Butchers and surgeons have one thing in common. Both make their living with a knife. The difference is that while the one cuts to kill, the other cuts to heal.
Among those seeking revival and reformation in the church, who recognize the necessity of faithfulness to God’s written counsel and the need to confront and correct wrong ideas and practices within the body of Christ, we find people who can fairly be characterized as either butchers or surgeons.
Both those characterized here as “butchers” and those characterized as “surgeons” understand that the church faces serious problems. But while the surgeon addresses a problem, not only by identifying it, but by proposing and pursuing practical, constructive solutions, the butcher in most cases merely attacks the problem and condemns the church and its leadership for not fixing it fast enough.
Even godly and faithful church administrators, who are seeking to bring the denomination back into harmony with the principles of inspired counsel, are faulted by these harsh ones for the slightest shortcoming, or for not moving quickly enough in the discipline of wrongdoers or the correction of problematic situations. If these leaders are asked in public about a doctrinal or other issue, and if they fail to give as comprehensive an answer as these critics think the leader should give, the leader is instantly condemned as a betrayer, a compromiser, perhaps even as a Jesuit or Freemason in disguise. Such sweeping condemnation often ignores the collective witness and visible actions of the leader being accused, focusing instead on a single statement and disputing the leader’s integrity merely because the statement didn’t spell out everything taught by inspired counsel regarding the issue in question.
When church leaders make public statements about particular problems, those with the “butcher” mindset will denounce any effort by the leaders to be compassionate, or to move step by step in confronting an issue. Many with the “butcher” mentality forget that just as “God leads His people on, step by step” (1) in their individual struggles toward integrity and perfection of character, the same course is often necessary in the corporate life of the church.
Ellen White offers the following caution in pursuing a reform agenda, which all of us who desire Bible-based reform in the church would do well to remember:
In reforms, we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people (2).
“Butchers,” as defined in this context, often make sweeping and negative generalizations about the church. For example, instead of saying that “certain ones within the church, including some in responsible positions,” are promoting or facilitating a particular departure from Biblical faithfulness, these persons will make sweeping pronouncements regarding “the Conference” or “the church” or “the leadership” relative to one problem or another. Such persons tend to forget that the only body entitled to speak for the collective voice of the church is the General Conference in session, and that merely because problems exist, persist, or even dominate in certain territories or institutions, this doesn’t mean the worldwide Adventist community is condoning or endorsing these wrong ideas or actions.
This is not to say that more can’t or shouldn’t be done by certain ones in leadership with regard to the correcting of situations like these. But too many who lack the burdens and dilemmas of those who govern fail to consider just how much effort is often required to move a sufficient number of fellow leaders toward the taking of needful action. Pastors and church administrators in the Seventh-day Adventist Church don’t possess dictatorial power, and especially is it important to recognize that those leaders who are conscientious and seeking to bring Biblical reform are particularly sensitive to the abuse of authority, and wish as much as possible to bring as many colleagues with them as they can in confronting a crisis and implementing remedies.
Many among the striving faithful to whom the “butcher” metaphor might aptly apply, have a tendency to speak with anger and bitterness when describing problems in the church. Especially is this a problem in the blogosphere, where anonymity is often allowed and certain sites dwell inordinately on negative reports and situations. Many of these discussion threads nurture unreasoning rage against the church and its leaders, dwelling on problems to such an extent that despair and discouragement can quickly take over.
Make no mistake about it. The godly rebuke of sin is imperative when the church faces crises such as those it presently faces. Isaiah 58:1 is still in the Bible: “Cry aloud, spare not; lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show My people their transgressions, and the house of Jacob their sins." The following counsel from the pen of Ellen White has perhaps never been more relevant:
Today there is need of the voice of stern rebuke, for grievous sins have separated the people from God. Infidelity is fast becoming fashionable. “We will not have this man to reign over us,” is the language of thousands. The smooth sermons so often preached make no lasting impression; the trumpet does not give a certain sound. Men are not cut to the heart by the plain, sharp truths of God’s word (3).
But the ancient prophets and apostles never identified problems without offering practical solutions, nor did they—as certain misguided voices are doing now—encourage the withdrawal of the faithful from the covenant community because of the rampant spiritual problems found there. Few influences are more destructive among those desiring and seeking reform than the voices of those who attack problems in the church while failing to give either workable answers or vocal encouragement to those in leadership whose call for a return to the distinctive teachings of classic Adventism as set forth in the inspired writings has been consistent and even unique in recent denominational history. For these chronic negative voices, such positive developments as the dramatic change in General Conference leadership which occurred in 2010 make little if any difference. From the perspective of these harsh critics, unless church leaders act as quickly and as severely as the critics deem necessary, the leaders are written off as unfaithful sellouts.
One tragic example of this “butcher” mentality on the part of overzealous would-be reformers was exhibited recently, when a female pastor in the North American Division resigned her post after publicly identifying herself as bisexual (4). Without question, the woman did the right thing by resigning, and her Conference leaders did the right thing by both accepting her resignation and affirming publicly their support for the Biblical model of marriage and sexuality (5). If Biblical principles of discipline and the Church Manual are followed, this woman—unless, God willing, she repents—will have to be removed from church membership.
