Concerns Regarding COVID-19, Church Governance, and Liberty of Conscience
The question of whether an individual should take the COVID-19 vaccine or not has generated significant controversy within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In the light of Christ’s prayer that “they all may be one" this situation is tragic. Churches have been divided, family members alienated, and friendships severed. The mission of the Church has been hindered and its evangelistic outreach to the world has been negatively affected. At times inaccurate statements have fostered and furthered these divisions.
Recently some have challenged the right of the General Conference Administrative Committee (ADCOM) to speak on behalf of the Church. These critical statements have the potential to undermine Church authority, create confusion, and lead to fragmentation. In response to questions from sincere Adventists worldwide, the General Conference leadership here provides answers to some of the issues recently raised.
1. What is the Seventh-day Adventist Church's position on the COVID-19 vaccine as it relates to the individual conscience?
The Church's Reaffirmation Statement, "Reaffirming the Seventh-day Adventist Church's Response to COVID-19," is clear on the rights of everyone to make decisions based on their conscientious convictions guided by the Holy Spirit. The statement says, “The Seventh-day Adventist Church respects each individual’s freedom of choice to make responsible decisions regarding their own health. Since our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and we are Christ’s both by creation and redemption, we should personally seek God’s will about COVID-19 vaccinations. The decision whether to take the vaccine or not is not a matter of salvation, nor is it related, as some may suggest, to the mark of the beast. It is a matter of personal choice. We firmly believe that in matters of personal conviction we must be guided by the Word of God, our conscience, and informed judgment. In weighing the various options, we should also take into consideration that the benefits of vaccination extend beyond oneself and help to protect the local and global community at large. After personally researching all sides of the question, considering one’s own unique health situation, seeking medical counsel, and praying, individuals should then, in consultation with their medical advisor/doctor, make the best choice possible.”
The Seventh-day Adventist Church respects the right of each member to make the best possible decision for their health in the light of their personal convictions, health challenges, and medical counsel.
2. Will the Seventh-day Adventist Church support the rights of conscience for those who choose not to take the COVID-19 vaccination?
We recognize that some of our members have serious concerns regarding the COVID-19 vaccines and are willing to lose their job, if necessary, rather than take the vaccine. Although the Seventh-day Adventist Church sees this as a public health issue, we will provide support to those of our members who see this differently. We respect their conscientious convictions and can support them in the following ways: 1) By praying with them that God will work out a solution to the challenge they face; 2) Assisting them in writing a personal letter to their employer.
The 2021 Reaffirmation states: “. . . We recognize that at times our members will have personal concerns and even conscientious convictions that go beyond the teachings and positions of the Church. In these cases, the Church’s religious liberty leaders will do what they can to provide support and counsel on a personal, not a church basis, even at times assisting members in writing their own personal accommodation requests to employers and others.”
3. Does the Administrative Committee (ADCOM) of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists have the authority to make statements on behalf of the church?
The General Conference (GC) in Session meets every five years and includes worldwide representation. It delegates authority to the GC Executive Committee to act on its behalf between Sessions for the efficient operation and facilitation of God's mission through His Church. The Executive Committee, in turn, gives specific authority to ADCOM, including the sharing of general counsel to the world field. This delegated authority includes releasing Statements, Guidelines, and other Documents on behalf of the Church when issues arise that need addressing. Since 1985, for nearly forty years, the General Conference has released more than 75 various Statements, Guidelines, and other Documents on public issues. There are three ways these materials are released: 1) by the GC Officers; 2) by the GC Administrative Committee (ADCOM); 3) by the GC Executive Committee. The list of General Conference Statements, Guidelines, and other Documents shows that approximately one third of these were released by ADCOM, which issued its first Document in 1994, and subsequently issued many more Statements, Guidelines and other Documents covering a wide range of topics such as the integrity of the Bible, caring for the environment, and human sexuality.
Neither the General Conference Officers nor ADCOM have the authority to change the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual or the Fundamental Beliefs. That role is reserved to the General Conference in Session. The GC officers and ADCOM can recommend changes to the Annual Council or to the GC in Session, and they do have authority to make statements on behalf of the Church, as evidenced by nearly forty years of history and their delegated leadership responsibilities. To reduce the GC ADCOM’s authority to merely minor items is to undermine the authority of every ADCOM on the local conference, union, and division level. To erode confidence in the organizational structure of the church is an extremely serious matter. Ellen White’s comment on the importance of the organized work is significant: “I tell you my brethren, the Lord has an organized body through whom He will work. . . . When anyone is drawing apart from the organized body of God’s commandment-keeping people, when he begins to weigh the church in his human scales and begins to pronounce judgment against them, then you may know that God is not leading him. He is on the wrong track” (Selected Messages, Book 3, pp. 17, 18).
