Through the spiritual gifts given each believer, the church will accomplish everything God has commissioned it to do.
Nurturing the members of each congregation, sharing the gospel world wide, and any other legitimate church action will be accomplished through the application of the gifts of the Spirit in the life of each individual.
Why hasn't the Seventh-day Adventist Church developed a comprehensive theology of such a crucial aspect of truth? The question is more perplexing because of our official be lief that one of those gifts, prophecy, is an important identifying mark of our church.1 This article seeks to explore this little-discussed theme.2 The thesis is that a widespread misunderstanding about the distribution of the prophecy gift has been at least partially responsible for a thwarted nurture ministry among members which in turn has led to a serious apostasy rate (802,995 in the last quinqennium alone).
Despite our long standing antipathy to creeds, "the fundamental beliefs" of Seventh-day Adventists were first described in 1930 by a group of four (M. E. Kern, F. M. Wilcox, E. R. Palmer, and C. H. Watson). Athough never voted by any official committee, their statement was printed in the 1931 Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook. It included this paragraph: "God has placed in His church the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as enumerated in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4.... These gifts operate in harmony with the divine principles of the Bible, and are given for the perfecting of the saints, the work of the ministry, the edifying of the body of Christ" (377-380).3
Twenty years later, in the 1951 year book, the following words were added: "The gift of the Spirit of Prophecy is one of the identifying marks of the remnant church. 1 Cor 12:1,28; Rev 12:17; 19:10; Amos 3:7; Hosea 12:10, 13. They [Adventists] recognize that this gift was manifested in the life and ministry of Ellen White."
Whatever the motivation to add those words 36 years after Ellen White's death, the results are clear: the church-wide understanding that Ellen White's prophetic ministry constituted the manifestation of the prophecy gift in the end time.
The 1981 yearbook published a much more comprehensive affirmation on spiritual giftedness. It stated, in part: "God bestows upon all members of His church in every age spiritual gifts which each member is to employ in loving ministry for the common good of the church and of humanity.... According to the Scriptures, these gifts include such ministries as faith, healing, prophecy. ... One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White. As the Lord's messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth."
This 1981 statement affirms that lay members gifted with prophecy should minister through that gift and that Ellen White did and continues to minister through the same gift. To many Adventists, that is a conundrum. They conclude that one cannot have it both ways, and with little or no further thought, they relegate the gift to Mrs. White alone.
Having attempted over the past 25 years to assist members in discovering their giftedness, I know how disbelieving and diffident they become when faced with the probability that they have the ministry of prophecy. "That can't be," they reason, "that's Ellen White's gift." It was this reality (in part) that led to the withdrawal of my Spiritual Gifts Inventory (which identified the prophecy gift) and the development of the New Spiritual Gifts Inventory and the Personality Profile Inventory to identify clusters of gifts rather than name individual gifts including prophecy.4
But is there not some way to reconcile the twin contentions of the 1981 statement? Having discussed this theme with hundreds of Adventist ministers in my doctoral classes at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, I believe Adventism has not yet embraced the verity that the prophecy gift is and always has been one of the most widespread of the Spirit's gifts. It has to be, because it is a major nurture gift (along with pastoring) intended by God to build the church and maintain its spiritual health.
The apostle Paul makes this dear in his words to the local congregation in Corinth: "Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy,"5 and "prophecy, however, is for believers"6 (i.e., the congregation); and again, "For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone [i.e., the entire local congregation] may be instructed and encouraged;"7 and still again, "Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy,"8 for this is how members of the body of Christ are nurtured.
If Paul's words are true, can we affirm the prophecy gift among lay persons in local congregations and also uphold the unique and distinctive prophecy ministry of Ellen White? This is something we must affirm, because a comprehensive lay involvement in nurture and outreach will never be fully realized until we understand the multiple distributions of the prophecy gift.
New Testament teaching
Like other New Testament epistles, Romans has two sections: doctrine and duty. And Paul usually bridges the gap between these two major divisions with the word therefore, as we read at the beginning of Romans 12 "therefore brethren." After the development of the doctrine of righteousness by faith, Paul presents a logical application. Once we have experienced the joy of salvation by faith, have died to self and been raised to a new life as a new creature, only then can we begin a life of ministry.
There is great intentionality in the use of the words therefore brethren in Romans 12:1. They introduce Paul's presentation of spiritual gifts. All who join God's family because they have been made righteous by faith are gifted for ministry. Each receives gifts/abilities to minister for the Lord Jesus, and these gifts fall into two major areas: nurture and outreach. Romans 12 names several ministries that one can expect in the local congregation. They include helps, teaching, exhortation, giving, leadership, mercy, hospitality, and, predictably prophecy.9
In reading the clear sense of this passage, there is no possibility of separating prophecy from the other gifts that Paul indicates will operate through the members of local congregations.
