Week of Prayer for Sabbath
Many times, at Steps to Life and the Prairie Meadows Church, we receive telephone calls and letters questioning us as to why we are an independent church of Sabbath-keeping believers, not connected with the local conference, the union conference, or the General Conference structure of Seventh-day Adventists. While this is too extensive a question to be answered in one article, a few questions and answers will be given that, hopefully, will stimulate God’s people to think through their position relative to the coming of Christ.
In an effort to avoid misunderstandings, it should be stated that we have not in the past called, nor are we at the present calling, the Seventh-day Adventist Church Babylon. In LandMarks magazine, the writer has published articles titled, “The Black and White Christian” [September and October 2005]. A large percentage of Catholics and Protestants, including Seventh-day Adventists, are black and white Christians. So many people say, “Either the church must be Zion or it must be Babylon; there are only two sides in the Great Controversy, so it must be one or the other.” They see that the church is in apostasy, which is a cardinal characteristic of Babylon, so they conclude that it is Babylon.
Most of the people we know who call the Seventh-day Adventist Church Babylon do so, in large part, because they see apostasy in the church at all levels. If we refuse to call the church Babylon, then these people conclude that it must be Zion—God’s church, and everyone should belong to it and work through the problems associated with it. However, in real life, a situation can be more complicated than just a simple yes or no.
Previous Independent Workers
Before addressing directly the situation of the present day, it is fair to ask the question, Are there instances in the Holy Scriptures or in the writings of Ellen White where individuals or groups of people did not work within the church structure of their day and yet were being led by God to do a work for Him? Many examples should immediately come to mind for any serious Bible student.
First of all, there was Jethro. Jethro was Moses’ father-in-law, and he gave advice to Moses concerning church organization. Yet, Jethro was not a member of the children of Israel and refused to become one when Moses extended an invitation to him. Ellen White says, “When Moses was much burdened the Lord raised him up in Jethro an advisor and helper.” Christian Leadership, 55. Obviously, Jethro was being led by the Lord, but, as far as we can tell, he was never a member of the children of Israel. He was a priest and a prince but separate from the children of Israel, as far as membership was concerned. “Jethro was singled out from the darkness of the Gentile world to reveal the principles of heaven. God has ever had appointed agencies, and has ever given abundant evidences that these agencies were heaven-appointed and heaven-sent (Letter 190, 1905).” “Ellen G. White Comments,” Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 1, 1099.
Jethro did not understand all things, but he was spiritually in advance of Moses when Moses fled from Pharoah. He helped Moses to develop a more correct faith: “All the idolatrous rubbish of heathen lore must be removed, bit by bit, item by item, from Moses’ mind. Jethro helped him in many things to a correct faith, as far as he himself understood. He was working upward toward the light, when he could see God in singleness of heart. . . .” This Day With God, 321.
“And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Raguel the Midianite, Moses’ father in law, We are journeying unto the place of which the Lord said, I will give it you: come thou with us, and we will do thee good: for the Lord hath spoken good concerning Israel. And he said unto him, I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred. And he said, Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou mayest be to us instead of eyes. And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what goodness the Lord shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee.” Numbers 10:29–32.
Eventually, at least some of the descendants of Jethro lived among the children of Israel, and the wife of one of these descendants killed Sisera. (See Judges 4.)
A second example is Elijah. The church organization was in apostasy and had been taken over by the woman Jezebel. The times of Elijah are very instructive for people who are confused by the arguments of those who believe that all people must belong to the organization of “God’s church.”
Had God by divine arrangement denominated the children of Israel as His special people? Yes, God had done this very thing.
Were the children of Israel called by a divinely appointed name, and were they God’s chosen people? Yes, they were.
Had their church been organized by divine appointment, and, therefore, was it God’s chosen and organized church? Yes, it was.
Then why did Elijah not cooperate by being obedient and submissive to the church organization? Because the leadership had decided to fight and destroy God’s people and to go contrary to the historic truths of the organization. Therefore, it could not be said any longer that the leadership had divinely constituted authority. They were no longer to be followed. In fact, if you followed the authority of the church leadership, you would be separated from God. The authority of the church organization was not duly authorized by God and did not constitute divinely authorized leadership, because they had decided to follow the practices of the world around them instead of the Word of God.
