Is the General Conference the "Voice of God" and the "Highest Authority on Earth"?
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
Is the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists the voice of God and the highest authority on earth? This is an extremely important question in light of the recent church unity and policy-compliance disciplinary documents that have been submitted by the General Conference (GC) executive committee of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for approval by the delegates of at the 2016, 2017, and 2018 Annual Councils. To answer this question, we look to the writings of Ellen G. White who is quoted in these documents to support the idea that the GC is the "voice of God" and, thus, the "highest authority on earth."
(1) Affirmative Statements
First, at times, White answered this question in the affirmative. For example, in a testimony to a Bro. A, she wrote, “I have been shown that no man's judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any one man. But when the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority that God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered. Your error was in persistently maintaining your private judgment of your duty against the voice of the highest authority the Lord has upon the earth. ... You did not seem to have a true sense of the power that God has given to His church in the voice of the General Conference. … [Y]ou greatly err in giving to one man's mind and judgment that authority and influence which God has invested in His church in the judgment and voice of the General Conference” (Testimonies for the Church, 9 vols. [Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1875], 3:492–493).
Also, in a diary entry dated July 10, 1892, White, writing from Preston, Victoria, Australia, indicated her desire not to go to Australia. But she went anyway, giving this reason: “But I followed the voice of the [General] Conference, as I have ever tried to do at times when I had no clear light myself” ("Diary," 10 July 1892 [MS 19, 1892], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
Similarly, in a letter to her son, J. Edson White, that she wrote from “Sunnyside” (the name she gave to her Australian home) in Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia on August 9, 1896, White said she came to Australia “in submission to the office of the General Conference, which I have ever maintained to be authority” (to J. Edson White, 9 August 1896 [LT 124, 1896], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
Finally, on May 30, 1909, White read the following to the GC session of that year in Takoma Park, MD: “I have often been instructed by the Lord that no man's judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any other one man. Never should the mind of one man or the minds of a few men be regarded as sufficient in wisdom and power to control the work and to say what plans shall be followed. But when in a General Conference the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence contrary to the decision of the general body. At times, when a small group of men entrusted with the general management of the work have, in the name of the General Conference, sought to carry out unwise plans and to restrict God's work, I have said that I could no longer regard the voice of the General Conference, represented by these few men, as the voice of God. But this is not saying that the decisions of a General Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field should not be respected. God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority. The error that some are in danger of committing is in giving to the mind and judgment of one man, or of a small group of men, the full measure of authority and influence that God has vested in His church in the judgment and voice of the General Conference assembled to plan for the prosperity and advancement of His work” (“The Spirit of Independence,” 30 May 1909 [MS 38a, 1909], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
(2) Negative Statements
However, many more times she answered this question in the negative. Please note the following examples. In an 1891 manuscript about board and council meetings, White wrote, “Some minds are not worked by the Holy Spirit. They are so constituted, through following their own human judgment and using common fire in their service as stewards of God, that their ways have been accepted as the Lord’s ways and solemn, sacred matters which relate to the various lines of work have been carried in altogether a different manner than the propositions made. One or more men gave assent to measures laid out before the board or councils, but all the time they decided they would have their own way and carry out the matter as they chose. This was the light presented to me. Elder Olsen’s advisers were blinding his eyes so that he should see through the eyes of these men who were preaching under a deception. This is the reason I was obliged to take the position that there was not the voice of God in the General Conference management and decisions. Methods and plans would be devised that God did not sanction, and yet Elder Olsen made it appear that the decisions of the General Conference were as the voice of God. Many of the positions taken, going forth as the voice of the General Conference, have been the voice of one, two, or three men who were misleading the Conference. There were things in regard to Sunday work, in regard to the color line, and in regard to the Sentinel, that better never have been introduced in the Conference. The Lord did not preside in many meetings. There were some loud voices and urgent pressing of things that were backed by a will and determination that savored more of the common fire than the sacred. Plans were made that were all out of line with the unction or the leadings of the Spirit of God” ("Board and Council Meetings," 1891 [MS 33, 1981], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
