The Contrast Between Secret and Open Apostasy, and How the Church is to Address Both
The question of how to deal with religious offenders, whether doctrinal or moral, is one deeply troubling to many laypersons and leaders in the Seventh-day Adventist Church today. How are we to properly address challenges to the integrity and practice of our faith? How are justice and mercy to be balanced in such decisions? At what point does responsible firmness give way to undue severity, Christian tolerance to secular license?
Many employ the example of Christ’s dealing with Judas as the model for handling apostasy and wrongdoing in the church. They cite the protracted patience and gentle reproofs of Jesus in this case as the norm for dealing with persons disseminating heresy or disregarding inspired counsel in their daily lives. Those who, by contrast, call for more direct action—for the dismissal of such persons from church office, employment, or membership—are often criticized as unloving, extreme, rigid, and guilty of needless divisiveness.
What follows is a comparison between the case of Christ’s dealing with Judas and another Biblical example of patience with offenders—the story of Eli and his sons. The reader is encouraged to study the chapter “Judas” in The Desire of Ages (1), as well as “Eli and His Sons” in Patriarchs and Prophets (2), as recommended reading along with this essay.
Christ and Judas
Included among the disciples at the urging of the other eleven, Judas quickly acquired notable respect within Christ’s inner circle of followers. His personal and professional talents, exceeding by far those of his colleagues among the disciples, were viewed by many who followed Jesus as indispensable to the later success of the church. Doubtless many were convinced, as was Judas himself, that none of the other disciples could match his administrative or financial skills. No wonder Ellen White declares:
Had Judas died before his last journey to Jerusalem, he would have been regarded as a man worthy of a place among the twelve, and one who would be greatly missed (3).
Quite obviously, Judas had many people fooled. His proud, avaricious spirit he had kept well concealed during his years with Christ. His subtle insinuations of doubt, his devil’s-advocate role-playing, were largely if not exclusively a private matter involving Jesus and the other disciples. His occasional stealing of funds from the treasury, of which he kept custody for the Twelve, appears to have been unknown to anyone save Jesus and Judas himself. In short, the errors in the beliefs and life of Judas were largely veiled from public scrutiny.
In Ellen White’s words: “Judas made no open opposition, nor seemed to question the Saviour’s lessons. He made no outward murmur until the time of the feast in Simon’s house” (4). This statement is highly significant. No observable, humanly-perceivable damage had been inflicted by Judas on the cause of Christ until the above incident. Hitherto, almost completely, the problem of Judas had been a problem of the heart, exhibiting itself on secret and subtle occasions in secret and subtle conduct. As such, it could rightly be addressed by Christ only in secret and subtle ways.
Even when He rebuked Judas at Simon’s feast, Jesus did not disclose the real purpose of Judas in wanting Mary’s ointment sold. Ellen White has written, “Secret sins are to be confessed in secret to God” (5). In another statement she writes, “God will be better glorified if we confess the secret, inbred corruption of the heart to Jesus alone” (6). In light of this, it is probably fair to say that so far as possible, secret sins—when known to a limited number of persons—should be rebuked in secret as well. While the public disclosure of secret sins is at times necessary, as shown in the experience of Ellen White and certain Biblical prophets, it makes sense to conclude that only an inspired person—with supernatural insight into the inner reactions and receptivity of individuals—is qualified for such work.
Eli and His Sons
Here we find another instance of gentleness and patience in dealing with religious offenders. But in this case the inspired pen records serious divine displeasure at this approach to the problem.
Why the difference?
Like Judas, the sons of Eli were avaricious and self-seeking. But unlike the acts of Judas, those of Hophni and Phinehas were done publicly, defrauding the worshipers at the sanctuary in open defiance of the Levitical law (I Sam. 2:13-16). Vile and degrading practices were freely mingled with their ministry. Thus was the Lord’s work publicly dishonored and profaned. In Ellen White’s words:
The service which God had ordained was despised and neglected because associated with the sins of wicked men, while those whose hearts were inclined to evil were emboldened in sin. Ungodliness, profligacy, and even idolatry prevailed to a fearful extent (7).
During the time Judas walked with Christ, those persons exposed to the former’s subtle errors were undoubtedly so blinded by their own errors that they failed to see what was wrong.
Inspiration records nothing of any protest movement among Christ’s followers demanding that the offender be brought to justice. But in the case of Eli’s sons, we read a different story:
The people complained of their violent deeds, and the high priest was grieved and distressed. He dared remain silent no longer. But his sons had been brought up to think of no one but themselves, and now they cared for no one else. They saw the grief of their father, but their hard hearts were not touched. They heard his mild admonitions, but they were not impressed, nor would they change their evil course though warned of the consequences of their sin. Had Eli dealt justly with his wicked sons, they would have been rejected from the priestly office and punished with death. Dreading thus to bring public disgrace and condemnation upon them, he maintained them in the most sacred positions of trust. He still permitted them to mingle their corruption with the holy service of God and to inflict upon the cause of truth an injury which years could not efface (8).
