The Seventh-day Adventist Church was raised up by God in fulfillment of Bible prophecy to prepare people for the second coming of Christ (Rev. 12:17). But some have suggested that the church’s leadership is now fulfilling different aspects of Bible prophecy, specifically those that we have understood as applying to the Roman Catholic Church. They charge that the current efforts being made to fulfill the voted actions of the world church at the 2015 San Antonio General Conference Session and bring compliance are papal and contrary to liberty of conscience. One of their major claims is that the decision-making process has been manipulated by not presenting the reports from the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) to the 2015 General Conference Session. This response is offered to help Adventist leaders and members understand the truth about these matters.
Who Persecutes the Saints?
Applying Revelation 13:7 (“to make war with the saints and to overcome them”) to Seventh-day Adventist Church leadership is misguided since it ignores the historicist principle that to correctly identify the application of these prophecies, each symbol should have a single, specific fulfillment in history. Those who try to suggest that the Seventh-day Adventist Church or its leadership are fulfilling the prophecy of Revelation 13 are virtually identifying the church as Babylon.
A careful analysis of the “beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns” (Rev. 13:1) reveals that it is the continuation of the fourth beast of Daniel 7. Both beasts have ten horns (Dan. 7:7; Rev. 13:1) and are linked to speaking blasphemies (Dan. 7:20, 25; Rev. 13:5-6) and the persecution of God’s people, which lasts for three and a half times or years, symbolizing 1,260 literal years (see Dan. 7:25; Rev. 13:5, 7).
Seventh-day Adventists have long understood that Daniel 7:25 adds that this power would “intend to change times and laws.” This refers to an attempt to change the very law of God written with His own finger on tables of stone. The Roman Church not only replaced the Bible Sabbath with a man-made day of worship, Sunday, but it also dropped the second commandment referring to idolatry and divided the ninth commandment into two separate commands. The issue regarding the change of the law of God revolves around the issue of authority. In understanding Daniel 7 and its corollary Revelation 13 we must ask, does any power claim to have the authority to change the immutable law of God?
The one and only power that makes this claim and matches the prophetic description is the Roman papacy, which exercised both religious and political power throughout its history and especially during the Middle Ages from AD 538-1798.
To counteract this widespread apostasy, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been raised up by God as the remnant of Bible prophecy, entrusted with the three angels’ messages to present Jesus in all His fullness and warn the world against worshiping the beast and its image and to prepare people for Christ’s return (Rev. 14:6-12). The New Testament gospel articulated by Paul and restated in the prophecies of Revelation is the incredibly good news that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection delivers us from both the penalty and power of sin. God has commissioned His end-time people to proclaim this “good news” and call people everywhere out of man-made systems and human creeds based solely on human tradition. A part of this commission is to call people out of “Babylon”—symbolizing both a system of falsehoods, human authority, and unbiblical teachings exercised on a worldwide scale.
“Kingly Power” and Popery
The charge that the General Conference or its leadership are exercising “kingly power” akin to papal authority misunderstands the vast difference between the decision-making processes in the Catholic Church in comparison to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The papacy is a system of centralized, top-down authority centered in the pope of Rome and his cardinals. During the Middle Ages, as predicted by prophecy, the papacy ruthlessly tortured, persecuted, and murdered dissenters who refused to accept its supreme authority. Its exercise of authority flows from a hierarchal structure.
But in the Adventist Church authority flows in both directions, from the bottom-up and the top-down, through representatives who include at all committee levels women as well as men, and lay members as well as pastors.
In the Catholic Church, decisions on doctrine are decreed by the pope and the top theologians of the church, but, in the Adventist Church, the statement of 28 Fundamental Beliefs simply summarizes what members, based on their own Bible study, already believe. Only the largest and most representative gathering of leaders and lay members at the General Conference Session held every five years can modify this statement of beliefs, the Church Manual, and certain GC policies, because they affect every level of the church. The Seventh-day Adventist Church on all levels functions based on a representative form of church government. Church leaders are elected officials who are duty bound to carry out the voted actions of the General Conference Session and the General Conference Executive Committee.
The decision regarding who is qualified to join the local church through baptism and profession of faith is made by the entire congregation, based on recommendations from the pastor and the church board in harmony with the statement of Fundamental Beliefs articulated by the world church. The decision regarding who should be ordained to the gospel ministry is made by the union, based on recommendations of local conferences in harmony with biblical qualifications articulated by the world church.
A local church is not authorized to baptize someone who is not in full agreement with the statement of 28 Fundamental Beliefs voted by the world church, nor is a union authorized to ordain someone who does not qualify for ordination based on criteria voted by the world church.
The president of the world church does not govern with the authority of the pope of Rome but rather administers the work of the church through committees such as the General Conference Administrative Committee (ADCOM), which has established five compliance subcommittees to help ensure that the decisions voted by the world church are fully implemented by church entities and institutions. These subcommittees have come as the result of requests from union presidents and other church leaders to review areas of non-compliance in addition to women’s ordination. Preferably, all cases of non-compliance should be dealt with by those entities closest to the matter, and they are encouraged to establish their own committees to help ensure compliance at all levels within their fields. These compliance committees, rather than being an authoritarian, top-heavy bureaucratic tool of General Conference administration, are an attempt to encourage each local entity to deal with non-compliance on a local level. The General Conference compliance subcommittees will function when conferences, unions, or divisions are unable or unwilling to deal with voted actions of the General Conference Session or Executive Committee actions that affect the World Church.
