The Problem (Part I)
The question of the nature and identity of the church whose triumph is promised in Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy writings, has often raised vigorous arguments among reform-minded, theologically conservative Seventh-day Adventists. Whenever denominational leadership at various levels has seriously disappointed the striving faithful—from the apostasy of A.T. Jones on through the Questions on Doctrine crisis to the dilemmas we face today—conservative Adventists in varying numbers have wrestled with doubt as to whether the Seventh-day Adventist Conference structure continues to be worthy of their presence and support, and what in fact its final role will be in the ultimate conflict of the last days.
During the decades that have elapsed since the Glacier View conference in the summer of 1980, this struggle in the minds and hearts of conservative Adventists has been perhaps the deepest and most wrenching of any time in our history. The unfinished business of the Desmond Ford controversy—the fact that Ford’s dismissal from church employment was not followed either by a sufficiently thorough repudiation of his theology or by the holding of most of his fellow travelers to the same standard of accountability—gave birth in the coming years to renewed flourishing of the evangelical doctrine of salvation so strongly championed by Ford and others, increased reduction of emphasis by popular speakers and thinkers on uniquely Adventist teachings, initiatives aimed at church growth and youth retention involving notable compromises in faith and practice, along with significant relaxation in many circles of the church’s classic lifestyle expectations. Many similar trends during the same period could be cited.
Many conservative church members during this time found their voices of protest against these developments increasingly ignored. It is quite beyond the scope of this article or series to address at length the question of how and to what extent, in various settings, godly courage on the part of such persons might have benefited from greater tact and wisdom. Important as this consideration surely is, it would lead too far afield for our present purposes. The bottom line is that the last two decades of the twentieth century saw a growing number of First World conservative Adventists turn increasingly to independent ministries, even independent worship, as the preferred solution to theological and spiritual problems in the official church.
Ideas are often sought or crafted as a means of legitimizing chosen behaviors, and thus it was when despair at the state of the church drove various conservative Adventists into self-supporting venues of expression and congregational life. As disregard of the church’s doctrinal, liturgical, and moral landmarks became increasingly widespread, a growing number of reform-minded, conservative members became increasingly open to theories about the church which marginalized and even denigrated the importance of the visible, organized Seventh-day Adventist global structure, either for the overall divine plan or the need for faithful members to maintain their presence and loyalty thereto.
(Perhaps a brief word would be helpful regarding my use of the phrase “reform-minded conservative Adventists.” The term “reform-minded” is intended to separate conservative members with a deep, active concern for the church’s prosperity from what one might call status-quo conservatives, who may concur in theory with the beliefs and standards of fundamental Adventism, but for whom public disciplinary initiatives and spiritual risk-taking in corporate church affairs are generally avoided as too disruptive of the routine religion with which they have grown comfortable.)
Since the 2010 General Conference session and the dramatic change in leadership that took place there, it is fair to say that at least in public, negative sentiments regarding the organized church among conservative Adventists have diminished considerably. Perhaps the most accurate observation regarding the 2010 GC session is its stunning impact on the perspective of thoughtful members on both ends of the denominational spectrum. The refreshing candor regarding controversial issues from the GC president in Atlanta was certainly of a sort not heard for decades from an Adventist chief executive, and the response of large numbers of the striving faithful to the president’s inaugural sermon was nothing short of joyous relief.
Typical of the conservative reaction to Wilson’s election was seen in The Remnant Herald, an Australian-based self-supporting publication founded by the late Dr. Russell Standish, which has often featured pointed criticisms of various elements within the organized church. Following the 2010 GC session, this newsletter published the full text of Elder Wilson’s inaugural sermon (1), a gesture probably unique in this particular publication’s history so far as sitting church leaders are concerned. Not long thereafter, a favorable report on Elder Wilson’s convictions and election to the GC presidency was published in the same newsletter by Dr. Colin Standish, president emeritus of Hartland Institute in Rapidan, Virginia (2).
On the other side the reaction was equally unequivocal, though of an exactly opposite nature, perhaps best characterized by the anonymous comment of one retired church leader to a former pastor: “It took only a few days for the church to regress fifty years” (3). Many conservative members couldn’t help recalling that it was approximately that long ago when so many negative trends in the church began, thus demonstrating that what some call regress is recognized by others as the needful retracing of steps in order to rightly move forward.
This article is the first of seven in a series addressing a cluster of errors held by some conservative Adventists regarding the nature and destiny of God’s true church. The titles and topics of these articles will be as follows:
- “The Problem”: a general introduction to the topic.
