While traveling and meeting with church members around the world, I am sometimes asked how the Seventh-day Adventist Church is structured, and how it was organized.
How Your Church Works
Understanding its unity, structure and authority
By Ted Wilson
While traveling and meeting with church members around the world, I am sometimes asked how the Seventh-day Adventist Church is structured, and how it was organized. How are changes made, and who has authority to make changes? What unites the church? How does the church work? While I could spend a long time discussing these important issues, in this month’s column I will look at how and why the church was officially organized. Next month I will address, in a practical way, issues of authority, unity, and how you can make a difference in the church.
When we look at today’s well-organized, 18-million member Seventh-day Adventist Church, with a presence in 208 countries represented by 13 world divisions and one attached field, tens of thousands of churches, thousands of schools, hundreds of hospitals and clinics, numerous publishing houses and more, it’s hard to imagine that just a little more than 150 years ago none of this existed. Nothing.
Nothing, that is, except for a small group of believers who “searched for the truth as for hidden treasure,”1 wrote Ellen White of those early years. “We would come together burdened in soul, praying that we might be one in faith and doctrine; for we knew that Christ is not divided. . . . The Scriptures were opened with a sense of awe, . . . earnest supplications went up to heaven that God would help us to see eye to eye, that we might be one as Christ and the Father are one.”2
As the little group of Advent believers diligently studied God’s Word and prayed, they became one in mind and spirit, and their numbers gradually increased. At first they met in private homes, in large kitchens, in barns, groves, and schoolhouses. Before long, with God’s blessing, they were able to build “humble houses of worship.”3
Organization Essential for Mission
As the group continued to grow, it became evident that organization was needed “to provide for the support of the ministry, for carrying the work to new fields, for protecting both the churches and the ministry from unworthy members, for holding church property, for the publication of the truth through the press, and for many other objects, organization was indispensable.”4
But some were strongly opposed to any official organization, fearing that it might lead to the closed-minded creedalism they had faced in the established churches they had left, or in some overly-complicated structure that would inhibit their mission. However, they soon learned that carefully organized church structure was very important and heaven-inspired, as Ellen White indicated.
When faced with controversy, believers once again “sought the Lord with earnest prayer” that they might understand His will, “and light was given by His Spirit that there must be order and thorough discipline in the church—that organization was essential. . . . Order is the law of heaven, and it should be the law of God’s people on the earth.”5
Order. Now that doesn’t mean that everyone behaves as automatons, moving without thinking. But it does mean a submissiveness to the Word of God, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the counsel of the Spirit of Prophecy, and the decisions made by the collective, worldwide church in its representative settings, such as the General Conference Executive Committee and General Conference sessions, to bring about order so that its mission can be accomplished. So although some were strongly opposed, Adventist pioneers moved ahead in establishing an official organization with the assurance that the Lord was guiding them by His providence.
Last year, as we remembered the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, we were reminded of some of those organizational milestones. In 1860, a publishing association was formed and an official name for the church was chosen. In 1861, the first state conference, Michigan, was organized, and during the next year several other state conferences were formed. In 1863, delegates from the state conferences met in Battle Creek, established the General Conference, voted a constitution, and elected a president and other officers.
Many important policies were also voted at this first General Conference session, including a procedure for paying ministers a regular salary out of “systematic benevolence.” A policy was established requiring ministers to carry with them official credentials, identifying them as “spokesmen for the movement.” Additionally, a policy was put in place requiring that calls for ministers be processed through both conferences involved, rather than a minister traveling from one conference to another at his own request or the desire of a local church.
Blessings Through Organization
God’s blessings were seen through the process of organization and structure, and His church continued to grow. Schools were organized where students were taught in harmony with God’s Word. Health institutions were established that would serve as a blessing to many. Ellen White called these new developments “missionary work of the highest order.”
Additionally, the church realized the importance of not only bringing the third angel’s message to the land of its birth—the United States—but to Europe and beyond, thus establishing important missionary work that spread the Advent message throughout the world. Today, missionaries from many different continents serve in various regions of the world church.
As the movement continued to grow, more churches were established, more conferences formed, more schools, hospitals, and publishing houses were built, and union conferences were formed to oversee the mission of the church in given geographic locations in harmony with policies established by the General Conference in session or the Executive Committee between sessions. Today there are 122 unions, and more than 500 local conferences and missions.
A Spiritual, Biblical Foundation
It is important to remember that the organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is based on a strong spiritual and biblical foundation. Rather than quickly cobbling together a plan for the sake of expediency, our church pioneers thoughtfully and prayerfully asked God for wisdom, and through His clear leading by Scripture and through the prophetic gift, church order and organization were established.
The church is truly a spiritual organization, and it must be that. Everything must be founded upon God’s Word and the wonderful counsel we have received in the Spirit of Prophecy. The church is the object of God’s greatest attention. He could have used other means to accomplish the task of bringing His message to the billions of people upon this earth, but He has chosen to use the church—and you and me.
In order to accomplish our God-given mission, leaders and members must be involved in a very spiritual approach—in Bible study, in following the counsels of the Spirit of Prophecy, in intense prayer, and in listening to the leading of the Holy Spirit. That’s why revival and reformation are so important—not just for local church members, but for ministers, leaders, General Conference personnel, GC divisions, unions, and local conferences.
This is true for all of us, because we are all sinners at the foot of the cross. Christ must be first and foremost. We must focus on Christ’s righteousness and our submission to Him; then His power working in us will develop the final end-time movement.
Not An End In Itself
Although organization is important, we must be careful not to allow it to become an end in itself. The purpose of order and organization is to accomplish the church’s ultimate mission of proclaiming the three angels’ messages and heralding the Lord’s second coming. Everything we do has to be filtered through that perspective.
Next month we will look at how the church works today and how you can become involved in bringing about change within your church. No church member should feel cut off or separated from church structure, feeling as if they have no voice. Nor should anyone feel intimidated by position. It is important to remember that all of us, at whatever level, live in a servant relationship to God’s church.
1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), p. 24.
2 Ibid., pp. 24, 25.
3 Ibid., p. 26.
Ted N. C. Wilson is president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.