Recently, there has been much discussion regarding Church unity and Church policy. Have you ever wondered what (if any) connection there is between the two?
As we consider this question, it is important to note that the present General Conference (GC) Working Policy is the fruit of 150 years of collegial, prayerful, and frequently prolonged discussions among church leaders from around the world chosen by church members to represent them. Measures became policy only when a majority agreed on them, and usually only after a wider consensus was reached.
Although the GC Working Policy is set out in numbered and lettered paragraphs, its chief purpose is not to produce a perfect bureaucratic system but to foster unity and mission. Its role in promoting unity has assumed even greater importance as a result of developments since the 2015 GC Session, arising from its vote on ordination.
Seventh-day Adventists have always, throughout our history, stressed the doctrine of unity.
Ever since the Seventh-day Adventist Church first established criteria for the ordination of ministers at the 18th GC Session in 1879, the world Church has set such criteria. Since 1930, the GC Executive Committee has delegated to unions responsibility for selecting candidates for ordination, based on the criteria set by the world Church.1 A few unions, however, in effect claim the right to set criteria for ordination, disregarding the 1990 GC Session action not to allow women to be ordained to gospel ministry, and the decisions of the 1995 and 2015 Sessions not to allow variances from this policy.2 other unions and conferences have diverged from GC Working Policy by only commissioning or licensing all pastors, including those previously ordained. Why do such departures from Church policy matter?
BASED ON THE BIBLE
one of the chief purposes of Church organization and governance is to enable the unity that is the New Testament ideal for the body of Christ.3 Seventh-day Adventists have always, throughout our history, stressed the doctrine of unity. Two of the Fundamental Beliefs are relevant here: #12, “The Church,” and #14, “Unity in the Body of Christ.”4 We have a biblical duty to act to preserve unity and that has implications for implementing church policies.
In the process of making policy, we work together, not independently of ‘the body of Christ’, of which each church entity is a part (1 Cor. 12:27).
In making policy, 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. Because the Church is human, we never succeed perfectly, and thus policy is a process: we are constantly striving to harmonize our common policies, as well as our personal lives, with God’s will. But in this process, we work together, not independently of ‘the body of Christ’, of which each church entity, as the Apostle Paul indicates, is a part (1 Cor. 12:27).
Inspired writings, our history, and denominational policy all plainly indicate that unions and conferences should not unilaterally depart from what has been agreed by the world Church.5 God’s message to His people in biblical times and His remnant church at the end of time, conveyed by the pens of inspiration, is that 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 faithfully follow Jesus Christ, as He Himself declared (John 17:23).
WHAT IS “POLICY”?
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 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 a GC Session). Finally, statements or other actions approved by a GC Session or the GC Executive Committee are also considered an expression of Church policy.6
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.7
The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s governing documents have always 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. Nevertheless, 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.
AN IMPORTANT ROLE
In addition to its general role in regulating the administration of a worldwide movement, GC Working Policy has a particularly important role to play in building unity and community among Seventh-day Adventist Christians.
Unity is about relationships: the believer’s with Christ and 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. An important part of the role of church leadership is to facilitate the living out of our commitment to Christ, and the fashioning of that unity among us for which the Son petitioned the Father (John 17:2123). But the decisions made with those goals in mind become policy, which thus has a role to play in building unity in the Church.
Upholding provisions of denominational policy does not denote legalism; rather, it reflects a desire to draw closer to God and to each other, and to most efficiently lift up Jesus Christ before the world.
EARLY ROLE OF POLICY IN UNITY
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.8 Geographical dispersion was another challenge; seventh-day Sabbath-keeping Adventists were scattered across the Northeast and Midwest of the United States. All these factors made our founders keenly aware of the need to take steps to preserve unity, which was one of their reasons for founding the
General Conference in 1863.9 Initially, GC Sessions were held 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 made it representative of the world Church, 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.
In the end, it is the power of the Holy Spirit that holds us together, but the Holy Spirit works through human instrumentalities and avenues. Policy is one of several factors that promote unity in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We are united by our:
- Commitment to Christ
- Common biblical beliefs
- Shared passion for mission to the world
- Joint weekly study of the Sabbath School Bible Study Guide
- Interdependent world wide organizational structure
- Mutually agreed practices and policies
What binds Seventh-day Adventists together, ultimately, are our shared beliefs and our common mission “to call all people to become disciples of Jesus Christ, to proclaim the everlasting gospel embraced by the three angels’ messages, and to prepare the world for Christ’s soon return.”10
Church policies strengthen all the other unifying factors. They are tools to enable every member to become ever more effective in fulfilling our prophetic mission and to become ever more united in “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor 13:14).
Upholding the provisions of denominational policy does not, then, denote legalism (with all the negative connotations that holds); rather, it reflects a desire to draw closer to God and to each other, and to most efficiently lift up Jesus Christ before the world. —
1See “Unions and ordination,” GC Secretariat Statement (Aug. 2015), available at https://www.adventistarchives.org/unions-and-ordination-statement.pdf.
2Fifty fifth Session, July 11, 1990, Session minutes in GCC Minutes, 1990: 1039–40 (available at https://documents.adventistarchives. org/Minutes/GCC/GCC1990-07.pdf); Fifty-sixth Session, July 5, 1995, minutes in Adventist Review 172/33 (July 11, 1995): 30 (cited in n. 3); Sixtieth Session, July 8, 2015, transcript at https://www. adventistarchives.org/general-conference-business-sessiontranscript,-wednesday-pm,-july-8,-2015.pdf: 72–73.
3See “A Study of Church Governance and Unity” (https://www.adventistarchives.org/a-study-of-church-governance-and-unity. pdf), 2–4.
4In Seventh-day Adventist Church Yearbook 2016, 6–9; also available at https://www.adventist.org/fileadmin/adventist.org/files/articles/official-statements/28Beliefs-Web.pdf.
5See “A Study of Church Governance and Unity”, 2–7, 29–34.
6See 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, Lea et 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.
7Working Policy of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (2015–2016 edition), B 05, 8.
8See Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (1923), 26; Testimonies for the Church, 5:534.
9From “Constitution of the General Conference”, in “Report of General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists”, Review and Herald 21/26 (May 26, 1868): 204–5: “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.”
10“Mission Statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” WP A 05 05.
Originally published in the GC Executive Committee Newsletter, June, 2017, accessible at executivecommittee.adventist.org/newsletter