This is a key point that many people fail to understand. It is only the words and writings of prophets and apostles that give any church organization (including the Seventh-day Adventist Church) divine authority. As soon as a church organization makes decisions that are not in harmony with the Word of God or the writings of prophets, then that church organization no longer has any divine authority. This is true even if the decision is made in a conference session with delegates from all over the world. If the reader would like an example of a decision directly contrary to inspired writings, examine the decision concerning marriage and divorce made at the General Conference session in the year 2000.
There were believers in Elijah’s day who did not submit to or obey the church organization or have any part of it at all—at least 7,000 of them. These people would, today, be thought of as offshoots. They were the ones meeting in home churches and refusing to be a part of the general apostasy. Elijah was accused of being the troubler of Israel. He was saying many things against the church organization, and since he was separate from the church organization, he was no doubt accused of being a separationist. It is never wrong to be separate from apostasy.
Elijah could have been accused of starting a new movement, a new church, a new organization—the same accusations that are leveled at those in independent churches today. But the truth of the matter is that Elijah was being loyal and faithful to the movement that God had originally established, just as we are trying to do today.
The big question that needs to be answered is not to what organization are you loyal, but are you loyal and faithful in practice to the inspired writings? If not, then whether you are a physician, a lawyer, a judge, a minister, or whatever you may be, you are not really being loyal and faithful, even if you are a member in good and regular standing in a church organization. We are headed for the final judgment, and the question is going to be whether or not we were obedient to the Law of God.
Elijah could be accused of pulling apart from God’s organization, and, like today, people probably said that this was not a good sign. Elijah would have responded that the organization had pulled apart from the truth, and he was staying with the truths that had been vouchsafed to God’s people. Elijah could be accused of separating from the organized body.
The experience of the true and faithful in Elijah’s time is very similar to the experience of the true and faithful today. They were unknown. They were, to human sight, unauthorized to be organized in their little groups in caves and other out-of-the-way places. They were, however, recognized in heaven and written down in God’s book as the people who would not in any way participate in the apostasy, not even so much as by a kiss.
New Testament Examples
Other examples from the Old Testament could be given, but it is in the New Testament where we see God calling and using people independent of the organization, of the chosen people of God. This does not mean that the organization is Babylon. It does mean that we need to rise above the level of black and white Christians. We must perceive that God has many ways to perfect His plans, and some of them may be contrary to what humans believe is the only right way to do things.
John the Baptist
John the Baptist worked entirely independent of the church organization of God’s chosen people. He said, “The ax is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” Matthew 3:10. “Not by its name, but by its fruit, is the value of a tree determined. If the fruit is worthless, the name cannot save the tree from destruction. John declared to the Jews that their standing before God was to be decided by their character and life. Profession was worthless. If their life and character were not in harmony with God’s law, they were not His people.” The Desire of Ages, 107.
“To a people in whose hearts His law is written, the favor of God is assured. They are one with Him. But the Jews had separated themselves from God. Because of their sins they were suffering under His judgments. This was the cause of their bondage to a heathen nation. Their minds were darkened by transgression, and because in times past the Lord had shown them so great favor, they excused their sins. They flattered themselves that they were better than other men, and entitled to His blessings.
“These things ‘are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.’ 1 Corinthians 10:11. How often we misinterpret God’s blessings, and flatter ourselves that we are favored on account of some goodness in us! God cannot do for us that which He longs to do. His gifts are used to increase our self-satisfaction, and to harden our hearts in unbelief and sin.
“John declared to the teachers of Israel that their pride, selfishness, and cruelty showed them to be a generation of vipers, a deadly curse to the people, rather than the children of just and obedient Abraham. In view of the light they had received from God, they were even worse than the heathen, to whom they felt so much superior. They had forgotten the rock whence they were hewn, and the hole of the pit from which they had been digged. God was not dependent upon them for the fulfilling of His purpose. As He had called Abraham out from a heathen people, so He could call others to His service. Their hearts might now appear as lifeless as the stones of the desert, but His Spirit could quicken them to do His will, and receive the fulfillment of His promise.” Ibid., 106, 107.
