Design a Church for the End-times
Can we try to think from God's standpoint for a few minutes? The Protestant Reformation stalled and you are raising up a movement, a revitalization of the Reformation, developing a group who will complete the Reformation. You've worked it all out prophetically, but then this question: how do you organize the church for the end-time? You see ahead because Your eye is divine. You know the philosophical waves and eddies coming up. You see beforetime the rise of human reason, of radical individualism, of the narcissistic, self-serve final age. Out of that froth of self-satisfied psychedelic end-time blindness, you are going to raise up a people. Not just any people, but you are creating a group that will endure through the last age.
How do you do it?
How do you design it?
What do you create? With what thoughts and ideas do you impress these people, this last-day, test tube laboratory, experimental people? How do you create an organization that will endure crisis after crisis, satanic ploy after Satanic ploy?
Interesting questions. Now, some will not like this, but we have posed the question and I will tell you the answer.
We do not need to guess. We know something about our history, and how God has led us in the past. His intention is not random. He did not leave our pioneers to pragmatic fits and starts and random throw-things-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks organization. The first Seventh-day Adventists knew quite a bit about church organization. They came out of several churches. And the system of governance they were led to use was distinct from the systems of others.
I propose to you that the system God has given His church, which we presently are part of, is exactly what He wants us to have for this time. Yes, I know the church looks broken. But bear with me. I want to help you better understand the way your church is organized. Please withhold your evaluation of what I say until after you have heard it. I am going to not only describe to you how your church is organized for faithfulness in the end-time, but I will also diagnose with you our present problem and show you the solution which your God has built into His system.
First then, our thesis: The present Adventist church structure is a bulwark against cultural compromise. The different sections of the church should be more tightly interlinked, not less.
Now that you are ALL skeptical, let me show you a couple of exhibits.
Acts of the Apostles, p. 198: "Even the best of men, if left to themselves, will err in judgment."
Acts of the Apostles p. 199: "The greater the responsibilities placed upon the human agent, and the larger his opportunities to dictate and control, the more harm he is sure to do if he does not carefully follow the way of the Lord and labor in harmony with the decisions arrived at by the general body of believers in united council."
Another from p. 199: "May God give every man a realization of his helplessness, his inability to steer his own vessel straight and safe into the harbor."
And from p. 200: "Notwithstanding the fact that Paul was personally taught by God, he had no strained ideas of individual responsibility. While looking to God for direct guidance, he was ever ready to recognize the authority vested in the body of believers united in church fellowship. He felt the need of counsel, and when matters of importance arose, he was glad to lay these before the church and to unite with his brethren in seeking God for wisdom to make right decisions. Even 'the spirits of the prophets,' he declared, 'are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.' 1 Corinthians 14:32, 33. With Peter, he taught that all united in church capacity should be subject to one another.' 1 Peter 5:5.'"
You spotted the common theme: Our fallibility, our capacity to fail, and more than this, the certainty that we will fail we will make mistakes, unless we do what? Unless we conduct our labor "in harmony with the decisions arrived at by the general body of believers in united council."
The Local Church
So, let me put up the first of three little graphics here. This is simple. Take a look. This picture represents the local church, the congregtion that you belong to. I've kept it simple here. What do you have? You have the local church, the body of believers. It is made up of individuals, of Christians, persons, of whole units. You are one unit. God designed you so that combined in one person you have the ability to act and do, to think, to feel. You are a whole. You cannot be subdivided. You are an integer.
You are one member of a specific congregation. Let's say your church has 100 members. What are the main components? First, the members. In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, membership is rather strictly a matter limited to the local church level. Your membership is held in a local church. You are accountable to your fellow Jesus-followers, your fellow church members. They are your brothers and sisters. Your membership is held in a local church and your General Conference president's membership is held in a local church somewhere. We are all brethren. Professionals and laberors, members of every stripe gather to worship and even wash each other's dirty feet a few times a year. It's all part of the local church.
