III - Diversity, Unity and Authority

            Study of Church Governance and Unity  by GC Secretariat           
                        published September 25, 2016 
 ( PDF file )


     III.  Diversity, Unity and Authority

   The question naturally arises, however: What about diversity? This was not an issue in ancient Israel, which was homogenous ethnically and, on the whole, economically and culturally. At Christ’s ascension, however, the apostles were instructed to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation,” “mak[ing] disciples of all nations,” witnessing to the good news not only in Jerusalem and Judaea or even in Samaria, “but to the very ends of the earth” (Mark 16:15, Matt. 28:18, NIV; Acts 1:8, Phillips). Diversity henceforth would be one of the chief characteristics of spiritual Israel. Understanding diversity in the Scriptures and the Spirit of Prophecy reveals that unity can flourish in diversity, but the relationships of the varied members of the body of Christ to each other must be characterized by interdependence rather than independence.

      1.   Diversity in Inspired Writings

   In the Bible, diversity is a positive quality, not a negative one. The first, fundamental thing we know about God is that He is Creator. It follows that He must value variety and multiplicity, for His self-expression in creation is extraordinarily, almost infinitely, rich and diverse. We know, too, that our triune God is, truly essentially, manifold in His very nature. 

   The New Testament in particular speaks to the virtue of diversity in God’s eyes. One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the early church was the gift of tongues, which, by providing for communication in different languages, affirmed the different national and linguistic identities of believers; a later attempt to impose one language—Latin—on the church was unhelpful. Peter’s vision in Joppa, of “all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds,” and the divine commentary on it—“What God has made clean, do not call common”—led Peter to realize that God does not discriminate based on nationality, ethnicity or race: that instead, “in every nation [end of page 10 ]    whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him;” the result was that “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard,” Jew and Gentile alike (Acts 10:12 NIV, 10:15 ESV, 10:35, 44 NKJV). We have already seen that Paul writes in positive terms not only about unity but also about diversity; he values a degree of diversity but encourages unity in diversity (see above, p 4). 

   Like the Bible, the inspired writings of Ellen G White place great value on diversity. She explicitly uses, several times, the language of “unity in diversity.” Writing in 1894, in a lengthy letter to a wide group of leaders, she declares: 

   In the different branches of this great work there is to be unity in diversity. This is God’s plan, the principle which runs through the entire universe. In God’s wise arrangement there is diversity . . . yet He has so related each part to others, that all work in harmony to carry out His great plan . . . . However there may appear to be dissimilarity, the work is one great whole, and bears the stamp of infinite wisdom. . . . Jesus said: “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” The branches are many and diverse, yet all are united in the parent stock . . . . Jesus Christ is in God, the great masterpiece of infinite wisdom and power and sufficiency, from whom all diversity springs. Each branch bears its burden of fruit, and altogether make a harmonious whole, a complete, beautiful unity. This is harmony according to God’s order. (41)


   The language of “unity in diversity” reappears in a sermon to the 1903 GC Session, again deploying powerful imagery: “Do you not know that of the leaves on a tree there are no two exactly alike? From this God would teach us that among His servants there is to be unity in diversity.” She concludes: “To every man is given his work. But though our work is different, we need . . . one another. . . . God uses different minds.” (42

   Ellen G White certainly never believed in a “one size fits all” approach. In an address to the 1909 GC Session, for example, she explicitly warns the “brethren in responsibility” to “be slow to criticize movements that are not in perfect harmony with their methods of labor. Let them never suppose that every plan should reflect their own personality.” (43) She then references the first chapter of Ezekiel, telling the listening church leaders: “To the prophet, the wheel within a wheel, the appearance of living creatures connected with them, all seemed intricate and unexplainable. But the hand of infinite wisdom is seen among the wheels, and perfect order is the result of its work. Every wheel, directed by the hand of God, works in perfect harmony with every other wheel.”(44) This is both another injunction to church members to be united, but it also makes the point that God often works through multiplicity, which we find confusing, to achieve His goals—and, again, that there can be unity in diversity.

   All these statements affirm that unity and diversity can coexist but remind us of the overarching importance of unity. They set out an important principle, but do not offer guidance on how the principle is to be put into practice, or on the limits of tolerable diversity. Yet, implicit in the Scriptural and Spirit of Prophecy statements on unity, considered earlier (pp 2-6), is that diversity can lead to unacceptable degrees of discord, confusion, and conflict. What decision making process, then, is appropriate among God’s people in order to preserve unity, while allowing acceptable diversity to flourish?   [ end of page 11 ]

   As will be seen below, the New Testament indicates that, when God’s people determine whether or not to allow diverse approaches among them, they should make their decision collectively and collaboratively, not unilaterally. This was true even in the face of cultural diversity—regions with particular cultural problems consulted with the wider body of believers and jointly took decisions about how to proceed. 

     2.  Decision-Making and Diversity in the Early Church

   Jesus invested His disciples with plenary power: “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18 NKJV). Ellen G White repeatedly referenced this text in testimonies, over a 40-year period, underscoring the significance and plenitude of the authority awarded to the apostles.(45) Yet how was this authority to be implemented in practice? How were decisions to be made in light of Christ’s commands? They include, after all: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave” (Matt 20:25-27 NKJV). Lest any believers doubted Christ’s meaning, Peter underscored it with his admonition: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be . . . not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:2-3 NIV). But the situation was to be greatly complicated by the diverse nature of the early church.

