The misunderstanding of the church

The misunderstanding is serious and costly, but not incurable; the remedy may best be accomplished by identifying and then living out the possibilities of the church as a fellowship, a community of faith and the Spirit.

Fritz Guy, Ph.D., is professor of theology, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
The title of this article is deliberately equivocal. On the one hand, it could refer to a misunderstanding about the church, and there are certainly many mistaken ideas about the Christian church in general and the Seventh-day Adventist Church in particular. On the other hand, the title could refer to some misunderstanding that the church itself has. After all, it does not possess perfect wisdom. As a matter of fact, the title is intended to include both of these meanings—a misunderstanding about the church and a misunderstanding the church has. And yet the two are only one misunderstanding, for one of the characteristics of contemporary Adventism is the church's misunderstanding of it self.

Professionalization of the church

This misunderstanding stems from our tendency to think of the church primarily as an organization or institution, rather than as a fellowship or community of faith and the Spirit1 (which is the predominant meaning of "church" in the New Testament).2 Three phenomena confirm the reality of this misunderstanding. The first is the professionalization of the work of the church. Almost all important church activity is accomplished by people who are employed by the church—namely, the clergy.

Consider, for example, the decision-making processes of the church. How many members of the General Conference Committee, or the typical conference or union conference committees, are not clergy or other church employees?3 In a move to broaden representation at the 1980 General Conference session in Dallas, the 1978 Annual Council voted that "at least 10 percent of the regular delegates appointed from the division should be composed of women, youth, and church members not denominationally employed." 4 That will be a noticeable improvement over the situation in Vienna in 1975, but nine-tenths of the delegates will still be paid employees of the church.

Just as significant are the respective roles of pastor and people—not in theory, but in the actual life of Adventist congregations. The general impression is that the function of the members is to support their pastor in doing the work of the church. For example, when a minister conducts a series of evangelistic meetings, the members are needed—and expected—to support the endeavor by attending, bringing friends, helping with the ushering or music, or in other ways. And of course the people support the global work of the church by their tithes and offerings.

Although this picture seems natural enough because of its familiarity, it is not the proper function of the people, according to Scripture, to help the professional ministers do their work; it is rather the function of the ministers to help the people do their work. Because "the church is the people," 5 it simply will not do for them to abdicate their responsibility to a group of professionals whom they have hired to do their work for them.

Centralization and bureaucracy

A second phenomenon that discloses this basic misunderstanding of the church is its centralization and accompanying bureaucratization. Church administrators, ministers, and people everywhere in Adventism widely feel that for all practical purposes the General Conference speaking is really the church speaking. Thus when a need was felt a few years ago for a statement of the present Adventist understanding of Creation, it seemed only natural that the statement should be prepared by administrative officials in Takoma Park.

Likewise, it is a fact of organizational life that centralization is regularly accompanied by an increasing proportion of administrative and promotional personnel. In 1957, for every ten persons employed by the conferences of North America as pastors, evangelists, ministerial interns, and Bible instructors, there were another seven persons employed in administration and promotion. In 1977 the ratio was ten to nine. Thus for every 100 persons employed directly by conferences and union conferences (not counting those employed by medical and educational institutions), fifty-two were "in the field" while forty-eight were doing administrative and promotional work. Of course, these figures are based on totals for all conference employees, which includes both ordained and non-ordained personnel. 6

Quantification of objectives

The third phenomenon that discloses a misunderstanding of the church is the quantification of its objectives—the at tempt to define its success in statistical terms. Playing the numbers game is a very natural, almost inevitable, result of a genuine desire to know how well the church is doing in the work we believe God has commissioned it to do. Since we know that our own personal feelings and subjective impressions are not reliable enough to tell us what is really going on, we look for something "objective" that we can measure.

But in measuring so carefully what ever we can measure, we unconsciously slip into the faulty assumption that what we can measure most readily is what is most important. Thus it becomes easy for us to take as our goal the improvement of our statistics.

Ever so naturally and subtly we come to believe that bigger means better, and better means bigger. We take it for granted that God's blessing is evident in numerical growth, and that such growth is evidence of God's blessing. The more persons we baptize, the more churches we organize, the more tithes and offerings we receive, the more schools, hospitals, and publishing companies we operate, the more God is blessing our efforts and the more we are succeeding in doing His will. On the other hand, if the numbers are not increasing, it seems evident that we are not doing His will, and our feelings run from serious disappointment to renewed determination, or to profound despair.

To the extent that these situations prevail, and to the extent that we are comfortable with this condition, we have seriously misunderstood what the church really is.

