Denominational Panacea, or the Spirit’s Guidance?
By Eugene Gerasimov | 11 February 2021 |
We often see, in connection with medical care, the symbol of a snake, usually wrapped around a pole. Occasionally you will see a mythical keeper of the snake: the goddess Hygeia, who feeds her snake from a bowl. Hygeia was a young goddess, daughter and chief attendant to Asklepios, the god of medicine. She was in charge of cleanliness and the proper way to live in order to have a long life—what we today would call preventive medicine.
But what is often not remembered is that Hygeia had a sister, Panacea. Panacea didn’t care about cleanliness or hygiene. She didn’t do surgeries or have skills in diagnostic or medical care. Panacea had something much simpler: a universal remedy. Whoever ingested this mysterious, magical remedy would receive healing from any possible illness.
Such a drug was, naturally, more coveted than surgeries, pills, lifestyle changes or other uncomfortable prescriptions. Even into the late Middle Age alchemists sought (along with making gold from lead) to create panaceas. The much sought-for fountain of youth was a panacea. The “philosopher’s stone” in the Harry Potter novels is an example of a panacea familiar from modern fiction.
The word panacea has come to refer to something which will solve all problems. People dream about such a miracle potion or plan or idea, one that will eliminate every problem. In the political world, for example, some put their hope in a perfect president. For the coronavirus some latch on to untried remedies such as hydroxychloroquine or untested herbal “cures.”
There is even an example in the Bible: when Jesus talked with the woman at the well, she begged him for a miraculous type of water so she wouldn’t be troubled by having to draw water from the public well.
My Adventist experience
Adventists also like panaceas. Because we all have spiritual difficulties and challenges, we seek answers. Now and then the denomination will send down from above a plan or program, with the implication that it will inevitably lead to success in solving our problems.
Of course, we define problem-solving success in different ways. Each new initiative, voted somewhere in a higher level of the denomination, leaves open the possibility that participating in it will make us truly spiritual, erase the divisions in our church communities, turn a huge number of unbelievers to the truth, fulfill the Great Commission, and even bring the Second Coming closer.
During my time as a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, the universal remedy that I have been asked to believe in, invest in, and bring before my members has changed many times—about every two to three years or so, it seems.
The first one I remember, as a young pastor, was in the early 90’s when congregations in the former Soviet Union were urged to reform our Sabbath Schools. Instead of one big auditorium for Sabbath School (a model that was a legacy of USSR times) we were told to divide the church into many small classes. We were promised that with this one reform, people would become much better Adventists: they would study their Bibles, love and care for each other, and new people would run in from the streets to church when they knew about our new small classes.
Well, time passed, but the promised miracles didn’t happen. The Bible study in small classes became as dull as those in the single big class had been. Fortunately, this happened in a decade when the Adventist Church was growing anyway, so almost no one was disappointed that the promise of the small classes wasn’t met.
In the early 2000s there came another initiative sent down from above to our region: church growth through small groups. Congregations were promised not just membership increase, but membership multiplication! What congregation, whether large or small, would oppose it? What pastor could resist joining in, especially when we were promised that this amazing method would finish the work? Were we to copy precisely the methods of the 1,000,000-member Full Gospel Church of David Yonggi Cho from Seoul, South Korea (for this was the origin of the idea), we would have the same success in every Adventist church in our division that the Full Gospel Church had seen in Seoul.
After years of meetings to educate our members, pastors and administrators, and effectively trying to introduce this Pentecostal program into Seventh-day Adventism, the Adventist leaders who came up with that initiative were promoted up the ladder to a higher level of administration, and the small groups disappeared. (Though in truth, in many areas they had never appeared in the first place.) And with them disappeared a little more trust in denominational promises, robbing hope from the souls of those few who still believed in new initiatives sent down from above.
But don’t despair! The new leaders who stepped into the place of those who were promoted came up with even bigger and better ideas and began to urge them upon us! Oh, so many more! There was the distribution of DVD players with a set of outreach disks. Missions to big cities, advertised even in the villages whose people had no access to city centers. Numerous “books of the year” that were guaranteed to attract hordes of new believers, but you never saw results. Satellite programs, where people would watch television at home and then come into our sanctuaries. 777 prayers for revival and reformation, suggesting that God would more readily hear our voices and do miracles if 20+ million of us formed an Adventist prayer chain. And, of course, Total Membership Involvement.
