Study of Church Governance and Unity by GC Secretariat |
published September 25, 2016 ( PDF file )
In some respects, the work of reform was left unfinished in 1901 and some issues came up again at the 1903 Session, including control of Adventist medical institutions. (110) This was, indeed, an ongoing sore point for the next few years. John H Kellogg tried to gain control of the major medical institutions, which had implications also for some educational institutions and evangelistic centers. This prompted further counsels against “kingly power” and authority being vested in one or two individuals.
In a short testimony on the work of the General Conference, written in the spring of 1903, Ellen White statesthat not “all our printing plants and all our sanitariums are to be under the control of the General Conference.” But they were still to be under collective control, rather than of individuals of the newly “organize[d] Union Conferences,” rather than of individuals or small groups not answering to a constituency. Ellen White stresses yet again: “In the work of God no kingly authority is to be exercised by any human being, or by two or three.”(111) That summer, she counselled the leaders of Adventist medical work against what she repeatedly calls “kingly power”—referring not to GC administration but rather to Kellogg’s tendency to centralize authority in his own person, which was one of Ellen White’s longstanding concerns about Kellogg. (112) Later in 1903, in a reflection prompted by coverage in mainstream news media of the dispute between church leaders and Kellogg, White returned to earlier themes, repudiating the notion that one man, wielding “kingly power,” could “control the whole body” (italics supplied). She contrasts the situation in 1903 with that during “the early days of our denominational work” when “the Lord did designate” one leader (James White) to take a preeminent role “in the advancement of this work.” But that was an exception, she continues and, since then, God had “not provided that the burden of leadership shall rest upon a few men (italics supplied).” (113)
Again we see Ellen G White’s consistent concern that Church leadership should represent the body of believers and the whole Adventist Church, as opposed to being concentrated in one man and a small circle around him.
Addressing the 37th GC Session on May 30, 1909, Ellen White returned to the issue of the authority of the General Conference, repeating several points and expanding on some. I have often been instructed by the Lord that no man’s judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any other one man. Never should the mind of one man or the minds of a few men be regarded as sufficient in wisdom and power to control the work and to say what plans shall be followed. But when in a General Conference the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence contrary to the decision of the general body [emphasis supplied]. (114)
At times, when a small group of men entrusted with the general management of the work have, in the name of the General Conference, sought to carry out unwise plans and to restrict God’s work, I have said that I could no longer regard the voice of the General [ end pf page 26 ] Conference, represented by these few men, as the voice of God. But this is not saying that the decisions of a General Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field should not be respected. God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority. The error that some are in danger of committing is in giving to the mind and judgment of one man, or of a small group of men, the full measure of authority and influence that God has vested in His church in the judgment and voice of the General Conference assembled to plan for the prosperity and advancement of His work. (115)
When this power, which God has placed in the church, is accredited wholly to one man, and he is invested with the authority to be judgment for other minds, then the true Bible order is changed. . . . Let us give to the highest organized authority in the church that which we are prone to give to one man or to a small group of men. (116)
Ellen White’s position in 1909 is consistent with those espoused in 1875 and to some extent in 1901 and 1903. In the 1875 testimonies she stresses that no one leader could embody the Church on earth or represent God’s will; in 1909 she reiterates her view of “the mind and judgment of one man” but extends it now to include “a small group of men,” asserting that neither they nor any “one man” should be ascribed “the full measure of authority and influence God has vested in His church.” (117)
Knowing that many of the delegates in 1909, or readers of the text of her address (published in the General Conference Bulletin), would be aware of what she had written about the “voice of God” from 1891-1901, she explains why she had repeatedly had harsh things to say about the GC leadership. The issue was that a “small group” of leaders had been “entrusted with the general management of the work,” and that group, acting “in the name of the General Conference, sought to carry out unwise plans.” (118) In effect, Ellen White states that they were only acting in the name of the GC, not with its full authority; this makes sense if by “General Conference” she means the GC Session. Since “these few men” could not legitimately claim to speak with “the voice of the General Conference,” she “could no longer regard” this ostensible voice of the General Conference as being “the voice of God.” But she then draws an explicit contrast with “the decisions of a General Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field.” (119) This language is palpably that of a GC Session, though as time passed it would come to be applicable to a council of the enlarged Executive Committee as well (especially given the language about “men . . . assembled to plan for the prosperity and advancement of His work”). That some authority is reserved to a Session is evident, however, in her admonition that “private independence and judgment” is to be “surrendered” when “in a General Conference, the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised” (emphasis supplied).(120) The distinction between a GC Session, on the one hand, and GC administration, on the other, is transparently clear in this address.
