“Is it smoke, or is it smog?” Jeanne and I pondered this as we left our house in Cherry Valley for our early morning walk. The Santa Ana winds were blowing with their usual intensity, up to four times the velocity of normal winds in our area. In the past week the Santa Anas had brought destructive fires to Laguna Beach, southwest of us, and to Malibu, northwest of us. As we walked, we talked about how difficult it would be for our friends in other parts of the country to understand our Santa Ana winds. In most places, when strong winds blow they bring either rain or snow, and so fire is not a hazard. But the Santa Anas blow toward us from the fiercely hot desert that lies just east of us. They don’t bring rain or snow. They bring fires. Any spark anywhere can create a conflagration that may be almost impossible to control.
Our attention was drawn to an ominous looking cloud that was forming over the long, low ridge about five miles east of us that separated the small communities of Banning, Beaumont, and Cherry Valley from the desert. Was it smoke? Suddenly our question was answered. Those bright red flashes could not be from the rising sun. They were flames, leaping into the air from behind the ridge, steadily increasing in size.
All day the fire moved steadily in our direction, following the ridge that curved slowly around the valley until it passed behind our house, despite the best efforts of the planes and helicopters that were dumping water and fire retardants upon the flames. About three o’clock our question was answered. The fire blazed brightly for a while on top of the ridge, then, still driven by the winds, began its grim descent into our valley.
Realizing that we might soon be required to stand guard over our house, we agreed that I should use the intervening time to make an urgent trip to the post office. But when I started back, I was confronted by road blocks. No problem, I thought. I could drive a mile south to the freeway, turn west a mile to the Cherry Valley exit, and soon be home. But I found a road block at the Cherry Valley exit also. Long lines of cars were forming. There was nothing I could do but take my place in a line on an off ramp. From where I sat I could see the heavy smoke and fire moving steadily in the direction of our home, where, I reflected uneasily, Jeanne was alone.
My thoughts churned. She could leave in our pickup and avoid personal danger, but the house would probably be lost. If both of us were there to watch for flying embers, the house could be saved, even if the fire burned all around it. We had fireproofed it as much as possible—stucco walls, a fire resistant roof, and generous fire breaks on all four sides.
But I wasn’t there, and the fire was now little more than a half-mile from our house! As I pondered, my attention was drawn to the steadily increasing fleet of fire trucks that were assembling just before me. I counted ten in all, bearing the names of other towns whose administrators had sent them to help us. I felt a glow of gratitude.
After a tense half-hour, the police at the road block started checking addresses. Those who could not prove that they lived in Cherry valley were directed back to the freeway. We who had Cherry Valley addresses were allowed to proceed.
It didn’t take me long to get home, past the lines of people and horses that were being evacuated. While I had been gone, the police had come through advising everyone to leave with their animals, but since we had no animals to evacuate, we decided to stay. Viewed from our hillside, the fire appeared to be subsiding. A retired fire chief, our neighbor, approved of our decision. Slowly the wind died down, and by late evening the fire was under control.
How grateful we were for all the help that came to us in this emergency! Citizens and officials alike had been unceasingly alert and vigilant. Each one took the emergency very seriously because he or she knew form past experience what devastation such a fire can bring. The planes and helicopters had been loaded and ready to “scramble.” All levels of government, from the local mayor’s office to the state capitol gave the fires their concerned and careful attention. Officials in nearby towns sent emergency equipment and crews. Police brought warnings to every home. Neighbors checked on neighbors, helping wherever there was a need. In short, everyone worked together against the fire. The fire was costly, but by the combined and energetic efforts of all concerned it was finally extinguished!
It appeared that some of the California fires had been started unintentionally, but not all. Arsonists had been doing their devilish work as well. Justice, though fair, will be firm, we have no doubt.
How different, we reflected later, was this fire form the treatment of the fire of apostasy that is raging today in the Seventh-day Adventist church, urged on by the devil’s strong influence, his “Santa Ana winds.”
