Mission, Race, Culture, and Structure in the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
When asked to write an article for the annual Black History Month edition of the Adventist Review, I felt impressed to approach a conversation which illustrates the intersections between mission, race, culture, and organizational structure. Because I am currently serving as a church-owned and operated Historically Black College and University (HBCU) organization, I spend a lot of my conscious reflection and service dialoguing about issues of race, class, gender, along with related themes of equity, access, fairness, and justice. Having completed a recent trip to the White House to meet government leaders, including the President of the United States, regarding how to advance the unique mission of America’s 101 HBCUs, I trust that the following reflections may add something thoughtful to the conversation and hopefully, be helpful in the discussions about how to structure for mission achievement. Please know that I do not expect everyone to agree with the conclusions arising from my research and reflections, but my hope is that this article can move to conversation away from what strikes me as a kind of ideological debate to a missiological conversation between people of good faith. We may disagree. But we do not have to be disagreeable. I do this by acknowledging that all the things we agree on far outweigh the items about which we may disagree.
Here is how we will proceed. In this article I propose to work in reverse. After a brief summary and reading of the articles on the subject, I have extracted the question imbedded within each assertion in the various articles. Then I present a response to that assertion from a biblical, missiological, historical and/or ethical perspective. The content of my responses depend on what content is appropriate to the question. I am seeking the answer to one question--Is there a moral, ethical, or theological mandate which requires the church’s regional conferences?
A Challenge to the Church—Diversity Discussions
Prior to being asked to serve as President of Oakwood University in 2011, I served at Loma Linda as Vice-President for Diversity for 13 years. During this time, I came to one conclusion among many—it is very difficult for groups to discuss race and gender issues comfortably for a sustained period. I observed that these are difficult subjects to discuss because of the fear factor—Will I be labeled if I happen to disagree with dominant reasoning on the subject or the outlook endorsed by the group? I also concluded that audience members have very definite opinions or perspectives on diversity subjects; it is just difficult to get them expressed beyond a same-group conversation. Given the polarized political and racial climate in the United States since the introduction of race-based slavery into the nation, I freely acknowledge that our church has struggled to conduct constructive conversations about race, and class, and gender, and other diversities which constitute aspects of our ecclesiastical community. I believe that race, class, gender, and culture are areas where the stakes are high, emotions run deep, and opinions vary considerably!
My prayer is that this series of articles constitutes an invitation to a friendly conversation. This piece is intended to provide a thoughtful examination of the organizational structures existing in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists (hereafter, NAD) officially designated as “Regional Conferences.” I am also attempting to use a writing style I am calling “accessible scholarship.” Sometimes, we theologians and scholars write in ways that speak only to subject-matter experts. I hope that this piece, footnotes and all, will be very accessible to the Review readership.
Perspectives—Pro and Con
For the last 20 years, a number of writers and speakers have urged changes in NAD that call for the dissolution of Regional Conference structures. These calls have been forwarded in the stated interest of “unifying” the Adventist church in North America and presenting to publics what is deemed a non “race-based” organization. Please know that I consider each of the persons cited friends and colleagues with whom I have shared ministry. I quote them to only illustrate the diversity of opinion among deeply committed and widely respected servants of the Adventist church and its mission. The continued existence of Regional Conferences has evoked a variety of descriptors intended to underscore perceptions of “disunity” in the NAD due to the continued existence of these nine organizational units. Adventist writers or speakers have described the existence of Regional Conference structures as “race-based organizational segregation,” “Adventist apartheid,”  “the sin we don’t want to overcome,” “an abnormality” “a disgrace.” “morally untenable,” and “a lingering evil.” The Adventist Desegregation Coalition on Facebook at one time was an interest group of 2,477 members that boldly asserted that “the Adventist Church is segregated.”
Other writers and speakers have also urged the restructuring of the NAD, though in less evocative language. In the February 20, 1997 Adventist Review, respected scholar David Williams suggested that the church should “eliminate all [emphasis supplied] of the current structures and build new ones based on new principles.” In the May 25, 2006 Adventist Review editor William Johnson, in one of his final articles as editor of the Adventist Review, raised and answered the question, “What will it take to bring us together?” Johnsson pointed to what he termed “division” between blacks and whites in North America. Johnsson wrote: “. . . I have to question whether the current divided structures should continue indefinitely.” In a February 21, 2008 column published in the Adventist Review, columnist Frederick Russell wrote that “we will need at some point to disassemble the last symbols of our historical divide—racially segregated conferences in the United States.” By July 25, 2008, Russell’s column was cited as the basis for an online petition calling for the abolition of Regional and state conferences. On September 29, 2009 Jan Paulsen, then President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, during a globally-televised discussion with young adults from the Washington, D.C. area indicated that he believed that the thinking that produced Regional Conferences [in 1944] is “no longer valid.” On January 16, 2010, Pastor Dwight Nelson of Andrews University, preached a sermon on Martin Luther King Weekend, in which he called Regional and state conferences, “an amazing anomaly,” and “separate but equal.” By January 17, 2015, in a sermon preached from the Pioneer pulpit, Pastor Nelson escalated his call for the elimination of “ethnic conferences” by initiating a petition to be served to the administration of the North American Division.
Given the amount of discussion generated in pulpits, internet chat rooms, periodicals, websites, and in classrooms, I would like to address the issue through identifying series of questions and answers which invite the comments of readers. Based on the articles, sermons, columns, and other public pronouncements, questions related to our discussion of mission and structure include the following: Does the New Testament require or mandate an ideal organizational structure? Do passages like John 17:21, Eph 2:14-18, or Gal 3:27-28 demand identical structures? What role, if any, does or should gender, race, culture, ethnicity, and nationality play in Christian mission and community building? Are “ethnic” structures and churches de facto violations of Christian unity? Should Regional Conferences be considered evidence of “race-based organizational segregation” in the SDA Church? What is the biblical relationship between unity and diversity? And, during black history month it might be important to ask, “Is the existence of State and Regional Conferences ‘symbolic’ of an ongoing divide between white and black Adventists in the United States? I think a good first place to begin is with a list of definitions of key terms used useful for our discussion.
Definition of Terms:
What I observe in this conversation is that often writers and speakers are using terms on the assumption that everyone understands what is being discussed. Therefore, I am submitting a list of definitions that I believer would assist us in communicating with each other, versus talking past each other. And this is how I will use them in this article.
Unity—In the New Testament, we define unity as the shared commitment to a common mission, a common set of beliefs and lifestyle practices, and a common commitment to Scripture as the ultimate and final authority in matters of faith and practice. Biblical unity preserves individuality of thought and action, while focusing diversity on the person and work of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Unity’s essential nature is described in John 17:21-23; John 17, Ephesians 4:1-12; Phil 2:1-5. Unity is not an end in itself, but serves as a precursor to witness (John 17:18, 21, 23).
Diversity—the plurality of persons, gifts, cultures, races, gender, nationalities, and classes represented in the Body of Christ, i.e., the Church (Rev 14:6-7; 1 Cor 12, Ephesian 4, Romans 12). Important to our discussion is the recognition that the parameters for inclusion are pre-determined by the moral and ethical teachings of Scripture. The virtue and vice lists of the New Testament illustrate the prerequisites of inclusion. They identify behavioral practices to be encouraged and discouraged; behavior to be included and excluded from the Body of Christ (e.g., Galatians 5:16-22; 1 Cor 6:9-11; Romans 1:18-25; etc).
Segregation—“the practice of restricting people to certain circumscribed areas of residence or to separate institutions and facilities on the basis of race or alleged race. Racial segregation provides a means of maintaining the economic advantages and higher social status of politically dominant races’”
Desegregation—the removal of legal barriers restricting access to free and open use of public and private facilities, as well as voluntary association between willing parties;
Integration—the voluntary affiliation and/or shared organizational membership of persons of different races, languages, nationalities and sexes in common group settings;
Ethnic group—a group of people whose members identify with each other through a common heritage and are connected by shared racial, linguistic, religious and/or cultural characteristics.
African-Americans--persons of African-descent residing in America (this definition is inclusive of Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Hispanic, and continental Africans in America);
Affinity grouping—the practice of voluntarily affiliating around shared national, cultural, racial, linguistic, or gender commonalities;
Structure—orderly, consensual arrangements formed by and within organizations to allocate human and financial resources, to clarify and delegate responsibility and determine the flow of authority; to identify roles and relationships in an organization, and to ensure an appropriate, effective division of labor in the business or community;
Mission particularity—mini- or macro-mission structures, organizations, and strategies dedicated to, directed at, and/or administered by a specific people group intended to reach that same people group in North America. Mission particularity represents people-group to people-group efforts for ministry. At the local level, such is illustrated by the many Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Latino, etc local congregations—where cultural-affinity is used as a resource for reaching those people groups.
With these definitions in mind, let us turn to the recent questions, taken from a variety of sources and orientations toward the subject, in order to see if there is historical, biblical, theological and/or organizational information which can guide our conversation.
Frequently Asked Questions about Mission, History, Race, and Structure
Scriptural Hermeneutics and Structure
In looking at Regional Conferences, some in our Adventist fellowship interpret Scripture in a way that prohibits the existence of what they name, “race-based” structures. They appeal to the issue of racial unity. They ask questions similar to the following:
“Recently, our pastor preached a sermon in which he used a sentence from the prayer of Jesus, ‘I pray that they may be one, even as we are one’ (John 17:21) to urge the consolidation of Regional and State Conferences. He said that Regional Conferences and State conferences express division in the North American Division. Does Scripture mandate, promote, propose, prescribe, or recommend a particular type of structure?”
In order toanswer the question adequately, we must first establish a baseline for Scriptural interpretation. In biblical interpretation, the science called hermeneutics guides the way we apply our ancient Bible to current issues and situations.Hermeneutics is the method used by biblical scholars to interpret, understand, and apply biblical passages. The very first law of hermeneutics, after reading the passage, is to determine the specific subject under discussion in the biblical passage we are studying. If the subject under discussion in a biblical passage is not the same subject to which we are applying the text, then we are violating the biblical passage by using it as a pretext to support our personal perspectives and/or opinions. This approach is called eisegesis –reading into the passage a subject that the passage is not addressing. Now let’s apply this hermeneutical law to John 17:21.
John 17:21 rests in the great priestly prayer of Jesus, that prayer offered just prior to his passion and crucifixion. Christ prays for the unity that his followers will need to survive his imminent passion, and later, the persecutions of history. His stated desire is for his followers to enjoy a unity akin to the oneness that He enjoys with his Father. Because Jesus mentions his Father, it is clear that trinitarian unity and its application to Christ’s disciples in John 17:21 is what Christ here addresses. Christ is in the Father, and the Father is in him. And the disciples are in Christ. The Father and Son, though individuated as personalities, enjoy oneness in purpose and mission. The issue of a specific structure in the early or later church is not under discussion in John 17:21-23.
Biblical unity in John 17:21-23 forwards a profound oneness of mission and purpose, free from the divisive and ambitious strivings that would pit Christ’s disciples against each other. Remember that the larger historical and biblical context of the prayer of John 17 includes John 13. It was in the upper room that the divided and self-interested disciples would not wash another’s feet. However, the glory mentioned in the prayer of Christ is the “glory” that emanates from self-sacrificial service. “Glory,” self-sacrifice, is what Jesus prays that the world will see in the disciples’ profound commitment to God, and their unselfish service to each other.
John 17:21 when looked at carefully, actually makes the diversity-in-unity case most strongly. Marital unity, like Trinitarian unity, includes the same notion. The “two shall become one” of Genesis 2:24 does not mean that unity of purpose precludes individuation in expression. In fact, when one understands the depth of what Christ is praying for, one could argue that this very passage undermines the argument that the pastor thought John 17 supported. Singularity in organization or uniformity in thought is not required in this passage. In fact, the structure of the church is not even the subject of discussion of John 17:21-23.
Therefore, in order to apply this passage to a discussion on structure, the pastor had to preach John 17:21 through seven undeclared assumptions. First, our pastor had to see structure as the concern of Jesus’ prayer. Second, the pastor had to assume that spiritual unity requires or implies structural singularity. Third, the pastor had to assume that Regional and state structures violate biblical unity. Fourth, the pastor had to assume that mission particularity is divisive.. Fifth, the pastor had to assume that only structural and/or congregational integration equals unity. Sixth, the pastor had to assume that Adventists move from biblical texts to direct prescriptions for structure. Seventh, the pastor had to assume that only integration and/or the multi-racial congregational model of church life can answer or is the best answer to Christ’s prayer. 
So what do we find in John 17 that is usable for our discussion? It appears that unity in John 17:21 points to collective singularity of mission and purpose. According to the SDA Commentary, John 17:21 indicates that, “There would be diversities of gifts (1 Cor. 12), but there was to be unity of spirit, objectives, and beliefs. There were to be no strivings for supremacy such as had recently plagued the Twelve (Luke 22:24–30). The unity springing from the blended lives of Christians would impress the world of the divine origin of the Christian church.” It appears to me that the pastor’s sincere effort reached beyond the text to misapply its teaching. In the technical study of preaching (called homiletics) the pastor’s use of the text to moralize about organizational structure is described by what author Daniel Overdorf identifies as “application heresy.”
Based on a definition of biblical unity, it seems to me that we may argue that the NAD is and continues to be united in mission, that is, if Regional and state conferences are united in the mission of declaring the Advent message of Rev 14:6-12. Unity speaks to allegiance to a common faith, a common mission, and a common set of beliefs and values. If that is true, then Regional Conferences would be no more divided from state conferences than state conferences are divided from each other. Regional Conferences focus on a primary target population within a specific geographical region. The conference structure is a mechanism for deploying human and financial resources consistent with its assigned mission. So when we hear John 17:21 (or Eph 2:14-16 or Gal 3:27-28) cited as a basis for structural consolidation in NAD, such usages have no basis in responsible exegesis, nor in Seventh-day Adventist history.
Some persons see in the early Adventist pioneer approach to organization a basis for how we should structure today. They have questions like the following:
In SDA history, how did our SDA Pioneers relate to issues of Scripture and organization and can their approach provide us any guidance?
Several Adventist scholars have studied the history of Adventist pioneers’ thinking and their journey on the issue of organizational structure. Recently, an important examination of SDA structure was also commissioned by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. It is not our purpose to fully rehearse the growth in pioneers’ attitude on issues of mission and structure evident among the SDA pioneers. The dissertations and papers cited in the footnotes will provide the interested reader a detailed presentation of that history. However, we will cite highlights from SDA history to illustrate the background to our current approach to structure and mission.
