Who Is the Church?
By Lamar Phillips, February 15, 2016: I am a conservative—but not radical—Seventh-day Adventist, reared by humble, middle-class, God-fearing parents, in a rural setting in the Central Valley of California. We had our shoes shined and our baths taken by sundown Friday night, and my mother—a former Mennonite—along with my older sisters, had the food cooked, the house cleaned, and the clothes pressed and laid out before the sun dipped over the horizon. We had Friday and Sabbath sundown worship like clockwork.
During weekday mornings at breakfast, my mother often read something from Ellen White’s writings, such as Counsels on Diet and Foods, Messages to Young People, and Early Writings. These activities took place during the forties and most of the fifties till I went away to college in the Deep South in 1957. But, to set the record straight, I never considered those writings superior to the Bible, which over the years I have read many, many times.
Still, I remember much of what my sweet mother shared with us through those old red books, and, indeed, looking back, consider it a privilege to have been reared during that period and to have had my head filled with so much good stuff. Contrary to the negative reaction thousands of our young people (and many adults) in the Adventist community in the U.S. and some other countries, have today toward Ellen’s writings, I am in no way resentful of the tons of Spirit of Prophecy counsel I heard from the lips of my dear mother, who merely wanted to inculcate in us five children the principles and counsels that the church’s prophetess wrote for her people. And as a result, I felt very much a part of the church. In fact, in some ways, I felt I was the church!
After 39 years of mission service on five continents in eight countries and 10 years of service in the North American Division, including publishing and pastoral ministry, I still claim to be an integral part of the church, and no one, I’m sure, would question that right. However, therein lies the problem. Am I, after all, truly an integral part of the church? And should I still feel, as I did so many years ago, that I am the church?
Perhaps a more appropriate question is, if I am not the church, who is the church? Three or four decades ago it would have been an uncontroversial question, but events occurring within Adventism during recent years oblige one to now face that inquiry. It is, I believe, eminently important for our spiritual well-being and, perhaps, more importantly, for our unity, to know who the true Seventh-day Adventist church is.
So, who is the church? Many diverse groups have made their assertions to being its substance, albeit in some cases unconsciously—or at least inadvertently. In most instances, however, they are suspect avowals, but whatever the case, legitimate or illegitimate, unjustifiably claiming you are the church can have a chilling effect on God’s timetable for His remnant. I am not here referring to splinter groups. Instead, I suggest six distinct church components.
Theologians at Andrews and Loma Linda Universities
Since the beginning of our history, the true custodians of our church’s beliefs have been theologians. True, James and Ellen White, Joseph Bates, Uriah Smith, Hiram Edson, Rachel Preston, J. N. Andrews, and other early pioneers were not formally trained theologians, but by merit of their intense inquiry and spirit-led investigations, they can lay claim to having assimilated the set of doctrines our church still subscribes to—solid, inscrutable teachings. Therefore, in their own right, they are theologians.
After the passing of the early pioneers and up until the 1960s or so, another group of theologians, more academically trained, became the new custodians. I think of the likes of Alma McKibbin, Sarah Peck, Otto Christensen, Henry Baasch, and others.
More lately, our doctrines have been in the hands of still another group, composed of the likes of Gerhard Hasel, Graham Maxwell, Samuel Bacchiocchi, Edward Heppenstall, William Shea, and Jon Paulien, to name a few, with doctorates from various halls of academe.
These groups, representing three distinct eras of the church, have with various adjustments over the years, guarded the original set of teachings in their theological splendor. Yet there has always been a variance of views. Discussion over diverse doctrinal points has invariably been part of the warp and woof of these learned men, beginning as far back as the second era, and except for the grand debate slugged out over righteousness by faith in 1888 (and by some still continued), and the validity of the Sanctuary hotly defended at Glacier View in August, 1980, and the on-going fuss over many recent issues such as the historical-critical method versus the historical-grammatical method of biblical interpretation, the ordination of women, the age of the earth, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the church as “the remnant,” the Spirit of Prophecy, the second coming, and the Sabbath, all belie the inherent belief that, despite these small (and sometimes big) tugs of war and internecine battles, where the action is, there is the church.
Indeed, the repetitive skirmishes might never end. But one thing is certain: these men, as the revered custodians of our doctrinal trust fund, as the keepers of the theological gates, inevitably see themselves as the church, because, after all, what is a church without carefully carved dogma? And what is a church without its caretakers? Furthermore, isn’t action the embodiment of the church?
Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. A church’s identity has never been measured by its caretakers, either quantitatively or qualitatively. Despite the intensity and importance of the battles, or of glorious breakthroughs that may occur, or of heroic championings of the cause, or of dynamic defenses; and though we may never forget those great denominational founders, such as Martin Luther, John Wesley, Menno Simons, today we do not identify Lutheranism, Methodism, and the Mennonite church as being these men, less their myriad theologians who have zealously guarded their teachings down through the centuries. In short, intellectualism and theological sparring never were a substitute for a simple trust in God and a deep, Spirit-filled sense of mission. Leaving the church in the hands of its theologians would only provoke a sterile mission and a cool, erudite image. Defending the teachings and honing the fine points is to be admired, but wouldn’t configuring theologically a renewed sense of duty, of commitment, of zeal, and of heavenly longing in its constituency be so much better?