The SDA fire of apostasy was kindled in the 1950’s, though perhaps unintentionally, by the publication of the book Questions on Doctrine, the volume that had grown out of the dialogues and discussion between a group of our church leaders and the Calvinistic theologian, Walter Martin. Questions on Doctrine presented to the Seventh-day Adventist church and to the world a grossly false statement about our doctrine of Christ and a carefully muted statement about our doctrine of the atonement. Intentional or not, it was a fire, a dangerous beginning of apostasy.
Has our Adventist community and leadership responded to this emergency in a manner similar to that demonstrated in the California fires? Not exactly. While Questions on Doctrine was in manuscript form, an alert and intelligent spiritual watchman, Elder M.L. Andreason, sounded an alarm, but the alarm was ignored. When he would not be silenced he was rewarded for his faithfulness by having his ministerial credentials taken away on the grounds that he was disturbing the peace and tranquility of the church.
While church members remained blissfully unaware of what was happening, the fire spread. Special donations made possible a circulation of 250,000 copies of Questions on Doctrine. Without tracing all of the developments since then, we simply note that the fire of apostasy is now threatening to engulf the entire North American Division and is reaching out from there to the world field.
And so what is being done? The contrast with the treatment of the California fires is startling.
Seventh-day Adventist officialdom, with few, if any exceptions, is manifesting an attitude of indifference. It is being maintained that:
- There really isn’t any fire.
- It is only a small fire, and therefore nothing to worry about.
- There have always been fires, and so we should relax and forget about it.
Concerned church members are pleading in vain that:
- The existence of the fire is self-evident beyond a reasonable doubt.
- That any fire, regardless of its size, constitutes an emergency situation.
- That while it is true there have been fires of apostasy in the past, church leaders did not ignore them as our leaders are doing today. On the contrary, they used all of their authority and influence to meet the apostasies and put the fires out.
While it may be possible that the original fire was started unintentionally by the writers of Questions on Doctrine, that could not be said of those who are now laboring to spread it, the “arsonists” among us. And, strangely, these “arsonists,’ these teachers and preachers of apostasy, are being honored and exalted by our church officials to an amazing degree. This is in remarkable contrast to the attitude being taken toward arsonists in California.
Alarms are being sounded with increasing frequency and intensity throughout the church by faithful members as the devastation of the fire spreads, bringing injury to more and more church members. But the attitude of Adventist officialdom toward those who are sounding the alarms is as astonishing as their exalting, promoting, and honoring of the “arsonists.” Most church officials have manifested an increasing hostility toward the “alarmists,” as they are called, alleging that they are controversial, divisive troublemakers, a cancer on the body of the church that must be cut out, and finally setting in motion plans to disfellowship them from the church.
Unlike the nearby communities which gladly sent equipment and crews to the assistance of those who were struggling with the California fires, churches and constituencies are being led by Adventist officialdom to disband entire churches and disfellowship members who refuse to be quiet about the fire of apostasy. Since many individual churches have been slow to act on the official’s recommendation that those who are sounding the “fire alarm” should be disfellowshipped, we now hear that plans are being made to take the authority to disfellowship away from the local congregation and place it in the hands of officials themselves, who can be expected to be ruthless.
A neutral observer would probably find this scenario so bewildering as to be utterly beyond comprehension. What spirit of madness, he might ask, could produce such irrational behavior as this? If the same attitude that most of our church officials are manifesting toward the California fires by government officials in that state, much, if not most, of southern California would be in ashes by now.
What will it take to arouse Adventist officialdom from their somnolent state? Will they temporize and continue to misread and misjudge the situation until the whole church is consumed by the flames of apostasy? Or will God have to take firm corrective action of some kind?
Possibly the best thing for us is to regard this strange situation as a call to prayer. Pray that the church officials will throw off their stupor and arouse to their duty. Pray that God will deliver and save His church. Pray that we may be individually true and faithful, regardless of the apostasy around us. And though the flames of apostasy about us continue to leap higher and higher, we may still put our trust in Isaiah 43:2, 3:
“When thou passest through the water, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.
For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, they Saiour….”