A Summary of Positive Achievements by the General Conference Session of 2015
The 60th session of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists will be remembered for its cluster of positive accomplishments relative to biblical clarity and faithfulness on the part of the worldwide Adventist body. As the dust settles following this momentous gathering, it behooves us to stop and consider what in fact was achieved by its deliberations. The following actions likely qualify as the most noteworthy in this respect.
1. The re-election of Elder Ted N.C. Wilson to the General Conference presidency.
In most cases, General Conference presidents who indicate their willingness to continue in office are routinely chosen to continue at the church’s quinquennial sessions, with little or no visible opposition.
The resistance to Wilson’s re-election by a few Western delegates proved two things: (1) that the revival-and-reformation agenda of Wilson’s presidency has deeply upset certain segments of the worldwide Adventist community; and (2) that those segments comprise an extremely small percentage of the aforesaid community. Global Adventism—and the world beyond—thus witnessed hard evidence of serious theological and spiritual division in the church, together with the reassurance (at least for now) that the worldwide body stands overwhelmingly with what Elder Wilson has sought to do during his first term, and what he seeks to do in the five years to come.
2. The revision of Fundamental Belief No. 6, regarding creation.
Here we witnessed the first concerted and public attempt by so-called “progressive” Adventists to retain language in the SDA Fundamental Beliefs which in their view accommodated deep time and evolutionary processes in the formation of the earth. Prominent figures from Western countries insisted that the newly-proposed language would “exclude” our scientists from acceptance within the church, many of whom have long since made peace with what most call “theistic evolution.” The adoption of language affirming literal days of creation at a “recent” point in time (this point further clarified by reference to the chronology of Genesis 5), in addition to language affirming a global Flood as recorded in Genesis, represents a major and powerful victory for basic biblical and classic Adventist teachings.
3. The revision of Fundamental Belief No. 23, regarding marriage and the family.
Despite efforts by a few European and American delegates to retain the ambiguous phrase “marriage partners” in the former edition of this statement, the world field by vast numbers repudiated any attempt—stated explicitly by at least one delegate—to make room in the church’s fellowship for practicing homosexuals. Another landmark victory for Bible-based Adventism.
In a related development, one must note the attempt during the Church Manual debate by one European delegate to alter language in the manual for the purpose of accommodating couples choosing to live together out of wedlock. As with the attempt to retain language in Fundamental Belief No. 23 perceived to be accommodating to homosexual couples, the effort to accommodate premarital cohabitation also suffered an overwhelming defeat.
4. The defeat of women’s ordination.
Perhaps most significant regarding the July 8 vote forbidding world divisions of the church from proceeding with gender-neutral ordination to the gospel ministry, was the fact that for the first time within the three occasions when this issue has been addressed by the General Conference in session, the authority of Scripture and the writings of Ellen White were explicitly invoked as the basis of the decision. Despite the clearly biblical tone of the arguments employed at both the 1990 and 1995 sessions regarding this issue, the precise language used in the action taken in both cases did not specifically invoke inspired authority.
At San Antonio, it was different. The preamble to the motion before the delegates stated quite plainly that the rationale for voting either yes or no, was to be based on one’s personal study of the scriptures and the writings of Ellen G. White. The fact that nearly 60 percent of the delegates voted No, based on inspired grounds is a most significant development.
For those who might still yearn to revisit this issue at a future General Conference session, the question naturally arises: Has the Seventh-day Adventist Church at its highest level ever rendered a decision on the explicitly-stated basis of inspired authority, and then gone back on that decision at a later time?
5. The Statement of Confidence in the Writings of Ellen G. White.
At least one previous General Conference session (1995) has witnessed a similar statement of confidence voted so far as Ellen White’s prophetic gift is concerned. This statement spoke as follows regarding Ellen White’s authority in matters of both doctrine and lifestyle:
As Seventh-day Adventists, we believe that ‘in His Word God has committed to men the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are to be accepted as an authoritative, infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the revealer of doctrines, and the test of experience’ (Ellen White, The Great Controversy, 7). We consider the biblical canon closed. However, we also believe, as did Ellen G White's contemporaries, that her writings carry divine authority, both for godly living and for doctrine. (General Conference session, Utrecht, Holland, voted June 30, 1995)
The statement voted in San Antonio was significantly stronger, which accounts for the fact that Western advocates of a less decisive understanding of Ellen White’s role in the church protested against the new language so vigorously—one delegate even claiming this statement would transform the Adventist Church into a “cult.” The new language reads as follows:
We reaffirm our conviction that her [Ellen White’s] writings are divinely inspired, truly Christ-centered, and Bible-based. Rather than replacing the Bible, they uplift the normative character of Scripture and correct inaccurate interpretations of it derived from tradition, human reason, personal experience, and modern culture. (General Conference session, San Antonio, Texas, voted July 9, 2015)
This statement not only affirms the doctrinal and moral authority of Ellen White’s writings, but also affirms their role in the interpretation of Scripture—a role strongly criticized and even rejected by many in Western Adventism during recent decades. It was this particular role on Ellen White’s part which Desmond Ford so vigorously opposed when finding fault with the doctrine of the investigative judgment, which led the Glacier View Consensus Statement of 1980 to declare that Ellen White’s authority “transcends that of all noninspired interpreters” (Adventist Review, Sept. 4, 1980).
One European delegate in San Antonio offered an amendment to the Statement of Confidence, asking that the following clause be stricken from the statement: “ . . . and correct inaccurate interpretations of it derived from tradition, human reason, personal experience, and modern culture.”
The amendment failed overwhelmingly, and the new language was voted in. This represents what is truly one of the greatest theological victories for classic Adventism in recent times.
6. The recommendation that a new committee be formed by the General Conference to outline the Biblical role of women in ministry.
This recommendation, made in the same manner as the one five years ago in Atlanta which led to the establishment of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC), was both accepted by the chair and makes possible a future clarification of the roles of women in ministry which can address the unfinished business of San Antonio—specifically, the outstanding issues of women serving as ordained local elders and commissioned ministers, the latter including in a number of cases the role of senior pastors.
With this new committee, the way is open for the resolution of these outstanding challenges, whether at an Annual Council (the highest governing body of the church which has approved female elders and commissioned ministers) or a future General Conference session.
Much remains to be done in the wake of San Antonio. Already leaders in certain territories are asserting their right to defy the newly-reaffirmed position of the General Conference, upholding gender-specific ordination to the gospel ministry. Leaders of the worldwide Adventist body will need the prayers and active support of loyal leaders, pastors and laity throughout the globe as they confront these continuing challenges to biblical authority and the structural cohesion of the great Advent movement.
But without question, the proceedings at San Antonio give the striving faithful genuine cause for relief and rejoicing. Hope and joy possess the hearts of the consecrated as they prosecute both the internal quest for revival and reformation and the outward expansion of the church’s mission to the world. As Winston Churchill said at the Allied leaders’ conference at Casablanca, following what would prove the turning point of World War II, at the battles of Stalingrad, El Alamein, and Guadalcanal: “This is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."