But sadly, among those who rightly deplore the spread and tolerance of such sins in the church, some denounced the leadership of this woman’s Conference for praising her gifts and talents in ministry. (Please understand that we’re not discussing women’s ordination here; women can rightly participate in many ministerial lines without occupying roles God has reserved for men.) But why, I ask these overzealous ones, was it wrong to praise this woman’s gifts? Is it possible her mentors and counselors at the Conference level wish to encourage her to repent of her sinful course so that these gifts might one day be rightly used to God’s glory? Certainly those who make public peace with sin should be subject to the Biblical disciplinary process. But some folks write and talk as if such persons should be treated like discardable trash.
Let us ever bear in mind that Biblical church discipline is redemptive, not punitive. We want those who experience discipline to see the error of their ways through the loving labor of those in the church who uphold God’s Word as the Christian’s supreme authority. It is imperative in times like these to maintain that authority. But it is wrong to interpret statements affirming a wrongdoer’s gifts and contributions to the church as a “soft” or compromising attitude toward sin.
Denunciation of problems inside the denomination becomes especially unproductive when those denouncing the problems insist that the church will never reform. Not only do such claims directly contradict statements of Ellen White regarding the end-time shaking and the purification it will bring to organized Adventism (6); they also discourage the faithful from making efforts within the denominational structure to bring about constructive change.
More often than not, such prophecies of doom regarding the organized church merely serve to depress support for the church among the faithful, even at times causing them to withdraw their influence, personal presence, and financial support from the organized body. Many times this drainage of financial support from the church accrues to the decided benefit of those who declare the denomination unreformable, as those who become convinced that the church’s condition is hopeless will often—quite naturally, even inevitably—start contributing their tithes and offerings to those claiming the corporate reform of the church to be impossible.
The striving faithful in contemporary Adventism have seen this baleful drama before. During the final years of the twentieth century, as First World Adventism saw increasing departure from doctrinal and moral integrity in the writings, public sermons, worship styles, and personal practices prevailing in various quarters, certain ones began teaching that the organized church really wasn’t God’s true church after all. Many of those with this viewpoint encouraged those seeking faithfulness to the written counsel of God, not to persevere in working inside the church for a reversal of negative conditions, but instead to withdraw from Conference churches into independent fellowships, often using the withholding of tithes and offerings from the denomination as a weapon of protest.
But what too many of these disgruntled souls learned the hard way was that by withdrawing from the church structure, more often than not they merely succeeded in exchanging one set of problems for another. In the place of New Theology preaching, Celebration worship, pastors attacking conservative members from the pulpit, and lax lifestyle standards, came hard-nosed fanaticism—feast-keeping, time-setting, anti-Trinitarianism, extremes in diet and dress, bullheaded stubbornness over petty differences, and a host of other challenges peculiar to settings where the petulant and irrational get the sort of hearing not likely to be granted in Conference churches, where checks and balances and orderly processes usually keep such forces at bay. A common rationale for separate worship often cited in those days—and even now, from time to time—was that leaving Conference churches was best because of worldly influences from which parents wanted to shield their children. But this rationale soon rang hollow in light of numerous other influences—very different, to be sure, but still negative and sometimes more spiritually ruinous—in these independent groups.
Separation of this kind from the official church, though not a course pursued by all with the “butcher” approach to problems, has been the frequent companion of such thinking among despairing conservative Adventists in recent years. Ultimately, it is a case of reverse apostasy—withdrawal from otherwise winnable battlefields into settings where long-sought “peace and quiet” remains stubbornly elusive, and where spiritual energies are often exhausted contending with a whole new set of issues.
As in the physical realm, spiritual surgery requires cutting membranes, destroying tissue, spilling blood. But it is all for the purpose of healing. Ellen White writes in one statement of “the rebuke that is love, of the blow that wounds to heal, of the warning that speaks hope” (7).
This is the surgeon’s approach. The butcher’s approach, by contrast, condemns vacillation and wrongdoing without simultaneously summoning the faithful to patient, perseverant, progress-focused warfare—inside the church—against the problems identified. The butcher stands ready to decapitate even the godliest church pastor or leader who appears not to move fast enough in addressing or curtailing a particular departure from Bible truth. Most such people fail to consider how grateful they should be that God doesn’t deal with them in the harsh manner they exhibit toward those responsible for the careful and considered guidance of the denominational ship of state.
At a time when any rebuke of sin is rare, culturally unfashionable, and frequently frowned upon, it is imperative for God’s faithful at every level of church life to sound loving but firm warnings against the betrayal of God’s Word, whenever and wherever it happens. But as the servant of the Lord makes plain, such warnings must always speak hope. The articulation of problems is worthless without the simultaneous articulation of practical solutions. And whenever wrong is reproved and the course of the faithless identified, the hands of faithful leaders must be upheld and strengthened, not slapped because those with limited knowledge wish they would move faster. Most of all, no rebuke of sin or identification of present apostasy can fail to remind God’s people of the inspired promise of ultimate corporate purification in the conflict of the last days soon to burst upon the world. No Seventh-day Adventist who declares that the church will never reform can rightly claim to be a reformer. That is the way of the butcher, not the surgeon.
1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 187.
2. ----Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 21.
3. ----Prophets and Kings, p. 140.
6. White, Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 380; Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 89; The Great Controversy, p. 608; Manuscript Releases, vol. 12, p. 327; vol. 20, p. 320.
7. ----Education, p. 90.