Our Problem With Authority Part 3: What if the Church is Wrong?

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Our Problem With Authority Part 3: What if the Church is Wrong?

In part two of this series, we discussed that God has earthly representatives to whom He has delegated authority—specifically parents, governments, and the church. We also discovered that these authorities cannot be taken lightly, since disregarding them is as disregarding the voice of God.

However, we pointed out that since these delegated authorities are subservient to God’s ultimate authority, they are to be obeyed only insofar as they do not contradict a “plain thus saith the Lord”.[1] The Word of God must be the final and ultimate authority in the Christian’s life.

 

So this begs the question: What should we do when it appears as though the church has violated a “plain thus saith the Lord”? When applied to the case of parental and civil authority, we understand well that we ought to obey God rather than man, but the church also claims to speak for God—so what then? Put another way, if the church violates our conscience, do we then not have the license to disregard the decisions of the church?

RELATED LINK: A More Perfect Union

 

Not a New Question

 

It is no secret that there’s significant controversy within the Seventh-day Adventist church right now regarding this very question. However, this is not a new dilemma.

 

Throughout the history of Adventism, there have been people who take upon themselves the task of pointing out the sins, theological errors, and sundry apostasies they see in the church. Not infrequently, these entities feel entitled to redirect tithe funds to themselves on the basis that they are more faithfully following the Bible than the church; some may even encourage members to join their independent congregations, and perhaps most disturbing is that sometimes these individuals resort to ad hominem attacks on church leaders whom they hold responsible for the problems.

 

In the minds of these folk, they are merely carrying out their conscientious understanding of Scripture, living up to the clear light of Truth, and consequently “crying aloud, sparing not, and lifting up their voice like a trumpet” to show a church in flagrant error “their transgressions, and the house of Jacob their sins.”[2]

 

This type of behavior has traditionally been associated with the more conservative wing of the church, but the reality is that human nature is the same regardless of our theological leanings, so this isn’t a problem that is exclusive to any one segment of believers.

 

The Jerusalem Council, Conscience, and Conflict

 

If we rewind even farther back into history, it’s remarkable to realize that the very first “GC Session”—the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15—resulted in a fallout stemming from this very same question. The issue of the day that threatened to split the fledgling church was introduced tersely in verse one.

 

And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ (Acts 15:1 NKJV).

 

The primary contention was not merely cultural accommodation in ministry methods, nor was it policy for the bureaucratic machinery of the church. It was regarding what God required for salvation—in other words, a matter of conscience! The Judaizers believed that Scripture taught that circumcision was a requirement for salvation, and to their conscience, it was a hill worth dying on.

 

In fact, this issue was so paramount to them that it would be the cause of continuous and calamitous conflicts for the rest of Paul’s ministry. Ultimately, Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem was precisely due to the pent-up acrimony resulting from this epochal decision.[3]

 

From the very beginning of the Christian church, there has existed a tension between personal conscience and decisions of the church. Ellen White had this to say regarding the aftermath of the Jerusalem Council:

 

Not all, however, were pleased with the decision; there was a faction of ambitious and self-confident brethren who disagreed with it. These men assumed to engage in the work on their own responsibility. They indulged in much murmuring and faultfinding, proposing new plans and seeking to pull down the work of the men whom God had ordained to teach the gospel message. From the first the church has had such obstacles to meet and ever will have till the close of time.[4]

 

It is crucial to note that this faction of dissenting brethren were not merely ignorant rabble-rousers or disreputable ruffians. These were intelligent, God-fearing Jewish Christians—many even “believing Pharisees”[5]—who sincerely and conscientiously believed that the “plain thus saith the Lord” taught that all believers must be circumcised to be saved.

 

They were astute Bible students who had voluminous amounts of scriptural support for their position. Indeed, they had the entire Old Testament as well as millennia of Hebrew history to draw from! Yet, they were wrong.

