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Race, Culture, Mission!

The Adventist Review is pleased to present part one of a thoughtful and provocative two part essay for Black History Month by an eminently qualified scholar: Les Pollard is president of Oakwood University. Editors

The Seventh-day Adventist church has struggled mightily to conduct constructive conversations about race, and class, and gender, and other diversities, significant aspects of our ecclesiastical community. These are areas where the stakes are high, emotions run deep, and opinions vary considerably. I ask your pardon beforehand, therefore, for all those differences between you and me that may seem to be nothing but blundering error on my part.

Perspectives—Pro and Con

I share with you quotes from friends and colleagues that illustrate the breadth of difference on one conspicuous aspect of diversity within Adventism, the matter of Regional Conferences. Their existence has been described as “race-based organizational segregation,”[1] “Adventist apartheid,” [2] “the sin we don’t want to overcome,”[3] “an abnormality”[4] “a disgrace.”[5] “morally untenable,”[6] and “a lingering evil.”[7] A Facebook interest group of 2,477 members has asserted that “the Adventist Church is segregated.”[8] Calls have sounded for elimination and replacement of all current structures, new ones to be “based on new principles.”[9] William Johnsson, wondering what will ever unite us, wrote: “. . . I have to question whether the current divided structures should continue indefinitely.”[10] And then General Conference president, Jan Paulsen, confided his belief to Adventist youth that the thinking that produced Regional Conferences [in 1944] is “no longer valid.”[11]

I ask this multitude of scholars, positions and convictions: What kind of structure does Scripture demand? What form of organization might properly reflect the biblical message of unity (see John 17:21, Eph. 2:14-18, Gal. 3:27-28). Do State and Regional Conferences in North America constitute a race or color divide?

Terms of Understanding

First we define key terms:

Unity—based on the New Testament, unity is 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, particularly verses 21-23,[12] Ephesians 4:1-12, and Philippians 2:1-5. Unity is a precursor to witness (John 17:18, 21, 23), not an end in itself.
Diversity—for the Church, the Body of Christ (Rev. 14:6-7; 1 Cor. 12, Eph. 4, Rom. 12), diversity is the plurality of persons, gifts, cultures, races, gender, nationalities, and classes present. Scripture’s moral and ethical teachings establish the parameters for inclusion. NT virtue and vice lists illustrate the prerequisites of inclusion, identifying behavioral practices to be encouraged and discouraged, that spell inclusion in, or exclusion from the Body (e.g., Gal. 5:16-22; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Rom. 1:18-25).

Segregation—the practice of restricting people’s areas of residence or access to institutions and facilities based on race or alleged race. Politically dominant races have employed racial segregation to maintain economic and other advantages over those they dominate.[13]

Desegregation—the removal of legal and other barriers that segregation establishes and employs.

Integration—the voluntary affiliation and/or shared organizational membership of persons without regard to race, language, nationality, etc.

Ethnic group—a group of people who 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 (here including Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Hispanic, and continental Africans in America);

Affinity grouping—voluntarily affiliation around shared national, cultural, racial, linguistic, or gender commonalities;

Structure—orderly, consensual arrangements formed by and within organizations to a) allocate human and financial resources, b) clarify and delegate responsibility and determine the flow of authority, c) identify roles and relationships in an organization, and d) ensure an appropriate, effective division of labor in the business or community;[14]

Mission particularity—facilitating structure at mini- or macro-mission levels so that specific people groups may reach their own people group in North America; represents people-group to people-group ministry: illustrated by numerous Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Latino, etc. local congregations where cultural-affinity is a major resource for reaching those people groups.

Hermeneutics and Structure

Adventism’s Regional Conferences move church members to wonder about Jesus’ prayer that His followers reflect the oneness in the godhead (see John 17:21). Does the prayer mandate, promote, propose, prescribe, or proscribe some particular type of structure? Our response to this question will respect the context and subject of Jesus’ focus, avoiding the temptation of eisegesis—the practice of making a Bible passage explain something it is simply not addressing.

John 17, Jesus’s great priestly prayer offered just prior to his passion and crucifixion, pleads for the survival of his followers through 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.[15] Trinitarian unity and its application to His disciples is what Christ here addresses, not the issue of a specific structure in the early or later church. 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. So must Christ’s followers.[16]

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. We note, moreover, 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. But the glory Christ pleads for is “glory” that emanates from self-sacrificial service. Jesus is praying that the world see selflessness in the disciples’ profound commitment to God, and their unselfish service to each other.

