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Must we agree?

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Archives / 1988 / February

 

 

Must we agree?

Alden Thompson

Alden Thompson, Ph.D., is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla College, College Place, Washington.

 

The year 1888 rivals 1844 as the most interesting date in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. In that year powerful crosscurrents and deceptive undercurrents swirled together in a manner that has captivated laity, clergy, and scholars alike.

Then, as now, the church faced a bewildering array of challenges. Whether or not it learned the right lessons from the 1888 experience is much debated. On the negative side of the ledger, the years following the 1888 conference witnessed some stunning setbacks. Key leaders in the church, including J. H. Kellogg, A. T. Jones, and E. J. Waggoner, eventually departed the ranks of denominational workers. For good measure, Kellogg took along with him the denomination's showcase health institution, Battle Creek Sanitarium.

Even among the leaders who remained faithful, attitudes and practices were far from exemplary. In 1901 Ellen White returned from Australia and attended her first General Conference session in 10 years. Standing before the assembled delegates, she exclaimed: "I would rather lay a child of mine in his grave" than to have him go to the Review and Herald Publishing House to see the principles of heaven "mangled and perverted." Then speaking specifically of the church's leadership, she declared: "That these men should stand in .a sacred place, to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be—that is past."1

The institutions of the church had their troubles too. After abandoning its Battle Creek College for a site in rural Berrien County, the church also moved its headquarters and publishing house out of Battle Creek, nudged along by spectacular fires at the press and sanitarium.

On the positive side, however, these same difficult years witnessed phenomenal growth in the church's educational and mission work. Even the General Conference session of 1901, where Ellen White had spoken such strong words about the denomination's leaders, witnessed a transformation of attitudes and some significant steps toward reorganization. It was also during these years that Ellen White was producing some of her richest literature on the life of Christ: Steps to Christ (1892), Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (1896), The Desire of Ages (1898), Christ's Object Lessons (1900), and The Ministry of Healing (1905).

The checkered history of the church in the aftermath of the 1888 General Conference session invites careful analysis. Whether or not the church learned its lessons at the time, the 1888 experience can yield to us today helpful suggestions that can point us toward renewal and unity as a people. This article explores some of those suggestions, paying particular attention to Ellen White's commentary on the events of the day.

The Adventist Church in the 1880s

The tensions that spilled out into the open at the 1888 General Conference session had been building for some years. A superficial serenity, however, may have masked the problem from the church in general.

In Ellen White's view, such serenity should have been a warning. Peace and quiet in the church can be symptomatic of spiritual laziness. After the conference Ellen White noted, "Whenever the people of God are growing in grace, they will be constantly obtaining a clearer under standing of His Word." 2 By contrast, a decline in spiritual life is marked by a tendency for believers to "rest satisfied with the light already received from God's Word and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They be come conservative and seek to avoid discussion."3 So the absence of "controversy or agitation" among God's people is not necessarily a healthy sign. "When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what." 4

In the 1880s the idea that healthy church life should be marked by a certain lively ferment was not universally accepted by Adventist leadership. From California, through the pages of the Signs of the Times, Jones and Waggoner had been propounding fresh perspectives on righteousness by faith. Back East, the editor of the Review and Herald, Uriah Smith, was not convinced by their articles, and said so in print. And the General Conference president, Elder George I. Butler, was unsettled by the developments in the West. Because of illness, Butler could not attend the 1888 conference, where Jones and Waggoner presented their messages in person. But he showed his hand in a telegram to the delegates, urging them to "stand by the landmarks."

At the conference itself the reactionary tendency was strong enough to call forth a resolution that would have forbidden teachers at Battle Creek College to present in their classrooms anything new that hadn't been approved by the General Conference Committee. It seems that Jones was under appointment to teach at Battle Creek; the resolution was an attempt to restrict the spread of his "righteousness by faith" dogma.

