The Adventist Church and independent ministries

Some lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church from the Wesleyan revival

Woodrow W. Whidden, Ph.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology, Theological Seminary of the Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite Province, Philippines.

Self-supporting," "supporting," and "independent" ministries are terms that have created considerable discomfort and confusion in the minds of many Adventists in recent years.

These expressions encompass Adventist para-church groups and organizations that normally have some missionary, evangelistic, revival, or re form (theological or lifestyle) goal as their reason for existence. "Self-sup porting" and "supporting" groups have generally been positively viewed by denominational administrators. It is the "independent" ministries that have raised the most concern.

While these varied "independent" ministry groups are not monolithic in their theological emphases and their relationship to the church, they all seem to have two things in common:

1. The vast majority of these groups proclaim their loyalty to the formal denominational organization. This, however, is usually followed with a careful listing of the church's numerous faults and theological defects.

2. While affirming loyalty to the church, such organizations deliberately claim that the church is deficient both in doctrinal purity and ethical accomplishment.

What is to be made of these parachurch groups and their various theological and ethical concerns? How should the leadership of the denomination relate to these groups and yet still maintain a sense of unity and common effort in the fulfillment of the church's stated mission and goals?

This article looks at the history of the Wesleyan revival in 18th century Britain to see if there are any lessons that can be learned from the way the Wesleyans and the established Anglicans related to one another.

The Wesleyan/Anglican struggle

Any effort to draw parallels from one historical setting to another is always a delicate pursuit since the parallels of history are often elusive and inexact. The Wesleyan Revival,1 however, presents numerous striking similarities to many Adventist para-church movements. The parallels and concerns are so striking that I find them quite irresistible as a laboratory to explore the dynamic ways religious minorities and establishment majorities relate to one another.

John Wesley never intended to be a divisive schismatic in any of the innovations that he introduced in his 18th-century evangelical revival. He died an ordained Anglican priest and proclaimed his loyal intentions to the very end. How ever, Wesley never shied away from doing what he thought necessary to advance his Methodist outreach, especially to the "poor" who were caught in the social and spiritual crossfire of the early Industrial Revolution. It is in this context that we will seek to identify the major factors that contributed to the unwanted schism that the Methodist revival ultimately experienced.

Two main sets of factors brought about the schism: doctrinal and organizational.

Doctrinal contention

Three main doctrinal issues gripped the Wesley brothers: justification by faith, Christian perfection, and the "witness of the Spirit."

Justification by faith. John Wesley's advocacy of justification by faith largely stems from the influence of the Pietistic Lutheranism of the Moravians, especially that of Peter Bohler. The discovery that divine forgiveness is the basis of holy living, rather than the re verse, was the key to John's evangelical awakening. He stoutly proclaimed the doctrine and experience of justification by faith alone to all who would listen.

This brought considerable discomfort to Anglican divines of the day who had been nurtured in the moralism of Enlightenment rationalism. Many Anglican clergy considered justification by faith alone a serious threat to moral formation. Wesley's response to such criticisms was to refer his critics to the articles on justification in the Thirty-nine Articles and especially to the Edwardian Homilies (1547),2 which ad dressed the subject. The evangelical (mostly Calvinist) Anglicans and Independents largely supported Wesley in this emphasis.

Christian perfection. When it came to Wesley's emphasis on Christian perfection, the partisanship was somewhat reversed: the Calvinistic evangelicals suspected Anglican moralism, even Papal, Tridentine influences. The establishment vicars and prelates were more indifferent.

The issue was to remain controversial, especially with evangelicals—both in the church and among independents and dissenters. Most of the opposition came from the Calvinistic wing of the evangelical revival led by the redoubt able itinerant and sometime ally of the Wesleys—George Whitefield.

The heart of the Wesleyan under standing of perfection could be expressed this way: just as there was an identifiable moment of grace called conversion and justification, so there was also a second or subsequent work of grace variously referred to as perfection, perfect love, fullness of faith, or simply the blessing of holiness.

