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The People of the Book
HAVING related the events of his early years in the message, the guest speaker paused for a moment, glanced at the congregation over the top of his reading glasses, and somewhat wistfully remarked, “You know, Advent- ists used to be called the ‘people of the Book’ back in those days.”
Sound familiar? Perhaps you have heard such comments from an older minister, a retired foreign missionary, or a gray-haired patriarch of your local church. Then again, it may be that you remember such things firsthand.
If the accounts are accurate, some time in the past Seventh-day Adventism enjoyed a widespread reputation for being a strongly Bible-based system of belief. And Seventh-day Adventists themselves were known as knowledge- able “authorities” on the Word of God.
A noble heritage, to be sure. And yet, why is it that so often the comments on Adventists being the “people of the Book” are set solidly in the past tense? Why was it so “back in those days,” but apparently not so today? Perhaps it is nothing more than society’s perception of us that has changed. Yet that is seldom the impression received from those old enough to remember what seem to them to be bygone days.
Surely no Adventist would claim that the Bible is anything other than central to Christianity. Doctrine, faith, duty, practice—all are to be measured and established by the Word. How, then, is it that this general trend of a decreasing familiarity with the Book of all books should have found its way into Adventism?
Many answers might be offered. Busy schedules, television, vocational pressures are all potentially greater diversions than they were fifty and sixty years ago. Some would point to a too-great dependence on the Spirit of Prophecy as causing many to spend less time grappling with the sometimes greater challenges of Biblical study. Others would cite the difficulty of memo- rizing Scripture caused by the proliferation of new Bible translations. In all probability, each of these causes has to some degree played a part in lessening the perception of Seventh-day Adventists as the “people of the Book.”
There is, perhaps, another cause. Less obvious, it may be; but a century ago it was seen as a sufficient threat to the church’s well-being that the General Conference, in session, quite unanimously expressed their concern on the subject. Whether this matter is more serious than the influence of television, for instance, could certainly be debated. But in any case, the story
surrounding this action of the General Conference is an interesting one, and deserves a hearing.
The Early Days
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was formally organized in May 1863. Though we intellectually know better, we sometimes fail to realize just how small and, at times, informal our denomination was in its early days. General Conference sessions of the time were a far cry from the major events we know them to be today. During the years 1863-1881 a total of twenty-five General Conference sessions were held. The average delegate count for these years was twenty-two; once there were only fourteen, and the high was just forty-one.
Scheduling, too, reflected the need for flexibility. Though the first eight years saw a single annual meeting held each spring, the following decade reflected the varying needs of the growing movement. Some years there was no meeting at all; in 1876 the General Conference met three times. Five times in five years “special sessions” were held.’
With a little effort we can easily read between the lines of history and catch a glimpse of the thoughts which must have been going through the minds of those involved in the administration of the church. If the degree of informal- ity displayed in General Conference sessions spilled over into other areas to some extent, we might assume that a certain amount of “disorganization anxiety” was developing.
At the risk of oversimplifying, let us pause a moment to recognize a basic difference which exists from one person to another Certain individuals value order and predictability more highly than they do flexibility. Others are ex- actly the opposite.
Both preferences have their advantages and disadvantages. Order and predictability protect a person from unforeseen difficulties, providing assur- ance and a sense of security. Too much order, however, can produce monu- mental levels of what we disdainfully speak of as “red tape.” Flexibility, on the other hand, allows a person to adapt his responses to the circumstances, respond to change more quickly, and protects against being trapped in a course which is no longer best. Carry flexibility to an extreme, however, and it becomes difficult to distinguish from chaos.
In any working group, such as the developing church of the 1870s, the difficulty is that each individual has a preference of his own, often unlike that of his brethren, in this matter of order versus flexibility.
Seeking the Perfect Balance
By the late 1870s, some (we might assume them to be those who most highly valued order and predictability) began to feel that the affairs of the church were being run too loosely. The avenue of improvement they sug- gested was the writing of a “manual of directions for the use of young minis- ters and church officers.” As with most suggestions, this one was not acted
upon immediately. Not until December of 1882 did it emerge from the realm of theory and begin to find its place in the realm of reality.
