As the General Conference Session approaches, it may be important to think for a moment about its contribution to our understanding of the nature of the church and its theological role.
The Session itself is an important ecclesiological expression and, therefore, it needs to be theologically analyzed and interpreted. This is an area of Adventist ecclesiology that needs a little more attention. Any attempt to define the General Conference Session simply as a global business meeting misses its very nature in a drastic and even threatening way.
Let me share with you some thoughts about the ecclesiological function of the General Conference Session.
1. Expressing the Catholicity of the church. The word "catholic" comes from the Greek katholikos, and it means "general," "universal." By "catholicity" I mean the universal nature and multifaceted expression of the church as the body of Christ.
During a General Conference Session, the "catholic" nature of the church, understood by Adventists as the end-time remnant gathered from "every nation, tribe, language and people" (Rev 14:6), becomes visible in the gathering and activities of the delegates. The inclusive nature of this ecclesiological remnant manifests itself in the cultural and ethnic diversity of the delegates.
What the church is in its global dimension is now embodied in the gathering of its representatives at the Session. They come together not to represent the interest of the local expression of the church, but to stand by what is best for the global church as the body of the Christ.
Therefore the catholicity of the church should transcend the geographical and potentially narrow concerns of the delegates without necessarily ignoring them.
2. Expressing the apostolicity of the church. By "apostolicity" I mean the nonnegotiable commitment of the church to the totality of the Scripture as the standard of faith and practice. The church is apostolic as long as it takes as its ground of faith what is recorded in the Old Testament, in the teachings of Jesus, and in its apostolic expression in the New Testament.
During the General Conference Session the church models and demonstrates through the decisional processes and the pastoral, doctrinal and theological discussions the supremacy of the Scripture in the life of the global community of faith. In other words, the centrality of the Bible in the different local expressions of the church around the world becomes particularly visible during the Session. On such occasions, the Scripture becomes the norm that determines all elements of doctrine and faith, and its principles are used to define and establish policies and to configure global missiological activities.
In order for the centrality of the Scripture to rule, it is necessary for the delegates to be well versed in the Scripture and be open to the illuminating influence and work of the Spirit. Only then can the Spirit formulate a biblically-based consensus among the faithful ones as they deal with difficult and, at times, complex issues.
3. Expressing the authority of the church. The authority that Christ gave to His church as a community of believers is diffused throughout it. In order for that authority to find its fullest expression in the global church, the church entrusts authority to some of its members.
When church delegates gather together at a General Conference Session, the Session itself is constituted into the highest authority of the church on earth on the foundation of the Scriptures, under the headship of Christ, and in the power of the Spirit. It is the highest authority in that through the Session the global church speaks with one voice to its local expressions and on their behalf to the world at large.
In this task the Session transcends individualism and regionalism and reaffirms the church as a global community of faith. Consequently, it is necessary for the delegates to use the authority of the Session with circumspection, always aiming at the well-being of the universal church in a spirit of love and humility. In the process, regional concerns should be explored and analyzed from the perspective of the global church. One could even suggest that the Session calls all the delegates to work in humility when seeking to use and implement the authority of the church.
4. Expressing the oneness of the Church. My previous comments already point to the fact that the General Conference Session is by definition an expression of the unity and oneness of the church of Christ. The delegates come from all over the world holding a common message, a common mission, and a common hope. These define their identity and the purpose for their existence.
This communion of message, mission, and hope is not created at the Session; they bring it with them from the local communities of faith. At Session their togetherness reveals in a glorious way that the unity and oneness of the church is indeed a global phenomenon; a miracle of the grace of Christ through the Spirit.
Within the diversity of their cultures and ethnic backgrounds the delegates reveal in a spirit of love and service the profound bond and unity that the church enjoys with the Lord and with one another. This communion, created by the Spirit and grounded in the Scripture, enables them to work together as the one body of Christ in the election of leaders for the world church, in the discussion of doctrinal and biblical concerns, and in all matters related to the business of the church.
During Session, this oneness expresses itself and is nurtured through the proclamation of the Word, the moments of prayer, the congregational singing of praises to the Lord, and their constant fellowship with one another. At the end of the Session, when the delegates separate from each other, this unity and oneness lives on in the common mind and purpose of the church.
It is of value for the church to consider the General Conference Session a dynamic expression of aspects or dimensions of a Seventh-day Adventist ecclesiology. This could contribute to strengthen the disposition of the delegates to work together as one body, free from a potentially divisive spirit based on personal concerns or self-interest.
The power entrusted to the Session should be handled with loving care. It would be correct to conclude that one of the most significant ecclesiological aspects of the General Conference Session centers on its role as the ultimate expression of the authority of the world church.
In order for this authority to contribute to the unity of the church its use has to be based on the Scripture and on the willingness of the body of believers to acknowledge it and submit to it. This we should all do in all humility and as a response to the Lord who prayed, "That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21, NIV).
--Ángel Manuel Rodríguez is the director of the Biblical Research Institute. This article first appeared in BRI's Reflections newsletter and is reprinted here with permission.