A few years later in a previously unpublished diary entry dated July 1894, regarding GC president, O. A. Olsen, White wrote from Granville, Australia, “I have had conversation with W. C. White. He was presenting before me the necessity of our people heeding the voice of the General Conference. Then I said, “WCW, it is time you should understand that, [notwithstanding] the opinion that has prevailed, the General Conference so-called is no longer the voice of God. It has become a strange voice, and they are building strange fire. God does not speak through them. The work that is being done in the General Conference is a strange work” (“Regarding O. A. Olsen,” July 1894 [MS 114, 1894], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
One year later in an 1895 manuscript concerning the relation of the GC committee to business interests, White wrote: “The voice of the General Conference has been represented as an authority to be heeded as the voice of the Holy Spirit. But when the members of the G. C. Committee become entangled in business affairs and financial perplexities, the sacred, elevated character of their work is in a great degree lost. The temple of God becomes a place of merchandise, and the ministers of God’s house as common businessmen. Their work is brought down on a level with common things. Business cares and perplexities unfit them for the consideration of matters relating to the spiritual interests of the work, which require the keenest perception, the most careful thought, the most delicate tact, and the deepest spiritual insight. God does not intend that the G. C. Committee should embrace financial responsibilities that call for a large amount of labor, for the churches are thus deprived of the very help they need. And the decisions of the conference will come to be regarded as on a level with the opinions of business men. The sacred authority with which God has invested His servants is lost” (“Relation of the G. C. Committee to Business Interests,” 1895 [MS 33, 1895], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
On October 12 of that same year, White expressed very strong sentiments regarding the GC in a manuscript from Granville, New South Wales, Australia, “As for the voice of the General Conference, there is no voice from God through that body that is reliable” (“Concerning the Review and Herald Publishing Association,” 12 October 1895 [MS 57, 1895], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
On May 31, 1896, White sent a letter to O. A. Olsen from “Sunnyside” in Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia, that said the following about the GC: “The sacred character of [the General Conference Association] is fast disappearing. What will then be respected as pure, holy, and undefiled? Will there be any voice that God’s people can regard as a voice they can respect? There certainly is nothing now that bears the divine credentials. Sacred things are mixed and mingled with earthly business that has no connection with God. ... Who can now feel sure that they are safe in respecting the voice of the General Conference Association?” (to O. A. Olsen, 31 May 1896 [LT 81, 1896], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD). Two years later in an unsent letter dated April 1898 to O. A. Olsen from Balaclava, Australia, White wrote a scathing rebuke, saying “My brother, after the reproof has come to you, you have represented that the voice of the Conference was a power to be respected as the voice of God. Why did you entrench yourself as president of the General Conference behind the sacredness of power in the General Conference, when you and your associates had forfeited, as verily as did Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, all right to the claim? You claimed you had great light; you carried the impression you believed and respected the light, but you did not obey it all. Your work for years was so mingled with men’s devisings, with selfishness, [with the claim] that you were especially exalted of God, that you hurt God’s servants ...” (to O. A. Olsen, April 1898 [LT 194, 1898], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
On May 24 of that same year, White penned a manuscript addressed to the GC and our publishing institutions that said, “As I was made to understand something of the management of the work in this great center, it was all that I could bear. My spirit was pained within me, for I had lost confidence in that which I had ever presented before the people as the voice of God to His children. It has not been the voice of God. There has been a lording power exercised over God’s heritage in decisions which were not dictated by the Spirit of God. Unconsecrated men who were brought in connection with the work have exercised their own wisdom, and have woven into the work their own unconverted peculiarities. Their own principles have been counterworking the principles of truth and righteousness. We cannot therefore present before the people that the voice of the General Conference in its decisions must move and control them; for its propositions and decisions cannot be accepted. They are not in the right line of progress. God is dropped out of their councils” (“To the General Conference and Our Publishing Institutions,” 24 May 1898 [MS 66, 1898], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
