Moving In the Same Direction
Some thoughts about the unity of the church
Theological disunity is threatening the Adventist Church today as never before in our history. The pressures of culture, independent critical ministries, and congregational and ecumenical tendencies in various places have created confusion in our church today. The unity of the church is of vital importance for successful evangelism—yet it is not the product of human ingenuity or cleverness, but the work of God. If God had not led the Seventh-day Adventist Church from its inception through the prophetic gift manifested in Ellen White, this church would most likely no longer exist, or it would be a small church like the Advent Christian Church, which also came out of the Millerite movement, with fewer than 100,000 members today.
Division in the church is the work of Satan. Repeatedly in the early history of our denomination Satan attempted to bring division and error into the church. Each time the church was saved by God’s intervention through the prophetic gift.1 Since then, every generation has had to deal with Satan’s attempt to bring disunity into the church. He has been particularly successful, it seems, in recent decades. However, in spite of it, by God’s grace, the world church is still remarkably united.
The unity of the church is first and foremost a spiritual unity and only secondarily an issue of an organizational structure. What welded the apostles and the early church members together was not an organization but a common experience. First, of course, were the three and a half years in the presence of the Master. Second, it was the experience of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2. Church organization came later.
We find a similar experience in our own early church history. For almost 20 years after 1844 there was no church organization. People opposed any kind of organization, identifying it with Babylon. What held the early pioneers together was a common experience, the imminent expectation of the Second Coming, and the work of the Holy Spirit through the ministry of Ellen White.
A second element of the unity of the church is the common message that defines us. While we have much in common with other Christian bodies, our distinctive doctrines, the landmarks as Ellen White called them, constitute a special bond among Seventh-day Adventists. In her usage, landmarks meant the sanctuary truth, the Sabbath, and the nonimmortality of the wicked.2 Today I would add the remnant concept and the prophetic gift in her ministry as part of our unique doctrines, but all 28 fundamental beliefs are important. “What makes this body of beliefs significant and authoritative,” writes Angel Rodríguez, former director of the Biblical Research Institute at the headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, “is the fact that it is biblically grounded. It is the result of careful biblical study affirmed as such by the global community of believers.”3
A third element of the unity in the church is a common lifestyle. According to Scripture, the Christian life should be lived in a certain way, “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).4
Seventh-day Adventists are known worldwide for a specific lifestyle. It is not only our commitment to Scripture, to religious freedom, to ADRA, and the extensive mission program around the world, but also our commitment to our health message. The fact that our lifestyle excludes harmful substances, such as coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, and that we emphasize the importance of fresh air, sunshine, water, exercise, and a wholesome diet based on biblical teachings, is a witness to the world and a factor that unites our membership worldwide.
Yet, our lifestyle can never take the place of the gospel. We are saved only through the substitutionary death of Jesus—but being saved has practical consequences. Our lifestyle witnesses to the power of the gospel and contributes to the visible unity of the church.
Can church members work effectively together if they do not agree on what they believe?
It is vital for the church to be united in order to be effective in witnessing to the world. Without the spiritual unity, and without the unity of message and lifestyle, we will not be able to convince a skeptical world to listen to the three angels’ messages and prepare the world for the Second Advent. Church history has repeatedly shown that when a church allows pluralism to destroy its unity, its witness becomes muted. To achieve the desired unity in our church, I am suggesting four necessary commitments:
1. Commitment to Jesus
“And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). First and foremost, each member needs to have a personal relationship with our Lord. Jesus compares this relationship with Him to the vital connection that exists between the vine and its branches (John 15:4, 5). “Without Me,” he says, “you can do nothing” (verse 5). Echoing this diagnosis, Ellen White wrote, “Unity with Christ establishes a bond of unity with one another. This unity is the most convincing proof to the world of the majesty and virtue of Christ, and of His power to take away sin.”5
How important, therefore, that the individual member have a strong relationship with Christ that is nurtured through feeding daily on the Word of God and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy. We cannot feed others spiritually unless we have been fed ourselves.
2. Commitment to His Church
As Seventh-day Adventists we believe that this church is God’s remnant church. Our thirteenth fundamental belief states: “The universal church is composed of all who truly believe in Christ, but in the last days, a time of widespread apostasy, a remnant has been called out to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.”
The Seventh-day Adventist Church, from its very inception in 1863, has claimed to be the remnant church of prophecy. We believe that God called this church into existence for the proclamation of the three angels’ messages and that He has had a hand in the organization of this church. This does not mean that only Adventists will be saved. God has His people in all Christian churches (Rev. 18:4), but the Seventh-day Advent-ist Church is God’s visible remnant church through which He brings His final message to the world. The election of Israel was an election not for salvation but for service. Similarly, the Adventist church has been chosen to serve humanity in the time of the end by proclaiming God’s message to a dying world. We are saved as individuals, not by belonging to a particular race or church.
Commitment to God’s remnant church means that we are Adventists first and members of a particular country or race second. Racism in any shape and form has no room in our church. We are a global church, and it is not helpful for the unity of the church when local church organizations decide to go their own way in theological and practical matters, irrespective of the position of the global church.
3. Commitment to His Teaching
The prophet Amos wrote, “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3). The implied answer is “No, they cannot.” Can church members work effectively together if they do not agree on what they believe? Not really. If one preaches that Jesus began the second phase of His sanctuary ministry in A.D. 31 and another preaches that He did this in 1844, people will be confused. It is not helpful for the mission of the church to relegate our distinctive doctrines to the backwaters of our witness. It is these distinctive doctrines that have made us what we are today.
Church historian George Knight wrote, “Hewitt, in seeking to explain Seventh-day Adventist growth in contrast to the lack of growth in his Advent Christian community, notes that ‘the distinctive beliefs and practices of the [SDA] denomination, while causing it to be viewed with suspicion by many traditional Christian believers, have seemingly given its faithful members a resoluteness of individual and group character that goes far to explain their successes.’ Dean Kelley sheds light on this dynamic when he notes that if people are going to join a church they want to join one that provides a genuine alternative to the larger culture.”6
All our doctrines, including the distinctive doctrines of the church, have been formulated, we believe, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and should be proclaimed with vigor. After more than 40 years of ministry in three different world divisions and personally having observed the progress of the work in about 70 countries of the world, I can say with conviction: Where our distinctive doctrines such as the remnant, the sanctuary, and the gift of prophecy are accepted and proclaimed, the work is growing; where this is not the case, the work is languishing. God cannot bless our ministry if we are not in harmony with the teachings of His Word.
4. Commitment to the Mission He Has Given His Church
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen” (Matt. 28:19, 20). The marching orders of the church are clear—go into all the world and proclaim the whole truth, not just a few morsels of truth. Of course, we bring people first to the foot of the cross so they can receive forgiveness and experience salvation, but before they are baptized, they should know and accept all the doctrines of the church, including the distinctive doctrines and the health message, so they can intelligently participate in the mission of the church.
As church members, ministers, and administrators God invites us to move forward together—in doctrine and
practice. There is still a job to be done before we can run into the arms of Jesus at His glorious return. What a day this will be! n
- Some examples are the early fanaticism Ellen White had to meet, the famous General Conference session in Minneapolis in 1888, and the Kellogg crisis.
- Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 30.
- Angel M. Rodríguez, “Oneness of the Church in Message and Mission: Its Ground,” unpublished paper, p. 8.
- Texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- TheSeventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1956, 1980), vol.5, p. 1148.
- George R. Knight, The Fat Lady and the Kingdom (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1995), pp. 135, 136.