 

RELATED LINK: Unity in the Book of Acts

 

Most relevant to the church now is the reminder that we need not be surprised that this issue has arisen again in our day. Genuine Bible students will disagree—perhaps even vehemently—and there will inevitably be times when consciences conflict and convictions on what Scripture says differ. But just because someone can produce prodigious amounts of Biblical proof, does not immediately mean that they are right. Additionally, even if someone suggests that their conscience is violated, that doesn’t necessarily make it so.

 

Clarifying the Current Concern

 

A major allegation against the church today is that its voted position on ordination constitutes a violation of conscience. However, it seems that even among those who believe in women’s ordination, that belief isn’t held with the same level of conviction by all.

 

For some, it’s permissible but not obligatory, while for others it’s a matter of injustice on the level of slavery. Some view it as an issue the Scripture is silent or inconclusive on, therefore up for interpretation in each cultural context. While for yet others, it just feels like the right thing to do.

 

The motion presented in the 2015 GC Session was for regional autonomy to decide upon the matter, which clearly indicates that it was not intended as a universal Biblical mandate on such level as a Fundamental Belief.

 

So, it’s difficult to fully grasp what is meant when it is argued that the church is violating the conscience when that claim is leveled with no real consistency or clarity. It does raise the question of whether this is merely an issue of a difference in conviction and if it is appropriate to frame this as a matter of conscience at all.

 

Moreover, just because someone feels conscientiously motivated to act contrary to the policy of an organization to which he or she belongs does not automatically make that organization a suppressor of that person’s conscience. Rights of conscience are only violated when a person is veritably prevented from making choices in harmony with it, or if they are coerced against their will to do something contrary to their beliefs.

 

The fact that a volunteer organization, like the church, allows individuals to freely remove their membership, means no legitimate coercion of conscience can realistically take place. While no one is encouraged to do so, the fact remains that as long as we have liberty to leave, we have liberty of conscience. This stands in stark contrast to the Protestant Reformers who were not permitted to depart from Papal orthodoxy nor permitted to leave the church peacefully, but rather were persecuted to death for their beliefs.

 

Nevertheless, taking the concern at face value—because the principles apply to many issues beyond the current impasse on ordination and also with equal force had the GC vote gone the other way—perhaps the best description of the central issue is that it appears to many that the voted position of the church is in opposition to clear teachings from Scripture. So, the question is if there’s guidance from God on how to navigate such a moral dilemma where it appears as though the church is in open conflict with the Bible.

 

The Most Urgent Question

 

If it is our genuine conviction that the church has made a decision contrary to the clear teachings of Scripture, whatever the issue may be, the most urgent question we must answer is whether we believe the Seventh-day Adventist church to still be the Remnant church of Bible prophecy. Is Adventism still the final movement before Jesus comes, the one true church to finish God’s work on earth, or has it apostatized and forfeited that role?

 

If we believe that decisions by the GC Session have placed the church in such open apostasy where it is no longer God’s Remnant, then the only ethical decision is to leave the church to join another one or to start a new one.

 

Don’t we say in every evangelistic series that we should only join the church that follows the Bible faithfully? Therefore, disassociating ourselves from Adventism would be the only moral act of conscience if this indeed is our genuine belief.

 

However, what if we DO believe that Adventism is still God’s true Remnant church?[6] Now we have a “plain thus saith the Lord” on one hand in conflict with decisions by the Remnant church on the other. How should we respond? Is it possible to respect the authority of the church while still having a clear conscience in harmony with the Bible?

 

RELATED LINK: Trust and the Body of Christ

 

A Safeguard from Private Interpretations

 

While it is crucial for each individual to “study to show thyself approved unto God,”[7] we also must remember that no “scripture is of any private interpretation.”[8] This means that if a certain idea or doctrine is plain only to me and no one else, I am probably wrong. For a belief to be “plainly” revealed in Scripture, it should be something that is apparent to others besides just me. This principle is echoed in Ellen White’s counsel.