- “Open Sin and the Church Militant”: Can God’s true church contain open apostasy and sin and still remain God’s true church?
- “Shaken Out of What?”: Will the church’s apostate majority in the last days be shaken out of the visible church structure, or simply out of the true faith?
- “The Principle of Conditional Prophecy”: To what extent are Ellen White’s predictions of the triumph of organized Adventism conditional?
- “The Voice of God in the General Conference”: Is the collective voice of the General Conference in global session still to be respected as the voice of God?
- “What Causes Divine Rejection of the Corporate Faith Community?” At what point does probation cease for God’s people, thus annulling their charter as His covenant community?
- “Where From Here?” Practical steps for reform-minded conservative Adventists as they address problems within the church
Experience Never a Guide
I hope all in this conversation can agree that personal experience cannot determine what we believe about anything in matters spiritual. Conservative Adventists have rightly admonished many of their fellow church members not to permit experience to influence their theology, worship styles, church growth methods, or lifestyle choices at the expense of the written counsel of God—the latter including both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White. We who offer these warnings would do well to heed them ourselves. Just because we see apostasy exploding all around us, with truth apparently on the scaffold and error seemingly on the throne, does not necessarily mean we should change our understanding of what the church is, or entertain doubt regarding God's ability and that of His faithful servants to turn a seemingly hopeless situation around.
More than once I have encountered conservative church members who have stopped worshiping in a Conference church, have stopped returning tithe to their local Conference, and embraced a negative view of the organized church’s future, because of a collection of bad experiences on their part with local pastors, congregations, Conference officials, and more. This is truly a poor testimony to the courage of those seeking to stand as worthy heirs of the robust faith of our pioneers. Often I have found myself wondering how such people expect to stand in the vastly worse environment of the end-time crisis if they can’t handle the slings and arrows of local church conflict in these days of comparative comfort. The admonition of Jeremiah comes soberly to mind: “If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses?” (Jer. 12:5).
If our understanding of the church and its future purification has been erroneous, it is the inspired evidence alone which can decide this, not negative experiences on anyone’s part with the organized church. It is such aberrations as the evangelical understanding of the gospel, often called the New Theology, that encourage Christians to trust personal experience as a trustworthy guide in the choice of beliefs and practices. Those currently advocating full gender equality in ministry, as well as those promoting acceptance of homosexual intimacy within the church, often use the same reasoning. If someone “experiences the call” to be an ordained pastor, it is claimed, how can the church stand in the way? If sincere Christians find homosexual relationships personally fulfilling, how can their brothers and sisters possibly condemn such behavior as sinful?
Conservative Adventists cannot fall back on similar appeals to personal experience as a way of defining who and what is God’s true church, or in determining what their relationship to the denomination should be. Only the written counsel of God has the right to do this. The striving faithful have no more right to base their beliefs or practices on experience or presumably compelling circumstances than do those practicing unscriptural divorce, those promoting acceptance of homosexual behavior in the church, or those seeking to eradicate gender distinctions in ministerial roles. For us, as much as for those in the church resistant to our convictions, Bible truth and its amplification in the Spirit of Prophecy must remain our exclusive authority.
It is long past time for faithful Seventh-day Adventists, who hold to the supreme authority of inspired writings in spiritual affairs, to articulate once and for all the issue of who and what is God’s true church, and how that church is destined to defeat and surmount the challenges of history’s final crisis. None of us can be certain how long time will last; Inspiration is clear it is the spiritual readiness of God’s people which will ultimately determine when Jesus will come (II Peter 3:10-14; I John 3:2-3; Rev. 7:1-3; 14:5) (4). Between now and the final events, we can be sure the faithful will again, from time to time, experience disappointment with the decisions of church leaders. Such experiences cannot be permitted to bend or mold our view of the written counsel of God. It is hoped by the present writer that the articles in this series will demonstrate the clarity inspired counsel offers regarding this pivotal issue.
- Elder Ted Wilson, “Inaugural Sermon give at General Conference Session, July 2010,” The Remnant Herald, , Sept.-Oct. 2010, pp. 2106-2113.
- Colin D. Standish, “Insights Into the Election of Elder Ted Wilson as GC President,” The Remnant Herald, Jan.-Feb. 2011, pp. 2148-2150.
- Ron Gladden, “An Open Letter to Members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” Adventist Today online, Aug. 2, 2010 http://www.atoday.org/article/595/features/articles/2010/an-open-letter-by-ron-gladden
- Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 69.