A man condemned to die, John the Baptist found himself locked away in Herod's prison. Faced with the ominous prospect of being beheaded, he found his faith in the Messiahship of Christ challenged. "Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?" (Matt. 11:3) was the question he sent his disciples to present to Jesus.
Jesus responded, "Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them" (verses 4, 5). This list of observable indicators were characteristics of the work of the One who should come.
If modern-day John the Baptists were to ask the probing question of our church in North America "Are you the true church---or should we look for another?" what would we point to? Would we be able to say that we possess the early church fervor? Could we show an effective use of spiritual gifts? Would we be able to point to 1 John 3:14 and say "We know ... because we love the brethren"? What could we point to as our badge of validation?
Our badge of validation
The challenge of being the "true church" has motivated us to share our unique perspectives over the years. But today we face a bigger challenge. Are we truly Christ's church? Can we offer fruits that bear witness to God-empowered ministries? Can we, like Christ, offer tangible indicators that dispel the doubts? How long will being caught in a Laodicean time warp be our excuse for not resembling the body of Christ?
At first blush we go for our unique points of doctrine---the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the Spirit of Prophecy, and health reform. We would also cite the fact that we are a worldwide church. These offer very good credentials. However, they are quite different from the kind of credentials that Christ shared with John the Baptist, a death-row inmate grasping for his last straw of hope: "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them."
None of the credentials cited by Christ were doctrinal. They all related to helping "restore in man the image of his Maker."1 (This coincides with data that shows that people do not generally leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church over doctrinal concerns, but over relationships and felt needs.) Christ's credentials centered around relieving suffering and healing.
A taxonomy of kingdom growth
It is not my desire to minimize the value of our doctrines. They are the foundation of our value system. It is to place doctrine in its proper relationship to the overall taxonomy of kingdom growth. If we would genuinely love people, manifesting kindness, com passion, and tenderheartedness, there would be 100 baptized where now there is one. Isn't it interesting that Christ validated His Messiahship by pointing John the Baptist to His miracles of healing and the restoration of people's lives? Isn't it interesting that He didn't validate His Messiahship by a body of beliefs? He pointed to the fruits of a God-empowered ministry "words made flesh."
If inhabitants from another galaxy were to visit our planet today and study the Scriptures from stem to stern, would they find the Seventh-day Adventist Church to be an embodiment of Christ's ministry? Would they find the fruits of ministries dynamically connected to Jesus Christ? Would they identify our church as the true church? Would we be recognizable outside of our doctrinal garb?
Ironically, the church has become like Jacob when he sought to deceive his father, Isaac, into giving him the birthright. Isaac smelled the tasty food. He felt Jacob's goat-hair-covered hands. The dialogue went like this:
Isaac: "Who is it?"
Jacob: "I am Esau, your firstborn."
Isaac: "Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not."
Isaac touched him and said, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau."
If we were to approach Christ seeking His confirmation as disciples, would we have to cover ourselves with the church's doctrines to keep Him from seeing who we really are? Would He say, "The doctrines are Mine, but the life belongs to Caesar"?
Many are asking the question that John the Baptist asked: "Is this the one, or should we look for another?" I am convinced that we need not look further. However, the disguise of doctrine must be peeled back and a rebuilding of what's real must take place. Models of ministry that focus on the Holy Spirit as the source of gifts that empower each member-minister must be put in place. Christ's methods alone can bring true success. "The Saviour mingled with men. ... He ... ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, 'Follow Me.'"2 We must truly become what we claim to be Christ's true church.
Adapted from Ministry Makers, a publication of NAD Adult Ministries, spring 1996.
1. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), pp. 37,38.
2. ____, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 143.