According to SDA historian, George Knight, “Seventh-day Adventist history represents the full spectrum on approaches to organization. The [Adventist] movement began aggressively anti-organizational, but today it is the most highly structured church in the history of Christianity.” Dr. Knight’s statement succinctly summarizes the pioneers approach to the role of structure in the accomplishment of mission. In the 1840s some pioneers nurtured in the Millerite movement equated organization with “Babylon.” But as the church grew into the 1850s and 60s, it became clear to leaders like James White that “gospel order” was needed. Note White’s somewhat humorous diatribe regarding those who believed that organizational structure would instantly or ultimately transform the Advent movement into Babylon:
We are aware that these suggestions, will not meet the minds of all. Bro. Overcautious will be frightened, and will be ready to warn his brethren to be careful and not venture out too far; while Bro. Confusion will cry out, ‘O, this looks just like Babylon! Following the fallen church!’ Bro. Do-little will say, ‘The cause is the Lord’s, and we had better leave it in his hands, he will take care of it.’ ‘Amen,’ says Love-this-world, Slothful, Selfish and Stingy, ‘if God calls men to preach, let them go out and preach, he will take care of them, and those who believe their message; while Korah, Dathan and Abiram are ready to rebel against those who feel the weight of the cause [e.g., James White], and who watch for souls as those who must give account, and raise the cry, ‘You take too much upon you.”
These beliefs notwithstanding, the pioneers organized to better manage the mission. They Adventist pioneers concluded that what the Bible did not prohibit, it permitted as long as the decision was vetted by counsel and common sense. Notably, Barry Oliver pointed out that the early Adventists pioneers shunned prescriptive literalism when it came to developing an organizational structure and chose to appropriate biblical principles to inform organizational structure. But even after that consensus was accepted challenges occurred along the way.
Oliver points to a developing controversy in the 1890s. This was the time when the SDA had grown and was contemplating reorganization in 1903 to match the scope and focus of its mission. A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner, noted advocates for righteousness by faith at the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference, believed that from their diligent study of the Scriptures, no human being should be called by the title “president.” Inasmuch as Christ was considered the Head of the Church, in their ecclesiology, no human being deserved any titular designation like “president.” They believed that the title “president” would have assigned organizational leadership to a human being and would constitute a violation of New Testament ecclesiology. This radical ecclesiology threatened to split the church as it approached the 1903 General Conference reorganization. But, Mrs. White did not support such biblically prescriptive reasoning. By the January 1, 1863 organization of the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference, Ellen White and the pioneers had come to believe that the Bible did not contain prescriptions for church structure, but rather principles that should be applied to organizational design. The Adventist pioneers believed that commitment to mission effectiveness and efficiency should be the primary drivers of organizational form. This way of applying Scriptural principles in light of the obvious need for reorganization that was evident in the 1890s is what the pioneers sought to implement at the 1903 General Conference.
In summary, our SDA pioneers eventually concluded, notwithstanding considerable conflict over issues of organization, that the Bible contains principles, rather than prescriptions for organization. I have asked myself where and how have we provided principles, like tools, so that non-technicians can enter into meaningful dialogue from a principle-centered conversation about the relationship between mission, diversity, and structure.
The Relationship between Unity, Diversity, and Mission
There are those who advocate that the most desirable community would be color-blind, based on texts like Galatians 3:27-28. They question the relationship between Unity, Diversity, and Mission. They believe that culture and diversity are often excuses to preserve unbiblical attitudes about race and church.
Some believe that diversity is an aspect of Christian identity to be overcome in the light of Paul’s declaration, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, but you are all one in Christ Jesus” Gal 3:27-28. This passage is seen as a call to color-blind community which is race-free at maximum, and race-neutral at minimum. And they believe that those who speak affirmatively regarding culture, ethnicity, or gender are simply making excuses for division or “segregation” or maintenance of the status quo. Their position prompts questions similar to the following:
“Aren’t ‘ethnic’ structures (or congregations) barriers to Christian mission in NAD because they are “segregated?”
We place the word ethnic in quotes because ethnicity belongs to all people groups in the NAD, including Caucasians—Germans, Swedes, Irish, etc. A segregated structurew would by definition require law or coercion to provide or prohibit membership in a group. Thus, the answer to the question would have to be “no” because “ethnic” administered churches and structures are not segregated (see the definition of segregation).
Gal 3:27-28 announces the end of fallen and corrupted diversity, that which divides and destroys community. However, 2 Corinthians 5:17 announces means by which a new humanity, one in which every aspect of the human experience is regenerated is brought under the claims of Christ. I personally cannot find in the Bible a call to a color-blind, or class-blind, or gender-blind, community (remember, in John 12:8, Jesus declared that the “poor” would always be among us). In 1 Corinthians 9:18-21, race, class, culture, experience, ethnicity, and other aspects of diversity are redeemed and presented in the New Testament by Paul, not as barriers, but as resources for mission.
Many, if not most, Christians have been taught that race and class and ethnicity are dimensions of identity that must be left behind after becoming a Christian. But biblical unity does not create a diversity-blind community or mission. In 1 Corinthians 9:18-24, a passage where Paul discusses the missional use of redeemed cultural and ethnic particularity, the Apostle says to the Corinthian community that “To the Jew, I became as a Jew… to WIN [emphasis supplied] the Jews.” Here Paul, who also said to the Galatians in 3:27, where ethnicity, class, and gender were being inappropriately used to establish and advance cultural and religious superiority, “There is neither Jew, nor Greek” now affirms to the Corinthians that his ethnicity and cultural awareness and connections did not disappear upon becoming a Christian. His pre-christian history, culture, race, class, etc. was transformed into a mission-usable resource which he deployed in order to reach other Jews with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul established points of contact that were rooted in important aspects of the ethnic and cultural identity that he shared with other Jewish persons. By this means Paul was able to speak the cultural language of his people.
Based on Paul’s missiology, Japanese, Ghanaian, Russian, Hispanics (i.e., Latinos), Korean, African-American, Filipino, Euro-American, and a host of other ethnic congregations in NAD are not examples of division. On the contrary, they stand as examples of believers who resource socially important aspects of their racial, cultural, and ethnic identities to advance Adventist mission. These believers know that the grace of God, which is no respecter of persons, is a grace that radiates from all people to all people and through all people (remember Acts 10:34-36). These “ethnic” congregations are committed to meeting people groups in North America in the language, folkways, and cultural idioms that speak the gospel most deeply to their communities of origin. More importantly, ethnic congregations are open and accessible to any believer who wishes to visit or join. A“color-blind” missiology would require that racial, ethnic, and national particularity in mission be eliminated.
According to the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia Online, segregation is the “. . . practice of restricting people to certain circumscribed areas of residence or to separate institutions and facilities on the basis of race or alleged race. Racial segregation provides a means of maintaining the economic advantages and higher social status of politically dominant races.” Thus, no Adventist congregation in NAD is segregated. However, what we call ethnic Adventist congregations actually reflect missional particularity in their outreach and community building.
In this conversation, we appeal to all, regardless of one’s position on this matter, let us agree that we will be charitable in the framing of this discussion. We note that some critics of the existence of regional conferences are increasingly misusing some of the most polarizing terms from the Jim Crow era of American history. Terms like “segregation,” and “separate but equal” are recently being preached from our pulpits and used in social media to describe the structure of the NAD. In some cases, leaders are being accused of being power hungry, racist, separatist, etc. Such careless and reckless brandishing of these volatile terms is misleading, uninformed, and divisive. The Adventist church does not support segregation. Every Seventh-day Adventist in America is free to attend and/or join any SDA congregation in North America, if in his/her present local church, he/she is a member “in regular standing.” This leads us to one of the most sensitive aspects of this conversation—the relationship of whites and blacks at a time when the opportunity to integrate was requested in the 1930s and 40s.
Structure and SDA Church History
Some are embarrassed by the racial history of the SDA Church that gave birth to Regional Conferences. They believe that the refusal of the SDA Church to accept black members’ request for integration in 1944 was wrong, and that decision must now be reversed to reflect societal progress on racial issues. They ask questions similar to the following:
“Are not the continued existence of Regional Conferences a reminder of an embarrassing failure in SDA history?”
On one hand, the answer is “Yes.” The history of the Adventist Church’s discriminatory treatment of blacks between 1865 and 1965 is well documented in this article, especially in the footnotes. “That conflictual history,” according to some, “is the reason that we should now disband Regional Conferences now that the church and society has changed so drastically since 1944.” It is not time that we eliminate “a racially defined organizational structure?” they ask.
How one answers this question depends largely on one’s understanding of history. To reason only from the historical occurrences of 1944 and that era is to limit our view of history to horizontal cause and effect. So in some way, we can say “yes” if a single basis of assessment is invoked.
However, the careful reader of the book Education cannot help but notice that Mrs. Ellen White articulates a transcendant view of history that can be quite illuminative. In her book Education she wrote that “. . . behind, above, and through all the play and counter play of human interests and power and passions, [stand] the agencies of the all-merciful One, silently, patiently working out the counsels of His own will.” Another oft-quoted statement is “In reviewing our past history, having traveled over every step of advance to our present standing, I can say, Praise God! As I see what the Lord has wrought, I am filled with astonishment, and with confidence in Christ as leader. We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”Her view is that the hand of God is revealed in “the advance to our present standing.” Her conclusion also would mean--human interests, power, and passion, notwithstanding—that history does not have to be perfect to be purposeful!
History does not have to be perfect to be purposeful. In testing this hypothesis. I recall that several significant breakthroughs in SDA progress and understanding grew out of conflictual history among leaders of the SDA movement. Examples include the testy showdown between G. I. Butler and Uriah Smith, on one side of the righteousness-by-faith issue, and A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner on the other, at the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference over the nature of salvation. This is a notable example of historical conflict that yielded significant progress for the theological development of our doctrine of salvation.
Another example is the historical conflict between Ellen G. White and the leadership of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and J. H. Kellogg in the 1890’s over the nature of SDA Healthcare and Church authority yielded clearer and more distinct understandings of our mission in healthcare and its relationship to the ecclesiastical side of our organization. Another example is the disagreement between the Southern California Conference and John Burden over whether to purchase Loma Linda in 1904 when the Conference President instructed Burden not to proceed with the purchase, while Ellen G. White said to go forward. Other examples from SDA history could be cited. But as we review that history, what looked like a setback for the Church actually resulted in a greater glory of God which was born from the womb of historical conflict.
Similarly, it is an established fact that in 1944, in the wake of the Lucy Byard incident at Washington Sanitarium, African-Americans requested the full integration of all facilities and structures of the SDA Church in North America. In response, the General Conference Spring Council of April 8-15, 1944 voted to organize Regional Conferences “where the colored constituency is . . . sufficiently large, and where financial income and territory warrant. . . ” In 1945 Lake Region was organized. And by December of 1945, 4 conferences were organized for the Negro (colored) people, with a total of 4 more to be organized by 1951. Ironically, from the time African-Americans were given conferences to operate, the work among African-Americans expanded dramatically during the 20th century.
In thinking this series of events through in 1944, a question occurred to me that to moderns will sound like social heresy, especially to my African-American brother and sisters, but bear with me for a moment. In the context of Adventist missiology, suppose integration would have hindered the embryonic black work? We do have an example of premature integration that hindered God’s work during the Edson White mission activities around the turn of the century. The segregationist context of 1944 was not substantially different than in 1909. In 1944, full-scale integration was still an extremely liberal political idea in racially-conservative America. US Baseball was integrated in 1947. The integration of the US military occurred in 1950. Today, we assume that if the answer to the request for integration had been “yes,” the tolerance and inclusion we know today would have simply been replicated in 1944.
However, such a conclusion raises the question of whether we fully appreciate the racial animus and antipathy that pervaded the relations between blacks and whites in the 1940s in America. In criticizing General Conference leadership of that era, we sometimes overlook the fact that 21st century outlooks on race are the cumulative result of 50 years of social upheaval around issues regarding race in America. But racial intolerance in 1944, prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, the social experimentation of the 70s, and the tolerance and diversity movements of the 80s and 90, was aggressively assimilationist, committedly colonialist, and deeply imbedded in the outlooks and institutions of America, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Accession to the 1944 request for integration of structure, in such a fiercely unwelcoming racial environment might have driven more great leaders than Lewis C. Sheafe and James K. Humphrey out of the SDA Church. SDA historians and scholars writing about this period consistently assume that integration in 1944 would have been the best missional decision for the future of Black work. These assumptions explain why some consider Regional Conferences “God’s non-ideal plan.” While the question is not a defense of the decision to deny the integration request, that full inclusion would have followed not only minimizes the historical context of 1944, it is also predicated on the assumption that, in a hierarchy of values, integration should be the highest value and should have been implemented at all costs. May I suggest that such a position is driven by a view of integration, which somehow sees integration as a moral imperative. Interestingly, if Ellen G. White had been similarly ideological in her view of integration, she would have insisted that whites and blacks MUST worship together at the turn of the century, even if it was at the cost of believers’ lives. She could have quoted any of a number of texts to support a morally-grounded position (e.g. Acts 5:31; Hebrews 12:27 or Acts 17:26 “He hath made of one blood of all nations”). But Ellen White was NOT an integrationist ideologue, who insisted that the future vision of the eschaton be precisely replicated in our present situation. In this regard, Mrs. White would be classified today as a missional contextualist. One need only read her handling of the mission issues related to the “color line” in the 19th century to observe her mindset. Before “situational leadership” would be posited some 60 years later, Ellen White demonstrated a case-based approach to resolving mission issues. Based on her counsel to the southern field, she believed that our mission must interface effectively with the local, cultural, social, and historical context. While she initially supported equality at creation and in cross-racial affiliation in her early statements, she was not slavishly bound to that support. The moral implications of this adjustment in Ellen White’s counsel on the relationship between the races has gone largely unexplored by scholars. For her, effective SDA mission was both practically and contextually responsive.
