Geopolitics Within Seventh-day Adventism

by Ronald Lawson

Ronald Lawson is professor of sociology in the urban studies department at Queens College, the City University of New York. He is writing Awaiting the Apocalypse, a sociological study of Seventh-day Adventism.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 19-26, 1990, pp. 1197-1203, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The highly hierarchical — and highly Americanized — Seventh-day Adventist Church has reached a turning point, says Ronald Lawson. It is having to confront its growing international character and certain leadership issues that won’t go away — including women’s ordination. Lawson reports on the changes wrought by the denomination’s most recent General Conference Session.

Unlike their mainstream Protestant counterparts, Seventh-day Adventist missionaries did not create independent national churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead the church’s extensive educational, medical and evangelistic endeavors led to a highly centralized system, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Indeed, the president of the General Conference has stated that the Adventist Church is second only to the Roman Catholic Church in its hierarchical structure. The influence of this American-based hierarchy has resulted in an Americanized church. Americans make up the vast majority of General Conference personnel; funds, personnel and theology proceed outward from America; and translations of American hymns dominate international hymnals.

The General Conference’s structure is arranged in geographically based administrative layers, with churches grouped in conferences, the conferences in unions (which comprise several states or a smaller nation) , and the unions in 11 divisions (the North American Division includes the U.S., Canada and Bermuda) These administrative units, together with the medical, educational, publishing and food-processing institutions whose boards they control, employ more than 111,000 people. Tithes are not retained at the congregational level, but are passed up the structure, giving the hierarchy considerable flexibility to redistribute funds from wealthier parts of the world church to newer and poorer segments, and thus to orchestrate expansion. The hierarchy’s control over finances and its voice in the choice of leaders at lower levels also enables it to exercise considerable influence over the whole church. This is so in spite of a system of representation, in which delegates from the constituent bodies choose the committee members who select the officers and department heads at each level. However, constituency meetings, especially those at the higher levels of the organizational pyramid, have proved unlikely to act independently because the system for choosing delegates (who are appointed rather than elected) has ensured that the vast majority hold leadership positions in the church or other church-paid positions.

This pattern of control by Americans has continued in spite of the reality that in recent decades they have made up a shrinking proportion of Adventist world membership. Rapid church growth in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific islands, the Caribbean and parts of Asia has drastically altered the composition of the church. North Americans had dominated numerically for the first half century, making up 91 percent of the membership in 1890, and had continued to form a majority (52 percent) as recently as 1920; but by the end of 1979 they had declined to 18 percent of the total, and in 1989 to only 12 percent. The members in North America and the rest of the developed world are aging, while the membership in the developing countries is much younger. These changes in the numerical balance, together with the increasing replacement of American missionaries by nationals in leadership positions at the lower levels of church structure, have inevitably raised the issue of when and to what extent the distribution of leadership and other staff at headquarters will reflect these developments. At the General Conference session in 1985 an African graduate student studying in America pointedly asked when the Adventist Church would follow the papal lead in appointing African "cardinals." Many wondered then whether such stirrings would develop into a chorus at the 1990 session.

While the primary purpose of a quinquennial General Conference session is to conduct business, it is also a celebration of Adventism and its progress; a "fair" where church publishers, departments, educational and medical institutions and unofficial "self-supporting ministries" show their wares and garner support; an old-fashioned revival meeting; and a "family gathering" where church employees, in particular, meet former schoolmates and colleagues. Church officials, delegates and their families, support staff, and laity crowd the meeting in numbers that encourage local restaurants to create vegetarian menus and advertise that sabbath meals may be paid for in advance. Over 2,500 delegates from 184 countries participated in the 1990 session held in Indianapolis, and the attendance at the Hoosier Dome on the final day grew to an estimated 40,000.

Because of the air of celebration about the proceedings, which featured upbeat multimedia reports of progress from each of the world divisions and a final mission pageant with delegates in national costume, the session tended to focus on encouraging news rather than to address worrisome issues. Delegates were happy with the success of "Harvest ‘90," an outreach program that had aimed at adding 2 million members to the church during 1985-1990 and surpassed that number by 500,000, bringing the membership worldwide to 6.4 million. However, no one attempted to wrestle with the weaknesses of the program, which had, in effect, created a competition among divisions that ultimately placed pastors, especially those in developing countries, under great pressure to win converts. The result was that pastors often baptized people who barely understood the faith. Because program objectives forced pastors to shift their attention continually to new baptismal prospects, they failed to nurture converts. The program’s shortcomings led to an apostasy rate that was much higher than admitted, since pastors and administrators under pressure to perform well were naturally loath to report failures. Similarly, each of the two racially segregated unions in South Africa gave a report, both stressing progress without informing the delegates of the existence of apartheid in the church or attempting to address the issues it raised.

The main business of a General Conference session is to elect the officers and departmental heads at both the General Conference and division levels and to make changes in the constitution of the church and in the Church Manual. Delegates caucus by division on the opening day of the session to elect their quota of members to the nominating committee, which sits throughout the session. This committee, which comprises less than one-tenth of the delegates and in which the presidents of the unions form the largest category, nominates one person for each position. Its choices are normally ratified without question on the session floor. The other delegates debate and vote on the other issues on the agenda.

