More and more, in particular circles of contemporary Adventism, certain individuals are decrying “centralized authority.” Some are denouncing efforts to hold people and structural entities accountable for doctrinal, moral, and ecclesiastical faithfulness, claiming such actions pose an obstacle to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Many of the same persons insist that such centralized control runs contrary to the governing practices of the early Christian church, and stands at odds with the message of the Protestant Reformers.
One Body, One Message
But the fact is that throughout the history of the faith community, God has demanded a unified doctrinal and moral witness from His people. Those times when such unity of proclamation and practice was absent from God’s professed followers are not depicted kindly in the Sacred Record. The days of Israel’s judges are one such case—a time when, according to the Bible, “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). As we recall, that wasn’t a nice time to be alive!
When the worship of the golden calf broke out at the foot of Mount Sinai, and Moses descended from the mount to find God’s people in a frenzied state of what many today would call “contemporary worship,” Israel’s leader didn’t address the problem by seeking to promote “unity in diversity.” No effort was made to accommodate “culturally relevant” forms of worship as a means of meeting “local needs.” God made it plain, as He had with Cain and Abel and as He would in subsequent moments of crisis in Israel’s history, that it most assuredly matters how His people approach Him in worship, and that such standards lie above and beyond the ebb and flow of human culture and personal preference.
Later, when Elijah confronted the apostasy of the northern tribes of Israel on the slopes of Mount Carmel, he didn’t try to craft some middle-ground compromise. Rather, he challenged God’s wayward people with the question, “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him” (I Kings 18:21).
Moving to the New Testament period, we learn that Jesus was no advocate of doctrinal and spiritual pluralism either. Instead, He declared that “wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:13-14). In describing the broad way leading to damnation, Ellen White speaks of how, on that road, “There is room for every man’s opinion and doctrines” (1). But there is no such room on the narrow road to heaven.
In giving the Great Commission to His disciples, Jesus took a tone quite at variance with what postmodern spiritual facilitators would call “inclusive.” declaring instead: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16).
The New Testament apostles took a similar approach to those who challenged God’s plan for doctrinal, moral, and ecclesiastical coherence. Far from accommodating diversity on the circumcision question, as some have wrongly alleged, the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 made it clear that in no portion of the Christian community, in no local region, was circumcision to be made a test of Christian fellowship (Acts 15:24). (It helps to keep in mind that the individual practice of circumcision was never an issue in the early church; rather, it was requiring circumcision as a test of church fellowship that was the issue. The Council forbade this requirement to be imposed, anywhere and at any time.) The decision made at the Jerusalem Council required that the church act “with one accord” (verse 25). God’s church today must do the same.
The apostle Paul insisted that those preaching “any other gospel” were cursed of God (Gal. 1:8), and instructed young Timothy to not permit the teaching of any other doctrines in the church than those taught by the apostles (I Tim. 1:3). Regarding those who refused to obey the instruction in his epistles, Paul declared the following:
If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.
Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother (II Thess. 3:14-15).
When addressing the immoral practices of some in the church at Corinth, Paul made no allowance for local cultural preferences. Instead, regarding a member who was living in open sexual sin, he instructed the congregation to “put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (I Cor. 5:13). Certain contemporary Adventist congregations would do well do heed this same admonition.
The apostle John took a similar course toward those not adhering to the doctrines of Christ. In his second epistle to the church, he used language some today might find exceptionally severe:
Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.
If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, nor bid him God speed (II John 9-10).
Misguided Appeals to Conscience
It is not enough to trust one’s conscience in matters spiritual. The Bible speaks of both good and bad consciences. Paul referred to his own “good” conscience (Acts 23:1) and spoke favorably of Timothy’s “good” and “pure” conscience (I Tim. 1:5,19; 3:9). But the same apostle wrote elsewhere of people who had “defiled” and “seared” consciences (I Cor. 8:7; I Tim. 4:12). One’s conscience must be educated, and its promptings measured by, the written counsel of God (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11).
Many who so glibly cite Martin Luther’s conscientious defiance of the ecclesiastical authority of his day, conveniently forget that Luther’s conscience—in his own words—was “captive to the Word of God.” Far from having consciences captive to Scripture, those now voicing defiance of church authority in contemporary Adventism give every evidence of being captive instead to the trends of culture and the vagaries of experience—human factors no more reliable than the papal traditions Luther so nobly resisted.
Conclusion: “With One Accord”
Non-compliance with the collective testimony of God’s Word and the corporate judgment of the faith community finds no endorsement in the Sacred Pages. When Korah, Dathan, and Abiram disputed God’s order with regard to who should serve in the Israelite priesthood, the consequences were decisive and dramatic (Num. 16:31-35). No appeals to an independent, non-compliant conscience would have sufficed then. Nor can they now.
The question posed by the prophet Amos still holds relevance in our present time: “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). When individual conscience leads a person to believe and act contrary to the Sacred Pages and/or the collective wisdom of the global body of believers, the church must recognize that regardless of the warmth and desirability of collective togetherness, there comes a time when those who are not of us must blend conviction with action by going out from among us (I John 2:19).
Like the church at the Jerusalem Council on the circumcision question (Acts 15:25), the early disciples on whom the Spirit’s Pentecostal outpouring was experienced were likewise assembled “with one accord” (Acts 2:1). The Savior is clear that the means whereby this is accomplished is sanctification through the Father’s Word of truth (John 17:17-21). Little wonder Ellen White declares that “unity is the sure result of Christian perfection” (2). Doctrinal and moral error must be fully and unreservedly put away for true harmony to exist within Christ’s body. No departure from the sanctifying Word, for cultural or other expediencies, is permitted by the written counsel of God. The great latter-rain revival for which the Advent movement waits will come at last when the people of God stand “with one accord” on the changeless platform of Bible truth.
The following statement cannot be quoted often enough as God’s church navigates the storm-swept seas through which it will soon pass:
We cannot purchase peace or unity by sacrificing the truth. The conflict may be long and painful, but at any cost we must hold fast to the Word of God (3).
1. Ellen G. White, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 138.
2. ----The Sanctified Life, p. 85.
3. ----Historical Sketches, p. 197.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.