Further, in focusing on the failure to facilitate the request to integrate, Adventist writers on this period consistently fail to show that Regional Conferences were also established for missiological purposes. Like historically black colleges and universities in America (e.g., Oakwood University), Regional Conferences were responses to exclusion. However, they were much more than that. A careful reading of the documents chronicling their founding also shows that it was believed by General Conference leadership in 1944 that Blacks could better organize, manage, and execute the Seventh-day Adventist churches’ mission to black America. What is consistently neglected in the discussion of NAD structure is the accompanying second track of missiological motivation behind the establishment of Regional Conferences. As an illustration of the effectiveness in mission, we point to Stanford Economist, Dr. Henry Felder, who in his landmark analysis of Regional Conferences from 1945 to 2008, concluded the following based on the data from the SDA yearbook, “Over the period 1950 to 2008, church membership in Regional Conferences increased from 23,264 to 269,700 members. This growth included two conference splits and the addition of two missions that became conferences. In all, this was an increase of 1,059 percent. In the rest of the NAD, church membership increased from 236,675 to 815,138. This was an increase of 242 percent. It is not possible to estimate what the rate of growth among African Americans would have been in the absence of Regional Conferences; however, the observed increases are consistent with the original intent in the creation of Regional Conferences to achieve a ‘great advance in soul-winning endeavors.’”
This is not to imply that GC leaders were guiltless. They were not. It is clear that they chose the path of least resistance on the social front. But, as time passed, the legal and social context of segregation disappeared across the next 30 years, but the missiological necessity for Regional Conferences did not. The critics of Regional Conference structures, in their efforts to invalidate or delegitimize Regional structures, mostly cite the segregationist history and failure of then leaders. They fail to cite and explore the accompanying and stated missiological rationale for the creation of the structures. Therefore, it does not follow, that since the context of segregation has ended, the structures must automatically end also. It seems to me that the reason for eliminating any structure is contingent upon its failure to deliver mission achievement. Regardless of the motives and/or mistakes of our SDA forefathers, Regional Conferences continued as mission-particularized structures created for the missional purpose of empowering Black leaders to evangelize America’s black peoples because, history did not have to be perfect to be purposeful.
The life of Old Testament Joseph illustrates this transcendent view of history, which is explicated in Ellen G. White’s writings. In Gen 45:5 Joseph, when confronting his frightened brothers over their mistreatment of him, said to them, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. . . ” Their view of history was horizontal. But Joseph has a vertical interpretation of that painful history--“You sold me . . . but God sent me” says Joseph. Over and above their inadequate treatment, Joseph saw the larger, purposeful will of God being accomplished. Reading God’s purposeful will said to Joseph, the victim of his brothers’ treachery, that God had an overarching redemptive purpose in his maltreatment. It was God’s purpose that through Joseph’s horrid history, a greater glory would be manifested on behalf of the suffering Hebrew people. In the New Testament, a similar assessment of human activity is also contained in the Gamaliel principle, “if the plan is of man, it will fail. If the plan is of God, you will not be able to stop it” (Acts 5:37).
Regional Structures and Segregation
Some believe that Regional and state conferences are carryovers from pre-civil rights era race-based segregation. This perspective prompts questions similar to the following:
“Do Regional Conferences constitute ‘race-based organizational segregation’”?
The answer is no. In fact, use of this terminology is erroneous, volatile, and misleading. No one who understands what segregation entailed in the Jim Crow south would consider the Church in NAD segregated. Any member can join any church. Interracial marriage is not prohibited. Every institution owned and operated by the SDA Church is available to all of its members.
Thus, what some call “segregation” overlooks the missiological imperative of mission particularity. Mission particularity means that we organize at the structural level to reach specific target populations. Ironically, unless one’s moral position insists that all local churches be integrated, and that ethnic congregations (like Latino, Anglos, Ghanaian, Japanese, etc) be eliminated, it is logically inexplicable to support the organization of “ethnic” congregations, but view the organization of those same congregations into conferences as a form of segregation. But we have yet to read one description of the various “ethnic” structurings in NAD (whether congregations, departments, or ministries) being labeled “segregated.”
Further, a reasonable question follows: if Regional Conferences (as examples of mission particularity) are considered participants in “race-based organizational segregation,” what prevents us from considering women’s ministries departments, “gender-based organizational segregation”? Would we consider Christian Record Braille as “disability-based organizational segregation”? Would we consider Korean Camp meetings as an evidence of “nationality-based organizational segregation”? And would we consider the Adventist Youth Department, “age-based organizational segregation”? The fact is that each of these organizational units, and that includes Regional conferences, reflects mission particularity, not segregation.
I believe that one of the reasons Regional Conference structures have been labeled as “race-based organizational segregation” is because of the historic sensitivity in the United States around the subject of “race.” In the NAD, race is an unfinished conversation. One cannot discuss race in the history of America without arousing the discomfort that de jure and de facto racism has caused in American society since the founding of the country. Discussions of race call issues like power, privilege, access, equality, control, etc. into question. Conservative Christians generally do not see themselves as responsible, party to, or practitioners of discrimination.  Many conservative Christians find it difficult to converse publicly about these issues. In 1999, NAD convened the Division’s first summit on race. The announced plan was to convene a follow up summit to build out on the recommendations from the first summit. To the disappointment of many, requests to convene the follow-up summit were consistently denied.
A second reason that Regional Conference structures have come under criticism is because some see in Regional Conferences a reminder of a painful racial history in America. Many wish that discussions of that history would just “go away.” They read into that difficult history a continuing and unresolved hostility between blacks and whites in NAD, “a symbol of the historic divide” between the races. These speakers and writers call for “racial reconciliation” which, in their view, will be evidenced in the dissolution of Regional Conferences and the creation of new structures. Their vision of reconciliation results in structural consolidation.
Observation indicates that some who wish to abolish Regional Conferences often display a limited knowledge of the history of how Regional Conferences were born. Others, who have some fluency regarding this period of SDA history, consistently read that history only horizontally. This analysis puts forwards a vertical reading of that same history. As mentioned previously, Joseph’s vision of God providential purpose in Gen 45:1-8 frames our view of this period of SDA history. And as has been pointed out earlier, despite the difficult history of African-Americans in the SDA church from the years of 1890-1945, God provided a “better way.” It is important to note that the emphasis of Mrs. White’s 1909 “better way” statement is focused on the question of methodology; on what is the best way to make the greatest progress among the colored and white believers in the south in the face of overwhelming white racism.
I think that a better way for ministry to African-Americans came in 3 stages across the first 7 decades of the 21st century. First, in 1909, the organizing of the Negro Department put in place a structured responsibility of mission to black people. Though the first three leaders were Caucasian, the organization, at the prompting of J. K. Humphrey, incorporated mission to blacks into the organized structure of the church. Second, Regional conferences were organized in 1944 through a corporate church decision to support mission to Black America in the form of structural empowerment that entrusted responsibility and resources to African-Americans. The decision also unwittingly honored the cultural intelligence resident in the African-American community for mission implementation. The 1944 decision meant the colonial models for administering the mission to blacks in America had been rejected in favor of the complete empowerment indigenous leadership. Third, in 1962, the equal rights movements of the 50s and 60s were paralleled by civil rights activism within the SDA Church by the Laymen’s Leadership Conference.  This group of Negro professionals demanded and enabled the free and open association of whites and blacks in voluntary local church worship and fellowship, equal access to all SDA owned institutions, and representation at every level of church structure. Their effort culminated in the 1965 declaration of equal rights by SDA leaders. These “better way” decisions for African-American empowerment represented a break with other colonially-structured models. These decisions drove dramatic growth in the evangelistic accessions to the SDA church.
A third reason that Regional Conference structures have come under criticism is the obvious misunderstanding of segregation, desegregation, and integration. The most strident critics of Regional Conferences cited in this research wrongly assume that the opposite of segregation is integration. But the opposite of segregation is not integration, but desegregation. Segregation in the history of America was coercive and legal in its enforcement. Desegregation was the reversal of those laws of enforced discrimination. Desegregation does not require integration; rather, it removes the legal barriers that prohibit integration.
The fact of the matter is that the SDA church does not support or practice segregation. Here is where greater precision must be requested in our discourse. Let us not confuse segregation with affinity grouping. Affinity grouping in the Adventist community is not segregation, but voluntary affiliation. Affinities based on national, racial, cultural, and ethnic similarities strengthen the overall body of Christ, rather than weaken it, when these affinities become resources for mission. Division is avoided as long as the diversity of the body stays united in its mission on behalf of the church and is inclusive of those want to unite with its fellowship. If, and when, racial, cultural, ethnic, and gender groups individuate around missional purpose, and such individuation is viewed as divisive in NAD, then the only recourse for the NAD is to ban the formation of “ethnic” congregations, dissolve men’s and women’s ministry departments, disallow Korean, Chinese, Ghanaian, Filipino, or Latino camp meetings and call for homogeneity and uniformity in the name of unity.
But such a posture would be a gross violation of the organic unity AND diversity dynamic that is imbedded in our shared ecclesiastical life. New Testament Theologian Thomas R. Schriener writes, “The body is one and yet has many different members; the variety of members does not nullify the fact that there is one body. . . . [But] by definition the one body is also characterized by diversity (1 Cor 12:14), for bodies are made up of many members.”
A final reason that Regional Conferences have come under criticism recently is because many in NAD are deeply concerned about efficiency and duplication of services during a time of financial recession. However, the question of duplication of services seems valid only to the extent that Regional conferences share duplicate target populations with other entities.
Ellen G. White: Racial Idealist or Mission Realist?
Many recall a well known statement made by Ellen G. White that suggests a temporary accommodation in the separation between blacks and whites. This recollection prompts questions similar to the following:
“But did not Mrs. White anticipate a ‘better way’ at the turn of the century”?
The statement concerns the effort to integrate congregations in the racially-charged southern United States by SDA workers and ministers in the southern field. It was written in 1909. Here is the statement, as penned by Mrs. White:
“Let the colored believers be provided with neat, tasteful houses of worship. Let them be shown that this is done not to exclude them from worshiping with white people, because they are black, but in order that the progress of the truth may be advanced. Let them understand that this plan is to be followed until the Lord shows us a better way.” 9T-205-207.
In 1891 Mrs. White left for Australia, but she never left her burden for the “colored people” in the south. From Australia she sent a string of testimonies to workers in the Southern field. Her son Edson White led a very high-profile missionary initiative to the Negroes of the south. Partly inspired by Mrs. White’s famous March 21, 1891 sermon to the 29th General Conference session, “Our Duty to the Colored People,” Edson charged ahead with ministry to the blacks of the south, beginning in the Mississippi delta.
Edson White’s vision for ministry led him to believe that the SDA message called for the blacks and whites to worship together. But Ronald Graybill, SDA historian on Ellen White and the race relations of this period between 1895 and 1909 asserted that the acceptance of segregation came to be believed as the American way. 1890 through 1920 is known as a period of lynching, disenfranchisement, riots and terroristic violence directed toward the Negro population. In this environment, social mixing of the black and white races in the south was found to be dangerous and discouraged by Mrs. White.  Interestingly, Ellen White saw no hypocrisy in believing in a doctrine of racial equality, but respecting social conventions, where disregarding such would jeopardize the progress of the mission among the colored believers.
It is important to note that the emphasis of Mrs. White’s 1909 “better way” statement is focused on the question of methodology; on what is the best way to make the greatest progress among the colored and white believers in the south in the face of overwhelming white racism. Social mixing of blacks and whites threatened the success of the Adventist message with both blacks and whites in the Southern field. Mrs. White’s feared at the turn of the century that if social mixing of the races continued during this period, colored believers and white workers might lose not only their livelihoods, but their lives also. The “better way” statement was written 35 years before Regional Conferences were founded. Thus, Mrs. White’s comment could not be in reference to the transience of Regional Conferences. The statement raises the question of what was the best way to prosecute mission to the colored people within the overall Adventist mission to Black America. Ellen White took quite seriously the social context and challenges facing SDA ministry to Black America. Her comments show that she was not a dogmatic idealist, but a practical realist. She shunned dichotomous thinking on the issue, and chose rather to hold both notions in tension—blacks are equal to whites but mission must be contextualized if it is to be effective. In this case, according to Ellen G. White, nothing should be done that would stir up hostility. Methodologically, EGW believed that God would show a “better way” to advance mission among colored believers.
We submit that the “better way,” arrived in three GC leadership decisions that occurred in the 20th century developments: 1) the establishment of the Negro Department in 1909 (a quarter century before the formation of the first Regional Conference) provided a structural home for directing the mission to colored members in America; The Negro Department elevated the church’s mission to the colored people from an “ad hoc,” hortatory effort to granting the mission fully institutionalized status; 2) with the 1944 creation of Regional conferences, and its accompanying indigenization of leadership, displacement of colonial-style operation of the work created a pipeline for future African-American leadership development; mission particularity replaced colonial models for mission to the Negro; and 3) the work of the Layman’s Leadership Conference during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, enabled the free association of the races and allowed open fellowship of blacks and whites. This action took care of the socially-forced “separation” between blacks and whites referenced in Mrs. White’s 1909statement. Thus, the SDA church has provided organizational support for mission to black America (1909), for empowerment of indigenous and immigrant Black leaders within the structure of NAD for the purpose of evangelizing the black peoples of America (1944), and voluntary inter-racial fellowship in our churches (1962-65). The “better way” is here.
“Race-Based” Structures and Witness
Some say that the SDA church in NAD appears to be divided around race. They believe that the way to signal unity is to dismantle Regional Conferences or dissolve both Regional and State Conferences and create one conference. Their concern results in questions like the following:
“If we have Regional and state conference structures, does it reflect a poor witness to the non-Adventist world”?
As the leader of a Historically Black College and University, I personally do not think so. As one who affiliates with University Presidents across the nation, I never met one who questioned our reason for existence. Our conference structures are constructs of the collective mind of the SDA organization. As such, these “structures” are not tangible, but mental schemas represented in constitutions and territories that allow for the allocation of human and financial resources, as well as the working delegation of authority and responsibility for mission. For instance, when one lands at Dulles or Reagan airports in Washington, DC, no one disembarks from his/her flight, look over Washington, D.C., and say, “Allegheny East Conference begins here and Potomac Conference starts there.”
On the other hand, after landing, one is able to look and say, “Dupont Park Church stands here, and Capital Memorial Church sits over there.” Why? Because local congregations are the places where visible, tangible, witness is lived out. Local congregations gather in communities to worship, to fellowship, and to minister to each other and their communities. As Elder Charles Bradford, former President of NAD was fond of saying, “All ministry is local.” What communities experience (or do not experience) is the life of local congregations of believers. Thus, if mission particularity hurts the witness of the church, then the witness of the Church is hurt every Sabbath, when its mostly homogenous congregations gather in the cities and suburbs. It is unfair to attribute poor witness to what people cannot see (i.e., conference structures) by overlooking what communities see every Sabbath in our local congregations!
