Why Adventists don't join the WCC

Non-participation in the World Council of Churches does not stem from sectarianism or lack of brotherly love.

Jean Zurcher is secretary of the Euro-Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists in Berne, Switzerland.


For some years representatives of the Adventist Church have been meeting regularly with members of the World Council of Churches in various countries and on different levels. I took part in a series of dialogs at the headquarters of the WCC in Geneva, from 1965 to 1973. Two reports of these meetings were published in The Ecumenical Review (April, 1970, and April, 1972), in addition to a well-documented article, "The Seventh-day Adventist Church" (January, 1967).

During these dialogs, as in other meetings of a similar nature, I was asked why the Adventist Church is not a member of the World Council of Churches. Some questioners attributed our absence to a lack of brotherly love or to simple sectarianism. However, the reasons are to be found elsewhere, and they go far deeper. As we shall see, they are of a historical, doctrinal, political, and prophetic character.

The historical reason

Actually, the Advent Movement, since its origin and by its very nature, has been animated by an ecumenical spirit. Not only is the Adventist message characterized by its universality, as is everything connected with the gospel, but the Adventist Church itself is keenly aware of its duty to preach "the ever lasting gospel . . . unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people" (Rev. 14:6). After a century and a half of such preaching millions on all continents and of all races have become fraternally united in one faith and one hope.

Nevertheless, the Adventist Church cannot be said to be in competition with the contemporary ecumenical movement. It has neither the objectives of the World Council of Churches, nor the mainsprings that govern its actions. The Council is working essentially for the unity of all churches, on the basis of a minimal creed acceptable to everyone. The Adventist Church seeks to bring about the unity of believers in a community of faith and hope, itself committed to Bible teaching.

In the early days of the nineteenth century, students of the Bible in various countries began a detailed study of the prophecies. They soon concluded that the glorious advent of Jesus was imminent. Under the influence of this interpretation of Biblical prophecy, there grew up, during the first half of the nineteenth century, a worldwide inter denominational movement usually called the Advent Awakening.

From 1830 onward the movement grew rapidly, especially in the United States, through the work of hundreds of ministers. William Miller and Josiah Litch, the first a Baptist and the second a Methodist, were perhaps the most well known. Thousands from all denominations joined this early Advent movement, certain that Jesus was going to return on October 22, 1844, as had been announced by the preachers through a wrong interpretation of Daniel 8:14.

Obviously the disappointment that followed was great, and most early Adventists left the ranks of the movement. Only a small number of believers resolutely maintained hope in the soon return of Jesus. However, after restudying the prophecies, they determined that "the hour of his judgment" (Rev. 14:7), rather than "the day and the hour" of Christ's return, was foretold. Soon to follow this event, however, would be the coming in glory of the Son of man (Dan. 7:9-14, 26, 27). It was to proclaim this message that God had raised up the worldwide movement.

Thus the Adventist Church, which grew from this small core of Advent believers, has the certainty of having been raised up by God at a predetermined time and for a specific mission, just as have other churches in past centuries. This message, clearly penned in the prophecy of Revelation 14:6-12, does not allow for geographical restrictions or denominational barriers. On the contrary, it is a worldwide mission, which Jesus spoke of in His prophetic dis course: "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations" (Matt. 24:14).

The Advent message has now been proclaimed for more than a century. Today it is being preached in nearly every country and in more than a thou sand languages and dialects. But, of course, the prophetic task entrusted to the Adventist Church has not yet been completed, and therefore there is no question of its being abandoned.

It is precisely the requirements of this task that do not permit the Adventist Church to subscribe to the principles governing the reciprocal relations among members of the World Council. To do so would be to renounce its mission to evangelize the world. It must be added, however, that this attitude does not exclude a degree of cooperation in well-defined areas, as we shall see, and it certainly does not rule out brotherly relations with the representatives of other churches whenever circumstances permit. (It should be added, the Adventist concept of mission does not include the belief that men can obtain salvation only through the Seventh-day Adventist Church!)