Ellen White was present when the resolution surfaced. As LeRoy Froom tells the story, she reacted with alarm, questioning the resolution in a "very decided tone" of voice. The resolution was defeated, but even Ellen White's presence and vocal opposition did not hinder one brother from voting for the restriction with both hands.5

Addressing the ministers on October 21, 1888, Ellen White explained why the church must constantly be growing and adapting. The nature of her comments suggests that both Butler's "land mark" telegram and the restrictive teaching resolution were very much on her mind. She urged, "The varying circumstances taking place in our world call for labor which will meet these peculiar developments. . . . Instructors in our schools should never be bound about by being told that they are to teach only what has been taught hitherto. Away with these restrictions."6

Then, reaching back into the arsenal of Adventist slogans, she picked up a phrase that could provide the proper counterpoint to Butler's "landmarks." "Present truth," a phrase lifted from the King James Version of 2 Peter 1:12, was Adventist shorthand for the dynamic, cutting edge of truth as applied to the contemporary needs of the church and the world. "That which God gives His servants to speak today," she affirmed, "would not perhaps have been present truth 20 years ago, but it is God's message for this time."7

In sum, then, Adventism in the 1880s apparently had become satisfied with it self and its understanding of truth; the church had become complacent. A changing world, however, demanded that the church develop fresh insights and emphases. "Landmarks" were not enough. The church needed "present truth." But how should the church go about finding it?

Handling controversy and change

Not all change in the church is controversial. When developments are gradual and almost imperceptible, the church can undergo great changes without ever having made a clear-cut decision to do so. Under such circumstances, controversy is likely to erupt only if and when the church awakes and tries to decide whether and how to return to what it once was.

On the surface, Adventists ran into difficulties in the 1880s, not because of imperceptible changes, but because of a refusal to change. In its methods of approach and its doctrinal corpus, the church had slipped into a rut. Ellen White put it this way: "As a people, we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain."8

But by refusing to grow (or change) in its understanding of Scripture and doctrine, the church had indeed changed where it mattered most, namely, in the dynamic quality of its spiritual life. Jones and Waggoner were recovering the "old" experience through new insights into Scripture. But when they attempted to share the doctrinal and scriptural in sights that had transformed their own experience, they met stiff resistance. Since their detractors were not sensitive to the diminished quality of the church's spiritual life, they simply reacted against changes in the old interpretations of Scripture.

During the course of the 1888 controversy, several potential methods of handling the threat to church unity surfaced. Analysis of these methods can be instructive for the church today in the face of similar circumstances.

1. Legislation: the passing of resolutions. Hints scattered throughout the records of the 1888 conference suggest that many of the brethren wanted to resolve their differences, especially the one involving the understanding of the law in Galatians 3, by bringing the matter to a vote. In Ellen White's address to the delegates on November 1 she observed, "There are some who desire to have a decision made at once as to what is the correct view on the point under discussion. As this would please Elder B, it is advised that this question be settled at once. But are minds prepared for such a decision? I could not sanction this course, because our brethren are exercised by a spirit which moves their feelings, and stirs their impulses, so as to control their judgment. While under so much excitement as now exists, they are not prepared to make safe decisions."9

A few years later, with the 1888 experience still forming the backdrop for her remarks, Ellen White commented further on the dangers involved when one attempts to vote on the interpretation of Scripture: "The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and thus root out disagreement. These resolutions may conceal the discord, but they cannot quench it and establish perfect agreement." 10

While it may be necessary to bring certain matters to a vote so that the church can proceed on an agreed basis, Ellen White made it quite clear that voting was not the appropriate way to handle the interpretation of Scripture. Actually, as far as she was concerned, the unity of the church did not depend on unity in the interpretation of Scripture anyway. The 1892 manuscript cited above explicitly makes that point: "We cannot then take a position that the unity of the church consists in viewing every text of Scripture in the very same light."

How much diversity can be tolerated is an issue addressed below. Too much diversity can destroy unity; not allowing enough diversity has an equally deadly effect. But regardless of which way the church may lean, legislation is not the way to handle threats to church unity.

2. A decision by those in authority. An other way of handling controversy in the church is to ask those in authority to settle the issue. In 1888 the church could have relied on the elder statesmen among them, on the elected church officials, or on Ellen White's charismatic authority. Ellen White herself supported none of those options.

