A few days ago Adventist News Network(ANN), the official news channel of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, released a remarkable statement. Its heading was: “Questions regarding the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its leadership.” It was, of course, no coincidence that this publication occurs just prior to the beginning of the Annual Council, the annual meeting of the denomination’s full executive committee, with representatives from all around the world. But it was rather surprising to see that the top leadership of the church apparently felt the need to publicly defend itself against a torrent of criticisms and accusations about its leadership style that is widely seen as less than democratic, top-down, and bureaucratic. The document strongly denies that the leaders exercise a kind of “kingly” power and are turning the system of church governance from a bottom-up democratic organization into a hierarchy in which all authority flows from the top downwards, and in which total “compliance” is required from all the constituent entities and their leaders.
On the surface many may find the document quite convincing (which is, of course, the intention), but closer analysis shows that problems are downplayed, important issues are ignored or misinterpreted, and that the concerns that have been expressed by so many unions and prominent church leaders are not taken seriously or, at least, not understood.
I was, particularly, struck by the way in which the Adventist process of defining doctrine was described in this GC statement. I am quoting a few lines where a comparison is made with the Roman Catholic process of making doctrinal decisions.
The papacy is a system of centralized, top-down authority centered in an infallible pope and his cardinals. 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. In contrast, within 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. . . .
This paragraph paints a picture that differs significantly from reality. The description of the process by which the Roman Catholic Church defines doctrine is a caricature of reality. For one thing: it fails to mention the important role of major church councils. But more worrisome is the description of how our own church defines or re-defines fundamental beliefs. To say that the Fundamental Beliefs simply summarize what members, based on their own Bible study, already believe, is a far cry from what actually happens. If we just look at the latest revision of our Fundamental Beliefs in San Antonio in 2015, these re-statements were most definitely not a “summary” of what the members “already believe”. The changes were forced upon the church by the denomination’s top leadership, with little or no input from any prominent theologians, apart from some members of the Biblical Research Institute (that falls under the supervision of the General Conference).
I do not know who was responsible for drafting this recent defensive statement of ANN. We must assume that it was initiated and controlled by the GC leadership. Every organization has, of course, the right, to defend itself when it feels it is unfairly attacked. But when this is done with very questionable arguments, this adds to the rather widespread uneasiness about how the General Conference operates, rather than allaying the grave concerns of a vast number of church members around the world.