Would to God that we all could learn the lesson. God is not dependent on the historic Adventists or the home churches or the Adventists in conference churches. He is not dependent on our organizations or institutions to finish His work. He can finish His work through others: “We have a great work to do in our world. If ministers and doctors will work in God’s lines, He will work with them. But they must change, decidedly change, in spirit and character. They must remember that they are not the only ones to whom the Lord will give wisdom. If His people will not follow in His way, the Lord will employ heathen princes to do His will. . . .” Notebook Leaflets from the Elmshaven Library, vol. 1, 62.
We will pass over the example we have in the life of our Lord Himself. He took a position independent of the church organization of God’s chosen people, and remember that this was before probation had closed on the Jews as a nation. Some people say that, until probation closes on a church, all should remain in it and work under its authority, forgetting the example of our Lord who said, concerning the leaders of God’s chosen people, that they were blind leaders of the blind. (Matthew 15:14.) He cautioned His children for all future ages that if they followed those who were blind, they, as well as the leaders, would fall into the ditch. He said to let them alone. There is a time when the only safe thing to do is to be separate from those who will lead you into the ditch if you follow them.
“While they had been with Him, the disciples had often been perplexed by the teaching of the priests and Pharisees, but they had brought their perplexities to Jesus. He had set before them the truths of Scripture in contrast with tradition. Thus He had strengthened their confidence in God’s word, and in a great measure had set them free from their fear of the rabbis and their bondage to tradition.” The Desire of Ages, 349.
“Since the healing at Bethesda He had not attended the national gatherings. To avoid useless conflict with the leaders at Jerusalem, He had restricted His labors to Galilee. His apparent neglect of the great religious assemblies, and the enmity manifested toward Him by the priests and rabbis, were a cause of perplexity to the people about Him, and even to His own disciples and His kindred. In His teachings He had dwelt upon the blessings of obedience to the law of God, and yet He Himself seemed to be indifferent to the service which had been divinely established. His mingling with publicans and others of ill repute, His disregard of the rabbinical observances, and the freedom with which He set aside the traditional requirements concerning the Sabbath, all seeming to place Him in antagonism to the religious authorities, excited much questioning. His brothers thought it a mistake for Him to alienate the great and learned men of the nation. They felt that these men must be in the right, and that Jesus was at fault in placing Himself in antagonism to them.” Ibid., 450.
“It was most difficult for the disciples of Christ to keep His lessons distinct from the traditions and maxims of the rabbis, the scribes, and pharisees. The teachings which the disciples had been educated to respect as the voice of God held a power over their minds and molded their sentiments. The disciples could not be a living and shining light until they were freed from the influence of the sayings and commandments of men, and the words of Christ were deeply impressed upon their minds and hearts as distinct truths, as precious jewels, to be appreciated, loved, and acted upon.” Ye Shall Receive Power, 39.
The Apostle Paul
We will also pass over the example of the apostle Paul. Although he was raising up churches all over the Roman Empire, much of his work was done entirely independently of the church organization in Jerusalem. His imprisonment and martyrdom were the result of opposition and unbelief by the church structure, which included some of the apostles. (See Sketches from the Life of Paul.)
In our time, did God authorize, during the lifetime of Ellen White, any work and workers which were separate from the church structure and independent of the church structure? For a beginning, look up the expression “irregular lines” in the writings of Mrs. White.
When Madison College and Sanitarium were being started, Ellen White gave the following counsel: “It was quite a problem with Brethren Sutherland and Magan and their faithful associates as to how, with limited means, they were to adapt themselves to the work in Madison, Tennessee. They had many obstacles and difficulties to meet, some of which need never have come into the work.
“The reason these brethren were persuaded to purchase the place now occupied by the Madison school, was because special light was given to me that this place was well adapted for the educational work that was most needed there. It was presented to me that this was a place where an all-round education could be given advantageously to students who should come from the North and the South for instruction. In what has already been accomplished by the Madison school, the Lord is making it manifest that He is blessing the work carried forward there, and is leading the teachers who are associated together in bearing the burdens of the work.