Regional Conferences and Inter-racial Fellowship
Some who object to the continued existence of Regional Conferences are genuinely concerned over how God’s people can enjoy fellowship and regular association with each other if structurally they are kept apart. They ask questions similar to the following:
“Does having State and Regional Conferences keep the church in NAD ‘separated’”?
One way to answer this question is to compare fellowship patterns within Unions in the NAD where Regional Conferences do not exist with Unions where Regional Conferences do exist. In the North Pacific Union (NPUC), Pacific Union (PUC), and Canadian Union, there are no Regional Conferences. Yet the same patterns of affinity grouping in Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian, and African-American churches seen in the Eastern United States are also seen in NPUC, PUC, and CUC. Something far deeper than structure is keeping churches particularized. I submit that it is cultural affinity—that powerful glue that provides groups meaningful markers of identity and history, influences patterns of socialization, and that enables persons to hold membership in a distinctive group. After conversion, this normal human dynamic is sanctified, not abolished. It is enlisted, not eliminated, as an evangelistic resource in the mission of the Church (see Pollard Adventist Review article “What Do We Do With Differences?”).
One failure in this discussion on structure appears to be an ideological blindspot that overlooks the biblical use of diversities (culture, history, experience, etc) as resources for advancing mission. What we are hearing is an insistence that diversity identities should be ignored (color blindness?) in Christian mission and community building. But “color-blindness” is a distinctively non-missional commitment that de-contextualizes mission activity by replacing it with an Americanized, melting-pot idealism that hinders the rapid progress of mission.
Regional Conferences and the 21st Century
With the election of Senator Barack Obama in 2008 to the presidency of the United States, some believe that America’s historical vision of itself as a melting pot was realized. In their judgment (especially among some of our younger, post-civil rights oriented members) America is a post-racial society. Therefore, they wonder, how can we operate a race-based organization in the 21st century? They ask questions similar to the following:
“Since we are living in a post-racial society, why do we operate structures that are race-based”?
First, no current reading of the research literature on race in America could convincingly argue that the country or our world is “post racial.” And with the recent election of President Donald Trump, the racial polarization in America has been heightened. “Post-racial” is a term popularized by the political pundits that described their view of an America that might elect an African-American President during the 2008 American Presidential campaign. Like many phrases du jour, “post-racial” means different things to different people. The term has been used to explain an era when race longer matters in public discourse and decision making; it can mean that society in general, is oblivious to racial differences; for some it means a society where one’s abilities are more important than his/her race; for others, “post racial” anticipates a society where we are no longer defined by racial categories. If America is post racial, such color-blindness has not shown up in any significant research on how race affects quality of life. In fact, data from the healthcare disparities research and conversation points to exactly the opposite--America is anything but “post-racial.”
Second, because America is an avowedly pluralistic society, race and gender specific organizations operate consistently in America. For example, in America we have the American Medical Association, the National Medical Association; State University systems, HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities); the National Hispanic Caucus; National Council of Hispanic Women; National Council of Negro Women; Advancing Women in Leadership; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Asian American Cancer Association; Asian and Pacific-Islander Wellness Association; Korean American Professional Society; Network of Indian Professionals; South Asian Women’s Leadership Forum; Network of South Asian Professionals, and the list could go on. In this discussion of Regional Conferences, some speak as if ethnic and race specific organizations do not exist in America, and unwittingly imply that the SDA Church is the only organization in America with particularized structures. Such is obviously not the case. Race based organizations that are inclusive, and achieve the mission of the parent organization are perfectly acceptable forms of organizational life in the United States.
Third, and I know that this is somewhat challenging--who expropriated the authority to declare that anything “race-based” is by definition, unchristian, undesirable, and unwelcomed? In US politics, “race-based” has come to be associated with racial discrimination or prejudice or social remedies. And because each of these associations is politically polarizing, some reflexively associate the idea of “race-based” with these negative realities. However, from a missional perspective, race-based in no different than gender-based or language-based or nationality-based or culture-based tactics used to reach various people groups. Like other demographic categories, race has been and continues to be a crucial taxonomic category of population classification in North America in the twenty-first century.
Adventists operate Regional conferences because as a Church, we have seen the evidence that these structures are a proven and effective tool to equip, resource, and empower front-liners in the mission of reaching the 39.6 million African-Americans living in the United States. Regional Conferences are the empowered organizational extensions of operating African-American churches. Conference status appears to be an efficient way of organizing black churches for mission. While in our general U.S. society, “race-based” can imply exclusionary practices, such is not the case with Regional Conferences. While holding a primary target population, Regional Conferences, consistent with their original design, welcome a growing cadre of non-black congregations who voluntarily choose Regional Conferences because they find the historic evangelism emphasis imbedded in the African-American SDA culture compatible with their own sense of mission to their primary people groups.
Duplication of Services and Regional Conferences
Some are concerned about the financial impact of operating overlapping structures in the 7 unions in NAD where state and Regional conferences exist. They ask the question of whether the Church can afford the luxury of duplicate efforts. They ask questions like the following:
“Is not having Regional and state conferences in NAD a duplication of services”?
My response is that operating two structures in a geographic region is no more a duplication of services than having two or ten churches in the same city is a duplication of services. Duplication of services occurs only where we have a duplication of mission. If Regional and state conferences targeted the same people group as their primary target population, then we would have a duplication of services. What we have is similar infrastructure with a differentiated mission focus. We call that mission particularity, and mission particularity is what the constituencies of Regional Conferences support with 200 million dollars in tithes and multiplied millions more in offerings for mission.
Ellen G. White and Nationalism
There are some who read of Ellen G. White’s prohibition of the formation of conferences around nationality in Testimonies, volume 9, page 195 as a basis for prohibiting the formation of Regional Conferences. They wonder about questions like the following:
“If Ellen G. White refused to support the creation of German and Scandinavian Conferences in 1905, would she not have refused to support Regional Conferences in 1944”?
This question raises the issue of the hermeneutics of interpreting Ellen G. White.The answer to the question is that we cannot speculate about what Mrs. White would do on the basis of her counsel in one case, unless we could verify that circumstances of the known Case A mirror those of Case B. A second reason that we cannot use this approach is because it is also dangerous to take a statement from Mrs. White and absolutize that statement as a projection of what Mrs. White would do in another circumstance.
We have no authority to absolutize specific, case-based counsel from Mrs. White. In 1905 did not Mrs. White insist that all people work across national and racial lines? It might appear that way, if we only read selectively. But this is exactly the opposite of what she counseled in the case of whites and blacks in the same period of time. She wrote in 1909 “Instead of wondering whether they are not fitted to labor for white people, let our colored brethren and sisters devote themselves to missionary work among the colored people” (9T-199). Consider another example: In 1891, Mrs. White wrote that blacks and whites should worship together, because a terrible wrong had been done to the colored people and the church of God should make no distinction. But if we absolutized that statement as a stand-alone pronouncement, then one would conclude that regardless of the circumstances, Ellen White’s pronouncement is for whites and blacks to worship together in 1891 and going forward. But that position faces one problem! 18 years later, in 1909, she wrote that black and whites should worship separately. Which was right? Ellen White’s principle of counsel was consistent. She explained the principle she used to approach various situations: “But while we present methods of work, we cannot lay out an undeviating line in which everyone shall move, for circumstances alter cases” 6T-339. It is hermeneutically inappropriate to conclude that the exact conditions present in 1905 were the same in 1944, and therefore, because Mrs. White prohibited action “A” in 1905, she would automatically prohibit action “B” in 1944.
In 1901, under the leadership of General Conference President Arthur G. Daniells, the General Conference undertook a major reorganization of the Adventist Church. At that session, leaders from the German work proposed that each of the Unions in America designate a leader to coordinate the work among the growing German immigrant population of America. After some discussion, request was granted. On its heels came a request from the Scandinavian work. That motion was accepted without discussion (See the Bulletin of the General Conference, April 22, 1901).
What were the pertinent circumstances under which the Germans and Scandinavians were requesting conferences? We do not know much about the history external to the testimony, but hints are present in what Mrs. White sanctions and/or rebukes in this case. Content analysis of the testimony in Testimonies-Volume 9 reveals that Mrs. White saw a violation of the John 17:21 unity paradigm for His church. In the German-Scandinavian case, Mrs. White saw a spirit of self-magnification that would violate the unity of John 17:21. She used words like “magnify themselves” (9T-195), and “ambitious propositions” (9T-196). Apparently what Mrs. White saw behind the proposal was a divisive and self-seeking ethno-centrism and nationalism veiled in outward mission mindedness, but which would eventually “create dissension” (9T-196). Her answer to this spirit was the self-sacrificial mutuality described in the prayer of Christ in John 17 (“We are to be subject to one another” she said). She declared that “each nationality should labor earnestly for every other nationality.” Mrs. White uses John 17:21-21 to condemn the striving and nationalistic self-assertion that short circuited mutuality and mission. A conference formed under such motivations would have sown divisiveness in the church and built up walls of nationalistic division. Mrs. White saw that this proposal would not, in her words, “. . . advance the interests of the work among the various nationalities” (9T-195).
Regional Conferences and racial and ethnic reconciliation
Some of our members observe other Christian denominations participating in racial reconciliation conferences and arrive at questions like the following:
“According to Ephesians 2:14-16 and Galatians 3:26-28, are not believers from every ethnic, racial, class, gender, and nationality called on to reconcile and unite as one? And is not the maintenance of Regional Conference and State conference structures a violation of the reconciliation announced in these passages”?
Yes, believers are called to live in harmony with one another. And where there has been hostility (as seen in Ephesians 2:14-16) Christ’s reconciling activity is seen the basis for a new humanity--one that is reconciled to God and reconciled to people formerly considered antagonists or outcasts. However, once again, we must ask, on what basis and authority is affinity grouping for mission considered antagonism? In order to conclude that people groupings violate the teachings of these passages, one must judge Ghanaian churches as alienated from Korean Churches, Anglo churches as alienated from Latino churches, Filipino churches as hostile to African-American churches, etc. But, affinity groupings, as we show in this research, is not de facto, segregation, alienation, or hostility. The fact that Adventist churches operate from a common set of fundamental beliefs, common operational policies, common financial policies, and most importantly, a common mission, indicates that the unity desired for the congregations of NAD already exists. For greater inter-racial fellowship at the local level, local pastors are free to affiliate, trade pulpits, plan and launch shared mission and create joint worship experiences across racial lines as frequently as these are desired.
At the structural level, the answer to our question is “No.” We believe that Regional and state conferences are violations of unity only if hostility, acrimony, or exclusivity toward others dominates conference culture and practice. As with other units of the SDA organization, Regional and state conferences mission statements confess commitment to the single mission of the Adventist church. “Division” would mean that Regional and State conferences are working at cross purposes with each other. Further, to use these passages to prescribe a particular organizational structure is an example of the “application heresy” referenced earlier in this article.
Change or Mission?
There are many who, in their public comments and private conversations, feel that the need for a change is overdue. How should we go about changing? Should it start from the top or come up from the bottom? Some people are asking
“When will we change?”
We find that a careful, thoughtful, and prayerful examination of the relationship between mission and structure and an exegetically responsible reading of Scripture, and a careful missiological analysis, reveals that there are no theologically supportable objections to mission particularity expressed in the form of Regional conference structures. “Mission is the determinant of structural form.” We have also demonstrated that no biblical definition of unity is violated by mission particularity. The push toward consolidation does not appear to be driven by an informed understanding of missiology. Apparently, the conversation that we need to explore is the relationship between unity and diversity, for scripturally, the presence of diversity does not equal disunity.
We again submit that one reason this issue is so sensitive is because it turns on our ability or inability to discuss race and racial matters. For instance, on the one hand, we hear a call to dismantle mission particularized structures, but rarely does anyone making the demand discuss the impact of “white flight” in NAD. Yet, we know that once predominately white congregations gain black memberships that exceed 25%, Caucasians begin to move out of those congregations, thus abandoning them to members of color. I believe that we need to discuss how to preserve Caucasian congregations in order to reach the historical constituencies of our territory.
This leads to a crucial question for this discussion--would the rush by some to mandate integration adversely impact the “white work” in North America? Or should we dismiss Caucasians’ apparent need to relate to a church in which they do not move from the racial majority to the racial minority, with the subsequent loss of political power that follows? If consolidation is a moral imperative, why is it applied to conference structures? Would consolidation advance the work or contribute to the success of mission among the Caucasian group in North America? With what we now know about history, why would we risk injuring the white work? What we hope is that we could be so Christian and helpful to others, that our NAD family would allow us to contribute to a conversation about revitalizing and growing the white work in North America. But such a posture will call for cultural humility. And the first step toward cultural humility is the recognition that whites constitute an ethnic people group. In business language, we presently lack the ability to appreciate market segmentation as a strategy for mission that includes whites in NAD.
John 17:21-23 also implies that the church could easily lapse into power struggles. Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21-23 recognizes that as soon as His disciples would go off mission, power struggles for supremacy (James and John), control (Judas), or self-assertion (Peter), would ensue and displace the primary focus. The non-unity of John 17 lay in the disciples’ power struggles for supremacy and control. Could it be that this conversation, which is taking so much energy, is nothing other than a deception, if not a distraction, from the work of mission?
No critic of Regional Conferences has argued that mission among African-Americans has and is NOT going forward? Felder’s data on this question is overwhelming. And if it is going forward, what would we like to see beyond that reality? As a church, we have biblical unity, so we have to ask, what else is at issue? Historically, whites in America have set the norms for America and the SDA Church and its institutions. Sociologists call that power hegemony or social dominance. In the family of God, we ought to be able to talk about these and other matters around race and mission, even if we disagree. And rather than make pronouncements, and calls, and demands to dismantle, as some are doing, is it not time that we engage in a loving and honest conversation? We ask that the NAD proceed with its stated intention to convene its summit on unity, race, and mission, in the year 2011 or as soon as possible.
Mission and Community
Some who object to present structures make appeals for dismantling NAD structures based on concepts of and concerns for community. These perspectives lead to questions like the following:
“Which is more important, mission or community?”
