Study of Seventh-day Adventist pioneer’s writings reveals keys to church unity
Church unity is not about uniformity but union with Christ and not about knowing but practicing truth as found in Jesus, a paper an Avondale academic presented at a unity conference shows.
Dr Wendy Jackson’s “Unity in the Writings of Ellen White” opened day two of Unity 2017, a three-day conference in London in June (15-17) exploring unity in diversity within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The paper is published with all the others from the conference in the current double issue (Vol 45, No 2-3) of Spectrum, the journal of the Association of Adventist Forums.
Jackson, a lecturer in the seminary at Avondale College of Higher Education, notes the hundreds of passages about unity of purpose, action, spirit, thought, faith and being of one mind in the writings of White. But what did the church pioneer mean when she used these terms? The answer is not straightforward because White wrote largely in response to specific crises, says Jackson. So, we must look at the implications of her statements.
This is certain, though: “The strong tie between mission and unity precludes White from understanding unity as something that belongs only to the invisible church,” writes Jackson. Based on Jesus’ prayer in John 17, in which He expresses His desire for His followers to be one, White saw a mandate for a “present and visible reality in the historical church.” However, “her discussions do not talk about a unity which already exists in the church. In keeping with her wider functional ecclesiology, Ellen White focuses instead on human responsibility for unity. That is, unity is something that requires our attention and active choice.”
Ellen White made it clear that knowing truth by itself was not all that was required of the Christian. Truth needed to be lived.Dr Wendy Jackson, Lecturer, Avondale Seminary
The nature of unity
The majority of the passages in White’s writings, finds Jackson, are about unity of purpose and action. No, this does not mean uniformity of practice but “the wish that God’s people should live harmoniously and work together to achieve a common purpose. . . . White assumed those who choose to join the church voluntarily would be willing to . . . prioritise the mission of the church.”
Jackson gives closer analysis of unity of thought and being of one mind, concluding White’s use of the former is in contexts that do not intend to convey uniformity of doctrine or of understanding all Scripture or all church practices the same way. While the contexts of being of one mind are only slightly different, White does use the phrase and another—unity of faith—to call for a unity of doctrine. But her “encouragement that everyone needs to read Scripture for themselves leads to the expectation that variation in understanding of Scripture will occur.”
Disunity and its causes
Having addressed the nature of unity, Jackson then examines disunity and its causes. While unity leads to success in mission, “a lack of unity misrepresents the truth and brings reproach to the name of Christ.” The consequences of disunity: distraction from mission; negative impact on personal spirituality, and; weakness of the church.
So, what did White identify as the causes of disunity? Not doctrinal differences, per se. “Disagreements about doctrine are only surface matters that portray a much deeper issue,” writes Jackson. “Disunity is at its core a sign of disconnection from Christ.” The other causes—pride, stubbornness, unwillingness to listen and to allow the Holy Spirit to work, lack of love, unbelief about the foundations of Christian faith and failure to shoulder responsibility for mission—all flow from this disconnection.
Jackson notes White’s use of a sun and its sunbeams as a metaphor for the connection between union with Christ and unity of the church. “Beams of light are closest together at the centre of the sun, whereas they become more and more widely spaced the further they are from the sun. So, as believers remain close to Christ, they will also demonstrate a love and closeness for other believers.” But as they move further from Christ, “so they find themselves struggling to remain close to others.” Of particular importance in White’s discussion of union with Christ, according to Jackson, is the need to maintain the relationship through continual communion and earnest prayer.
White describes five other keys for maintaining unity. The first: having the correct attitude—White, says Jackson, devotes more space in her writing to the need for love, humility and teachableness than to the condemnation of beliefs. The second: ensuring Scripture as the rule of faith and practice—it draws a person towards Jesus and fellow believers while bringing that person to a place where truth can be discovered. The third: focusing on core as opposed to non-core truths—although the identification of which truths fell into these categories is not straightforward because “White’s lists . . . are not always consistent.” The fourth: applying the principles of gospel order as demonstrated in the New Testament—the principle of orderliness, writes Jackson, “appears to be more important than a specific system of order.” And the fifth: maintaining the right relationship with the church—with an emphasis on “taking personal responsibility for the success of the church in accomplishing its mission” and by “yielding opinions to the voice of the church unless the issue is of vital importance.”
A chronological development in views on unity
Jackson identifies a chronological development of White’s views on unity, which moved “from a primary understanding of unity in terms of doctrine prior to formal church organisation, to a primary understanding of unity of action and purpose in the wake of denominational organisation.” Doctrinal discord at the 1888 General Conference of the church, where all delegates were called to prayerful study of the Bible so they would recognise the truth or error of views presented at the meetings, provided an opportunity for White to redress the role of truth in maintaining unity. “White made it clear that knowing truth by itself was not all that was required of the Christian,” writes Jackson. “Truth needed to be lived.”
The growing issues with centralisation and abuse of power led White to also reconsider the authority structure of the church, writes Jackson. She recognised it could aid or hinder unity. “White expected leaders to be examples of Christlike attitudes and behaviour. They were to spend time prayerfully studying Scripture . . . however, they were not to stand in the way of new expressions of truth, nor should they consider that their position meant they were infallible in their understanding, or that they alone could determine truth.”
The big picture view of unity
The big picture, according to Jackson? Identity, authority and structure provide a tangible basis for unity. Add the intangible union with Christ, which promotes the fruit of the Spirit and the development of a Christlike character. The result: the Christian, in giving precedence to the mission of the church, submits to other Christians for the sake of harmony, which leads to an understanding of truth as it is in Jesus.
Jackson describes this view of unity as “mature” yet “complex.” It has strengths: demonstrating a connection between union with Christ and Christian unity, while delineating divine and human roles in the process of attaining church unity, and; recognising relationships change character. It has weaknesses: the difficulty of judging one’s connection with Christ; the unrealistic expectation that Christians who come to Scripture with a teachable spirit and a willingness to be led by the Spirit will always come to the same conclusions, and the abuse and centralisation of power.
Jackson concludes with a list of six lessons for the church today:
- Unity is personal—it cannot be manufactured by leaders.
- Unity is not uniformity—it recognises the role of different practices for one purpose.
- Unity occurs only between authentic people united in Christ and transformed by His power.
- Unity is multi-relational.
- Unity comes from humility—being right is less important than displaying Christ-like character.
- Unity is not of our making—Jesus is its foundation and creator.
While delegates at the 60th General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in San Antonio were discussing the ordination issue, church members were interceding in the prayer room. Dominik Zeh/Adventist Review/Adventist News Network