The fear that religious controversy inside the church holds the potential for distracting its leaders and members from their mission to the world is an age-old concern, especially when the body of Christ finds itself acutely rent by doctrinal or moral divisiveness. As the Seventh-day Adventist Church today confronts a variety of theological and moral disagreements, concern that the church might experience the distraction noted above has become especially serious among thoughtful persons at all levels of denominational life.
During the deliberations of the General Conference Theology of Ordination Study Committee, on which I was privileged to serve, comment was made on several occasions that “while the world is starving for the bread of life, here we are debating who is and is not qualified to take the bread to the people.” While not wishing to dispute the sincerity of those who made these comments, it wasn’t difficult to recognize just how flawed these observations were—and still are. First of all, carrying the bread of life to the world has never required ordination to the gospel ministry, nor has such service ever lacked a multitude of venues in which both men and women can rightly and productively labor.
But even more troubling about these observations was the underlying assumption—at least the apparent one—that if only the church could stop bickering about women’s ordination, Adventists could all successfully unite to complete their mission to the world. Yet it is hard to understand how anyone familiar with the present ferment of doctrinal, moral, and spiritual confusion in the church, particularly in Western Adventism, could fail to recognizes the wisdom of a veteran scholar some years ago who identified the ordination controversy as but “the tip of an iceberg” (1). Aside from—though not unrelated to—the ordination question, theological divisions in First World Adventism include such fundamental issues as the nature of Biblical inspiration and authority, the doctrine of salvation, the origin of life, human sexuality, the authenticity and relevance of such key Adventist doctrines as the investigative judgment, the remnant-church theology, the nature of end-time prophecy, and the authority of Ellen White’s prophetic gift in doctrinal and other spiritual matters.
In short, if doctrinal controversy stands in danger of dissuading the church from its mission to humanity, the ordination dispute is but one—perhaps, comparatively, even a minor one—of a cluster of substantive issues whose impact on the worldview, spiritual seriousness, and lifestyle witness of the church ranges from significant to dramatic.
But do such controversies pose a real potential for distraction from the mission of the church? What can the inspired record, and the current denominational scene itself, teach us in this regard?
Peace in the Church
Cold War journalist and author Allen Drury, in his apocalyptic tale Come Nineveh, Come Tyre, quotes a United Nations ambassador from a foreign country who, speaking of America’s purported “peace” obsession, remarked that “they (the Americans) do not realize that in all of human history peace has never really existed; there has only been an occasional uneasy absence of war” (2).
When we stop and think about it, the same holds true for the history of God’s covenant community through the ages, ever since the expulsion of our first parents from Eden. How often, we ask, has there ever been true and lasting peace among the professed followers of God? Even as early as the antediluvian period, from Cain’s murder of Abel (Gen. 4:8) to the sons of Seth intermarrying with the daughters of Cain (Gen. 6:4) (3), to the opposition Noah received from many who claimed to worship the true God (4), we see evidence of such division. Through the post-Flood patriarchal period, on through the experience of corporate Israel to the Babylonian captivity and beyond, the same conditions held.
Many look to the post-Pentecost New Testament church as the ideal model for a mission-focused faith community, one not permitting itself to be distracted by internal challenges. But it would not be correct to say the early Christians focused on reaching the world for Christ while ignoring internal issues, or simply trusting God to dispose of them in His own time and way. The Acts 15 controversy over circumcision was but one of many internal disagreements with which the apostolic church was forced to contend. All one need do is read the epistles to note how one divisive issue after another rose within the church and was addressed by the apostles. The list is a long one—the controversy over law and grace in the book of Galatians, the various issues of doctrinal error, moral perversion, and church polity addressed in First Corinthians, elements of pagan worship confronted in the epistles to the Galatians and Colossians, attacks on the incarnation of Jesus noted in the First Epistle of John—and on, and on.
Remember, this is the apostolic, post-Pentecost church we’re talking about. This is the church that turned the world upside down with its preaching of the gospel (Acts 17:6). And yet it was able to successfully meet internal challenges relative to faith and practice while simultaneously facilitating growth on an exponential level.