The cost of misunderstanding

The first cost is the possibility that we may not be actually doing the work that God most wants us to do. In the light of eternal values, it may well be that quality is more important than quantity, and the kind of people we are in the church may be more important than how many we are.

This indeed seems to have been Ellen White's view. In a familiar sentence that expresses what has come to be called "the harvest principle," the emphasis is obviously on quality rather than quantity: "When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own." —Christ's Object Lessons, p. 69. Nor do we need to wonder what is meant by "the character of Christ," for this is explicitly described in another impressive (but unfortunately less well known) sentence: "The completeness of Christian character is attained when the impulse to help and bless others springs constantly from within when the sun shine of heaven fills the heart and is revealed in the countenance." —Ibid., p. 384. There is no way to quantify "the sunshine of heaven" or to include "the impulse to help and bless others" in a statistical report. Thus one of the dangers we confront in thinking of the church primarily as an organization is the possibility that we may not be putting first things first after all.

Another problem lies in the possibility that a church simply cannot succeed as an organization, but only as a fellowship. By its very nature, an organization is task-oriented and goal-directed; the task and the goal constitute the reason for its existence. But sometimes a "management by objectives" approach just will not work. Some things cannot be achieved in this way. Personal happiness, for example, is never a direct achievement but always a byproduct. Likewise, the effective communication of the gospel is not so much the result of determination, organization, preparation, and implementation as it is a gift of grace. For no matter how diligent our efforts may be, the Spirit, like the wind, blows where He wills.

A third problem is the possibility that a preoccupation with organizational (i.e., statistical) success is a kind of "righteousness by works." For the church, as for its people individually, there is spiritual danger in worrying too much about how well we are doing. The church can become obsessed with taking its own temperature when it should be looking primarily at God's love and secondarily at the tasks that are immediately before it, letting God take care of the results. We should concentrate on "doing God's work" finding opportunities to make God's love visible and effective, and His will clear and compelling, through appropriately gracious words and thoughtful actions and leave "finishing the work" to Him.7

A fourth problem is almost too sensitive to mention—the possibility that we are dishonest with ourselves and each other, pretending to be doing better than we are, because we cannot face the idea that God is not blessing our efforts. Be cause of our identification of God's blessing with numerical growth, we have made it nearly impossible to admit—at conference workers' meetings, constituency meetings, or even in informal conversations—that our work has met with little if any success that can be statistically reported. So we often indulge in wishful thinking and "evangelistic arithmetic."

So long as we think of the church primarily as an organization, these dire possibilities remain before us. We always confront them, and we some times succumb to them.

In trying to understand our misunderstanding of the church, it is helpful to consider some factors that have contributed to its development. In the first place, it is easy to think of the church in organizational terms because it is an organization and cannot successfully avoid being one. Among our Adventist ancestors there was much discussion about this very question of organization. Some objected strenuously that organization characterized "Babylon," the church of antichrist. They warned that it would form "a throne upon which the man of sin might sit." 8 In a sense they were right. Organization is always dangerous to, and often subversive of, religion. But the fact that organization is unavoidably hazardous does not mean that we can get along without it. Neither does it mean that organization is an unmixed blessing. It is, to be sure, a risk that we must run, but while we are running, we must not forget that it is indeed a risk. The risk comes from the fact that because we recognize that a church is necessarily an organization, we tend to suppose that it is primarily an organization.

Organization does for the church what a skeleton does for the human body. A person could not function without bones. But if he were told that what was really attractive about him was his skeleton, he would probably regard the comment as some sort of joke or he would feel insulted. In the same way, what is important about the church is not its organization but its fellowship, its experience of community, and what happens among people who belong to each other in Christ.

There are two other prominent reasons for our tendency to think of the church in organizational terms. Adventism has always been characterized by a strong sense of mission and urgency, a conviction that there is a task to be done. And if there is a task to be done, the best way to go about doing it is to get some thing organized. By planning and working together, combining their resources and their talents, people can do whatever they need to do— including communicating the Advent message—more effectively than they can as separate individuals. Any religion needs some kind of organization in order to survive, and an activist religion (such as Adventism) feels this need for organization much more acutely than does a quietist religion.

In addition, modern Adventism emerged and developed first in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, where progress has been the motto and production the goal. To get things organized, and to expect bigger and better things, is "the American way." The notion that "small is beautiful" is a very recent suggestion, with little evidence that it is being taken seriously. 9 For the Seventh-day Adventist Church to have been born in America may be seen as providential; but its long-lasting cultural consequences should also be noted.

