Considerable discussion has taken place among conservative Adventists regarding Ellen White’s statements across the decades of her ministry concerning the authority of the General Conference. The assumption has been promoted, based on a few passages, that while Ellen White in her early ministry saw the General Conference as the voice of God on earth, that in later years she changed this position due to departure on the part of the brethren from various aspects of divine instruction. Certain ones have even insisted that because, in their view, the General Conference structure that was adopted in 1903 was contrary to God’s will, that never after that point did the Lord ever speak through General Conference actions, nor was the authority of that body ever to be respected as it had formerly been.
It is time we reviewed Ellen White’s admonitions on this point once more. Let us begin with the first and perhaps most decisive of these statements, written in 1875:
I have been shown that no man’s judgment should ever be surrendered to the judgment of any one man. But when the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority that God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered.
When the power which God has placed in the church is accredited to one man, and he is invested with the authority to be judgment for other minds, then the true Bible order is changed. Satan’s efforts upon such a mind will be most subtle and sometimes overpowering, because through this mind he thinks he can affect many others. . . . God never designed that His work should bear the stamp of one man’s mind and one man’s judgment (1).
It is clear Ellen White consistently opposed making one man’s judgment the norm for others in the directing of God’s work. But the above statement makes a sharp distinction between the judgment of a single man and the collective judgment of the General Conference. To the latter, she maintains, private judgment must be surrendered.
Many, however, point our attention to a number of subsequent statements where Ellen White appears to have lost this earlier confidence in the judgment of the General Conference. A number of these statements were printed some years ago in an independent, conservative Adventist magazine with strong sympathies toward “home churches” and the theory that the present General Conference structure is not in fact God’s true church (2). Some of the strongest of these Ellen White statements are as follows:
As for the voice of the General Conference, there is no voice from God through that body that is reliable (3).
The voice from Battle Creek, which has been regarded as authority in counseling how the work should be done, is no longer the voice of God (4).
It has been some time since I have considered the General Conference as the voice of God (5).
Yet we hear that the voice of the Conference is the voice of God. Every time I have heard this, I have thought that it was almost blasphemy. The voice of the Conference ought to be the voice of God, but it is not, because some in connection with it are not men of faith and prayer; they are not men of elevated principle (6).
That these men should stand in a sacred place, to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be—that is past (7).
A number of other statements express similar thoughts (8).
But Ellen White, like Scripture, must be allowed to explain her own meaning. Regarding how to interpret her writings, she states: “The testimonies themselves will be the key that will explain the messages given, as scripture is explained by scripture” (9). What she means when speaking of the General Conference in one set of statements is not necessarily the same as what she means in other statements. Only when the totality of her instruction on this point is considered does it become clear her writings stand in complete harmony on this question, despite the apparent conflict a surface reading would suggest.
The difference between what she means in one set of statements when speaking of the General Conference, and what she means in another set, becomes clear when we examine her address to the General Conference of 1909, which we find in volume 9 of the Testimonies (10). Here she resolves the apparent disagreement between her 1875 statement, which we quoted at the beginning, and various later ones which we subsequently quoted, which seem to state the contrary. In her own words:
I have often been instructed by the Lord that no man’s judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any other one man. Never should the mind of one man or the minds of a few men be regarded as sufficient in wisdom and power to control the work, and to say what plans should be followed. But when, in a General Conference, the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence, contrary to the decision of the general body.
At times, when a small group of men entrusted with the general management of the work have, in the name of the General Conference, sought to carry out unwise plans and to restrict God’s work, I have said that I could no longer regard the voice of the General Conference, represented by these few men, as the voice of God. But this is not saying that the decision of a General Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field, should not be respected. God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority. The error that some are in danger of committing, is in giving to the mind and judgment of one man, or of a small group of men, the full measure of authority and influence that God has vested in His church, in the judgment and voice of the General Conference assembled to plan for the prosperity and advancement of His work (11).
Thus, when in earlier statements she spoke of the General Conference “no longer” being the voice of God (12), she was speaking of one man or a few men usurping authority—in the name of the General Conference—which properly belonged to the world church. At no time did Ellen White ever state that the General Conference in session no longer spoke for God. Indeed, the reader will notice the remarkably similar wording of the 1875 and 1909 statements on the difference between trusting one man (or a few men) and trusting the judgment of the world body in General Conference assembled.