Beneath this question is an assumption that these two values compete with each other in this discussion on structure in NAD. The true answer is the following: the purpose for community is mission! Community answers the “how” and mission answers the “why” of God’s action in the world. Texts like Exocus 19:4, Matthew 5:13-14; 28:17-19, and 1 Pet 2:8-9, indicate that the community exists to minister, serve, and share God with the world. This relationship between community and mission is summarized in Mrs. White’s famous declaration:
“The church is God's appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized
for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world. From the beginning it has
been God's plan that through His church shall be reflected to the world His fullness and
His sufficiency. The members of the church, those whom He has called out of darkness into His marvelous light, are to show forth His glory.” Acts of the Apostles, 9.
This is why mission is the primary determinant of structural form, in historic Adventist understanding.
Regional Conferences and Restructuring
Some who look at NAD think that it is time to restructure. They say that we need to dismantle all conferences and start over. They have questions like the following:
“Why not dismantle all conferences in NAD and design new ones”?
I believe that the suggestion to disband all conferences is not guided by the concept of mission achievement. In light of our mission, why would we need to collapse all conferences and start over? What is the proposed and better replacement? In the interest of input and ownership, should not any new proposal be fully developed and previewed? What are we trying to accomplish? How would mission to target populations be enhanced? What would be the new principles of organization? On what basis would these principles be prioritized? Questions like these and others should be answered in the setting of an open and constructive conversation between all key stakeholders because Adventist mission in NAD demands the highest level of due diligence. I believe that the only reason to abandon a structure is when it no longer facilitates mission achievement.
“Did not the General Conference force the conferences in South Africa to merge in 2009? Should not North America be held to the same standard?”
“Yes” the GC did force a merger in South Africa, but the question is should what happened in South Africa be a standard for all territories? The General Conference (GC), through the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division (SID) and the Southern Africa Union Conference (SAU), demanded that the Transvaal Conference and two congregations of the Cape Conference merge with the Trans-Orange Conference to form a new Northern Conference in November of 2005. The General Conference Working Policy B65 05 (voted in 2005) constituted the policy basis for the Southern African Union’s decision to merge the fields. In response, 6 congregations in Transvaal and 2 in the Cape Conference sued SAU and SID in 2005. The plaintiffs requested that the court declare the reorganization invalid. Their lawsuit failed. The Free State High Court of South Africa ruled in favor of the GC, SID, and SAU. The High Court ruled that the decision by SAU was not ultra vires—outside the power of SAU to merge the conferences in question. It is important to consider the context of South Africa and the context of the United States.
Social Context—Apartheid laws were implemented in South Africa in 1948. These laws touched every aspect of South African life. They prohibited intermarriage. In 1950, the Afrikaaner National Party required “pass books” which contained photos, birth records, and fingerprints in order for blacks and coloreds to have access in white areas. This was called the “Population Registration Act.” In 1951 the Bantu Authorities Act, which created “homelands” to which blacks were relegated, de-nationalized blacks citizenry. The premise was that black South Africans would lose their citizenry in South Africa and become citizens of their homelands. Voting rights would extend only to their homeland. Africans needed passports to enter South Africa. Apartheid resulted in the totalitarian oppression of the black majority in South Africa.
But between the years of 1948 and 1992, blacks and coloreds protested. International communities declared embargoes. International companies increasingly refused to do business in South Africa. The United Nations passed declarations of condemnation of the apartheid government. When apartheid ended in 1994 with open, national elections, the newly formed ANC government worked aggressively to dismantle the oppressive and painful legacy of apartheid in South Africa. The black majority South African Government was understandably critical toward any and all organizations that held onto to what it deemed apartheid-like institutions. The government’s critical and condemnatory stance toward South African Union’s black, colored, and white conferences drove the merger. A missiological determination was made by the General Conference SID, and SAU leadership--the mission of the Adventist Church would be hindered by having a white Afrikaner conference in a consolidated SAU. The decision of SAU to consolidate conferences was prompted because of the stance of the South African government toward apartheid and its symbolic legacy in South Africa. And the decision was limited to conference structures and did not extend to local churches.
The move to consolidate conferences was a response to the South African government’s negative perception of faith-based organizations that were slow to support the dismantling of apartheid. The SAU decision did not to create an integrated SDA Church, but a consolidated conference structure. The churches were never mandated by the General Conference or South African Union to merge in the name of “unity.” It was also determined by the Adventist leadership in South Africa that the consolidation of conference structures was in the interest of avoiding misunderstanding in post-apartheid South Africa. Interestingly, the Adventist churches in South Africa continue to function based on cultural particularity.
Should the same standard apply to North America? It could, but only if we choose to confuse unity with uniformity. The principles outlined in theReport to Commission on Ministries, Services, and Structures, “Principles, Possibilities and Limits of Flexibility in the Design of Seventh-day Adventist Organizational Structure”state very clearly that context, geographical location, and a host of other variables support contextual flexibility in organizational design. Thus, the claim that Regional Conferences and state conferences constitute “Adventist apartheid” is without merit.
Second, the situation in North America is different. Unlike the South African government, there is no pressure from the United States’ government to dismantle race, culture, nationality, or gender-specific organizations and structures unless they are in violation of US civil rights laws. We have already pointed to examples of such structures earlier in this article. Further, one would have to assume that hostility and antipathy, not mission, are the drivers of Regional conferences. In short, our context and history in North America is different from South Africa. NAD calls for different organizational strategies and tactics in reaching its diverse people groups. And we pray for the rapid advancement of the work in South Africa.
Does mission particularity mean that individuals must focus only on people of their own race?
Not at all. The New Testament contains numerous examples of cross-cultural witnessing. In this discussion on structure, we are talking about institutionalized corporate responsibility for people groups. As individuals, we need to minister to everyone within our sphere of influence, regardless of race, class, culture, or gender. Is not this the lesson taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan?
Through our biblical, theological, and missiological analysis of Scripture and Adventist history, and present organizational policy, we conclude the following:
1. From a responsible reading of Scripture, Adventist organizational history, and present policy, we affirm that the Bible prescribes no single organizational structure for the people of God to replicate; thus, eclectic readings of the Scriptures against a particular structural configuration are done inappropriately.
2. Texts like John 17:21, Eph 2:14-15, or Gal 3:26-27 do not prescribe a particular structural design. Any alleged “biblical” unity that demands structural singularity or consolidation in NAD represents an eisegetical reading of Scripture. Paul’s “body” theology of Romans 12 and 1 Cor 12 demonstrates the principle that individuation, whether personal or structural, united by mission is encouraged.
3. The assertion that theological or ecclesiastical unity is violated by the existence of mission-particularized structures such as Regional Conferences (or women’s ministries departments, Youth Ministries Departments, Korean ministries, disability ministries, etc.) cannot be credibly supported in light of a biblically-grounded definition of unity;
4. In SDA ecclesiology, eschatology drives mission, and mission determines structural form; it is the urgency of the SDA message that impels the ministries of Regional Conferences to evangelize the 37.6 million African-Americans in the United States;
5. The evident Providence that attended the creation of Regional structures makes void the pejorative labels applied to Regional Conferences. These labels are unfortunate, unwarranted, divisive, and an impediment to genuine conversation;
6. Conference structures are not impediments to visible, tangible witness in our communities and country. Witness in communities is carried out every week through the ministries of local SDA congregations to their communities. It is not the homogeneity or heterogeneity of a congregation that advances or hinders witness; it is whether said congregations lose themselves in service to local communities.
7. Ellen White’s 19th century admonition to anticipate a “better way” methodology was realized in the 20th century. The “better way” occurred in the leadership decisions made regarding the Negro work of the SDA Church between 1891 and 1962. First, in 1909 intentional institutionalization of mission occurred with the organization of the Negro Department. In 1944, the mission focus on African-Americans was advanced through the creation of conferences entrusted with the authority and responsibility for SDA mission to America’s then 12,000,000 African-Americans. Third, in 1965, because of the equal rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, in the church and outside of the church, Adventists declared all institutions in NAD desegregated. Thus, the better way is that black and white Adventists were liberated to voluntarily unite in worship, mission, and service on a shoulder-to-shoulder basis. The mandatory separation issue was finally addressed and abolished by the corporate church.
Where to from here?
If we wish to discuss more effective structures for accomplishing the mission to Black America within the polity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, that conversation is welcomed. But it is counterproductive to selectively label Regional Conferences as examples of disunity, and organizational segregation while overlooking other mission particularized structures in the NAD. If there is a more effective structure to facilitate mission to the 37.6 million African-Americans in North America then that structure should be brought forward for discussion. But the assertion that Regional Conference structures represent disunity and “segregation” has neither a biblical nor a missiological basis.
Colleague and friends, may I suggest that the time is short. I suggest that we think seriously about mission in this end time. This conversation has been for many a distraction from the outreach and mission. I suggest that we find ways to work cooperatively across all organizational structures to reach the population groups we encounter. While we may not always agree, agreement is not required. What we must agree to do is to spread our message, every day and every way. And if in the process of sharing our message, we discover that some structures are not enabling mission, then achievement of mission must be the basis and the criterion for future modifications. Second, the groups most affected by such changes should be granted the consideration of determining their own destinies.
Structure in the Old and New Testaments: A Cursory Survey
Scripture important to a discussion of structure in NAD. We submit that there are at least two reasons. First, as a Bible-believing community, Adventists actively and intentionally seek guidance from the teachings and principles of Scripture. Second, scriptural writers’ articulation of the centrality of mission as God’s action in the world provides a common focus for the discussion of the role of structure in Adventist mission’s implementation.
In the Old and New Testaments, minimal space is given to general discussion of organizational structure and its role in the mission of God’s people. Within the pages of Scripture, explicit presentation or discussion of structure rarely occurs. In fact, it appears that in the entire canon of Scripture, we sample only a few examples of structure in the life of God’s people. Examples like Patriarchal structures (note Abraham’s authority over his household in Gen 18:19; 24:4; 25:6; note Isaac’s authority over his household in Gen 26:30), Judicial (see the book of Judges), Prophetic (Moses, Aaron, etc), Levitical/Priestly, and Monarchial, etc.
In the New Testament, across the growth and development of the Christian church we find a variety of structures and models for the growing Christian movement: Temple/Synagogue, Messianic, Apostolic/Communal, Representational (Diaconate), and Domestic/Familial structures. The following chart highlights different dimensions of these varied governance and administrative structures.
Due to its paucity, it is difficult to extrapolate too much from this data. However, from this data, we can safely observe the following: 1) The Bible presents a variety of structural arrangements related to the people of God in history. 2) We find no argument in the Bible for a particular structure that is used at all times and in all places. No single structure cuts across eras; 3) organizational structure in Scripture expands, contracts, and/or adapts based on the scope and focus of the mission. 4) Structural arrangement that provides equitable representation is considered a vital dimension of service and witness (e.g., Acts 6); 5) Structures reflect continuity and discontinuity with the organizational structures of surrounding cultures, whether patriarchal or representative; 6) Organizational structures in Scripture reveal the following characteristics. . .
A. They vary across time—from 3000 B.C. to 62 A.D;
B. They vary across location—from Palestine to Rome;
- Flexibility differs based on the size of the community—Moses’ millions to the House churches’ small groups;
- Decision-making progresses from the Old to the New Testament patriarchal command-and-control decision making toward collaboration and consensus—From Abraham to the Apostolic Council (Acts 15);
- Material resource management moves from individual ownership to communal sharing—Genesis to Acts.
In the next section of this research, we look at how an understanding of Scripture influenced the approach of our pioneers to the issue of structure in the accomplishment of mission. We will see that Adventist pioneers saw Scripture as a resource for principles, not prescriptions, in organizing the Advent movement.
Current Adventist Perspectives on Structure and Mission
Recently, the work of Adventist scholars in researching and identifying these “Pioneer Principles” were incorporated into the work of a special Commission on Mission and Structure organized by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. For the purpose of this research, these principles in abbreviated form are abstracted from the Report to the Commission on Ministries, Services, and Structures which was voted by the October 15-17, 2007 Annual Council of the SDA Church. A complete version of these principles with elaboration may be found at the General Conference website (see footnote below). These “Pioneer Principles” hold the following 7 tenets . . .
1. “Organizational structure is necessary to fulfill the mission of the Church;”
2. “The Bible contains principles rather than prescriptions for organization;”
3. “Commitment to mission is the primary determinant of structural form;”
4. “Organizational structure must maintain a balance between centralization and
decentralization, between control and empowerment;”
5. “The design of organizational structure must provide for diversity while
6. “Flexibility in structure must not sacrifice unity and collective action;”
7. “Changed circumstances warrant new or altered structures.”
Applied to our discussion of structure in the NAD, Pioneer Principle 1 acknowledges the indispensability of organization as a tool for the fulfillment of the mission. Organizational structure is created within community to define how human and financial resources will be deployed, and how authority and responsibility for mission will be distributed. Pioneer Principle 2 shows that of the numerous structures that have been observed in Scripture, NONE of them constitute a “blueprint” for the post-canonical church. Like the people of God in Scripture, the Adventist church appropriates biblical principles AND organizational elements from a variety of sources as long as the selected elements are considered compatible with the church’s mission. This eclectic approach to organizational structure is adopted because the remnant ecclesiology of the SDA Church is first missional. Based on texts like Matt 5:13 and 28:18-20, and Rev 14:6-12, the Seventh-day Adventist church’s self-understanding is described in the following statement from Mrs. Ellen G. White:
“The church is God's appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized
for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world. From the beginning it has
been God's plan that through His church shall be reflected to the world His fullness and
His sufficiency. The members of the church, those whom He has called out of darkness
into His marvelous light, are to show forth His glory.”