 

There are a thousand temptations in disguise prepared for those who have the light of truth; and the only safety for any of us is in receiving no new doctrine, no new interpretation of the Scriptures, without first submitting it to brethren of experience. Lay it before them in a humble, teachable spirit, with earnest prayer; and if they see no light in it, yield to their judgment; for “in the multitude of counselors there is safety.”[9]

 

While we ought to have confidence in our Biblical understanding, let us also remain humble enough to recognize that no matter how studious or sincere we are, it is possible for us to sometimes be wrong. Perhaps a skewed presupposition, unknown bias, or other blind spots may prevent us from grasping a particular truth.

 

God leads us collectively more reliably than He leads just me individually, and the body of Christ acts as a doctrinal safeguard to help mitigate against fanaticism, false doctrine, and other deceptions.

 

Christ and His church are inseparable. To neglect or despise those whom God has appointed to lead out and to bear the responsibilities connected with His work and with the advancement and spread of the truth is to reject the means which God has ordained for the help, encouragement, and strength of His people. To pass these by and think your light must come through no other channel than directly from God places you in a position where you are liable to deception and to be overthrown.[10]

 

If we believe that the church is in conflict with a “plain thus saith the Lord”, we ought to first humbly and honestly ask if it might be possible that we are the one who’s wrong. The problem for those Judaizers who disagreed with Paul and the Jerusalem Council’s decision was not merely that they believed they were right, but it was that they simply could not accept that they might be wrong.

 

What if I’m Actually Right?

 

But isn’t it possible for the church to be wrong sometimes? Since it is comprised of fallen human beings, we know it is not infallible. So how should we respond if that truly is the case?

 

In the 1850’s, S.N. Haskell was one of the first Adventists to come to the conviction from Scripture that it is sinful to eat pork, and he campaigned for the issue to be made a testing truth within the fledgling church. James White even wrote an article at one point to debunk this idea.[11] Ellen White wrote a testimony to Haskell during this time, and what she said may surprise you.

 

I saw that your views concerning swine’s flesh would prove no injury if you have them to yourselves; but in your judgment and opinion you have made this question a test, and your actions have plainly shown your faith in this matter. If God requires His people to abstain from swine’s flesh, He will convict them on the matter. He is just as willing to show His honest children their duty, as to show their duty to individuals upon whom He has not laid the burden of His work. If it is the duty of the church to abstain from swine’s flesh, God will discover it to more than two or three. He will teach His church their duty.[12]

 

Remarkably, Ellen White soundly reproved Haskell for agitating his Biblical position on pork eating and for creating division in the church. It’s remarkable because in a stunning turn of events, we discover after her health reform vision in 1863, that Haskell was right all along![13] He was ahead of his time, yet Haskell was admonished to keep his ideas to himself.

 

Notice Ellen White did not dispute the Biblical arguments against pork eating at all, her greater concerns were in regard to harmony within the church and how God makes known the church’s duty. Comments in the following paragraph clarifies this point further.

 

God is leading out a people, not a few separate individuals here and there, one believing this thing, another that…Some run ahead of the angels that are leading this people; but they have to retrace every step, and meekly follow no faster than the angels lead. I saw that the angels of God would lead His people no faster than they could receive and act upon the important truths that are communicated to them. But some restless spirits do not more than half do up their work. As the angel leads them, they get in haste for something new, and rush on without divine guidance, and thus bring confusion and discord into the ranks. They do not speak or act in harmony with the body.[14]

 

Now this is not to say that members should sit idly by and turn a blind eye if they witness problems occurring in the church. Ellen White outlines that there are appropriate ways and proper channels to address such things without resorting to public disputes or attacks. In the eyes of God, doing the right thing in the wrong way, is still wrong.

