He [Jesus] who was the foundation of the ritual and economy of Israel would be looked upon as its enemy and destroyer.” The Desire of Ages, 111. The reason for this was that those who were in charge of the system viewed themselves as being the church and they realized that if Jesus were to be accepted, many of them would lose their positions.
Today, there is a similar problem in the professed church of God. There are some inspired counsels we are willing to deal with but others that we are not. If many of the counsels of Ellen White were really advocated, they would be considered to be dangerous to the church, possibly even capable of destroying it. I do not believe, however, we will ever receive God’s blessing until we feed upon every word.
Principles of church organization affect every aspect of the church, from the youngest member on up to the General Conference. In the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy, there is a great deal of information dealing with church organization that is written not only to those in leadership positions but to laymen as well.
Throughout history, whenever doctrine becomes corrupted, organization also becomes corrupt. In fact, in Revelation, God is as concerned about false organization as He is about false doctrine. In the writings of Ellen White there is a great deal written about doctrine, but I also find hundreds of pages written about church organization which we are afraid to touch, because if we even read the quotation, we will be accused of criticism. It is time, however, that we have the courage of John the Baptist and, with the spirit of love, humbly look at the things God has given to us, praying that He will help us to implement these things so He can pour out His Spirit and finish the work He is seeking to do.
The Church is the People
In 1 Corinthians 1:2 we are told how the New Testament church is organized. “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called [to be] saints . . . .” The church at Corinth, identified by Paul, is not addressed as the church that is registered, but that is not the point. Nothing is said regarding their organization or where they meet, but that is not the point. The church in Corinth is those people in Corinth who are sanctified and called to be the saints of God. Now the church was to be organized, but the organization was not the church. The people were the church. These people could work in harmony, because this is possible when God is in their hearts. So they would meet and work together, send out missionaries and take up offerings, and do all those things which are necessary for God’s work to progress. But the church itself was the people. This is what the church has always been.
In a special sense, the church is those people who are registered in the books of heaven. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn [who are] registered in heaven . . . .” Hebrews 12:22, 23. The church, the true church of God, is composed of those people who are registered in the Book of Life in heaven.
Now this presents a very interesting situation. Who decides who is going to be a church member? Is it the pope who has the keys? If it is not the pope, is it the church board? Can they decide? What about the church body? Can we decide who is saved and who is not, whose name is written in heaven and whose is not?
Don’t we have anything to do? Oh, yes, we have something to do. We are called to recognize those whom God has registered in the books in heaven; and those whom He has registered there, we are to register here. He does not, however, follow our suit; we are to follow His, and there is a difference.
Let us suppose that God takes someone’s name off of the books in heaven, and they are disfellowshipped. Are they still church members? No. But suppose their name remains in the books on earth. This is an interesting dilemma. The church is purified when the books on earth match the books in heaven. You see, God has given mankind no authority to decide who can be a member and who cannot be a member, but simply to recognize those whom He has accepted or rejected.
God has local congregations here on earth, and we have organizations here to help organize the work, but the headquarters of our local church is in heaven, where only the sanctified are registered, not in some office in our state or some office in Silver Spring, Maryland. Some people find this rather disconcerting, believing such a policy could lead to all kinds of trouble.
Just suppose that a coup d’état took place in some local church or conference through politicking and some people who were not inspired by the Lord or filled with the Holy Spirit took over through manipulation, and because of their prejudices, certain people were unjustly disfellowshipped. Would those who were disfellowshipped cease to be church members? Certainly not! Suppose, on the other hand, that people were allowed to come into the church who were never converted. Because their names were in the books on earth, would they, therefore, be church members? Not in any way, shape, or form! God has never left His church to be manipulated and tampered with by the political whims of mankind. There is coming a time when He is going to turn and overturn the professed church that is called by His name. (See Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 372.) God’s true church remains the same as it has always been—those people who are registered in the books of heaven.
“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.” The Upward Look, 315.
When Paul was ordained, he was ordained to baptize and establish churches—the two together. According to inspiration, the same ordination that gives people the right to baptize gives them the right to establish churches. More and more, however, there are increasing restrictions controlling the starting of new churches.
Not only has God alone reserved the right to start and to recognize a church, but if you and I decide to go out and start a church apart from His will, no matter what conference committee may approve it, it will never be a church. “For the presence of the High and Holy One who inhabiteth eternity can alone constitute a church.” Ibid. If God’s presence is not the center of His church, He does not recognize it as His church—whether or not it is recognized by a conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
In New Testament times, the church was those who were called and sanctified. Wherever Paul went and converted a few people, he organized them into a church, right there and then, without seeking any other permission. It was not up to the church in Jerusalem to give permission or to decide if they were a church, but to recognize the fact that they were. Now, of course, if a church apostatized or if a local member apostatized, it was also up to the church in Jerusalem to decide that, as these people were no longer keeping the commandments of God, they were no longer recognized as being one of God’s churches.
