We have received a number of responses to President Neal Wilson's "Open Letter," which appeared in the June, 1979, MINISTRY. (If you haven't yet read that appeal, we urge you to do so.) Rather than taking the space to print these rather lengthy replies, we have incorporated in this editorial some of the most prominent points and our comments on them.
As might be expected, reaction to our General Conference president's appeal varied from one extreme to the other. At least one reader saw the appeal as an indication that "the Lord is leading in paths of peace," while another viewed it as an attempt to suppress free and open discussion and to control what shall be preached from Adventist pulpits!
In one sense, such a wide spectrum of response should not be surprising. Even husbands and wives who most closely experience the Lord's ideal of "one flesh" often cannot see something in the same light. Is it any wonder, then, that minds of differing backgrounds, shaped by circumstances of all sorts, should react in ways that vary widely? Indeed, is it too much to say that perhaps a great deal of the current lack of unanimity among us on certain theological points has its origin in the same natural variety of minds? While broad agreement should be expected on the major themes of Scripture, and while a common bond of accepted truth will unite God's people, total uniformity of opinion has never been, nor is it likely to be, a reality among true Christians.
Keeping this principle in mind, we want to comment on some specific reactions to the "Open Letter."
Some readers expressed fear that the appeal suggested we were no longer to preach on the subject of righteousness by faith or related areas until a study committee had come up with definitive answers to all the controverted points. These readers felt the letter thus at tempted to control what should and should not be preached from Adventist pulpits!
We feel that a careful reading of the "Open Letter" should dispel such fears. The appeal certainly does not ban preaching on the glorious theme of salvation or the righteousness to be found in Christ. For example, the letter contains these lines: "We also suggest that our teachers and ministers, in their work and preaching, lift up Jesus in Christ-centered messages that will fill hearts with the assurance and joy of salvation and inspire our people to share the good news of His pardoning and redeeming grace in a great evangelistic thrust." (Italics supplied.) Thus the appeal, it seems to us, urges positive, Christ-centered preaching on these very themes.
What our General Conference president has appealed for is that we refrain from public presentations of fine points and controversial aspects of the theology of righteousness by faith. We are urged to avoid that which is too often not only barren and fruitless but divisive and spiritually hurtful. Such an appeal, we feel, is far different from trying to control Adventist preaching. The gospel and the glorious truths of righteousness by faith may be preached in a manner that brings the soul closer to the Lord Jesus Christ and fashions the character more in harmony with the Saviour's, or it may be presented in a way that focuses on controversy, personal opinion, and disparagement of others, with the result that the soul is withered. The thrust of the president's appeal is not to limit the scope of what may be preached, but rather to plead for an end to presentations that divide and tear down. The point is also made that we should put first things first by using our energies to win souls to the Lord Jesus and the marvelous light of truth rather than dissipating our power in needless disagreements.
Others who responded to the "Open Letter" felt that it attempted to stifle personal study and investigation of the issues involved in righteousness by faith. The letter itself, on the contrary, specifically urges personal study and investigation of this topic. "We are proposing," the appeal states, "that each member and believer earnestly study the Bible and the inspired writings of Ellen G. White in order to understand better the great truth of salvation by grace." In another place these words are found: "In no way should this hinder individuals from studying God's Word and from delving into the mysteries of salvation and the distinctive truths committed to this people in order that they might reflect the character of Christ in these tremendous times and hasten His second coming."
Seventh-day Adventist Christians have a Protestant heritage that emphasizes the necessity and privilege of personal Bible study. We believe that each Christian must obtain a knowledge of the Word for himself and apply it personally to his life. To advocate a ban on individual study in any area of Scripture would violate not only Scripture itself but historic Adventism. Thus the appeal strongly exhorts to individual study of this matter. Such study, however, need not, and should not, result in contentious disputations. This distinction, we feel, some of our readers have failed to see.
An additional point raised in response to the "Open Letter" dealt with the concern that the counsel given there would suppress free and open discussions in certain areas. Such discussions, it was felt, were necessary if the questions were to be resolved. Related to this concern was the feeling that it was inappropriate for a committee, as outlined in the letter, to presume to decide questions of theological truth; no committee can legislate for the conscience.
It is true that in one sense the appeal does attempt to limit the amount of discussion taking place on the subject of righteousness by faith. 'It urges a diminishing of the "flood of cassettes, brochures, books, and miscellaneous documents" dealing with this topic. However, the reasoning behind such a suggestion is not to cut off the free flow of ideas in the marketplace of truth. Rather the reason stems from the fact that much of this "flood" of free discussion seems to have little to do with dispassionately weighing evidence and a great deal to do with defending previously formed opinions and looking for a chink in an "opponent's" armor. In fact, this flood of printed and taped material in many cases has drawn battle lines and created camps where followers rally around prominent leaders. The result is all too often a situation similar to the early Corinthian church. Today, we too have those who say, "I belong to Apollos; I belong to Cephas; I belong to Paul."