Leaders at the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland
It was through the undimmed vision and indefatigable efforts of the General Conference leadership, along with Ellen White, in the beginning that our church became what it is today. Who can deny the administrative brilliance of James White, and the vision of A.G. Daniells and Percy Magan, and many of their contemporaries and successors? What would we be today without their insights and perseverance? These giants gave us our footing and broad-spectrum vision. They defined our parameters and the arena wherein most of our activities take place. For decades, the General Conference, first in Battle Creek and then in Maryland, was everyone and everything. Its leaders formed a great cauldron of ideas and promotion. They were innovators and implementers. As divisions were conceived and added as an extension of the General Conference, these men (and quite a few women) counseled them, supported their plans, financed them, and emotionally rode their waves. There was deep, visceral involvement. Today this legacy continues, although considerably abated, replaced partially by other activities not quite so creative and maybe not so pertinent.
It would be easy for these leaders to assume they are the church. Their intimate involvement in world-wide church affairs might easily distort their perception of their role and their identification. As they travel extensively and view the global work from the crow’s nest, ought they not readily to see that the strength of the church lies not in their hands? Unfortunately, there are always those who are not so perceptive. Those who may believe they are the church are gravely mistaken. To believe they hold the mantle would be to shorten the Lord’s arm, curtail His work, reduce flexibility, diminish the vision, delay His coming. Of course, the General Conference’s duties are multiple, but establishing broad platitudes while implementing a supportive and regulatory role is more central to its function.
North American Division Laity
Adventism got started in the United States. It was there that its economy—spiritual, intellectual, financial—was rooted. All that Adventism holds was developed on the North American continent: its theology, its administrative and geographical structure, its tithing plan, as well as its educational system, worldwide mission program, health care organization, and proselytization strategy. Its very guts, if you please, go deep into American soil. In the beginning, North Americans financed all new endeavors, domestic and foreign, journeyed to faraway countries to give their energy and blood to begin new work. Yet it was all ordained of God. After all, what other country would have been so viable for spawning the remnant church? And for penetrating the unreached abroad?
It is perhaps this phenomenon that has brought many United States Adventists to believe they are the church. Yet, most have never set foot outside the nation. Tens of thousands never read our church journals, never keep abreast of what’s going on in the church in the rest of the world. Notwithstanding, ironically their pride of ownership goes deep. And there is the great danger.
Many North American Adventists are resting on their laurels, believing they are the church, but producing minimal church growth. Many are fretting about one thing or another, arguing themes and topics that in the end hinder more than promote. Meanwhile, around them in other lands, the work is rushing forward. Already, since long ago, the North American Division (NAD) is a minority division. It may be rich in funds and talent and politics, but it is asleep evangelistically, despite the Net 90s evangelistic series and other dynamic Seventh-day Adventist media presentations—Three Angels Broadcasting, It Is Written, Hope Channel, Amazing Facts, Amazing Discoveries, LLU Television, and numerous radio programs, plus the uplinks.
Yes, these innovations have helped and even inspired some and motivated others. But one day, not far away, much of their effort will be to little avail. Where will the NAD be in 10 to 15 years when the church has 40 to 50 million members and only two to three million (perhaps) of those are in the USA? How will its leadership and constituency feel and respond when the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, is composed of 80%–90% foreigners? In fact, it may take such a change to make a difference in the NAD.
I think it has been helpful for me to live so many years outside the United States. For one thing, it has aided in honing a more objective, balanced view of the church. I have seen that the deep spirituality, the zeal for soul winning, and placing the church at the center of their social life has not only produced phenomenal growth, but has also left our overseas members with a calm peace and a deep sense of mission. They know who they are and where they’re going, despite limited resources and frequent hard times—even persecution. It would be well for our NAD constituency to take a long, hard look at their counterparts abroad. It might produce a clearer view of who the church is, at least shift the focus away from themselves, and most of all, help them to discover that soul winning has less to do with expensive outlays than a rich personal testimony and courage to share one’s faith.
North American Division Leaders
I am talking here about all levels and all organizations in the Division—conferences, unions, hospitals, food factories, and schools. The leaders of these entities are a busy group. Through their strenuous efforts and amazing creativity, they have built splendid buildings and gargantuan institutions; they have provided curriculums for dozens of careers, have dreamed up every possible kind of evangelistic approach, have invented clever means by which to source funds from their members, and have done brilliant studies on almost every facet of church life and endeavor. Their genius is admirable, and their unflagging ardor is spellbinding. Who can admonish them?
Have not all these spectacular activities qualified them for being the church? Who outside their field has been cleverer or more progressive or more efficient? Who out there knows better than they about sheer resourcefulness? And haven’t many of their wonderful ideas been used successfully in other divisions?
