We continue to hear contemporary Adventists, even among the most consecrated, insist that current debates in the church over issues like women’s ordination are distracting the people of God from their mission to the world. The assumption (perhaps not always intended) that frequently follows such claims is that faithful leaders and members in the church should simply ignore these divisive, often painful controversies and focus instead on the big, exciting task of winning the world for Jesus.
Let’s be clear about one point to start with. All departures by God’s people from Biblical faithfulness—be they doctrinal, ecclesiastical, or behavioral—are distractions from the divinely-ordained mission of the church. The Adventist professor who embraces the theory of evolution has fallen for a dangerous and diabolical distraction from the mission of the church. The church member who nurtures racial antagonism is being distracted from the agenda of a divinely-called movement whose message is directed at “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6). The husband or wife who falls into adultery is experiencing a distraction from God’s purpose for their lives, and thus from the Christian influence they might otherwise exert over others.
But can any of these distractions be rightly called unimportant? Should the body of Christ simply turn a blind eye to such diversions when they appear in the lives of church employees or members? Is the solution to such problems simply to go out and give Bible studies, hold evangelistic meetings, or go on mission trips to foreign lands?
A Dual Focus
The fact that internal controversies of a spiritual nature have afflicted the faith community for millennia is undeniable when one studies the inspired record. There truly has never been a time in the history of God’s people—at least not since the Fall—when such differences have been absent. Not even in the post-Pentecost New Testament church—often noted as the ideal model of a mission-focused fellowship—were such disputes non-existent.
Think about it. This was the church that was converting thousands (Acts 2:41) and turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6). Yet its forward path was marked by numerous internal controversies, none of which were ignored by the apostles. The book of Acts records two of the most significant of these controversies—the ethnic strife connected with the care of the widows which led to the appointment of the first deacons (Acts 6:1-6) and the circumcision controversy a few years later (Acts 15:1-29). But these were only the beginning. The list of such disputes recorded in the New Testament 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, the numerous admonitions by Paul in the Epistles to Timothy against doctrinal error and moral misdeeds, the warnings against false teachers in the Epistles of Peter, attacks on the incarnation of Jesus noted in the Epistles of John—and on, and on.
Quite obviously, the leaders of the apostolic church maintained a dual focus—one which sought to maintain the faith community’s doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and moral integrity, the other which pursued the extension of God’s kingdom into new hearts and new territories. Maintaining this dual focus was imperative for the prosperity and successful furthering of the Christian cause.
When an issue of Biblical authority confronts the church, it is supremely foolish to pretend that such an issue makes no difference so long as baptisms multiply and new converts crowd the church’s gates. It hardly makes sense to preach the supremacy of the Bible to the world outside the church, while departures from the Biblical message are given free rein inside the church. The church’s mission can only be accomplished when Biblical authority is maintained both in the church’s internal witness and practices and in the proclamation of the church’s message to the world beyond.
As I have noted before in other articles, it is no coincidence that many who are most active in proclaiming the evangelistic message of the church are also the most active in defending that message when it comes under challenge inside the church. We are not faced with the choice of focusing either on external evangelism or focusing on internal revival and reformation. The latter is an essential prerequisite for the success of the former, for the simple reason that the church has no credibility as a beacon of Bible truth so long as Biblical teachings are denied and trampled on with impunity within its own fellowship.
In short, the imperative of Biblical integrity within the faith community and the imperative of proclaiming God’s message to the world are spiritual Siamese twins. When they separate, they both die. The one is absolutely essential to the success of the other.
Conclusion—Are Distractions Unimportant?
When distractions involve disputes over issues not addressed by the written counsel of God, they can legitimately be labeled unimportant. But when doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and moral shortcomings defined by the written Word bring division within the fellowship of faith, the church has no divine mandate to ignore such issues in favor of mission and outreach. The latter will best succeed when both the internal and external testimony of the church are unitedly faithful to inspired counsel. The modern prophet perhaps said it best in the following statement:
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? (1).
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 (2).
In sum, whatever lures our hearts from strict faithfulness to the counsel of God is most assuredly a distraction from the mission of the church. But such distractions are not unimportant. They merit the loving but firm corrective hand of Christ’s body. Not until the church is finally purified by the shaking process, when all that will be left in its ranks will have “obtained the victory over every besetment, over pride, selfishness, love of the world, and over every wrong word and action” (3), will internal distractions no longer share the attention of God’s people with the task of warning and winning the world.
1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 371.
2. Ibid, pp. 400-401.
3. ----Early Writings, p. 71.
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.