But how to all these individual persons--or integers if we want to risk using that terminology--how do they make decisions as a body? There is a church board. The local church populates its church board. It employs a system of checks and balances and nominates and elects a church board. There are different persons who play important roles in this process but the essential pieces are the congregation and the church board.
What's missing? Look again. Where is the pastor? He's not listed here. I left him off on purpose. He is an important part of what happens but don't forget, churches can go years between pastors. When the Seventh-day Adventist Church began, virtually none of our churches were served by full-time paid clergy. The pastor is one piece but he is not essential. What you see listed here are the essentials: A local congregation, the members, the integers as it were, and, the church board, the decision-making body for the congregation.
The Global Body
When the Adventist church was formed, none of the earliest members could have envisioned our second graphic. So take a look. This is a representation of God's end-time church today. It is a simple pie chart. This pie has 13 slices at the moment, 13 divisions combined into one entire global Seventh-day Adventist Church of some 20 million people.
Each slice represents a division. So you have NAD, IAD, and so on. Now this picture does not differentiate between local churches, conferences, unions, divisions, and the General Conference. And with good reason. The Church Manual on p. 28 tells why:
The General Conference represents the worldwide expression of the Church.
Do you think of the General Conference as a group of distant people? We are us and we are not the General Conference, but they are them and they are the General Conference? Think again. Yes, there is a large building in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA filled with hundreds of workers, but where are their memberships? Each one of them has his membership in a local church somewhere. The General Conference is all of us. We are all parts of one world church, and the world church is a collection of groupings of local churches which are part of conferences, and all of the local churches combined make up one General Conference.
The people in the building in Silver Spring are real people, friendly people. They have desks, computers, cell phones, pets, and go grocery shopping just like you do.
Something that might be a difference for some of them compared with some of you though: because we are a world church telling every nation and kindred and tongue and people about Jesus and His present truth, the workers there do what they do for the work of God shoulder to shoulder with people from almost every conceivable nationality. And that is a gift from God, because it is a safeguard to help keep them from being trapped in a cultural bubble as mere North Americans, or Europeans, or Africans, or people from whatever cultural enclosure they are from.
So if we think of this as the local churches being on the outside pie-edges, and the people working in the headquarters as being at the center of the pie where all the different nations and kindreds and tongues and people come together, then we have this chart. This pie is the General Conference. This pie is the world church. This pie is not separate from you but is part of you and you part of it. You are part of the combined followers of Jesus in their churches who combine together to be the Seventh-day Adventist Church. There you are. You are not separate from the whole, ouside looking in; you are part of the whole, you have a voice and a vote in the whole, you are part of the mission of the whole, and your life and labor should be aligned to serve the supreme mission of Jesus to use this end-time church to do the work which God has called us to do.
The Adventist Representative Form of Church Governance
So now let's go back to the basic element, the local church. Let's look at that again. You have the members of the local church, and you have the church board, people who the members elect to serve.
Now take a good look at that picture. Very complicated. That is the model upon which the whole church organization is based. But how? Now our third graphic...
The Local Church
Do you remember that local church graphic? Well, there it is on the bottom row. Remember, the whole plan is based on this simple model. There is a body and an elected group of representatives who make decisions on its behalf. So what you see here is the local church. What is its decision-making body? The Church board. Here I'm just showing that by the label CB to the right of the line that says local church. Every local church has a church board.
So on the bottom row there, that is the foundation, the local church. A grouping of local churches makes up a conference. My Conference, the Upper Columbia Conference has around 110 churches combined in it. In this picture I'm just showing three local churches to give the idea.
So a grouping of local churches combine together to form a conference. What is the decision-making body of the conference? It is like a local church. It has a conference church board, only we don't call it the church board, we call it the executive committee. I've abbreviated that here with the label EC.
Conferences combine together into union conferences. We normally just call them unions. I am part of the North Pacific Union. The North Pacific Union is made up of six Conferences: Washington, Oregon, Upper Columbia, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. So what is the decision-making body for the union? Because the union has a church board for the Union, only they call their church board the Union executive committee. Again I've labeled it here as EC.
Do you see that the local church, the local conference, the local union are all at least roughly the same?
