[Photo Credit: Getty Images]

General Conference

United Church, Strong Church

We need a church in which unity is a non-negotiable asset, and based on the Word, involved in dialogue and supported by balance.

Brazil | Erton Köhler, president, South American Division.

T herefore, if there is any exhortation in Christ, some consolation of love, some communion of the Spirit, if there are deep affections and a feeling of compassion, then complete my joy, having the same way of thinking, having the same love, and being united soul and mind ” (Philippians 2: 1-2).
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is known for many characteristics. Its message is biblical, its structure is solid, its members are missionaries and its service to the community is relevant. But one of the strongest brands is its unity. We are in 213 countries around the world, maintaining the same message, structure, and mission, which form the tripod of our operation. It is this unity that prepares the ground for the work of the Holy Spirit, makes us strong, and gives life to the mission.

Unity is not the same as uniformity. That is why we live with different cultures, ideas, and styles, within the limits defined by the Word of God. How exciting it is to hear the Church, in its worldwide meetings, sing the hymn “We Have This Hope.” So many languages, many differences, but one entity.

In South America, we are 2.5 million members and almost 30,000 congregations. These are very different realities between and within countries. It is an immense challenge to maintain solid unity, a pure message, and a strong mission. However, as an Adventist Church, we are trying to do it in the best possible way, despite the challenges. We work with prayer, dialogue, and a biblical basis. We seek to honor the name of God in everything.

Ways to see the Church

With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and the expansion of the influence of social networks, our unity was threatened. Unfortunately, it is a reality that many organizations and denominations have experienced. The Lord's messenger, Ellen White, had already warned about this when she said that “some imagine that it is their duty to be repairers of the church. Your natural feelings take pleasure in looking for faults and defects in others; they watch carefully to see if they discover something to censor, and they become more and more narrow in their ideas until they are ready to make someone, in a word, an offender” (Pastoral Ministry, p. 268).

These people only see the church from their own point of view. They understand that their way of thinking is the only acceptable one and that the ideas they defend so passionately are the only ones that should be followed and implemented by leaders as a solution for the church. They defend different themes, many of them completely opposite.

The list of discussions is long and involves defenders of a new model for planet Earth, people who question divinity in its different forms, and those who impose an immediate departure from cities. Others pressure the church to start fighting for left-wing or right-party political flags. They bring to the church's environment the same polarized positions that have caused division and mismanagement in society. They believe that, without the use of force, the mobilization of public opinion, revolution or deconstruction, the society they desire will not be a reality. They adopt discourses that involve different ideological “isms” which address real problems and that need to receive attention, but that arise from the wrong paths for a Christian movement.

There are also other conflicting groups. Some defend the sovereignty of Ellen White's writings on all topics, while others aggressively reject and ridicule it. Some want a more generic church with no prophetic concepts and no remaining role, while others struggle for their personal prophetic interpretations, conspiracy theories, and alarmist messages regarding the end of the world.

Some insist on an open church to accept the lifestyle of today's society, while others want a church identified with the methods of the past. There are those who can only see errors in the church, fight against its structure, and defend Adventist congregationalism in which each church and pastor would take care of their own resources, structure, and message. For these, the reminder remains: “[…] some have presented the thought that as we approach the end of time, every child of God will act independently of any religious organization. But I was instructed by the Lord that in this work there is nothing that resembles every man being independent” (Ellen White, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 489). But there are also others who are very resistant to any kind of adjustment that seeks to make the church more agile and efficient, preferring to think that we have no need to improve as a living organization.

The list could be longer. In short, each side strongly defends its position: some with strong opinions, but with respect; others with aggressive opinions and disrespectfully. There are also those who do not want dialogue, but public exposure as a form of pressure and personal promotion.

Ellen White is very clear in describing people like this: “There has always been a class [of people] who, while showing themselves to be very pious, instead of pursuing the knowledge of the truth, make their religion consist of looking for some defect of character or error of faith in those with whom they disagree. Such people are Satan's right hand” (The Final Battle, p. 58 ).

Extremes are dangerous

Biblical guidelines and the example of Jesus show that true love, sincere balance, and faithful obedience to the Bible, when used by God, are the real agents of transformation. Groups or people who take extreme stances and are unable to see the church and its message as a whole become dangerous and do great harm. Reactions to an extreme attitude tend to strengthen the other extreme. This is how polarization and the pendulum or seesaw effect arises, which prevents the church from finding its point of harmony and balance.

Extremes can be avoided with a spirit of prayer, impartial study of the Word of God, and in-depth research into Ellen White's inspired writings. Tensions can also be avoided when the forum chooses to speak and the spirit shown in the debate promotes growth rather than deconstruction.

Dialogue and focus on the mission

Some who present their radical positions have already been approached by friends, local pastors or church leaders to talk. Some talked, others rejected, and some ridiculed these initiatives. Some only accept to talk if they are in the condition of protagonists or if they have their agenda totally accepted.

Have you thought about what would happen if we had to give reason to all the ideas presented, explain all kinds of conspiracy theories they publish out there, answer every false accusation about the church and its leaders? Nobody would do anything else. The focus on the mission would be compromised and the unity of the church seriously undermined.

