Message and mission were at the forefront of this year's Annual Council of the General Conference (GC) Executive Committee. This emphasis came into clear view Monday morning, Oct. 11, with the item, "Theological Issues Facing the Church," including three presentations followed by a lively, nearly hour-long discussion by Executive Committee members from around the world expressing strong support for the presentations and opportunity to discuss important issues.
The presentations were given by Mark Finley, assistant to the president for evangelism; Artur Stele, a general vice-president of the General Conference; and Michael Ryan, assistant to the president for initiatives.
Introducing the topic, Finley listed ten significant theological issues the church is facing in the 21st century while acknowledging that more could be added. His list included:
- The Authority of Scripture
"Is the Bible mainly culturally conditioned?" he asked. "Does the Bible have authority in science, prophecy, lifestyle standards, and doctrine?"
Finley answered: "Seventh-day Adventists still believe the Bible is the authoritative, infallible word of God."
- Adventist Identity
Is the Seventh-day Adventist Church a divine movement raised up by God to prepare a people for the coming of Jesus or is it merely one of many denominations on the landscape of religions?" "Who are we and why do we exist?"
Finley affirmed, "Seventh-day Adventists are a prophetic movement with a prophetic message and divine mission."
- Prophetic Interpretation
Finley pointed out some within the church are asking, "Are the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation still relevant in the 21st century or do we need to re-evaluate our prophetic understanding? Speaking from multiple decades of experience, he responded, "The prophecies of Daniel and Revelation speak with increasing power to a last day generation."
- Creation and Evolution
"Are the first eleven chapters of Genesis an actual historical account of events or are they an allegory to explain how God did things ages ago? Does it make any difference what one believes about the Creation of the world and a worldwide flood?"
Strongly affirming the biblical account, Finley stated "A literal creation week of seven days and creation anchor the entire Bible and gives meaning to our existence!"
- Jesus and Doctrine
"There is a growing movement of young Adventists who have the idea there is a distinction between Jesus and doctrine," Finley said. "They view an emphasis on doctrine as legalistic and arbitrary. What relationship does Jesus have with the doctrines of Scripture?" He answered, "Jesus and His teachings are inseparable. To fully accept Christ is to fully accept the doctrines He taught."
- Moral Issues Deviating from Scripture
Pastor Finley pointed out that "issues such as cohabitation, unbiblical divorce and remarriage, and LBGTQ+ are confronting church leadership with increasing frequency." He then asked, "Is it unloving and unkind to take a stand against these practices?" Affirming Seventh-day Adventists must follow what the Bible teaches, Finley stated, "Biblical values and God's clear instructions call us to be lights in a world of moral darkness and confusion.
- "Advent Fatigue"
Acknowledging that for more than 175 years "Adventists have been proclaiming the soon return of Jesus," Finley asked three pointed questions: "Do we still believe He is coming soon? Is it unbiblical to preach the nearness of Christ's return in the light of the delay of the Advent? How can we motivate a movement to prepare for the soon return of our Lord?"
Encouraging those suffering from "Advent Fatigue" to look again to Scripture, Finley affirmed, "Adventists still believe as Scripture teaches that the coming of Jesus is 'nearer than we first believed.'"
- The Sanctuary and Pre-Advent Judgment
"Since the late 1970s and early 1980s there have been a growing number of voices in the scholarly community that have questioned the validity of 1844," Finley said. "The idea of a heavenly sanctuary is being questioned by many. How will the Church relate to these issues?" Based on God's Word, we can affirm the Pre-Advent Judgment and sanctuary are valid, biblical beliefs, and are still at the heart of Adventist theology, preparing a people for the coming of Jesus, he said.
- Ellen White and Divine Inspiration
Finley pointed out the importance of listening to the counsels of the Spirit of Prophecy and quoted from a letter written by Ellen White in 1890:
"There will be a hatred kindled against the testimonies which is satanic. The workings of Satan will be to unsettle the faith of the churches in them, for this reason: Satan cannot have so clear a track to bring in his deceptions and bind up souls in his delusions if the warnings and reproofs and counsels of the Spirit of God are heeded" (Letter 40, 1890, 1SM 48).
- The Re-imaging of Adventism
In his final point, Finley noted "a shift in emphasis in worship from a biblically based, Word-centered service that is life transformational to a more emotional form of worship that focuses on meeting a 'seeker's' perceived needs through music and shorter story telling sermonizing rather than biblical preaching."