There is another word that might not be understood: constituency. The constituency is the membership. It is the group from which the whole is made up.
In the local church you and I are called "members." But we could just as easily be called the constituency of that local church. When all the members are invited to meet together we call it a church business meeting but all it really is is a constituency meeting.
By the way, the world church has determined that every church should hold regular business meetings. Has your church held a business meeting lately? The Church Manual says that the local church is required to have a church business meeting, or a constituency meeting, at least once a year (p. 128). All the members can come to that meeting, make motions, and vote. It is part of our representative system of church governance. If the church board were to start making decisions unrepresentative of the local church, the business meeting, or constutency meeting, is a place where the local members can overrule the church board and require them to move differently than they moved before.
Every four or five years delegates from every local church come together at a conference constituency session. I've labeled that here as a CCS. Officers are elected and the conference executive committee is elected. Then your conference has it's church board, or executive committee.
The unions also have a constituency: the conferences in the union. So every four or five years there is a union constituency session, which I have labeled here as a UCS. Just like the local church and conference models, at the union constituency meeting, officers are elected and a church board, that is, the union executive committee is elected.
So you will see a bracket to the right here encompassing all these parts of church organization. The local church, the conference, and the union all have constituencies, a body of members to whom they are accountable.
General Conference and Divisions
Now we have a thick line here dividing these parts of the church from the last part. Right above this now you will see the General Conference which has its church board or executive committee to the side on the chart there. And you see Divisions. What is that? Is there something different going on here? Yes there is. So that is in brackets.
You say, but divisions are groupings of unions and each division has its own executive committee too. Why have you grouped them differently?
Because there is a very meaningful difference here. Unlike the local church, the conference, and the union, all of which are responsible to their constituency members, divisions have no direct constituency. All a division really is, is a branch office of the General Conference.
This is different. A local church is not a branch office of a Conference. The local church has its constituency--its own members. A conference is not a branch office of a union. The local conference has its constituency--its churches. And the union is not a branch office of the division or the General Conference, again, because it has its own constituency--the conferences in is territory.
When you come to the division there is something different. All a division really is, is a branch office of the General Conference. There are 13 such branch offices for the 13 geographical regions of the world.
You see, the unions do not directly elect the division officers. Something is different here. And it is a part of the chart I did not explain. Look there to the immediate left of the "union" level. Local churches combine to hold a conference constituency session to elect conference leaders and the conference executive committee; conferences combine to hold a union constituency session and to elect union officers and a union executive committee, and unions combine to hold a general conference session. At the general conference session they elect officers and the general conference executive committee. The general conference session elects the divison leaders and the general conference officers directly. The general conference session is the constituency session of the unions.
A Representative Form of Church Governance
Hopefully ther are a few lightbulbs going off right about now. Do you see how all the pieces make sense? All the pieces fit together in a representative system.
This is the extremely complicated system that one of the church's retired historians says is the most complicated system of governance. I beg to differ. It's actually rather simple and based on the simple model of the local church, and its representation by a church board, and by the church business meeting. It is just those three things extended one step to deal with groupings of local churches.
But, someone asks, is this really inspired? Isn't this just a human plan?
well, you tell me. Consider what Ellen White herself wrote in Testimonies, vol. 8, pages 236-237:
Every member of the church has a voice in choosing officers of the church. the church chooses the officers of the state conferences. Delegates chosen by the state conferences choose the officers of the union conferences, and delegates chosen by the union conferences choose the officers of the general conference. By this arrangement every conference, every institution, every church and every individual, either directly or through representatives, has a voice in the election of the men who bear the chief responsibilities in the General Conference.
And so the Church Manual makes this crucial observation:
In Seventh-day Adventist Church structure, no organization determines its own status, nor does it function as if it had no obligations to the Church family beyond its boundaries (CM 27).
All the parts of the church are a whole. There is a oneness. We are all part of the General Conference. We are the Seventh-day Adventist Church singular, not plural.