The election of president of the General Conference surprised the session. For the first time since 1922 an incumbent willing to run for another term was not re-elected. Reasons for this outcome were multiple: though world membership had doubled during Neal C. Wilson’s 12 years in office, his authoritarian management style had alienated several constituencies; he had been identified with several demoralizing theological and financial crises; his age, 70, was against him in spite of his astounding vigor, and a widespread sense of deep crisis and need for new directions had gone unanswered. Perhaps most of all, the expansive growth of the church in developing countries, which Wilson had determinedly fostered, had created an internationalization of the denomination that needed to be matched in leadership.

Replacing Wilson proved difficult. The representatives of the two largest divisions, both Latin American-dominated, emerged as the strongest bloc on the nominating committee. Its first choice was George Brown, a black West Indian who is president of the Inter-American Division -- which consists of the Latin American countries from Mexico to Venezuela plus all the Caribbean countries -- but he declined the post.

The nominating committee then turned to Robert S. Folkenberg. A son of missionary parents who spent most of his life and career in Latin America, he had served as president of a conference in the American South for the past five years. At age 49 he is the youngest person elected to the presidency since 1901, and is also the first person to be elevated to that post directly from that of conference president since the church was restructured and divisions were created in 1901. A bilingual American known and trusted in Latin America, he is an ideal choice for a period of transition from American dominance to greater international representation. Folkenberg is identified with change, for he had published a call for structural reform in the denomination’s clergy magazine, Ministry, a year earlier. Yet he also represents continuity, for he has been close to Wilson.

The convention elected an African as a vice-president for the first time, thus appointing a black "cardinal," while white Americans among the vice-presidents were reduced to two out of five, an all-time low. Two of the departments, Education and Church Ministries, are now headed by Latin Americans -- another major change.

Whether to allow the ordination of women as ministers was the major issue facing the business sessions. This was the culmination of almost two decades of study and debate in which the General Conference leadership had played an uncharacteristically indecisive role. The issue of women in ministry had first been raised mainly but not solely in North America in the early ‘70s, with questions concerning whether women could be ordained as ministers or elders. Some congregations began to ordain women as elders even though the issue had not been officially addressed.

The General Conference responded in 1974 by arranging a conference of theologians to explore the issue. When these theologians decided there were no biblical objections to ordaining women, the ordination of women as elders was allowed. Today 1,100 women elders have been appointed in North American congregations, and the practice has spread to other divisions, especially in Europe and Australia. However, progress toward the ordination of women as ministers has been much slower.

The new atmosphere resulted in increased numbers of women seminarians after 1974. However, these women found that after graduation and the usual two or three years of preordination service as "licensed ministers" their male classmates were being ordained but they were not -- because the issue of ordination of women had not been officially settled. As continuing licensed ministers, their roles were normally limited to being associate pastors of churches, hospital chaplains or religion teachers, and their functions were also restricted. Meanwhile, conservatives mobilized opposition to women’s ordination, with the wives of older and retired ministers playing an especially prominent role.

Increasing debate eventually forced the General Conference to return to the issue, especially after one conference allowed its women pastors to baptize. However, rather than taking a stand on the issue and then endeavoring to persuade the church to proceed accordingly, President Wilson vacillated, frozen by a fear of pluralism and disunity. Declaring that the whole international church must act uniformly, he called the first of three commissions of administrators and theologians, with representatives from each of the world divisions, to consider the issue in 1984. When the commission agreed that Scripture provided no directive concerning the ordination of women, the representatives from Latin America and Africa and other conservatives interpreted this as prohibiting a change of policy, while representatives, and especially theologians, from North America, Europe and Australasia interpreted this as allowing innovation. When all three commissions (in 1984, 1988 and 1989) proved inconclusive, the administrators of the General Conference and the divisions, meeting in their 1989 Annual Council, opted to recommend that the 1990 General Conference session vote against ordaining women on the grounds that it is opposed by a majority of the divisions and that to proceed risks "disunity, dissension, and diversion from the mission of the church."

With such a recommendation, the advocates of women’s ordination decided that their only hope was to persuade the session to allow any division that opted for it to proceed unilaterally. Delegates were unwilling to agree to that position, and the motion not to ordain women was endorsed by a lopsided vote of 1,173 to 377. Many of those most affected by the decision were excluded from the vote, for only 230 of the 2,644 delegates (8.7 percent) were women.

Ironically, the session later removed most of the functional distinctions between ordained and licensed ministers. The conferences had agreed to put a hold on women performing baptisms when the first women’s commission was called in 1984. However, by 1988 the constituencies of two conferences had become so impatient with the failure to reach agreement that they voted to permit women pastors to conduct both baptisms and marriages. Wilson accepted this as a fait accompli and rammed it through the 1989 Annual Council against intense Latin opposition, with the added stipulation that this decision was final and therefore did not have to be taken to the General Conference session. However, the change concerning marriages required an amendment to the Church Manual, which did need session approval. After a long and heavy debate, which concluded with lengthy speeches by Wilson and the head of the Ministerial Association, the change was accepted 776 to 494. This vote showed clearly that the delegates were voting in blocs: almost no delegates from the Latin American or African divisions voted for the motion.