This was not Ellen White’s last word, on the subject, however. In 1911 she returned to and reiterated themes she had addressed before.
|God has made His church on the earth a channel of light, and through it He communicates His purposes and His will. He does not give to one of His servants an [ end of page 27 ] experience independent of and contrary to the experience of the church itself. Neither does He give one man a knowledge of His will for the entire church, while the church — Christ’s body — is left in darkness. . . . God has invested His church with special authority and power, which no one can be justified in disregarding and despising; for he who does this despises the voice of God. (121)|
We see here, again, the same assertion that Christ has given the Church plenary power, and the same distrust of single-handed ecclesiastical leadership, yet also the same endorsement of the Church’s authority when it is the expression of the entire Church rather than an individual, with a similar assertion that, in such a case, there is no justification for resisting the authority of the whole body of believers. The continuities over the 35-year period since 1875 are striking.
What is especially striking is Ellen White’s consistency on the supremacy of a body that represents the whole Church and what this ultimately must mean for individuals or parties in dispute with Adventist Church leaders.
a. 1875 (i)
“God has invested His church with special authority and power which no one can be justified in disregarding and despising, for in so doing he despises the voice of God.” (122)
b. 1875 (ii)
“I have been shown that no man’s judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any one man. But when the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority that God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered.” (123) “You greatly err in giving to one man’s mind and judgment that authority and influence which God has invested in His church in the judgment and voice of the General Conference.”(124)
“I have often been instructed by the Lord that no man’s judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any other one man. Never should the mind of one man or the minds of a few men be regarded as sufficient in wisdom and power to control the work and to say what plans shall be followed. But when in a General Conference the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered.” (125)
“. . . the full measure of the authority and influence that God has invested in His church in the judgment and voice of the General Conference assembled to plan for the prosperity and advancement of His work.” (126) [ end of page 29 ]
“God has invested His church with special authority and power, which no one can be justified in disregarding and despising; for he who does this despises the voice of God.” (127)
Remarkably, 36 years apart, Ellen G White chose to repeat, in Acts of the Apostles, a book for general readership, her testimony to Charles Lee: that no church member can ignore the voice of the Church, “for in doing so he despises the voice of God.” Likewise, 34 years apart, she in effect chose to share with the 1909 GC Session her testimony to former president, George Butler, (who was present in 1909 and may have recognized her words, though Ellen White did not reveal to whom they had previously been directed). Some have misrepresented Ellen White’s views in 1909 by selective misquotation, but the actuality is very clear.128 She amplified and nuanced the 1875 testimony, no doubt in light of the events of the 1890s. In 1909 she allows “the minds of a few men” to be challenged as well as “the mind of one man”; and she makes it clear that, by “the General Conference” she means a representative body “of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field,” and/or when “assembled to plan for the prosperity and advancement of His work.” However, “when, in a General Conference, the judgment of [these] brethren is exercised,” her conclusions in 1875 and 1909 are the same.
Firstly, “the judgment and voice of the General Conference” represent “the authority and influence that God has invested in His church”;
Secondly, and most importantly, “private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered” (indeed, having in some ways qualified the 1875 statement, in 1909, she strengthens the conclusion by adding the word “stubbornly” before “maintained”).
Footnotes: 110 to 127
|110. See Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, vol. V, The Early Elmshaven years: 1900–1905 (Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald Publishing, 1981), 243–46, 248–53, 255–57. Cf. Rice, “The church,” 16.|
111. White, “Regarding Work of General Conference,” Apr. 3, 1903, MS 26, 1903.
112. White to “the Leaders in the Medical Work,” Aug. 4, 1903, in Testimonies, 8: 232–33; she uses the term three times. Cf. White to Kellogg, Nov. 10, 1899, Letter 232, 1899: “you took so many responsibilities upon yourself that it was as though one man's brain, and that your own, was brain for all the others.”
113. White, Nov. 17, 1903, Testimonies, 8:236–37.
114. White, Testimonies, 9:260.
115. Ibid., 260.
116. Ibid., 261.
117. Ibid., 260.
118. Ibid., 260-61.
119. Ibid., 260. For a similar assessment of White’s meaning, cf. Knight, Organizing for mission and growth, 74–75.
120. White, Testimonies, 9:260 (see n. 115).
121. This was first published in May 1911, in the Review and Herald, but was evidently drawn from the MS of Acts of the Apostles, which appeared later that year. See Ellen G. White, “Separated Unto the Gospel,” Review and Herald 88/19 (May 11, 1911): 4.; Acts of the Apostles, 163–64; Gospel workers: Instruction for all who are “Laborers together with God” (Washington, D.C.: RHPA, 1915), 443. This passage is not in the first edition of Gospel workers (1892).
122. White, Testimonies, 3:417.
123. Ibid., 492.
124. Ibid., 493.
125. White, Testimonies, 9:260 (see n. 115).
126. Ibid., 260 (cited in n. 115).
127. White, Acts of the Apostles, 163.
Continue to next section V. Unilateralism
Return to previous section -- Authority in SoP