When Christians differ

Should the pastor allow pluralism of doctrinal expression in his congregation? The answer depends in part upon ones definition of pluralism.

Ewin Zackrison is associate professor of religion in the Division of Religion, Southern College of Seventh-day Adventists, Collegedale, Tennessee.

Some time ago, before the latest round of attacks were launched on Ellen White s credibility, several church members sat in a family room somewhere in North America discussing certain aspects of Adventist thought and life style. One suggested that to live a rich, dynamic Christian life one must study the Bible, pray, and share. A second member felt that Bible study alone was not enough; one must also study regularly the writings of Ellen G. White. His rationale was that the Spirit of Prophecy offers modern applications of Biblical principles that help solve modern problems. Therefore, he argued, while the Bible might give some basic help, the Spirit of Prophecy is equally important and in many cases more relevant.

A third member disagreed. What Ellen White gave to the modem church, she insisted, was primarily advice. Such could be helpful, but it should not be considered on the same level as the gospel material of the Scriptures because it did not constitute "revelation" so much as "pastoral guidance."

"What about her inspiration, then?" asked the first member. "Is it comparable to that of the writers of the Scriptures or not?"

At this theological injection all discussion momentarily stopped. The first to respond, after the long pause, was still another member who insisted that "inspiration" was a subjective term and must be understood from the standpoint of what effect it has on the "inspired" person. It is a gift, he suggested, which is not transferable but which may come in degrees. "Ellen White was inspired religiously like Beethoven was inspired musically, and John Calvin theologically," he said. "I believe one must pick and choose from the gems of Ellen White's inspired statements—that not all of what she wrote was equally inspired. Some of it is either antiquated, outdated, or historically conditioned. Thus, I must decide for myself what to follow and what to reject."

Now, you are the pastor. These are your church members. How do you respond? Is this conversation an indicator to you that your church is a bed of confusion, a den of heretics? Is your church falling apart? How do you go about correcting error?

To some degree this conversation represents a microcosm of discussions now going on in the broader circles of the Adventist Church. It raises some pastoral questions that all ministers must face sooner or later regarding theological controversy within their churches, regardless of the subject under discussion.

Pluralism In the church

Could we explain the above conversation on the basis of pluralistic views with regard to Ellen White? If so, is such pluralism acceptable, desirable, or war ranted? Much, of course, depends on our understanding of the word itself. Philosophically, the term refers to the theory that ultimate reality has more than one true explanation, that there are varying views of which perhaps any could prove acceptable—like the old "all-roads-lead-to-heaven" argument.

Because of our emphasis on "the truth," many Adventists tend to suffer temporary shock when faced with different perspectives of truth than they have hitherto encountered. For many, truth comes in a package, and any hint of pluralism suggests more than one pack age, a phenomenon they cannot handle.

But if one understands pluralism to mean varying expressions of truth, rather than varying doctrines, then, I suggest, the church is a residence for pluralism. If, on the other hand, we accept pluralism in its strictest philosophical meaning, then I believe the cause of truth as it is in Jesus will suffer.

For example, in the study of soteriology we can distinguish three theories regarding man's response to God's redemptive activity: (1) universalism— the theory that all things work together for good and thus everyone will ultimately be saved; (2) predestination— the theory that God decrees who will ultimately be saved through the free exercise of His sovereignty via irresistible grace; and (3) free will—the theory that God, in His sovereignty, has limited Himself by allowing man to have free moral choice, i.e., the ability to refuse the grace of God. I cannot conceive how Adventists could hold all three theories and still be doctrinally and Biblically consistent. Adventism, as a confessional church, insists on the organic unity of doctrine and the comprehensive nature of truth, and to hold one of these views would logically exclude the other two. Furthermore, each brings with it a certain world view, and a certain under standing of the character of God, the work of Christ, the nature of evangelism, and personal life style.

Using the strict philosophical definition of pluralism, the church cannot be pluralistic in its confession of Ellen White's role as a prophetess. She claims to be a modern messenger inspired by God, and the church affirms such claims. She has traditionally carried an authority for Adventists greater than any writings other than the Scriptures. This is part of our confession to the world, even part of our uniqueness. Either she is what she claims or she is not.

