Recently, I was asked by at least two Adventist members whether the vote on a membership transfer needs to be unanimous. The 2015 version of the SDA church manual does not say anything about a unanimous vote in the section where it describes membership transfers, but on page 65, it states "members may be removed from membership or othwrise disciplined only by a majority vote of the members present and voting at a duly called meeting. 'The majority of the church is a power which should control its individual members–5T 107'"
But it wasn't always this way. J. N. Loughborough authored a pamphlet called "The Church: Its Organization, Order and Discipline". In the back of the book, there's a section entitled "30 Answers to Questions." where it reads:
Q.–If there is a dissenting voice to the reception of a member into the church, should he or she be considered as received? In other words, should the "majority" rule in this matter, should the vote be unanimous?
A.–For a reply to this question see page 135 of this pamphlet in the conference address on organization. The Church: Its Organization, Order, and Discipline p. 165
The referenced section reads as follows (the page number online seems to be a little off):
“Let all candidates for admission to the church after its organization, be received by unanimous vote of the church, unless the opposition to their admission comes from those who are at the time subjects of labor or under the censure of the church. The Church: Its Organization, Order, and Discipline p. 132
I wondered for some time how churches in these days were able to get unanimous votes on every single membership admission. Surely, there must have been examples of persons with whom certain members of the church had objections to, in which case it was not feasible to admit the person on a unanimous vote. I wondered this for some time until I found this wonderful article in Ministry Magazine. Essentially, it says that until the 1930s, the church rejected adopting a church manual because it felt that adopting a church manual would cause people to neglect prayer, Bible study, and common sense in church matters, and instead devolve into questions of policy and parliamentary procedure. This was still the sentiment when J. N. Loughborough wrote his "The Church: Its Organization, Order, and Discipline" pamphlet:
Q.–Would you advise a church to adopt purely parliamentary rules for the transaction of all their business?
A.-While a church should transact its business in a businesslike manner, they would probably make greater progress in seeking the Lord for his guidance than of being too strenuous to do all things just as they do in parliament. The presence of one angel in our church councils would expedite church matters more rapidly than an armful of parliamentary rules.page 165
Therefore, any publications of "church policy" before 1932 were more descriptive than prescriptive. That is, they were recommendations, but not mandates. Every church was still encouraged to make decisions that were biblical and prayerful, even if they went against the commonly accepted practice.
That said, I found this article in the Review and Herald where Elder W. H. Littlejohn in Battle Creek was recommending (among other things) this policy for adoption in a church manual. These were most likely the models of church governance that were widespread in the Adventist Church back then, and the models from which we derive our modern system. The entire section is reproduced here (all typos are mine):
In order to avoid confusion, it is necessary that a system should be followed, to a certain extent, in the admission of members into the churches.
Experience has shown that the following mode of proceeding presents very many advantages over any other:
- When persons wish to unite with the church, let them make known their request either personally or through their friends, to the pastor, elder, deacon, or leader of the church with which they wish to unite.
- The church officers should then visit the parties so applying, converse with them freely in regard to their faith and Christian experience, with a view to determining whether there is any obvious reason why they should not unite with the church. In case they should find that any such really existed, they should frankly state their convictions to the applicant, counseling him to refrain from making the application until such time as the objection shall be removed. Should he still persist in demanding that his name be offered for church membership, then it should be presented before the church membership in due form, the officers at the proper time making a full statement of the case.
- Whenever any person applies for membership to the church, the elder, deacon, or leader, after having visited him, and found on examination no good reason why he should not become a member of the church, should give public notice of the fact that the application had been made, and designate a day on which it would be considered by the church. Usually at least one week should intervene between the public announcement of the application and the time appointed for the consideration of the same.
- At the time that the application is announced, the name of the party applying should be distinctly given, and all present should be requested to make known to the church officers privately, before the time appointed for the final determinaiton of the case, any objections (should there be such) which they might have to the admission into the church of the party making the application.
