“Why should ye be stricken anymore? Ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment. Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers. And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city. Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah. Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.” Isaiah 1:5–10.
Recently my eyes caught the following headline: “Time to close down the smaller churches.” Yes, the time has come. That is what the North American Division says in an issue of Plus Line Access, a special eight-page newsletter for Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders and pastors in the United States and Canada. The problems are spelled out and the solution is simple enough: Close the local churches. What are the problems? Any one of four is sufficient for the Conference President to close a church and pocket the key:
- Weekly attendance is low. The congregation does not have lots of members, and usually most of the members are aged. Such churches should be loosed so the pastor can dedicate his energies to more populous areas.
- Newly started churches do not get above thirty or forty members within a couple of years.
- The church is not sending in enough tithe to the conference office.
- A church becomes controlled by an independent ministry that is unsupportive of Seventh-day Adventist churches and its leadership. Such churches are like a cancer among other churches. The above four points include almost every small denominational congregation that is below thirty or forty members.
Why are the leaders so anxious to close down the small churches? The reasons are obvious, yet profound in their significance.
- It is invariably the smaller churches that will be the most conservative. They are the ones which stand as fortresses in defense of our historic beliefs and standards.
- It is the delegates from the small churches, which lead out in opposing apostasy at Conference constituency meetings.
- It is the delegates from smaller churches, which are the most dangerous to the agenda of getting worldly leaders elected and re-elected in the Conference.
- It is the smaller churches that want New Theology pastors transferred out.
- By eliminating the small churches, the way is cleared for the Conference leadership to more rapidly take its churches into modernism.
- By disbanding local churches, the members will have to join a larger church, where, because they are in the minority, they will have less influence over Board and Committee actions.
This Division-wide plan was disclosed in the January 1996 issue of the publication sent to church leaders and pastors throughout the North American Division. You were not supposed to know about this plan yet.
Our concern is the plan to close the churches of the faithful. Once these little flocks are scattered,leadership will have more control over that which remains. But there is an interesting question. What will be done with those padlocked buildings? In some incidences they will remain closed until a Conference evangelist comes along and brings in New Theology trained members.
But the temptation will be great to sell the buildings, which local church members in earlier years paid for. For over a decade Conference funds have been drying up, as the faithful have been crowded out by New Theology pastors. Throwing off these small churches will help subsidize Celebrations, Youth Congresses, Festivals and other activities intended to hold the shallow, who think more of entertainment than they do of serious study in the inspired books or in missionary work.
I must confess that as I read this amazing disclosure of what the North American Division plans to do, I felt a real heartbreak pain within me. This is what is called “institutional planning” and such a decision to close down the smaller churches demands an answer. Is such a plan ordained by God and baptized by the Holy Spirit? Or has Satan so infiltrated his leaders into God’s ranks that it is now possible to seriously wound the very small remnant that Isaiah saw that were left within God’s remnant church?
This article was taken largely from a sermon presented in 1963 by Elder Arthur L. Bietz, who was faced with a situation within his church regarding Conference leadership involved in institutional problems.
Please notice the parallel between then and now, and you decide where you should take a stand regarding such directives that are handed down from today’s structure.
I want you to be able to use your imagination to catch the meaning, the drama, the heart throb, the intensity of this situation for these are days of crisis, days of tremendous meaning.
In some ways, Caiaphas is one of the most tragic figures of the New Testament. Yet in another way he is a man of tremendous splendor. A man who was loved and probably in some respects greatly adored. The historical facts are that the people stood in awe before him, for he was indeed the symbolization of the great heritage of Israel. He embodied everything that Israel had fought for, all that Israel had prayed for, and theirs was indeed a glorious heritage.
Caiaphas had been chosen by the children of Israel as a “custodian,” of the great religious institution, but now something had happened.
Suddenly, the world, that then was, found itself polarized in two centers; on the one side stood Caiaphas, the high priest, on the other side stood Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The loyalties had congealed and the crisis was on.
This was a tragedy with a degree of splendor in it, for Caiaphas was a very notable person, with an impressive personality. Indeed, he was the most powerful man in Judaism at the time of Christ. He had not only the ecclesiastical power, but he also held the civil authority.
People have always responded to those who stand in authority. There is something splendid, something awe inspiring, about a man in this position. The children of Israel looked to Caiaphas for guidance.
