion was another challenge; seventh-day Sabbath-keeping Adventists were scattered across the Northeast and Midwest of the United States—some of the delegates who founded the General Conference in 1863 would have taken days of travel to reach Battle Creek. All these factors made our founders keenly aware of the need to take steps to preserve the unity that was, after all, one of their reasons for founding the General Conference in 1863. (37) They therefore initially staged GC Sessions every year, but as the Church began to spread around the world, the interval between sessions inevitably increased. Leaders therefore eventually expanded the membership of the Executive Committee and began to reserve certain business to “councils,” which would be attended by committee members from outside the GC headquarters. As the denomination grew further and the first two generations passed away, longstanding practices were codified in the Church Manual and GC Working Policy, and our Fundamental Beliefs were formulated. The Constitution and Working Policy have been continually tweaked to reflect changing realities and the Executive Committee repeatedly enlarged to ensure wide representation.
Quinquennial GC Sessions and regular meetings of a large and representative Executive Committee; the GC Constitution and Bylaws; GC Working Policy; the Fundamental Beliefs; and the Church Manual—all have multiple purposes, including organizational efficiency. But more importantly, they are tools to help achieve unity. Policy also expresses our unity, for, in the succinct words of a recent statement by world Church leaders, “General Conference Session actions and voted policies are agreements that the body of Christ make together.”(38)
Footnotes: 31 to 38
|31. See the Executive Committee’s effective definition when it decided to create a separate published Working Policy [hereafter WP] in 1926: a “careful digest” of all previous “General Conference actions voted in . . . sessions and Councils,” which was to “constitute a working policy”: Actions of the Autumn Council of the General Conference Committee (1926), 20 (GC Archives, Leaflet 6375). Cf. W. A. Spicer, “Proceedings of the General Conference,” Review and Herald 103/30 (June 10, 1926): 2, an article explaining to church members why Working Policy was being created.
32. Cf. Working Policy of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (2015–2016 edition), B 05, 8. [Citations hereafter to WP without dates are to the 2015–2016 edition.].
33. White, Testimonies, 3:445.
34. H.W. Cottrell, “The Growth of Denominational Organizations,” Review and Herald 109/12 (March 24, 1932): 267.
37. From “Constitution of the General Conference” (see endnote 1): “For the purpose of securing unity and efficiency in labor, and promoting the general interests of the cause of present truth, and of perfecting the organization of the Seventh-day Adventists, we, the delegates from the several State Conferences, hereby proceed to organize a General Conference.”
38. “An Appeal and Appreciation to all Church Entities and Members from the General Conference and Division Officers Regarding the 2015 General Conference Session Vote on Ordination,” recorded (not voted as an action) by Annual Council, Oct. 11, 2015, in GCC Minutes, 2015: 102–103.
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