The General Conference that year was held in Rome, New York. Attended by forty-seven delegates, it was the largest yet. It was at this meeting that the suggestion of a church manual came into its own. The story is best told by quoting from the report of the following year’s General Conference session:
‘At the last annual session of the Conference, it was recommended that a manual of instructions to church officers be prepared, and a committee was appointed to consider the matter and report at this session. W H. Littlejohn, the chairman of the committee, reported at this meeting that the committee had prepared a series of articles, containing instructions to church officers, which have been printed in the Review under the title, ‘The Church Manual.’ It was thought best to print them in the Review first, in order to give opportu- nity for examination and criticism before the matter should come up for final action at this session. After further remarks upon the subject by Elders S. N. Haskell, George I. Butler, H. A. St. John, and Brother W C. White, it was—
“Voted, That the Chair appoint a committee of ten to act with the General Conference Committee in the examination and consideration of ‘The Church Manual.’ This committee was announced as follows: W. C. White, H. Nicola, J. H. Cook, S. H. Lane, 0. A. Olsen, M. H. Brown, R. E Andrews,
, J. B. Goodrich, A. S. Hutchins, H. W. Decker.”
Considering that the General Conference Committee at this time consisted of three members (later in this session it was enlarged to five), we find that thirteen men were appointed to weigh the merits of the proposed manual. Though attendance at the 1883 session had jumped to sixty-five delegates, this still represented a full twenty percent of the Conference. It would appear that the question of the manual was receiving serious consideration.
Three days later (November 12), at the seventh meeting of the conference—
“The committee appointed to consider the matter of the Church Manual, made in substance the following report:
“It is the unanimous judgment of the committee, that it would not be advisable to have a Church Manual. We consider it unnecessary because we have already surmounted the greatest difficulties connected with church organization without one; and perfect harmony exists among us on this subject. It would seem to many like a step toward the formation of a creed, or a discipline, other than the Bible, something we have always been op- posed to as a denomination. If we had one, we fear many, especially those commencing to preach, would study it to obtain guidance in religious mat- ters, rather than to seek for it in the Bible, and from the leadings of the Spirit of God, which would tend to their hindrance in genuine religious experience and in knowledge of the mind of the Spirit. It was in taking similar steps that other bodies of Christians first began to lose their simplicity and become formal and spiritually lifeless. Why should we imitate them? The committee feel, in short, that our tendency should be in the direction of simplicity and
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close conformity to the Bible, rather than in elaborately defining every point in church management and church ordinances.
“On motion, this report with reference to the church manual was accepted. It was then also—
“Voted, That the president of the General Conference be requested to write an article for the Review, explaining the action of the Conference on the
3 subject of the manual.”
Report on the Proposed Church Manual
The requested article from the pen of President Butler was to make its appearance in the Review and Herald one week after the announcements quoted above. Short and to the point (typical of the plainspoken Butler) the article was entitled, “No Church Manual.” It read as follows:
“The writer was requested by the recent General Conference to make a brief statement through the Review of the action taken in reference to the proposed church manual. For four or five years past, there has been with some of our brethren a desire to have some manual of directions for the use of young ministers and church officers, etc. It was thought that this would lead to uniformity in all parts of the field, and afford means of instruction to those who were inexperienced, and be very convenient in many respects. Steps were taken several years ago to prepare a manual, but for a time it was left unfinished. Last year, at the Rome Conference, the matter came up for consid- eration, and three brethren were appointed a committee to prepare a manual, and submit it to the Conference this year for its approval or rejection. During the past summer the matter they have prepared has appeared in the Review, and has doubtless been well considered by its readers.
‘At the recent Conference a committee of thirteen leading brethren were appointed to consider the whole subject, and report. They did so, and unani- mously recommended to the Conference that it was not advisable to have a church manual. Their reasons were briefly given in the report of Conference proceedings given in last week’s Review. The Conference acted upon this recommendation, and quite unanimously decided against having any man- ual. In doing so, they did not intend any disrespect to the worthy brethren who had labored diligently to prepare such a work. They had presented much excellent matter, and given many valuable directions concerning church ordinances, holding business meetings, and many other important questions, and had done as well, no doubt, as any others would have done in their place. The reasons underlying this action of the Conference were of a broader character. They relate to the desirability of any manual whatever.
