Government in the Church

Among God’s people in the Christian church there must not only be love, but also order. Peter instructed the elders of the early church telling them: “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2, 3).

The apostolic church over a relatively short period became highly organized. This was not possible without the blessing of the Holy Spirit which works through organized means. Within 25 or 30 years after the crucifixion of Christ, the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Colossae that the gospel had gone to every creature under heaven.

When God raised up the second advent movement, He taught them that His work today was also to be organized.

In the book, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, 106, she wrote, “In reviewing our past history, having traveled over every step of advance to our present standing, I can say, Praise God! As I see what the Lord has wrought, I am filled with astonishment, and with confidence in Christ as leader. We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”

Many historic Seventh-day Adventists today seem to have forgotten what God has taught us in the past.

We are told: “Never since the creation of the world were such important interests at stake as now depend upon the action of men who believe and are giving the last message of warning to the world.” Ibid., 246. God does not change. His ways and principles do not change.

The apostle Paul told Timothy to train faithful men who can teach others. Years after Ellen White’s son William was born, she was shown in vision that God had raised up her son, on whom He would put the spirit of wisdom, to help her in her work when her husband could no longer help. William White lived until 1937. During the 1930s, he wrote articles that appeared in The Review and Herald, the official organ of the Seventh-day Adventist church, describing how the Adventist church had become organized as it is today.

If we forget how the Lord led us in the past, we will make the same mistakes that they made almost 150 years ago. In this article, we will review the principal points that William White enumerated as happening during the second advent movement.

After the great disappointment in 1844 when Jesus did not return, the great mass of the people (between 50 to 100 thousand in the United States alone), fell away. During Jesus’ ministry on earth He cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning of His ministry and again at the end.

Ellen White is very clear that just as Jesus purified the temple twice, in the closing work, He will purify His people twice. At the beginning, when He purified the advent movement, the great mass of believers fell away. There was only a handful of people left that held on to their faith, and to them was revealed the Sabbath truth. The two great doctrines that were then preached were the Sabbath and the second coming of Christ.

However, there was no organized way to proclaim these things to the world, and there were very few Sabbath-keepers. If a person was convicted that he should preach, he would just go out at his own expenses and start preaching. Maybe somebody would give him some money to help him with his expenses as he went from place to place to proclaim the fact that Jesus was coming soon, and to be ready for His coming, and that we needed to keep His commandments.

There was no conception of a world-wide, organized effort. However, within a few years, people from different parts of the country were expressing an interest to learn about the Advent truth. There was a lack of preachers or ministers that could be sent to them, for most who preached present truth had to have a part-time job of some kind to support themselves while they were preaching. Hence there was a dearth of laborers.

In 1858 James White described it this way: “Repeated disappointments are saddening and discouraging our preachers. They have generally moved out expecting to be sustained by their brethren in their arduous work, but their brethren often failed to do their duty. They have looked on apparently unmoved and they have seen one after another of our preachers break down in health through over labor and deprivation for want of means while they have continued to hug their earthly treasures to their hearts. Disappointment has been the sad lot of our preachers and now several of them are sunken down under poverty, broken-down in health and discouragement.” The Review and Herald, April 8, 1858.

In January 1859, a church-meeting was held in Battle Creek. Those present were much burdened because of the lack of preachers. Among those present were J. N. Andrews from Iowa, James White, and J. B. Frisby. The three of them were asked at this meeting to prepare an address for the Adventist people about systematic benevolence, which they did.

In the paper that was subsequently published, they discussed the Scriptural basis of giving for the cause of the gospel and showed that such gifts should be bestowed willingly, equitably, liberally, regularly, and systematically. They wrote that God wants us to give as He has prospered us. The following proposals were published in The Review and Herald, February 3, 1859.

  1. “Let each brother from 18 to 60 years of age lay by him in store on the first day of the week from 5 to 25 cents.” (See 1 Corinthians 16:2.)
  2. “Each sister from 18 to 60 years of age, lay by her in store the first day of the week 2 to 10 cents.” On the average, a woman, even today, with the identical, same education as a man will make approximately 70 to 75% of what a man will make.
  3. “Let each brother and sister lay by him or her in store on the first day of each week, from 1 to 5 cents on each and every one hundred dollars of property that they possess.”

