There comes a time in the history of any people when reevaluation of one's destiny becomes imperative. During such times men and women either forge new visions and advance, or become indifferent to their moral norms and perish (see Prov. 29:18). Our church finds itself precisely at such a point.
Eschatologically, time has continued longer than the church expected. Structures our forebears built have had to be replaced by more durable ones; social and organizational problems formerly applicable to other churches have suddenly become our own, and our people are asking penetrating questions about the church, its message, and mission.
By what right can we claim to be the "true" church? Can we justify our claim by Scripture, or is our church a mid-nineteenth-century phenomenon?
Is our message made unique by the world geographical spread of our mission stations? Can we ignore the fact that other churches are also providing worldwide medical, educational, and spiritual assistance?
As to our mission, are we to function totally apart from other churches? Or are we part of the larger "body" of Christ? Have we imposed our apocalyptic interpretations on others unnecessarily? Do we convey the thought that people have to be Seventh-day Adventists to be saved?
These questions have no simple answers. However, they do prompt us to ask the more personal question: Why are we Seventh-day Adventists, and why should we be?
Seventh-day Adventists believe that their claim to be a called church with a unique message and mission is totally consistent with God's activity in Scripture and in history. They base their claim on the following Biblical evidence.
Symbols of truth
It is God's prerogative to choose the means and method best suited to communicate His love to mankind. In the past He has done this by choosing representative symbols that would communicate His message and to which people could relate. In times of spiritual crises, such symbols became the visual means of reinforcing survival truth that we call "present" truth.
In the Old Testament, God instructed Noah to build the ark, not only as a means of survival but as a visual aid to present truth. It attracted attention, stimulated conversation, increased awareness of what God was saying through Noah, and provided a tangible message-symbol.
In this instance the symbol was functional, a fact that soon became apparent when the animals entered and the door was shut. But the ark itself could save no one unless protected by God. The "body" of Christ, like the ark, cannot save, but does provide spiritual safety. "That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man" (Matt. 24:39).*
Later God chose a nation as a visible symbol of His truth. Through a prophet. He gave them symbols of salvation arid a sanctuary to which people of that time and culture could relate and understand. 1 He also gave them civil and religious laws by which they could function and become an effective corporate witness to His truth particularly the truth about Himself. 2 It was never Christ's intention to set Israel aside and choose twelve fishermen to begin a new religion. But when the "church in the wilderness" became ineffective and its hermeneutic inflexible, Christ had to select new symbols for old truth, 3 showing that the responsibility for communicating truth can be transferred from one people to another.
At its inception, Christianity was considered a cult with uneducated fishermen in charge and sellers of purple expounding theology to dinner guests. And Christians who were educated, like Paul, made a nuisance of themselves by publicly claiming such fantastic beliefs as a carpenter who was God and who raised Himself from the dead! Although some believers may have been affected by charges of being uneducated and cultic, these accusations did not invalidate the church's claim to have the truth.
Lack of education, popularity, or the opinion of the majority are really not arguments either for or against a called church. 4 "For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength" (1 Cor. 1:25). What the disciples saw, heard, and felt, they knew to be true. The life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ became the cornerstone of their faith. It was a prophetic fulfillment in history they could not deny.
It is true that Christ personally and visibly directed the founding of the Christian church, but His activity did not end with Scripture. Before His crucifixion He promised, "When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13). Soon Christ through the Holy Spirit led the New Testament church into corporate fellowship, directing them to ordain elders, to provide for the widows, and to exercise group discipline (Titus 1:5; Acts 6:1-3; 1 Cor. 5:1-7).
During the next few centuries, the young church mushroomed throughout the Roman Empire in spite of its martyr casualties. Church leaders, guided by the Holy Spirit, selected from various manuscripts twenty-seven inspired letters and narratives to make up the New Testament, which most Christians accept by faith. And in spite of internal struggles, the church leaders were directed by the Spirit to state formally some of the most essential doctrines of the Christian faith. 5
The foundation of the Christian faith is based in part on these divine-human activities. And the Adventist faith, like that of other conservative Christians, is not threatened by the fact that men handled inspired manuscripts or that church leaders acted to preserve the faith by formalizing statements of belief rooted in Scripture and in the activities of the Holy Spirit.
At this juncture it is evident that any church subscribing to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, as do Adventists, could make claims similar to those they make. By what right, then, can Adventists claim to be the "true" church?