“The Bible contains our creed and discipline. It thoroughly furnishes the man of God unto all good works. What it has not revealed relative to church organization and management, the duties of officers and ministers, and kin- dred subjects, should not be strictly defined and drawn out into minute specifications for the sake of uniformity, but rather be left to individual judg- ment under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Had it been best to have a book of
directions of this sort, the Spirit would doubtless have gone further, and left one on record with the stamp of inspiration upon it. Man cannot safely
supplement this matter with his weak judgment. All attempts to do it in the past have proved lamentable failures. A variation of circumstances requires variation in action. God requires us to study important principles which He reveals in His Word, but the minutiw in carrying them out He leaves to individual judgment, promising heavenly wisdom in times of need. His min- isters are constantly placed where they must feel their helplessness, and their need of seeking God for light, rather than to go to any church manual for specific directions, placed therein by other uninspired men. Minute, specific directions tend to weakness, rather than power. They lead to dependence rather than self-reliance. Better make some mistakes and learn profitable lessons thereby, than to have our way all marked out for us by others, and the judgment have but a small field in which to reason and consider.
“While brethren who have favored a manual have ever contended that such a work was not to be anything like a creed or a discipline, or to have authority to settle disputed points, but was only to be considered as a book containing hints for the help of those of little experience, yet it must be evident that such a work, issued under the auspices of the General Confer- ence, would at once carry with it much weight of authority, and would be consulted by most of our younger ministers. It would gradually shape and mold the whole body; and those who did not follow it would be considered out of harmony with established principles of church order. And, really, is this not the object of the manual? And what would be the use of one if not to accomplish such a result? But would this result, on the whole, be a benefit? Would our ministers be broader, more original, more self-reliant men? Could they be better depended on in great emergencies? Would their spiritual expe- riences likely be deeper and their judgment more reliable? We think the tendency all the other way.
“The religious movement in which we are engaged has the same influences to meet which all genuine reformations have had to cope with. After reaching a certain magnitude, they have seen the need of uniformity, and to attain to it they have tried to prepare directions to guide the inexperienced. These have grown in number and authority till, accepted by all, they really become authoritative. There seems to be no logical stopping place, when once started upon this road, till this result is reached. Their history is before us; we have no desire to follow it. Hence we stop without a church manual before we get started. Our brethren who have favored such a work, we presume never anticipated such a conclusion as we have indicated. Very likely those in other denominations did not at first. The Conference thought best not to give even the appearance of such a thing.
“Thus far we have got along well with our simple organization without a manual. Union prevails throughout the body. The difficulties before us, so far as organization is concerned, are far less than those we have had in the past. We have preserved simplicity, and have prospered in so doing. It is best to let
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well enough alone. For these and other reasons, the church manual was rejected. It is probable it will never be brought forward again.”‘
Butler’s closing sentence displays one of the more prominent of human shortcomings—a profound lack of foreknowledge. Forty-nine years later, in 1932, the Seventh-day Adventist Church would indeed have a church man- ual. Before looking at that portion of our history, however, at least a cursory examination of the suggested manual of 1883 is in order.
The 1883 Text
As noted above, the text for the suggested manual was published during the summer of 1883. Thirteen articles, running in the Review and Herald from June 5 to August 28, presented this material to the church at large.
The preface to the manual proper offered a rationale for church organiza- tion in general, yet also sought to reassure those who might be skeptical of the wisdom of having such a publication. It was stated: “The directions which it [the manual] contains for the transaction of business matters should not be regarded as invariable under all circumstances, but rather as suggestions simply, which are offered for the assistance of those who feel that they have
5 need of aid, and are not unwilling to accept the counsel of others.”
But it is hard to achieve uniformity, order, and predictability by means of counsel alone—especially if that counsel is taken somewhat lightly. How, then, does one impress upon the minds of his more flexible-minded brethren the desirability of following the proposed plan? The authors of the articles sought to accomplish this by means of such statements as:
“The day for the organization [of a local church] having been reached, the
following order of business should be carefully carried out:…” (This was
followed by ten detailed items of business.)
“When the hour for the election [of local church officers] has arrived, the
following program of business should be carried out:…” (There follows a list of nine items of business, including this interesting suggestion: “8. In case any one person has received a majority of all the votes cast, he is elected, provided the vote was a formal one; but it would be well for the chairman to suggest that some one should move that the election be declared unani- mous.”) After the list, the authors say: “When all the steps mentioned above
have been properly taken, the church will be fully organized.”
Bear in mind that the suggested procedures are, on the whole, quite rou- tine. The authors of these articles were not seeking to introduce any new and startling procedures into the church. Quite the opposite—they simply sought to establish and preserve a certain amount of standardization in the com-
monly accepted procedures of the day.
