[IN ORDER FOR DEACONS AND DEACONESSES TO FUNCTION EFFECTIVELY WITHIN THEIR LOCAL CHURCHES, IT IS IMPORTANT FOR THEM TO UNDERSTAND THE NATURE AND FUNCTIONS OF THE SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST CHURCH. THIS ARTICLE PROVIDES AN OUTLINE OF THAT NATURE AND FUNCTION, AS PROVIDED IN THE SEVENTHDAY ADVENTIST CHURCH MANUAL. 1 THESE SELECTIONS, WHILE NOT EXHAUSTIVE, ARE FROM THE CHURCH MANUAL AND INCLUDE SUPPORTING STATEMENTS FROM SCRIPTURE AND THE WRITINGS OF ELLEN G. WHITE.2]
THE CHURCH: THE BODY OF CHRIST
To belong to the church of God is a unique and soul-satisfying privilege. It is God’s purpose to gather out a people from the far corners of the earth to bind them into one body, the body of Christ, of which He is the living head. All who are children of God in Christ Jesus are members of this body, and in this relationship they may enjoy fellowship with each other and fellowship also with their Lord.
IN CHRIST: NO WALL OF PARTITION
Christ sought by precept and example to teach the truth that with God there was to be no dividing wall between Israel and other nations (John 4:4–42; 10:16; Luke 9:51–56; Matt 15:21–28).
Nor is there to be among Christ’s followers any preference of caste or nationality or race or color, for all are of one blood. The elect of God are a universal brotherhood, a new humanity, “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
“Christ came to this earth with a message of mercy and forgiveness. He laid the foundation for a religion by which Jew and Gentile, black and white, free and bond, are linked together in one common brotherhood, recognized as equal in the sight of God. The Savior has a boundless love for every human being” (7T 225).
THE CHURCH: SUPREME OBJECT OF CHRIST’S REGARD
Those in Christ’s service who are called to leadership are to “take care of the church” (1 Tim 3:5).
“I testify to my brethren and sisters that the church of Christ, enfeebled and defective as it may be, is the only object on earth on which He bestows His supreme regard. While He extends to all the world His invitation to come to Him and be saved, He commissions His angels to render divine help to every soul that cometh to Him in repentance and contrition, and He comes personally by His Holy Spirit into the midst of His church” (TM 15).
As the bride of Christ and the supreme object of His regard, the church is expected in all its functions to represent the order and the character of the divine.
ORGANIZATION AND AUTHORITY
Church organization is based on God’s principles. “Never allow anyone’s ideas to unsettle your faith in regard to the order and harmony which should exist in the church. . . . The God of heaven is a God of order, and He requires all His followers to have rules and regulations, and to preserve order” (5T 274).
BIBLICAL BASIS FOR CHURCH ORGANIZATION
When God called the children of Israel out of Egypt and chose them as His peculiar people, He provided for them an impressive system of organization to govern their conduct in both civil and religious matters.
“The government of Israel was characterized by the most thorough organization, wonderful alike for its completeness and its simplicity. The order so strikingly displayed in the perfection and arrangement of all God’s created works was manifest in the Hebrew economy. God was the center of authority and government, the sovereign of Israel. Moses stood as their visible leader, by God’s appointment, to administer the laws in His name. From the elders of the tribes a council of seventy was afterward chosen to assist Moses in the general affairs of the nation. Next came the priests, who consulted the Lord in the sanctuary. Chiefs, or princes, ruled over the tribes. Under these were ‘captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, and captains over fifties, and captains over tens,’ and, lastly, officers who might be employed for special duties” (PP 374).
The New Testament church showed the same perfection in its organization. Christ Himself, who formed the church (Matt 16:18), “set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased” (1 Cor 12:18). He endowed them with gifts and talents adequate for the functions devolving upon them and organized them into a living, working body, of which He is the head.
“For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Rom 12:4–5). “And He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Col 1:18).
“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord” (1 Cor 12:4–5). “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues” (1 Cor 12:27–28).
