One of the most basic principles in God’s conduct of the great controversy between good and evil is His merciful, often frustrating patience with the sin problem. Possessing supreme power over His creation as He does, God could certainly have annihilated Lucifer and his allies among the angels at the very start of the great rebellion in heaven. After all, God knew the future in all its detail. He knew in advance the grotesque, horrific consequences of disobedience to His law. Coming from the perspective of human logic, we find ourselves wondering why He didn’t just destroy the problem at its roots, instantly and totally.
But despite His absolute foreknowledge, despite what finite humans might think would have been the wisest course from their standpoint, God allowed the rebels to live. He even gave His subjects throughout the universe, including Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:9), a free choice between good and evil. Ellen White tells us how the two trees in the midst of Eden were also placed on all the other inhabited planets of God’s creation . In the end, of course, only the citizens of our planet ate of the wrong tree.
The reason God permitted evil to persist was to allow the two systems of government—His and His adversary’s—to fully develop and ripen alongside each other. Only in this way could the free beings of His realm be ultimately persuaded of His justice. Thus Ellen White makes the following statement regarding the final drama between righteousness and sin, just before Jesus returns:
The warfare against God’s law, which was begun in heaven, will be continued until the end of time. Every man will be tested. Obedience or disobedience is the question to be decided by the whole world. All will be called to choose between the law of God and the laws of men. Here the dividing line will be drawn. There will be but two classes. Every character will be fully developed, and all will show whether they have chosen the side of loyalty or that of rebellion .
With every character fully developed, the full fruition of obedience and disobedience will be on display before both humanity and heaven. All questions that have troubled both human and heavenly minds relative to the controversy with evil will then be answered. Without this complete ripening of both systems, some of those questions would linger, and the eternal security of God’s kingdom would remain in doubt.
The Great Controversy Within God’s Church
During the past few decades of Adventist history, certain of the striving faithful have grown especially skeptical regarding the motives and methodology of church leaders in addressing the problems of doctrinal apostasy and unfaithfulness to lifestyle and worship standards as found in Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy. They have watched certain ones in leadership aggressively assert their authority in seeking to curtail the proclamation of present truth, yet all too often display a notable sluggishness when seeking to correct departures from the written counsel of God. Such behavior on the part of certain leaders has caused a major loss of trust in church administration on the part of a vocal number of members who seek loyalty to our Bible-based heritage of faith and conduct.
Like so much that we see happening in the church and the world just now, this too has been prophesied by the inspired pen:
This lording it over God’s heritage will create such a disgust of man’s jurisdiction that a state of insubordination will result. The people are learning that men in high positions of responsibility cannot be trusted to mold and fashion other men’s minds and characters. The result will be a loss of confidence even in the management of faithful men .
In light of the above statement, it is most understandable that some will find fault even with godly church administrators when the latter pursue a calm, deliberate, at times frustratingly slow process in addressing the disregard of Biblical teachings and church policy on the part of persons and organizational entities within the denomination.
In the wake of the decision by the Annual Council of 2019 to issue a formal warning to six Union Conferences in three world Divisions—Unions which presently pursue a course of non-compliance with the thrice-voted General Conference decision regarding diverse gender roles in the gospel ministry—the frustration described above on the part of some of the striving faithful has become notable once again. This frustration has been repeatedly manifested throughout the pursuit of corrective measures by current denominational leaders ever since the most recent decision on ordination policy was made at the General Conference session in San Antonio in 2015.
I can understand how these folks feel. I have experienced their feelings at times also. But have we thought of how the Godhead and the unfallen universe feel at the continued deepening and spread of transgression in our rebel world? God has always possessed the power to eradicate sin and its consequences in a nanosecond. But He chooses not to, because the full ripening of good and evil is essential before sin and sinners are annihilated.
Some have protested the Annual Council’s decision to downgrade a proposed reprimand to two non-compliant North American Unions to a warning—the same level of rebuke which the Council formally voted regarding four Unions in Europe. But what some fail to consider is that in matters of church discipline it is dangerous to skip a step. For entities and their leaders to receive a verbal warning from church administrators relative to non-compliance does not carry anywhere near the strength of a warning voted by the General Conference executive committee. It is like the difference between a local church pastor warning an individual member or department of the church regarding a particular course of action, and such a warning being voted by the church board. The latter action lies on an entirely different level of authority and strength than a mere warning from the pastor or even the elders of the church.
The General Conference executive committee functions as the church board for the worldwide Adventist body, just as the General Conference in global session functions for the worldwide body in the same way as a local church business meeting does for the local church. A formal warning from the General Conference executive committee has not, before now, been given to the non-compliant Unions. Should non-compliance persist, both the executive committee and the church in worldwide session will likely be constrained to pursue more drastic measures. But those measures could not be rightfully pursued until the preliminary measures have been taken, as now they have been.
In one of the churches I pastored a few years ago, we were required to discipline a former head deacon who was living in sin. One of my administrative superiors advised me to simply disfellowship the man. But the elders and I chose instead to follow each step of the disciplinary process, beginning—after meeting with the man himself—with a vote of censure by the congregation in business session . Only after the requisite six months had passed did we proceed to remove him from church membership.
The essence of Biblical church discipline is redemption, not punishment. This is true at every level of denominational life. In the case of the man noted above, I can truly say I have never seen a disciplinary action performed with more love and more unanimity throughout my experience as a fifth-generation Seventh-day Adventist. Nor have I ever known a case where a man unanimously removed from church fellowship continued to attend that same church for as long as I served as pastor, and perhaps afterward as well. After every service at which I delivered the Sabbath sermon, he would come to me and give me a hug. I am quite convinced that this was because he knew he was truly loved by both the pastor and all the members of that congregation, in spite of his behavior and what it required the church to do.
Just as God hasn’t skipped any steps in His pursuit of sinners in the course of the great controversy, so God’s church on earth is constrained to move deliberately and thoughtfully in the rebuke and correction of wrongdoing at any level. The God we serve, and the forbearance He has demonstrated in dealing with rebellion for six tragic millenniums, demands no less.
Again, I fully understand the frustration so many of the striving faithful in the church are feeling so far as the corporate disciplinary process now in motion is concerned. But it helps for us to not only remember God’s patience with rebellion in the ongoing struggle between good and evil, but also the feelings of the unfallen universe as they are forced to watch the seemingly endless flourishing of contempt for the love and wisdom of God so evident on this rebel planet.
When you and I grow weary and disgusted at the world’s abominable state, there is much we can do to put distance between ourselves and these acts of wickedness. We can shut off the television set, the computer, our smartphones, and perhaps even move to a place where we and our loved ones can greatly reduce our contact with the world’s corruption. But the heavenly angels don’t have that option. They have to keep watching and recording every dark motive, every vile deed, every heartbreak, every devastating tragedy.
But in the end, God’s patience will be rewarded, as I believe that of His church leaders on earth will likewise be rewarded. Whether by repentance on the part of the offenders, or by sorrowful but widespread consensus within the world body should severe measures be warranted and undertaken, none now can know. But despite the slowness of the process presently in motion, the right direction has been taken. Let us pray ever more earnestly for the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist movement—for their compassion, their courage, and their wise and principled guidance of the denominational ship of state.
1. Ellen G. White, Early Writings, p. 40.
2. ----The Desire of Ages, p. 763.
3. ----Testimonies to Ministers, p. 361.
4. See Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 2015 edition, p. 63.
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