Seventh-day Adventists, from the earliest reflections on structure, determined that mission should be the primary shaper of structural form. And another corollary followed closely on the heels of SDA mission--the primary shaper of mission would be Adventist eschatology. The Adventist pioneers’ commitment to eschatology said to them and the growing Adventist community in the 19th century that “the time is at hand” and the world must be warned. Adventist pioneers focused not on an idealized nature of the church, but the practical, effective function of the church. “Effectiveness of Function” was the principle of organization followed by the pioneers. Though SDA’s have only recently begun to explore a formal doctrine of ecclesiology, the pioneers determined from their reading of the prophetic books of Daniel and Revelation, that structures were needed to expedite the mission of the church. Thus, Pioneer Principle 3 in the “Report to the Commission” rightly asserts that mission is the determinant of structure. Here is precisely where we have not had a recent, transparent conversation around mission responsibility. May I submit that part of the reason we have such a rancorous discussion around Regional Conferences in NAD is because we have not had an open conversation about mission responsibility. Who in NAD is responsible of reaching the 37.6 million African-Americans in NAD? Part of the reason we are in dispute is because we have not had an honest conversation around race and mission. In NAD, mission primacy for reaching the 37.6 million African-Americans in NAD has been delegated to Regional Conference ministries. The present structure is the tool used to facilitate that mission to deliver the SDA message. Therefore, the following can be argued successfully, Regional Conferences are fully grounded in the mission particularity affirmed in Pioneer Principle 3—“mission is the primary determinant of structural form.”
The entire Church as the Body of Christ is commissioned to carry the everlasting Gospel to the whole world (Matt 28:18-20; Rev 14:6-12). While each people group will work to win a primary target population, each group remains open to other people groups. Mission segmentation means that the SDA Church should not expect every people group to identify the same mission targets or perform the same evangelistic task. Like the rest of the Seventh-day Adventist church, Regional Conferences are also committed to taking the Gospel to the whole world. Just as the hand’s function is not to sneeze, or chew, or walk, but to touch, hold, grab, and lift, so there will and should be diversity of focus and function in the execution of mission. In light of this Adventist missiology, the Regional structure appears to be a highly effective method of deploying human, financial, technological, and physical resources in maximizing the Adventist effort to reach the African-American people group in NAD with the SDA message.
Oliver noted that the church was slow in recognizing the need to respond to the diversity of the growing SDA Church in its structures. He wrote,
“While Seventh-day Adventists have become one of the most ethnically diverse Christians denominations in the world, they remain not only in danger of failing to respond adequately to the changes that cultural diversity has brought, but they are even in peril of refusing to acknowledge that diversity necessitates structural adaptation.”
Two decades after Oliver’s ground-breaking research, it seems that his observation regarding the church’s potential failure can no longer be considered absolute. Evidence for the difference in organizational outlook is reflected in SDA leadership’s 2007 vote to receive the Report to the Commission at the Annual Council. Leaders at the 2007 Annual Council, as if in an affirmative response to Oliver’s prescient criticism, voted to accept the Commission report which contained the following:
“Simply stated, there is need for flexibility in denominational structure—a flexibility that permits effective response to a particular set of conditions while at the same time maintaining the global values and identity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The reasons for increased flexibility rather than increased uniformity in structures and procedures may be summarized as follows:
“1. Diversity of geographical environment. . . .
“2. Differences in political, legal, and cultural environments. . . .
“3. Geographical and cultural variations in receptivity to mission activities. . . .
“4. Differentiation in local capacity, resources, and the need for coordinating and
linking structures. . . .
“5. The need for representation to be based on more than one model or
classification of organization. . . .
“6. Advances in technology open possibilities for new organizational patterns
with increased efficiencies and effectiveness. . . .”
What do these principles mean for structure in NAD? Contrary to the calls for structural consolidation, Regional Conference structures stand as an effective example of organizational flexibility—“a flexibility that permits effective response to a particular set of conditions while at the same time maintaining the global values and identity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
Applied to Regional structures, what is that set of conditions described in the above referenced report? First, the mission-particularity of Regional Conferences exists in response to the mission challenges of reaching the African-American people group in North America. Missiologists generally use this term in reference to developing-world peoples. However, the term “people group” emphasizes the fact that African-Americans have, from their involuntary arrival on American shores, constituted a sub-culture of the larger American culture. Their unique history and culture have been a test of the civic conscience and foundational commitments of American democracy. Through Regional Conference churches and leadership, the distinctive history and cultural perspectives of African Americans has been penetrated by the cultural intelligence that drives Regional Conference ministries. This mission has been supported by a structured and empowered stewardship of resources provided by Regional Conference constituents.
Second, consistent with point 5, Regional Conferences have provided leadership development opportunities which have benefitted the larger SDA Church and granted access and contribution to the larger councils of the SDA Church. Part of what was being argued by the writers of the Commission report referenced above, has already been realized in the establishment of Regional Conference structures.
The North American Division is one of 13 world divisions of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. It consists of Bermuda, Canada, the French possession of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, the United States of America, Johnston Island, Midway Islands, and all other islands of the Pacific not attached to the other 12 divisions. Organized in 1913, NAD numbers 5,243 churches with a membership of 1,090,217 and a general population of 340,583,000 persons. Within the United States are 58 conferences, organized into 8 Unions. Of the 58 US conferences, 9 are Regional Conferences. For more, see http://www.adventistyearbook.org/ViewAdmField.aspx?AdmFieldID=NAD.
Regional conferences describe the 9 geographical units of the SDA organization in North America which house the predominately African-American (black) churches in their respective union territories. Voted on April 10, 1944, the General Conference Spring Council authorized the creation of Regional Conferences. At the time of their creation, the 17,891 black members of the Adventist church were spread across 233 congregations. More information is available at the GC Online Archives at http://www.adventistarchives.org/docs/RCO/RCO-02__B.pdf#view=fit. Lake Region was the first regional conference organized on September 26, 1944 with 2,260 colored believers. The most recent Regional Conference, Southeastern, was organized in 1981. Regional Conferences today number a membership of approximately 250,000 members. While the primary target population is the 37.6 million African-Americans, the Office of Regional Ministries reports that Regional Conferences also include 70 non-black congregations who have voluntarily united within their fellowship. Regional Conferences are organizational units every union of the NAD except North Pacific and Pacific Union. According to the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, rev. ed. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1976), 1192 “The Regional conferences were formed in the hope that the new organizations might, with concentration on work with a specific ethnic group, achieve greater results in a shorter space of time than would be achieved under the previously existing organizations . . .”
For detailed histories that chronicle the creation of Regional Conferences, see Roy Branson, “Adventism’s Rainbow Coalition,” in Make Us One, Delbert Baker, ed. (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1995), 75-80; George Knight, Organizing to Beat the Devil: The Development of Adventist Church Structure (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing, 2001), 145-150 and R.W. Schwarz, Light Bearers to the Remnant (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1979), 564-570.
David K. Penno, “An Investigation of the Perceptions of Clergy and Laity concerning Race-Based Organizational Segregation in the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists” (Ph.D diss., Andrews University, 2009), i, ii, iii, etc. One feature of Dr. Penno’s dissertation that raises a crucial methodological question for me is the failure to define the key word in his title—segregation (I noted the absence of a definition on pages 12-14). This reader could locate no place in the research where this core term was explicated. Under accepted and common definition of segregation, Dr. Penno’s claim that the SDA Church maintains a “racially segregated organization” (page 2) cannot be substantiated.
David Person, “Adventist Apartheid” in an online letter to the editor, Adventist Review at http://www.adventistreview.org/article.php?id=660.
Samuel Pipim, “Separate Black and White Conferences-Part 1: The Sin We Don’t Want to Overcome,” at http://www.drpipim.org/church-racism-contemporaryissues-51/97-separate-black-and-white-conferences-part-1.html.
See post on July 4th from “explorer” at http://www.atoday.com/add-your-name-petition.
Comment posted at http://h0bbes.wordpress.com/2006/09/05/the-beginning-of-regional-conferences-in-the-us-iii/, on October 17, 2006.
Comment posted at http://h0bbes.wordpress.com/2006/09/05/the-beginning-of-regional-conferences-in-the-us-iii/.
See “The Lingering Evil in SDA Divided Conferences,” at http://njkproject.blogspot.com/2009/12/sda-racially-divided-conference.html.
Information as of June 11, 2010 at http://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=53734749401&ref=ts.
David Williams, “The Right Thing to Do: A Divided Church and What to Do About It” in The Adventist Review, February 20, 1997, 26. One weakness in Williams’ proposal is the assertion that the primary organizing principle of a new conference structure should be equality. Understandably, within the canon of weighted social values, any value other than equality, tolerance, diversity, etc sounds like social heresy to modern ears. But the selection of this value fully reflects our modern consciousness. For Adventist pioneers, mission is the primary value within the eschatological community and the primary determinant of structural form. See section on Adventist Pioneers and Structure.
William G. Johnsson, “Four Big Questions” at the Adventist Review Online at http://www.adventistreview.org/article.php?id=538.
Frederick Russell, “The Obama Message” at Adventist Review Online, http://www.adventistreview.org/article.php?id=1665. Russell is quick to add in his piece that he believes that more than nine conferences are “racially defined.” He does not elaborate on how or whether “racially segregated” differs from “racially defined” conferences.
See Adventist Today online petition at http://www.atoday.com/add-your-name-petition. Interestingly, while the petition names both black and white conferences, much of the most heated rhetoric is directed toward the existence of Regional conferences. Examples may be seen at the website.
It should be recognized that in the NAD, there is no official designation “State Conference.” Non-Regional conferences are simply referred to as “Conferences.”
See Adventist News Network at http://news.adventist.org/2009/09/lets-talk-encore-dc.html. Paulsen was questioned regarding the validity of the continued existence of regional conferences. Agreeing with the questioner, he was quoted as follows: “Tell leaders you think the reasoning behind regional conferences is no longer valid. I also tell them, but it is good if they hear it from you as well." Elder Paulsen did not detail or describe the “thinking” referenced in his statement.
Dwight Nelson, “The Truth in Black and White” preached at Pioneer Memorial Church at Andrews University on Sabbath Morning, January 16, 2010 at http://www.pmchurch.tv/articles.php?id=30.
See Spectrum article at http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2015/01/22/dwight-nelsons-mlk-weekend-sermon-spurs-petition-eradicate-ethnic-conferences. This eradication petition sought signatures from suppoerters in favor of ending what Nelson defined as racial division.
Ellen G. White writes, “The unity that exists between Christ and His disciples does not destroy the personality of either. In mind, in purpose, in character, they are one, but not in person. By partaking of the Spirit of God, conforming to the law of God, man becomes a partaker of the divine nature. Christ brings His disciples into a living union with Himself and with the Father. Through the working of the Holy Spirit upon the human mind, man is made complete in Christ Jesus.” (Ellen G. White, Comments—John,” in the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol 5:1148). In 1906 she wrote, “Such oneness as exists between the Father and the Son is to be manifest among all who believe the truth. Those who are thus united in implicit obedience to the word of God will be filled with power,” Ellen G. White, “One, Even as We Are One,” Bible Training School, February 1, 1906, 130.
In the best selling business work on organizations and structure, authors Bolman and Deal assert that structure is “. . . a blueprint for officially sanctioned expectations and exchanges among internal players (executives, managers, employees) and external constituencies (such as customers and clients). Like an animal’s skeleton or a building’s framework, structural form both enhances and constrains what an organization can accomplish.” See Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, 4th edition (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 50. They also argue that “ . . . clear, well-understood goals, roles, and relationships and adequate coordination are essential to organizational performance.” Ibid., 46. Adventist writer, William Johnson wrote, “structures aren’t necessarily good or evil: they may become bureaucratic, an end in themselves, and a drag on innovation; but they also provide the essential framework for continuity and concerted action”[emphasis supplied] See The Adventist Review, Nov. 1997, 17.
Ellen G. Whites writes, “Unity with Christ establishes a bond of unity with one another. This unity is the most convincing proof to the world of the majesty and virtue of Christ, and of His power to take away sin” (Ellen G. White Comments—John,” in Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 5:1148).
In consulting 38 major works, no commentator linked John 17:21-23 to a particular type of structure. What commentators did see was a call to cease the personal striving for supremacy that defined the disciples, and an invitation to share His glory, the glory of self-abnegating and self-sacrificial service.
For instance, the 2010 SDA Yearbook Online acknowledges 18 mission-particularized ministries listed as official units of the NAD organization, e.g. Asian/Pacific Ministries, Czech Ministries, Deaf Ministries, Disabilities Ministries, Ghanaian Ministries, Greek Ministries, Haitian Ministries, Hispanic Ministries, Hungarian Ministries, Jewish Ministries, Korean Ministries, Muslim Ministries, Native-American Ministries, and a number of others. These individuated ministries are unified around a common purpose, while being configured to meet particular demographic groups.
See Daniel Overdorf, Applying the Sermon: How to Balance Biblical Integrity and Cultural Relevance” (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic and Professional, 2009), 77-80. Overdorf describes the mistakes that we speakers often make by recruiting texts and assigning them to one’s personal perspectives. He outlines the difference between a number of “application” heresies, e.g. spiritualizing, moralizing, patternizing, trivializing, normalizing, etc. In relationship to the case raised by the question, Overdorf would classifiy this pronouncement as moralizing. He explains: “Moralizing is drawing moral exhortations from a text that go beyond a text’s intention. . . . Moralizing often treats possible implications (good advice) as necessary implications (thus saith the Lord).”
The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, F. D. Nichol, ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1978, 2002), 5:1053. Also Knowles, writes “Because Jesus is one with his Father, and believers are one with the Father and the Son, there should be no room for rivalry and faction.” See A. Knowles, The Bible Guide (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg: 2001), 524.
Overdorf, 77-78. It should be noted that some simply assume and teach that the highest and best expression of congregational life is multi-cultural and multi-racial. However, these have yet to make a compelling biblical case that proves this contention. And where they can point to examples of what they consider New Testament evidence for multi racial and multi-cultural local congregations, they generally fail to show that the example cited, in Acts 13, or Ephesians 2, or Romans 16 is prescriptive for all local congregations. One can only read these passages and get to structural prescription through what Overdorf identifies as the “application heresy” of patternizing.
In a recent publication, Calvin Rock presents a carefully researched and reasoned case for unity in diversity. See Calvin Rock, “Regional Conferences: An Exhibition of Unity in Diversity,” Regional Voice--2010 Special General Conference Issue, 8-10. In this piece he illustrates missiological insights with relevant sociological data and examples.
Andrew Mustard, James White and Organization (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1985); Barry Oliver, SDA Organizational Structure: Past, Present and Future (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1989); Knight, Organizing to Beat the Devil; George Knight, “Organizing for Mission: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Organizational Structure,” at http://www.adventist.org/world_church/commission-mission-services-structures/. For an anthology of documents that contribute to a better understanding of the historical and contextual currents behind the formation of Regional conferences, see Delbert W. Baker, Telling the Story: An Anthology on the Development of the Black SDA Work (Loma Linda, CA: University Printing Services, 1996), 2-73.