4. What are the specific areas of responsibility and authority of the General Conference (GC) Session, GC Executive Committee, and GC Administrative Committee (ADCOM)? Is ADCOM empowered to issue counsel/statements to the world Church?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church follows a form of representative church governance, which has its origins in biblical and Spirit of Prophecy counsel, along with practical experience in functioning as a worldwide faith family. The world Church in GC Session votes on changes to the Fundamental Beliefs, the GC Constitution and Bylaws, approval of new unions, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, as well as other business items. The GC Session then empowers, through its bylaws (Article XIII), the GC Executive Committee to conduct Church business between sessions. The GC Executive Committee then authorizes the GC Administrative Committee (ADCOM) to conduct activities through the Terms of Reference and membership as voted by the GC Executive Committee.
Article XIII, Section 1.b. of the GC Bylaws reads as follows:
"ARTICLE XIII—GENERAL CONFERENCE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE
"b. The General Conference Executive Committee shall also have power to grant or withdraw credentials or licenses, to appoint committees, such as an administrative committee, with their terms of reference, to review, change, and create working policies, to approve strategic plans and programs for the world Church, to employ personnel that may be necessary to execute its work effectively, and to take all necessary actions not otherwise reserved for the General Conference in session to assure the continuous effective operation of the world Church to fulfill its mission."
The GC ADCOM processes many items to the GC Executive Committee for consideration, but through its Terms of Reference voted by the GC Executive Committee, the GC ADCOM is also given authority to care for items that provide general counsel and recommendations to World Church entities. This is found in the GC ADCOM Terms of Reference voted by the GC Executive Committee listed under “E. General Administrative Items, #1 second part,” which indicates that GC ADCOM has the authority to: “. . . give general counsel to World Church entities as requested” with the power to act. See below for the exact wording from the Terms of Reference for the General Conference Administrative Committee, voted by the GC Executive Committee:
"E. General Administrative Items
"1. Consider other routine 1. Power to act."
administrative issues as they
arise and give general counsel to
World Church entities as
The GC ADCOM has complete respect for the GC Executive Committee and adheres to the instructions and delegated authority given to GC ADCOM by the GC Executive Committee since it is the committee that has voted and authorized its Terms of Reference.
In reference to providing “counsel” or statements to the World Church entities, GC ADCOM is very careful not to exceed its delegated authority. The GC Executive Committee votes general Church policies, guidelines, and statements. However, the GC ADCOM can provide “counsel” or statements that are within the scope of “general counsel to the World Church entities as requested.” Over the course of several decades, GC ADCOM has issued statements on various subjects of timely importance in the life of the Church. These statements have been issued after wide consultation and serve as counsel for the worldwide Church in addressing issues of present concern.
5. Was the 2021 reaffirmation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church's position on immunization influenced by money from the government of the United States, including Medicare and Medicaid payments to Adventist hospitals, and loans and grants to Adventist educational institutions?
There is absolutely no link between the Medicare and Medicaid payments made to Adventist health care institutions and the 2021 reaffirmation of the Church's position on immunization, nor upon any tithe that may be received from persons working in those health care or educational institutions. Medicare and Medicaid payments by the government to health care institutions are paid directly to those institutions for services rendered to patients, who are mainly the elderly and economically disadvantaged. These government funds are not donations to the hospitals. They are payments for services rendered.
None of the health professionals or other employees of the GC Health Ministries department receive personal or project funding from pharmaceutical companies, health care institutions, or government sources--federal or state.
Government funding for educational institutions is in the form of grants and loans, provided to students so they have the financial means to obtain a higher education. These government grants and loans are not donations to the schools and have no bearing upon the world budget of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, nor upon any decisions that it makes
6. Is the General Conference ignoring the Adventist Health Message?
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has intentionally, pertinently, and globally promoted the Adventist Health Message, specifically the wholistic healthy lifestyle, as primary in staying healthy and maintaining an optimally functioning immune system. The Church has at the same time encouraged and supported universal public health measures of disease prevention such as social (physical) distancing, masking as appropriate, hand washing, self-quarantine as needed, and responsible vaccination. The approach has been one of both lifestyle and preventive public health measures, not either/or.
