|N A COOL BATTLE CREEK MORNING THREE YEARS AGO, I WAS searching through old editions of the Review in preparation for a presentation I was to give for the Lake Union ASI Chapter meeting at the Historic Adventist Village.
Though I had read the account of the May 1863 organization of the church’s General Conference—just a half mile away—several times before, new details caught my eye as I scanned the text-dense pages:
“The Conference being now ready for a permanent organization, it was Voted, That a committee of three be appointed to nominate officers to act under the constitution already adopted. Brn. Wm. S. Higley, Jas. Harvey, and B. F. Snook, were appointed as that committee.”
“Nominating committees have been with us from the very beginning,” I grimaced, remembering the sometimes contentious scenes at conference constituency meetings I’ve attended. The democratic impulse so strongly rooted in Adventism requires that, like the Jerusalem church of Acts 6, we will often have bumps and scrapes as we learn to live together in the body of Christ.
But it was the membership of that first nominating committee that arrested my attention: Higley, Harvey, and Snook. I knew the last name well enough, for B. F. Snook was a prominent Adventist minister of the 1860s who ultimately left the young church to lead a dissident movement with fellow pastor W. H. Brinkerhoff. I turned back a page to the listing of the 20 delegates who attended that first GC session: “ . . . a lay representation of Brn. James Harvey, of North Liberty, Ind., and Wm. S. Higley, jr., of Lapeer, Mich.”
“Well, well,” I chuckled as I pondered the long-ago delegate list. Two out of three—a distinct majority—of the members of the first General Conference nominating committee were laypersons. In a session where more than three quarters of the attendees were ministers, the wider group had appointed two laypersons to the crucial task of selecting leadership for the infant organization. It was the first—and to my knowledge, the only—time that lay representatives were ever given such a significant role in choosing leaders for the world church.
It is possible to make both too little and too much of this gleaning from the church’s past. There are likely those who will wish I hadn’t mentioned it—who find it inconvenient and unsettling to imagine a movement in which those not employed by the church are trusted with a growing share in decision making. Some may even sniff that the church has learned better in the last 146 years. They have my pity.
Still others will likely see in any new discussion of lay leadership a call for quotas and guaranteed lay majorities on committees—an ecclesiastical version of what Americans learned to call “affirmative action.” Their frustration with the church’s apparent slowness in responding to evangelistic opportunities and new ventures makes them long for the supposedly less-complicated processes that laypersons know from other fields of endeavor. They have my prayers.
What seems apparent from the record of that first General Conference session is that the delegates believed that there was yet another Delegate present whose claims on them superseded whatever views they held of each other. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20, NKJV),* and He was surely there in that Battle Creek meetinghouse. The Lord they pledged to follow had founded His church upon Himself, not upon those who were at one time or another either fishermen or fishers of men, tax collectors or recipients of tithe. The trust He invested in each one as a witness to His gospel evoked the trust they expressed in each other, for trust is a delightfully contagious virtue. In His church there are no part-time members, no part-time witnesses, and no part-time jobs.
So here’s a call to do your part in building trust between those who receive a paycheck from the church and those who make that paycheck possible by their faithfulness. Avoid the rancorous types who would divide between the two lungs of this living, breathing body of Christ. Speak well of all who call upon the name of Christ, and so expect to hear Him say of you, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review.