These four church members—all of whom I have known personally— believed she was what she claimed to be. They were Adventists and accepted the church's position on the gifts of the Spirit. They viewed Ellen White as a recipient of the gift of prophecy. They believed God had used her to establish and keep this church and to bring its task to fulfillment. Thus, regardless of their expressions, they were not pluralistic in the philosophical sense of the term. But it is a fact that they did not all express their faith in the same terms or from the same background. As long as people think through their faith, as long as they are growing and gaining new insights of their Lord, as long as the saints continue to mature in Jesus Christ, their expression of faith will become richer and deeper and reveal an ever advancing experiential growth. That is part of the Holy Spirit's work in the church, and the pastor must resist the temptation to interfere with the Spirit's work.

Heresy in the church

Some would immediately recognize the case of the four views as a situation where two, three, or even four heresies were contending for attention. I found myself facing momentary panic at the thought of heretical views. Personally, I do not believe that Ellen White's inspiration should be compared to the natural phenomenon of a Beethoven or a Picasso. Thus I suffered some noticeable discomfort at that suggestion. Spiritual gifts are distinct from natural talents. Nor did I welcome the suggestion that inspiration comes in degrees. Adventists settled that issue many decades ago and have generally disagreed with any comparison made between books of the Bible on the basis of alleged degrees of inspiration. A person is either inspired by the Spirit of God or he is not inspired by the Spirit. Here I was immediately confronted with my professional duty. How was I, as a Seventh-day Adventist minister, to correct these "errors," as I perceived them, and lead these people back to a more Biblical foundation of inspiration?

The church's position has been that although there are no degrees of inspiration, not all inspired material carries the same redemptive value. Some is gospel material, some is divine counsel, some is necessary historical, chronological, and statistical background. But not all holds the same value in one's Christian life. Yet Adventists have never said that the essential gospel material of the apostle Paul is more inspired than the ethical counsel of the same writer just because it has a different purpose. It is true that experientially the gospel message some times has been given prior to divine counsel. God established Himself as the Deliverer of the Hebrews before He gave them commands (see Ex. 20:1-2). Put ting gospel material before ethical demands avoids simple moralism and self-righteousness, but this is not a question of degrees of inspiration.

Adventists believe and teach that Ellen White's inspiration is qualitatively identical to that of the Biblical authors. But, in saying that, we do not suggest that she is to replace the Bible, which takes priority over her writings. The canonical Scriptures constitute the norm by which all other prophetic messages are to be tested (see SDA Encyclopedia, rev. ed. p. 1413). Thus the authority of Ellen White is based on her passing the tests of a true prophet as set up by Scripture itself (see Isa. 8:20, Jer. 28:9, Matt. 7:20, 1 John 4:1-3).

In current discussions about Ellen White, non-Biblical norms are being established that tend to confuse the issue. Originality is an example. To insist on originality of thought or expression in the work of a prophet is to invent a non-Scriptural norm. Truth is the possession of God, and where He desires His prophet to obtain truth in the inspiration process is His business. The Spirit uses the prophet, the prophet does not use the Spirit. Nowhere do the Scriptures set up originality as an objective test of the prophetic gift.

A second area being probed at the present time is the ethical question of intentionality. If a prophet intends to deceive so as to mislead and destroy one's soul, then this test becomes a part of the influence of the prophet's life (see Matt. 7:20). Intentions are motives of which only God has accurate knowledge. Since we do not own the power to read motives, we can only guess or look at the weight of evidence from our perception.

Now back to my four friends. After holding my tongue and listening for a time to their discussion, I perceived that here were four people struggling to express their faith honestly according to the best of their ability and to the extent of their understanding. Why should I assume that they were trying to under mine a landmark doctrine? They were working, probing, thinking, and discus sing together. They were surely working within the parameters of the Adventist faith. They were not agnostic or cynical, though my mishandling of their fledgling attempts to theologize could have contributed toward making them so.

Being a good pastor is more than being a good theologian. It involves a patience that accepts people even when they don't get the words just right—listening to the spirit behind the words—being patient with people and rejoicing in their growth, regardless of the slow rate perceived. Most cases of pluralistic expression on Adventist doctrine are not cases of heresy. To suspect such or to hunt for the worst in others may well be the most serious breach of the pastoral commitment to people.