In 1 Corinthians there are two gift lists. The first names ten gifts, including prophecy. 10 The second gift list at the end of the chapter names eight gifts, again including prophecy.11 The meaning is clear when you read all of Paul's lists of the gifts, in Romans, Ephesians, and 1 Corinthians: Every spiritually, healthy local congregation will have people ministering through the gifts, including the prophecy gift.
Paul uses the identical illustration for an understanding of spiritual gifts in all three New Testament passages, where he discusses the topic at length. He likens giftedness to the organs of the human body. While some organs are most useful, they are not vital to life (you can live a full life without a hand, a foot, an eye, an ear); other organs, though, are imperative. Without a heart or liver, for instance, the body dies. Similarly, the gifts of prophecy and evangelism are essential. Without them a congregation will die. For example, Someone's past utilization of the evangelism gift will not suffice for the church today even though they may leave a heritage of many printed sermons, appeals, and techniques. And someone's past utilization of the prophecy gift will not suffice for the complete nurture of the worldwide church today either. We need and can expect multiple contemporary manifestations of both these gifts.
Three spheres of ministry
Which brings us back to the question: If local congregations need people to utilize their prophecy gift (as was the case in the early Christian churches in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome), how do we understand Ellen White's church-wide prophecy gift? It is obvious that although in one sense these two manifestations are the same gift, in another sense they are very different.
To begin, it should be affirmed that every gift from the Holy Spirit is appropriate for its purpose. Although the gifts are given to finite sinful human beings, the Spirit's gifts are completely appropriate for their divinely-appointed purpose. More than a decade ago (when this article was first submitted to Ministry), I had come to see the prophecy gift as operating in three spheres of influence. First are the "holy men of God" who penned the words of Scripture. Second, I believe that Ellen White was equipped by God with the prophecy gift (and several other equally important gifts) to guide the Adventist Church. And third, I believe that today, as in every other period of church history, both men and women are gifted by the Holy Spirit to exercise the gift of prophecy/nurture at the local congregation. In each of these three spheres, the prophecy gift is perfectly appropriate for its designated purposes, but there may be significant differences in those purposes from one situation to another.
In each of these three spheres of influence, the prophecy gift operates in four dimensions that are divergent from each other and in four that are similar. First, the factors in common.
1. All with the prophecy gift speak for God, because it is a spiritual gift from God to speak for Him.
2. All minister in harmony with the Bible's definition of the gift in 1 Corinthians 14:3. (This is the only spiritual gift in the New Testament that is defined.) Paul says it is for "strengthening, encouragement, and comfort."
3. The prophecy gift is rarely involved with foretelling future events. (Some contend that foretelling is more the work of a seer than a prophet.) To illustrate:
Sphere A. Comparatively speaking, there is little foretelling of the future in the books of the Bible with exceptions in some chapters of such books as Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation. But that constitutes a small percentage of the Scriptures.
Sphere B. Similarly, Ellen White's ministry was rarely concerned with foretelling future events with the exception of the eschatological segments of The Great Controversy as an example. In her corpus, that represents a small percentage.
Sphere C. And at the local church level, one would not anticipate any foretelling.
4. Those with this gift are fully inspired by God to accomplish His intended purpose through them. You can't be partially inspired! As a result, in all three spheres, ministry will be appropriate for its divinely appointed purpose. The Holy Spirit guarantees it will be so as long as the messengers are faithful to the call.
Now four dimensions in which there is divergence.
1. Duration. How long is each individual's prophecy ministry to continue?
Sphere A. Over three thousand years ago, the writers of Scripture began to record the thoughts God placed in their minds. And God intended those words to be a continuing expression of His will until the end of the ages. The prophecy ministry of these men has lasted for scores of centuries.
Sphere B. By contrast, Ellen White came in the end time to serve as a special messenger, with her writings maintaining relevancy until the Lord returns. This is a much briefer period; to the present, only a century and a half.
Sphere C. In the third category, the gift operates for even briefer periods, just the years of the members' committed lives. The duration of the ministry of this group is usually measured in decades or less.
2. Hearers. To whom does each sphere minister?
Sphere A. It was God's intent that the writers of Scripture should benefit the entire human race.
