A House Divided (2B): Reorganization – Unity in Diversity


(This is article 4 in a 9 article series by Adrian Zahid)


After 1888, Ellen White determined that the church’s structure that was formed in 1863, was unable to handle the demands of a growing church that had a presence on four continents. It needed a new “organization principle” as she put it. Still, getting the brethren to move on this was problematic as a succession of ineffectual presidents stymied any progress towards reorganization. During this time, two models emerged for reorganization, each had a different basis with implications that were far reaching in nature. While Ellen White did not take a side in the debate, she did enunciate several principles that helped guide the reorganization effort. In this current debate, Dr. Barry Oliver’s dissertation on the reorganization effort is the definitive study on the topic. We will cover some of his analysis here as it pertains to the constitutional debate at hand. We will also take a look at his input at TOSC and other levels of the church regarding ways forward to achieve unity.

Conditions that Led to Re-Organization

As we noted in the first article of this series, the Seventh-day Adventist church organized in 1863, after a period of doctrinal consolidation which led to a sense of a world-wide message and a world-wide mission. This impetus to organize was driven by concerns of doctrinal and organizational preservation which saw James White employ clergy certification to thwart imposters and ultimately organization to prevent haphazard work and schism. The organization that the Sabbatarian Adventists put together was one that was based on common sense principles with an eye towards simplicity and effectiveness.

Less than a decade into the denomination’s history, a controversy arose regarding the need to ‘centralize’ leadership within one man, James White. James White himself rejected such attempts and wrote several treatises expounding his views on Christ being the leader of the work. Ellen White’s statements gradually helped decentralize the power from one person to several individuals on the Executive committee and when that proved inadequate, to the General Session itself. In this article, we pick up the historical narrative right after 1888, to see how the church came to the conclusion that it needed to re-organize itself for the furtherance of its mission.

As the denomination’s reach grew to Europe, Africa, and Australia, communication with the headquarters in Battle Creek became near impossible. In those days, people traveled the world in ships and it would take weeks for mail to go from one continent to another. Letters sent to Battle Creek were often returned with questions because the brethren were unable to determine the nature of the request or the details of the situation. Further clarification just meant more delays and the work was suffering because of this bottleneck in Battle Creek. Compounding the issue was the behind the scenes debate on how best to reach the world. Dr. Kellogg felt that bigger and more systematic organizations were the way forward while Ellen White preferred a nimble approach. As Dr. Kellogg began to drift, he began to try to use political methods to achieve control of the General Conference Committee. AT Jones and Waggoner offered their ‘Christ-centered’ theological-ecclesiological model while W.C. White, A.G. Daniells and AT Robinson offered a model based primarily on pragmatic ‘mission-oriented’ terms.

An overlooked part of this debate is that Mrs. White returned to the United States and found the churches to be weak and the members’ faith to be feeble. She diagnosed the culprit to be “settled” pastors. During her absence, a policy had taken hold to service each church with a pastor. She and her husband had opposed this practice for two decades. However, with her trip to Australia and her husband’s death, this practice had become common in the denomination in North America. An irreversible population shift from rural areas to the cities had also taken place in response to the burgeoning Industrial Age. Mrs. White recognized that the ideal was to live in the country however the people that the church had to reach lived in the cities. Her approach was to call for “outpost” living where the members would live outside the city but travel in to minister and reach its populace. It is inadequate to talk about reorganization without the necessary context of Mrs. White’s “city-mission” and a return to a “member-care model” that was prevalent in early Adventism and early NT Christianity.

Insights on the Reorganization Process

Barry Oliver writes that “Ellen White had the highest regard for the church, the General Conference in session, and the executive committee as the agent and coordinator of the work of the church.  And was actively defending the church against attack during the time that she was so critical of the General Conference committee itself, of by its executive officers, which nullified its authority. The General Conference, and later even the unions and local conferences, were not to be regarded as having any unconditional authority. Their response to God and to the jurisdiction that they had each had, determined the status of the authority that each had been granted by the legitimizing process.”[1] So far in this debate, there has been very little discussion regarding the status of the authority of the unions. Some have held that any attempt by the General Conference to hold the Unions accountable is to be out of order. This approach has been applied to any compliance action whether it is in the form of the International Board of Mission and Theological Education (IBMTE) or in the case of ordaining men who do not meet the educational requirements that have been set forth for ministry. Theological “diversity” has been encouraged and defended even when the theologians have espoused views that embrace theistic evolution, or principles of biblical interpretation that render most of our message and the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura void. On the other side, inconsistent compliance has also been a problem for corruption in overseas unions where inflated numbers, financial corruption and other issues, termed as “local issues,” have been allowed to fester.

