The current tensions and polemics within the Seventh-day Adventist Church are not occurring in a vacuum. We have history behind us that has created the trajectory within which we are now living. To a significant degree the spirit and content of our present dialogues and debates are shaped by a tragic theological turn we took in our journey as a people more than one hundred years ago.
PUSHBACK ON THE GOSPEL
Writing to Willie White in 1902, A.G. Daniells lamented the existence within Adventism of what he called, “the whole brood of old covenant men who are continually raising doubts and unbelief regarding the light that came at the Minneapolis meeting” (A.G. Daniells to W.C. White, April 14, 1902, inManuscripts and Memories of Minneapolis, p. 321).
Fascinating choice of words from the man who was then the General Conference president! But these words are more than fascinating. They are hugely insightful regarding our history as a people and the struggles in which we are currently engaged.
“The light” to which Daniells referred was none other than the vital truth of justification by faith—aka, the gospel—which was preached with clarity and power at the 1888 General Conference Session by two young men named Alonzo Jones and Ellet Waggoner. But there was resistance to the “light” by prominent church leaders and ministers, a resistance that was advanced under the pretext of faithfulness to the truth.
And why were they resistant?
Because they had formulated a version of Adventism with such a heavy emphasis on the law that Jones and Waggoner’s strong proclamation of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from the deeds of the law, could only be regarded by them with suspicion, as if the gospel was an attack on the law.
Daniells wasn’t name-calling by pointing to “the whole brood of old covenant men.” He was aptly describing a harbored theological perspective that was doing massive damage in the church. By its legacy, that theological perspective continues to do damage in the church to this very day. You’ll see what I mean shortly.
A CONFEDERACY OF CONTROL
Earlier, in 1894, Ellen White warned of those in positions of leadership who were “looking to the formation of a confederacy that would make Battle Creek like Rome” (Publishing Ministry, p. 144). Where the gospel is missing, papal principles of control ensue. The next year, she wrote with laser clarity, pointing out that these men were oriented toward control precisely because of their theological orientation against the message of righteousness by faith:
They are following in the track of Romanism. Those who are enjoined to represent the attributes of the Lord’s character, step from the simple platform, and in their own human judgment devise rules and resolutions to force the will of others. The devisings for forcing men to follow the prescriptions of other men are instituting an order of things that overrides sympathy and tender compassion, that blinds the eyes to mercy, justice, and the love of God. Moral influence and personal responsibility are trodden under foot.
The righteousness of Christ by faith has been ignored by some, for it is contrary to their spirit, and their whole life experience. Rule, rule, has been their course of action” (1888 Materials, pp. 1435-1436).
Don’t miss the significance of the connection she is making. God showed her that those who had rejected the message of righteousness by faith were, as a result, inclined to “force the will of others” by means of “rules and resolutions”—in other words, through political process and policy. The natural tendency of those who do not grasp the gospel will be to institute an order of things in the church that “overrides sympathy and tender compassion, that blinds the eyes to mercy, justice, and the love of God.” Rather than allow God’s people in their local fields of labor to be guided by Him in their manner of advancing His kingdom, “Moral influence and personal responsibility are trodden under foot” in favor of uniform “rules and resolutions.”
She was specifically addressing those who, in and after 1888, stood against the efforts of the Holy Spirit to incorporate the gospel into Adventist theology. They resisted the good news of God’s saving grace in favor, rather, of defining the message with an emphasis on the human responsibility to keep God’s law. This is why A.G. Daniells described them as a “brood of old covenant men who are continually raising doubts and unbelief regarding the light” of the gospel. According to Ellen White’s assessment, the deeper reason they were resistant to the gospel was because it was “contrary to their spirit, and their whole life experience,” which was to “rule” over others.
She went on to warn that the efforts of church leaders to control people through political process will lead to dire outcomes. Church members will, under such pressures, move in one of two directions:
[T]hose who are thus oppressed will either break every fetter of restraint, or they will be led to regard God as a hard master. 1888 Materials, p. 1436
Then, in response to the inevitable pushback on their control, those who know not the liberating truth of the gospel will simply become more insistent on things being done their way:
In order to reign and become a power, they employ Satan’s methods to justify their own principles. They exalt themselves as men of superior judgment.
Notice she warns that those who operate by “Satan’s methods” in the church do so by exalting themselves as “men of superior judgment.” Whenever men attempt to shut down dialogue by posturing themselves as the ones who have the truth while portraying those who differ from them as unfaithful to Scripture, we can know that it is Satan’s spirit that is prompting them. “These” men, she states rather straightly, “are false gods” (1888 Materials, p. 1436).
In 1903 she again sounded a similar warning:
The development of the desire to control has been very marked, and God sent warning after warning, forbidding confederacies and consolidation. He warned us against binding ourselves to fulfill certain agreements that would be presented by men laboring to control the movements of their brethren. Review and Herald, December 10, 1903
Of course, she was not suggesting that physical force was being employed to exert control. It was not. Rather, she was referring to methods of political process that were being employed to control the church. The way these men were exercising control was by pressuring people into subjection by leveling accusations of unfaithfulness against anyone who disagreed with them.
Leading up to the 1893 General Conference Session, at which W.W. Prescott and A.T. Jones would be attempting yet again to incorporate the gospel into the Adventist message, Ellen White wrote with penetrating insight:
It is not the inspiration from heaven that leads one to be suspicious, watching for a chance and greedily seizing upon it to prove that those brethren who differ from us in some interpretation of Scripture are not sound in the faith. 1888 Materials, p. 1127
There was a mentality among the old covenant brood to narrowly define “the truth” according to their particular perspectives and then to represent anyone outside of those narrow parameters as “not sound in the faith.” This is precisely what we see taking place today in Adventism, and it is one of the most damaging influences among us as a people.
The old covenant brood yet lives!
And each of us is as liable to be a part of it as the person in the pew next to us.
The crucial point is this: what lay at the foundation of this inclination to control was a resistance to the gospel with its inherent principles of liberty! If the gospel of grace does not flourish in a church’s theology and experience, the tendency will be to control others by political process, by majority vote, by contractual arrangements, by the formation of confederacies that advance restricting agendas upon the body of Christ. Apart from the principles inherent in the gospel, human beings do not know how to allow others the freedom to advance God’s cause in a manner that differs from what they feel themselves bound to. (Read more)