Sphere B. In the second sphere, we find Ellen White ministering through her gift to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She is not the prophet of Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, or Mormons. She is the prophet of Adventists. This is not to say that her writings have not on occasion been a blessing to people of other faiths or won't be in the future as well. But she is our prophet, accepted as such by us, but not by the Christian world or the world at large. This is a much narrower focus.
Sphere C. In the third sphere, we have, by comparison, a far smaller range of influence, a local congregation or more likely a small group in a local congregation such as a Sabbath School class. This is a very limited influence.
3. Basic purpose. What is God's intended purpose in each sphere?
Sphere A. The writers of Scripture enunciated the great eternal principles on which God's kingdom rests a normative function. Its history, biography, poetry, etc. contain these principles to guide the believer and convict the seeker.
Sphere B. Ellen White led the maturing Adventist Church by making modern applications of the eternal principles of Scripture for the worldwide church and by constantly pointing members back to Scripture a "formative" function, to quote an article in Ministry from the Ellen G. White Estate. 12 "Little heed is given to the Bible," she wrote, "and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light." 13
Sphere C. Local church members exercise their ministry by making local and personal applications.
4. Symbols. In the quote above, Ellen White suggests two appropriate symbols for two of these spheres:
Sphere A. The first sphere she symbolized as a greater light, like the sun.
Sphere B. Her own writings she symbolized as a lesser light, like the moon, which reflects light from the sun.
Sphere C. Members of local congregations with the gift which may be symbolized by candle light.
At this point all we have is a theoretical model. Most advances in knowledge come through the development of theory. But we must test the theory. In doing this, three periods of history are obvious time laboratories Old Testament, New Testament, and modern times.
The Old and New Testaments
A search through some four hundred references to prophets/prophecy in the Old Testament reveal some thirty named men and women categorized as prophets/prophetesses, though many of the best-known are not called prophets, even if the ministry they accomplished for God makes it obvious that this was their gift. The New Testament picks up these hanging threads and identifies another fifteen Old Testament individuals as prophets, including Daniel, Jonah, Enoch, and David.
Throughout the centuries of the Old Testament, of all those God called to exercise this special gift, a mere 38 are explicitly named prophets/prophetesses. And of the writers who penned the Old Testament corpus, only some fifteen are actually called prophets.
This article has already suggested that there are three discrete spheres in which the prophecy gift operates to benefit the Adventist Church today: Scripture writers, Ellen White, specific members of local congregations identified above as spheres 1, 2, and 3 respectively.
At this point, the question will probably be asked, Did any sphere 1 prophets know they were to have sphere 1 influence? Probably not. If they had, their words would presumably have been couched in broader, less localized terms. What seems more likely is that these gifted people recognized God's call to speak His message to the nation of Israel (a sphere 2 ministry). But it was the clarity and universal applicability of the timeless principles they recorded that marked these books, intrinsically, for preservation and recognition as a sphere I prophecy ministry.
The Old Testament canonical writers who knew they were called as sphere 2 prophets acted also in sphere 3; that is, they were human beings in contact with the people among whom they lived and responded to individuals' questions and needs as well as speaking for God to the nation at large. For example, Elisha didn't delegate another to assist the workman who lost a borrowed ax. Spontaneously, he met an axman's need, although the outcome was of no national significance.
Inevitably, based on the examples of history, there is an overlap in the spheres of prophecy ministry in which the wider incorporates the narrower, hut not the reverse. That is, sphere 1 includes spheres 2 and 3. Sphere 2 includes sphere 3; however, a sphere 3 ministry appears to operate only in sphere 3.
In the centuries of the Old Testament, it seems there was no need for more than one sphere 2 prophet to exercise the prophecy gift for the entire nation at any one time. Nor was there always the need for back-to-back succession of prophets. But in those cases where God indicated that there would be an immediate succession, that also became clear. For example, the cloak of the ascending Elijah descended from the sky and was taken by the succeeding Elisha, based, at least in part, on God's knowledge of the need.
The record of the New Testament, spanning a mere seven decades, does not contain the same quantity of information as the Old. It contains only some two hundred references to prophets and prophecy. And hardly any people are actually named as possessing the prophecy gift, except some eight, including John the Baptist, Silas, Zachariah, and Anna. Apparently, just as in the times of the Old Testament, the prophets of the New provided such a vital function for the church that they were recognized as exercising the gift of prophecy with out always being named as such in the record.