Caiaphas was feared by some, greatly respected by others. Do not ever think for a moment that this man was despised, for he was not. He was the symbol embodying all religious leadership at that time. He had under him some twenty thousand priests over whom he was the absolute head and they moved under his command. They were the spiritual leaders of the nation who are now suddenly faced with a desperate situation.
Caiaphas, on the one side, leads a great religious institution with a marvelous religious heritage, while opposing him stands Jesus Christ. One or the other must go. Who shall be crucified? Can you feel the drama in your own life and heart? Where would you have stood before these two opposing powers? Would you have cast your vote with the recognized religious institutional authority? Or would you have accepted Jesus Christ?
Caiaphas who headed the religious parades in all the Jewish festivals and on the annual Day of Atonement caused all Israel to tremble before his presence. This was the high priest, their representative before God. It was to him that God would speak and bring His message of forgiveness to the people. He stood between God and the people as their representative.
When Jesus spoke to Caiaphas, He did not speak with the respect or the esteem that the people thought he should give a religious leader. This is why one of the very devout Jews struck the Lord in the face. That was a tense moment. This was a day of choice, a day of salvation. It was a day when human hearts and minds were hanging in eternal destiny. Where would you have cast your vote?
“And when He had thus spoken, one of the officers which stood by struck Him with the palm of his hand, saying, Answerest thou the high priest so?” John 18:22. Our Lord, the one whom we worship, is struck with a forceful blow. I can see our Lord weaving as the blow struck Him. Then came the words, “You do not speak to our religious leader like that.”
Caiaphas had only one purpose and that was to save the religious institution that he represented. He said, “We must save the church.” Yet, on the other hand there stood the Son of God, who also came to save the church. Two forces are represented; both want to help save the church.
But Jesus had often spoken concerning the heartlessness of the religious leaders of His time. He did not mince words. Jesus had said, “They make up heavy yokes and packs and pile them on men’s shoulders.” About Himself Jesus had said, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
On another occasion, Jesus said of Caiaphas’ institutional leadership, “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.” Can’t you just see the high priest stand up in disbelief and shout, “This is blasphemy, I am the high priest and I am the head of the religious organization that opens the kingdom of God to mankind. But this man Jesus comes and says that we shut the door in the face of the people!”
Christ had also said that Caiaphas and the religious leaders were more interested in power and prestige and status than in the shepherding of the flock. Although there were twenty thousand religious priests paid out of the temple taxes, Jesus said, “Look at the people. There is nobody interested in people. All are serving the religious institution, but they have no shepherds.” That really stepped on some toes. Preachers do not like to hear that they are not doing their job correctly.
There is an old Negro spiritual that goes something like this: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there? Oh sometimes it causes me to tremble, yes, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Were you? Are you there today contemplating that great sacrifice and following in the steps of Christ? We have before us the destiny of our souls.
Jesus revealed the motives of the Jewish leaders when He said, “Everything they do is done for show. Places of honor at the feasts and the chief seats at the synagogue are taken by your leaders and they do it for show.”
Jesus even dared to expose the corruption in the financial structure of their organization. He said, “You eat up the properties of the widows while you say long prayers for appearance sake. But you are going to receive a severe sentence.”
Jesus also had something to say about their mission program. He said, “You travel over sea and land to win one convert and when you have won him, you make him twice as fit for hell as you are yourselves.”
Such a situation could not go on any longer. This had to come to a showdown and everyone knew it. All the people in Jerusalem and the surrounding territories recognized the moment of destiny had come. And so we will have to stand before the Almighty God and before religious institutions and give an answer.
Christ said, “You are not at all ministers of spiritual insight or spiritual values. You are blind. You are blind guides of the blind. You are falling into the ditch and the people are falling into the ditch with you. You swear by the sanctuary. You swear by the gold. You swear by the altar. You strain at a gnat, yet you gulp down a camel. The organization of the temple is more important to you than God. You are tombs covered with whitewash, full of dead men’s bones.”
Was it any wonder that these two had to meet when Christ had said, “All of your religious organization, all of your twenty thousand priests ministering in the temple, all of your financial structure and your spiritual leadership is absolutely blind and your organization, house and institution has become desolate, for God is not in it.”
For the Jews, the temple symbolized their entire religious heritage. It was very dear to the people, yet Jesus said, “It is forsaken of God.” The temple house is needed but there needs to be a loving family within it. The institution, the organization is necessary, but only as a means in helping to shepherd the people. If you have lost contact with the needs of the hearts of the people, your house is desolate.