The scope of the proposed church manual included “such matters as the
organizing of churches; the duties of church officers; the admission, transfer- ring, and dropping of members; church trials; and the conducting of quarterly business meetings and the ordinances.”8
We may well agree with George Butler that “the worthy brethren” who wrote the manual “had presented much excellent matter, and given many valuable directions concerning church ordinances, holding business meet- ings, and many other important questions, and had done as well, no doubt, as any others would have done in their place.”
No, the manual was not voted down because its suggestions were heretical or unorthodox. It was rejected for “reasons…of a broader character” relating more “to the desirability of any manual whatever.”
A Change of Opinion (?)
Nearly five decades were to pass before that which George Butler thought would never happen, happened. In 1932 the first official Church Manual was issued by the General Conference. An interesting account of how this came about is presented in the preface to the 1986 revision of the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual. Unfortunately, there are some aspects of this account which—by someone unfamiliar with the facts of the 1883 General Conference action—might easily be misunderstood.
For instance, on pages 15 and 16 we find the following two paragraphs:
“The 1882 General Conference session voted to have prepared ‘instruc- tions to church officers, to be printed in the Review and Herald or in tract form.’—Review and Herald, December 26, 1882. This action revealed the grow- ing realization that church order was imperative if church organization was to function effectively, and that uniformity in such order required its guiding principles to be put into printed form. Accordingly the articles were publish- ed. But at the 1883 General Conference session, when it was proposed that these articles be placed in permanent form as a church manual, the idea was rejected. The brethren feared that it would possibly formalize the church and take from its ministers their freedom to deal with matters of church
order as they might individually desire.
“But this fear—doubtless reflecting the opposition to any kind of church
organization that had existed twenty years before—evidently soon departed. The annual General Conference sessions continued to take actions on matters of church order. In other words, they slowly but surely were producing material for a church manual.”
It should be noted, first of all, that the idea of turning these “instructions to church officers” into a permanent church manual was not a matter of sudden inspiration at the 1883 General Conference. Thirteen issues of the Review and Herald had carried articles entitled “The Church Manual.” This was no last-minute surprise.
A second point of possible confusion is the implied link between the oppo- sition to the proposed manual and the opposition to any and all forms of church organization which had existed in the early 1860s. It should be noted that those who reasoned against the need for a church manual were those who were most involved in, and most dedicated to, church organization. Anyone who is at all familiar with the administrative concepts of George I.
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Butler would find it quite humorous to think that he was, even subcon- sciously, opposing church organization.
A third item deserving some thought is the question of whether or not those who “continued to take actions on matters of church order” saw this to be the same as “producing material for a church manual.” If we are to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were acting con- sistently with their own voted intentions, then we must accept that they did not feel that they were engaged in the same process they had so decid- edly voted against.
But this third item raises an interesting question: Is there any real differ- ence between “taking actions on matters of church order” and writing a church manual?
Actions on Matters of Church Order
It is certainly true that the administrators of the denomination displayed very little hesitation in the passing of resolutions and the framing of rules during the remainder of the 1880s and the whole of the 1890s. Yet, to assume that they saw this in the same light as the writing of a church manual is unwarranted due to the simple lack of evidence. We might well ask, however, whether Ellen White saw this activity in the same light. If she did, then we have a whole new category of information to consider in regard to the wis- dom of having a church manual.
Ellen White apparently played no part in the discussion of the advisability of adopting a church manual which took place in 1883. Arthur White, in chapter 19 of The Lonely Years, deals with his grandmother’s involvement in that General Conference session, but no mention is made of the church manual issue. We find, as well, that in all of the currently released Ellen White material, there is not a single instance of her using the term “church manual.”
Her thoughts on the administrative policies of church leaders in the dec- ades following 1883, however, are clearly recorded in language which leaves no room for uncertainty. If we are to equate the actions of the General Confer- ence during those years with the matter of a church manual, as the preface to the 1986 Church Manual suggests, then we have great cause for concern. A sampling of her thinking, chronologically arranged, is given below:
(1885) “I have been shown that there is one practice which those in respon- sible places should avoid; for it is detrimental to the work of God. Men in position should not lord it over God’s heritage, and command everything around them. Too many have marked out a prescribed line which they wish others to follow in the work. Workers have tried to do this with blind faith, without exercising their own judgment upon the matter which they had in hand. If those who were placed as directors were not present, they have followed their implicit directions just the same. But in the name of Christ, I would entreat you to stop this work. Give men a chance to exercise their individual judgment. Men who follow the leading of another, and are willing that another should think for them, are unfit to be entrusted with responsibil-
ity. Our leading men are remiss in this matter. God has not given to special ones all the brain power there is in the world….