And more. You know more of them than I do if you’ve been in church longer than I have.
Of course, these efforts had occasional success. Undoubtedly someone, somewhere read a featured book and found the church, or watched a satellite crusade and was converted. Maybe a few congregations in the conference saw this happen, but I doubt it was the majority of them.
The problem is that all of these initiatives are presented as a panacea for every congregation. And, as we know by now, there is no such thing as a panacea, a solution that works for everyone, everywhere.
Furthermore, multiplying many new programs and changing them every few years doesn’t increase the faith of believers. Just the opposite. Every new method, every new advertising campaign, every new book or satellite program becomes another failed panacea. It kills hope and leaves disappointment when nothing happens in the local church after another new “global outreach” or “Go One Million, Sow One Billion.”
A well-known Aesop’s fable tells how a shepherd boy cried “wolf” too often, until his false alarms dulled the villager’s responses. So here: these many failed panacea programs kill trust not only in the organization, but also in God’s power.
If you’d analyze these great panaceas, you’d find few that lived up to the promises made for them. When wise pastors or church boards understand the effect of these new programs, they realize that congregations should actually be protected from what comes from above, in order to keep the parish from fresh disappointments.
It seems that not only denominational innovators, but God Himself, has no miracle remedy for the problems in our thousands of faith communities. No matter how much we keep trying to force God’s hand by copying panacea-type solutions from others, that’s just not how God works.
The New Testament communities described in the Bible were unique and different from one other. Consider the variety:
- In Jerusalem, a commune arose with everyone holding property in common—almost like the communist model of the former USSR.
- In Antioch, Christians were able to expand the church among pagans rather than just preaching to Jews.
- In Corinth there were so many spiritual gifts that their worship services were filled with supernatural manifestations of the Spirit—that probably wouldn’t be welcome in most Adventist churches today.
Unlike Adventism, where uniformity is so valued that Adventists in the United States are expected to be doing the same things as those in Papua New Guinea, you’ll find little uniformity in the early Christian church beyond the belief that Jesus is Lord.
No one assigned those communities of faith one missionary book to give to the pagans, or told them which chapter of the Bible they should all read for a particular Sabbath with a set of leading questions to tell them what they should learn, or an outline for the women’s prayer service for International Women’s Day on March 8th.
Neither the churches themselves nor the apostles who took care of the flock needed any of this. They had something—or more accurately, Someone—who did the work that now church administrators believe they need to do. It wasn’t the programmatic initiatives of the apostles that drove the work in the early church, but the Holy Spirit.
If you read the book of Acts without consulting a commentary, you’ll see how it worked back then—and how Biblical evangelism should work now. The Holy Spirit told them what they should do and what they should stop doing, what the church should be engaged in, and what it should refuse to do.
- The Holy Spirit directed Philip to take a desert road and meet someone whom the Spirit had prepared for him to meet.
- The Holy Spirit directed Peter to a pagan’s home, where he met a man whom the Spirit had prepared to listen to the gospel.
- The Holy Spirit impressed the Antioch church to send some of its members to Europe when a Macedonian man begged for someone to come and teach his people.
In each different location the Spirit provided people who were waiting to hear the gospel in the way that worked for them. In every situation it came about because of the Holy Spirit’s plan, given from God, not because someone in an office had heard of an idea that worked somewhere else in the world.
The Spirit worked in congregations. God didn’t need an office of presidents and vice presidents and secretaries and departmental leaders to mediate for the Spirit. God directed His children to do what He wanted to see done.
This is what we desperately lack today, both personally and throughout the entire community of faith. We are seeking decisions and guidance from the wrong direction. We are seeking help from men, not God. We should be connected directly to the Head of the Body, even if it seems to put the organized church at risk.
The path to church success is not in panaceas. It is in God’s leading through the Spirit.
Eugene Gerasimov writes from Belarus.