After more than a thousand years of spiritual declension, the Holy Spirit actively guided such people as the Waldenses, John Wycliffe, Huss, and Jerome. 6 However, the growing oppression of the church, its control of governments and its efforts to extract monies from the poor by selling indulgences as "tickets" to heaven, demanded a change. It was to counter this oppression that the Spirit initiated the Protestant Reformation and once again chose new bottles to carry the "new" wine. 7
From this historical experience and from Scripture, which endorses the concept of the priesthood of all believers, no Christians have the right to limit the activity of the Holy Spirit, to dictate His mode of operation, to decide when He is to dispense His gifts, or to whom He should give them. In light of what the Spirit has done to make the Bible central, how can Adventists make the far-reaching claim they do and further splinter the "body" of Christ? They believe that because spiritual freedom has become license and created such a maze of apocalyptic interpretations supported by supposedly justifiable hermeneutics conditions demand direct divine intervention. 8 And they believe that special revelation is the answer: it is no longer an option.
It would be inconsistent with God's pattern of activity not to anticipate that the Spirit would speak in a time of apocalyptic crises such as pictured in the book of Revelation. Those living during this time have a right to expect a manifestation of all the Spirit's gifts, including the gift of prophecy (see Joel 2:28, 29). And it would be paradoxical to acknowledge the Spirit's freedom and to endorse progressive revelation through qualified academicians while at the same time denying present revelation through inspired prophets. 9
Uriah Smith stated it well when he said, "For, be it remembered, the gifts cease only when a perfect state is reached, and because that state is reached, which renders them no longer necessary. But no one, on sober thought, can for a moment seek to maintain the position that the apostolic age was inferior in spiritual elevation to any age which has succeeded it. And if the gifts were needed then, they certainly are needed now." 10
Adventists believe that the Spirit has spoken through the gift of prophecy given to Ellen White by which He directed their spiritual forebears to formulate doctrines, to incorporate, and to choose a denominational name. 11
Our unique message
Seventh-day Adventists believe not only that they are a called church by special revelation but that their message and mission are eschatologically and apocalyptically unique.
In reality Adventists are saying very little that is new or that has not been said in the past or that is not currently being said by others. The "good news" about Jesus Christ, the importance of keeping the commandments including the Sabbath and the belief in the soon coming of Christ are not new doctrines. In some form or other these have been believed and preached for centuries. And today these basics are still being preached, often with great fervency and conviction.
Adventists usually respond to such preaching with applause. However, with Paul they recognize "that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me. . . . But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice" (Phil. 1:15-18).
What makes Adventist preaching unique is the composite nature of the message that they believe was eschatologically conceived and supplemented by new light. 12 Some of the doctrines comprising this message had been largely forgotten, others needed clarification, and according to Daniel 8:14 it was time to give old sanctuary symbols a "new" sound. This composite truth expanded and became globally significant for the human race. It has polarized peoples within families and churches, and will soon do the same with nations (see Rev. 13:11-18). The Protestant Reformation is a classic example of what truth can do when nailed to a door.
The book of Revelation is replete with apocalyptic descriptions of a similar but more extensive conflict between the forces of good and evil. Adventists feel that their message will give new meaning to these apocalyptic symbols and new under standing to this controversy. 13
Describing this conflict, John repeatedly draws his readers' attention to the people who keep God's commandments and have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ (see chap. 14:12). This vision emphasis was given, not because joyful obedience in response to God's love would become globally acceptable, but rather because it would meet with such resistance that divine intervention would be the only alternative. 14
Therefore Adventists believe that in addition to proclaiming God's salvific will in Jesus Christ, they need to proclaim the importance of such interlocking doctrines as the Sabbath, the pre-Advent Judgment, the sophistries of spiritism and Babylonish religiosity, and the immediate return of Jesus Christ. These faith pillars play an extremely important role in God's rescue plan for man. 15
If this unique emphasis is as eschatologically significant as Adventists say it is, then a hermeneutic is needed to establish norms that will preclude a false apocalyptical interpretation. People must not be permitted to fragment this truth by what ever hermeneutic may be theologically popular. This makes certification of Adventist doctrines through direct revelation imperative. Therefore the angel advised John, "Hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." (chap. 19:10).
Consequently, Adventist doctrines were not invented as a publicity device to counter their mid-nineteenth-century embarrassment. These beliefs were not designed by their spiritual forebears to give the Adventists an identity or because they anticipated that apocalypticism would some day become a popular media attraction. Such charges and psychoanalytic interpretations of Adventist history are unable to refute the religious testimony of those who formulated Adventist doctrines or to discredit the activities of the Spirit confirming these beliefs.