With these changes the only functions a licensed woman pastor cannot perform are the formal organization of churches and the ordination of others. But the real sticking point has been clarified: power. Most of the leadership, committee and delegate posts are restricted to ordained people, and thus to men. Those eligible to exercise power within Adventism are still restricted to a limited category.

Perhaps the most notable omission from the session’s agenda was any discussion of AIDS. Adventists have been slow to become involved with the victims of this disease, for they have associated it with unworthy people. Their hospitals have not attempted to be at the forefront in treating it, and indeed some in Africa have been cavalier in their use of untested blood for transfusions; American members who have contracted the disease have often been shunned; and African church leaders have assumed that AIDS is not an issue affecting Adventists. The General Conference has formed an AIDS committee, which includes experts drawn from among its lay members, but the latter have become increasingly frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the committee. Being aware of the AIDS statistics in Africa, of the rapid growth of the church there, and of studies that suggest that the promiscuity of African Christians is not markedly less than that of non-Christians, it has concluded that AIDS must be severely affecting the African church and that it is imperative that Adventists give it priority. Consequently, the committee moved to have the issue placed on the agenda of the session, but was unsuccessful. Members of the committee have become disillusioned.

As the numerical balance within the world church has shifted dramatically in the past two decades, discussion has mounted concerning who should control decision-making -- those with the members or those with the money. This was brought into the open in the report of the General Conference secretary; also, the treasurer underlined the issue when he reported that "tithe from the North American Division comprises nearly 97 percent of all tithe received by the General Conference." The concentration of recent growth among the poor (including the growth in North America, where it has occurred mostly among recent immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia) has accentuated a drop in per capita giving, which declined by 3.9 percent between 1984 and 1989 (without adjustment for inflation) The other main component of this statistic has been a tendency among Americans to switch their giving from "tithe," which all flows out of the local congregation, to "offerings," which can be directed to local or "self-supporting" projects, as they have become increasingly disillusioned with central management. A major question, then, is how North Americans will respond financially to the new politics, which has increased the power of those with large numbers of members at the expense of those who have been bankrolling the system.

"Global Strategy," a new program of evangelism, was introduced at the recent session, and its emphasis could change Adventism considerably. In their efforts to spread the "everlasting gospel" of Revelation 14:7, which they identify as their message, Adventists have focused on only one segment of the verse -- "to every nation." They have frequently expressed pride that they have congregations in 184 of the 215 countries and areas officially recognized by the United Nations, and observed that this means the gospel commission is nearing fulfillment, which is a key indication that the Lord will soon return. However, Adventists leaders have now concluded that the church has neglected the rest of the verse -- "to every . . . tribe, language, and people." Their analysis divided the population of the world into some 5,000 ethnolinguistic or demographic groupings of 1 million people each. They found they had at least one church in 3,200 of these groups but no presence in the other 1,800. Global Strategy aims at targeting the latter groups so that they can all be reached by the year 2000 -- a huge task. One result of past concern for numerical goals was to focus funds on areas where growth was easiest -- which were often those where Adventist work was already well established. Because Global Strategy will divert funds to unentered, more difficult situations, it may slow the growth rate. It is likely that this program will also redirect Adventists from their previous practice of mainly winning converts from other churches to attempting to evangelize many groups that have had little contact with Christianity.

A major leadership theme at the 1990 session was the need to protect and foster unity. The secretary warned that "we cannot afford to fragment into national churches. This miracle of a united worldwide Seventh-day Adventist family will have to be maintained at all cost." Resolutions were introduced that sought to encourage uniformity in behavior. One was passed reaffirming the delegates’ acceptance of the "counsel from God" given through Ellen White and committing them to "live by the principles contained in it." But when another resolution attempted to detail guidelines for sabbath observance, some complained that it was an attempt to establish an Adventist "Mishnah."

It was fear of disunity that prompted the rejection of the ordination of women. It seems likely, however, that this decision will be undermined -- from below. Two conferences in North America, anticipating a negative decision in Indianapolis, voted before the session to schedule constituency meetings that would consider proceeding with the ordination of their women pastors. Since the presidents of these conferences publicly dubbed this a "moral issue," it will probably be difficult for them now to reverse positions, in spite of a warning from the head of the General Conference Ministerial Association during the debates that any unilateral action would be tantamount to rebellion.

This agenda, which has emphasized a rigid reading of "unity," was set by the outgoing administration. In his sermon on the final day of the session, Folkenberg replaced Wilson’s equation of unity and uniformity with "unity in diversity" and "unity is not uniformity." Moreover, Folkenberg has taken a stand for reducing the staff of the General Conference because of the shortage of funds and widespread demands that more tithe be retained at lower levels, and is already implementing this policy vigorously. The General Conference will probably become more specialized, and lower levels relatively more powerful. The structure of the denomination would then better reflect its diversity, and would allow contentious issues, such as the ordination of women, to be addressed locally.