Countering this 're-imaging,' Finley reaffirmed that "Seventh-day Adventists are a movement raised up by God with a divine, prophetic message to take to the world based on Scripture, and the authority of Scripture has guided and directed us."
Authority of Scripture
Artur Stele's presentation addressed the authority of scripture and the issue of hermeneutics--how to read and understand the Bible. He pointed out how from the beginning Satan has urged human beings to doubt God's word and to question His authority. Satan is still using these same tactics today, he said.
During the Middle Ages, the Bible was available only in Latin, requiring priests to explain it. One of the most powerful aspects of the Reformation, Stele said, was making the Bible available to people in their own languages.
Today, Satan is attacking God's Word in various ways, including the Historical-Critical Method of Bible interpretation, which views the Bible as culturally conditioned. Stele pointed out, in contrast, that while "the Bible is culturally and historically constituted, it is not culturally or historically conditioned."
In explaining the process of inspiration, Stele read from Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 62): “God has been pleased to communicate his truth to the world by human agencies, and He Himself, by His Holy Spirit, qualified men and enabled them to do this work. He guided the mind in the selection of what to speak and what to write. The treasure was entrusted to earthen vessels, yet it is, nonetheless, from heaven. The testimony is conveyed through the imperfect expression of human language; yet it is the testimony of God; and the obedient, believing child of God beholds in it the glory of a divine power.”
For those using a critical, postmodern approach to Scripture, the focus changes from the Biblical text and the author’s intended meaning to the reader who determines what the meaning is.
"Instead of God-centeredness, we are invited to self-centeredness," Stele said. Instead of asking "What is the Truth?" "What is the will of God?" readers are encouraged to ask, "What is true for me?"
In contrast, Stele shared: "A work can be done by presenting to the people the Bible just as it reads. . . . repeat to all the Saviour’s command, 'Search the Scriptures'" (Evangelism, p. 434). Stele then urged all to be faithful students of God's Word, using a God-centered approach in reading and understanding Scripture.
Grace That Is Big Enough
In his presentation, "How Big is Grace?" Michael Ryan pointed out that some individuals within Seventh-day Adventist churches and campuses claim the "theology of the [Adventist] Church is dark and will never be accepted by other Christian churches, will never be embraced by the non-Christian world, will never stop the exit of our young people from the church, and will never truly grant our members the freedom granted in the Bible which they define as a lifestyle without boundaries. These voices are being heard in our churches and campuses. They are reflected in the world survey taking measure of the distinctive beliefs that identify a remnant. This creeping culture is real," he emphasized.
Ryan then explained how Seventh-day Adventist beliefs are filled with God's grace.
"At the core of understanding the size of God's grace must come the recognition that God's grace permeates absolutely every corner of the Bible message," he said.
Pointing out the Bible makes no room for "hyper-grace," a philosophy claiming no reform is needed in an individual's life and that "Bible doctrine is nonsense [that] destroys grace," Ryan explained, "Seventh-day Adventists believe that embracing what grace has provided expands grace."
Ryan showed how doctrines and grace are integrally related and cannot be separated. "Grace has provided signs of [Christ's] coming. Grace has provided God's word," he said. "Grace has provided promises. Grace has provided Christ’s righteousness. Grace has provided forgiveness. Grace has provided a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light." He then appealed for the church to arise and preach the road to Christ's righteousness."
Many leaders expressed appreciation for the presentations and the opportunity for discussion.
"Thank you for . . . helping us to find the theological reality we're facing," said Robert Folkenberg, president of the China Union Mission. Regarding creation and evolution, Folkenberg related the story of a new convert who was told "the Bible is true, but the first few chapters aren't true--evolution is true." Then the convert asked, "So, if the first few chapters of the Bible aren't true, when does God start telling the truth?" Pointing out that most denominations no longer support biblical creation, Folkenberg continued, "I want to commend this administration and our Church . . . we must stand firm on the doctrine of God as Creator of this world in seven literal days, even if we are the only voice still standing."
E. Edward Zinke, a lay member, noted within some Adventist institutions, the "historical-critical apparatus is presented as the means for determining truth, [where] the natural world denies the foundational role of Scripture, the Bible is just 'folk literature,' Sola Scriptura is denied, denial of the substitutionary atonement, liberation theology and theistic evolution [are taught], denial of the value of prayer, denial that God acts in history and that the Bible is the record of those acts. . . . For me, it is a moral issue for us to claim to be a Seventh-day Adventist institution and not to fulfill that promise." said Zinke. "Our job is to teach our students to think biblically, not critically."
