As the day approached, one could feel the momentum building. The convergence of powerful forces, the contrast in methods, the many prayers offered—all lent themselves to a growing sense of intervention and superintendence by the ultimate Guiding Hand.
Prelude of Protest
For the past few months, as a proposal advanced through various General Conference committees relative to non-compliance with certain world church decisions on the part of various entities within the denominational structure—in its final form, titled, “Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and Executive Committee Actions” (1)—the lines of difference hardened between various perspectives. Though little was said by the proposal’s advocates during this time, the proposal’s adversaries said plenty.
And it was the tenor and tone of the latter observations that was most revealing.
Those who followed the rhetoric won’t soon forget the intemperate flourishes that accompanied it. The president of the General Conference was compared by one prominent critic to the medieval popes, along with Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin, and Mao Zedong (2). Very little outrage against this unhinged talk could be found among opponents of the compliance proposal. Instead of such comparisons being denounced among those one might have hoped to have been the more thoughtful critics of this proposal, open letters disputing the proposal from leaders and congregations within non-compliant territories followed in quick succession (3). Sadly, none of these letters included an effort to distance the authors from the extreme attacks noted above.
In addition, articles attacking church “hierarchy” (4) and other alleged problems with the compliance proposal (5),, along with impassioned calls for protest from at least two prominent—though retired—church scholars (6), further sought to depict the current controversy as a case of noble, heroic reformers allegedly “speaking truth to power.”
The General Conference Weighs In
As members of the General Conference executive committee converged on historic Battle Creek, Michigan, for the Annual Council of 2018, the world leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church weighed in on the blizzard of charges flung against the compliance document. First came a set of questions and answers from the General Conference communications department, titled, “Questions and answers regarding the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its leadership” (7).
The answers offered by General Conference leaders to the above charges made news on more than one front. Not only were their answers cogent, factual, and well-reasoned regarding the compliance issue; they also—on a marginal but not insignificant side note—demolished a popular urban legend that has festered for some time on the fringes of Adventist conservatism.
For several decades now, the notion has persisted in certain militant but misguided circles of conservative Adventism that some years ago, the General Conference quietly made a deal with certain ecumenical bodies and/or the Vatican to give up our classic teaching regarding the Roman papacy being the fulfillment of the various Biblical prophecies regarding the Antichrist. Anyone active within the circles of conservative Adventism during the latter part of the recent century and beyond, particularly within the orbit of self-supporting ministries, is familiar with this allegation.
The following statement from the series of questions and answers noted above, from the General Conference communications department, should demolish this rumor once and for all:
Suggesting the Seventh-day Adventist Church or its leadership are fulfilling the prophecy of Revelation 13:7 is virtually identifying the church as Babylon. The context of this passage clearly points to Daniel 7 where a power would intend to change times and laws. The one and only power that makes this claim and matches the prophetic description is the Roman papacy, which exercised both religious and political power throughout its history and especially during the Middle Ages from A.D. 538-1798 (8).
The General Conference President Speaks
At about the same time, the General Conference president released a video calling for special prayer on behalf of the Annual Council, especially due to the compliance question that the Council would soon consider (9). The president’s direct appeal to church members on the compliance issue effectively circumvented those local leaders and communications outlets within the non-compliant territories whose biased and often un-countered portrayal of denominational issues and events has at times skewed the perception of church members within their jurisdiction.
Perhaps even more significant for the present state of denominational affairs was the Sabbath morning sermon at the Battle Creek Tabernacle Church on October 13, 2018, also delivered by the General Conference president (10). Many who have supported this president’s administration from the beginning will regard this particular sermon as perhaps the finest thus far of his tenure in office. With the consummate Christlike tone many have found pervasive in his public messages, the world leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church managed to address—and identify Biblical solutions for—every major issue of theology, mission, and lifestyle presently roiling the waters within the denomination.
Whether the issue is the current threat to structural unity which the Annual Council would soon confront, anti-Trinitarianism, evolution, homosexuality, Last Generation Theology, worldly methods of church growth, issues of diet and dress, even the Omega of apostasy predicted by Ellen White as the culmination of the Alpha heresy which—the president reminded his hearers—had originated in the very community of Battle Creek where the Annual Council was being held, those listening were urged to take their stand with Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy, regardless of whatever competing claims, preferences, or authorities might seek to lure their allegiance.