- Whenever objections have been offered under such circumstances, the church officers should examine their validity, and give the applicant an opportunity to remove them if possible.
- Should no objections be offered until the day on which the action is to be taken, and should an objection then be presented, the church officers should request the applicant and the objector to step one side with them in order that an effort may be made to remove the objection offerred. Should this effort at reconciliation fail, then the case should be brought to a vote, or postponed till some definite time in the future, as the officers may think advisable.
- No objections having been made, and the time for the decision of the case having been reached, the applicant should be requested to rise to make such remarks respecting his personal experience and faith as the occasion may require. In case he does not speak as fully on these points as may be thought desirable, the person in charge of the meeting would do well to question him respecting them as fully as he may think necessary in order to enable the brethren to vote intelligently in the case.
- This done, an opportunity should be given for any one to move that the applicant (calling him by name) shall be admitted into church fellowship.
- When such a motion is made and properly seconded, an opportunity should be given for remarks or objections.
- In case objections are offered, they should be disposed of in the manner provided for above in No. 6.
- When, at length, the matter comes to a vote, both an affirmative and a negative expression should be called for, and the brethren should be requested to vote either for or against the motion by rising to their feet. The importance of a full vote should also be impressed upon then.
- Should the motion receive the support of all voting on the same, the officer in charge should then announce that the motion was carried. However, should there be one vote against the motion, he should declare that the vote was lost, and the applicant rejected.
- In case the applicant has been admitted on profession of his faith, the church covenant should be read to him, after which, the officer in charge should inquire whether he assented to the same, and was ready to solemnly covenant with the other members of the church to carry out the obligations which it imposes.
- In case he consents so to do, the clerk should be instructed to place his name among the names of the members of the church.
At this point, also, it is the custom of some of our churches for the officers of the church to extend to the newly admitted member the hand of Christian fellowship. In others, again, it is the practice of all the members of the church to extend the hand of fellowship to the person in question. In others still, no action of the kind is taken either by the officers or the members. Individual churches should be left to choose for themselves which of these three methods they will follow. In case one or more members should oppose the admission into the church of any person in such a manner that the church should become satisfied that they were willful and unreasonable in the course pursued by them, they would be properly become subjects of church labor. If they should refuse to relent and manifest a Christian spirit in the matter in question, they might properly be expelled from the church.
When persons have been voted into the church who have not been baptized the motion should assume in substance the following form: "I move that _ be received into this church upon baptism"
When persons are admitted into the church by letter, no examination of the candidates is necessary. The letters which they bring certify that they are members in good and regular standing in other S. D. Adventist churches. It is to be presumed, therefore, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that they are sound in faith and blameless in life. The proper church officer should read the letter of each individual to the church with which they wish to unite. It should then be moved by some one that they be received into the church upon the letter which has been read. This motion should be seconded, and affirmative and negative votes called for. In case there should be no opposition, it should be declared that the person in question is admitted into the church, and his name should be placed on the roll of its members. Should any one vote against the reception of the person bearing the letter, it will be necessary for him to remain outside of the church until such time as he shall be able to receive a unanimous vote of all its members. The Review and Herald, August 7, 1883, p. 9
Cycling back to the original question of whether modern SDA churches require unanimous vote, I would say there are two options:
- The modern church manual seems to suggest that it's a majority vote. If a few members of the congregation are a minority dissenting voice in a vote on membership transfer, then the manual encourages them to respec that "the majority of the church is a power which should control its individual members." This method, while it cuts the Gordian Knot, may lead to silent grudges and schisms in the church.
- The old way of doing things was to have a meeting where everyone hashed out their objections in public, the candidate was present to defend themselves, one-on-one mediation was done in a side room during the meeting, and everyone's votes were public. If the church felt that the objecting persons were reasonable, then they denied membership until the objections could be corrected. If the church felt the objecting persons were not reasonable, then the church labeled the objecting persons as "subjects of church labor," and the candidate for church admission was allowed in.