Unfortunately, “Satan will raise enough opponents to keep his sentence constantly occupied, while other branches of the work will have to suffer. We must have more of the spirit of those men who were rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. We are doing great work, and we cannot go down. If Satan is able to keep men busy in responding to opponents' objections, thereby preventing them from doing the most important work for the present time, their objective will be achieved” (Ellen White, Gospel Workers, p. 376).

I respect everyone involved in each of these discussions and I pray for those I know by name, even though I know that many people harbor negative feelings toward the church and its leaders for not receiving support for their ideas or the role they would like.

However, the church will continue its prophetic journey, always looking for unity and respecting people and opinions. But we can't be distracted by every subject, controversy, and discussion that comes up, or replace our biblical message. We will put our strength into teaching the truth, for our calling is to “[…] fight diligently for the faith that once delivered the saints” (Jude 1:3).

In addition, “The best way to deal with error is to present the truth, and let the strange ideas die out due to lack of attention. Contrasted with the truth, the weakness of error becomes apparent to all intelligent minds. The more the wrong assertions of the opponents are repeated, and of those who rise up among us to deceive souls, the better the cause of the error will be served ... We will have to face difficulties of this order even in the church. Men will make a world of an atom and an atom of a world” (Ellen White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, p. 147).

The church will not use the same fighting ethic, nor be intimidated by every situation. Everyone is welcome to talk and can seek out their pastors and local leaders for this.

On the other hand, maintaining a dialogue does not mean losing order. We need to protect and respect members who seek depth and are open to dialogue, always in a respectful, balanced way and within biblical guidelines. They are the ones who keep the body together, the church strong and the mission alive. We need to remember that “the world is looking with satisfaction at the disunity among Christians. The infidels at this rejoice. God requires a change among his people. Union with Christ and the believers among them is our only security in these last days. Let us not make it possible for Satan to point to our church members, saying: ‘This is how these people, who stand under the banner of Christ, hate each other! We have nothing to fear from them, while they spend more effort fighting each other than in fighting my forces” (Ellen White, Counsels for the Church, p. 42).

Ellen White warns that Satan is the one who suggests that “order and discipline are enemies of spirituality; that the only security for them is to follow their own course and in a special way to remain separate from the corporations of Christians who walk together, and work to establish the discipline and harmony of action. All efforts made to establish order are considered dangerous, seen as a restriction on legitimate freedom” (Ellen White, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 29).

Learning from crises

Crises are annoying, but they also teach. Behind many of them are unresolved issues and unmet expectations; real problems with the church that have not ended well, or even imaginary enemies created to feed a spirit of militancy. Some compared themselves to Old Testament prophets or reformers of the Middle Ages, but it is easy to see that they have already broken with their own spiritual values.

No doubt, God will use special messengers to strengthen and improve his cause, but they will be known and recognized, not by the strength of their arguments, but by the intensity of their consecration.

We can always grow with crises, however painful they may be. The church, which is usually at the center of discussions, also grows, learns, matures, and comes out stronger. We have faced great challenges in the past, much bigger than the current ones, but in each one of them, God remained in charge and put things in their place. 

“We must remember that the church, weakened and defective as it is, is the only object on Earth to which Christ grants his supreme consideration. He watches constantly for her, and strengthens her by his Holy Spirit” (Ellen White, Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 396).

There are many topics under discussion today that, if handled in a balanced and biblical way, can help us make the church a better, more receptive, welcoming, and equal place for all. This will help to increase our biblical depth and the scope of our mission, and prepare the people for Jesus' return.

Without a doubt, we have much to improve. We are human and flawed. We are not always right, but we seek the best for the church. The world, people, and problems are more complex, and leading, too, is getting more and more complicated - much more than it seems for those who see things from the outside or from afar.

But growth and improvement will always take place in an environment of respect, dialogue, prayer, and Bible study. Not with a posture of militancy, public exposure, aggression, personal promotion, or defense of philosophies and ideologies that are in conflict with "so says the Lord." We must always be “ready to hear, late to speak” (James 1:19).

Call for unity

I end by appealing to each member of the church to read this message with an open heart and without prejudice. May you pray more than you have done so far, asking for wisdom for yourself and the church. We will continue to “do everything to preserve unity” (Ephesians 4:3) and build a church based on the Word and balance, mission, and love, always certain that “unity is strength; disunity weakens. United to one another, working together, in harmony, for the salvation of men, we will actually be 'co-workers with God' (1 Corinthians 3:9)” (Ellen White, Counsels for the Church, p. 42).

Let us be deeply biblical Christians, making our best contribution to this world to be the fulfillment of the mission to save sinners. And above all, let us teach the gospel with love, mercy, and joy. God has a wonderful message of hope that cannot be erased by discussions in which the self and the will end up being the center.

It is time to strengthen our unity so that we can offer people a more dignified life, a deeper faith, and a real hope that we will soon live forever with Jesus.

“Soon the battle will be over and the victory won. We will soon see the One on whom our hopes of eternal life have been centered. In his presence, the trials and sufferings of this life will appear as if they were nothing” (Ellen White, Prophets and Kings, p. 376).

This article was originally published on the South American Division’s Portuguese news site

arrow-bracket-rightCommentscontact