A House Divided (1A): The Constitutional Arguments for the Unions & the General Conference

(This is article 1 in a 9 article series by Adrian Zahid)

At the last Annual Council, the General Conference executive committee gave a “Year of Grace” to the Unions that are currently at variance from General Conference Policy. During this year, discussions took place at levels of the church in the form of conferences, symposiums, pro-con articles, online debates, sermons, as well as inter-level discussions between church officials. Now the Annual Council will take up the issue again starting October 5, 2017, and seek a way forward that will promote unity and preserve diversity in the church.

Section I: Defining the Importance of the Problem & the Two Positions

The current debate over the role of unions in our church and the General Conference raises complex philosophical, theological, and legal questions regarding the nature of unity, the nature of diversity, the nature of doctrinal change, the nature of power, scope of authority, objections due to conscience, ecclesiology, limits of jurisdiction, policy creation and variance, representation, due process, arbitration, and legislative intent among others, that defy easy answers, all of which, have a direct bearing on the prophetic calling and global mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

With a few notable exceptions, most of the analysis produced to date has focused narrowly on the subject of women’s ordination. This way of approaching the topic at hand has its merits because it is the most tangible part of the current debate due to the decision at the General Conference Session in 2015. However, the major drawback to this approach is that this narrow focus obscures other compliance related issues and the larger and more important constitutional issues at stake. The problem is that most of the published analysis is written from a polemical point of view with the object of securing the member’s support either for or against the ordination of women. Readers who are inclined one way or the other, on women’s ordination, tend to judge the lucidity of the arguments presented according to their own pre-conceived preference or bias. Thus, institutional analysis published by the General Conference executive committee and the administration is instantly discredited by some because they have been conditioned to believe that the current view of the administration is tainted by corruption, is coercive, and/or lacking in jurisdictional authority. Similarly, analysis produced by the unions is also discredited by others who believe that those union institutions are in rebellion against the ‘highest authority on earth.’ Compounding the problem is the lack of sufficient historical and theological context on the part of the average member to fully grasp the constitutional implications that underlie the current debate over the role of unions and the scope of the authority of the General Conference.

This series attempts to present the arguments from both sides without taking a position on either side on the question regarding the ordination of women. In this way, both pro-women’s ordination members and anti-women’s ordination members can appreciate the magnitude of the decision before us without the coloring lens of the current debate over the ordination of women. Some may question this approach because to them, regardless of which side they are on, this is the issue and everything else surrounding it is mere details. However, the nature of constitutional arguments is such that regardless of what the issue is being discussed the same principles apply. Each decision creates precedent which then is used to determine future issues. Thus, while a single issue such as women’s ordination might be the burning focus for us in the moment, the constitutional reasoning that undergirds such decisions is essentially timeless.

Dr. Barry Oliver writes about the importance of historical context when studying past events to understand the applicability of its lessons for us today:

“Serious discussion of historical events and processes considers both the event itself and its context. No given historical occurrence can be understood if it is divorced from its context. Likewise, no principle has continuing normative value and contemporary application unless it has been evaluated in its historical context and reinterpreted in the light of its value and applicability for the present.”[1]

Because of so many authors, on each side, complete with their own competing and at-times self-serving version of history, I find it necessary to spend some time laying out the data from history.[2] The first two articles in this series deal with historical data and analysis of both history and its application to contemporary Adventist issues that we currently face.

After building a strong foundation or baseline from history in which we consider the time period from the 1840’s until 1863, which resulted in the organization of the Seventh-day Adventist church and the reorganization of its organizational structure in 1901-1903,[3] we will then evaluate contemporary Adventist perspectives put forward in recent presentations by Dr. George Knight and others at the London Unity Conference,[4] relevant articles from other Adventist news organizations, statements issued by various entities including the General Conference Secretariat, before and after the 2015 GC Session vote. I will analyze some of the legal arguments in favor of the unions made by the retired Associate General Counsel to the General Conference, Mitchell Tyner, and I will look at relevant US Supreme Court Cases and show how other Christian denominations fared in the United States Courts to help readers understand the legal implications of this debate. After looking at various perspectives, in our church, on the constitutional issues, with the aforementioned historical context in mind, we will be well-positioned to analyze the current debate and look at ways we can grow together as a church.

To keep the analysis of various perspectives consistent and easy to follow, we will examine the same historical documents and quotations put forth by both sides: The unions and the General Conference administration.