IMPORTANCE OF ORGANIZATION
Just as there can be no living, active human body unless its members are organically united and functioning together, so there can be no living, growing, prospering church unless its members are organized into a united spiritual body, all performing their Godgiven duties and functions under the direction of a divinely constituted authority. Without organization no institution or movement can prosper. A nation without organized government would be chaos. A business enterprise without organization would fail. A church without organization would disintegrate and perish.
For the sake of the church’s healthy development and for the accomplishment of its task of carrying the gospel of salvation to all the world, Christ gave it a simple but effective system of organization. Success in its endeavors to achieve its mission depends on loyal adherence to this divine pattern.
“Some have advanced the thought that as we near the close of time, every child of God will act independently of any religious organization. But I have been instructed by the Lord that in this work there is no such thing as every man’s being independent” (TM 489).
“Oh, how Satan would rejoice if he could succeed in his efforts to get in among this people and disorganize the work at a time when thorough organization is essential and will be the greatest power to keep out spurious uprisings and to refute claims not endorsed by the Word of God! We want to hold the lines evenly, that there shall be no breaking down of the system of organization and order that has been built up by wise, careful labor. License must not be given to disorderly elements that desire to control the work at this time” (TM 489).
PURPOSES OF ORGANIZATION
“As our numbers increased, it was evident that without some form of organization there would be great confusion, and the work would not be carried forward successfully. To provide for the support of the ministry, for carrying the work in 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” (TM 26).
THE NEW TESTAMENT MODEL
The Savior’s commission to the church to carry the gospel to all the world (Matt 28:19–20; Mark 16:15) meant not only preaching the gospel but ensuring the welfare of those who accepted that message. This involved shepherding as well as housing the flock, and also meeting relationship problems. Such a situation called for organization.
At first the apostles constituted a council that directed the activities of the church from Jerusalem (Acts 6:2; 8:14). When the company there became so large that the administration of its practical affairs became a problem, the church appointed deacons to care for its business (Acts 6:2–4).
CHURCH ORGANIZATION TODAY
The Seventh-day Adventist form of governance is representative, which recognizes that authority rests in the membership and is expressed through duly elected representatives at each level of organization, with executive responsibility delegated to representative bodies and officers for the governing of the Church at each separate level. This form of governance recognizes also that ordination to the ministry is recognized by the Church worldwide.
“Every member of the church has a voice in choosing officers of the church. The church chooses the officers of the state conferences. Delegates chosen by the state conferences choose the officers of the union conferences, and delegates chosen by the union conferences choose the officers of the General Conference. By this arrangement every conference, every institution, every church, and every individual, either directly or through representatives, has a voice in the election of the men who bear the chief responsibilities in the General Conference” (8T 236, 237).
OUTLINE OF DENOMINATIONAL ORGANIZATION
The current organizational system of the Seventhday Adventist Church consists of the following levels, beginning from the local church consisting of a group of members to the worldwide unified expression of the church through the General Conference:
- Local Church
- Local Conference [Mission/Field]
- Union of Churches
- Union Conference/Mission
- General Conference and Its Divisions
The church organization thus conceived recognizes the importance of each level, which is organized and empowered to function as specified in the Church Manual. While the local church consists of members who gather to worship, fellowship and witness as a congregation within a defined location, several such local churches come under a local conference/Mission that exercise jurisdiction over the functioning of its constituent churches. A group of conferences/missions within a larger geographical area is organized by the General Conference to function as a Union of Churches, or a Union Conference/Mission. The General Conference, the highest administrative body of the church, consists of all the Unions. Its worldwide functions are exercised through regional offices known as Divisions. The General Conference meets as a full executive body at least twice a year to vote annual budgets, to review policies, and to promote worldwide mission, evangelism, growth and unity. The entire world church meets once every five years through a representative system, and this meeting is known as the General Conference in Session, which is considered as the voice of the Church.
1 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 18th ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2011).
2 While the selections are quoted verbatim from the Church Manual, subheadings are adapted from the original to reflect the core point of the selections. The Bible passages and quotes from the writings of Ellen G. White are placed in quotation marks, but selections from the Church Manual do not carry quotation marks. Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts are from the New King James Version. Scripture references are spelled out in full.
This article was originally printed in the Seventh-day Adventist Deacon’s and Deaconess’s Handbook, published by the General Conference Ministerial Association.