And so the Church Manual correctly says
The Seventh-day Adventist form of governance is representative, which recognizes that authority rests in the membership and is expressed through duly elected representatives at each level of organization, with executive responsibility delegated to representative bodies and officers for for the governing of the church at each separate level (CM 26).
You have a voice. And if you are watching this symposium there are quite good odds that you have a definite opinion on the issues the church is facing. I said we would diagnose the current crisis, and now that we have this understanding, it should not be very difficult at all to understand.
The Current Crisis
It is difficult from within one's own setting to discern captivity to one's own culture. The present conflict in the church has not arisen because of defective structure but because of culturally-impacted leaders. Some leaders are in thrall to ideas they cannot seem to get out of their minds. The Western portion of the church, namely, North America, Western Europe, and the South Pacific areas are deeply infected with keynote Western cultural concepts of Egalitarianism which have no place for the Biblical version of Egalitarianism. There is no time in this presentation for an expansion on that point, but I would say that there are such workers, whom we can assume to be well-meaning in their motivation, who ought to be reassigned, and opportunity given to workers who will respect the Spirit-led decisions of the world church in General Conference Session.
If you heard our first round table discussion last evening, you heard Elder Veloso speak plainly about the current crisis. I want to add to that with our chart here. With regret, Elder Veloso described what has been happening as a power struggle.
With regret perhaps that is an accurate description. Because what you have today are unions trying to usurp the authority of the General Conference. In North America the unions, under the protection of the NAD from the General Conference, are trying to operate by their own preferred criteria. It is congregationalism, just on a conference and union level. In Europe again, unions and unions of churches, under the protection or the Trans-European Division, are trying to operate under their own regional criteria So it is congregationalism again.
So on the chart you can see that the problem is there at the unions and also at the divisions. The problem is not the church structure. The problem is that elements within church structure at the union and division level, essentially at the GC level, are attempting to usurp the authority the world church has vested in the General Conference as a whole. The Divisions are acting as insulators, insulating the unions from experiencing the consequences of their disregard for the world church decision.
This is why the essential component in the reconciliation process voted at Annual Council 2016 was that it makes it more readily doable for the General Conference leadership to address issues in conferences and unions. It opens the way past the insulating function that NAD and TED have had as they have permitted and even encouraged unions and conferences to "be more practical" and act out their desires in contradiction to the expressed will of God for His world church.
The solution is not any dramatic change in structure but really what is needed is a change of officers in divisions and unions. Workers who are not only willing but actually functioning in opposition to the world church need to be, shall we say, reassigned.
Summary and Conclusion
If the unions are permitted to overrule the General Conference then it will be true that its commitment to securing consensus with regard to denominationally impacting decisions through its representative system will be abandoned. The church will have veered onto the path of fragmentation, becoming more loosely bound, and global mission will be damaged if not eliminated as a possibility. Local culture will act as a solvent and become the strong basis for practice. We would become a loose collection of bodies detached from each other both in practice and belief. The leadership faction already emotionally separated from the idea of a unified world church will have their way against the will of the voting delegates of the world church. The authority of the General Conference will be forever reduced and the church will for a period become a confederation, but soon disintegrate into separate bodies.
To prevent such an experience, faithful members should clasp hands, press together, and have the help of brothers and sisters world round. Theirs and our commitment to the Church's long-standing, global, Spirit-led decision-making process will keep us from being unwittingly conformed to the viewpoints dominant in our local culture. God's culture transcends local culture. There can be a revolution in the lives of church members as we are delivered through God's truth from human ideologies, and instead experience transformation by God's truth.
The title of this talk is "Dissolution or Revolution." And that is what we face. Either working with the plan God has given us as one church, or letting the body become misshapen and have subsections of the church usurp authorities designed to be granted only to the General Conference.
If there is no intervention by actual leaders, the church faces dissolution. But if leaders will lead, and if members will become much more involved in decision-making in their church, conference, and union, there can be revolution. God has given us the structure needed for the end-time. But the workers must be faithful. Faithful leaders, faithful General Conference Executive Committee members.
The choice stands immediately before us. May God help His remnant people.
Secrets Unsealed Studio, Fresno, CA 2017-08-03