“I think I have laid out this matter many times before you, but I see no
9 change in your actions.”
(1888) “Leave God a chance to do something for those who love Him, and do not impose upon them rules and regulations, which, if followed, will leave them destitute of the grace of God as were the hills of Gilboa, without dew or rain. Your very many resolutions need to be reduced to one third their number, and great care should be taken as to what resolutions are framed.”10
(1892) “The business of our Conference sessions has sometimes been bur- dened down with propositions and resolutions that were not at all essential, and that would never have been presented if the sons and daughters of God had been walking carefully and prayerfully before Him. The fewer rules and regulations that we can have, the better will be the effect in the end. When they are made, let them be carefully considered, and, if wise, let it be seen that they mean something, and are not to become a dead letter. Do not, however, encumber any branch of the work with unnecessary, burdensome restrictions and inventions of men. In this period of the world’s history, with the vast work that is before us, we need to observe the greatest simplicity, and the work will be the stronger for its simplicity.
“Let none entertain the thought, however, that we can dispense with organization.””
(1894) “The lack of confidence which brethren in the ministry repose in their fellow laborers is easily read in the rules and regulations concerning
even the details of the work which they seek to impose upon them.”
(1895) “Laws and rules are being made at the centers of the work that will
soon be broken into atoms. Men are not to dictate….
“Those who know the truth are to be worked by the Holy Spirit, and not
themselves to try to work the Spirit. If the cords are drawn much tighter, if
the rules are made much finer, if men continue to bind their fellow laborers
closer and closer to the commandments of men, many will be stirred by the
Spirit of God to break every shackle, and assert their liberty in Christ Jesus….
No human being shall be permitted to prescribe my liberty or intrench upon
the perfect freedom of my brethren, without hearing my voice lifted in
protest against it.”
(1895) “Those who are enjoined to represent the attributes of the Lord’s
character, step from the Bible platform, and in their own human judgment devise rules and resolutions to force the will of others. The devisings for forcing men to follow the prescriptions of other men are instituting an order of things that overrides sympathy and tender compassion, that blinds the eyes to mercy, justice, and the love of God. Moral influence and personal responsibility are trodden underfoot.””
(1896) “The effort to earn salvation by one’s own works inevitably leads men to pile up human exactions as a barrier against sin. For, seeing that they fail to keep the law, they will devise rules and regulations of their own to force
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themselves to obey. All this turns the mind away from God to self. His love
15 dies out of the heart, and with it perishes love for his fellow men.”
(1903) “But God has nothing to do with making every institution amenable in some way to the work and workers in Battle Creek. His servants should not be called upon to submit to rules and regulations made there. God’s hand must hold every worker, and must guide and control every worker. Men are not to make rules and regulations for their fellow men. The Bible has given the rules and regulations that we are to follow. We are to study the Bible and learn from it the duty of man to his fellow man. ‘The law of the LORD is
16 perfect, converting the soul.’ Psalm 19:7.”
(1907) “The man-ruling power that has been coming into our ranks has no sanction in the Word. Satan has stolen in to lead men to depend on men, and to make flesh their arm. I am instructed to say, Break every yoke that human invention has framed, and heed the voice of Christ, “rake My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.’ Matthew 11:29-30….
“The man who because he is president of a conference dares to take the responsibility of telling his fellow-workers what their duty is, is working out a wrong experience. The influence will be to destroy the God-given personality of men, and place them under human jurisdiction. Such management is laying a foundation for unbelief. The men who instruct their fellow men to look to men for guidance, are really teaching them that when they go to the Lord for counsel and the direction of His Spirit regarding their duty, they must not follow that counsel without first going to certain men to know if this is what they must do. Thus a species of slavery is developed that will bring
17 only weakness and inefficiency to the church of God.”
(1909) “Do not allow any man to come in as an arbitrary ruler, and say, You must not go here, and you must not go there; you must do this, and you must not do that. We have a great and important work to do, and God would have us take hold of that work intelligently. The placing of men in positions of
18 responsibility in various Conferences, does not make them gods.”