At the bottom line, her 1909 statement makes it clear that even at this late point in her life and ministry, she still understood the General Conference in worldwide session to possess God-given authority.
It is truly sad, and deeply disturbing, that the collection of Ellen White statements published in the independent magazine noted earlier, alleging a change in Ellen White’s position on the voice of God in the General Conference, conspicuously left out the above statement delivered at the 1909 General Conference (13). In my own interaction with those conservative Adventists who hold a settled negative view of organized Adventism and its ultimate future, I have found this statement nearly always to be ignored. One individual with whom I exchanged e-mails over this statement, a noted separatist in the northwestern United States, gave evidence of a desperate scramble in the series of e-mails that followed my reference to this statement, even to the point of asking friends of his whether in fact Ellen White truly attended the 1909 General Conference, or whether someone simply fabricated her presence there. How tragic that certain ones will go to such lengths to prove the worst regarding God’s superintendence—or the alleged lack thereof—over His visible, organized church!
The 1909 statement is significant for yet another reason. We noted earlier the belief of certain conservative Adventists that God ceased to communicate through the voice of the General Conference after 1903, due supposedly to the adoption of the present denominational structure which they believe God never approved. Such opinions are difficult to reconcile with the following passage, also taken from the 1909 GC address:
We want to hold the lines evenly, that there should be no breaking down of the system of organization and order that has been built up by wise, careful labor (14).
This statement truly wouldn’t make sense if the system of organization adopted by the General Conference six years earlier had been contrary to God’s will. The words of God’s servant in this context give every evidence that the worldwide Adventist structure then in place was exactly what she had in mind when she spoke of the system “that has been built up by wise, careful labor.” And the fact that she goes on to say, as we have seen in this same address, that the General Conference in session was still the voice of God, belies any notion that the structure adopted in 1903 had foreclosed the possibility of God continuing to speak through that body.
The following statement, also from the 1909 address, is equally significant in the light of how some independent-minded conservative Adventists view church organization:
The spirit of pulling away from fellow laborers, the spirit of disorganization, is in the very air we breathe. By some, all efforts to establish order are regarded as dangerous—as a restriction of personal liberty, and hence to be feared as popery. These deceived souls regard it a virtue to boast of their freedom to think and act independently. They declare that they will not take any man’s say-so; that they are amenable to no man. I have been instructed that it is Satan’s special effort to lead men and women to feel that God is pleased to have them choose their own course, independent of the counsel of their brethren (15).
Reading the above statement, one cannot but recall the sentiments of those reform-minded conservative Adventists who regularly denounce church authority as “papal,” and who compare their misbegotten independence to the courage of the Protestant Reformers in confronting the Church of Rome. None can deny, to be sure, that church authority has at times been misused, and that Romish principles have occasionally actuated certain ones holding positions of responsibility among us. But not only is it clear from Ellen White’s 1909 GC address that the structure adopted six years before was not—as some have claimed—an act of hierarchical apostasy; it is equally clear there are times when personal opinion and private judgment must be surrendered to the collective judgment of Christ’s body.
This entire address, as printed in volume 9 of the Testimonies, is titled, “The Spirit of Independence” (16). We do well to consider the extent to which this spirit has injured the experience and witness of many who are rightly troubled about the present state of the church, but whose refusal to honor and uphold the lines of properly constituted church authority has badly retarded what might otherwise be a most positive influence for reform.
Let us again bear in mind the following statement, quoted in an earlier installment of this series, regarding the necessity of our presence in the visible church:
The advancement of the church is retarded by the wrong course of its members. Uniting with the church, although an important and necessary act, does not make one a Christian nor ensure salvation. We cannot secure a title to heaven by having our names enrolled upon the church book while our hearts are alienated from Christ.
We should all feel our individual responsibility as members of the visible church and workers in the vineyard of the Lord (17).
Notice again how the servant of the Lord declares that “uniting with the church” is “an important and necessary act” (18), even if it is useless if entered into apart from conversion. Equally significant for our review is the fact that this statement identifies the “visible church” as a body that includes members who do wrong and who thus retard its advancement. Obviously this community where our presence is declared to be “necessary” contains both saints and sinners. And the other statements we have seen so far in our study, which describe the condition of this church, make it clear that much of the sin there found is open and abhorrent to the faithful. Yet this is still where God says they belong, according to the above statement.
