In August 1996, the Associated Press reported that "Roman Catholics and some Protestants are denouncing a book published by a major Protestant denomination that claims the pope is in league with the devil."1
The denomination? The Seventh-day Adventist Church. The book? God's Answer to Your Questions, an abridgement of Bible Readings for the Home Circle, an Adventist standby since 1888.
Do we need this kind of publicity? No, we don't! Some may think such press is a mark of faithful prophetic proclamation. That is not so.
Today many see Adventists in a favorable light. If the media should continue to focus attention on our indictment of other denominations, the situation could change. Given the distinctive message and character of Adventism, many are bound to misunderstand us. But if we arouse unnecessary prejudice against ourselves, we may preclude many from giving God's crucial, end-time message a fair hearing.
Why is this suddenly a problem? The answer is that a hundred years ago interdenominational hostility was taken for granted. Adventists were not alone in faulting the teachings of others; we were but one in a crowd. As we approach a new century, however we look around and, except for a few groups, such criticalness is no longer the norm. The major denominations are models of tolerance when it comes to other faiths, including Roman Catholicism.
The problem is serious. Reaching people in a predominantly secular culture is daunting enough without having to overcome deep barriers of resentment toward our church. Yet, to be realistic, we should anticipate more damaging publicity. In the AP story, Sibley Towner, professor of biblical interpretation at Union Theological Semi nary, said: "Anti-Catholic language these days usually comes from small sectarian groups affiliated with right-wing political causes such as the Ku Klux Klan."2 Association with the KKK is not the kind of publicity we need, however right or wrong we may consider men like Towner to be.
No muffling of the message
On the other hand, truth is truth, and the church has been entrusted with a warning message for this world, soon to be deceived by the antichrist. Ellen White has said, "Satan has devised a state of things whereby the proclamation of the third angel's message shall be bound about....There must be no toning down of the truth, no muffling of the message for this time."3
"In the very time in which we live the Lord has called His people... to expose the wickedness of the man of sin who has made the Sunday law a distinctive power, who has thought to change times and laws, and to oppress the people of God who stand firmly to honor Him by keeping the only true Sabbath."4
Ellen White also gives the following perspective, however: "Avoid running down the churches; do not let the people receive the idea that your work is to tear down, but to build up, and present the truth as it is in Jesus."5
" [We are] not to provoke those who have accepted this spurious sabbath, an institution of the Papacy in the place of God's holy Sabbath.... The force of persecution fol lows the steps of the dragon. Therefore great care should be exercised to give no provocation."6 At this time we should not publicly label anyone, either on billboards, subway placards, radio, television, or in public meetings, as the antichrist.
Fortunately, in the same book, Ellen White provides practical counsel on resolving the dilemma, at least partially, by proposing a strategy that will minimize public prejudice without "toning down the truth" or "muffling of the message." The key is judicious timing.
Waiting for the right moment
"Do not at the outset press before the people the most objectionable features of our faith, lest you close their ears to which these things come as a new revelation.... If truth were presented in so large a measure that they could not receive it, some would go away, and never come again."7
"Make great allowance for others who have had no knowledge of the Scriptures except through the interpretations given by ministers and church members, and who have received traditions and fables as Bible truth. They are surprised by the presentation of truth; it is as a new revelation to them, and they cannot bear to have all the truth, in its most striking character, presented to them at the outset."8
"Do not make prominent those features of the message which are a condemnation of the customs and practices of the people, until they have opportunity to know that we are believers in Christ."9
"I have been shown that our ministers go too rapidly through their subjects and bring the most objectionable features of our faith too early into their effort." 10
When Jesus sent the twelve on their first evangelistic tour, He was concerned that their campaign be effective, not confrontational. "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16, NIV). Our evangelistic methods should be no less shrewd and innocent.
An appealing strategy
Here is how Ellen White describes Paul's strategy on timing: "Paul's habit was to dwell upon the prophecies when with the Jewish people, and bring them down step by step and then after some time open the subject of Christ as the true Messiah." 11
To a different audience the apostle changed the message but still gave careful consideration to timing: "To the Gentiles, he [Paul] preached Christ as their only hope of salvation, but did not at first have any thing definite to say upon the law.... Thus when, melted and subdued, they gave them selves to the Lord, he presented the law of God as the test of their obedience. This was the manner of his working adapting his methods to win souls." 12
The three angels' messages are sequential. The first one is positive. It trumpets the good news that Jesus has made salvation available to the world. It appeals to all to worship the Creator God and lays the foundation for the Sabbath and the pre-Advent judgment. Only when exposed to these wonderful truths is the hearer confronted by the messages of the other two angels, which have a more "negative" spin. Here certainly is an effective order after which we may model our evangelism.
What specific steps should we take in adopting this "sequential evangelism"? First, our initial contacts with the public through literature, evangelistic meetings, and media ministries should emphasize positive truth in its most favorable light. The best way to identify a counterfeit is to study the genuine. During this first phase, prospects would be encouraged to read books like Steps to Christ and The Desire of Ages.
In this phase, the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation could still be presented, but the names of existing denominations would not be used. The little horn power, for example, could be referred to as "the medieval Roman church," with no mention of modern Roman Catholicism. The endtime persecutors of the remnant may simply be described as a combination of church and state that enforces false religious precepts.
Second, the fuller truth, concerning apostate religions, could be given to prospective converts only after they have shown some understanding and acceptance of our basic doctrines. This may be done through personal or small-group Bible studies or baptismal classes. During this phase they could be introduced to books like The Great Controversy and Bible Readings for the Home Circle.
Despite our best efforts, accusations of church-bashing will no doubt be leveled against us. It is extremely important that our official response be honest. In this age of political cover-ups, the public and the press are quick to disonant double talk. If we deny our published teachings or at tribute them to Adventist fringe groups, we will be perceived as not only bigots but dis honest bigots. 13
Though sequential evangelism will not stop the inevitable persecution depicted in Scripture, by being both shrewd and innocent, we may decrease negative personal and media reactions (such as the AP story) and increase the number who will be a part of the kingdom of God.
1. Jan Cienski, as reported in Spectrum, September 1996, 56, 57.
2. Ibid., 57.
3. Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 230.
4. Ibid., 233.
5. Ibid., 227.
6. Ibid., 235,236.
7. Ibid., 201.
9. Ibid., 231.
10. Ibid., 246.
12. Ibid., 230, 231.
13. According to the AP article, George Reid, head of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference, in explaining the Adventist position, responded candidly to the interviewer's question. After citing the views of Martin Luther and John Calvin, he stated, "We still believe that it's the reasonable way to understand these prophecies, arising from the text itself and not political correctness" (Spectrum, 56).