Those familiar with this unfortunate era of our denomination’s history will recognize that the selections above are but a small fraction of the similar statements made by Ellen White during the stressful years before and after the turn of the century. Many more might be provided, but the point is simply this: If the passing of “actions on matters of church order” during these years was in any real way a continuation of the principles behind the rejected church manual of 1883, then we have great cause for thankfulness that the brethren had the foresight to reject it when they did.
It would also be well to notice in particular that Ellen White made a clear distinction between proper organization and excessive organization. The greatest challenge of this aspect of our history is to determine where that dividing line is to be found. Either extreme is disastrous—the balance must be sought.
Quoting again from the preface to the 1986 edition of the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual:
“Meanwhile the Movement continued to grow rapidly both at home and abroad. It was therefore in the best interests of the very order and proper uniformity that had long been our goal, that the General Conference Commit- tee took action in 1931 to publish a church manual. J. L. McElhany, then vice-president of the General Conference for North America, and later presi- dent of the General Conference for fourteen years, was asked to prepare the manuscript. This manuscript was carefully examined by the General Confer- ence Committee and then published in 1932. The opening sentence of the preface of that first edition well observes that ‘it has become increasingly evident that a manual on church government is needed to set forth and preserve our denominational practices and polity.’ Note the word ‘preserve.’ Here was no attempt at a late date suddenly to create a whole pattern of church government. Rather, it was an endeavor, first to ‘preserve’ all the good actions taken through the years, and then to add such regulations as our increasing growth and complexity might require.”
Over the years the Church Manual has increased somewhat in size as it has been modified and enlarged to address a greater variety of issues and circum- stances. Of more importance, however, has been the change in its status. Again, from the 1986 revision:
“Realizing increasingly how important it is that everything ‘be done de- cently and in order’ in our worldwide work, and that actions on church government should not only express the mind but have the full authority of the church, the 1946 General Conference session adopted the following procedure:
” All changes or revisions of policy that are to be made in the Manual shall be authorized by the General Conference session.’—General Conference Report, No. 8, p. 197 (June 14, 1946)….
“The 1946 General Conference session action that all ‘changes or revisions of policy’ in the Manual shall be ‘authorized by the General Conference session,’ reflects a conception of the authoritative status of General Conference sessions that has long been held among us. In the 1877 session this action was taken:
” ‘Resolved, that the highest authority under God among Seventh-day Ad- ventists is found in the will of the body of that people, as expressed in the decisions of the General Conference when acting within its proper jurisdic- tion; and that such decisions should be submitted to by all without exception, unless they can be shown to conflict with the Word of God and the rights of
20 individual conscience.’—Review and Herald, vol. 50, No. 14, p. 106″
From this statement, it would appear that the present Church Manual is not to be considered “as suggestions simply,” as was stated of the proposed manual in 1883. Rather, it is to be seen as the authoritative expression of the highest authority under God among Seventh-day Adventists.
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Some may, at this point, rise up in horror, condemn the book, and assert that they will never submit to such papal tyranny. Such a reaction, however sincere, is out of place until a workable alternative can be given as to where the line should be drawn. We should, after all, endeavor to be logical about the positions we take. And there are several questions yet remaining which are crying out for good answers.
It is interesting to note that the 1877 statement quoted above was framed only six years prior to the voting down of the proposed manual in 1883. In all probability, the great majority of those who passed the one, voted against the other Can the two actions be harmonized? or are we to assume that the brethren of the time were somewhat fickle in their concerns? And what bearing, if any, does all this have on the status of our current Church Manual?
Notice two aspects of the 1877 statement: 1) the authority of the General Conference is specifically limited to a realm described as its “proper jurisdic- tion,” and 2) compliance to the General Conference’s decisions is not required when such “can be shown to conflict with the Word of God and the rights of individual conscience.”
We readily recognize the second provision as applicable to any effort to coerce church members into sin. That is to say that any General Conference action requiring that which the Lord has forbidden, or forbidding that which He has required, is clearly without authority. To this, all would agree. But what about requiring or forbidding that which the Lord has neither required nor forbidden? Does the church have such a right?
Here we touch on the greater question of the General Conference’s (and thus the Church Manual’s) “proper jurisdiction.”
A Question of Authority
Any lawfully appointed representative speaks with the authority given him by the one he represents. In the case of the church this is a matter of great importance, for her lawfully appointed sphere of representation is at the highest level of God’s authority—moral standing and salvation. To be a mem- ber of the church is but the outward sign of one’s having passed from death to life through the grace of Christ.