   The first believers in Jerusalem, though all Jews, were from many different countries (Acts 2:5, 6:1). Ellen G White writes thus about them: “Despite former prejudices, all were in harmony with one another. Satan knew that so long as this union continued to exist, he would be powerless to check the progress of gospel truth; and he sought to take advantage of former habits of thought, in the hope that thereby he might be able to introduce into the church elements of disunion.” (46The result was dissension between Greek- and Hebrew-speaking believers, the former alleging that the latter treated Greek widows unfairly (Acts 6:1). Despite their unhappiness, however, the Greekspeaking Jews did not take matters into their own hands. Instead, the apostles, as leaders of the whole community of believers, considered the situation and, as Ellen White describes, “led by the Holy Spirit,” they conceived “a plan for the better organization of all the working forces of the church.” The majority made a plan to care for the needs and desires of the minority group by appointing the first deacons, an approach which had positive results. (47)

   As the believers spread out from Judaea, there could no longer be one local community of Christians (as they became known). As they began to convert not just Jews who spoke various languages, but Gentiles too, controversy was perhaps inevitable. When crucial issues arose, however, they were not resolved independently, but collectively. This approach ensured that unity was preserved, even though the challenges arising from diversity were so serious that in theory they could have resulted in a disastrous schism. At Antioch there was “sharp dispute and debate” between, on the one hand, “believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees,” who maintained that all Christians had to be circumcised, and Paul and Barnabas on the other hand, who did not require this of their Gentile converts (Acts 15:2, 5 NIV). There was so “much discussion and contention” at Antioch that the local believers, “fearing . . . a division among them . . . decided to  [end of page 12 ] send Paul and Barnabas, with some responsible men from the church, to Jerusalem to lay the matter before the apostles and elders.” (48) 

   What is often called the “Jerusalem Council” is significant almost as much for its process as for the theological decision that resulted. It is noteworthy that “the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter” and that it was they who took a decision that was evidently regarded as binding on churches everywhere. (49) Just who these “elders” were, it is unclear, but Ellen White indicates that they came from Jerusalem, Antioch, “and the most influential churches”; and she writes: “The council . . . was composed of apostles and teachers who had been prominent in raising up the Jewish and Gentile Christian churches, with chosen delegates from various places. . . . The entire body of Christians was not called to vote upon the question. The ‘apostles and elders,’ men of influence and judgment, framed and issued the decree, which was thereupon generally accepted by the Christian churches.” (50) Their decision was to affirm diversity in key religious practices: Jewish Christians would continue to circumcise and adhere to the full panoply of the Mosaic law, whereas converted Gentiles were excepted from most of its provisions, except that they were encouraged to “remember the poor” and instructed to “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Gal 2:10 and Acts 15:29 NKJV).

   To many Jewish believers, the twin-track approach would have seemed like apostasy and some “were not . . . prepared to accept willingly the decision of the council”. This, though, was a minority reaction. “The broad and far-reaching decisions of the general council brought confidence into the ranks of the Gentile believers, and the cause of God prospered.” (51

   The lesson of this episode, however, is not that “anything goes” — that local churches can respond to controversies as they see fit. There were almost certainly no Gentile converts in Jerusalem, so the Antiochene church could have claimed that circumcision was an issue only for the churches in Syria and Cilicia (cf. Acts 15:23). But a different model was established by the Jerusalem Council, as Ellen White observes. “When dissension arose in a local church,” as it did in Antioch and elsewhere, “such matters were not permitted to create a division in the church, but were referred to a general council of the entire body of believers, made up of appointed delegates from the various local churches, with the apostles and elders in positions of leading responsibility. Thus the efforts of Satan to attack the church in isolated places were met by concerted action on the part of all, and the plans of the enemy . . . were thwarted.” (52)

   In summary, the lesson of the Jerusalem Council is this: in the Church, diversity of practice can be allowed, but only after a representative body has agreed to allow some variation. A key New Testament principle emerges from both this episode and that of the widows and deacons: decision-making issues with implications that may extend beyond the local or regional, should be collective, rather than unilateral. 


       Footnotes:   41 to 52

41.Anchor  White, Letter 71, 1894 (cited in n. 27).

42.Anchor  White, MS 10, 1903 (cited in n. 29).

43.Anchor  White, “Unity in Diversity,” MS 38a, 1909; published in “The Spirit of Independence, Read to the General Conference Session by E. G. White, May 30, 1909,” GCB 6:15. May 31, 1909: 221, and republished in Testimonies, 9:259–60.
44.Anchor  Testimonies, 9:259.

45.Anchor  White, “Rebellion Within the Ranks,” MS 1, 1865; “Testimony Concerning Moses Hull and Wife, Also Brother Whitney,” MS 6, 1862; “Regarding James White as a Laborer,” MS 4, 1866; “Testimony Regarding a Young Licentiate in Minnesota,” MS 8, 1883; “Treatment of the Erring,” MS 11, 1888; “Instruction Regarding Church Discipline,” MS 61, 1902; White to Brother and Sister Scott, July 6, 1863, Letter 5, 1863; White to Brethren Atwood and Pratt, May 28, 1890 Letter 1c, 1890.

​46.Anchor  White, Acts of the Apostles, 87.

47.Anchor  Ibid., 89; cf. Acts 6: 2–7. See Mark A. Finley, “Toward Unity in the Body of Christ,” paper presented to the Theology of Ordination Study Committee, Columbia, Md., Jan. 24, 2014: https://www.adventistarchives.org/toward-unity-in-the-body-of-christ.pdf 

48.Anchor  White, Acts of the Apostles, 190.

49.Anchor  See Acts 15:6, 22-23 and cf. White, Acts of the Apostles, 190, 196, and 383.

50.Anchor  White, Acts of the Apostles, 196.

51.Anchor  Ibid., 197.

52.Anchor  Ibid., 96.


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Study of Church Governance and Unity - Sept. 2016 3. Role of Policy II. Unity and Policy Introduction IV. Authority in Spirit of Prophecy V. Unilateralism VI. Application VII.  Conclusion 3. Diversity and Authority in the SDA Church