 

Some have been dissatisfied and have said: ‘I will not longer pay my tithe; for I have no confidence in the way things are managed at the heart of the work.’ But will you rob God because you think the management of the work is not right? Make your complaint, plainly and openly, in the right spirit, to the proper ones. Send in your petitions for things to be adjusted and set in order; but do not withdraw from the work of God, and prove unfaithful, because others are not doing right.[15]

 

God, in His longsuffering, works with His people where they are, and only moves as quickly as they are able to follow—and that means progress sometimes occurs far slower than we may like. Moreover, God makes it clear that when it comes to the responsibility of the church at large, He will teach the church collectively their duty. God leads us more reliably than He leads just me. If it were not so, and all exercised the right to push their strongly held views regardless of harmony with the body, how easy it would be for the church to be thrown into disarray.

 

The word of God does not give license for one man to set up his judgment in opposition to the judgment of the church, neither is he allowed to urge his opinions against the opinions of the church. If there were no church discipline and government, the church would go to fragments; it could not hold together as a body. There have ever been individuals of independent minds who have claimed that they were right, that God had especially taught, impressed, and led them. Each has a theory of his own, views peculiar to himself, and each claims that his views are in accordance with the word of God. Each one has a different theory and faith, yet each claims special light from God. These draw away from the body, and each one is a separate church of himself. All these cannot be right, yet they all claim to be led of the Lord. The word of Inspiration is not Yea and Nay, but Yea and Amen in Christ Jesus.[16]

 

And so, Haskell learned the lesson that the right thing at the wrong time is still the wrong thing, and that sometimes harmony with the body is more important than merely being right. Fortunately, he leaves us the example of remaining humble, patient, and cooperative toward the church so his influence could be felt when the Lord was ready to lead His Remnant into the light of health reform.

 

What if we are absolutely convinced that the church is in genuine conflict with God’s Word and that we are in the right? Should we throw off the church’s authority and proceed to follow our own way?

 

Do we believe that God is still in control of His church? Do we believe that the Lord will make it right? Do we believe that He can? What would Haskell say?

 

Are We Right or Righteous?

 

There are things God desires more for His people than merely being right or the defense of their rights. The spirit of unity, mutual forbearance, and humble esteeming of others better than ourselves, is of greater value in the sight of God. Perhaps no story exemplifies this better than that of David and Saul.

 

After God rejected Saul as His rightful king over Israel, Samuel anointed David to succeed him. David had the divine right of kings if anyone had one, yet for years, David was hunted like a fugitive by the very king that God had dispossessed. It was an open secret that God had appointed David to be the next king, and common knowledge that Saul had lost the Lord’s blessing. If David chose to seize the throne from Saul, he would have been well justified in doing so.

 

In fact, one day the opportunity to do exactly that presented itself:

 

Then Saul took three thousand chosen men from all Israel and went to seek David and his men in front of the Rocks of the Wild Goats. He came to the sheepfolds on the way, where there was a cave; and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the inner recesses of the cave. The men of David said to him, ‘Behold, this is the day of which the LORD said to you, ‘Behold; I am about to give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.’ Then David arose and cut off the edge of Saul’s robe secretly. (1 Samuel 24:2-4 NASB; emphasis supplied).

 

When Saul entered the cave alone where David and his men were hiding, it certainly seemed like a divinely orchestrated opportunity for David to fulfill God’s Word. David had already been anointed by Samuel and David’s men even quoted God’s promise back to him—he certainly had a “plain thus saith the Lord” if there ever was one! Yet David refused to kill Saul and simply cut off the edge of his robe.

 

David’s immediate reaction is telling:

 

It came about afterward that David’s conscience bothered him because he had cut off the edge of Saul’s robe. So he said to his men, ‘Far be it from me because of the LORD that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’S anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, since he is the LORD’S anointed.’ David persuaded his men with these words and did not allow them to rise up against Saul. And Saul arose, left the cave, and went on his way. (1 Samuel 24:5-7 NASB; emphasis supplied).