The doctrinal reason

At first sight, one would think that there should not be any theological difficulties, as the World Council of Churches does not regard the doctrinal particularities of each church as having importance. Indeed, it is well known that the Council does not discriminate on doctrinal grounds. Each member is left free to believe and practice Christianity in the way he thinks best. To become a member of the WCC, the only requirement is to sign a minimum profession of faith, which recognizes "the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures." The Council could hardly be more broadminded or offer easier conditions in its aim to end the scandal of a divided Christendom.

The Adventist Church has the same opinion of the division of the Christian world. Not only does it regard it as a scandal but it considers this division to be the reason for the confusion about the elementary truths of the gospel. Also, the Adventist Church holds that it is the duty of all Christians to endeavor "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," as the apostle Paul writes (Eph. 4:3). Unity is essential to the Christian life and witness—the reason Jesus made it the subject of His last prayer.

That prayer is well known because it constitutes the Biblical basis of ecumenical theology, and is the basic text used by the World Council of Churches to support its call to unite: "That they may all be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (John 17:21).

The Adventist Church does not question the principle of unity, but rather its form and the manner in which it is achieved. The unity Jesus desired certainly does not contain any mystery; sound exegesis should allow everyone to understand its nature. However, as Dr. Lukas Viser, secretary of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, notes: "The division amongst us is so far-reaching that it affects even our respective ideas of unity." —Le Semeur Vaudois, Jan. 18, 1964.

To examine Jesus' prayer even casually is to conclude that Jesus was not praying especially for some organization, nor even for an ecclesiastical group. The subject is not the unity of churches but rather the unity that must exist first of all between Jesus and His disciples, and then between the disciples themselves. The text also shows that this unity can be achieved only by a communion of heart and mind, following the example of Jesus' communion with His Father. This unity is above all "unity of the Spirit," a "unity of the faith" (Eph. 4:3, 13).

The means by which the spiritual communion of all believers is attained is also indicated by Jesus in His prayer for unity: "They have kept thy word" (John 17:6). In fidelity to Scripture can be found the basis of all real Christian unity—to which should be added immediately another point of Jesus' prayer, too often neglected: "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth" (verse 17). As the branches are joined to the vine, Jesus explained, so can the disciple be joined to Christ, if the Saviour's words abide in him (chap. 15:7). "If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (chap. 8:31, 32).

Thus Jesus' prayer for unity itself gives sufficient explanation of why the Adventist Church could never be satisfied with an organizational unity that does not directly involve each of its members. Along with Emil Brunner, we believe that "a real Ekklesia cannot be built up from twenty institutional churches. Christian communion can develop only from a personal knowledge of Christ, which at the same time implies willingness to be in communion with Him." —Malentendu de I'Eglise, p. 169, footnote.

For the same reason, the Adventist Church attaches great importance to the Bible, acknowledging it to be the Word of God and the sole criterion of truth. Without a standard of reference, and with no objective truths accepted by all, Christians cannot help but be carried about by all the winds of doctrine, in spite of their churches' highest intentions. That is why the Adventist Church could not consent to a unity that was not based solely on the Bible and which did not embody all its teachings. For did not Jesus give the command to "teach all nations ... to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19, 20)?

Here is found the basis for the Adventist conviction that it must uphold the points of doctrine peculiar to it. For what distinguishes the Adventist mes sage is not what it has in common theologically with other churches, but rather what sets it apart and gives it its reason for existence. Therefore the Adventist Church cannot support the spirit that prevails in the ecumenical movement.

The political reason

During the past few years the clear political commitment of the World Council of Churches has intensified, asserting itself more and more openly—to the concern even of certain of its members. But it is not my purpose here to explain this trend, and even less to criticize it. Let me only outline why the Adventist Church is not free to join any religious organization whose aim, declared or otherwise, is to play a sociopolitical role of the type engaged in by the World Council of Churches.