As the "Open Letter" puts it, "We have observed that some discussions of righteousness by faith in recent years have produced, on occasion, too much open debate and unhappy controversy. It has even engendered confusion, divisiveness, and bitterness. When this hap pens it can be used as a diversionary tactic by the enemy." "It is possible to keep talking among ourselves—to ever be learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth— when on the contrary we should be talking with others and ever be sharing the love and redeeming grace of our Saviour."
To say that the appeal advocates sup pressing free and open discussion is to miss the main thrust, we feel. To say that it advocates limiting discussions because of the excesses and the bitterness that have too frequently grown from them, would be more accurate, in our opinion.
Those who objected that a committee was inadequate to decide questions of theological truth made a strong case for the supremacy of the individual con science. Indeed, the Adventist Church has never taken the position that a representative group is empowered to decide truth for others. Nor do we feel that the president's appeal suggests such a course.
The committee, as outlined in the "Open Letter," would provide "helpful guidance," not absolute definitive answers. Its function would be to "share with the church at large approaches that will help to heal and bind and keep us together and united. There will always be individual concepts on minor points, but on the major truths of justification and sanctification we believe we should be united." (Italics supplied.) The letter freely admits that such a committee would not be inspired in the same way as were the apostles and elders of the early church when they came together to settle questions. However, a representative group of spiritual leaders speaking with a reasonably unanimous voice should certainly command the attention and consideration of the church.
Latitude for individual opinions will always exist within the Adventist Church, just as basic agreement on the fundamental doctrines has also existed.
Sign of vitality
One interesting observation that came to us was that debate on the subject of righteousness by faith cannot be avoided within the present context of the church, and may in fact be healthy, indicating that the church is alive. A similar view expressed the idea that harmony in the church may well indicate a lassitude in which church members are too indifferent to contend for the truth. Another felt that dissension was a manifestation of truth fermenting into the shaking time.
Obviously, these writers have a point. A lack of harmony in the church may well be a symptom of a vitality that will not tolerate error. It is true that the church is to undergo a time of shaking in which straight doctrine will offend many.
Yet, disharmony in the church is not, for that reason, desirable in itself. It may also be an indication of human pride struggling for the mastery through a semblance of zeal for "truth." It may be a result of the adversary of the church seeking to divert her from her true mission by causing her to turn the weapons of her warfare inward upon herself. It may merely say that we have become so preoccupied with determining what the truth is that we have lost sight of Him who is the truth.
In calling for unity and harmony within the church, and in seeking to pro mote agreement on the major points of salvation by grace, the appeal of the "Open Letter" seems to be echoing Christ's prayer, "That they all may be one" (John 17:21). Surely that is not an unreasonable nor inappropriate goal. It may be better to have truth at the sacrifice of harmony than to have harmony at the sacrifice of truth, but Christ's desire for us is that we possess both.
Fellow ministers of Christ, we do not do justice to the cause of righteousness by faith while arguing and disputing contentiously with a brother concerning interpretations of it! Let us never stop studying the glorious truths revealed to us in the Word of God regarding the marvelous salvation Jesus provides. In deed, as our president has appealed, let us delve more earnestly into these grand and exalting themes than we have ever done before so that we may reflect more clearly Jesus' character and hasten His coming.
Fellow pastors who are commissioned of Heaven to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, what subject could possibly be of more vital importance to us, to our people, and to our community than the subject of Christ crucified for us, risen for us, and soon to appear with all His angels for us? Our pulpits resound with far, far too much psychology and human relations; far, far" too much humanistic self-improvement; far, far too much of all sorts of nice-sounding words that leave our people hungry. We need desperately to burn into our minds the counsel of Paul to Timothy—"preach the word." And the heart of the Word is Jesus Christ; He is the grand center holding together every page.
Let us, then, study about Him, immerse our souls in Him, preach Him and His salvation in all the fullness of which we are able. But let us study and let us preach in a way that will bring spiritual vitality to us and to our people. Let us present Christ in a way that will increase our devotion to Him, our consecration to His will, our likeness to Him. Let us avoid the study and the preaching that, even as it focuses on the Lord Jesus, does so in a way that brings leanness of soul.
May nothing divert us from our one great purpose of lifting up Jesus. —The Editors.