Study of Church Governance and Unity by GC Secretariat |
published September 25, 2016
... In writing about unity, Ellen G White often expounds on the scriptural examples noted above, particularly Christ’s prayer in John 17. It was a passage she repeatedly cited, using it for various purposes, including to inspire and to underscore Trinitarian doctrine. It was also a go-to text when writing to the Church on the necessity of unity and united action, and she ascribed exceptional importance to this passage.
For example, in 1875, believing that “A great work may be done . . . in bringing souls to the knowledge of the truth if there is united action,” she referenced John 17, declaring: “If all who have influence felt the necessity of cooperation and would seek to answer the prayer of Christ, that they may be one as He is one with the Father, the cause of present truth” would be farther advanced than it was. Later in what is a long testimony, she references Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:21 in her pronouncement that “Christ would have His followers . . . all subject one to another, esteeming others better than themselves. Union and confidence are essential to the prosperity of the church . . . [which] depend[s] upon the prompt, united action and mutual confidence of its members.” (7) She returns to John 17, however, affirming that “God wants His people to be united in the closest bonds of Christian fellowship,” before quoting John 17: 21-23 verbatim, and posing a rhetorical question: if every church member pushes “his views of Bible truth without regard to the opinions of his brethren . . . asserting his right to believe and talk what he pleases without reference to the faith of the body, where will be that harmony . . . which Christ prayed might exist among his brethren?” (8)
In 1886 she counseled a husband and wife against too much self-reliance, affirming that “God requires concerted action” and reminding them: “Christ prayed that his disciples might be one with Him, as he was one with the Father.” (9) Here we see the Spirit of Prophecy underscoring and amplifying Christ’s teaching that unity in the body of Christ is based on their unity with Christ. It is a sentiment she would repeat.
In a testimony on “Christian unity,” published in 1882, Ellen White states: “Unity is strength; division is weakness.” (It was a formula she would reiterate.) She counsels that “the people of God should press together,” then reminds her readers: “That union and love might exist among His disciples was the burden of our Saviour’s last prayer for them prior to His crucifixion. With the agony of the cross before Him, His solicitude was not for Himself, but for those whom (end page 4) He should leave to carry forward His work in the earth.” (10) She quotes John 17: 17-21 before affirming: “That prayer of Christ embraces all His followers to the close of time. Our Saviour foresaw the trials and dangers of His people; He is not unmindful of the dissensions and divisions that distract and weaken His church.” (11) Later in this testimony, she quotes at length from Ephesians 4, then declares: “There is but one body, and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith. As members of the body of Christ all believers are animated by the same spirit and the same hope. Divisions in the church dishonor the religion of Christ before the world.” She applies this to Seventh-day Adventists and poses a powerful question: “Paul’s instructions were not written alone for the church in his day. God designed that they should be sent down to us. What are we doing to preserve unity in the bonds of peace?” (12)
In 1898, in Desire of Ages, she reflects at length on Christ’s oft-repeated “great desire” for “His disciples . . . that they might love one another as He had loved them.” She comments: “All who are imbued with His Spirit will love as He loved. The very principle that actuated Christ will actuate them in all their dealing one with another.” The result would be believers “bound together . . . by love.” She concludes: “Where this oneness exists, it is evidence that the image of God is being restored in humanity”. (13) Also in 1898, in a general testimony, she urges church members: “Study prayerfully the seventeenth chapter of John. . . . God calls upon those who profess to be His children to study” the words of Jesus in this prayer, “to eat them, to live them. He calls upon them to seek for unity and love.” (14) In 1902, Ellen White counselled her elder son, Edson, in similar terms but expands the response she wants from him (and her later readers). In addition to studying John 17, Edson should endeavor to be a personal answer to the prayer of Jesus: “We are to do all in our power to answer the prayer in the seventeenth chapter of John—Christ’s prayer for unity.” (15)