Elder statesmen. Some at the conference apparently resented the youth of Jones, 38, and Waggoner, 33. Ellen White did not. As she addressed the delegates on October 21, she argued that it was time for the "aged standard-bearers" to "act as worthy counselors and living witnesses," but that "their younger and stronger brethren should bear the heavy burdens." It was the younger workers who should "plan, devise, and execute" while looking to the older workers as "counselors and guides."11

Elected officials. Ellen White seemed genuinely alarmed by the tendency of some to rely on the church's elected officials to resolve matters of faith and biblical interpretation. From Australia in 1896 she wrote, "I have been shown that it is a mistake to suppose that the men in positions of special responsibility at Battle Creek have wisdom which is far superior to that of ordinary men. Those who think that they have, supposing them to have divine enlightenment, rely upon the human judgment of these men, taking their counsel as the voice of God." 12

In the 1893 edition of Gospel Workers she had written something very similar: "Those who have not been in the habit of searching the Bible for themselves, or weighing evidence, have confidence in the leading men, and accept the decisions they make; and thus many will reject the very messages God sends to His people, if these leading brethren do not accept them." 13

At the conference, on October 24, Ellen White expressed her amazement at the position Elder R. M. Kilgore had taken, namely, that the controverted topics could not be discussed because the General Conference president was not there. She said, "Had Brother Kilgore been walking closely with God he never would have walked onto the ground as he did yesterday and made the statement he did in regard to the investigation that is going on." 14 A few moments later she reiterated the point: "These truths that we have been handling for years must Elder Butler come and tell us what they are? Now, do let us have common sense. Don't let us leave such an impression on this people." 15

Charismatic leader. In view of the tendency of modern Adventists to rely on Ellen White's writings to interpret Scripture, the position she expressed in 1888 regarding her own role is remarkable. Her November 1 address to the delegates is the most enlightening in this respect. She wants "to be instructed as a child," she says. While "the Lord has been pleased to give me great light, yet I know that He leads other minds, and opens to them the mysteries of His Word, and I want to receive every ray of light that God shall send me, though it should come through the humblest of His servants." 16

She supported Waggoner enthusiastically because his overall message "harmonizes perfectly with the light which God has been pleased to give me during all the years of my experience." While agreeing with the overall thrust of his message, however, she still disagreed with some of his views of Scripture: "Some interpretations of Scripture given by Dr. Waggoner I do not regard as correct." Nevertheless, "the fact that he honestly holds some views of Scripture differing from yours or mine is no reason why we should treat him as an offender, or as a dangerous man." 17

So Brother Waggoner could safely disagree with Sister White? Indeed. As she herself put it: "I have no reason to think that he is not as much esteemed of God as are any of my brethren, and I shall regard him as a Christian brother, so long as there is no evidence that he is unworthy." 18

In short, Ellen White did not consider it her role to be the Bible student for the church. She would guide and admonish, but she would not intervene to cut short the study of the Word.

If unity in the church cannot be re stored either by legislation or by pronouncement from the community's authority figures, how does the church arrive at a common basis for action ? That is the point to which we now turn.

Unity in Christ

In the unpublished 1892 manuscript dealing with the unity of the church, Ellen White points out two sidetracks and then the main line on which we may proceed.

The sidetracks are: (1) believing that the unity of the church consists "in viewing every text of Scripture in the same light" and (2) voted resolutions, which may "conceal the discord, but... cannot quench it and establish perfect agreement."

The course she recommends is straightforward but rather intangible: "Nothing can perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christlike forbearance." She counsels the believer to "sit down in Christ's school and learn of Christ." If we learn of Him, "worries will cease and we shall find rest to our souls."

That is helpful, but difficult to put in concrete form. The next paragraph, however, offers a suggestion that we can use as an organizing principle. There she simplifies the essence of the Christian's faith and practice: "The great truths of the Word of God are so clearly stated that none need make a mistake in under standing them. When as individual members of the church, you love God supremely and your neighbor as yourself, there will be no need of labored efforts to be in unity, for there will be oneness in Christ as a natural result."