This is a terrible indictment. Finally the high priest speaks to those who have gathered to make a decision about this man who claims to be God. He says, “You know nothing whatsoever. You do not use your judgment. The trouble with you is that you do not have good judgment. It is more to your interest that one Man should die for the people than that the whole nation should be destroyed.” And thus, the decision is made. But where would you have stood? The decision has to be made. It was religious institutionalism versus a personal human being, Christ our Saviour. It was an organizational religionism versus the gospel. It was organization versus a Person. It was vested interest against Christ, for the earthen vessel had become more the object of devotion than the treasure within the vessel. And herein lies the universal tendency of human beings toward idolatry.
Man wishes to make himself secure within religious institutions and therefore he hides himself from the presence of God. Laodicea thinks that she has everything, but Jesus Christ stands outside the door and knocks and knocks. But the question is as alive today for you and for me as it was two thousand years ago, because Caiaphas is very much alive in every one of us.
The issue is before us today and you will have to make your own decision, if you have not already made it. Antiorganizationalism is of the rudest of follies, because we need order and organization. But when the organization becomes the means as well as the end of our devotion, then we have crucified once again our Saviour Jesus Christ. It can happen today just as verily as it happened then.
Tell me, what could have happened if Caiaphas, the high priest, had said, “Look, we are confronted with God. Let us accept Him?” What a help and inspiration for the repenting souls that could have been. If he could have only said, “Let us use this institution, this money, everything in order to glorify God, but let it be God who is the center.” Unquestionably this is what the Seventh-day Adventist Church needs now. All institutionalism becomes corrupt with itself. It begins to build and build until we have forgotten the purpose of its building and we seek security in everything except God Himself.
When the Holy Spirit comes into our lives, let us remember that there will be a unity of our hearts, the binding of mind to mind, of heart to heart and spirit to spirit. Institutionalism can provide us with an outward uniformity, but only the baptism of the Holy Spirit can give us an interior union of our spirits.
Oh, that God would help us to understand that religious institutionalism can become the greatest tool of the devil. Dr. Henry P. Van Dolson who wrote in The United Church Herald, states, “The Holy Spirit has always been troublesome to officialdom and to institutionalism because He is unruly, unpredictable and radical. The call to the ministry is to be alert, to discover every moment of the living, confounding, uncontrollable Spirit of God in what someone has called His Sovereign Unpredictability. We want security but we do not want to be shaken out of our false securities. When our false securities are shattered and we stand helpless before a superior person who vitalizes our lives, suddenly we recognize ourselves to be under the guidance of the Spirit of God. When you are under the guidance of the Spirit, you cannot control it. And, of course, institutionalism is built on control. So there is an everlasting problem here.”
This is what Caiaphas had to face. How can you attack an institution and still retain it? How can you shatter that which you love? I happen to be one who has been reared in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and all my tenderest emotions and feelings are tied into Adventism. This can also become my greatest curse and damnation, because I begin to trust in it instead of the living God. If I begin to think that the structure is what makes me a Christian instead of a personal friendship with my God and the baptism of the Holy Spirit, my faith is resting on an institution instead of the Lord.
I think I can say concerning institutions that I love none better than Adventism. I was nurtured in it. I was cradled in it. I loved it. But this can also be my damnation unless I know that all of this is but for one purpose and that is to bow my head and my mind before the living Jesus and say, that unless Christ lives within the institution, it has become only desolation and hostility—nothing but empty institution.
Oh, that God would help us today to once again understand the issues clearly and make right choices. The people two thousand years ago had to make a tremendous choice and their choice was a devastating decision effecting their eternal destiny. If you have never gone through such an experience, you do not know what I am talking about. But those of you who know what I am speaking about realize the gravity of such a situation. It has shaken you completely until you have experienced a kind of death. The very thing in which you have trusted has been shattered before you and you will never be the same again, because the basis of your life now is Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ.
“God has a church. It is not the great cathedral, neither is it the national establishment, neither is it the various denominations; it is the people who love God and keep His commandments. ‘Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.’ Matthew 18:20. Where Christ is even among the humble few, this is Christ’s church, for the presence of the high and holy One who inhabiteth eternity can alone constitute a church.” The Upward Look, 315.