by Denis Fortin | 1 March 2020 |
We Adventists have a fundamental belief on the topic of Christian unity, and in 2017 we had a Sabbath School Bible study guide on unity in Christ. Which makes all the more surprising the reaction to Giovanni Caccamo, the Italian pastor who signed an ecumenical charter as a representative of his local Seventh-day Adventist church. Some church leaders quickly sought to distance themselves from him, and implied that Adventists should not belong to ecumenical organizations—even though, as I said in part 1 of this article, those same organizations have themselves participated in ecumenical dialogues.
The reaction by church leaders and members makes me wonder if Adventists really believe in Christian unity, as our 14th Fundamental Belief states: “The church is one body with many members, called from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people … We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another.”
Our Ecumenical Roots
It didn’t used to be this way. Adventists have a long history, going back to our pioneers, of interchurch ecumenical cooperation. In those days we didn’t use the word “ecumenical,” but in the 19th century we often made common cause with other Christians on a number of issues.
The very origin of our movement is ecumenical. In the 1840s, when William Miller began to preach that Jesus would return soon, his message quickly turned into an ecumenical organization of thousands of Christians of many denominations. Together they pooled their resources and talents to preach the good news of the soon return of Christ.
As our little movement grew into a Sabbatarian Adventist denomination, we entertained good relationships with the Seventh Day Baptists. We sent a delegate to their annual convention and we received one from them at our sessions of the General Conference.
Many of our pioneers were anti-slavery advocates, joining with other Christians to abolish that great evil at the heart of the new nation. Many Adventists even used their homes as stations for the underground railway. The anti-slavery movement was an inter-denominational movement that brought together sincere Christians of many churches for a common cause, a cause established on some of the same biblical passages that today undergird the ecumenical movement (Galatians 3:26-28; Ephesians 2:11-16; Colossians 3:11).
By the 1870s, many of our pioneers were dedicated temperance advocates, some serving as presidents of local chapters with Ellen White’s approval—who herself spoke at these events. The temperance movement was a strong ecumenical movement focusing on a social issue, very much like the World Council of Churches does today when it speaks about issues of social justice.
Yet, as good as these examples may be, another reveals even more how we engaged positively in inter-denominational activities a hundred years ago: the missionary movement. In 1910, our church sent three official delegates (W. A. Spicer, secretary of the General Conference, L. R. Conradi, president of the European Division, and W. J. Fitzgerald, president of the British Union) to the International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Seventh-day Adventist representatives felt the conference had a positive influence, and was a fulfillment of a sign of the end of time: to preach the gospel to all the world before Jesus’ second coming (Matthew 24:14).
Spicer saw the Protestant missionary movement of the nineteenth century as a continuation of the Protestant Reformation. He believed that the Protestant denominations all over the world were together preaching the gospel of Jesus to cultures that had no knowledge of the biblical God. Seventh-day Adventists in 1910 knew that they were not able to fulfill by themselves the prediction of Matthew 24:14, and that God was using all Christians in all denominational missionary societies to do this.
Sadly, in many sectors of Adventism today, we no longer think like this. Some evangelists and preachers, in order to convince others to join the church and to convince church members to give money to their ministries, claim that only Adventists teach the biblical gospel and that other churches do not, or that version of the gospel is so corrupt that it can no longer save people. This is overly sectarian and misguided, and damages our identity as a Christian community, and indirectly denies the work of the Holy Spirit among other Christians. We cannot honestly endorse this kind of thinking. Ellen White asked, “Where are the greater part of the followers of Christ now to be found? Without doubt, in the various churches professing the Protestant faith.”
Biblical Unity in Christ
Seventh-day Adventists are, before anything else, Christians, who claim the same promises of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus’ death as other Christians do (Acts 15:11). Our pioneers believed this, and our unique message did not prevent them from affirming our common heritage with other believers. Adventists say with Paul that “whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). One does not have to become a Seventh-day Adventist to be saved.