Unlike any number of his recent predecessors, the current chief executive of the worldwide Adventist body seems totally—and refreshingly—unafraid of conflict. While his overarching focus remains the outward mission of the church, he has embraced the principle that message must drive mission and not the other way around. He rightly understands that revival and reformation must precede and attend successful evangelism, for the simple reason that a church lacking the unity which only faithfulness to the written counsel of God can bring (John 17:17-21), can hardly expect the Holy Spirit which inspired that counsel to draw searching hearts to a theologically and morally incoherent spiritual fellowship.
With his earlier request for special prayer, along with his Sabbath sermon, the General Conference president seems to have successfully laid the groundwork for the action taken the following day on the question of compliance.
October 14, 2018
The Annual Council deliberations took place at the Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek, and the compliance issue was addressed on Sunday afternoon, October 14, 2018. It was my privilege to be present in the gallery for the discussion of this topic.
Following the introduction of the topic, the reading of the resolution, and the settling of some procedural issues, the debate began. From the perspective of more than one observer, it seemed that opponents of the resolution occupied at least 70 percent of the discussion time. Comments from these persons, nearly all from First World countries, were dominated by dire warnings of deep division, abuse of authority, and distraction from the church’s mission should the compliance document be approved.
Most of the document’s supporters waited till the end to speak, which may have been a wise strategic move on their part. Most of the document’s supporters were from Africa, Latin America, and Asia, though a few notable North Americans—including one Canadian Conference president—expressed support for the document as well.
I was particularly surprised that no parliamentary maneuvers were advanced as a means of derailing the proposal, and that no effort to delete some of the document’s more severe measures was attempted. While the General Conference president, who chaired the meeting, had urged that such attempts not be made, this was obviously no guarantee that they wouldn’t be tried.
As negative comments multiplied regarding the compliance proposal, and so few came to its defense, I truly wondered what the final outcome would be. My principal concern was that the Council members, upon hearing all the attacks on the proposal, would fall victim to a case of what some might call spiritual battle fatigue—a frustrated weariness both with apparently futile efforts to hold non-compliant ones accountable and with the particular controversy (i.e. women’s ordination) that seems to have triggered the problem. In the end, I feared, a motion would be introduced to again refer the proposal back to the committee that drafted it, with instruction to find some way of enabling the various factions of the church to “just get along” (ala Rodney King) while returning our full focus to the global mission of the Advent movement whose roots and historical markers (complete with pioneer beards and dress!) were so visible in Battle Creek generally and the Kellogg Arena especially.
As things turned out, the hand of the Lord was raised in behalf of His church. The prayers of so many were not offered in vain. When the vote was finally taken by secret ballot, and the president announced the results, the outcome was 185 to 124, with two abstentions—a margin of 60% to 40%.
In his second inaugural address, as the American Civil War drew to its close amid fierce conflict, President Abraham Lincoln said: “Both (North and South) read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. . . . The Almighty has His own purposes” (11).
The same holds true for the Seventh-day Adventist Church today. The rending struggle we are presently experiencing involves irreconcilable approaches to the inspired writings, and thus to the theological and spiritual issues which arise from disregarding those writings. Few if any contemporary Adventists wouldn’t prefer to focus exclusively on seeking and saving the lost. But without a coherent, consistent witness—rooted, informed, and measured by Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11)—we have no mission to humanity beyond attending to the world’s temporal needs, and without a transcendent standard of right and wrong unmoved by the vagaries of culture, scholarly speculation, intellectual fashion, and personal experience. Without such a standard, no crusade for human betterment or social justice can endure, as it would be subject to the constant ebb and flow of culture, circumstance, and a host of other temporal priorities. (The last half-century of American history bears painful witness to this reality.) Only a transcendent, supernatural authority can effectively stand in judgment of human choices, be they personal or social.
As was said in the Sabbath sermon, the times ahead will not be easy. But as more than one person stated during the conversations during and outside the Annual Council meetings, we have “read the end of the book (the Bible)” and thus know the final outcome of the great controversy. The writings of Ellen White inform us of the end-time shaking, whose consequences will be the purification of Christ’s visible body (12). The question before us is not whether God’s church will be victorious over present and future challenges. Rather, the question is whether each of us will be victorious with it.
The Lord has successfully brought His wayward yet still-striving remnant through yet another decisive battle in yet another decisive moment. But many more battles, many more decisive moments, lie ahead. The following inspired vision of the final conflict holds a precious hope for God’s faithful in this trying hour:
The battle raged. Victory alternated from side to side. Now the soldiers of the cross gave way, “as when a standard bearer fainteth.” Isaiah 10:18. But their apparent retreat was but to gain a more advantageous position. Shouts of joy were heard. A song of praise to God went up, and angel voices united in the song as Christ’s soldiers planted His banner on the walls of fortresses till then held by the enemy. The Captain of our salvation was ordering the battle, and sending support to His soldiers. His power was mightily displayed, encouraging them to press the battle to the gates. He taught them terrible things in righteousness as He led them on step by step, conquering and to conquer.