Report to Commission on Ministries, Services, and Structures, “Principles, Possibilities and Limits of Flexibility in the Design of Seventh-day Adventist Organizational Structure,” October 4-6, 2006. This commission, organized in 2005 was tasked as follows: “Research and evaluate, in the light of denominational mission and unity, the necessity, efficiency, and effectiveness of current denominational structure.” Report is available at http://www.adventist.org/world_church/commission-ministries-services-structures/.
Knight, “Organizing for Mission,” 1. Knight’s assessment is accepted with one caveat: whether Adventists are more structured than United Methodists is an open question. See United Methodist Church’s description of their own structure and organization at http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.1720695/k.4FEC/Structure__Organization_O.
For example, George Storrs asserted the classic anti-organization statement representing the hostility of many of the Millerite Adventists in the words “. . . no church can be organized by man’s invention but what it becomes Babylon the moment it is organized!” See George Storrs, “Come out of Her My People,” Midnight Cry, Feb. 15, 1844, 238.
Note the following: “With the rapid increase in the number of adherents in the 1850s, several problems arose that brought into sharp focus the need of the church for a name and a corporate existence: the legal problems of holding church property and other assets (originally owned by individuals); the growing need for selecting, directing, and supporting a ministry; and the necessity of controlling personal ambition, fanaticism, and offshoot movements.” See "Organization, Development of, in the Seventh-day Adventist Church," in Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, vol. 2, edited by Don F. Neufeld (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1996), 258.
James White, “Yearly Meetings,” Review and Herald, July 21, 1859, 68.
Oliver, SDA Organizational Structure, 274-280.
For an extended description and discussion of this organizational controversy, see Oliver, 184-201.
After Jones and his colleagues reached their conclusions, Ellen White’s declaration that “It is not wise to choose one man as president of the General Conference” was especially taken out of context. See Special Testimonies for Ministers and Workers (College View, Nebraska: College Press, 1897), 29.
Oliver, 346-347; Report to the Commission on Ministries, Services and Structures, 5; Knight, Organizing to Beat the Devil, 169.
An example of the faulty assumption that problematizes diversity itself can be seen in Bruce Milne, Dynamic Diversity: Bridging Class, Age, Race and Gender in the Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 23, 25. For Milne, the Christian church is the “. . . new humanity, in which not only racial diversity but every other major human diversity is both confronted and overcome.” This is a flawed assumption because it is grounded in a rejection of diversity. Milne fails to notice that diversity in Pauline perspective, individual and group, is converted into a resource for mission and community (see 1 Cor 9:18-22). A resourced-based theology of diversity can be seen in Leslie Pollard’s 1999 NAD Summit on Race presentation, “What Do We Do With Differences?” in the Adventist Review at http://www.adventistreview.org/2000-1549/story1.html. In this article, Pollard develops and presents an original theology of diversity from the Pauline perspective that exposes how the popular fallacy of diversity rejection, diversity blindness, or indifference toward diversity works against effective mission and fellowship. Paul on the other hand, finds in diversities, a segue for bridging differences in the interest of mission.
For a broader development of diversity as a resource for mission, see Leslie Pollard, “Culture Matters,” in Adventist Review at http://www.adventistreview.org/2004-1506/story1.html.
Donald McGavarn observed a sociological phenomenon that he famously summarized in 1990: “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.” See Donald McGavarn, Understanding Church Growth, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 163. However, there are those who dissent with the church growth movement’s description of this “homogenous unit principle.” See C. R. Padilla, “The Unity of the Church and the Homogenous Unit Principle,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 6 (1):23-30.
 We note with some curiosity, in the recent dissertation of Penno from Andrews University, the most crucial term in his title, “Segregation,” is not defined. See, his list of definitions in Penno, “Race-based Organizational Segregation, “ 12-14.
See “What’s Taking So Long?” in Adventist Review Online at http://www.adventistreview.org/article.php?id=1704.
Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association.1903; 2002), 173.
Ellen G. White,Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1915), 96.
See the chronicling of this history in George Knight, A User-Friendly Guide to the 1888 Message (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1998).
For a description of the challenges of this era, see Richard W. Schwarz, John Harvey Kellogg: Pioneering Health Reformer (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2006), 178ff.
 See Richard A. Schaeffer, Legacy: Daring to Care, Centennial Edition-1905-2005 (Loma Linda, CA: Legacy Publishing Association, 2005), 139-140.
The reader should be aware that there were in fact, two, in competing streams of thought within the African-American community relative to the Regional Conference idea. There were those voices as early as Elder C. M. Kinney in 1891, and as late as 1929 through Elder J. K. Humphrey who had been seeking conferences as the natural outgrowth of the success of the 1909 Negro Department, headed by Elder William Green (See the General Conference Executive Committee Minutes, April 29, 1929, 838-839). There were also those African-Americans who sought integration into the existing structure. By 1944 the issues had collided in the incident with Mrs. Lucy Byard. See Knight, Organizing to Beat the Devil, 145-149 for a summary of the racial tensions betweens the years of 1891 and 1944.
From “Actions of the Spring Meeting of the General Conference Committee,” April 10-16, 1944, 15-16.
In an enlightening distillation of the race doctrine of this period, Gunnar Myrdal summarized the social construction of race in America during this period with 6 propositions: 1. The Negro people belong to a separate race of mankind; 2. The Negro race has an entirely different ancestry than white people and cannot be related to white people in any way; 3. The Negro race is inferior to the white race in as many capacities as possible; 4. The Negro race is so different in characteristics and ancestry that all white people can be considered a homogeneous race; 5. The Negro race has a place in the biological hierarchy somewhere between the white man and the anthropoids; 6. The Negro is more akin to each other than to any white man. From Gunnar Myrdal, The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy: An American Dilemma, vols1 & 2 (New York: Harper Torch Book, 1944), 103-104.
As an illustration of the depth of the racial challenges of SDA leadership during the first 70 years of the 20th century, Frank Hale, documents the resistance to integration of SDA facilities up to and including the 1962 General Conference Session in San Francisco. SDA leadership was public in its criticism of the faith-based communities who participated in the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Into the 1960s, key SDA educational and ecclesiastical institutions had not integrated. At San Francisco, the issue of desegregation in the SDA Church was prompted by the involvement of the national press. See Frank W. Hale, Jr. Angels Watching Over Me (Nashville, TN: James C. Winston Publishing Company, Inc., 1996), 157-211.
And what we call tolerance may be transient. Ellen G. White believed that there would always be a work that only blacks could do for other blacks. Note her comment in 9T-207-208: “The colored ministers should make every effort possible to help their own people understand the truth for this time. As time advances, and race prejudices increases, it will become almost impossible, in many places, for white workers to labor for colored people.”
See the insightful analysis and comparison of Regional Conferences and the United Methodist Church’s Central Jurisdiction by Alfonzo Greene, Jr., “[Black] Regional Conferences in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) compared with United Methodist [Black] Central Jurisdiction/Annual Conferences with White S.D.A Conferences, From 1940-2001” (Ph.D Dissertation, Loyola University of Chicago, 2009), 352-356. Greene shows the impact of assimilation-in-the-name-of-unity on the United Methodist Church in the history of the dismantling of the Central Jurisdiction. He carefully documents how the assimilation model exacted a high cost to the UMC’s black membership.
See Douglas Morgan, Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2010), 279-311 for an example of the racial situation of the 19th century SDA Church. Lewis C. Sheafe had been a Baptist minister before joining the SDA Church. Possessed of a dynamic personality, he was unable to agree with SDA racial attitudes and practices. Between the years of 1910 and 1915, he was inconsistent in maintaining church membership. He finally left for good. Mrs. White wrote a testimony to him on Feb 10, 1907 (LT. S-44-07). In this letter, Ellen White pled with Pastor Sheafe to not be influenced by many of the apostate elements at Battle Creek, some of whom were exacerbating and exploiting his racial struggles in an effort to secure his support for their own purposes.
James K. Humphrey, was a native of Jamaica, and an ordained Baptist minister before joining the SDA Church. He founded First Harlem SDA Church. By 1920 it had a membership of 600 members. He proposed the formation of a Negro Conference as a member of the 1929 GC Commisson on the Negro work. He seceded from the SDA Church after his service on the Commission. For an extensive and scholarly treatment of the career of J. K Humphrey, see R. Clifford Jones, James K. Humphrey and the Sabbath-Day Adventists (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2006).
Clifford Jones documents the very difficult and confusing relationship of the Adventist Church toward the Negro from 1840-1930. See Jones, 82-112. He describes the black experience in Adventism as “. . . a saga of paradox, ambiguity and ambivalence.” Jones, 82. Also, Richard T. Schaeffer in Race and Ethnicity in the United States, 4th edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007), 4 asserts “Relations between racial and ethnic groups are not like relations between family members. The history of the United States is one of racial oppression.” This model of social dominance is also true of the racial history of the Seventh-day Adventist.
As examples, see the SDA Encyclopedia, 1193-1195. See also Samuel Pipim, “Separate Black and White Conferences-Part 1: The Sin We Don’t Want to Overcome,” at http://www.drpipim.org/church-racism-contemporaryissues-51/97-separate-black-and-white-conferences-part-1.html.
Minister and sociologist, Calvin Rock rightly questions this assumption. Rock differentiates between segregation, desegregation, and integration. Note his comment in the Adventist Review, “The country and the church should honor the guarantees of “desegregation” (one’s privilege of belonging wherever one wishes) and not feel guilty about the natural associational patterns of the races that make general social “integration” an illusion. Racism (exclusivity based on attitudes of superiority) is the enemy, not racial association with those of common interests or likenesses.” Clearly, for Rock, the opposite of segregation is not integration, but desegregation. To see the full context of his perspectrive, see Adventist Online, “Readers Respond to Four Big Questions,” at http://www.adventistreview.org/article.php?id=660.
On the contrary, it appears that the Apostle ranked certain values over and against their relationship to Christian mission. For example, in his day, slavery and taxation were empire-wide activities of the Roman government. Yet, Paul appears to have ranked the abolition of slavery and personal freedom as subordinate to the spreading his Gospel. He urged the return of Onesimus to his master Philemon. Two realities shaped Paul’s view: 1) Slavery was not an impediment to the slave in receiving Christ; and, 2) Paul’s view of an immanent eschaton i.e., “the time is short.” But 1 Corinthians 7:21 also reveals Paul’s outlook. If a slave could win his freedom he should, but Paul did not make it a primary pursuit. He even discouraged the custom of “self sale” in verse 1 Cor 7:23. For more insights into the nature of slavery in the New Testament, see Leslie Pollard, “20th Century Slavery and the New Testament,” Message Magazine, (Jan-Feb), 1994: 28-29.
Nineteen centuries after Paul, Ellen White called slavery sin, and urged Adventists to resist it. Twenty centuries after Paul, the moral outlook of modern nations was expressed on December 10, 1948, when the United Nations voted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights which codified the global condemnation of slavery in Article 4: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all its forms.” See http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.
The Negro had been both betrayed and abandoned between the years 1895-1910. The United States’ Compromise of 1877 resulted in the North effectively deciding to leave the conquered south to itself and its radically reactionary elements. During this period, disaffected Southerners tormented, terrorized, and executed many recently freed slaves. For a detailed description of the treatment of the Negro during this period, see Ronald Graybill, E. G. White and Church Race Relations (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1970), 17-34.
For an thoughtful treatment of Ellen White’s relationship to the 19th century concept of the color line, see Ciro Sepúlveda, Ellen White on the Color Line: The Idea of Race in a Christian Community ( [Location missing]: Biblos Press, 1997), 25-39. Here Sepúlveda outlines the role of the color line in the SDA Church and general society during this period. See also Roy Graham, Ellen G. White: Co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (New York: Peter Lang Publishing Company, 1985), 247-249 for how E. G. White moderated the racial debate in three ways through her leadership; First, she declared that there was no superior or inferior race. Second, she reminded the church, especially the Northern SDA Church, that it was the collective responsibility of the entire nation to make restitution to the formerly enslaved Negro. Third, she spelled out contextually-sensitive recommendations for how SDA workers were to proceed with the work for the Southern field.
Note the following passage, written by Mrs. White from Australia, to the members working for the colored (black) believers: “As time advances, and opposition strengthens, circumstances warn us that discretion is the better part of valor. If unwise moves have been made in the work done for the colored people, it is not because warnings have not been given. From Australia, across the broad waters of the Pacific, cautions were sent that every movement must be guarded, that the workers were to make no political speeches, and that the mingling of whites and blacks in social equality was by no means to be encouraged.
“In a council meeting held in 1895 at Armadale, a suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, I spoke of these matters, in answer to the inquiries of my brethren, and urged the necessity of caution. I said that perilous times were coming, and that the sentiments that could then be expressed in regard to what should be done along missionary lines for the colored people could not be expressed in the future without imperiling lives. I said plainly that the work done for the colored people would have to be carried on along lines different from those followed in some sections of the country in former years.
“Let as little as possible be said about the color line, and let the colored people work chiefly for those of their own race.
“In regard to white and colored people worshiping in the same building, this cannot be followed as a general custom with profit to either party--especially in the South. The best thing will be to provide the colored people who accept the truth, with places of worship of their own, in which they can carry on their services by themselves. This is particularly necessary in the South in order that the work for the white people may be carried on without serious hindrance.
“Let the colored believers be provided with neat, tasteful houses of worship. Let them be shown that this is done not to exclude them from worshiping with white people, because they are black, but in order that the progress of the truth may be advanced [emphasis added]. Let them understand that this plan is to be followed until the Lord shows us a better way.” 9T-205-207.
Graybill, White and Race Relations, 110ff.
Note her statement in 9T-204: “The gospel is to be presented to the downtrodden Negro race. But great caution will have to be shown in the efforts put forth for the uplifting of this people. Among the white people in many places there exists a strong prejudice against the Negro race. We may desire to ignore this prejudice, but we cannot do it. If we were to act as if this prejudice did not exist, we could not get the light before the white people. We must meet the situation as it is and deal with it wisely and intelligently.” Again, another passage from her Testimony titled “The Color Line” clearly elucidates Ellen G. White’s missiology: “The wise course is best. As laborers together with God, we are to work in a way that will enable us to accomplish the most for him” 9T-215.