The end time
Then what of the end time? As the fifteenth century began, a series of individuals were raised up to speak for God. As the world church came out of the depressing darkness of the Middle Ages, it faced the twin tasks of rescuing the truths long distorted by centuries of individual and ecclesiastical meddling and the sharing of the gospel with multitudes of unsaved. With no attempt to be comprehensive, the succession included Wycliffe, the Morning Star of the Reformation, and Luther, who revived the doctrines of righteousness by faith and "the priesthood of all believers"--crucial for a revived spiritual-gifts ministry. Williams revived the symbol of the washing away of sin in baptism by immersion. Calvin, among other things, revived a form of church government that restored authority to a local congregation. Wesley emphasized the fruit of a methodical Christian life. Miller recovered the truth of a returning Savior. Each of these people made an invaluable contribution to the process of restoring lost truths taught by Jesus in order that, in these last days, there might be a worldwide proclamation of "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3).
All of these heroes I would classify as sphere 2 people, with the prophecy gift given them by the Holy Spirit that they might contribute something of major importance to the congregations of the church worldwide. Without question, the natural consequence of the ministry of these prophetic voices was spiritual life, health, and growth for the body of Christ in the end time.
Is the ministry of the founders of some end-time denominations named above the same as the Old and New Testament prophets? Not exactly, but perhaps their work is comparable. Clearly, the ministry across denominational boundaries of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and others will continue through the end time to the Christian church at large as we await the Lord's return and preach the gospel to earth's last generation.
Two important clarifications
Before concluding, two brief but important observations need to be made. First, there will be some who re main skeptical about a local congregational application of the prophecy gift. They may wish to curtail its application in a given congregation because they fear that it might be abused on that level. They may wonder if it will encourage splintering or "Congregationalism," as persons on a local level claim that prophetic revelations give them a doctrinal or structural authority which supercedes that of the church as a whole. In that connection it should be said that the most recent Statement of Fundamental Beliefs of the church denies this objection when it affirms: "God bestows upon all members of His church in every age spiritual gifts which each member is to employ in loving ministry. . . . These gifts,include such ministries as prophecy." And if read in context, the apostle Paul could have been speaking of no other sphere but a local one when be referred to the prophecy gift in Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 14:1, 3, 4, 5, 22, 24, and 29. Besides, it would indeed be a travesty to be so concerned about possible abuse that we quenched the authentic manifestation of the gift.
Second, what can one say about the issue of "inspiration" when manifested in the local church through the prophecy gift? A fear that is a twin to the one mentioned above may cause some to shy away from embracing the gift as God offers it in the congregational setting. They may be afraid that some will take the "revelations" they receive through the prophecy gift in the local fellowship of believers and place them above the authority of the inspired work of Ellen White or even the Bible.
But because there is no such thing as "partial inspiration," we can only conclude that people are fully inspired by God to perform their specific ministry. In the third sphere of application of the prophecy gift, the ministry is a limited local ministry, unlike the wider authority of the first and second spheres. God can and does equip people for just such local ministries. That is the very essence of the theology of spiritual gifts: Believers are equipped for minis try, and the healthy manifestation of this ministry is one that cannot contradict the essence of what has been communicated through the first two spheres.
Which brings us back to the original hypothesis. If church members are to be adequately nurtured, if the fruit of evangelism is to be faithfully preserved and commissioned into service, there must be nurturers with the prophecy gift in every congregation. There must be many of them, as was the case in Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome.
The Bible continues to nurture those who read it. The words Ellen White wrote to her church, our church, continue to nurture those who read them today. And the spoken words of some individuals in each local congregation around the planet must be accepted as part of God's purpose for the nurture of His church. This third-sphere manifestation sees godly individuals chosen by God, gifted by God, and inspired by God with the spiritual gift of prophecy, exercising it for the "strengthening, encouragement, and comfort" of the members of local congregations. The acceptance of this reality is a key to the nurture of the church; otherwise, the erosion of membership will continue unabated in most areas of the world.
1 Rev 12:17; cf. 19:10.
2 Additional aspects of the discussion can be found in my
commentary on Revelation 14 and 19 in The Lamb Among the Beasts
(Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1996).
3 See LeRoy Edwin Froom, Movement of Destiny
(Washington, D.C., Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1971),
4 An additional factor was the difficulty of using
nomenclature from the New Testament that frequently carry
preconceptions and misconceptions of meaning.
5 1 Cor. 14:1.
6 1 Cor. 14:22.
7 1 Cor. 14:31.
8 1 Cor. 14:39.
9 Rom. 12:6-13.
10 1 Cor. 12:8-10.
11 1 Cor. 12:28.
12 Ministry, October 1981, 7.
13 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and
Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 257.