As a basis for our worship and study I would like to read again a passage included in our Sabbath school lessons for the past two weeks. For its remarkable simplicity, I am using the Noli translation of 1961.
"Even if I or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel other than that which I have preached to you, let him be accursed! I said it before, and I repeat it now: Whoever proclaims to you a gospel other than that which I have preached to you, let him be accursed! . . .
"Now, brethren, I want you to know that the gospel which I have preached, is not of human origin. I have not received it from a man, nor was I instructed in it by any human teacher. I have received it through a revelation from Jesus Christ. . . .
"My first action then was not to confer with any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who have been Apostles before me. Instead, I went into Arabia, and I returned again to Damascus.
"Three years later, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter, and stayed fifteen days with him. But I saw none of the other Apostles except James. . . .
"After fourteen years, I went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas and took Titus also with me. I made this journey in obedience to a revelation. Privately, I communicated only to the leaders the gospel which I was preaching to the Gentiles, to make sure what I had done in the past or what I am now doing was not futile. . . .
"As to those who were regarded as the leaders, it does not matter to me who or what they were. God makes no distinction between man and man. These leaders contributed nothing to my work. They simply accepted the accomplished facts: they saw plainly that I was the leader of the mission among the Gentiles . . . Therefore James, Peter, and John, who were regarded as pillars of the Church, recognized the grace God had given me. So they made an agreement with me and Barnabas that we should be in charge of the work among the Gentiles, while they should be in charge of the work among the Jews. Only we were to remember the poor, which was the very thing I had set myself to do.
"But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him openly, because he was condemned by his own conduct" (Gal. 1:8- 2: 11, passim).*
How could a worker of such independence of spirit and behavior remain in good and regular standing in the early Christian church?
At a recent session of the General Conference the brethren had examined the message Paul was preaching. It had been decided to send out a letter commending Paul and his gospel and including two or three church requirements, one of which was abstention from food offered to idols. But as soon as Paul returned to his field he began to teach that under certain circumstances it was perfectly all right to eat such food! As he explained in Romans 14, the man of mature faith could eat anything. It was only the man of weak faith who ate only vegetables, for vegetables were usually not offered to the idols. Likewise he had already explained to the believers in Corinth that they could eat -whatever they found in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. If an unbeliever should invite them to dinner, they could eat whatever was put before them without raising questions of conscience (see 1 Cor. 10:25-27).
Paul, of course, was not dealing here with the subject of diet, or meat eating versus vegetarianism. He certainly was not suggesting that Christians should be careless with their health. His concern was that the early believers should not be governed by unthinking, superstitious legalism. In this connection he was greatly distressed by what some of the general brethren were teaching about righteousness by faith and the meaning of the services of the sanctuary.
What would we do with such a worker today? How would you vote if Paul's case should come up for consideration this morning?
Two weeks ago, when we were studying this lesson in our Sabbath school class at Loma Linda, a woman at the rear raised this question: If Paul could be so independent and yet remain in good and regular standing, was it fair of the General Conference to disfellowship certain men of our own time who have been promulgating different views on the subject of righteousness by faith and the heavenly sanctuary?
For an answer we looked again at the rest of Paul's life and ministry. Everywhere Paul went he raised up churches and won hundreds, perhaps thousands, of converts to the Christian faith. Everywhere he went he left behind him a spirit of love and unity with the rest of the Christian church. Everywhere he traveled he collected a large offering for the poor saints at Jerusalem, as he liked to call them (see Rom. 15:26). Wherever Paul worked, the new converts expressed their love and loyalty to the movement by giving generously to support the work at headquarters.
Now consider the case of those whom the church has reluctantly felt obliged to discipline. They do not work to win converts to the Christian faith. Their primary aim seems to be to win Seventh-day Adventists to their particular viewpoint. Wherever they go, instead of love and loyalty, they leave behind an atmosphere of disaffection and disunity. Instead of raising funds to support the work at headquarters, their endeavors have resulted in the diversion of large sums of money into other activities.
Paul was a highly independent thinker and worker. Sometimes he found himself in disagreement with his brethren—even the general brethren! He even refused to be put on the payroll, so as to maintain the independence he so highly prized. But there is a world of difference between the constructive disagreement of a loyal supporter and the divisive criticism of one who will not cooperate except on his own terms.