In this context we find one of the most powerful statements in the Spirit of Prophecy on the subject of church discipline, and what can happen when such discipline is withheld:
Those who have too little courage to reprove wrong, or who through indolence or lack of interest make no earnest effort to purify the family or the church of God, are held accountable for the evil that may result from their neglect of duty. We are just as responsible for evils that we might have checked in others by exercise of parental or pastoral authority as if the acts had been our own (9).
God’s Church Today
None will deny that cases similar to that of Judas abound in the Adventist Church today. Ellen White indicates that some in the church who, like Judas, have experienced gentle reproof from godly souls, will follow in the steps of Judas by betraying their reprovers (10). But are there also sons of Eli among us?
I first wrote this essay during my final months in graduate school at Loma Linda University, while I served as president of the University student body. That was nearly 30 years ago! Written in the wake of Glacier View and the Desmond Ford controversy, its focus was largely directed at pastors and teachers who publicly doubted or denied the sanctuary doctrine, the authority of Ellen White, and related denominational tenets, and whose continued presence on the church payroll was defended by certain ones on the basis of Christ’s longsuffering approach to Judas.
Of course, the issues which absorbed the attention of so many Adventists during those years are still with us. And as the years have passed, the problem of doctrinal and moral unfaithfulness has grown progressively—exceedingly--worse. During those not-too-distant times, very few would have defended the teaching of evolution in our schools or the acceptance of homosexual practice in the church. Few in those days would have dared to write articles insisting that sexual purity prior to marriage is an unattainable myth, as certain ones have recently done (11). In those days most doctrinal challenges focused on the distinctive teachings of Seventh-day Adventism. Now we find such challenges directed at teachings which most would consider part of the basic Christian worldview.
As in the days of Eli, many in First World Adventism during recent decades have suffered alienation from the organized church because of these departures from truth and integrity. We can praise God that because of the recent call to revival and reformation by such as our General Conference President, many of the disheartened have recovered hope that God is in fact still guiding the organized, worldwide Seventh-day Adventist body.
But too many in responsible positions, like Eli of old, continue to respond to apostasy and wrongdoing with mild admonitions, accommodating polices, and appeasement posing as redemptive love. In such cases the analogy of Christ’s treatment of Judas is utterly inappropriate. Eli’s wrongful shielding of his wicked sons and their public misdeeds is a much more accurate parallel.
The tension between tolerance and license here depicted is similar to the tension in Christ’s teachings between judging (Matt. 7:1-2) and fruit-inspecting (verses 16-20). The former involves the motives of the heart, which God alone can read (I Kings 8:39). The latter involves outward conduct and ideas, which believers have a duty to compare with the standards of God’s Word (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11), and to lovingly but firmly apply the disciplinary process when church members violate these standards (Matt. 18:15-17; I Cor. 5:9-13; II Thess. 3:14-15; I Tim. 1:3). This distinction between judging and fruit-inspecting is further underscored in Christ’s parable of the wheat and the tares. Concerning this parable, Ellen White has written:
Christ has plainly taught that those who persist in open sin must be separated from the church, but He has not committed to us the work of judging character and motive (12).
The following Ellen White statements offer clear and pointed guidance as to how open offense against the truth and the moral standards it enjoins is to be addressed:
When men endanger the work and cause of God by their own wrong course of action, shall they hear no voice of reproof? If the wrongdoer only were concerned, and the work reached no further than him, he alone should have the words of warning; but when his course of action is doing positive harm to the cause of truth, and souls are imperiled, God requires that the warning be as broad as the injury done (13).
I saw that decided efforts should be made to show those who are unchristian in life their wrongs, and if they do not reform, they should be separated from the precious and holy, that God may have a clean and pure people that He can delight in (14).
The names of those who sin and refuse to repent should not be retained on the church books, lest the saints be held accountable for their evil deeds. Those who pursue a course of transgression should be visited and labored with, and if they then refuse to repent, they should be separated from church fellowship, in accordance with the rules laid down in the Word of God.
Those who refuse to hear the admonitions and warnings given by God’s faithful messengers are not to be retained in the church. They are to be disfellowshiped; for they will be as Achan in the camp of Israel—deceived and deceiving.
Who, after reading the record of Achan’s sin and punishment, can think it according to the will of God that those who do wickedly, refusing to repent, are to be retained in the church. To retain them would be an insult to the God of heaven (15).
May the Lord enable us all to recognize the difference between secret and open sin, to possess the discernment required to protect and admonish both the individual sinner and the corporate church of God, and to impart the rightful blend of compassion and courage when dealing with the erring.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, pp. 716-722.
- ----Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 575-580.
- ----The Desire of Ages, p. 716.
- Ibid, p. 720.
- Ibid, p. 813.
- ----Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 645.
- ----Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 577.
- Ibid, p. 578.
- ----The Great Controversy, pp. 43-44.
- White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 71.
- ----Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 153.
- ----Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 117.
- ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1096.