 

David refused to stretch out his hand against the Lord’s anointed—even though Saul had forfeited that privilege, was clearly in apostasy, and was trying to kill him! David refused even when it meant all the innocent men following him would continue to remain in danger as long as Saul lived. David refused to kill Saul even though it was within his rights to do so as evidenced by God’s Word and His apparent indications of providence.

 

Pertinently, the Bible points out that “David’s conscience bothered him” for marring Saul’s robe. His conscience was bothered by the prospect that he had disrespected God’s appointed—yet erring—representative on earth, not over whether his rights were being adequately acknowledged. David’s conscience was calibrated not merely for being right, but for being righteous.

 

In a similar subsequent encounter, when David and Abishai entered Saul’s camp one night and Saul’s life was once more within his grasp, David expressed his rationale for how he would maintain his belief in God’s promises while still respecting an erring, human authority.

 

But David said to Abishai, ‘Do not destroy him, for who can stretch out his hand against the LORD’S anointed and be without guilt?’ David also said, ‘As the LORD lives, surely the LORD will strike him, or his day will come that he dies, or he will go down into battle and perish. The LORD forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the LORD’S anointed…’ (1 Samuel 26:9-11 NASB; emphasis supplied).

 

David did not surrender his belief in God’s Word; he knew that God would fulfill what He had promised and bring him to the throne eventually. He simply trusted God to accomplish the deposing of Saul and purposed not to take matters into his own hands, even at great cost to himself. His confidence rested not in himself nor any man, but entirely in God. David wasn’t content in merely being right, his goal was to be righteous, and that meant accepting the sacrifice that resulted in not exercising his prerogatives despite having the right to do so.

 

So today, if we find ourselves in disagreement with the church, perhaps even involving clear teachings of Scripture, may we remember David’s example of respect for God’s representative authorities—even the erring ones. Will we allow God to work out His divine will, or will we take matters into our own hands? Are we willing to accept the sacrifice that may result when we place our full confidence in God to bring about what He has promised? Let us remember the rest of David’s story. Even though it wasn’t quick, easy, or painless, God fulfilled His promise without (in spite of!) David’s involvement.

 

Satan is ever seeking to divide the faith and hearts of God’s people. He well knows that union is their strength, and division their weakness. It is important and essential that all of Christ’s followers understand Satan’s devices and with a united front meet his attacks and vanquish him. They need to make continual efforts to press together even if it be at some sacrifice to themselves.[17]

 

Let us not neglect that this lesson from David applies with equal force to those who may agree with the decisions of the church and feel justified in vilifying leaders whom they view as obstinate and rebellious. Just because we may believe ourselves to be on the “right” side of an issue, God forbid that we be guilty of stretching out our hand against the Lord’s anointed too! May we extend Christian courtesy and respect to those who may disagree with us, even as David did to Saul—to be right AND righteous.

 

Between Two Authorities: Five Steps to Move Forward

 

What if we love our church and genuinely believe that it is the end-time prophetic movement of God, His true church, but at the same time sincerely believe that it has made a mistake that contradicts the clear teachings of the Bible? This seems like an impossible choice where we must disobey one in order to respect the other. How do we resolve this dilemma between two seemingly conflicting moral authorities?

 

Whether the issue is ordination, the Trinity, the 2520, abortion, racially segregated conferences, the use of the tithe, or any other point of contention, here are five points derived from the principles covered above that allow us to respect both the authority of our conscience as well as that of the church.

 

  1. Willingly stop agitating our views to the detriment of the unity and mission of the church.

 

While we certainly ought to express our concerns “plainly and openly, in the right spirit, to the proper ones,” yet if things still don’t proceed as we would like and we feel at liberty to raise our voice publicly on a matter against the church, may we remember Ellen White’s counsel to Haskell.

 

Whether we end up being right like him or wrong like the Judaizers, let us remain in harmony with the brethren and stop dividing the saints with public displays of disaffection and recrimination. Sometimes pressing together requires some sacrifice to ourselves.