Nearly two years later, she penned a powerful testimony in which she again appeals to church members not just to study, but “to learn to answer the prayer in the seventeenth chapter of John”. Adventists, she affirms, “are to make this prayer our first study. Every gospel minister, every medical missionary, is to learn the science of this prayer.” (16) After quoting Christ’s words at length, she continues: “It is the purpose of God that His children shall blend in unity. Do they not expect to live together in the same heaven? Is Christ divided against Himself? Will He give His people success before . . . the laborers, with unity of purpose, devote heart and mind and strength to the work so holy in God’s sight?” Then she restates a sentiment from 1882, though in different words: “Union brings strength; disunion, weakness.” She goes on to Christ’s words that, by His followers’ unity, the world would know He was sent from God: “The world is looking with gratification at the disunion amongst Christians. Infidelity is well pleased. God calls for a change among His people. Union with Christ and with one another is our only safety in these last days. Let us not make it possible for Satan to point to our church members, saying ‘Behold how these people . . . hate one another.’” (17) She concludes: “When Christ’s prayer is fully believed, when its instruction is brought into the daily life of God’s people, unity of action will be seen in our ranks.” (18)
In 1905, counseling European church leaders, Ellen White repeats her appeal to Adventists to attempt, in our own lives, to fulfil Christ’s prayer. She writes: “Our effort should be to answer Christ’s prayer for His disciples, that they should be one.” She then quotes John 17:17-21 verbatim, before continuing: “It should be understood that perfect unity among the laborers is necessary to the successful accomplishment of the work of God.” After expressing her deep dissatisfaction at the way national differences were impeding unity in Europe, she concludes the testimony: “I again [end of page 5] repeat the words of Christ. I would impress them deeply upon your minds”—before quoting John 17: 20-23,again verbatim. (19) The same year, after a GC Executive Committee meeting had been marred by divisions arising from national and ethnic differences, she received a vision about unity. Sharing her impressions, she stresses “the unity that should attend our work” and urges church leaders: “Strive earnestly for unity. Pray for it, work for it.” She concludes by telling them, in words redolent of Jesus’s prayer in John 17 that if they “esteem others better than yourselves . . . you will be brought into oneness with Christ. Before the . . . world, you will bear unmistakable evidence that you are God’s sons and daughters. God will be glorified in the example that you set.” (20)
As well as reflecting on John 17, Ellen White depicts unity among believers as an essential ingredient in the “outpouring of the Spirit upon the day of Pentecost” and the early church’s extraordinary missional success. “One interest prevailed” among the disciples. “No longer were they a collection of independent units or discordant, conflicting elements. . . . They were of ‘one accord,’ ‘of one heart and of one soul.’ Christ filled their thoughts; the advancement of His kingdom was their aim.” (21)
Only as they were united with Christ could the disciples hope to have the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit and the co-operation of angels of heaven. . . . As they should continue to labor unitedly, heavenly messengers would go before them, opening the way . . . and many would be won to Christ. So long as they remained united, the church would go forth [with great success]. (22)
Probably thinking of analogous developments in Adventist experience she observes: “Later in the history of the early church, when in various parts of the world many groups of believers had been formed into churches, the organization of the church was further perfected, so that order and harmonious action might be maintained.”(23) She counsels Adventist church leaders “to take their position unitedly on the side of right” and thus “have a uniting influence upon the entire flock.” (24) Later, considering Paul’s metaphor of the body, she affirms that “the apostle aptly illustrated the close and harmonious relationship that should exist among all members of the church of Christ.” (25)
