George Knight's new book about church authority and its history in the Seventh-day Adventist church, seen in the context of our church's present disagreement over allowing the ordination of women, has been causing major waves. His paper Catholic or Adventist: the Ongoing Struggle over Unity + 9.5 Theses, originally presented at the Unity Conference in London, has been published and shared on the Spectrum site, and we have also published history professor Doug Morgan's extensive review of Knight's book. Here Knight answers questions about his book, explaining Ellen White's views on unity and church authority and how Ted Wilson is basically on a one-man crusade.
Question: You just published your latest book, called Adventist Authority Wars, Ordination and the Roman Catholic Temptation. Is it really fair to compare Seventh-day Adventist Church to the Catholic Church?
Answer: It’s only a fair comparison if the Adventist church decides to act like the Roman Catholic Church. That would be the only way to compare them.
In the past, we have contrasted Catholicism with Adventism.
Acting like the Catholic Church would mean ex-communicating large sectors of the church on non-Biblical issues.
As Ellen White says in The Great Controversy, page 289-290 [in discussing the beginnings of the Church of England]:
“The very beginning of the great apostasy was in seeking to supplement the authority of God by that of the church. Rome began by enjoining what God had not forbidden, and she ended by forbidding what He had explicitly enjoined.”
So yes, if they [the General Conference] wants to act like the medieval church, then we can compare them.
How important do you think unity is in our Adventist church? How much value would you place on it?
I think unity is extremely important.
But I don’t think uniformity is always the answer to unity. We live in very diverse cultures, and we have to meet people where they are in those various cultures. In order to meet various cultures, we have to have diversity. Diversity should be seen as a strength.
Unity is important, but it is the basis of unity that counts. And the only basis is Scripture, trust in one another, and the love of God.
When we have to start creating unity by ecclesiastical force and proclamations, then it’s problematic; then it will not be a true unity.
As James White put it so nicely in the Signs of the Times in 1874: “Church force cannot create unity,” but it has repeatedly created division.
Ellen White made a similar statement in 1892. All of the founders of the Adventist church were against trying to create unity by church force. That was one of the reasons they did not want to establish a formal church organization. J.N. Loughborough noted in 1861 at the formation of our first conference that first a church is created, then it adopts a creed, then enforces that creed, and finally those not in agreement with it are punished.
You emphasize how strongly Ellen White spoke out against central church authority. Where should the authority lie instead?
I am a firm believer in church organization and in a world church.
Ellen White was not against central church authority, but rather the abuse of that authority.
I might add that the Adventist pioneers’ first approach to church organization was anti-organization. They saw church organization as a form of Babylon. They saw Babylon as the persecuting force, as it was in Daniel. In 1843 ministers who held Millerite (early Adventist) beliefs began losing the credentials they held from their own churches. Up to this point, William Miller had urged them to stay with their own denominations. Now many were expelled, but the Christian writer and teacher George Storrs still cautioned the Millerites not to organize a new church, for “no church can be organized by man’s invention but what it becomes Babylon the moment it is organized.”
And that was the whole approach of all six denominations that were eventually formed out the Millerite movement. None organized for 15 to 20 years after the Great Disappointment, and only one organized beyond the Congregational level: The Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Ted Wilson and the General Conference leadership seem dead set on making sure the ordination of women is not allowed in the Adventist church, even at a very great cost. Why do you think President Wilson has dug in his heels on this issue? Isn't he shooting himself in the foot (to mix a whole lot of metaphors)?
I think that Ted Wilson is quite sincere in his belief that this is a Biblical issue. Of course, he appointed TOSC [Theology of Ordination Study Committee] and fully expected them to come up with the proper solution, particularly because more than 50% [of the committee members] were against the ordination of women. But it didn’t come out the way he expected.
None of the many studies that have been done can find where it is forbidden to ordain women. There are lots of arguments, but lots of problems with all of those arguments. There is simply no clear Biblical teaching that only men should be ordained.
I believe the majority of our church members are willing to follow Scripture.
But study after study has demonstrated that you cannot prove it is wrong to ordain women in Scripture.
I have no doubt about Ted Wilson’s sincerity, but sincerity does not make him right. And unfortunately he has not emphasized the findings of the latest committee, TOSC, or all of the other studies that have been done.
The end result might be that Pastor Wilson may not only shoot himself in the foot, but Adventism in both feet.
Why did you write this latest book? How is it different from your previous books?
Maybe it’s not really different. l have been looking at ticklish issues in Adventism ever since I started to publish. I have spent my life tackling controversies and issues in the church, and some of my books have been loved by those on the right, some by those on the left. So I must be somewhere in the middle!
This book has been published by Oak and Acorn. Who is this press and why did you go to it?
The Oak and Acorn is an arm of the Pacific Union Conference. I first thought I might publish through Pacific Press, and we had a strong dialogue about it. But finally I said that the book had become too controversial, with all of my books banned in the Michigan Conference, so I went with Oak and Acorn which had published Bill Johnsson’s book, Where Are We Headed?: Adventism after San Antonio.