Oliver’s study affirms the need for centralizing structures, by stating that, “centralization and coordination of administrative structures are necessary in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The denomination has a world-wide scope which necessitates well- considered global strategies as well as localized plans and methods for evangelism.  Congregational structural forms are not appropriate for the denomination.  But the denomination should not be so rigid that it is unable to allow for the adaptation of its structures.”[2]

Daniells’ view of the reorganization effort is key to understanding the key principles that guided the effort. Oliver writes,

“However, if one principle was more important than any other for those allied with Daniells in 1901 it was the principle of decentralization.  Daniels implied that such was the case at the 1903 General Conference session when he was explaining his understanding of the sentence from Ellen G White’s 1896 letter that had been used by Jones, Waggoner, and Prescott in an attempt to do away with the presidency of the General Conference.  Daniells explained that according to his understanding, Ellen White was saying that the leaders of the church needed to “decentralize responsibilities and details and place them in the hands of a larger number of men.  In this sentence, he was using the verb “to delegate”.  He understood Ellen White to be discussing the need for responsibility to be delegated to several persons rather than being concentrated in just one person—the president of the General Conference.”[3]

It is in this context of “delegated authority” that the General Conference understands the existence of Unions. In the General Conference Working Policy 2015-2016, it states,

B 05 – 3: Organizational status is granted to a constituency as a trust. Official recognition as a local church, local conference/missions, or union conference/mission is not self-generated, automatic, or perpetual. It is the result of a formal decision by an executive committee or a constituency session at higher levels of denominational organization. Organizational membership and status are entrusted to entities that meet certain qualifications including faithfulness to Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs, compliance with denominational practices and policies, demonstration of adequate leadership and financial capacity, and responsiveness to mission challenges and opportunities. Membership and status can be reviewed, revised, amended, or withdrawn by the level of organization that granted it.

It also speaks to the combined sense of global and local identity of each entity.

B 05 – 8: The Seventh-day Adventist Church has both a local and global identity. The local church is indeed a genuine expression of the Seventh-day Adventist Church but its identity cannot be fully defined or viewed in isolation from its relationships with other local churches and other levels of denominational organization. The local and global elements of Seventh-day Adventist identity are expressed in documents such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual and the General Conference Working Policy that reflect aspects of self-governance and interrelationship. The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual and the General Conference Working Policy present the collective voice of Seventh-day Adventists regarding beliefs, denominational structure, relationships, and operational procedures.

Despite the push for decentralization the need for unity became paramount as A.G. Daniells, Ellen G. White, and others geared up to fight Dr. Kellogg’s views on the way forward for the medical work. Oliver recognizes this shift as being necessary.

“It was not long, however, before the need for unity began to displace the emphasis on decentralization in the denomination.  It happened as a consequence of the theological and organizational confrontation begun in mid-1902.  While decentralization was still proclaimed as the principle of reorganization, the maintenance of unity became a priority because of the circumstances that existed.[4]

Perhaps the greatest contribution that Oliver made to the church was his decades-long service in leadership. Writing with other students in honor of Dr. Knight, Oliver’s essay recognized his former professor’s books on highlighting the principle of diversity however he chose to write on the topic of unity. In this essay, Oliver sought to establish the principle of unity in the context of his own service. He traced his time from being a doctoral student writing the dissertation from which I have quoted above and explained how he came into the service thinking that diversity was the answer. However, time in the service and especially in the upper echelons of the church administration helped him realize the importance of unity. Nearly a decade after penning this essay, Oliver was present at TOSC when the world church’s sanctioned committee was searching for a way forward. Oliver’s speech contained many of the principles that he had inculcated in leadership as well as insights from his dissertation. Instead of arguing for the decision to be made at the Union level, or arguing as some have done that the right to ordain is the jurisdiction of unions only, he suggested the path forward to unity on this issue was by going through the General Conference Session. He even suggested the precise wording to be put forth to the delegates at the Session. Even after the Session, at the London unity conference, he has affirmed many of the principles that he discovered in his landmark study of the reorganization of the church in 1901-1903.

He wrote,

“Unity or diversity cannot be goals in themselves. Rather they are principles of organization that together, in balance, facilitate goal accomplishment. Even if the church were to express its ecclesiology in more oncological terms of diversity its aims and objectives, the principles of unity or diversity alone, would not adequately express the objective of the church. They are principle of facilitation of the mission of the church, which when in balance, function toward the accomplishment of the purpose of the church.” [5]


We started this article by looking at the conditions that existed in 1863 and traced the counsels of Mrs. White through the leadership crisis, 1888, the reorganization effort and her final statement at the General Conference. We also considered here in this part, some of the insights that were gleaned during the process of reorganization. Unity in theology makes possible diversity in practice. Diversity in practice, presupposes unity in theology. When we have diversity in theology we cannot have any unity in practice because that unity is impossible to achieve hermeneutically, philosophically, theologically and ecclesiologically. If you put unity and diversity as two points on a same line and uniformity on the other side of unity and anarchy on the far side of diversity, any attempt to move in the direction of unity that loses sight of diversity will cause uniformity. In the same way, any attempt to move in the direction of diversity that loses sight of unity will cause anarchy. We will visit this comment in the last article in greater detail. It seems like those who are arguing for the expansionist role for the unions want to use Barry Oliver’s credibility, but they reject the insights that he brings regarding the balance of unity and diversity.

[1] Oliver, Barry David, “Principles for Reorganization of the Seventh-day Adventist Administrative Structure, 1888-1903 Implications for an International Church” (1989). Dissertations. Paper 118.

[2] Oliver, 329

[3] Oliver, 294

[4] Oliver, 342, 343

[5] Oliver, 342

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