Furthermore, in addition to commenting on Holy Scripture, Ellen G White also gave inspired counsel to contemporary church members, repeatedly stressing the importance of unity and of working unitedly. In 1886, for example, she counseled church workers in Europe that, “in every effort, in every place where the truth is introduced, there is need of different minds, different gifts, different plans and methods of labor being united. . . . All should be perfectly harmonious in the work.”(26) In 1894, distressed at the tendency of different ministries to work independently of each other, she counseled church leaders: “God and Christ are one, Christ and His disciples are one, we in Christ, and Christ in God. The Lord designs that His work shall move forward in perfect harmony without friction.”(27) In 1899, concerned about John Harvey Kellogg’s increasing independent-mindedness, she penned a testimony that adapts Paul’s metaphor of internal organs: the “church on earth,” she writes, is like “a temple built of living stones. . . . Not all the stones are of the same form or shape. Some are large, some are small; but each has its own place to fill.” Furthermore, she continues, “The Lord has wrought with you, enabling you to act your part as His workman; but there are other workmen also who are to act their part. . . . These help to compose the whole body.” (28) [end of page 6]
Concerned about divisions emerging in the denomination, Ellen White told the 1903 GC Session: “In the church of God there is to be done a work of cementing heart to heart.” (29) In a testimony from the same year she identifies greater unity as one of the benefits that would flow from revival and reformation. “When this reformation begins,” she writes, “the spirit of discord and strife” would disappear. “Those who have not been living in Christian fellowship will draw close to one another. . . . There will be no confusion, because all will be in harmony with the mind of the Spirit.” (30)
These are eloquent and powerful statements. In them, Ellen White stresses, as she so often did, that it is only through union with Christ that His followers can find union with each other; union in Christ, in turn, is only achieved through the working of the Holy Spirit. Ellen White also articulates why unity in Christ is essential. Our “dissensions and divisions” do more than “distract and weaken [the] church,” they “dishonor the religion of Christ before the world.” Our goal as Adventists is to be “bound together . . . by love.” If we “seek for unity and love,” “esteeming others better than ourselves,” and “draw[ing] close to one another,” then, we are promised, “all will be in harmony with the mind of the Spirit” — we “will be brought into oneness with Christ,” and “God will be glorified in the example [we] set.” All of us, then, would do well to ask ourselves: “What are we doing to preserve unity in the bonds of peace?”
6. Quotations from Ellen G. White are cited, in the first instance, to the original letter or manuscript, including title or recipients and date, where these are known, and to any publications during her lifetime. Subsequent references are to the published text (if any), or to letter/manuscript in abbreviated form. Modern compilations are not cited, because all the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy, even previously unpublished letters and manuscripts, are now available online at https://egwwritings.org
7. White, Testimonies for the Church, 9 vols. (orig. eds., 1885-1909; 4th ed. Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press, 1948), 3:434, 445.
8. Ibid., 3:446.
9. White to Brother and Sister E. P. Daniels, Aug. 6, 1886, Letter 11a, 1886.
10. White, Testimonies, 5:236. (Cf. Testimonies 2:165 and 6:292.)
11. Ibid., 237.
12. Ibid., 239.
|13. White, The Desire of Ages (orig. ed., 1898; Mountain View, Calif. & Oshawa, Ont.: Pacific Press, 1940), 677–678.|
14. White, “An Appeal to the Brethren in Battle Creek,” 1898, in Testimonies, 8:80.
15. White to J. Edson and Emma White, Jan. 22, 1902, Letter 8, 1902. In an undated testimony of c.1903 she cites John 17 again and quotes John 17:23-30, commenting “Wonderful statement!” (Testimonies, 8:269)—but this passage is chiefly an affirmation of the Trinity.
16. White, “One with Christ in God,” Dec. 31, 1903, MS 149, 1903; published in The Southern Watchman 13.5, “One with Christ in God” (Feb. 2, 1904): 73, and immediately republished in Testimonies, 8:239.
27. White to Members of General Conference Committee and Publishing Boards of the Review and Herald and Pacific Press, April 8, 1894, Letter 71, 1894; published in General Conference Bulletin [hereafter GCB], 1, extra, 15 (Feb. 27, 1895): 373; in Selections from the Testimonies Setting Forth Important Principles Relating to Our Work in General, The Publishing Work in Particular, and the Relation of Our Institutions to Each Other ([Oakland, CA]: Pacific Press, 1898), 20.
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