It’s nice to have an alternative publisher within the denomination. Oak and Acorn is becoming an outlet for things too explosive for the regular denominational publishers. I thought it would be the best outlet and do the right marketing.
I think an independent press is very important.
Adventism is full of independent publishers; indeed you might say crowded.
How many copies have you sold so far? How can people buy the book?
I know the book is selling very well, but I don’t know how many copies. Some churches and unions are buying large numbers. Amazon is moving a considerable number. And the book is also available through AdventSource and many of the ABCs.
Can people buy your book in Michigan?
I always thought this should have been advertised as the book that should have been banned.
I have no idea what they are doing in Michigan.
Of course, they have the right to do what they want with a controversial book.
But not selling this one is quite different than pulling all of my books. Many of them are pretty mainstream, and my works have been pretty central in church literature, including the Bible commentaries and many works on Ellen White.
They have a perfect right not to put it on the shelf.
Of course, people in Michigan have a perfect right to go to Amazon.
In the long run, banning my books just gives them lots of free advertising. And it also means they are training people to buy their books from Amazon rather than the ABC.
How many books have you written now?
I have probably written 46 or 47 and edited about the same number.
It is pretty hard to sweep me under the carpet this year as my books are the companion books for the second and third quarter Sabbath School quarterlies on Galatians and Romans. Beyond that, my book Educating for Eternity was released at the 2016 Annual Council event right after my talk to the delegates at the pre-session and has been used around the world in various languages in the GC's 2017 divisional meetings, which featured the book.
You are a very well-known and well-respected Adventist historian with many friends and acquaintances at all levels of church administration. Has your stand on the ordination of women changed your relationship with administrators in the General Conference or others?
Behind closed doors, I would say that my book is well read at the General Conference.
I suppose it might be frustrating for some people: dealing with someone with credibility and a long publishing record. I am not in a totally different position from [former Adventist Review editor] Bill Johnsson.
I hope that Bill and myself and Lowell Cooper, and Barry Oliver, along with many others — as well as publications by Spectrum and other outlets — will at least broaden the discussion and maybe throw enough sand into the machinery to slow it down.
Maybe we just have to wait until the momentum changes over time; or until enough people retire.
I think this crusade is basically one man and his theological advisers.
Sometimes we seem to think the problem with “kingly power” ended in 1901 — but if we look at the principles undergirding Ellen G White’s use of the phrase we can see that kingly power is still being used in the present day.
What do you think is the best way for our church to move forward from here? Given that we can't undo what happened at San Antonio, what does the roadmap look like now?
The best way forward and the probable way forward are two different things.
Here is the best way forward: As a church, we realize that if we desire unity it must be based upon the Bible, Christian love, and authority of Scripture — and not make big issues over non-Biblical topics. We must realize that God has used females all through history. Ellen White spoke in churches, had authority over men, and was certainly the most influential clergyperson in our church’s history.
We need to focus on things which are central: our message and our mission. These go together. We ought to utilize as many people as possible and as many techniques as possible to move forward the message and mission.
Trying to block people on non-Biblical issues is really strange to me. This whole business of ordination and trying to discover the difference between that and commissioning is not Biblical. There is no difference! The only Biblical practice is the laying on of hands. The calling to the ministry is from God. The church recognition is the laying on of hands.
And what is the probable way forward? I can tell you a whole lot better next week! I just looked at the agenda for Annual Council and I don’t see exactly how they are going to handle this whole thing.
But my guess for the probable way forward is this: the church administration will work on a process, which will end with disciplinary actions to be put in place after quite some time against these erring unions. I don’t think any actions will be taken yet, but they will begin a process, which might take two or three years. Then they hope these unions will come into line with the wisdom of the General Conference.
And they will if the General Conference has any Biblical evidence! But that evidence has not come out yet.
I see a process. I don’t see this Annual Council dissolving unions.
My hope is that more and more people will realize that this issue is not so clear cut.
As Ellen White says in Testimonies Vol 9, page 278:
“Many, very many matters have been taken up and carried by vote, that have involved far more than was anticipated and far more than those who voted would have been willing to assent to had they taken time to consider the question from all sides.”
If they really look at what all this means, it is a bottomless pit of difficulties. If anything will block the mission of this church, it is the years of potential litigation, hundreds of millions of dollars of property at issue, and all kinds of other things. A protracted legal battle would be a spectacle and a witness against Adventism in the both the secular and religious worlds.
GEORGE KNIGHT is a retired professor of church history at the theological seminary at Andrews University. His books include the Adventist Heritage series, the Ellen White series, and a devotional Bible commentary series.
Read George Knight's paper from the Unity Conference here.
Read Doug Morgan's book review here.
Image Credit: George Knight
If you respond to this article, please:
Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.