“Many obstacles have been placed in the way of the pioneers at the Madison school of a nature to discourage them and drive them from the field. These obstacles were not placed there by the Lord. In some things the finite planning and devisings of men have worked counter to the work of God.
“Let us be careful, brethren, lest we counterwork and hinder the progress of others, and so delay the sending forth of the gospel message. This has been done, and this is why I am now compelled to speak so plainly. If proper aid had been given to the school enterprise at Madison, its work might now be in a far more advanced stage of development. The work at Madison has made slow advancement, and yet, in spite of the obstacles and hindrances, these workers have not failed nor become discouraged; and they have been enabled to accomplish a good work in the cause of God.
“The Lord does not set limits about His workers in some lines as men are wont to set. In their work, Brethren Magan and Sutherland have been hindered unnecessarily. Means have been withheld from them because in the organization and management of the Madison school, it was not placed under the control of the conference. But the reasons why this school was not owned and controlled by the conference have not been duly considered.
“The lack of interest in this work, by some who should have valued it highly, is decidedly wrong. Our brethren must guard themselves against the repetition of such experiences.
“The Lord does not require that the educational work at Madison shall be changed all about before it can receive the hearty support of our people. The work that has been done there is approved of God, and He forbids that this line of work shall be broken up. The Lord will continue to bless and sustain the workers so long as they follow His counsel.
“Brethren Sutherland and Magan are as verily set to do the work of the Lord at Madison as other workers are appointed to do their part in the cause of present truth. The light given me is that we should help these brethren and their associates, who have worked beyond their strength, under great disadvantages. Let us seek to understand the situation, and see that justice and mercy are not forgotten in the distribution of funds.
“The leaders in the work of the Madison school are laborers together with God. More must be done in their behalf by their brethren. The Lord’s money is to sustain them in their labors. They have a right to share the means given to the cause. They should be given a proportionate share of the means that comes in for the furtherance of the cause.” Special Testimonies, Series B, No. 11, 30–32.
“The Lord has instructed me that, from the first, the work in Huntsville and Madison should have received adequate help. But instead of this help being rendered promptly there has been long delay. And in the matter of the Madison school, there has been a standing off from them because they were not under the ownership and control of some Conference. This is a question that should sometimes be considered, but it is not the Lord’s plan that means should be withheld from Madison, because they are not bound to the conference. The attitude which some of our brethren have assumed toward this enterprise shows that it is not wise for every working agency to be under the dictation of conference officers. There are some enterprises under certain conditions, that will produce better results if standing alone.
“When my advice was asked in reference to the Madison school, I said, Remain as you are. There is danger in binding every working agency under the dictation of the conference. The Lord did not design that this should be. The circumstances were such that the burden bearers in the Madison school could not bind up their work with the conference. I knew their situation, and when many of the leading men in our conferences ignored them, because they did not place their school under conference dictation, I was shown that they would not be helped by making themselves amenable to the conference. They had better remain as led by God, amenable to Him, to work out His plans. But this matter need not be blazed abroad.
“In their change from Berrien Springs, Brethren Sutherland and Magan made many sacrifices. The Lord counseled them where to go, and in their labors at Madison, they have worked far beyond their strength. But under the direction of the Lord they are capable of doing a good work. They will give to the students who come there an education altogether different than what has been given in Washington during the past years. They will not only labor to impart an education in book knowledge and manual work, but they will endeavor to teach the students to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
“These teachers should be regarded, not as men who have had no valuable experience, but as men who have in the past accomplished a great and good work, and who have suffered privations for the cause of God. They have not exacted their just dues. Had some of their brethren been better able to reason from cause to effect, there would be a different record. The restrictions by which their hands have been tied are not pleasing to the Lord. They might have had a sanitarium and suitable buildings, and they might have been years in advance of where they now are. I would say, Let justice now be done.