7. Does the Seventh-day Adventist Church see the preventive health mandates as a religious liberty issue? If not, why not?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a long history of defending freedom of conscience, particularly in cases of religious conviction regarding the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath, as taught in the Bible. Further, the Church recognizes from Bible prophecy there will be in the future a decree that will call for everyone on earth to choose between receiving the seal of God or the mark of the beast (see Rev. 14:9, 10; see also the following question and answer). The current COVID protocols are not that decree spoken of in Revelation.
In addition to defending freedom of conscience, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has a long-standing history of supporting responsible vaccination. Our missionaries have received smallpox, typhoid, and diphtheria vaccinations for decades. Seventh-day Adventists have historically supported public health policy and vaccines, therefore we do not believe that this is a theological or religious liberty issue for the Church. The statement on immunization was released in April, 2015, long before COVID and immunizations became politicized. The updated document released in 2021 follows our longstanding practice as a Church in supporting immunization. As stated earlier, however, this is not to deny that COVID immunization could be an issue of conscience for individual members with personal convictions and thus a religious liberty issue for them, but the 2021 reaffirmation document recognizes personal choice and offers to provide counsel for those who see this as a religious liberty issue.
8. What is the position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church regarding the United States in Bible prophecy?
Since our earliest days, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has understood the second beast of Revelation, that rises out of the earth with two horns like a lamb, as the United States in Bible prophecy. Based on the prophetic scenario, we believe that the beast from the sea (the papacy) and the beast from the land (the United States), will unite in a confederacy of evil to force and restrict freedom of conscience so no one will be able to buy or sell unless they receive the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:13-17). Prophecy reveals the central issue in this final conflict will be over the law of God. There will be a sharp contrast between those who worship the Creator and those who worship the beast. The Sabbath will be at the center of this final battle over the authority of God’s law. Religious liberty will be restricted. Freedom of conscience will be denied. This time is not here yet, but it is coming in the near future.
Jesus declares, “By their fruits you shall know them”(Matt. 7:20). What are the fruits of the current criticism of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Some members have already approached their pastors, informing them they are considering leaving the Adventist Church. The presentations of doubt have polarized Adventist churches and largely distracted from the mission of the Church. Ellen White cautions us: “When men arise, claiming to have a message from God, but instead of warring against principalities and powers, and the rulers of the darkness of this world, they form a hollow square, and turn the weapons of warfare against the church militant, be afraid of them. They do not bear the divine credentials. God has not given them any such burden of labor” (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 22). In the book, Selected Messages, Book 2, page 72, she adds, “I have been shown many who will claim to be especially taught of God, and will attempt to lead others, and from mistaken ideas of duty they will undertake a work that God has never laid upon them. Confusion will be the result. Let everyone seek God most earnestly for himself that he may individually understand His will.”
The consequence of these unfounded challenges to legitimate church authority is the creation of a lack of trust in God’s last-day Church. It will undermine the legitimacy and authority of the General Conference, each of its world divisions, the unions, the local conferences, and even the local church. The potential impact is an erosion of confidence that could result in people leaving the Church, organizing a movement of independent worship groups, or creating off-shoot movements that would view the Church in apostasy. Heaven’s divine counsel is clear: “We cannot now step off the foundation that God has established. We cannot now enter into any new organization; for this would mean apostasy from the truth” (Selected Messages, Book 2, p. 390 ). God’s goal is that we respect one another’s choices, even if we do not always agree, and support one another as members of the body of Christ. Committed to Christ, concerned for each other, we unite in answering Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17 and together focus on His mission of proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth.
There will be a time in the future when the decree of Revelation 13 is in full force, and no one can buy or sell. Then we will be meeting in small groups in secluded places, but that time is not now. God calls us to focus on proclaiming the everlasting gospel in the light of the three angels' messages to the ends of the earth (see Matt. 24:14, Rev. 14:6).
The mission of God’s end-time people is to prepare this planet for the soon return of our Savior. Seventh-day Adventists have been entrusted with the last warning message to this world. “They have been given a work of the most solemn import—the proclamation of the first, second and third angels' messages. There is no other work of so great importance. They are to allow nothing else to absorb their attention” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 19). May we unitedly focus on the proclamation of the three angels' messages to the ends of the earth in preparation for the coming of Jesus. May His love, grace, and power fill our lives so we can receive the latter rain, give the loud cry, and see Jesus coming in the clouds to take us home.