It is estimated at that time that the total property owned by the Seventh-day Adventists was between nine and ten thousand dollars. This was mostly in small houses and lots and with this small systematic giving the funds began to come in and ministers could be hired to preach.

Elder Loughborough reported: “It seems to me as far as means are concerned, this plan has been the salvation of the cause of present truth from bankruptcy. In places where before the adoption of this plan the brethren thought they could scarcely take care of themselves, and do comparatively nothing for the support of the cause, we see them now stating that their systematic benevolence amounts to over $100 a year.” The Review and Herald on June 18, 1861.

During this same time, James White began to propose to the brethren assembling in different areas that in each state where there are sufficient Seventh-day Adventists it would be a good thing to hold an annual meeting to come together to study and to pray for God’s work; where they might be more united in their work for the Lord. This proposal was accepted and yearly camp meetings began.

James White wrote, “We lack system. Many of our brethren are in a scattered state. They observe the Sabbath, read with some interest The Review, but obviously, they are doing little or nothing for want of some method of united action among them.” Ibid., July 21, 1859.

A push for local church organization began. Many problems needed to be solved because of the different local churches with no unified policy and no unified system of beliefs. W. C. White reported that conduct that might be permitted in some churches, would, in other places, furnish occasion for disfellowship.

He further reported, “We are aware that these suggestions will not meet the minds of all. Brother Overcautious will be frightened and will be ready to warn his brethren to be careful and not venture out too far; while Brother Confusion will cry out, ‘O, this looks just like Babylon, following the fallen church.’ Brother Dolittle will say, ‘the cause is the Lord’s, and we had better leave it in His hands. He will take care of it.’ ‘Amen,’ say Love of this World, Slothful, and Stingy, ‘If God calls men to preach, let them go out and preach. He will take care of them. And those who believe their message, while Korah, Dathan, and Abiram are ready to rebel against those who feel the weight of the cause, and who watch for souls as those that must give an account, and they raise the cry, You take too much upon you.’ ” Ibid.

This discussion on becoming organized was approaching a debate. Some Adventists believed that if you become organized you will become just like Babylon. We still have that same problem today.

James White later wrote, “It was too late to be afraid of gospel order merely because others have gone into the creed business, too late to run off the bridge on one side simply because the water roars on the other. There are two extremes to be shunned. One is for human wisdom alone to combine its feeble strength to carry on the work of God. The other is to leave with God what He has left for us, and sit down and wait for special providences before moving. If such move at all, it is independent of the views and feelings of others, each individual constituting an independent church.” Ibid.

James White was editor of The Review and Herald, which was located at Battle Creek, and they needed money. Sometimes they borrowed to carry on their work. One lady offered to loan $100 which would be like $5,000 today. Because it was a loan she wanted James White to personally sign a promissory note that they would pay it back. Being unable to be responsible for the debts that would be incurred by The Review and Herald office he refused and the loan was not accepted. The Review office buildings were not insured and if they burned down with fire they would be lost.

He wrote, “We hope, however, that the time is not far distant when this people will be in that position necessary to be able to get church property insured. I think it’s soon that we are going to be able to get our church property insured. … hold the meeting houses in a proper manner, that those persons making their wills and wishing to do so, can appropriate a portion to the publishing department. Till this can be brought around, we must do the best we can, but we wish it distinctly understood that we bear no individual responsibility in the matter.” Ibid., February 23, 1860.

James White proposed that the church come to a place where it could do certain things that they were not able to do then. He said that they needed to be in a position to get church property insured and that they needed to hold the meeting houses in proper manner. If a church building is owned by an individual and that individual becomes fanatical, he or she could control anything that happens in that building because that building is privately owned.

Some of the leading brethren were not prepared to accept such radical change of policy that would be involved in organizing according to the law as James White had promoted. He believed that matters must be arranged that the responsibility of debt not rest upon one individual. There was a lot of opposition.

James White believed that if it is acceptable for an individual to hold their own home property or other real estate legally, it is also acceptable for a church to legally hold property. Year after year he pressed the issue of the need to be a legal entity, able to hold property and insure its buildings. Then a person who wants to can leave a bequest to a church that is a legal entity.

