As the American Civil War drew to its close amid fierce conflict, Abraham Lincoln stated:
Both (North and South) read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. . . . The Almighty has His own purposes .
From our present harbor in history, it may be difficult to see how both sides in that epic struggle could manifest equal sincerity in claiming support from the Bible for their cause. Few today, after all, would attempt to craft a Biblical case for slavery.
But the lessons to be drawn from the above statement by President Lincoln are not limited to the issues of that distant era. Among conservative Christians in our time, including many Seventh-day Adventists, equal sincerity and professed devotion to the Bible and to God are often cited in a manner much different from the above observation by Lincoln. Unlike America’s 16th President, many in our time seem to think that if both sides in a dispute are found reading the same Bible and praying to the same God, that this somehow implies that the prayers of both should be answered. Or at least that some middle ground reasonably acceptable to both camps should be sought and found.
Parallels With the Present Crisis in Adventism
In a recent description of the work of the General Conference Theology of Ordination Study Committee, on which the present writer was privileged to serve, a recent online article stated:
When the final reports were gathered and presented, it was clear that people of goodwill were in two major camps. One group was in favor of allowing divisions to choose whether to ordain women or not and the other camp was in favor of only ordaining men. Both sides were made up of people who were fully committed to God and the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Both sides were working from the very same sources, the scriptures and Ellen White .
With a few differences, one can find significant similarities between the above description of the present Adventist divide over gender roles in ministry and Lincoln’s description of the great divide in America which sparked the Civil War. Moreover, one can find similar parallels relative to Adventist disagreements with other Christians regarding a host of distinctive features of our denomination’s doctrinal witness.
It isn’t without cause that so many times in Adventist history, those on the forefront of evangelism have also been the most ardent apologists for our classic teachings when these have come under assault from within our own ranks. A principal reason for this is the inescapable fact that the same Biblical and social dynamics can be found in both settings. One contemporary Adventist author, addressing the subject of the human nature of Christ, has written:
Both sides reveal honest, sincere, conscientious Christians who love the Lord and His truth. It seems inconceivable to either A or B that both A and B could be correct. And so, the contention continues, dividing families, churches, and friends . (p. 16).
But then, the doctrines we as Adventists proclaim to the world in our public efforts also divide families, churches, and friends. Jesus predicted no less as the result of preaching and accepting the gospel. Those promoting the fictive, ever-inclusive, postmodern incarnation of Jesus often forget that the following passage—taken from the words of Christ Himself—is still in the Bible:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.
He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me (Matt. 10:34-37).
One can’t help thinking of this passage when, for example, we meet parents who have adopted a different and quite untenable view of Biblical sexuality standards merely because a child of theirs has embraced a lifestyle contrary to those standards. The mindset that insists, “Don’t you dare draw a circle that excludes me and mine,” is fully at odds with the teachings of our loving and just Lord.
Like Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line during the rending conflict that destroyed a country’s innocence yet forged a nation, many on both sides of current disputes in Seventh-day Adventism read the same Bible and pray to the same God. The same holds true for both Sabbath-keepers and Sunday-keepers, both for those who believe in the sleep of death and who believe humans go to heaven or to hell when they die. The same holds true both for those who believe God’s Ten Commandment law remains binding on the Christian conscience, and for those who believe those commandments have been nailed to Calvary’s cross. The same holds true both for those who believe Jesus’ return will be visible to all, as Scripture says, and for those who believe in the unscriptural doctrine of the secret rapture.
We could go on and on. Goodwill and genuine sincerity can be found across every religious, every ideological spectrum. But this doesn’t mean the imperatives and reality of right and wrong, truth and error, have ceased to exist.
Conclusion: “There Comes a Time”
Such division as noted above is always regrettable and often heart-wrenching. But it is also inevitable when the issue in question not only leads to major variances in one’s spiritual outlook and practical choices, but also when major differences become evident in one’s approach to the inspired writings themselves.
Indeed, if the goodwill-and-sincerity quotient found on both sides of a given issue is seen as just cause either to sidestep the issue or seek a middle-ground compromise, it’s hard to think of very many doctrinal or moral issues in Christian circles which wouldn’t be either neutralized or dismissed as needlessly divisive. Indeed, our Lord’s own statement about peace, swords, and family variances (Matt. 10:34-37) would be difficult if not impossible to sustain.
Pleasing as many and offending as few as possible is neither the way of Scripture nor that of history’s great heroes of peace, justice, and liberty. Right and wrong, truth and error, inevitably invite those of settled, sincere, yet opposite convictions to part with one another. One Ralph McGill, who rose to serve as executive editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the mid-twentieth century, understood this fact well. After seeing the impact of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies in the late 1930s, he wrote editorials attacking racial segregation in the Southern United States, only to have bullets fired through his windows at home and crude bombs left in his mailbox .
But he wasn’t deterred. On February 10, 1959, in an address on the racial issue delivered at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, McGill declared to the student body there assembled:
There comes a time when you must stand and fight for what you believe, for what you know is right and true—or else tuck tail and run .
The same holds true for God’s people today.
1. Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Erdmanns Publishing Co, 1992), pp. 322-323.
2. Kim Allan Johnson, “A Grievous Leadership Failure,” Spectrum, Oct. 25, 2019 https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2019/grievous-leadership-failure
3. James Rafferty, How Jesus Was Like Us (Jasper, OR: Red Frame Publishing, 2013), p. 16.
4. “Ralph McGill” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_McGill
5. John Egerton, Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), p. 627.
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