The fact that non-compliance in various areas of church life take time to resolve is a powerfully clear testimony to the fact that the Adventist Church has a distributed, rather than a top-down, system of authority, with appropriate checks and balances, including the possibility of resolving matters by higher levels of church governance, such as the General Conference Executive Committee or the world gathering of leaders and lay members at the General Conference Session.
Theology of Ordination Study Committee Reports
The process for the study of ordination was careful, thorough, and transparent in every way. In addition to the church’s Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC), encouragement was also given for the study to be pursued at other levels. And all thirteen divisions of the world church as well as some lower levels of church organization did just that.
Division committees reported their findings to TOSC and vice versa, which enabled extensive dialogue on these issues worldwide.
The papers presented at TOSC were made publicly available online soon after each committee meeting on the ASTR website (adventistarchives.org/gc-tosc).
Three weeks before the 2014 Annual Council, the Adventist Review and Adventist News Network published an appeal for church members—and especially Executive Committee members and 2015 General Conference Session delegates—to prayerfully study the Bible and the materials on the ASTR website. The appeal (bit.ly/ARappeal and bit.ly/ANNappeal) included numerous weblinks to the related materials.
At the 2014 Annual Council, members of the GC Executive Committee received 30-minute reports representing each of the three positions generated by TOSC, as well as a 125-page report published in June 2014 containing detailed summaries of these three positions and their respective recommendations regarding the way forward.
The 30-minute reports presented at Annual Council were published in their entirety in the Adventist Review as Position 1 (bit.ly/ARposition1), Position 2 (bit.ly/ARposition2), and Position 3 (bit.ly/ARposition3).
On March 4, 2015, a letter was sent to every GC Session delegate with a link to session materials, including this full TOSC report with a link for requesting a printed copy.
At the GC Session itself, summaries of each of the three positions were read, allowing more time for discussion, and printed copies of the TOSC report were made available.
It should be remembered that TOSC was a study committee only, with no administrative authority, nor was it representative of the world field. Its purpose was to study the topic of ordination and to make its findings known to the larger church, not to decide the issue.
The “vote” taken of its members indicates that the committee was quite evenly divided among the three positions. While some have tried to read that “vote” (which was an unofficial “straw poll,” according to the TOSC chair) as favoring the ordination of women, others point out that a similarly sizable majority recognized male leadership as the ideal biblical model for God’s people.
Religious Freedom/Liberty of Conscience
Based on our understanding of Daniel and Revelation, Seventh-day Adventists have long been strong advocates of religious freedom and liberty of conscience. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which claims the power to excommunicate heretics and consign them to eternal damnation in hellfire, the Seventh-day Adventist Church recognizes that God the Father has committed all judgment into the hands of His Son, Jesus Christ (John 5:22), and that salvation is a personal matter between the individual and God. Consequently, those who no longer believe in the church’s teachings and practice are left free to follow the dictates of their conscience, which may include resigning their church offices without condemnation or judgment.
Church leaders have a special responsibility to set an example of faithfulness to Christ, whether by drawing the church into closer bonds of unity based on our voted beliefs and practices or, should their conscience so lead them, by resigning their position and perhaps even their church membership if their conscience no longer allows them to support the beliefs and practices of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Every individual is left free to follow God’s leading as they understand it. This is a very high and precious value that should always be guarded and respected among us.
God’s Chosen Leaders
When there is disagreement, one should try to follow the principles of Matthew 18. Personal and public attacks are against our biblical mandate as Christians. Jesus was clear: we should treat each other as we wish to be treated (Matt. 7:12).
The same is also true for how we treat leaders. Even the apostle Paul, when rebuked for speaking disrespectfully of the Jewish high priest, said “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’” (Acts 23:5). As one hears or reads the strong rhetoric being used today against church leadership, one wonders if those making the accusations know the person whom they are attacking.
The Bible encourages us to speak respectfully about each other and our leaders. Let’s allow the Holy Spirit to control our words and actions.
Forget Compliance and Focus on Mission?
The church is the object of God’s supreme regard. Jesus prayed specifically for His church as He faced the shame of the cross, recognizing that unity was a necessary pre-requisite for the successful accomplishment of the mission He was entrusting to it. He prayed not only for His disciples “but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, . . . that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20–21). Jesus spent much of His time teaching the disciples because their work was the most important to which human beings had ever been called and He knew that the future of the church would be in their hands. They were “to become one in faith, doctrine, and spirit. They would have their tests, their grievances, their differences of opinion; but while Christ was abiding in the heart, there could be no dissension” (The Desire of Ages, p. 296). The same is God’s will for His people today. “They will not be at variance, one believing one thing, and another having faith and views entirely opposite, each moving independently of the body. . . . If one man takes his views of Bible truth without regard to the opinions of his brethren, and justifies his course, alleging that he has a right to his own peculiar views, and then presses them upon others, how can he be fulfilling the prayer of Christ? And if another and still another arises, each asserting his right to believe and talk what he pleases without reference to the faith of the body, where will be that harmony which existed between Christ and His Father, and which Christ prayed might exist among His brethren?” (Testimonies of the Church, vol. 3, p. 446). Only as we unite in faith, practice, and mission can the work God has given us be successfully accomplished. A dying world waits the proclamation of the unique last day Christ-centered biblical message that has been entrusted to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Heaven’s imperative is to “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:16). Only a church united in love and doctrine, committed to mission, and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit will accomplish Christ’s purpose in preparing people for the coming of our Lord.
Originally published in the GC Executive Committee Newsletter, October, 2018, accessible at executivecommittee.adventist.org/newsletter