“The world is our field. God’s children who feel a burden for the work of the message are to be allowed to work where the Spirit directs them. Let not a forbidding power be exercised to restrict them in their work. Let God accomplish His work through the agencies that He chooses. A great mistake has been made in the exercise of human authority in God’s work, and I am bidden to proclaim the message: ‘Break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free.’ [Isaiah 58:6.] I am bidden to say to church members, ‘Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee’ (Isaiah 60:1).
“When the disciples returned from their first missionary tour, the Saviour asked them, ‘Lacked ye anything?’ And the answer was given, ‘Nay, Lord.’ [Luke 22:35.] The same power that supplied the needs of the first disciples will provide for the necessities of those who today go forth to labor earnestly to give the last gospel message to the world. O, why do men and women feel so little burden to take up the work that needs to be done? Angels of God are waiting to go forth with them in this work.
“In the restrictions that have been placed on some who desired to do a definite work, many have found an excuse why they should not engage in active missionary work. I am bidden to bear my testimony against unnecessary restrictions being laid on those who desire to act a part in the work of the Lord.
“In all their associations together, God desires His followers to guard their personal responsibility to Him, and their individual dependence upon Him. He is the Author and Finisher of our faith. No ruling power of man over man is to be exercised. We have as a people lost much time and means, because we have not followed closely the Lord’s plan for us. By carrying out their own devisings, men get in the way of the Lord, and close up the avenue by which He would reach those who need the blessings of the gospel.
“My brethren, stand out of the way of your fellow-beings. . . .
“In the day of final reckoning, the Lord will deal with each soul individually. . . .
“There are among our church members faithful souls who feel a burden for those who know not the truth for this time. But one will say to such, The conference will not support you if you go here or there. To such souls I would say, ‘Pray to God for guidance as to where you shall go; follow the directions of the Holy Spirit, and go, whether the conference will pay your expenses or not.’ ‘Go work today in My vineyard,’ Christ commands. [Matthew 21:38.] When you have done your work in one place, go to another. Angels of God will go with you, if you follow the leadings of the Spirit.” Manuscript Releases, vol. 8, 202–207.
“Some have entertained the idea that because the school at Madison is not owned by a conference organization, those who are in charge of the school should not be permitted to call upon our people for the means that is greatly needed to carry on their work. This idea needs to be corrected. In the distribution of the money that comes into the Lord’s treasury, you are entitled to a portion just as verily as are those connected with other needy enterprises that are carried forward in harmony with the Lord’s instruction.
“The Lord Jesus will one day call to account those who would so tie your hands that it is almost impossible for you to move in harmony with the Lord’s biddings. ‘The silver and the gold is mine, saith the Lord, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.’ [Haggai 2:8; Psalm 50:10.]
“You and your associates are not novices in educational work, and when you are in stress for means with which to advance the work, you are just as much entitled to ask for that which you need as are other men to present the necessities of the work in which they are engaged.
“You have in the past done much to bring means into circulation in the work of God. And you need not now feel troubled about accepting gifts and free-will offerings; for you will need them in the work of preparing young men and women to labor in the Lord’s vineyard. As you carry on this work in harmony with the Lord’s will, you are not to be kept on a constant strain to know how to secure the means you need in order to go forward. The Lord forbids the setting up of walls and bands around workers of experience who are faithfully acting their God-appointed part.
“Much precious time has been lost because man-made rules and restrictions have been sometimes placed above the plans and purposes of God. In the name of the Lord I appeal to our conference workers to strengthen and support and labor in harmony with our brethren at Madison, who are carrying forward a work that God has appointed them.” Spalding and Magan Collection, 411, 412.
“Well,” someone may say, “Sutherland and Magan started a school, a sanitarium, and a publishing ministry that were independent from the conference, but that was all right, because Ellen White endorsed it.” (Or would it be more fair and correct to say that she endorsed it because it was right—exactly what God wanted them to do at that time?) They continue, “But you are starting churches which are independent from the conference, and that is wrong and not endorsed by Ellen White.” We will look at independent or self-supporting churches in future articles.
Pastor John Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas.
[Editor’s Note: This topic is so important and extensive that it will be further addressed in additional articles in future LandMarks.]