The early believers had their disagreements, but there was always something that held them together. Paul explains what this was in Ephesians 4:13. "Grown up, mature Christians," he wrote, "enjoy a unity that is inherent in their faith and knowledge of the Son of God."
The same was true with our pioneers just 120 years ago. When those strong-minded men and women sat down to hammer out the doctrines upon which this denomination was founded, there was frequent disagreement, often expressed with considerable vigor, as witness the early editions of the Review and Herald. Sometimes in their discussion there was more heat than light. But they all had faith in the same God. They all loved and worshiped the same Jesus. And the unity that was inherent in their faith transcended the disagreements of the moment. Had it not been so, we would not be here today.
Sometimes our older, experienced workers express concern for the future of our movement. Some of us younger ones wonder about this, too, especially as we see our respected leaders growing older and leaving the scene of action.
One of the privileges of attending such a meeting as this is the opportunity just to watch the men who carry the chief responsibilities in our church. Something that has particularly impressed me this time is the fact that so many of our major leaders are now past sixty years of age. We marvel at their continuing vigor and willingness to work so hard. But they can't go on forever. It would be thrilling if they should be the ones to lead us to final victory. But if time should continue beyond their span of service, who is ready to take their place and assume such heavy responsibility? Will new leadership be able to maintain the original purpose and direction of this movement?
I believe that we stand at a very critical point in our denominational history. At great expense to itself this denomination has now produced a generation of well-educated Seventh-day Adventists who have the ability to stand off and critically examine the church to which they belong. History records that no religious movement has been able to survive beyond this point without serious loss of unity and sense of mission.
What about Seventh-day Adventism? Will we prove to be the exception to this rule?
If so, there is only one thing that will hold us together and on course, and that is the unity that is inherent in our faith and our common knowledge about the Son of God.
The temptation inevitably comes to try to hold a church together with the baling wire of multiplied rules and regulations. The Jews tried. So have many others. It always fails.
The strength of Adventism lies in the measure of its Christian faith. This faith means a well-grounded confidence that what we believe is true. It means not only knowing the truth but knowing that we know it. It means being able to say with Paul, "Even if an angel from heaven should teach a gospel different from ours, he's wrong!"
It was an angel who started the circulation of misinformation about God. Someday this angel will appear again, masquerading as an angel of light, even pretending to be Christ. In that day we must be able to say to his face, "You're wrong. You are not telling the truth."
But no one is entitled to such confidence unless he has first examined the truth for himself. It is my observation that many of our people have not yet done this, even many of our college and university students. They can repeat some of the things they have been taught. They can recall some of the key texts they once so laboriously memorized. But even after sixteen years of religious instruction in our schools, not many can give clear reasons for the hope that is within them. There is no strength in a faith that is little more than a reflection of other men's thought. I believe the solution to this dilemma is the most vital task confronting Adventism today.
It was the study of the Bible that produced such overpowering faith in the apostle Paul. It was the free and vigorous study of the Scriptures that gave the pioneers the faith we now so greatly admire It seems clear to me that nothing less than a great resurgence of interest in the reading and interpretation of the Bible will hold us together through the experiences to come.
This suggests the necessity of more and better Biblical sermons each Sabbath, sermons in which we shall not so much tell the people what to believe as rather teach them how to study the Bible for themselves, that their faith may be their very own.
This also suggests that greater importance be attached to the teaching of the Sabbath school lesson. The primary purpose of the Sabbath school is to provide an opportunity for the church to study the Bible. But how often the room is too noisy and there is so little time. Under such circumstances, how can one think seriously about the truth that is the basis of his faith?
This also calls for better Bible teaching at all levels in our schools. It means providing religion classes in which we shall not take the easy path of requiring students to reflect the thoughts of their teachers. It means, rather, adopting the much more difficult method of setting our students free to think for themselves and gradually placing on them the responsibility and privilege of working out their own faith. It is distressing to note that for the first eight formative years in school, our children usually receive their religious instruction from teachers who have had little or no special training in this most delicate art.
Most of all, this calls for our own personal devotion to the regular and scholarly