For us individually to receive the Holy Spirit, we must study the Bible, pray, overcome sin, and witness. For the church body to receive the Holy Spirit, they must, as a body, also have these four things present. Not only is it necessary for us as individuals to be winning others to Christ, but God’s design for His church is that every church should start new churches.
One of the things that must take place, before God can pour out His blessing upon the church, is not only a revival of primitive doctrine but a revival of primitive organization. The New Testament churches had the freedom to go out and start new churches, but they were not just started and left to flounder by themselves; they were left with local organization. “And when they had preached the gospel to that city [Derbe] and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting [them] to continue in the faith, and [saying], ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.’ So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Acts 14:21–23.
Authority in the early church was to be earned because of a godly life, knowledge of the Scriptures, and the ability that God had given to one; but never was it to come just by virtue of office. Today our church is almost being destroyed in some parts of this world, because some have assumed the office of minister and decided that because they have that office they are the king of the local church. God never intended that office to be occupied by a king but a servant. (See Matthew 20:26, 27.)
“From Miletus he [Paul] sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.” Acts 20:17. What elders were these that he called? These were the elders who had been appointed. Notice, it is elders plural, not the elder singular. “Therefore take heed to yourselves . . .” this is the instruction he is giving to these elders “and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.” Acts 20:28–31.
Paul called the elders to guard the church from wolves. In a correlating passage to this in Testimonies, vol. 5, 77, Ellen White, writing of her own experience, says that she could scarcely keep from weeping when she saw the people who were taking charge of the church who were trained by Satan. Paul had the same concern, and the elders were called to protect the church from these wolves.
Now the question is, suppose that a wolf came from Jerusalem. Were the elders to protect the church from that wolf? “Oh, no,” someone says, “not a local elder.” Let’s read a most interesting passage in the New Testament in regard to this. “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I [Paul] withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.” Galatians 2:11–13. Paul stood up and rebuked Peter, but Paul was not happy about this, because he was not the one who should have had to do the rebuking.
God had established a local leadership to protect the church. “Not from Peter,” someone might say. “He was from Jerusalem. He was one of the pillars; he knew Jesus personally. No, not from Peter. They were only Gentiles who had been newly converted to the faith. You do not expect them, these Gentile Galatians, who had just come into the Christian church a few years before, to stand up and rebuke Peter, who was from the Jerusalem church, who had been a Jew all his life, one of the pillars in the church, a follower of Jesus—not Peter! I mean, Paul was an apostle. He could do that.” But Paul was most unhappy that he had to do that. “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?” Galatians 3:1.
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” Galatians 5:1. Someone might say, “That scripture is dealing with circumcision and all those things.” Circumcision was involved, and eating with Gentiles was involved, but that was not the issue! The issue in Galatians was that Peter had caused them to transgress, and they were to stand in their freedom, even if it was Peter from Jerusalem who should come down and preach false theology.
“Strange fire has been offered in the use of harsh words, in self-importance, in self-exaltation, in self-righteousness, in arbitrary authority, in domineering, in oppression, in restricting the liberty of God’s people, binding them about by your plans and rules, which God has not framed, neither have they come into His mind. All these things are strange fire, unacknowledged by God, and are a continual misrepresentation of His character.” Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 357, 358.
God Makes the Rules
The Lord established the church upon the Rock, Jesus Christ, and he is to be the head of the church. (See Ephesians 1:22, 23.) The issue in the days of Martin Luther was who was in charge of the church, the Lord or the pope. That was the issue in Wesley’s day, and it was the issue in 1888. I have been amazed at how little Ellen White deals with doctrine in relationship to 1888. The problem with Jones and Waggoner was that they did not go through the “proper channels.” They were not approved by the “proper people.”
The following statements are from a letter that Ellen White wrote to Elder Butler. “God designs that men shall use their minds and consciences for themselves. He never designed that one man should become the shadow of another, and utter only another’s sentiments. But this error has been coming in among us, that a very few are to be mind, conscience, and judgment for all God’s workers. The foundation of Christianity is ‘Christ our Righteousness.’ ” The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, vol. 1, 112. She goes on to tell us what Christ our Righteousness means: “Men are individually responsible to God and must act as God acts upon them, not as another human mind acts upon their mind.” Ibid. God is to decide what is right, not some human committee. God makes the rules, not some human rulebook. The Bible is our creed. We always used to say: “We do not have a creed book; the Bible is our creed.”