Theology In the church

Was there truly a theological problem here? Or was it more simply a question of progressive understanding? In answering this question, it is crucial to recall that a judgmental attitude can effectively stifle Christian growth as well as fellowship. To prematurely assign spurious motives can cut off communication that is next to impossible to rebuild.

If one considered that these statements represented fixed, finalized, formalized statements of dogma, carefully thought out and written down as the last word, then theological orthodoxy might be an issue here. But statements made in the course of conversations, classes, and discussions often represent more the perceptions of those listening than those speaking. Emphases which one expresses will vary to some degree with the discussion. Most comments one makes are not intended as immovable opinions that people would defend with their life.

Part of being a successful pastor is recognizing growth patterns and accepting the fact that in the moral life, as in the physical aspects of development, people mature at different rates and move through predetermined stages of growth. It is part of the mature pastor's task to protect the immature, the retarded, or the developing spiritual experience of his people. And fostering this kind of attitude will guarantee a consistent teachability in the minister as well.

A pastor must pay his dues to his people, which he does by listening. He is then authorized to contribute to the discussion in a way that he will be listened to. When people know you care about them, they will listen in a different way than ever before. An effective way to contribute to this kind of discussion is to ask questions through which a person can be led to construct insights helpful to the church. The wise pastor preserves the atmosphere of love required for true growth and at the same time banishes the fear of reprisal or alienation toward those who are growing.

Suggestions for growth

I conclude with the following suggestions for turning the potential splintering effects of expressed theological variance into a constructive growth experience. My assumption is that theological expression should pull a group together, not tear it apart.

1. Evaluate your personal response. How do you feel when you hear an expression of faith that does not completely square with your own? Do you view this as a personal challenge to your authority? Or do you see this as a necessary and exciting component of growth—a sign that your church is quite healthy? When you have answered these questions read Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp. 33-42, and evaluate your church on the basis of the standards given there.

2. Make sure that you are on top of the issue. The immediate temptation will be to praise what you agree with and attack what you disagree with. Resist. You ought to know what the issues are, what can be answered with absolute certainty and what is still open to tentativeness and further inquiry. Being a good pastor does not demand that you must take a dogmatic stand on every question that comes along.

3. Know your church's beliefs and policies. Maybe it is your beliefs and conclusions that vary from what the church has officially declared. You need to know that.

4. Recognise the difference between the detecting of error and the hunting of "heretics." There is a delicate balance of trust in our church that makes fellowship possible. Personal attacks, name-calling, conspiratorial mentality, purges, are all instruments of evil to destroy that trust. Here a reading of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's excellent book on ministry, Life Together, would be very helpful.

5. Allow your church members time to grow theologically. If you have worked through such issues as how best to express our doctrine of the investigative judgment, or how to relate to new information about Ellen White's alleged borrowings, then perhaps you have gotten on top of these issues by now. But don't conclude that others can move as quickly as you or find it as easy as you have. It is the waiting period that can be painful. You must keep in mind that "love is patient" (1 Cor. 13:4, R.S.V.).*

6. Allow others the same thrill of discovery as you do yourself. Remember those moments in the seminary halls when we would discuss issues that were "heavy,"—issues which deepened and broadened our perceptions and perspectives on God and life? Would you like to be brought to a heresy trial for every statement you made in such a discussion? So with the church. Discussions carried on in mutual trust between believers should not be occasions for taking notes or making tape recordings. Checks and balances can operate in groups but such openness can work profitably only in a community where the love of Christ is preached and mutual trust is nurtured.

7. Recognise that the confession of the Christian church is that we are justified by faith, not by theologyy. It was the Gnostics who taught the latter, but the early Christians flatly rejected the notion. Theology is a believer's attempt to express his faith in Christ—what He means to him, how he feels about God and His revelation through the Word (both Christ and the Scriptures). That expression will mature if these principles are remembered.

The wish of Christ was that His church may be one (John 17). He is responsible for it happening. In fact, it has occurred and is happening. But we have some trouble perceiving what He meant. Mature Christians can afford to explore. They can afford to be magnanimous in all theological discussion. Our reaction to different viewpoints, as pastors, says something about our maturity.

* Texts marked R.S.V. are from the Revised
Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946,
1952 ©1971, 1973.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Ewin Zackrison is associate professor of religion in the Division of Religion, Southern College of Seventh-day Adventists, Collegedale, Tennessee.

August 1983

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