Since its origin, the Adventist Church has zealously defended separation of church and state, on the basis of Jesus' well-known command: "Render there fore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" (chap. 22:21). Other pas sages in the New Testament teach that all civil powers are instituted by God to direct the kingdoms of this world, just as it has been given to the church to control the affairs of God's kingdom (Rom. 13:1-7). Not that the civil power and the religious authority are opposed, but that they are separated.

The example of Jesus is sufficient illustration of this principle. Never at any time during His ministry did Jesus succumb to the temptation to take political action, in spite of the repeated demands made by His followers. Jesus categorically refused the political power that was offered Him; likewise He rejected all recourse to violence. He did not contest the authority of the Roman governor, and Pilate declared Him innocent of all the political accusations brought against Him. Jesus did accept the title "king," but He stated immediately after: "My kingdom is not of this world. . . . To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth" (John 18:36, 37).

To the teaching of Christ and the apostles must be added the tragic lessons of twenty centuries of Christian disrespect for separation of church and state. In their determination to force the con sciences of Christians in the first centuries, the Roman emperors unleashed ten major persecutions. It was no different when the bishops of Rome succeeded the emperors. By their control over the political organization of Eu rope, the popes ensured the triumph of the Roman Catholic Church. Both by direct and indirect use of political force and influence the church imposed unity of belief for nearly twelve centuries.

It was the French Revolution that put an end to papal control over the European monarchs, to the church's domination of the states, and, as a consequence, to the persecutions and wars of religion. It was the Revolution, too, that inaugurated an era of constitutional regimes, in which separation of church and state gradually was accepted as a fundamental principle, essential to the guarantee of religious liberty. The principle was not admitted without a struggle, but it represents one of the greatest victories of modern political revolutions.

The position of the Adventist Church on separation of church and state has been stated many times through the years. Typical is this affirmation by the delegates to the General Conference session in 1948: "We believe in civil government as divinely ordained to protect men in the enjoyment of their natural rights, and to rule in civil things, and that in this realm it is entitled to the respectful and willing obedience of all. . . . We believe that all legislation which unites church and state is subversive of human rights, potentially persecuting in character, and opposed to the best interests of the church and of the state; and therefore, that it is not within the province of human government to enact such legislation. We believe it to be our duty to use every lawful and honorable means to prevent the enactment of legislation which tends to unite church and state, and to oppose every movement toward such union, that all may enjoy the inestimable blessing of religious liberty ..."

Following this preliminary statement is a series of resolutions, the following of which relate to relations between the church and the state:

"WHEREAS, The state should never invade the distinctive realm of the church to affect in any way the complete freedom of conscience, or the right to profess, practice, and promulgate religious beliefs; and the church should never invade the distinctive realm of the state:

"We recommend, 1. That we, the representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in biennial Autumn Council assembled, reaffirm our full belief in the historic doctrine of the separation of church and state, and our resolute purpose as a church to maintain that doctrine unimpaired in our relations with all earthly governments, remembering always that the trend toward union may be gradual and subtle."

Another resolution dealing with the Adventist Church's loyalty toward all governments is expressed as follows: "WHEREAS, Governments have been set up among men, under God, to regulate human relationships (Rom. 13:1-3; 1 Peter 2:13-17); and,

"WHEREAS, Civil government includes the exercise of the police powers inherent in sovereignty, to prevent whatever may jeopardize the health, morals, safety and general of society;

"We recommend, That we reaffirm our loyalty to civil government, pledging our sincere obedience to its laws, and praying for the peace of the country and for all those in authority. That we reaffirm, however, at the same time, our inalienable right to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience and to promulgate our religious beliefs among all men (Acts 5:29; Mk. 16:15)." (See "Church and State," SDA Encyclopedia, Commentary Reference Series, vol. 10, pp. 256-259.)

As we can see, then, separation of church and state is a strongly held belief of the Adventist Church. Therefore, there never could be any question of associating with a religious organization whose social and political involvement with the state denies the integrity of this principle.

(To be concluded)


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Jean Zurcher is secretary of the Euro-Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists in Berne, Switzerland.

March 1979

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