Very few Anglicans denied that there was, subsequent to conversion and justification, the experience of sanctification and growth in grace. However, the Wesleyan understanding became controversial in its insistence that this second work of grace was instantaneous and essential for salvation. The recipient of this second blessing was supposed to receive the direct witness of the Spirit that full deliverance from the power of sin had taken place; and while remissible, it was taught that the perfect had all original or birth-sin purged away in an instant.

This vision of "Scriptural holiness," proclaimed and wrought out in the nurturing setting of the Methodist United Societies (with their bands, classes, and emphasis on devotional piety, Christian service, and sacramental observance), was deemed by Wesley to be the distinctive contribution of the Wesleyan revival to Christian thought and experience. Furthermore, the spread of "Scriptural holiness over the land" was understood to be Methodism's central reason for existence.

Witness of the Spirit. Drawing on Paul's concepts found in Romans 8:14- 17, Wesley held that Christians should experience the direct witness of the Spirit to their minds and hearts that they had come into a saving, forgiven relationship with God through Christ.

The Spirit that witnessed to their initial salvation was also deemed to be the Spirit who would witness to their experience of fullness of faith—the second work of perfect love. This concept seemed to stir up the most reaction and opposition. Wesley's opponents were not slow to suggest that this version of the personal witness by the Spirit was the source of revivalistic "enthusiasm" (the 18th-century derisive term for religious fanaticism). Especially troubling to many of the rationalistic Anglicans was the evident emotionalism, which had been manifested in the early stages of the revival. Such a direct link to the Spirit also seemed to inspire what appeared to many to be a species of spiritual elitism.

Organizational issues

I am using the expression "organizational" in a rather broad way to describe a wide range of issues having to do with parish boundaries, evangelistic techniques (such as field preaching and the use of lay preachers), parachurch structures of nurture (the societies with their bands, classes, and various ministries to the poor), public criticisms of the clergy, ordination, and the administration of the sacraments.3 It is in these more practical issues that we find the most dynamic elements actuating the schism that finally erupted.

"The world is my parish" As the Wesleyan wing of the evangelical revival rapidly unfolded in the late 1730s and early 1740s, it did so in the setting of "field preaching" (open air proclamation) by Whitefield and the Wesleys. The established church did not appear to have any burden to reach out to the alienated masses and thus the Methodists (both Calvinistic and Wesleyan) felt led to take the revival to the people where they were.

Such an outreach seemed inevitably to incite the parochial instincts of the established clergy who accused Wesley and company of not respecting their parish boundaries and prerogatives.

When Wesley was challenged about his obvious disregard of such established boundaries, he replied that his ordination to the Anglican priesthood gave him universal access to the people of the church. In fact, he would proclaim that not only his ordination, but also the great needs of the masses and the evidences of the abundant harvest in such non-parochial ministry justified him to conceive of the whole "world" as his "parish." Things were simply moving beyond the most ambitious dreams of the Methodist revivalists, and there was no time to pander to the insecurities and proprietary claims of the settled vicars.

Lay preachers. The problem, how ever, became even more acute when Wesley felt the need to use the services of itinerant laymen to serve as his "preaching assistants" or "sons in the Gospel." Their work was not only to win new believers, but also to minister to the growing multitudes of awakened and converted sinners who were being gathered into the burgeoning United Societies of the Wesleyan wing of the Methodist revival. Ordained itinerants such as Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley were one thing, but to have to contend with an invasion of fervent and mostly uneducated lay insurgents was more than many vicars could bear.

It was the role of these "sons in the Gospel" that would eventually prompt many questions about ordination and the lay preachers' right to administer the sacraments. These questions of ordination and administration of the sacraments and the Wesleyan religious societies would be the main issues that would eventually precipitate schism.

Religious societies. Religious societies were nothing novel in early 18th-century Britain. Numerous small groups had gathered for nurture or some specific ministry (such as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts and the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge). The difference between these groups and what would develop under Wesley's organizing genius is that the former groups were always under the sponsorship of the Anglican ministry, while Wesley's groups were under his direction.