If that is the essential good news, and if Adventists are not the sole proprietors of this good news, we are then obligated to see our neighbor who attends a church service in another denomination’s building as a true brother or sister in Christ. Our common faith creates a bond of spiritual unity in Jesus Christ. Please understand: we already have unity in Jesus; we don’t have to create it. This is what Paul affirmed in Romans 10 but also in 1 Corinthians 1, Ephesians 2 and Colossians 3.
All who claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior are already experiencing a spiritual oneness in Christ, however imperfectly it may be lived in reality. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 2:26-28). Whatever our denominational names, whether Lutheran, Baptist, Mennonite, Pentecostal or Seventh-day Adventist, our common relationship to Christ is more important than all denominational and doctrinal limitations, and we are one in Christ.
This is not downplaying the crucial truths we believe and the identity markers that shape our end-time mission, but it must frame our understanding of other Christian believers and guide our speech about them. The most convincing proof of the beauty of the gospel is love and tolerance expressed toward all those who believe in Jesus (John 13:34-35). I often weep over our evangelistic efforts and how they sow seeds of divisions by what is said about other Christians.
Unity was a matter of great importance to Jesus. In his last prayer in John 17 he prayed for unity among his own disciples, and among those who would later believe in him. That was his last wish—his last desire. If unity was so ardently on Jesus’ mind at that crucial moment of his life, should it also be part of our consciousness?
Adventists believe in the unity of all God’s people, and it is a gift we already have in Jesus. So any associations we have with other Christians should be seen as a heaven-sent blessing to teach us about God and his providence in the lives of others of his children. It is also an obvious opportunity for us to share how God has blessed our lives. I am grateful for Pastor Caccamo and many others all over the world who are involved in such Christ-centered witness and sharing.
That concept of unity in Christ must guide our conversation about other Christians and guide our relationship with them. Too long have we encouraged an unbridled bigotry toward other Christians, with the excuse that we have an end-time message they must accept. We can preach all we want, but we must not denigrate the image of God in the heart of other Christians. To do so is blasphemy and a negation of the gospel we say we believe in.
What About Ellen White?
While Ellen White said that we should beware of false teachings, and that at the end of time there would be great deceptions, she nonetheless always encouraged pastors and members to have cordial relationships with Christians of other denominations. She exemplified that in her own life and ministry, and never showed bigotry or intolerance toward others.
By the time she died in 1915 Ellen White’s personal library included hundreds of books by various Protestant authors. She had read many of these books, and used them when writing her own books. She knew that Christian authors had good insights into the word of God that she could rely upon. Comparisons of her own writings with books in her library have demonstrated how much she valued their contributions, and even at times depended on them quite heavily.
Adventists do not have a monopoly on truth, or on how to understand God’s providence and guidance in the life of all his people. As Ellen White demonstrated in the production of her books, we can learn from others and be enriched by them in our Christian journey.
Ellen White was known for speaking at temperance rallies, which were inter-denominational social reform societies, and received invitations to speak in churches and camp meetings of other denominations. Her Methodist heritage gave her a window into the minds of other Christians, and how to approach them with courtesy and genuine concern.
Even Roman Catholics touched her in her own life journey. Ellen White struggled for decades to become a full vegetarian. She had advocated a vegetarian diet from about 1865, but she personally continued to eat meat on and off for three more decades, until she had an unusual conversation with a Roman Catholic lady. A Mrs. O’Kavanagh met with her during a camp meeting near Melbourne, Australia, in 1896. This lady wanted to know more about Adventist lifestyle, vegetarianism, and abstinence from tobacco and alcohol. But Mrs. O’Kavanagh became perturbed when she realized Adventists were not totally abstaining from eating meat, and yet claimed to be vegetarians. She explained to Ellen White how horrible were the living conditions of these animals and how they were cruelly butchered to then appear on their tables. That did it! Ellen White determined to never again eat a piece of meat. God used a Roman Catholic to finally convince Ellen White to fully follow what she had been preaching for 30 years!