When we consider the above statement as well as those from the 1909 GC address by Ellen White (with its strong admonitions against pulling apart from our brethren and acting independently of the church organization), one becomes deeply concerned at the spirit of those in the conservative ranks who seem to think being part of the organized Seventh-day Adventist Conference structure is merely optional, and that starting an independent fellowship as a result of negative experiences with the organized church is therefore totally acceptable to God. The above statements from the pen of God’s servant fail to give the slightest encouragement to this mindset. More on this as our series continues.
“A New Organization Would Be Established”
Some will draw our attention to the following Ellen White statement, which many believe constitutes a detailed prediction of what she called the Omega of apostasy:
The enemy of souls has sought to bring in the supposition that a great reformation was to take place among Seventh-day Adventists, and that this reformation would consist in giving up the doctrines which stand as the pillars of our faith, and engaging in a process of reorganization. Were this reformation to take place, what would result? The principles of truth that God in His wisdom has given to the remnant church, would be discarded. Our religion would be changed. The fundamental principles that have sustained the work for the last fifty years would be accounted as error. A new organization would be established. Books of a new order would be written. A system of intellectual philosophy would be introduced. The founders of this system would go into the cities, and do a wonderful work. The Sabbath, of course, would be lightly regarded, as also the God who created it. Nothing would be allowed to stand in the way of the new movement. The leaders would teach that virtue is better than vice, but God being removed, they would place their dependence on human power, which, without God, is worthless. Their foundation would be built on the sand, and storm and tempest would sweep away the structure (19).
Few conservative Adventists would deny that much of this prophecy is presently in process of fulfillment in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But the assumption of certain ones that when Ellen White, in this passage, uses such words as “organization,” “reorganization,” and “structure,” that she is speaking of the worldwide institutional machinery of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, with its headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, is problematic for two key reasons.
First, we have already seen Ellen White’s 1909 statement upholding the authority and necessity of the denominational organization as it existed at that time. Secondly, the above prediction of a “new organization” being established was written in 1904 (20), after the restructuring of the General Conference at the 1903 session had already taken place. The above statement, by contrast, gives every evidence of describing a future event, not one that had already occurred. And if in fact the church organizational system established in 1903 was contrary to God’s will, it is hard to imagine Ellen White describing that structure six years later as having been built by “wise, careful labor” (21), not to mention continuing to speak with the voice of God when assembled from throughout the world (22).
The “organization,” “reorganization,” “system,” and “structure” being described in the above prediction, therefore, are best understood as referring to a system of erroneous ideas rather than the visible apparatus of the church. The notion of certain ones that this passage predicts the “sweeping away” of the Seventh-day Adventist Church organization during the final crisis on account of corporate apostasy, is not supported either by the internal evidence of the passage, nor by its context or the overall message of Ellen White regarding the church and its future.
Questionable General Conference Actions
The question will certainly arise in the thoughtful minds of many faithful Adventists, “If the General Conference in session is still the voice of God on earth, why have a number of its actions across the decades been contrary to Scripture and/or the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy?”
From my own study of the record, I am aware of only three occasions when a worldwide General Conference action took place which was doctrinally or morally questionable. These incidents are as follows:
- The action of the 1950 General Conference session with regard to changes in the Church Manual concerning re-admittance to church membership by those divorced and remarried on other than Bible grounds.
- The action of the 1990 General Conference session which, following the defeat of the proposal for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, permitted the continuance of women in pastoral roles provided they be ordained as local church elders.
- The action of the 2000 General Conference session with regard to granting permission for divorce and remarriage in case of abandonment by an unbelieving partner.
Please understand that it is not the purpose of this study to digress into an involved discussion regarding any of the above issues. Rather, our purpose is to consider whether or not these decisions constitute the true voice of the General Conference in session, as defined by the counsel of Ellen White.
It is most significant, from the present writer’s perspective, that each of these decisions took place on a Friday morning when, according to witnesses as well as participants, it was doubtful that a quorum was present (23). This, in a most serious way, raises questions as to the legitimacy of the action taken, particularly in light of Ellen White’s statement in her 1909 address that neither “one man” nor “a small group of men” have the right to usurp authority rightly belonging to the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist body in General Conference assembled (24). Regardless of the issue under discussion, if any doubt exists as to the presence of a quorum at such a gathering, or if an item—particularly a controversial one—is either placed on or returned to the session agenda under suspicious or less-than-transparent circumstances, the Biblical principle of decency and order in all church affairs (I Cor. 14:40) has been sacrificed Any vote at a General Conference session where a quorum is either seriously doubtful or nonexistent, would certainly seem to fall under Ellen White’s negative admonitions regarding the illegitimacy of “a small group of men” presuming to make decisions rightly belonging within the sole purview of the worldwide denominational body.