At last the victory was gained. The army following the banner with the inscription, “The commandments of God and the faith of Jesus,” was gloriously triumphant. The soldiers of Christ were close beside the gates of the city, and with joy the city received her King. The kingdom of peace and joy and everlasting righteousness was established (13).
May the Lord find us faithful, is my prayer!
1. “Reach the World: Faithfulness to His Prophets: Annual Council 2018: Program and Agenda of the General Conference Executive Committee, Battle Creek Michigan, October 11-17, 2018,” pp. 31-34. https://news.adventist.org/fileadmin/news.adventist.org/files/news/documents/113G-Regard-for-and-Practice-of-General-Conference-Session-and-General-Conference-Executive-Committee-Actions.pdf
2. George R. Knight, “Adventism’s Shocking Fulfillment of Prophecy,” Spectrum, Aug. 28, 2018 https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2018/08/28/adventism%E2%80%99s-shocking-fulfillment-prophecy
3. “Scandinavian Unions Issue Joint Letter to General Conference,” September 2018 https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/scandinavian-unions-issue-joint-letter-general-conference “German Unions Respond to the GC’s Latest Documents and Committee Creation,” Sept. 7, 2018, https://conversation.spectrummagazine.org/t/german-unions-respond-to-the-gc-s-latest-documents-and-committee-creation/16666 “Adventist Church in Gottingen Calls on German Congregations to Support Their Unions,” Sept. 7, 2018 https://conversation.spectrummagazine.org/t/adventist-church-in-gottingen-calls-on-german-congregations-to-support-their-unions-spectrum-magazine/16683
Letter from Pacific Union Conference Executive Committee, Sept. 12, 2018 https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/pacific-union-conference-votes-opposition-gcs-compliance-committee-system, Letter from Columbia Union Conference, Oct. 2, 2018 https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/appeal-columbia-union-conference-executive-committee, “German-Swiss Conference Joins German Unions in Opposing GC Document,” Oct. 7, 2018 https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/german-swiss-conference-joins-german-unions-opposing-gc-documents “Springwood Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia Voices Concern Over GC Compliance Document,” https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/springwood-seventh-day-adventist-church-australia-voices-concern-over-gc-compliance “South Pacific Division President Adds His Voice to Compliance Debate,” Oct. 11, 2018 https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/south-pacific-division-president-adds-his-voice-compliance-debate
4. Dean Coridan, “Iowa-Missouri Conference President Issues Open Letter Regarding GC ‘s Compliance Committees and Documents,” October 1, 2018 https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/iowa-missouri-conference-president-issues-open-letter-regarding-gcs-compliance-documents , Hugo F. Chinchay Sr, “Why Do General Conference and World Church Leaders Support Hierarchy?” https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2018/why-do-general-conference-and-world-church-leaders-support-hierarchy
5. Matthew Quartey, “Is Public Shaming the Christian Way?” https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2018/public-shaming-christian-way
6. William G. Johnsson, “Time to Speak Out,” https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2018/time-speak-out, “A Candid Conversation With Bill Johnsson,” https://spectrummagazine.org/interviews/2018/candid-conversation-bill-johnsson, “The Most Serious Issue This Church Has Ever Faced,” Interview With George R. Knight, https://spectrummagazine.org/interviews/2018/most-serious-issue-church-has-ever-faced-interview-george-r-knight
7. “Questions regarding the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its leadership,” General Conference communications department, Oct. 8, 2018 https://news.adventist.org/en/all-news/news/go/2018-10-08/questions-regarding-the-seventh-day-adventist-church-and-its-leadership/
9. “Elder Wilson calls for special prayer ahead of 2018 Annual Council” http://advindicate.com/articles/2018/10/10/elder-wilson-calls-for-special-prayer-ahead-of-2018-annual-council
10. “Elder Wilson: ‘Bring Back a Good Report,” http://advindicate.com/articles/2018/10/16/elder-wilson-bring-back-a-good-report
11. Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Erdmanns Publishing Co, 1992), pp. 322-323.
12. See Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 380; Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 89; The Great Controversy, p. 608; Manuscript Releases, vol. 12, p. 327; vol. 20, p. 320.
13. ----Testimonies, vol. 8, pp. 41-42.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.