Why Adventists don't join the WCC

The reason is not a desire to perpetuate the scandal of a divided Christendom. Part II.

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

About This Article

The reader should understand that although the ideas expressed on certain prophetic passages in this article may not harmonize with popular opinions and attitudes, yet these interpretations have to do with systems as outlined in the Word of God and not with individuals. God's true church, in our opinion, is com posed of those faithful Christians who sit in the pews of every denomination. Therefore, while our prophetic consideration focuses on a system, we also have a concern on the personal level that we (and every follower of Christ) will respond obediently to the light that is shed abroad in the heart through a careful study of the Scriptures. —Editors.

Why does the Seventh-day Adventist Church refuse to join the World Council of Churches? As I showed in my first article, it is not because of sectarianism or a lack of brotherly love. Rather, the reasons are of a historical, doctrinal, political, and prophetic character.

Of all the considerations, the prophetic has been probably the most significant in shaping the Adventist Church's attitude toward the ecumenical movement. Indeed, it was their deep study of Biblical prophecies that led the pioneers of the Advent Movement to the conviction that tyrannical domination by the church in previous centuries was not simply a regrettable period of history that was now -over. Far from it. In the light of certain passages, in the book of Revelation in particular, they concluded that the same tyrannical spirit would reappear through a political-religious development under the influence and protection of the United States of America.

In order to understand this perspective regarding the religious events to take place in the world, we shall first have to summarize the broad outlines of this prophetic interpretation, based partly on Daniel 7 and partly on Revelation 13. In these two passages, prophecy foretells, through corresponding symbols, the appearance of a power that the majority of Protestant theologians of past generations identified as the Roman Church, based on the time of its appearance, the details that characterize it, and the length of its supremacy.

The time of the appearance of the Papacy, as given in Daniel 7, enables us to place it under the fourth world empire, i.e., the Roman Empire, symbolized by a dragon. Its rise came after the division of the empire into ten parts, that is, after the barbaric invasions, and at the time when the civil power gave way to the religious authority. Revelation describes the transaction in these terms: "The dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority" (chap. 13:2).

The characteristics of the power in question are no less specific. It was to receive the power to legislate, symbolized by the "mouth speaking great things" (verse 5); "to make war with the saints, and to overcome them" (verse 7); to exercise "power . . . over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations" (verse 7), so that finally "all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him" (verse 8). This last point clearly shows that the prophecy concerns a religious power.

Finally, a date of supreme importance allows us to establish the length of time during which this dominating power was to be exerted: "Power was given unto him to continue forty and two months" (verse 5), or in other words, for 1,260 prophetic days, or 1,260 literal years, according to the Biblical principle that one prophetic day equals a year (Eze. 4:6; Num. 14:34). This 1,260-year period appears seven times in the Bible: twice in the book of Daniel (chap. 7:25; 12:7) and five times in Revelation (chap. 11:2, 3; 12:6, 14; 13:5).

One does not need to be a historian to know when the Roman emperors abandoned the destiny of the Western Empire to the bishops of Rome. The decree of Emperor Justinian dates to A.D. 533, but it was put into effect in A.D. 538, when the Ostrogoths lifted the siege of Rome. The year 1798, the end of the 1,260 years of the prophecy, corresponds to the entry of the French Revolutionary troops into Rome, at which time Pope Pius VI was taken into exile. This date therefore marks the end of the pope's secular power. The prophecy had fore told the event in these terms: "He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword" (Rev. 13:10).

If the prophecy had ended there, it would not teach us anything really new, for all these points are also spoken of by Daniel. However, their repetition was necessary in order to introduce the new material contained in the first part of Revelation, chapter 13. First of all, the power in question would receive a deadly wound at the end of its 1,260 years of world domination; then, and most important of all, its deadly wound would be healed. In other words, under one form or another, the papal power would reappear to reenact former scenes. The second half of the chapter reveals how this healing was to take place and what consequences would fol low (verses 11-17).

If many Protestant commentators found it relatively easy to identify the first prophetic beast, it was not so for the second, which the prophet saw "coming up out of the earth," and which had "two horns like a lamb, and . . . spake as a dragon" (verse 11). Around 1680, Thomas Goodwin, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, advanced for the first time the idea that the second beast could represent a form of state Protestantism, of which England was then the model. However, John Wesley noted correctly as early as 1754, "This power has not yet arisen, but its appearance is not too far off. For it must appear at the end of the 42 months of the first beast," that is, around 1798, at the time of the French Revolution. Many early nineteenth-century interpreters believed the prophecy related to a future Protestant power whose dual characteristics would be those of religious liberty and civil freedom.