Sharing from personal experience, Kathryn Proffitt, a lay member from the Pacific Union, told how her eldest son became an atheist after being taught theistic evolution at an Adventist university. He then convinced his three younger siblings that there is no God. "Four years ago, his younger brother died and went into a grave without the hope of the Gospel," said Proffitt. "Brothers and sisters, each of these doctrines are serious and there are eternal consequences. No parent should have to face the possibility of losing our children eternally because of what they heard at church, or what they were taught at school. . . . We need to set the example of returning to the plain teachings of the Scriptures," she said. "It's our duty and eternal lives are at stake."
Barna Magyarosi, Executive Secretary of the Inter-European Division, expressed concern for young people who are struggling with questions. "I think as leaders we need to be able to create a platform, together with our theologians, where honest discussions can take place and where the real issues are raised and tackled . . . where we can offer our young intellectuals well-researched, biblically-founded intelligent answers. . . . We have most of those answers, if not all of them," he added. "I think with a concerted effort of the pastors, teachers, theologians, and administrators, we can have these young people stand tall for what we believe."
"I deeply appreciate these discussions," said Kwame Kwanin, president of the Northern Ghana Union, stating the items of concern were "signs of the times." He urged that "we shouldn't limit what we are studying now to the Annual Council, or the Division. We need it to trickle down to all of our churches, making it a revival for every member. . . . We need to nurture and mentor our members, especially the youth . . . for them to appreciate the truth that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has."
Primacy of Scripture
Richard McEdward, president of the Middle East North Africa Union, affirmed the importance of Scripture in addressing the theological issues facing the Church. "I believe all of these basically come back to the primacy of Scripture," McEdward said. He suggested the remedy of establishing the habit of individual and family worship where the Bible is read. "God's Word has a transformational impact in people's lives. We need to do our best to re-engage with God's Word in a profound but simple reading with our families and our children, so they would also become part of God's mission to reach out because they have been changed by God's Word."
Derek Morris, president of Hope Channel International, reaffirmed the primacy of Scripture. "I think the best way we can address these challenges is through a clear preaching and teaching of the Word of God," he said. "I would encourage all who are here, and those listening, to live what we've learned and be bold preachers and teachers of the Word of God."
Alberto Timm, associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate, said, "The days we are living in are very challenging, when everything is fluid, including God's Word." Timm reminded the executive committee of Ellen White's statement in The Great Controversy, page 557, where she warns that demons will personify the apostles of Christ to deny and even change what "they" wrote in the Gospels. Timm emphasized the importance of accepting the authority of God's Word and its teachings now. "If you are not solid in this matter," he said, "it will be very easy to be deceived."
In addressing concerns regarding the denomination's educational institutions, Lisa Beardsley-Hardy, director of the GC Education Department, referred to the International Board of Ministerial and Theological Education (IBMTE). This oversight committee establishes criteria competencies for pastors, lists qualifications for those who teach seminarians and religion in Adventist schools, and provides a process of endorsement for those teachers. "To date," she said, "ten divisions have implemented it and over 500 faculty have been endorsed."
Ella Simmons, a GC vice president, pointed out the importance of not only teaching the truth but also modeling it. Both she and Jan Paulsen, former GC president, asked about future plans to address the issues raised.
Preach and Model Truth
Ted N.C. Wilson, current GC president, explained the purpose of the presentations was to "re-alert each of us as to what we are facing." He pointed out to simply vote an action would not be very effective unless "every one of us not only preach the straight truth, but as Ella said, model the straight truth." He noted this could only be done through the righteousness of Christ. "This is to be something each of us need to really take to heart," he said. "Everyone in attendance at Annual Council are leaders. Let God speak through you! Our people want to hear you speak full truth!"
Wilson also mentioned additional avenues the Church can use in spreading God's Word, including media platforms, the Biblical Research Institute, the Geoscience Research Institute, the Ministerial Association, and more.
"Don't let an opportunity go by without underscoring the absolute veracity and truthfulness of the Word of God--from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22--every single chapter, every verse, every word. We don't believe in "word inspiration," we believe in thought inspiration. But the Word of God is absolutely vital. Let's work together in a very important way," he urged.