In another letter, James White wrote to those who were opposed to becoming incorporated, saying, “There is danger of being so overzealous to keep out of Babylon, that we shall commit her most noted blunder, that of sticking a stake and refusing to pull it up and advance. When we cease to unlearn errors, we shall fall like those who have gone before us. We have learned much and no doubt there is much more for us to learn. It is the follow-on and the go-through that will finally land the remnant without fault on the heavenly Mount Zion. My conclusion is that we should give up no Scripture truth, but that our false applications and interpretations of Scripture and consequent false ideas of order and propriety should be given up as fast as possible.” Ibid., May 29, 1860.

As these ideas began to be promoted and affect the minds of the people, a church in Parkville, Michigan, apparently the first Seventh-day Adventist church, was finally legally organized. In a meeting in May 1860, J. N. Loughborough was present when they took legal steps toward organizing as a religious society, that they might hold property in a lawful manner. Trustees were elected and a certificate was made out and filed preparatory to recording in the county clerk’s office. No name had yet been decided for the Adventists and they had to choose a name for their church to legally own property. Tentatively, they called themselves, Parkville Church of Christ’s Second Advent.

The leaders then decided to group the churches together and organize. Eventually, the name Seventh-day Adventist was chosen. By May 3, 1861, the Review and Herald Association was incorporated by law.

Three months later after the church had become legally organized, Ellen White said, “I saw that the enemy would come in every way possible to dishearten the people of God and perplex and trouble them, and that they should move understandingly, and prepare themselves for the attacks of Satan. Matters pertaining to the church should not be left in an unsettled condition. Steps should be taken to secure church property for the cause of God, that the work may not be retarded in its progress, and that the means which persons wish to dedicate to God’s cause may not slip into the enemy’s ranks. I saw that God’s people should act wisely, and leave nothing undone on their part to place the business of the church in a secure state.” Testimonies, vol. 1, 210, 211.

Around that time in a vision, Ellen White was shown an advance move that many of the Adventists had not yet understood. God already had a plan in place thousands of years ago to solve the problem they were working on to have finances for their ministers – God’s people should follow the tithing and offering system. Ministers began to talk, not just about systematic benevolence, but about the Bible principle of supporting God’s cause with the tithes and offerings of believers.

James White was concerned that there was not a proper distribution of ministers, and wrote, “In our unorganized condition our preachers have not been properly distributed. Vermont and Michigan have more than their proportion, and five still have their headquarters at Battle Creek, while Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, the Canadas, and the Western Territories are almost destitute. All reflecting persons can conclude that there is a wrong in this somewhere.” The Review and Herald, April 28, 1863.

“Shall the General Conference correct the wrong by making a judicious distribution of preachers? We plead for system, and while ministers call for systematic benevolence, the people loudly call for systematic labor.” Ibid.

The need to look at the whole world field and help achieve a proper distribution of workers in different places was one of the main reasons a general conference was formed.

On April 7, 1863, The Review and Herald announced that there would be a general conference of the Seventh-day Adventists at Battle Creek, Michigan, to commence Wednesday, May 20, at 6 o’clock p.m. All delegates and letters must be sanctioned by some state conference or conference committee, or where there are no state conferences, some church or meeting of scattered brethren.

Twenty-one delegates from all the different state conferences assembled in Battle Creek. J. M. Aldrich was chosen chairman. Uriah Smith was chosen as secretary, and the first evening they had presentation of credentials and reports from delegates. The next morning, May 21, they adopted a constitution having nine articles, which established and defined the authority of Seventh-day Adventists. They also proposed general conference meetings once a year with the various state conferences being represented by delegates.

Officers were selected, a president, a secretary, a treasurer, and an executive committee of three. For several reasons, James White refused the offer to be the president. He had been one who had been most vocal in encouraging and promoting church organization and he did not want it to be thought that he was trying to get a position for himself. However, in addition to that, he was working as the editor of The Review and Herald as well as doing a lot of preaching at camp meetings and revival meetings. Though he was pressed, he still refused and John Byington was elected to be the first General Conference president.