Ellen White said, "I met with them, and we studied and prayed earnestly. Often we remained together until late at night, and sometimes through the entire night, praying for light and studying the Word. . . . When they came to the point in their study where they said, "We can do nothing more,' the Spirit of the Lord would come upon me, I would be taken off in vision, and a clear explanation of the passages we had been studying would be given me. . . . And they accepted as light direct from heaven the revelations given." 16
In micro form, the triune message of Revelation 14 contains all the elements of the final conflict between good and evil and contains the unique revelatory emphasis committed to Seventh-day Adventists. This message, with its three steps leading to the platform of present truth, is of vital importance. " The destiny of souls hangs upon the manner in which they are received.'" 17
Existentially the human race has arrived at the crossroads of decision. This inter locking "judgment hour" message is God's apocalyptic imperative designed to empower men and women to keep the Sabbath, to worship their Creator, and to disengage themselves from Babylon (see chap. 14:6-12). Soon everyone will worship the beast except those whose names have been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb (see chap. 13:8).
A unique mission
The Adventist mission begins with Christ's commission: "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation" (Mark 16:15). Together with other Christians, Adventists believe that their task is to evangelize those who don't know Christ and to lead those who do know Him to know Him better. This is basic to the Adventist faith and central to its mission. 18
Their unique commission is to preach the end-time message without diminishing the truth of the gospel meaning that the emphasis on Christ must increase proportionately with the "judgment" message as it swells into the loud cry (see Rev. 18:1-4). The gospel in the light of the great controversy between Christ and Satan includes the good news about a good God who in His graciousness is eager to save and heal. 19
Consequently, Adventists feel that subordinating their message to the demands of social needs would destroy the effectiveness of their mission. When this occurs, there is less emphasis on the immediacy of the second coming of Christ. Though the hope is not denied, it is delayed. And there is less confidence in the prophecies pointing to the end. 20
The Adventist mission is similar to Elijah's at Mount Carmel when he challenged the people to make a decision for God (see 1 Kings 18), or to John the Baptist's mission at Jordan when he prepared people for the coming of Christ (see John 1). As John preached, people asked: Who is this man? Is he Elijah? Jesus answered by saying, "If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who was to come" (Matt. 11:14). Similarly, the Adventist mission is to bring men and women to a point of decision and to prepare them for the coming kingdom. 21
This mission is also apocalyptic. In a world rampant with lawlessness, with erratic followers of self-styled religious leaders, and with most of the world's population worshiping on man-made days, God points a prophetic finger to a visible remnant. Adventists believe that they are a catalyst in the hand of God to bring about the final polarization of the world on the one hand and God's visible and invisible remnant on the other. The people polarized by the climax of the great controversy will be held together by their freedom in Christ and their common faith. Jesus said, "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd" (John 10:16). And insofar as Adventists are true to their calling they will fulfill their mission. 22
Seventh-day Adventists are called by special revelation to give a composite message unique in time and prophetic content with a mission to polarize men and women for Christ and to prepare them for transition into a new age.
* Scripture references in this article are from The Holy Bible: New International Version. Copyright 1978 by the New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
1 Heb. 8-10; The Great Controversy, pp. 409- 422.
2 Steps to Christ, pp. 9-11.
3 The Desire of Ages, pp. 27-30.
4 This is particularly true in reference to the Sabbath. The evidence from Scripture and from such works as Samuel Bacchiocchi's From Sabbath to Sunday still has not convinced the majority of Biblical scholars that their hermeneutic is in error and that the Sabbath is important enough to keep.
5 See Kenneth Scott Latourette's A History of Christianity, "Christianity Takes Shape in Organization and Doctrine," pp. 112-192.
6 The Great Controversy, pp. 61-119.
7 Latourette, op. at., "Luther and the Rise and Spread of Lutheranism," pp. 703-744.
8 The Great Controversy, pp. 236, 291, 292.
9 Lewis Walton in his Decision at the Jordan (Review and Herald, 1982), p. 32 f., quotes John Harris" observation on an inspired prophet's dilemma in writing original theology today without being seen as a copyist.
10 Patriarchs and Prophets, Introduction, p. 27. See also Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-10, 28; Eph. 4:11-16.
11 The Remnant Church, p. 58.
12 The Desire of Ages, p. 587; Testimonies, vol. 4, pp. 445, 446.
13 The Great Controversy, pp. x-xii.
14 Revelation 19-21; ibid., pp. 582-652.
15 Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp. 30, 31.
16 Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 206, 207.
17 Early Writings, p. 259.
18 Gospel Workers, p. 282.
19 The Great Controversy, pp. x-xii.
20 Horton Davies, in his book Christian Deviations (SCM reprint, 1967), pp. 128-132, points out that changes in a church's mission can be very subtle. These changes include: (1) social approximations; (2) maturation of the second and third generation; (3) demand for a more educated ministry and a more predictable form of worship;
(4) changes in theology and the Christian life; and (5) increase in charity to other religious groups.
21 Morris L. Venden, The Return of Elijah (Pacific Press, 1982), pp. 33-44.
22 See Jack Provonsha's article "The Church as a Prophetic Minority," Spectrum, vol. 12, No. 1.