The topic of Regional Conferences came to the floor of the GC Committee’s Spring Council held April 8-19, 1944, in Chicago. 22 speakers are on record,. 17 spoke in favor, 3 against the proposal, and 2 sought clarification. For a summary, see Delbert W. Baker “Regional Conferences: 50 Years of Progress” Adventist Review November 2, 1995, 11. The following resolution was passed: “WHEREAS, The present development of the work among the colored people in North America has resulted, under the signal blessing of God, in the establishment of some 233 churches with some 17,000 members: and WHEREAS, It appears that a different plan of organization for our colored membership would bring further great advance in soul-winning endeavours; therefore WE RECOMMEND, that in unions where the colored constituency is considered by the union conference committee to be sufficiently large, and where the financial income and territory warrant, colored conferences be organized.” Ibid., “Regional Conferences,” 14.
Notice the language of the General Conference Spring Counsel, 1944 resolution: “WHEREAS, the present development of the work among the colored people in North America has resulted under the signal blessing of God, in the establishment of some 233 churches with some 17,000 members: and WHEREAS, it appears that a different plan of organization for our colored membership would bring further great advance in soul-winning endeavours; [italics supplied] therefore WE RECOMMEND, that in unions where the colored constituency is considered by the union conference committee to be sufficiently large, and where the financial income and territory warrant, colored conferences be organized.”
Henry E. Felder, “An Analysis of Seventh-Day Adventist Regional Conferences and Economic Development 1950-2008” Unpublished Paper presented to the 2010 Regional Conference Caucus in Orlando, Florida, January 22, 2010, 6.
If social context is seriously considered, then interpretations like Knight’s can and should be called into question. His assertion reads, “While Black [Regional] conferences were certainly not the ideal, their creation seems to have stimulated the denomination’s work among certain segments of North America’s Black population.” See Knight, Organizing to Beat the Devil, 150. However, if the new structure dramatically stimulated and advanced the mission to black America, then why would not that advancement in mission be considered “ideal”? Missiologically-deficient assessments repeatedly overlook the possibility that the God’s overarching purpose was realized in the dramatic stimulation and growth of the black work in 1944 and beyond.
Further, two points of rebuttal are appropriate. 1) Point 1 is a clarification of Knight’s statement: The financial and statistical growth data shows that with the organization of Regional conferences, a remarkable blessing attending the spread of the SDA message among African-Americans in North America; 2) Point 2 raises a question: Do any scholars question why the request for integration was denied? The fact that the request for integration was denied raises the missiological question of whether integration would have facilitated or inhibited the growth of the work among blacks in America. Dogmatic idealism aside, from a missiological perspective, missional particularity in North America better suited the SDA mission to black America. Again, we see that our history did not have to be perfect to work for God’s higher purpose.
Greene carefully examines a genuine example of “race-based organizational segregation” in his comparative study of Seventh-day Adventist Regional Conferences’ founding in 1944 with the United Methodist Church’s 1939 creation of its Central Jurisdiction. First, Greene shows that the UM Central Jurisdiction was racially restricted to black United Methodists because it was built upon the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessey versus Ferguson. On the contrary, Regional Conferences were geographically designated, but fully open to any SDA who wished to join any Regional Conference congregation in 1944. Black Adventists also were free in 1944 to join any white congregation, if they so desired. Second, the racially segregated policy of the Central Jurisdiction was formally adopted into the constitution of the United Methodist Church. Such a policy has never been adopted into the Adventist Church. Third, according to Greene, Elder H.T. Elliot, then Associate Secretary of the General Conference, studied the operation and configuration of Central Jurisdiction, and chose not to recommend it as the model for Regional Conferences because Central Jurisdiction was officially segregated. See Greene, 234-236. Note that Thomas E. Frank, United Methodist historian, stated that the Central Jurisdiction “. . . embodied the fatal flaw of an apartheid system, segregation of African-American churches into a separate, non-regional (geographical) ‘church within a church.’” See Thomas Edward Frank, Polity, Practice, and the Mission of the United Methodist Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), 26.
For an excellent discussion of the difficulty of discussing race, see Paul Wachtel, Race in the Mind of America: Breaking the Vicious Circle Between Blacks and Whites (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 23-39.
Former Secretary of State and Stanford Professor of History, Dr. Condeleeza Rice, in a March 28, 2008 interview at the White House, identified racism as “America’s birth defect.” She was asked about the impact of then presidential candidate Obama’s landmark speech on race. She said, “Black Americans were a founding population, Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together -- Europeans by choice and Africans in chains. That's not a very pretty reality of our founding . . . descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects of that. That particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today." See Rice’s remarks at http://www.npr.org/blogs/news/2008/03/sec_of_state_rice_us_has_birth_1.html.
For more on these social realities, see Adalberto Aguirre, Jr. and David V. Baker, Structured Inequality in the United States: Critical Discussions on the Continuing Significance of Race, Ethnicity and Gender (Upper Saddle River: Prentice, 2008, 28-85.
See the work on this subject by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000). This work, consisting of 2000 telephone interviews and 200 face-to-face interviews, documents the vast differences in perceptions of race and racism in America as held by black and white evangelicals. While most white evangelicals resolutely did not consider themselves racists, they were among the loudest and most critical voices lifted against the Civil Rights movement. Evangelicals’ understandings of individual accountability, gradualism, and non-confrontation of government, left them unable to support the social movement for Civil equality. To black evangelicals, this was viewed as complicity with, if not outright support of racial discrimination.
See Knight, Organizing to Beat the Devil, 146-147.
The post-1944 struggles for desegregation and access are documented in Frank Hale III, Out of the Trash Came Truth: The 1962 Challenge of the People, by the People, and for the People Against Racism in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Columbus, OH: Hale Publishing, 2007), 7-50. This work contains additional detail not included in Hale’s Angels Watching Over Me.
Cultural cohesion is not segregation but group affinities at work, because it is voluntary association around the significant experiences of their lives. For a fascinating discussion of this process, see Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and other Conversations About Race (New York: Basic Books, 2002). While Tatum focuses on identity formation in adolescents, the book has many helpful insights about the role that race plays in group cohesion.
Thomas Schriener, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Publishers, 2008), 714-715.
To better appreciate the racially-charged environment and social context in which Mrs. White penned her counsel, a careful and detailed description of the social setting and culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries can be found in Norman Miles, “Tension Between the Races,” in The World of Ellen White, Gary Land, ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1987), 47-60.
For an analysis of the social and cultural context of Mrs. White’s General Conference sermon on race and mission, see Leslie Pollard, “The Cross Culture” in Adventist Review, Feb 3, 2000: 20-24.
See Ronald D. Graybill, “Historical Contexts of Ellen G. White’s statements Concerning Race Relations” Unpublished B.D. Thesis, Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, SDA Theological Seminary, 1968.
Ellen White saw that attempts to better the situation of the colored people of the south was deeply threatened by entrenched prejudice. She wrote, “One of the difficulties attending the work is that many of the white people living where the colored people are numerous are not willing that special efforts should be put forth to uplift them. When they see schools established for them, when they see them being taught to be self-supporting, to follow trades, to provide themselves with comfortable homes instead of continuing to live in hovels, they see the possibility that selfish plans will be interfered with--that they will no longer be able to hire the Negro for a mere pittance; and their enmity is aroused. They feel that they are injured and abused. Some act as if slavery had never been abolished. This spirit is growing stronger as the Spirit of God is being withdrawn from the world, and in many places it is impossible now to do that work which could have been done for the colored people in past years.” 9T 204-205.
The 1890s saw increased violence against African-Americans. In the decade of the 90s, 1691 African-Americans were lynched. See Ida B. Wells-Barnett, On Lynchings (New York: Humanity, 2002), 201-202. From 1900 to 1914, more than 1100 were lynched. See John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, 8th ed. (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2004), 345.
See Graham, EGW Co-founder SDA Church, 242-244 for examples of the malicious treatment white and black Adventists experienced in the southern field—from shootings, to lashings, to burning of church properties during this period. An example of the aggressiveness of angry local whites against Adventist believers is seen in the Olvin incident in Calmar, Mississippi on May 11, 1899. Not only was Mr. Olvin, an African-American, attacked by an angry mob of whites because of his cross-racial fraternization, his wife was shot while protesting the mob’s horse-whipping of Mr. Olvin. See account in Graybill, Church and Race Relations, 56.
Ellen White’s mission centrality is evident in the following statement: “I said plainly that the work done for the colored people would have to be carried on along lines different from those followed in some sections of the country in former years. Let as little as possible be said about the color line, and let the colored people work chiefly for those of their own race.” 9T-206
Contrast her methodology with the position of Elie Wiesel some 75 years later. Wiesel declared: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Elie Wiesel, Nobel Acceptance Speech (December 10, 1986), Oslo, Norway. Found at http://www.pbs.org/eliewiesel/nobel/index.html.
See Charles Bradford, Preaching to the Times (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing, 1975).
For instance, health care research shows that America is not post-racial. See “Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Healthcare,” published by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. According to the summary of this bi-partisan research, IOM researchers concluded that “this research [on health care disparities] indicates that U.S. racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to receive even routine medical procedures and experience a lower quality of health services.” The report says “a large body of research underscores the existence of disparities. For example, minorities are less likely to be given appropriate cardiac medications or to undergo bypass surgery, and are less likely to receive kidney dialysis or transplants. By contrast, they are more likely to receive certain less-desirable procedures, such as lower limb amputations for diabetes and other conditions.” Quote found at http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2002/Unequal-Treatment-Confronting-Racial-and-Ethnic-Disparities-in-Health-Care.aspx. Also more recent conclusions in 2006 by a team or researchers who concluded: “It is well established that racial–ethnic minorities in the United States have poorer health than whites. The most meaningful summary measure of such disparities is life expectancy. Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native populations have higher rates of age–adjusted and age–specific mortality than other groups.” See http://www.macfound.org/atf/cf/%7BB0386CE3-8B29-4162-8098-E466FB856794%7D/DISPARITIES.PDF. For the research of Dr. David Williams, national expert on issues around race and health, at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/now/03062009/professor-david-williams-explained-how-place-matters-in-understanding-racial-and-ethnic-health-disparities.html;
Then EGW wrote, “If a colored brother sits by their side [of whites], they will not be offended or despise him. They are journeying to the same heaven, and will be seated at the same table to eat bread in the kingdom of God . . . They (i.e. the blacks) should hold membership in the church with the white brethren. Every effort should be made to wipe out the terrible wrong which has been done them” The Southern Work, 14-15.
Two decades later, EGW wrote, “In regard to white and colored people worshipping in the same building, this cannot be followed as a general custom with profit to either part, especially in the South. The best thing will be to provide the colored people who accept the truth, with places of worship of their own, in which they can carry on services by themselves. This is particularly necessary in the South, in order that the work for the white people may be carried on without serious hindrance.” Quoted in Graybill, White and Race Relations, 206.
Williams, “The Right Thing,” 26.
For an analogy to mission particularity, see an introductory discussion of the concept of market segmentation at http://www.netmba.com/marketing/market/segmentation/. Note the following definition: “Market segmentation is the identification of portions of the market that are different from one another. Segmentation allows the firm to better satisfy the needs of its potential customers.” Ibid.
Note David W. Miller, “The Uniqueness of New Testament Church Eldership,” Grace Theological Journal vol. 6 (1985; 2002), 326: “The book of Acts shows that homes (Acts 5:42; 16:32 ; 18:7–8 ), synagogues (Acts 9:20; 13:5 ; 17:1 ; 19:8 ), and the Temple (5:20 ; 5:42 ) were all centers of evangelistic preaching where unbelievers could hear the gospel. The organizational structures of such places where unbelievers gathered do not have any necessary link with the structure of the local NT church.”
See summary of the Annual Council acceptance of the Report on the Adventist News Network at http://news.adventist.org/2007/10/church-structure-to-be-flexible-reflect-local-ees.html.
Report to Commission on Ministries, Services, and Structures, 2-4.
See Leslie Pollard, “The Function of Loipos in Contexts of Judgment and Salvation in the Book of Revelation” (Ph.D Dissertation, Andrews University, 2007), 132-165. In this research, Pollard shows that remnant self-consciousness is intimately tied to the missional identity of God’s people.
Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1911), 9.
A sense of urgency characterizes Ellen White’s call to the Adventist Church of the 19th century. Examples include 9T-11: “We are living in the time of the end . . . The condition of things in the world shows that troublous times are right upon us” and 9T-25: “Unmistakable evidences point to the nearness of the end.”
Knight writes, “The main theological pillar undergirding Adventist church structure is eschatology. Mission is an outgrowth of eschatology since Adventism believes that the message of the three angels must be preached to all the world before the end of time.” See “Organizing for Mission,” 47.
See Toward a Theology of the Remnant, Ángel Rodríquez, ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2009). This book is a compilation of the finest Seventh-day Adventist scholarship on the remnant concept as it relates to the witness of the Scriptures. While Toward a Theology of the Remnant avoids an offensive dogmatism, it is clearly affirmative on the application of remnant self-consciousness to the SDA Church, and what that self-consciousness means for SDA mission.
She wrote in 1909, “. . . let the colored people work chiefly for those of their own race” 9T-206.
Oliver, SDA Organizational Structure, 355. What is curious in Oliver’s assessment, and possibly an oversight, is that he does not consider any decisions regarding structure beyond 1903. The creation of Regional Conferences is an “Exhibit A” of the structural adaptation that he is arguing for in the SDA Church.
See the statistical data referenced in the article by Henry Felder. African-Americans represent approximately 13% of the general United States population, but 40% of the North American Division. There are no comparable numbers in any other institution or industry in American life. For instance, in schools of Medicine in the U.S. African-Americans represent about 5%-6% of all medical school matriculants. In Schools of Dentistry, the number is 4%. In Schools of Engineering, it is 3%. Based on the dramatic financial and numerical growth of the African-American Adventist population, it could be successfully argued that the creation of Regional Conference structures is the single most successful missional innovation ever undertaken in the North American Division.
See the material that follows on the context of the 1930s and 40s for African Americans in America.
 For a helpful discussion of the “people group” concept, see Reinder Bruinsma, “Missionaries, Go Home! Are Cross-Cultural Missions Still Valid?” in Adventist Mission in the 21st Century, ed. Jon Dybdahl (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1999), 41. Bruinsma follows an evangelical definition of a people group: “A significantly large grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another, because of heir shared language, religion, ethnicity, residence, occupation, class or caste, situation or combination of these.”