Justice. Mercy. Humility.

Ingredients in organizational discipline

Paul H. Douglas & Ted N. C. Wilson
Justice. Mercy. Humility.
Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Our mission, this grand partnership that we have with God to proclaim the three angels’ messages to the world, benefits from structure and organization. When we all consent to it, the structure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church provides a system to guide the efficient proclamation of the gospel. At times, however, organizations do not align with the terms agreed upon by a representative majority of the church. The nature of the agreement held by organizations of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the means by which unity may be achieved are the subjects of this article.

An Imperative

Church discipline, first of all, does not originate with the church. It originates with God. The Ten Commandments, an expression of God’s character of love, outline how we should relate to God and to others. As sinners, we have broken God’s perfect law of love, but when we accept His salvation, God justifies us without any merit on our part. Then sanctification comes in, as we are to be more and more like Him, all through His power. That process requires merciful disciplinary measures to bring us into a better relationship with the Lord as He seeks to restore His image in us. Discipline, then, is part and parcel of the plan of salvation. It is a means to bring about a closer walk with the Lord. 

Micah 6:8 provides a framework for church discipline. It tells us that God has shown us what is expected of us, and that is, first, to do that which is just or right. We need a respect and love for God’s commandments and doing things in a proper way. While we understand that we must do that which is right, we don’t always do that. So Micah’s second point is that we must love mercy.

Being merciful is another aspect of discipline that is aimed at drawing us closer to God in a loving relationship. God doesn’t simply cut us off because we don’t do that which is right. He brings in mercy for us. We are also to follow His example. This doesn’t mean you excuse something that is wrong. It means we focus on reconciliation back to God and to our fellow human beings. The last part of Micah’s discipline formula tells us that we need to walk humbly with our God, submitting every disciplinary effort to His wise guidance.

The church didn’t come up with some strange disciplinary measures because it just wanted to. “The Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy set forth in clear, unmistakable language the solemn responsibility that rests upon the people of God to maintain their purity, integrity, and spiritual fervor. If members grow indifferent or drift away, the church must seek to reclaim them for the Lord.”1 The concept of church discipline has to do with the ultimate restoration of human beings into the image of God.

In the early days of our denominational existence, before we even had an organized General Conference, people were very loath to give any kind of deference to dogma that would force people to believe in a certain way. Everything was left to the individual. They didn’t want a creed outside of the entirety of the Bible. As the church developed, however, the need for order increased, and it became clear, when the Seventh-day Adventist Church was constituted, that certain regulations and processes would allow for the smooth functioning of the church.

An Agreement

The organizational levels of the church provide guidelines, and in some cases regulations, for how we ought to act, relate with, and be part of God’s last-day remnant people. These guidelines and regulations are enshrined in church policy, which is voted at designated meetings. The Church Manual is of such importance that, while changes may be voted in as recommendations at Annual Council or Executive Committee meetings, they are then forwarded to the General Conference in session for a vote. The Church Manual deals primarily with church discipline in a local church context. One can see, however, how it relates also to the local conference, union, division of the General Conference, and the General Conference representing the world field, as every denominational employee is a local church member.

When an individual who has accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior becomes a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, they consent to the belief system of the church and vow to live accordingly. Should such a time come when they no longer believe as Adventists believe or choose not to live as Adventists commit to, they disclaim their former commitment to being a member of the church. Membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is held by consent of those who are in the local church.

Likewise, organizationally the Seventh-day Adventist Church functions by mutual consent. Through this consent the working policies of the church are developed. These are commonly accepted agreements on how we’re going to carry out the mission of the church without getting in each other’s way and fighting against each other. They are not the Bible, but are based on biblical principles for how we may work harmoniously under the Holy Spirit’s guidance to fulfill His mission. Note that the ultimate purpose of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is not merely to have an organization that works nicely and tries to serve its members and help the community. That’s certainly part of it. But the main purpose of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is to proclaim the three angels’ messages of the Lord and prepare people for Jesus’ soon coming.

The authority of the policy documents developed by the church is based on our governance structure, which is “representative in form with executive responsibility and authority assigned to a variety of entities and institutions and their respective constituencies, boards, and officers through constitutions or articles of incorporation, bylaws, and operating policies and guidelines.”2 The fact that our governance is representative means the voices of the world field are represented in policy decisions. All elements of the church are involved in deciding what the policies will be and thereby consenting to abide by the policies.

Organizational entities can’t simply decide, without undermining the structural integrity of the church, to do whatever they want. We are tied together through organizational consent to be part of the Adventist family. “Organizational status is granted to a constituency as a trust. Official recognition . . . is not self-generated, automatic, or perpetual. It is the result of a formal decision by an executive committee or a constituency session at higher levels of denominational organization. Organizational membership and status are entrusted to entities that meet certain qualifications including faithfulness to Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs, compliance with denominational practices and policies, demonstration of adequate leadership and financial capacity, and responsiveness to mission challenges and opportunities. Membership and status can be reviewed, revised, amended, or withdrawn by the level of organization that granted it.”3

“Decision-making is based on group processes that allow for member participation.” A single individual, even if it were the president of the organization, cannot issue policy decrees or decide the status of an organization. “The highest level of authority within the powers granted to each level of denominational organization resides in the constituency meeting.”4 Any decisions made or actions taken by an organization can be reviewed or reversed by their constituency. Further, any constituency or executive committee decision can be reviewed by the higher-level entity. “When differences arise in or between organizations and institutions on matters not already addressed in the Constitution and Bylaws, in the General Conference Working Policy, or in the General Conference Executive Committee actions at an Annual Council, it is proper to appeal to the next higher organization not directly involved in the matter.”5 The highest level of organizational authority being the General Conference in session, which has precedence over every constituency.

