Beginning in the late 1960s Africa has been flooded with one person crusades, representing unofficial Adventist groups from North America, Australia, and Germany. These groups claim to be faithful to historic truth and to uphold the writings of Ellen G. White. Most claim to speak as Seventh-day Adventists, but work under their own particular brand name.1 They believe themselves to be messengers of special light to the church. Africa and Asia have become their mission fields. They send thousands of free cassettes, pamphlets, magazines, and books to pastors and believers in this part of the world. 2 Unsuspecting laity and clergy receive these materials, read them, and even preach from them. They unwittingly believe these messages are "present truth" or "historic Adventism." What's more, Adventists cannot afford and rarely receive official Adventist publications from our publishing houses. The only literature many a pastor receives is from these independent groups.
The authors of these publications are usually introduced as ordained, credentialed ministers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, deeply concerned about issues presently affecting the church. They claim to have carefully studied our landmark beliefs. The printed material and cassettes are filled with quotations from Ellen White with a few biblical texts scattered here and there.
The church members in Africa are not fully aware of what transpires in the council halls of the General Conference. Nor are they fully acquainted with our church history and its development. This makes them easy prey to these messengers of confusion.
How they operate
Usually someone from these independent ministries offers to study the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy with a targeted individual or individuals in their home. The meetings are held in private. The leader will often tell the members that the church leaders would not be happy with such meetings, and if discovered, they may be dealt with harshly because the church does not want them to learn "the truth."
The studies usually involve quotations from Ellen White, selectively chosen and interpreted to suit the group's particular doctrinal position. References to such quotations are manuscripts or letters that members have no easy access to and cannot check for themselves. By the time the local church and pastor become aware of what is happening, weeks have gone by, and the seed of division is on its way to full growth. The affected church members become hos tile and combative.
These independent groups select a narrow list of topics and present their interpretation as "historic truth." And the litmus test for salvation is the acceptance of their version of historic Adventism. They tell members this is what will prepare them to receive the latter rain, stand in the time of trouble, and grant them translation. And who would want to miss such an easy opportunity of making it to heaven with a ready-made syllabus of do's and don'ts? Therefore, honest yet deceived church members study until their faith in God's church and mission is destroyed. They replace their faith with a religion of works and new-found zeal. Even when they are later shown their error, human pride makes it difficult for many to return to the fold of Christ.
How to deal with the problem
The local church does take measures to combat the problem, and this often includes the threat of being disfellowshipped. Thus, the local church confirms what the members have been told that they will be harshly treated for studying "the truth."
How is the church dealing with these independent ministries? Not very well. Let me personally offer what I perceive as our weaknesses.
First, an issue of how much we care.
Often we give the impression of in difference bordering on neglect. Although these groups have been around since at least 1914, 3 the church has not adequately answered their charges nor dealt with the groups. The handling has been left to unprepared local church leadership.
Our communication system does not adequately pass on information to the field concerning these groups. An example is a recent action by the North American Division and General Conference officers against Hope International and Hartland Institute. By the time the field churches became aware of this action, students from Hartland were conducting evangelistic crusades in Africa with a previously church-granted clearance. The groups have already established a firm footing in Africa, with followers that include church members, pastors, and even a few sympathizers on the administrative level. If the General Conference action was communicated to the world field widely and in time, we could have prevented much damage. In a world with modern communication technology, what is the reason for this lapse?
Second, a problem of education and training.
Those behind the independent ministries operating in Africa are usually people of experience and better education than either the local pastor or conference official. The group's local worker is often an ex-SDA who knows the terrain very well. In view of this, we need to develop a well-trained pastoral force that can understand and impart the theological and historical heritage of Adventism. Right now our junior ministerial and college courses in Adventist history are completely outdated. Course contents cover little in the area of offshoots and present no exhaustive history of the church past or present. Textbooks are grossly out-of-date. Thus seminary and college graduates are ill-equipped to deal with the problem of offshoots. Perhaps the White Estate needs to establish more research centers in developing countries to deal with the use and abuse of Ellen White's writings. The issue of her authority is not a problem at this time, but the way she is used to support sundry teachings is.
Another educational factor is that church members involved with off shoot groups are better educated and can easily consume the load of English publications and cassettes. They may have traveled outside the continent and returned with a booty of "present truth" messages, which are then distributed to the local churches who study them, praising their spiritual contents. This is how some of the "messages" of self-pro claimed prophets got into so many churches in Tanzania. Such infiltration becomes even easier when pastors have to care for 10 or more churches, leaving them with little time for nurturing and shepherding.
Third, a question of values.
The church often ignores these independent ministries until it finds they are accepting tithe money, thus raising the issue of the church's values versus the independent ministries.
Further, although the off shoots may carry misinformation, at times they do break real news. It would be helpful if the Adventist Review or Ministry would notify the membership of unpleasant events instead of leaving it to the independents.
While I commend some recent articles on the issue in the Adventist Review, we have unwittingly provided offshoots material for their busy printing mills. Obviously the church has made shifts in its beliefs since 1863, for truth is progressive. But attempts at accommodating divergent views may be counterproductive. Each time we face a doctrinal crisis, we tend to redefine our beliefs, tightening here and revising there, to meet the crisis. But in the process we create new problems. Others take on these changes as a cause. We need to project an image of Adventism, rooted in the Word, sure of its history, mission, and destiny.
1 Such as Morningstar Ministries, Historic
Truth Publications, Hope International, Lightbearers,
Independent Non-Conformist SDA
Church, Bible Revelations, the SDA Reform
Movement, and the SDA Reform Movement
International Missionary Society. The list is not
2 Publications include Waymarks of Advent-
Ism, The Law of Life in Justification by Faith,
The Third Angel's Message of Righteousness
by Faith and Its Present Rejection, Keepers of
the Faith, Adventism Challenged, Adventism
Proclaimed, The Gospel of the Four Angels,
Youth Do You Dare, Adventism Jeopardized,
Adventism Vindicated, Adventism Unveiled,
Adventism Imperiled, etc. The most widely cir
culated is Our Firm Foundation.
3 Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia
(Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1976), pp. 1332, 1333.