So while Wesley urged his people to attend services at the local parish church (especially the sacramental occasions), it should come as no surprise that the Wesleyan Methodists found their main church identity more and more in their local societies and the various ministries of outreach and nurture, and not in the Anglican church. This was all exacerbated by the often hostile attitudes of the local parish priests and some bishops.

Alienation in the church. In addition to these tensions, when the scores of Wesleyan converts arrived at their local parish church for communion, the re sources of the vicars and the parish were overwhelmed with the large groups seek ing sacramental fulfillment. On many occasions officiants did little to hide their annoyance. Thus, many Methodists did not feel welcome at the church's sacra mental seasons and viewed the clerical officiants as critical and corrupt.

This tense state of affairs contributed significantly to a growing undercurrent among the Methodists agitating for the ordination of Wesley's "assistants." Wesley, to his credit, had strenuously sought to unite his efforts with the parochial clergy (especially those with more evangelical leanings), but his efforts were only slightly successful.

In fact, the lack of sacramental opportunity for Methodists in North America, during and after the Revolution, was one of the main factors that forced Wesley's hand when he ordained Thomas Coke, who would in turn go to North America and ordain Frances Asbury, leading to still further schism.

Was schism preventable?

The question is hard to answer; yet there seems to be, from the easy chair of historical retrospect, a number of steps that both Wesley and Anglican leaders could or should have taken to prevent it.

First, the doctrinal issues. Wesley and his wing of the evangelical revival were quite orthodox by any of the acknowledged canonical standards of the Anglican establishment. In fact, Wesley was probably correct in his oft-repeated claim that he was more orthodox than were many of his most critical opponents. The main bones of contention centered around Wesley's teaching on justification and perfection.

On the first issue, Wesley certainly had the better part of the argument. Wesley and the Calvinistic evangelicals were quite "justified" in being critical of the pervasive moralism (and its de facto legalism) prevalent among many of the establishment clergy.

The issue of perfection and the witness of the Spirit, however, is consider ably more problematic. It is quite ironic that the establishment clergy would be all that critical of Wesley's perfectionism: on the face of it, it would seem that their moralism would be quite comfortable with Wesley's emphasis on sanctification. It appears, however, that what sparked their criticism was Wesley's move to base his perfectionism solidly in the setting of the evangelical emphasis on human depravity and total corruption—a perspective not very popular among many clergy heavily influenced by the Enlightenment optimism regarding human nature.

So even though Wesley's perfectionism was not really all that radical in comparison with the Puritan heritage of sanctification (making a clear differentiation between willful sin and unwitting mistakes), it did cause considerable opposition from both the establishment clergy and the Calvinistic evangelicals.

Furthermore, anytime there is a strong emphasis on "holy living" in the setting of revivalistic fervor, it seems to generate a body of rebuke aimed at the unsanctified—especially the clerical opponents who can very easily be perceived to be resisting the power of the Spirit. Such an atmosphere is simply fraught with great schismatic potential. Add to this the evident emotionalism of the early revival and the rather arrogant claims of the clear"witness of the Spirit" that the Wesleyans were among the perfected, and the charge of fanaticism was bound to erupt. The result was growing suspicion and a deepening divide.

Could anything have been done? Ironically, today there are very few Wesleyans that hold to the perfectionism of Wesley. A bit of patience on the part of the Anglicans would have probably permitted the Wesleyans, over time, to work through their issues.

Wesley, for his part, would have been wise to proclaim his doctrine with a bit more tentativeness. Not only is one hard put to be able to cite such a perfectionistic precedent in church history, but also the witness of the Scripture, while it speaks of the witness of the Spirit, is absolutely quiet about anything like an instantaneous work of perfecting grace that burns away all propensities and tendencies to sin.

When the main body cannot reach consensus on a doctrinal issue, it is best for all concerned, especially the promoters of that which is new and novel, to hold their positions with some charity and prefix their teaching with the caveat—"this is just one person's dearly held conviction." The establishment needs to exercise patience, giving much sensitive pastoral attention to the doctrinal insurgents and pray that time will reveal whether there is precious new light or only a dead-end street.

