Recently leaders, scholars, and pastors from all over the world met in London, UK for the Unity Conference 2017. According to the conference webpage, the meetings, held from June 15th-17th, were “convened in a spirit of inquiry, discovery, and unity of purpose, exploring the underlying issues of the unity in diversity within the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” specifically addressing issues concerning “church structure and authority, unity, and liberty of conscience.” While many presented their perspectives on this important subject (all available for free on the conference webpage), there is one presentation that has garnered a lot of attention.
The paper entitled “Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle Over Authority + 9.5 Theses”, by Dr. George R. Knight, addresses concerns with recent developments in ecclesiastical authority within Adventism. In celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, and in the spirit of the Reformation, Knight divides his presentation into three parts which will be summarized below: Adventism’s approach to biblical authority, Ellen White’s thoughts on authority, and the development of authoritative structures within Adventism.
Adventism’s approach to biblical authority. The Seventh-day Adventist church owes much of its Reformation heritage to Anabaptism. Knight points out that the best representation of Anabaptism in nineteen century America was the Restoration movement, of which Joseph Bates and James White had strong ties to through the Christian Connexion. One of their core beliefs was that the Bible and the Bible alone is the rule of faith and practice. This contrasts to Roman Catholicism, where coercion is used through ecclesiastical authority to enforce beliefs and customs.
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Ellen White’s thoughts on authority. Knight asserts that Ellen White’s understanding of authority was connected to her view of Scripture. She believed the Bible to be our only standard for every doctrine and practice. She rejected the idea that a leadership position could make a man’s voice on theological issues infallible while also dismissing any attempt to use Adventist tradition as a means to solve biblical issues. White further asserted that an official vote taken by the General Conference session as a means to settle disagreements was not be the route to unity within the church. With regards to ordination, she firmly believed that too much importance was attached with the act as if power immediately came upon the recipient (she’s referring to a sacerdotal approach to ordination practiced by the Roman Catholic Church). In conclusion, Knight believes that White is suggesting what most Adventist scholars and theologians have been communicating recently, namely that ordination does not produce power; rather, it is a public recognition of God’s calling already taking place in the life and ministry of a pastor.
Development of authoritative structures within Adventism. At its early stages, Sabbatarian Adventists feared organized religious bodies. To some extent, they believed structured organization always preceded persecution. Eventually, through the counsel from James White, the church embraced a new hermeneutic that allowed for developments that weren’t opposed by the Bible and were in harmony with common sense. In some sense, the church has a kind of autonomy with regards to church structure. Hence the formation of the local conference and General conference, both of which are non-biblical structures. However, soon after the creation of these structures tensions began to appear. Even after Ellen White’s stern warning against the centralization of decision-making within the General Conference, the structure became an impediment to the work needed to be done. Developments and changes in church policy after the 1920s, but especially since the 1980s, led to a greater centralization of power in and by the General Conference, the effects of which played a huge role in the events surrounding the 2015 GC Session and the 2016 Annual Council. In conclusion, Knight believes that this centralization of authority parallels the episcopal form of church governance practiced by the Roman Catholic Church.
What I’ve Learned
Knight’s paper brings to light a few ideas that I believe could help the church on this journey of understanding authority and church structure.
1. Organization is a good servant but a bad master.
I learned this from one of my professors, Dr. Darius Jankiewicz. It’s a good servant because it serves functionally by helping proclaim the gospel. However, it becomes a bad master when valued above all things because it can be used to control and also limit free thinking. While the church has a sense of autonomy in building structures that help in organization, these should only be necessary for the advancement of the gospel.
2. Proclamation over preservation.
God has not called us to a ministry of maintaining the status quo. It may be this way under an episcopal form of church government: preserving tradition, church culture, leadership, etc. However, the Adventist church identifies itself as a movement with a special end time message to the world. Our mission of sharing the gospel to the whole all peoples, nations, and tounges should be valued above all else. The value of anything that impedes this mission needs to be reconsidered with much prayer and thought.
3. The need for a clear doctrine of the church.
There are many aspects of the church that need to be clearly articulated and defined. I believe that if we had a proper understanding of the nature and the purpose of the church we would avoid many of the problems we are currently facing as a denomination. The Reformation brought forth new perspectives of the church. Beliefs about baptism, communion, the priesthood of all believers, and even ordination all derive from specific understandings of the church. When we have an unbalanced view of the nature of the church, its purpose will be unbalanced as well.
In conclusion, I believe that George Knight’s paper is one of the most important Adventist documents of our time. Although you may not be a scholar or a serious student of church history, this paper deserves a good reading. And even if you may disagree with his conclusions, I really do hope you enjoy it.
To read Dr. Knight’s paper, click here.