In other words, Jesus' two great commands (Matt. 22:37-40) form the touch stone by which we test all our actions, doctrine, and interpretations of Scripture. Wholehearted attention to the two great commands will allow our minor differences to fall into perspective. We will be one in Christ because we all are committed to a simple, clearly defined goal.

Such a position allows for diversity, but does not allow diversity to detract from the primary goal. In fact, diversity may very well be essential for reaching that primary goal; it is not simply an irritant to be kept at minimal levels. In Counsels to Parents and Teachers Ellen White argues that diversity, even in our interpretation of Scripture, is essential if the church is to work effectively. She says it is because the minds of men differ that we have four Gospel writers instead of one.

For that same reason, our youth should not have the same Bible teacher year after year. "Different teachers should have a part in the work, even though they may not all have so full an understanding of the Scriptures." 19 Then in a rather stunning statement, she says: "So today the Lord does not impress all minds in the same way. Often through unusual experiences, under special circumstances, He gives to some Bible students views of truth that others do not grasp. It is possible for the most learned teacher to fall far short of teaching all that should be taught." 20

Our task is not done once we have established the principle of unity through diversity. We still must address the question of the limits of diversity and the methods by which those limits are set. Those are matters to which we now turn.

A model for the church

I believe that the church needs two sets of limits, represented in diagram form through two concentric circles (see figure). The inner circle represents those crucial points of faith and practice that all Adventists hold in common. This is the essence of Adventism, the glue that holds us together. It is the hub of the wheel.

The outer circle represents the limits beyond which a person may not go and still be a part of the community—the rim of the wheel, so to speak.

Free and lively discussion can take place in the area between the essential core (the hub) and the outer limit (the rim). This discussion enables the church to adapt its message to the world's needs.

What topics are in that discussable area? Vegetarianism, Sabbath behavior, the wedding ring, certain aspects of the nature of Christ, and even how we understand justification and sanctification. Those are all topics Adventists love to discuss. And we need to discuss them, remembering that we may not all agree and don't have to.

But we also need to ask what kinds of things are in the hub, the core that all Adventists accept. We can answer that question in a variety of ways. First, from a practical point of view, the Sabbath and the Advent are really the two rock-solid elements that keep Adventists together around the world. I would guess that there are already millions of Adventists, including some American college students, who do not appreciate the fine points of the doctrinal statement voted in Dallas in 1980. Yet they are faithful Adventists.

If we move back in history to the founding of our denomination, we find an inner circle consisting of a concise covenant agreement: We the under signed hereby associate ourselves together "as a church, taking the name of Seventh-day Adventist, covenanting to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ." 21

Stepping back to the New Testament era, we may put the two great commands in the core all the law and the prophets depend on these two (Matt. 22:37-40). Matthew 7:12 and Galatians 5:14 provide a similar focus.

In a sense the brethren raised the issue of the core in 1888 when they portrayed themselves as defending the "landmarks." A year after the conference Ellen White addressed that very question, writing that some of the brothers had closed their minds to light from God's Word because "they had decided it was a dangerous error removing the 'old landmarks' when it was not moving a peg of the old landmarks, but they had perverted ideas of what constituted the old landmarks." 22

The paragraph that follows that statement is worth quoting in full because it so nicely illuminates the relationship be tween Adventist history and the central focus on the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus: "The passing of the time in 1844 was a period of great events, opening to our astonished eyes the cleansing of the sanctuary transpiring in heaven, and having decided relation to God's people upon the earth, [also] the first and second angels' messages and the third, unfurling the banner on which was inscribed, The commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.' One of the land marks under this message was the temple of God, seen by His truth-loving people in heaven, and the ark containing the law of God. The light of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment flashed its strong rays in the pathway of the transgressors of God's law. The nonimmortality of the wicked is an old landmark. I can call to mind nothing more that can come under the head of the old landmarks. All this cry about changing the old land marks is all imaginary." 23

In short, in addition to what we've mentioned, then, the doctrines of the state of the dead and of the sanctuary are seen to be firmly rooted in the core of Adventism. The doctrine of the sanctuary was the means of bringing conviction about the Sabbath to the pioneers. The debate on the precise meaning of the sanctuary will be lively and ongoing, an event taking place between the two circles, but the doctrine is firmly rooted in the core, illuminating "the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus."