In other words, while peace and harmony are profoundly desirable within the church, it would seem that the New Testament record offers proof that so long as recurrent internal issues are met and corrected with sound Biblical teaching, the church can experience internal spiritual prosperity and substantial external growth while simultaneously attending to such controversies. As President Lyndon Johnson said, one must learn to walk and chew at the same time.
Message Imperative for Mission
With few exceptions, the history of modern Adventist disputes over faith and practice offers considerable evidence that zeal for doctrinal and moral integrity inside the church is the inevitable companion of zeal for the spreading of the gospel outside the church. Theologically conservative Adventist congregations—those maintaining high standards of doctrine, worship, and lifestyle—are generally the most evangelistically active. It was a cadre of veteran evangelists in Australia and New Zealand who first blew the whistle on the erroneous teachings of Desmond Ford during the 1960s and ‘70s. Such supporting ministries of the church as Amazing Facts and Secrets Unsealed, with their predominantly evangelistic focus, have also distinguished themselves as promoters of revival and reformation inside the church.
At the bottom line, it is message that drives mission, not the other way around. Those who urge the church to “move beyond” doctrinal and other issues of controversy and to instead focus on outreach, are often those who fail to recognize the pivotal nature of contemporary church issues relative to supreme Biblical authority, the unique spiritual worldview inherent in those core denominational teachings presently under challenge, and the relationship to that worldview of the classic Adventist lifestyle witness. Too many whose purported passion for a world in need is blended with annoyance at the church’s internal controversies, tend to prefer a largely non-doctrinal “Jesus” focus in their spirituality, along with a largely humanitarian approach to outreach. Make no mistake about it—Jesus is the heart and expression of every Bible doctrine, and humanitarian outreach is imperative for the church’s witness. But the Jesus of Scripture upheld the written Word and its practical commands as the supreme measure of authentic spirituality (Matt. 4:4; 7:20; 19:16-26; Luke 10:25-28; John 8:31; 14:15), and only that Word gives meaning and purpose to any endeavor—humanitarian or otherwise—on the part of God’s people. Otherwise, the church is little more than just another social service agency.
Message Recovered, Mission Accomplished
The following inspired statement draws closely together the necessity of revival and reformation in the church with the success of the church’s evangelistic endeavors:
The Lord does not now work to bring many souls into the truth, because of the church-members who have never been converted, and those who were once converted but who have backslidden. What influence would these unconsecrated members have on new converts? Would they not make of no effect the God-given message which His people are to bear? (5).
The imperative of addressing internal challenges and conflicts as a precursor to fulfilling the church’s global mission will be ultimately demonstrated in the context of the final crisis. The following Ellen White statement, previewing the future of the church from the onset of the final shaking to the loud cry crescendo, underscores for the body of Christ the intimate and ultimate relation between internal spiritual integrity and the church’s mission to the world:
As trials thicken around us, both separation and unity will be seen in our ranks. Some who are now ready to take up weapons of warfare, will in times of peril make it manifest that they have not built upon the solid rock; they will yield to temptation. Those who have had great light and precious privileges, but have not improved them, will, under one pretext or another, go out from us. Not having received the love of the truth, they will be taken in by the delusions of the enemy, they will give heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils. And will depart from the faith. But on the other hand, when the storm of persecution really breaks upon us, the true sheep will hear the true Shepherd’s voice. Self-denying efforts will be put forth to save the lost, and many who have strayed from the fold will come back to follow the great Shepherd. The people of God will draw together, and present to the enemy a united front. In view of the common peril, strife for supremacy will cease; there will be no disputing as to who shall be accounted greatest. . . The love of God, the love of our brethren, will testify to the world that we have been with Jesus and learned of Him. Then will the message of the third angel swell to a loud cry, and the whole earth will be lightened with the glory of the Lord (6).
Thus, at last, will the message and mission of the church converge into a single, inseparable purpose, and the task of God’s covenant community be finally finished in a blinding blaze of heavenly glory.
1. C. Raymond Holmes, The Tip of An Iceberg: Biblical Authority, Biblical Interpretation, and the Ordination of Women to Ministry (Wakefield, MI: POINTER Publications, 1994).
2. Allen Drury, Come Nineveh, Come Tyre: The Presidency of Edward M. Jason (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, 1973), p. 199.
3. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 81-82.
4. Ibid, pp. 95-96.
5. ----Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 371.
6. Ibid, pp. 400-401.