A few months later on August 26, 1898, a letter was sent to Brother and Sister E. J. Waggoner from “Sunnyside” in Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia, in which White wrote that “it has been some years since I have considered the General Conference as the voice of God” (to Brother and Sister E. J. Waggoner, 26 August 1898 [LT 77, 1898], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
On January 24 of the next year, White wrote a letter that was addressed to “those occupying important positions in the General Conference,” expressing the following: “The General Conference has had an influence, and this influence would have been increased had it kept to its legitimate work. But its influence became of none effect when it embraced so many interests, thus mingling the sacred and the common. Because of this, the voice of the General Conference lost its sacredness. But by the strictest observance of principles that cannot be corrupted, it may win back what it has lost. The people may then be addressed in the words, What God has cleansed, call not thou common or unclean” (to "those occupying important positions in the General Conference," 24 January 1899 [LT 9, 1899], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
At the end of that year on November 16, White wrote a letter to S. N. Haskell from “Sunnyside” in Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia that said, “Let those in America, who suppose the voice of the General Conference to be the voice of God, become one with God before they utter their opinions. The Word of God is to be lived as well as preached. It is to be brought into every phase of the Christian work done in this world. The men God has appointed to do His work must be emptied of self. Let Jesus in. Open the door of the heart to the heavenly Guest. Let no man be looked up to as God. When those who come nigh God in service are consecrated, cleansed, and purified, approaching nearer and still nearer the divine benevolence, they can voice the commission of God, and be respected” (to S. N. Haskell, 16 November 1899 [LT 187, 1899], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
On April 3, 1901, White gave an address to the GC that included the following: “O, my very soul is drawn out in these things! ... That these men should stand in a sacred place, to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be,—that is past” (“Address by E. G. White,” General Conference Bulletin 4.1 [April 3, 1901]: 25).
At the end of that year on December 9, White wrote, “Satan ... keenly observes the backsliding of those who have been placed at the head of the work—the very men who through communications have been informed that they were out of place and in error in representing the voice of the General Conference president as being the voice of God. For many years it has not been thus, and it is not thus now; nor will it ever be thus again, unless there is a thorough reformation” (“Satanic Literature,” 9 December 1901 [MS 124, 1901], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
Finally, in an unsent 1903 letter addressed to Frank Belden, White wrote, “One night a messenger from heaven came to me and said, “You will have to take your books and cut away from all those who believe not the testimony of the Spirit of God but claim that the voice of the General Conference is as the voice of God. No!” (to Frank Belden, 1903 [LT 308, 1903], Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, MD).
What should we make of all these statements? According to George R. Knight, “An analysis of those negative statements indicates that they refer to occasions when the General Conference did not act as a representative body, when its decision-making authority was centralized in a person or a few people, or when the General Conference had not been following sound principles” (Adventist Authority Wars, Ordination, and the Roman Catholic Temptation [Westlake Village, CA: Oak & Acorn, 2017], 56). Thus, simply said, the behavior of the GC determines whether or not it represents the voice of God on earth.
At the 1877 GC Session, it was voted that “the highest authority under God among Seventh-day Adventists is found in the will of the body of that people, as expressed in the decisions of the General Conference when acting within its proper jurisdiction; and that such decisions should be submitted to by all without exception, unless they can be shown to conflict with the Word of God and the rights of individual conscience” (“Sixteenth Annual Session of the General Conference of S. D. Adventists,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald 50.14 [4 October 1877]: 106).
I think it is important to emphasize the qualifications and limitations of the authority of the GC that are expressed in this statement just as much as, if not more than, the great authority of which the statement speaks regarding the GC’s role among Seventh-day Adventists. GC authority (1) is below God’s supreme authority, (2) must be based upon the corporate will of the Seventh-day Adventist body, (3) is to be exercised within a proper jurisdiction and not outside of it, and (4) must not be recognized by Seventh-day Adventists when it (a) conflicts with God's Word and/or (b) violates the rights of the individual conscience.
So, the question remains, how is the GC behaving today? Is it operating within these prescribed limitations and in harmony with the writings of White? Or is it becoming too centralized and “top-heavy,” reaching beyond the boundaries of the above qualifications?