The Constitution and Bylaws of the General Conference, the mission statement and the accumulated or revised policies adopted by General Conference Sessions and Annual Councils of the General Conference Executive Committee can be found in the General Conference Working Policy. “It is, therefore, the authoritative voice of the Church in all matters pertaining to the mission and to the administration of the work of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in all parts of the world.”6 No, it is not Scripture, but the Working Policy is what all Seventh-day Adventist organizational entities have agreed to abide by through the representative governance of our organization. While points of disagreement in terms of policy may arise, our structure is such that we submit to the decisions made by the respective representative entity.

Strict adherence to the General Conference Working Policy helps to preserve the unity of the church. If a departure from the policy is necessary, organizations are to request prior approval from the General Conference Executive Committee. “In the event laws/changes in the laws governing a country seem to render compliance with denominational policies a violation of the law, the organization shall act in harmony with the law, provided the following:

a. Counsel has been sought from the General Conference officers (president, secretary, and treasurer/chief financial officer) and it is established that denominational policies do indeed violate the law.

b. Compliance with the law does not constitute a violation of scriptural principles.”7

Organizational employees in executive leadership are to be held to account by their governing bodies. “Officers and administrators are expected to work in harmony with the General Conference Working Policy. Those who show inability or unwillingness to administer their work in harmony with policy should not be continued in executive leadership by their respective constituencies or governing boards/committees.”8

An Appeal

Ellen White writes, “I have often been instructed by the Lord that no man’s judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any other one man.” The Lord respects people’s right to their own opinions, so we shouldn’t force people either. “Never should the mind of one man or the minds of a few men,” she continues, “be regarded as sufficient in wisdom and power to control the work and to say what plans shall be followed. But when, in a General Conference, the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence, contrary to the decision of the general body.”9

Walking humbly before God is accepting the reality that the mind of one or the minds of few are not sufficient in wisdom. We are stronger together. That’s why we decide policies and Church Manual elements as a larger group of people. The Holy Spirit works through the guidance of a collective body. As Scripture tells us: “In the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). 

We need to submit ourselves first to the Lord, and then to the body of believers, and recognize that we may not have all the answers ourselves. We can ask the Lord to help us understand better how to relate to any particular item that we may not agree with, and the Lord will lead us into all truth and unite us. Some people confuse unity with uniformity. Unity does not mean that everybody has to believe that the color blue is the best one. It simply means our hearts will be united in purpose, without anger or animosity against those who prefer the green carpet over the blue carpet for their church.

One of the best ways to accomplish unity and harmony is to focus on our personal relationship with Jesus and His mission for the church. Ellen White writes, “My brethren, allow nothing to come in that will separate you from one another or from God. Talk not of differences of opinion, but unite in the love of the truth as it is in Jesus. Come before God, and plead the shed blood of the Saviour as a reason why you should receive help in the warfare against evil. You will not plead in vain.”10 We need to understand that so much that is involved with discipline has to do with our personal relationship with the Lord and how willing we are to submit to what God wants and to what He has shown through His organization in a representative form.

If the church organization has voted on certain policies, but an organization is not operating in harmony with the agreed policy, it presents a challenging situation. Our church polity, policies, and practices have one basic assumption: that we’re all converted. That, however, may not be true for all people, at all times, and at all organizational levels. Herein lies the problem. Were we all converted and connected to Christ, the infraction would never occur, and if it did, we would repent upon our knowledge of it. “If pride and selfishness were laid aside,” Ellen White writes, “five minutes would remove most difficulties.”11

Whether at a local church, in a conference, union, division, or General Conference Executive Committee meeting, or in a constituency meeting, pride can cause an individual or an entity to become rebellious, angry, and defiant, because people have not listened to them. What is needed is humility and a recognition that one person doesn’t have all the answers. Consider that perhaps the larger body, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, has directed the world church, and wait on the Lord for further light. May our attitude be one of humble submission to God in His Word first, then to His appointed means of governing our human relationships. United in purpose, we may fulfill our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ who live as His loving witnesses and proclaim to all people the everlasting gospel of the three angels’ messages in preparation for His soon return.

1 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (Silver Spring, Md.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2022), p. 62.

2 General Conference Working Policy, B05.1, p. 65.

3 Ibid., B05.3, p. 66.

4 Ibid., B05.5, p. 66.

5 Ibid., B10.22, p. 72.

6 Ibid., B15.05, p. 76.

7 Ibid., B15.10, p. 76.

8 Ibid., B15.15, p. 77.

9 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 9, p. 260.

10 Ibid., vol. 8, p. 12.

11 Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1882, 1945), p. 119.

Paul H. Douglas & Ted N. C. Wilson