“For if this method of indirect influence is kept up, souls can not be impressed and directed by the great I AM. They will, on the other hand, have their experience blended with another, and will be kept under a moral restraint, which allows no freedom of action or of choice. . . .
“If we would be wise, and use diligently, prayerfully, and thankfully the means whereby light and blessings are to come to His people, then no voice nor power upon earth would have authority over us to say, ‘This shall not be.’ ” Ibid., 112, 113.
In the book Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, Ellen White wrote a great deal of material to the leadership and ministry in general after 1888. Much of this book is dealing with the very principle of church authority. Among other similar statements, she said, “The high-handed power that has been developed, as though position has made men gods, makes me afraid, and ought to cause fear. It is a curse wherever and by whomever it is exercised.” Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 361. “The spirit of domination is extending to the presidents of our conferences. If a man is sanguine of his own powers and seeks to exercise dominion over his brethren, feeling that he is invested with authority to make his will the ruling power, the best and only safe course is to remove him . . . .” Ibid., 362.
In the chapter “Under Which Banner?” she says, “Humanity is hailed as God.” Ibid., 365. She is talking to us dear friends. She continues, “God will not vindicate any device whereby man shall in the slightest degree rule or oppress his fellowmen.” Ibid., 366. A curse is pronounced upon all who do this. (See Jeremiah 17:5.)
“State conferences may depend upon the General Conference for light and knowledge and wisdom; but is it safe for them to do this? Battle Creek [Silver Spring, Maryland] is not to be the center of God’s work. God alone can fill this place. When our people in the different places have their special convocations, teach them, for Christ’s sake and for their own soul’s sake, not to make flesh their arm. There is no power in men to read the hearts of their fellowmen. The Lord is the only One upon whom we can with safety depend, and He is accessible in every place and to every church in the Union. To place men where God should be placed does not honor or glorify God. Is the president of the General Conference to be the god of the people?” Ibid., 375. Following this counsel does not make a person very popular, but we are told we must obey God, regardless of man’s approval.
God Second, Man First
Instead of teaching the truth God has commissioned to be taught, do you know what Mrs. White says we have taught? “For many years an education has been given to the people which places God second, and man first. The people have been taught that everything must be brought before the council of a few men in Battle Creek [Silver Spring, Maryland].” Ibid., 325. I want you to notice that this is a serious matter, because it is breaking the first commandment. God says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Exodus 20:3. “Let me entreat our state conferences and our churches to cease putting their dependence upon men and making flesh their arm.” Ibid., 380. Today we have gone far beyond where they were in 1888.
“In reference to our conference, it is repeated o’er and o’er and o’er again, that it is the voice of God, and therefore everything must be referred to the Conference and have the conference voice in regard to permission or restriction or what shall be and what shall not be done in the various fields. . . .
“We have heard enough, abundance, about that ‘everything must go around in the regular way.’ . . .
“He [God] wants every living soul that has a knowledge of the truth to come to their senses.” Spalding and Magan Collection, 162, 163. “The Lord wants his Spirit to come in. He wants the Holy Ghost king.” Ibid., 166. Today, we have come to the point, in many places, that if you invite someone to come and speak in the pulpit, you have to first get the permission of the local conference.
God is looking for every one of us, from the General Conference president down, to be broken on the Rock. When Jesus is the King, unity, peace, and love pervade. This does not do away with organization. It is the only thing that creates a working organization. We still have offices, but when God’s plan is followed, no one is striving for office, because everyone is striving to serve one another. (See Matthew 20:25–28.)
The message of Christ our Righteousness has to become practical. We need to exercise less and less control over one another and do more and more praying for one another. Let us not decide that God has given any one of us authority to tell everyone else how they are to serve God. God is calling for much more freedom in His church than what we have been willing to allow. There is a place for order, a place for leadership, but dear friend, God is calling for us to be broken on the Rock, to be filled with the humility and the love of Jesus. Then we will find that once again the Holy Spirit will be King.
[All emphasis supplied.]
Reprinted from LandMarks, October 1993.
Pastor Marshall Grosboll, with his wife Lillian, founded Steps to Life Ministry. In July 1991, Pastor Marshall and his family met with tragedy as they were returning home from a camp meeting in Washington state, when the airplane he was piloting went down killing all on board.