So far there have been no "villains" in this narrative. Rather, the misunderstanding of the church seems to be the inevitable result of the very nature of things—the necessity of organization, the Adventist sense of mission, and the historical and cultural context. But to have the whole picture, we must incorporate another, more embarrassing element—'the temptation to take the easy way. It is always easier to "let George do it," especially if George has been educated for it and is paid to do it. In this case, of course, the idea is to "let Elder George do it." And, unfortunately, it is often easier for Elder George to do it himself than to persuade some of the reluctant saints to do it (even if he really believes that they are the ones who ought to be doing it). So in congregation after congregation everyone is happily actualizing the church's misunderstanding of itself. The minister gets paid to do the work of the church, the people faithfully provide" the money and moral support, and the church functions as a more-or-less efficient organization. But that is not what the church was intended to be, and it is not what the church must continue to be.

Remedying the misunderstanding

Remedying the misunderstanding can best be accomplished by identifying and then living out some of the possibilities of the church as a fellowship, a community of faith and the Spirit.

Such a fellowship and experience of community is not just a matter of spatial proximity—being in the same place at the same time, like the dollars in an offering plate. It is a matter of knowing that we belong to each other because we belong to the same Lord. In this "belongingness" there is a security, an "athomeness." The church is never regarded as "they"—the pastor, the elders, the church board, or the conference or General Conference officials.

The church is always seen as "we." A church is a fellowship of love. In the early days of Christianity, when it was the kind of minority religion that Adventism is now, the pagans who knew Christians exclaimed to one another, " 'How they love one another; and how ready they are to die for each other.' " 10 This kind of self-giving love is, of course, precisely what Jesus had demonstrated and then formulated in His "new commandment": "'Even as I have loved you, that you also love one another' " (John 13:34, R.S.V.). And He predicted that this would be their identification: " 'By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another' " (verse 35).

It happened in the early centuries of Christianity, and it can happen now in Adventism. An Adventist church can be a fellowship of persons who know the mutual fulfillment of self-giving love, a fellowship in which the estrangements and hostilities so typical of our world can be overcome, a fellowship so rewarding and valuable that no one would ever want to leave it. An Adventist church can be a fellowship in which every per son is respected in his uniqueness not only accepted, but valued for what he alone can contribute to the experience of his brothers and sisters in Christ a fellowship in which the differences of face and culture and vocation and age and temperament and economic status are not occasions for separation or suspicion, but opportunities for enriching the quality of our life together.

A church is also a fellowship of ministry. A church that is a fellowship of love is not content to live for itself alone; it insists on communicating love to others. If a church is genuinely a fellow ship of love, it is also—and for that very reason—a fellowship of ministry.

One part of this ministry is service. A fellowship of love and ministry wants to give to the world more than it gets from the world. Another part of this ministry is proclamation and witness—talking enthusiastically and effectively about God's love and forgiveness, and about His will and His claim. A fellowship of love and ministry thus wants to communicate the good news of Christ and of the Sabbath and the Advent hope.

In such a ministry everybody is involved; no one is left out, for everyone has some gift of ministry. The New Testament makes it clear that it is not just the pastor who is to serve, to teach, and to invite. The special function of the pastor is something like that of a coach to show the players what to do, to help them develop the appropriate skills, to plan the most effective strategy, to en courage and inspire. But the pastor-coach is not the star of the game; it is the members of the team who hit the home runs, shoot the baskets, and make the touchdowns, as they fulfill their ministry.

So the misunderstanding of the church is not incurable. When Adventism be comes this kind of fellowship and community of love and ministry, we will not be inclined to think of the church primarily as an organization. For we will be captivated by the surprising power of grace as our loving God acts to finish His work in our world.


1 See C. Norman Kraus, The Community of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).

2 See, for example, Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), pp. 19-47; G. C. Berkouwer, The Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 77-102.

3 There is at least one exception to the general pattern: the Potomac Conference, of which the executive committee comprises equal numbers of ministers and laymen.

4 1978 Annual Council of the General Conference Committee, General Actions, Washington, D.C., p. 17.

5 See Gottfried Oosterwal, "The Church Is the People," Insight, Oct. 30, 1973, pp. 12-15, and Nov. 6, 1973, pp. 15-18.

6 See the analysis of so-called "evangelistic workers" (which include administrative and promotional personnel in the conferences, but exclude institutional personnel) in the Annual Statistical Reports of the General Conference for the respective years.

7 For the significance of the difference between "doing the work" and "finishing the work" I am indebted to my colleague Robert M. Johnston.

8 Arthur W. Spalding, Origin and History of Seventh-day Adventists (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1961), vol. 1, pp. 300-302.

9 See E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful (New York: Harper & Row, 1973). 10 Tertullian, Apology 39.7.

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Fritz Guy, Ph.D., is professor of theology, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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