In every age the core must be relatively simple if it is to meet the needs of the world. And even the core will always include strands that extend out into the discussable area. The church must accept as an ongoing task the defining of the limits set by the inner and outer circles.

The Jerusalem conference of Acts 15 offers a fine biblical model of the defining process at work. After lively debate, the council placed circumcision, one of Judaism's core practices, in Christianity's optional category.

That same conference placed the prohibition against eating food offered to idols in the center core. But 1 Corinthians 8 shows Paul pushing the issue out of the core into the discussable area. In Western countries of our day the issue has become completely moot. When was the last time you saw an Adventist check a label at the grocery store to see if the food was offered to idols? Times have changed; the issues have changed; the church has changed.

That is why the church must continually be aware of its world and be about the task of defining and redefining its limits. It will be a constant struggle, for liberals and conservatives demonstrate opposite tendencies. Conservatives struggle with diversity, and may want to push the inner circle all the way to the outer limit until there is only one circle, not two. Liberals, on the other hand, are inclined to push the outer limits until they disappear at which point the church ceases to be a church. A community of any kind needs boundaries. A community of believers is hardly an exception.

To be effective, the church will need to strike a balance between the conservatives and the liberals. With full sympathy for all and in full awareness of the needs of the world, the church must set the limits for its two circles its core beliefs and its outer limits.

So how does the church go about defining its two circles? Through individual and corporate study, through thoughtful discussion and prayer, through the guidance of the Spirit. Acts 15 shows us the way. From within our own heritage, Ellen White's counsel throughout the 1888 controversy underscores the need for coming together in the Lord, caring for each other, praying for each other, earnestly searching for a clearer understanding of the Lord's will.

In conclusion, it would be appropriate to cite a paragraph from Counsels to Parents and Teachers outlining Ellen White's view of how unity is established. After writing of the necessity of diversity among Bible teachers, she counsels: "It would greatly benefit our schools if regular meetings were held frequently in which all the teachers could unite in the study of the Word of God. They should search the Scriptures as did the noble Bereans. They should subordinate all preconceived opinions, and taking the Bible as their lesson book, comparing scripture with scripture, they should learn what to teach their students, and how to train them for acceptable service." 24

That is a model for the church. Our discussions may be lively, our arguments intense, but if our devotional experience is equally lively and intense, the Spirit will fulfill Jesus' prayer of John 17—we will be one in Him.

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1. E. G. White, in General Conference Bulletin, Apr. 3, 1901, p. 25.

2. ____, Testimonies (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 5, p. 706.

3. Ibid., pp. 706, 707.

4. Ibid., p. 707.

5. LeRoy Froom, Movement of Destiny (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1971), pp. 253, 254.

6. Cited from Appendix A in A. V. Olson, Thirteen Crisis Years (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1981), p. 282.

7. Ibid.

8. E. G. White, in Review and Herald, Mar. 11, 1890, p. 146.

9. Olson, p. 304,

10. E. G. White manuscript 24, 1892 (included in The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials [Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1987], vol. 3, pp. 1087-1095).

11. Olson, p. 288.

12. E. G. White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1944), p. 374.

13. Ibid, pp. 106, 107.

14. Olson, p. 300.

15. Ibid, p. 301.

16. Ibid., p. 303.

17. Ibid., p. 304. (Italicssupplied.)

18. Ibid.

19. E. G. White, Counsels to Parents and Teachers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1943), p. 432.

20. Ibid., pp. 432, 433.

21. See Richard Schwarz, Light Bearers to the Remnant (Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1979), p. 96.

22. E. G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 30.

23. Ibid., pp. 30, 31.

24. ____, Counsels to Parents and Teachers, p. 433.

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