Ellen White reflected upon what had happened, approximately 40 years later. Looking back at the events from 1858 to 1863, she said, “I was one of the number who had an experience in establishing it from the first … . As our members increased, it was evident that without some form of organization, there would be great confusion, and the work would not be carried forward successfully. To provide for the support of the ministry, for carrying the work in new fields, for protecting both the churches and the ministry from unworthy members, for holding church property, for the publication of the truth through the press, and for many other objects, organization was indispensable.

“Yet, there was strong feeling against it among our people. The First-day Adventists were opposed to organization and most of the Seventh-day Adventists entertained the same ideas. We sought the Lord with earnest prayer that we might understand His will, and light was given by His Spirit, that there must be order and thorough discipline in the church, that organization was essential. System and order are manifest in all the works of God throughout the universe. Order is the law of heaven, and it should be the law of God’s people on earth.

“We had a hard struggle in establishing organization. Notwithstanding that the Lord gave testimony after testimony upon this point, the opposition was strong, and it had to be met again and again. But we knew that the Lord God of Israel was leading us, and guiding by His providence. We engaged in the work of organization, and marked prosperity attending this advance movement.” General Conference Daily Bulletin, January 29, 1893.

Today, some may say that we had to have it then, but now that we are more organized and have become world-wide, it is not as necessary. However, she said, “Let none entertain the thought, however, that we can dispense with organization. It has cost us much study, and many prayers for wisdom that we know God has answered, to erect this structure. It has been built up by His direction, through much sacrifice and conflict. Let none of our brethren be so deceived as to attempt to tear it down, for you will thus bring in a condition of things that you do not dream of.” Ibid.

“… let every one be exceedingly careful not to unsettle minds in regard to those things that God has ordained for our prosperity and success in advancing his cause.” Ibid.

A few years after that, she wrote again how the devil was going to try to deceive our people on this subject. In 1907, she said, “O how Satan would rejoice if he could succeed in his efforts to get in among this people, and disorganize the work at a time when thorough organization is essential, and will be the greatest power to keep out spurious uprisings, and to refute claims not endorsed by the word of God. We want to hold the lines evenly, that there shall be no breaking down of the system of organization and order that has been built up by wise, careful labor. License must not be given to disorderly elements that desire to control the work at this time.

“Some have advanced the thought that as we near the close of time, every child of God will act independently of any religions organization. But I have been instructed by the Lord that in this work there is no such thing as every man’s being independent. The stars of heaven are all under law, each influencing the other to do the will of God, yielding their common obedience to the law that controls their action. And, in order that the Lord’s work may advance healthfully and solidly, His people must draw together.” Gospel Workers, 487.

Here we see that as we approach the end of time, proper church organization is more important. And yet, as we near the close of time, the devil has fought more fiercely and bitterly than ever before, so that God’s people will not understand the importance of being organized. Many people are operating under their own impulses and their own feelings.

Ellen White wrote in a letter in 1892, “As we near the final crisis, instead of feeling there is less need of order and harmony of action, we should be more systematic than heretofore. All our work should be conducted according to well defined plans.” Manuscript Releases, vol. 5, 107. That council was given by the Holy Spirit to the people in God’s remnant church.

In light of this history there are several questions that can be answered. For example, Should self-supporting work also be organized? Can God’s people become ready for the second coming of Christ without being organized?

Opposition to organization among the historic Adventists is as strong or stronger today than it was in the 1850s.

1 Peter 5 says that the church in the days of the apostles became highly organized. And it was through the blessing of the Holy Spirit and through church organization that they were able to take the gospel to the whole world in 25 to 30 years. There were no airplanes, trains, cars, radios, telephones, or televisions. Without the media available today, they were able to accomplish their task of evangelism to the then known world in a short time.

If God’s people, in any part of the world, could become properly organized in New Testament order and come into the spiritual condition necessary to receive the Holy Spirit, it would not take many years to finish God’s work in the world. We must be in a spiritual condition so that we can receive the Holy Spirit. Unless we are organized, the angels of heaven cannot work for us so that the gospel can be taken to all the world. Remember, order is the law of heaven, and we must be in harmony with the law of heaven for God’s work to be finished in this world.

God has led us in the past. We are to be organized in our families, in our local churches, and we are to be organized all over the world, wherever we work. We are to be working in an organized way so that God can continue to lead us.

(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)

Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church of Free Seventh-day Adventists in Wichita, Kansas.