The Adventist interpretation subscribes to this line of thought, expounded in 1851 for the first time in the Review and Herald, the official church magazine. What nation, though still young in 1798, offered the world an ex ample of a really democratic government, springing not from a people's revolution, nor from war, as is suggested by the prophecy? Joseph Bates, one of the first to comment on the prophecy, designated his own country, the United States of America, as the Protestant power symbolized. It was not without emotion that James White also wrote, on August 19, 1851, that the future of his own country, with its two fundamental principles, Protestantism and Republicanism, could be expected to conform to the prophetic description of the beast that came up out of the earth and had two horns like a lamb.

From then on, this interpretation was proclaimed by Adventists. It appeared in various church publications, the most well known and widely translated being The Great Controversy, by Ellen G. White. "The application of the symbol admits of no question," wrote the author. "One nation, and only one, meets the specifications of this prophecy; it points unmistakably to the United States of America." —Page 440. "Republican ism and Protestantism became the fundamental principles of the nation. These principles are the secret of its power and prosperity." —Ibid., p. 441.

How should we consider, then, the prediction that this nation would speak "as a dragon"? "The lamblike horns and dragon voice of the symbol point to a striking contradiction between the professions and the practice of the nation thus represented. The 'speaking' of the nation is the action of its legislative and judicial authorities. By such action it will give the lie to those liberal and peaceful principles which it has put forth as the foundation of its policy. The prediction that it will speak 'as a dragon' and exercise 'all the power of the first beast' plainly foretells a development of the spirit of intolerance and persecution that was manifested by the nations represented by the dragon and the leopardlike beast." —Ibid., p. 442.

Would America then deny its principles? This is what the prophecy declares, and an analysis of verses 12 to 17 helps us to establish a detailed list of its future political events and actions:

1. It will imitate previous efforts at religious persecution by interfering with conscience: "He exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him" (verse 12).

2. It will do everything possible to restore the authority of the papal power, causing "the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed" (verse 12).

3. It will perform "great wonders" so as to "deceive them that dwell on the earth," in order that they should "make an image to the beast" that is, a replica of the political-religious power that existed before the papacy received its deadly wound (verses 13, 14).

4. Finally, having succeeded in its plan, it will make the image of the beast speak, that is, it will cause this political-religious power to legislate laws punishing all who refuse to submit to its authority (verses 15-17).

"Whenever the church has obtained secular power, she has employed it to punish dissent from her doctrines."—Ibid., p. 443. "In order for the United States to form an image of the beast the religious power must so control the civil government that the authority of the state will also be employed by the church to accomplish her own ends." —Ibid.

"When the leading churches of the United States, uniting upon such points of doctrine as are held by them in common, shall influence the state to enforce their decrees and to sustain their institutions, then Protestant America will have formed an image of the Roman hierarchy, and the infliction of civil penalties upon dissenters will inevitably result."—Ibid., p. 445.

Many other prophetic details could be mentioned in explaining this interpretation. However, I have been content simply to outline the Adventist Church's beliefs concerning the religious future of the world, so that the reader may under stand its reserved attitude toward the political-religious movements of today.

Note, however, that this interpretation was made well before the political and religious events that tend to confirm it. Of course, it is impossible at the moment to establish a definite relationship be tween events and the prophecy we have been considering. However, the increasingly evident political involvement of the World Council of Churches, its efforts toward union with the Roman Catholic Church, and the extensive financial role and influence of the American Protestant churches within the Council are all factors that have disturbing implications for Seventh-day Adventists. For even if the good intentions of the founders of the present ecumenical movement cannot be doubted, history teaches us, alas, that men never remain masters of the political or religious powers that they have set in motion.

The four main reasons why the Adventist Church believes it cannot be come a member of the World Council of Churches are, then, based on historical, doctrinal, political, and prophetic considerations. That does not mean to say that it refuses any form of collaboration. It is easy to demonstrate the opposite, because during the past few years regular contacts have been maintained on both sides, on national as well as on international levels.

Since 1968 the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists has been actively represented at the annual councils of the Secretaries of World Confessional Families. A number of representatives participate each year in the work of this body or discuss specifically the important problems concerning religious liberty.

Recently, too, one member of the Adventist Church has begun participating in the work of the Faith and Order Com mission. True, the churches themselves are not members of this Commission, the members being theologians chosen for their personal ability. However, through this means, the Adventist Church can make its voice heard in the study of the theological problems with which this organization deals. Similarly, in several countries, Adventist theologians known for their linguistic skills individually collaborate in the ecumenical translation of the Bible.

Finally, it must be mentioned that the Adventist Church supports the International Bible Society by its funds and its evangelistic campaigns. In many countries it has done more than any other church to circulate the Bible. These forms of cooperation are only natural, when the goals and motives of both organizations are in harmony. Yet, for the reasons indicated above, the Adventist Church continues to remain outside the World Council of Churches.


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

May 1979

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