The organizational issues. It is prob ably asking too much of the 18th-century establishment Anglicans, but they appear to have been the main offenders when it came to most of ecclesiological issues. Some theological patience and positive tolerance and support for many of Wesley's para-church outreach and nurturing innovations could have greatly augmented the numbers and ministries of the church. In retrospect, much of the opposition to Wesley and his "sons in the Gospel" was the fruit of cultural elitism and parochial jealousy.

As we view the Wesleyans and their work among the masses in hindsight, we wonder at the lack of compassion and adaptability shown by the established leaders. Many more of the bishops and the local vicars could have simply given basic support and affirmation to the abundant fruits of both spiritual and social uplift that were so evidently manifest amongst the efforts of the Wesleyans.

Considerations for preventing schism

All across Protestantism, including Adventism, and in a number of sectors in the Roman Catholic community, there is a growing appreciation for small group ministries and lay leadership in all aspects of church outreach and nurture. In the face of these trends, denominational ministers and administrators need to adopt wise and restrained practical and/ or theological caution. At bare minimum, in many cases, church leaders need to get out of the way if there is an abundantly evident manifestation of positive spiritual fruitage. If the teaching and action of a particular para-church movement shows little or no positive fruitage, there may well be need for church administrations to take necessary action.

Second, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has long recognized many para church organizations as "self-supporting" movements. These include varied ministries—from medical, publishing, missionary, and training institutions to independent business persons who have special burdens to be entrepreneurial about specific ministries. The denomination, from its highest levels down to its local churches, has now developed quite a lengthy and successful history of engaging such para-church ministries in mutually affirming ways that have produced surprisingly little schism.

This does leave the question of how the "independent" reform movements and the established denominational leaders can most harmoniously relate to one another.

In the Adventist situation, the central issues that appear to be unresolved between the main body and some of the so-called "independent" or "self-sup porting" ministries does not seem to primarily concern theology per se. Like with the Wesleyans and the Anglicans, the is sues mostly have to do with matters of organization and lifestyle. The main matters crying out for resolution are these: How should the organized body relate to groups that continue to criticize it regarding real or imagined compromise on moral and lifestyle issues? Further, how does the church relate to a manifest claim of entitlement, by the "in dependent" ministries, to receive "tithes."

The solutions don't reveal them selves easily, but some potential schisms do appear to be amenable to solution if enough mutual patience and dialogue can be brought to bear on the situation. Much of the stress could be alleviated if the establishment administrators would take more time to reassure the "independent" ministries that they affirm their doctrinal orthodoxy, loyalty and sincere zeal to protect, for example, the delicate balance between justification and sanctification. Denominational leadership needs to be prepared to humbly and patiently dialogue with the independents and seek every possible area of agreement. They should be prepared to be vulnerable to the questions and concerns put to them.

On the other hand, the "independent" ministry leaders would do well to renounce any intention to knowingly receive tithes. They need to ask themselves: How far are we actually willing to go when it comes to our separate publications, institutional development, camp meetings, conventions, and other independent teachings and activities? Are we reaching the point where the finer points of our own prescribed behavior and teaching are becoming the primary points of ecclesiastical identity and meaning for our followers? And, at what point do our criticisms of the church and its leadership become destructive or irreparably damaging and divisive to the body of Christ?

With the loudest protestations of loyalty and all the best motives for re form and renewal, the Wesleyans eventually found their primary ecclesiastical identity with the United Societies rather than established Anglicanism. Do Adventist "independents" really want now to go this route when it comes to established, denominational Adventism?

1. The best introduction and overview of the Wesleyan Revival of the eighteenth century is Richard P. Heitzenrater's Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995).

2. See John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, Third Edition (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 230, 239-66.

3. The classic study of the Wesleyan's relationship to the Church of England is Frank Baker's John Wesley and the Church of England (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970).


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Woodrow W. Whidden, Ph.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology, Theological Seminary of the Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite Province, Philippines.

August 2000

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