There has lately been a lot of discussion in the Seventh-day Adventist Church about the place and the authority of the higher church administrative echelons (in particular concerning the role of the General Conference). This continued in the past few weeks—after the world congress of the church in San Antonio. Much of the debate focuses on the question to what extent the ‘lower’ administrative levels of the church (conferences and unions) may decide a number of important issues. Everything points to the fact that the denominational leadership in Silver Spring is doing all it can to ensure the supremacy of its own authority. This means, specifically with regard to the status of women in the church (which has recently been so much in the forefront), that unions cannot independently decide which persons they will ordain. Their authority is delegated authority, we are told!
It seems that we have now entered a phase in the dispute where the question of power has become all-important. In many respects, the administrative structure of the church—and the way in which the ‘highest’ administrative unit functions—resembles ever more the organization that we have always vehemently condemned: the church of Rome, in which the line of authority runs from the top to the bottom, and where the sense that, in fact, all authorities of ‘the top’ must be derived from what happens at the base of the church, has completely disappeared.
The importance of the ‘base’ of the church was clearly brought home to me in the past few weeks in my contacts with local churches. From July 25 onwards, I have an uninterrupted series of weekly speaking appointments in local churches: Amsterdam, Enschede, Amersfoort. Hilversum, and in the next few weeks: Huis ter Heide, Harderwijk, Meppel, and Utrecht. Invariably, my experience is that for most church members the events of Sam Antonio are already in a distant past—and that there is very little talk about events that happen in the higher regions of the world church, not even during the collective coffee hour after the church service (which has become an established custom in almost all Dutch Adventist churches).
Occasionally I find some church members who try to stay abreast of what happens in their church in far-away places, through the social media or the information that is provided by the Dutch union communication department. And, of course, the mission story during the Bible study period is still a fixed element of the service. But by far most members are first of all interested in the local church to which they belong, where they meet their fellow-believers and charge their spiritual batteries for the week to come. Everything else is, at most, of secondary importance. And that is how it should be!
In its earliest beginning the christian church consisted only of local groups of believers. Often they were so small they could meet in the home of one of them. Gradually a structure developed with elders and deacons. In addition, there were many who had some spiritual gift(s). The apostles had a special role and cared for the contacts between the churches and between them and the ‘mother-church’ in Jerusalem. All other supplementary models, which through the ages have been introduced into the church, were human inventions. Some of these have functioned quite well, and some did not.
The Adventist Church has also developed a specific organizational model. An initial strong distaste for any umbrella organization was, in the course of some 150 years, gradually replaced by an intricate hierarchical network of ecclesial structures. Many aspects have served us quite well. And some aspects are still OK. But let us never forget that, even though we have prayed and sought felt divine guidance, in final analysis our model was mostly borrowed from others and further devised by ourselves. There is nothing wrong with this, but this realization should prompt us to relativize the enduring usefulness of our organizational model.
Many organizational patterns in the Adventist Church have from time to time been adapted. But it became ever more complex: many things were added, but existing things were seldom discontinued. The territories of some divisions were repeatedly changed, and many conferences and unions were added. In the meantime the so-called ‘working policy’ of the church (the rules that have been agreed upon to structure the work of the church) has become an steadily more voluminous book. This is understandable, for many things have become more complex and, as the church grows, new situations had to be addressed. But this does not alter the basic fact: it is and remains human work.
That is why such statements as:’ Well, this is simply how the church functions. . ., and, ‘This is what the policy says’ and, ‘This is what you find in the Church Manual’, are often totally inadequate. Things can be changed! And it is risky to ignore the many voice that clamor for change. Ignoring this will only stimulate a process where ‘the base’ is less and less interested in what happens ‘at the top.’
It seems to me, that the time has come, as never before, that we become collectively aware (including the leadership at ‘the top’) that all authority in the church rests with the local churches. The members run their own churches and delegate certain powers to ‘higher’ administrative levels. This is what the Adventist Church still maintains in theory, but seems to be more and more forgetting in its actual practice.
When I preach tomorrow morning in one of the Dutch Adventist churches (my sermon will be on Hagar and her confession: You are the God who sees), I will be reminded of the important fact that, whatever some people may say, the rubber hits the road in the local church.