This places the church in a position unlike that of any other entity, for the church can require nothing of her members except as she does so in the context of individual membership. Thus the church’s authority is always exercised in terms of a person’s moral standing and salvation. The church has no power to impose monetary fines, as does the state, and she is forbid- den of God to use physical force, hence she cannot resort to imprisonment or torture as have some churches of the past. Her only means of discipline is the depriving of the privileges of church membership. As a result, the church’s enforcement of her requirements always takes the form of a pro- nouncement concerning the moral standing of the individual involved. And this is as it should be.
True, there are aspects of denominational activity—such as the hiring and firing of personnel—which in many instances can and should be addressed on an entirely different plane. But these are simply the necessarily secular elements of conducting business in this present world. Unless matters of moral standing or salvation are involved, such actions have no bearing what- ever on membership.
Within the bounds of moral standing and salvation the church is to speak with all the authority of God. And while the corporate church has been granted the privilege of representing the authority of God, no Seventh-day Adventist would concede that she has been given the prerogative of altering the conditions of salvation. It follows, then, that the conditions of church membership are likewise beyond her power to manipulate.
As surely as we accept the revealed Word of God as the only authoritative statement of the conditions of salvation, so it must be recognized that that Word is the only authoritative statement of the conditions of church member- ship. To add to this, or to subtract from it can only be done at the risk of compromising the entire basis of the church’s lawfully appointed authority. Here, then, in the explicit statements of God’s Word, are to be found the boundaries of the General Conference’s (and thus the Church Manual’s) “proper jurisdiction.”
We might ask, then, what place does the Church Manual have? A look through its pages reveals the presence of many quotations from both the Bible and the writings of Ellen White. All true Seventh-day Adventists will acknow- ledge these as authoritative sources. That which is required in these writings it is within the proper jurisdiction of the church to enforce.
We will also find in the Church Manual a wide variety of suggestions relat- ing to many circumstances which may be expected to arise in the work of the church. The majority of these are simply common sense suggestions of rou- tine ways to deal with such issues. Many of these would be quite workable in most cases. But dare we say all cases? Dare we hold these to be requirements, for which the only available penalty for their violation is an unfavorable pronouncement concerning someone’s moral standing and hope of salva- tion? Would we not be much better advised to keep off such holy ground?
The ‘Adventist Creed”
Well might we echo the words of George Butler: “The Bible contains our creed and discipline. It thoroughly furnishes the man of God unto all good works. What it has not revealed relative to church organization and man- agement, the duties of officers and ministers, and kindred subjects, should not be strictly defined and drawn out into minute specifications for the sake of uniformity, but rather be left to individual judgment under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Had it been best to have a book of directions of this sort, the Spirit would doubtless have gone further, and left one on record with the stamp of inspiration upon it. Man cannot safely supple-
The People of the Book 6 7 •
ment this matter with his weak judgment. All attempts to do it in the past have proved lamentable failures.”
In years gone by, Adventists were known as the “people of the Book.” In 1883 the General Conference delegates sought to protect that trait, shielding it from what they saw as a dangerous threat. They wrote: “If we had one [a church manual], we fear many, especially those commencing to preach, would study it to obtain guidance in religious matters, rather than to seek for it in the Bible, and from the leadings of the Spirit of God, which would tend to their hindrance in genuine religious experience and in knowledge of the mind of the Spirit.”
May it never be said that we as a people have exchanged the high privilege of being the “people of the Book,” in order to become nothing more than the “people of the book.”
1. See “General Conference Session,” Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (1976), table on 502 2. Review and Herald, November 20,1883, 732
3. Ibid., 733
4. Ibid., November 27,1883, 745-746
5. Ibid., June 5,1883, 361
6. Ibid., June 19, 1883, 393
7. Ibid., July 10, 1883, 442
8. “Church Manual,” Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, (1976), 301 9. Testimonies to Ministers, 301-302
10. Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, 115
11. Manuscript Releases, vol. 1, 158
12. Special Testimonies, Series A, No. 3,16
13. Review and Herald, July 23,1895
14. Testimonies to Ministers, 363
15. Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, 123
16. 1903 General Conference Bulletin, 87
17. Christian Leadership, The Board of Trustees of the Ellen G. White Estate, (1985), 28 18. Ellen G. White Amphlets in the Concordance, vol. 3, 442
19. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (1986 revision), 16
20. Ibid., 16-17
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