Let us then briefly define the two positions:

  1. The General Conference is defending the process and the decisions made at Sessions in 2015, 1995, and 1990. It is calling the votes on ordination without regard to gender and other related decisions taken at the Union level a “unilateral departure” from policy.
  2. The Unions want a variance in policy for their respective regions and have voted decisions at their level that have departed from established policy; which was derived from the aforementioned General Conference Sessions. They believe that this variance in policy will enable them to accomplish the Mission of the Church in their region. They view their decision not only as biblical, and moral, but also an issue of conscience for them. Some individuals have written that Unions are the final authority on ordination, and are a “firewall” between the General Conference and the local conference and that the General Conference should not exercise “dictation” over all the separate conferences. As a result, some Unions have begun the process of amending their Bylaws to reflect this view.

Both entities are proposing different ways forward toward unity. In this series, we will evaluate the implications that arise from each choice.

Dr. George Knight, one of the foremost proponents of the union side in this issue, writes:

“The denomination needs to see that this problem will not simply disappear. Somewhat like the issue of slavery in the United States from the 1820s to the 1860s, the ordination of women will stay on the agenda no matter how much money is spent in studying the topic and no matter how many votes are taken. Without adequate scriptural grounding, legislation at the worldwide level of the General Conference will not and cannot bring resolution.

I suggest that the real issue in 2016 is not the ordination of women but the role of union conferences. The ordination problem is only a surface issue. But it is one that cannot be avoided.[5]

The General Conference Secretariat offers its analysis:

“The danger to our unity lies not primarily in who we ordain, or what credentials are given to them. The chief danger lies in accepting the possibility of unilateral action. That has potential implications which go far beyond this immediate issue. Yet if we were to sacrifice the overreaching principle of representative, collegial, consensus-based decision making—if we were to accept that organizational units can act unilaterally— then our whole ecclesiastical polity and system of church governance would be in danger of breaking down. Unions would decline to follow division’s guidance; conferences will ignore unions when it suits them; local churches would flout conferences or missions.

We would do well to look to the wider principles of interconnectedness and interdependence. They have been the basis for 150 years of powerful proclamation of the gospel and prophetic truth, of extraordinary service to humanity, and of remarkable growth. They should not be lightly abandoned.”

These two representative quotes from both sides underscore the importance of this debate and precisely what is at stake. With both sides clearly defined, let us go to early Adventist history to begin to get the proper context so that we can understand the constitutional arguments for both sides in the Church.


[1] Oliver, Barry David. “Principles for Reorganization of the Seventh-day Adventist Administrative Structure, 1883-1903 Implications for an International Church.” Pg. 15

[2] Please note that due to the sheer volume of historical data, we will cover the organization of the General Conference and the Seventh-day Adventist church in this article, and in a subsequent article, we will cover the reorganization efforts in 1901-1903. We of course cannot possibly cover every twist and turn of history. I will highlight noteworthy incidents that are significant for the discussion at hand. The bulk of my critiques of both the union arguments and the General Conference arguments will come in later in separate articles, however there will be a few areas where I will directly comment or critique certain authors and their reasoning as it is relevant to a particular section of history. Beyond the basic assumption that you are a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church, nothing is assumed and all the concepts explored here don’t require any advanced theological knowledge or background. Each concept is carefully explained with more detailed explanations in the footnotes and references to more in-depth treatment.

[3] In order to understand the historical context, the reader should take into consideration the founding presuppositions of the Seventh-day Adventist church including the discussions related to the formation of its doctrines, the development of its clergy, the development of the organization of the General Conference and its sense of a world-wide mission developed from its understanding of the Three Angels’ messages.

With regards to the current women’s ordination debate, the reader should carefully study all the women’s ordination study papers officially submitted to and accepted by the General Conference from the 1970s to 2014 as well as Scripture itself.

For further deeper study, regarding the constitutional issues the reader should read the Union constituency meeting transcripts from the Pacific Union Conference and the Columbia Union Conference, leading up to the vote in 2015, available Annual Council and General Conference Administration Actions, timelines covering 129 years of committees and studies, transcripts from GC Sessions 1990, 1995, 2010, and 2015, and the two doctoral dissertations that cover the Development of the Seventh-day Adventist Organization from 1844-1881, and the Principles for Reorganization of the Seventh-day Adventist Administrative Structure, 1888-1903, and examine Ellen White’s statements regarding the authority of the General Conference in Session. It would be impossible of course to chart every twist and turn of history however the reader is encouraged to access all the documents listed here and read them at leisure and compare what they find with the series produced here. For the greatest return on investment, I highly recommend the two dissertations listed above and others I cite in the series, and the theology of ordination study papers from 1973-2014.

[4] London Unity Conference Papers. https://adventistunity2017.com/

[5] Knight, George. “The Role of Unions in Relation to Higher Authorities” March 11, 2016. Accessed: http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2016/10/07/role-union-conferences-relation-higher-authorities

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