John 17:21 mightily reinforces diversity-in-unity. Marital unity involves the same notion. The “two shall become one” of Genesis 2:24 does not preclude individuation in expression. In fact, when we understand the depth of what Christ is praying for, we realize that the passage does not stand against Adventist North American Division [NAD] Church structure, as many have claimed John 17 does.

Applying this passage to a discussion on NAD Church structure seems to require a number of assumptions: 1) that structure is the concern of Jesus’ prayer; 2) that spiritual unity requires or implies structural singularity; 3) that Regional and state structures violate biblical unity; 4) that mission particularity is divisive;[17] 5) that unity must mean structural and/or congregational integration; 6) that good Adventist hermeneutics moves from random biblical texts to direct prescriptions for structure; 7) that only integration and/or the multi-racial congregational model of church life can answer or be the best answer to Christ’s prayer.[18]

John 17 As Relevant

What do we find in John 17 that is usable for our discussion? Evidently, unity in John 17:21 points to collective singularity of mission and purpose. 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.”[19] The sincere efforts that reach beyond a text on moral cooperation to make it one of administrative architecture offer examples of what Daniel Overdorf identifies as “application heresy.”[20]

NAD continues to demonstrate the biblical definition of unity so long as it continues to be united in mission, so long as Regional and State conferences are united in the mission of declaring the Advent message of Rev 14:6-12.[21] Our unity speaks to allegiance to a common faith, a common mission, and a common set of beliefs and values. Regional Conferences focus on a primary target population within a specific geographical region through a conference structure shaped for their missional purpose, shaped for the most effective deployment of human and financial resources for accomplishing their assigned mission. Citing John 17:21 (or Eph. 2:14-16 or Gal. 3:27-28) as a basis for structural consolidation in NAD reflects neither responsible exegesis, nor valid Adventist history.

Coming soon to this web page: Part 2 of Pollard’s “Race, Culture, Mission!”, where he presses the crucial question in the crucial area. Indisputably, the Church’s crucial area is mission,Go make disciples! And Pollard puts the crucial question in that area: Do Scripture’s moral, ethical, or theological teachings mandate, or do they invalidate NAD Regional Conferences? Read, mull, and share your [dis]agreements. Editors



[1]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.

[2]David Person, “Adventist Apartheid” in an online letter to the editor, Adventist Review at http://www.adventistreview.org/article.php?id=660.

[3]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.

[4]See post on July 4th from “explorer” at http://www.atoday.com/add-your-name-petition.

[5]Comment posted at http://h0bbes.wordpress.com/2006/09/05/the-beginning-of-regional-conferences-in-the-us-iii/, on October 17, 2006.

[6]Comment posted at http://h0bbes.wordpress.com/2006/09/05/the-beginning-of-regional-conferences-in-the-us-iii/.

[7]See “The Lingering Evil in SDA Divided Conferences,” at http://njkproject.blogspot.com/2009/12/sda-racially-divided-conference.html.

[8]Information as of June 11, 2010 at http://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=53734749401&ref=ts.

[9]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.

[10]William G. Johnsson, “Four Big Questions” at the Adventist Review Online at http://www.adventistreview.org/article.php?id=538.

[11]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, spoke of Regional and State conferences as “an amazing anomaly,” and “separate but equal.”

[12]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.

[13]See the Britannica Concise Online Dictionary at http://www.answers.com/topic/segregation.

[14]Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, 4th edition (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008), p. 50, 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.” Also, “ . . . clear, well-understood goals, roles, and relationships and adequate coordination are essential to organizational performance” (p. 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.

[15]“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).

[16]In consulting 38 major works, no commentator linked John 17:21-23 to a particular type of structure. Rather, they see a call to cease the disciples’ personal striving for supremacy, and an invitation to share Christ’s glory, the glory of self-abnegating and self-sacrificial service.

[17]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.

[18]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).”

[19]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.

[20]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.

[21]Read Calvin Rock’s carefully researched and reasoned case for unity in diversity in Calvin Rock, “Regional Conferences: An Exhibition of Unity in Diversity,” Regional Voice--2010 Special General Conference Issue, 8-10. The piece illustrates missiological insights with relevant sociological data and examples.

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