 

  1. Understand there’s no need to give up our beliefs.

 

Submission doesn’t require us to agree, and neither does it require us to surrender our beliefs. Like Ellen White advised Haskell, we may continue to hold to our beliefs privately and even to believe that the church is wrong.

 

It may involve stepping away from certain responsibilities out of conscientious objection and it may be tough like David’s tension with Saul, but no one can coerce us to believe something against our will.

 

  1. Accept the possibility that we might be wrong.

 

Consciences can be compromised,[18] our reading of the Bible may be incorrect, and we may have presuppositions or biases that prevent us from seeing the truth. If this could happen to the believing Pharisees who were more diligent Bible scholars than us, then why not us too? Remember that God leads us more reliably than He leads just me. This means we need one another, and the humility to listen to each other.

 

  1. Trust that even if we are right, God will lead the church together in due time.

Perhaps like Haskell we’re ahead of our time, and God is patiently working out His perfect will on His divine timetable. Perhaps we’re like David, and we have yet a long time of waiting in the wilderness. May we place our confidence fully in God rather than man, and trust that in His time, He will correct His erring people and will not fail to lead His church together.

 

  1. Remain in a respectful and cooperative relationship with the church.

 

If/when the golden opportunity comes that the Lord is ready to make the necessary changes, we ought to be in the position to share our convictions from Scripture in order that we might add to the collective voice of the body so we can arrive at the best decision.

 

This occurs only if we haven’t burned our bridges and destroyed our influence first, because God has made it clear that He won’t circumvent the established processes of the church but will lead His church together through His designated channels.[19] Let us not stretch out our hands against the Lord’s anointed, no matter how defective or erring we might believe them to be.

 

Let This Mind Be in You

 

When Jesus came to this earth, He demonstrated to us what it meant to be under authority while yet maintaining a firm conscience.

 

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:5-8 KJV; emphasis supplied).

 

Particularly at the end of His life, Jesus submitted to authority even though He was right and the earthly authorities He was under were wrong. For Christ, it wasn’t about being right, it was about being righteous—even if it cost Him His life. Jesus had rights, but He chose not to exercise them for your sake and mine. May we possess that same mind.

 

Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. (Philippians 2:2-3 KJV; emphasis supplied).

Click here to read the rest of Alistair’s series on the Authority

______

Notes.

[1] GC 595.1

[2] Isaiah 58:1

[3] See Acts 21:17-30

[4] Ellen White, Acts of the Apostles (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1911), p. 196.2; emphasis supplied.

[5] Acts 15:5.

[6] See LDE 51 and 56.

[7] 2 Timothy 2:15, KJV.

[8] 2 Peter 1:20, KJV.

[9] Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5 (Battle Creek, MI: Review & Herald, 1889), p. 293.1; emphasis supplied

[10] Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3 (Battle Creek, MI: Review & Herald, 1872), p. 418; emphasis supplied.

[11] James White, “Swine’s Flesh,” Present Truth, vol. 1 (Nov. 1850).

[12] Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1 (Battle Creek, MI: Review & Herald, 1868), p. 206; emphasis partially supplied.

[13] Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1998), p. 281-284.

[14] Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1 (1868), p. 207; emphasis partially supplied.

[15] Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9 (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1904), p. 249; emphasis supplied.

[16] Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3 (1872), p. 428; emphasis supplied.

[17] Ibid., p. 434.4; emphasis supplied.

[18] See 1 Timothy 4:1-2, Titus 1:15, Hebrews 10:22, Mind Character and Personality, vol. 1, p. 322.4, Our High Calling, p. 143.3.

[19] See Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3 (1872), p. 433.1

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About the author

Alistair Huong

Alistair Huong serves as the Executive Director of AudioVerse, a supporting media ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He resides in the Collegedale, TN area with his wife, Deborah, and daughter, Leilani. In his free time, he enjoys gardening and writing about personal finance at his blog, https://www.savingthecrumbs.com/.