No wonder Ellen White was keen to say that our pastors should not go out of their way to attack Christians of other denominations, including Catholics! She rebuked a few pastors for their bigotry toward others, and for unnecessarily creating prejudices in the minds of others. “Our laborers should be very careful not to give the impression that they are wolves stealing in to get the sheep, but should let the ministers understand their position and the object of their mission—to call the attention of the people to the truths of God’s Word. There are many of these which are dear to all Christians. Here is common ground, upon which we can meet people of other denominations; and in becoming acquainted with them we should dwell mostly upon topics in which all feel an interest, and which will not lead directly and pointedly to the subjects of disagreement.” Ellen White was ecumenical way before it became popular, and when pastors received invitations to speak in other churches, she encouraged them to speak on topics of common interest, not on doctrines that would create barriers.
Ellen White understood the limits of what the Seventh-day Adventist church could accomplish alone, and knew other groups of Christians were guided by God in their work just as we are. She encouraged young people to attend the inter-denominational “meetings of the Young Men’s Christian Association, not for the sake of contention, but to search the Scriptures with them and suggest helpful questions.” And she supported the work of the Salvation Army, urging pastors not to “condemn them and speak harsh words against them. There are precious, self-sacrificing souls in the Salvation Army … [who] are trying to save the neglected, downtrodden ones. Discourage them not.”
To make these comments about other denominations Ellen White had to have an understanding of salvation, grace, and God’s leading in their lives that include them in the divine plan of God for the salvation of humankind. She was not of the opinion that her understanding of the Bible was the only valid one, or that a Christian had to agree with her in order to be saved. Pastors of other denominations were genuine shepherds of the flock of God’s people and needed to be respected as such. One has to assume that she had an understanding of the people of God and of the meaning of faith that go beyond the boundaries of her small denomination, that all Christians have an interdependent relationship in Christ, and are in fact part of the same family in Christ.
We would be remiss to forget this. Which is why I’m grateful for Pastor Caccamo and others for showing the way and being the kind of example Ellen White encouraged us to be.
- The Great Controversy, 383. ↑
- The Great Controversy, 593-602. ↑
- “O’Kavanagh, M. J. J.,” in Denis Fortin and Jerry Moon, eds., The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2013), 481. ↑
- Manuscript 14, 1887, in Evangelism, 574-575; Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, 244. In the first statement in Manuscript 14, 1887, she stated “We should not create a prejudice in their [Catholics] minds unnecessarily, by making a raid upon them. … From that which God has shown me, a great number will be saved from among the Catholics.” And in the other statement in Testimonies, vol. 9, she said “Among the Catholics there are many who are most conscientious Christians, and who walk in all the light that shines upon them, and God will work in their behalf.” One has to assume from these two statements, that if Catholics will be saved according to the light they have, this light must include sufficient elements and truth of the grace of the gospel to give them salvation, in spite of the other beliefs, that Protestants find objectionable. And remember, this was written over a hundred years ago. So, Catholics do believe in the gospel of salvation and this gospel saves them too as it saves Protestants. Of course, Protestants and Catholics have been debating for centuries the contours of the gospel of salvation. But it seems Ellen White agreed that some Catholics in her time did understand the gospel. ↑
- Review and Herald, June 13, 1912, in Evangelism, 143-144. ↑
- Review and Herald, June 13, 1912, in Evangelism, 143-144. ↑
- Manuscript 6, 1902, in Evangelism, 564. ↑
- Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, 74-75. ↑
- Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, 184. ↑
- Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, 77-78. ↑
Denis Fortin (Ph.D.) is professor of historical theology and former dean of the Seminary at Andrews University and has studied the ecumenical movement for 25 years. He was the principal contributor of the adult Bible study guide Oneness in Christ in 2017.