I can assure you that while there is admiration for the prosperity, organization, intellectuality, imagination, and boldness of the North American Division leadership by non-NAD leaders, there is also a distrust of the NAD leadership by many of those same counterpart overseas leaders; for some there is ambivalence and for others, unfortunately, even sheer disdain.
Why? Simple. While Brer Rabbit slept, His Majesty the Turtle won the race. Our theological-wise administrators, evangelists, and tertiary level professors in most of the other divisions have been quick to see the resemblance, and though they have often dialogued among themselves about this problem, they have to outsiders kept these things in their hearts. Meanwhile, the directive to the church in Matthew 28:18-20 has surged forward mightily at their eager and tireless hands. Indeed, more than 90% of Adventism’s membership is found outside North America.
There are some valid reasons for this—poverty, which almost always leads to a hunger for better things, especially for the spiritual; less sophistication, thus fewer prejudices and biases to penetrate; less meaningful fellowship among their priority group, meaning that the warm fellowship discovered in our churches in these countries accomplishes a deep rooting; and even prosperity, which almost always comes from following truth and being faithful to the Lord. Meanwhile, back in the USA, strong-willed Protestants, implacable sects, committed Catholics, and hard-core secularists all make for hard fish to land. Materialism and apathy, too, have retarded soul winning in the NAD. But the fact remains, the other divisions have succeeded where the NAD has not in putting their laity to work. Soul winning is a solemn commitment out there, and their burgeoning fruits are undeniable testimony of this fact.
The Leadership and Laity of Non-NAD Divisions
Approximately 17 million of the church’s 18-plus million or so members live outside the United States. The majority are in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. God’s Spirit is working mighty miracles as new members are coming in by the tens of thousands every month. Our members are holding cottage meetings and evangelistic efforts, holding Revelation seminars, and giving personal Bible studies. They are speaking to their neighbors, work companions, relatives, family members, friends, and even complete strangers about the God they love. They have lost their timidity and are growing ever bolder. They have savored soul winning. Yes, they have tasted and know that the Lord is good.
They are being trained, led, and inspired by sometimes simple but dynamic pastors and church leaders. They are excited, and they are exercising their faith. The fruits of their labors are legion, and so are the miracles God is performing on their part. The question is, do they believe they are the church? My answer is a steady no. Indeed, it is a question that has not occurred to them. When you are busy, plowing deep and harvesting abundantly, these are the least of your thoughts.
But are they, then, the church? Maybe. It depends on how you look at it. If the church is where the action is, then the answer is yes. If the church is where God is working mightily, then the answer is yes. If the church is where there is humility, abiding trust in the leaders, hands clasped and arms joined to the task, strong families, and work advanced eagerly with little in the pocket, then the answer is yes. If one believes the church’s primary responsibility is to promulgate the gospel, then one has to give his and her counterparts in other countries high marks. After all, the real action in the church—action where it counts—is, indeed, outside the U.S.
Yes, in terms of evangelism our laity in other lands are carrying forward with zeal and perseverance. Yes, in terms of education, our parents and young people of these countries are making great sacrifices to achieve. They are studying in often simple—even primitive—buildings with below-standard facilities, and sleeping in dormitories with sometimes nine to the room, and bathing in creeks, and washing their clothes every night to have something to wear the next day. Yet, along with their adult brethren they’ve got the torch in their hands, and the wonderful results are a witness to that blazing beam. Yes, in terms of health our dear counterparts are living the best they know how, despite a paucity of Spirit of Prophecy health books. They are, in fact, wasting away their lives for His glory. And the applause is almost inaudible.
The World-Wide Membership and Leadership
If you can’t pull it out of your heart to give credit where credit is due, and if you still believe that as a member of one of the segments above you are the church, then you may satisfy yourself in the claim that ultimately every member, every leader, corporately composes the church. This is a neat little argument, and I, too, generally speaking, buy it. But it is also arguable that not participating in the action patently negates the claim. Still, God has His church, and His church is composed of those who are committed to the point of complete dedication, are salted heavily with fervor and dependency on the Spirit, move professionally forward or upward innocently—only at the bidding of the Holy Ghost, make financial and physical sacrifices that hurt, rejoice in witnessing, and beg for His coming.
Who is the church? Only you can make that choice.
Lamar Phillips is a retired Adventist minister living in Ooltewah, Tennessee, and attends Collegedale Community Adventist Church. He earned a college degree in theology at Southern Adventist University in 1963 and later a master’s degree in International Development. He began his service to the denomination as an editor at the old Southern Publishing Association in Nashville. After marriage, he went to Panama as principal of a boarding academy, then to Costa Rica as educational director for the mission, and back to the United States as a pastor in New Mexico and Tennessee. He worked for ADRA in Bolivia, Russia, Philippines, Haiti, Honduras, Costa Rica and Albania. He is married to Felicia nee LeVere, long-time religion teacher at the secondary and college levels, a commissioned pastor who has baptized 600 people over the years.