The hope is devoutly cherished by the faithful throughout the Adventist world that greater care and advance notice in the preparation of General Conference agenda items, along with stricter enforcement of delegate attendance at future General Conference sessions, will be a top priority for denominational leadership.
“As We Near the Close of Time”
Another question often raised when inspired predictions regarding the organized church are discussed, concerns how much—if any—of the church’s visible machinery or structure will be functional during the crisis of the last days. Considering that the church’s activities will be universally illegal during the final events, in addition to the fact that buying and selling will then be forbidden God’s faithful, it is difficult to imagine an operative, visible Seventh-day Adventist organization at that time. However, the following statement—also from Ellen White’s 1909 GC address—offers a most significant observation on this point:
Some have advanced the thought that as we near the close of time, every child of God will act independently of any religious organization. But I have been instructed by the Lord that in this work there is no such thing as every man’s being independent. The stars of heaven are all under law, each influencing each other to do the will of God, yielding their common obedience to the law that controls their action (25).
This would surely seem to indicate that some type of organization will continue to guide God’s people to the very end. Exactly how this will occur is undoubtedly a chapter yet to be written. But underground organizations, both good and bad, do exist in our world, even with the increased capacity of government and others for intrusive surveillance and the tracking of individual movement and interpersonal contact. As I write this, the news is dominated by the baffling escape and global flight of one admitting responsibility for the unauthorized disclosure of details regarding the wholesale gathering of private communication data by the American National Security Agency. More than one aspect of the continuing war on terror, irrespective of one’s view as to the moral or legal justifiability of various actions or policies, demonstrates the incredible difficulty of even a global superpower effectively controlling or monitoring the actions of those considered outlaws. Even with today’s technology, only God is able to see and hear everything.
One way or the other, fragmented independence is neither God’s plan for His church in the here and now, nor is it anticipated by any inspired prediction regarding the church’s end-time experience. While none can presume to know exactly how God will keep His global community together during the final crisis, the above statement from Ellen White offers evidence that some type of cohesion and orderliness will persist among the people of God, even—it would seem—during the great time of trouble.
The next installment of our series will address the all-important question, “What Causes Divine Rejection of the Faith Community?”
1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 3, pp. 492-493.
2. “Statements on the Voice of God” (Appendix), Historic Adventist Land Marks, July 1996, p. 11.
3. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 17, p. 178.
4. Ibid, pp. 185-186.
5. Ibid, p. 216.
6. ----Sermons and Talks, vol. 2, p. 159.
7. ----1888 Materials, p. 1745.
8. ----Manuscript Releases, vol. 13, pp. 192,193,291; vol. 17, pp. 221-222; 1888 Materials, p. 1727.
9. ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 42.
10. ----Testimonies, vol. 9, pp. 257-261.
11. Ibid, pp. 260-261.
12. ----Manuscript Releases, vol. 17, p. 186.
13. “Statements on the Voice of God” (Appendix), Historic Adventist Land Marks, July 1996, p. 11.
14. White, Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 258.
15. Ibid, p. 257.
16. Ibid, pp. 257-261.
17. Ibid, vol. 4, p. 16.
19. ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 204-205.
20. Ibid, p. 201.
21. ----Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 258.
22. Ibid, pp. 260-261.
23. See letter of Elder Harold Blunden, July 8, 1974, quoted by Roy O. and Marguerite S. Williams, God’s Seventh Commandment: Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, and Church Membership (Sedona, AZ: The Pronto Press, 1977), p. 8; Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, “Abandonment: A New Grounds for Divorce?” Here We Stand: Evaluating New Trends in the Church (Berrien Springs, MI: Adventists Affirm, 2005), pp. 497-501,507-508.
Regarding the 1990 General Conference session, the basis of this reference is a report received verbally by the present writer from Elder William Fagal, an officer of the Ellen G. White Estate, who was present at the session when the vote in question was taken.
24. White, Testimonies, vol. 9, pp. 260-261.
23. Ibid, p. 258.