That the Seventh-day Adventist Church is passing through difficult times due to several issues demanding resolution does not need to be demonstrated because anyone only tangentially aware of what is being said in the various Adventist media outlets already knows it. On the surface, the issue is the ordination of women to the ministry of the church. As a spinoff from it, the function of the policies directing all aspects of the conduct of the church's business has taken a prominent role. Policies necessitate someone with the power to enforce them. Thus, it has become important to determine who has the authority to evaluate whether an action taken by a church body is in compliance with policy and to determine the consequences of non-compliance. Of course, the arguments presented in the debates carried on around these issues appeal to biblical sources for support. As a result, at the bottom of all these discussions is the question of how the Bible is to be used in support of any of the aspects of the current debates.
In the course of these debates, the President and the Executive Committee of the General Conference of the Adventist Church, the ecclesiastical corporation that is charged to do the Church's business, has come out with the notion that their primary function is to maintain unity within the Church. Exactly on what is the Church to be united has not been debated even though several voices have been asking this question. It has been claimed also that since unity, of whatever sort, is the responsibility of the Executive Committee of the General Conference, all church bodies must submit to its authority. But on what this authority is based has not been established.
It would seem that both those who claim the authority to establish and maintain unity and those who challenge their way of reading the Bible and the Church's policies, and their claim to absolute authority over the whole Church, agree that the purpose for the existence of the Church is to carry out her mission on earth. They seem also to agree that all other issues are secondary, that if they become the central preoccupation of the Church, they are detracting from the accomplishment of her mission. As distractions from the mission, they are counterproductive. To this all the participants in these debates agree. The disagreements have to do with how to proceed to a resolution of the issues being debated. Those who support the authority of the Executive Committee argue that, rather than to allow these distractions to sap the energies of the Church and be agents of disunity, everyone should let the ecclesiastical authorities resolve these contentious issues according to their reading of the Bible. Those who disagree with their reading of the Bible and of the policies, for their part, wish to have them recognize the limits of their authority and be willing to listen to what the Church's theologians have to say.
In this brief essay I would like to contribute to the resolution of this impasse. My aim is not to get involved with the issues that are dividing the Church. I would like my contribution to be an exploration of that on which all the participants in these debates agree and, thereby, to shift the conversation from the branches to the roots of what the Church is to be about. All agree that the Church has a mission that must be accomplished. My question to all, therefore, is this: What is the mission of the Church?
Judging from what I see and hear all around me, the Church's mission is being described as the preparation of a people for the second coming of Christ. This means that the Church must preach the prophecies that predict and describe the Second Coming and the signs that tell people that its coming is upon them. They must be totally involved in proclaiming Christ's imminent coming and making sure that they are ready to be taken up to heaven. This, of course, means that they must be sure that, when their name comes up in the Investigative Judgment, Christ will be able to argue that his sacrifice has paid for their sins and that they can be sealed by the Holy Spirit to remain loyal to God during the predicted Time of Trouble, the likes of which no one has experienced yet. People who are sealed and survive without sinning during the Time of Trouble will not only be able to go to heaven, they will be actually advancing the actualization of the Second Coming. The undeniable delay of the Second Coming is being caused by Christ's waiting for the full number of a generation of sinless people. It is only when this happens that he will come. So rather than to wait while praying, “Lord, Come,” the Church should be diligently helping people to become sinless people who are hastening the Second Coming. I contend that, even if not all Adventists agree to my description of the mission that the Church must fulfill for this future to come to be, all Adventists would agree that the mission of the church is basically concerned with the future Second Coming.
As one who takes interest in what the Sabbath School Department of the General Conference produces as study guides to be used in the Sabbath Schools around the world, these days I have been studying the book of The Acts of the Apostles. One of the claims of the Adventist Church, which is not unique to her, is that it is following the example of the “primitive” church, the protagonist in the Acts of the Apostles. With this in mind, I have become interested in finding out what the apostles understood to be their mission. It does not take too much searching to see that the apostles understood that their mission was to be witnesses. After having been taught by Jesus for forty days, the disciples asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:7).
That God would restore the kingdom to Israel is what the book of Ezekiel is all about. This book is totally engaged in a grand apologetic demonstration that the complaint of the exiles that “the way of the Lord is not just” (Ezekiel 18:25, 29; 33:17-20), because they find themselves in exile, is not true. Moreover, the derisive way in which Israel's surrounding nations are saying that the God of Israel is weak, because He could not protect them from their adversaries, is also not true. Ezekiel has a leitmotive repeated nineteen times, “they shall know that I am the Lord” (6:7, 14; 12:20; 13:23; 14:23; 16:62; 17:21; 20:12, 20, 26, 38, 42; 21:4; 24:24; 29:21; 32:15; 33:29; 36:23; 37:14). This will happen when all the surrounding nations receive a full measure of the anger, fury and wrath of the Lord (5:13-17) as a demonstration of His power. Then, the Lord will “restore the fortunes of Israel” (16:52; 36:8; 37:19, 22; 39:25).
The question of the disciples of Jesus is based on these descriptions of the vindication of the name of the Lord (Ezekiel 36:23; 39:27) after his triumph over all opposing powers. Jesus answers their question, saying, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).
This definition of the mission cannot be more explicit. It would be a great improvement to the Adventist Church if, in at least this regard, it would take seriously its claim to be modeled after the “primitive” church. What Jesus commissions his disciples to do was not to be involved with the future restoration of the fortunes of Israel, something which undoubtedly was of much interest to many Jews, including the disciples. According to Jesus, they were not going to have knowledge of “times or seasons.” Their mission was to be witnesses, not apocalypticists. Apocalypticists cannot possibly be witnesses. Witnesses can only talk about what they have experienced, and the future has not yet been experienced by any human being.
The power that they were to receive from the Holy Spirit was not going to give them apocalyptic knowledge. It was going to make them powerful witnesses. They were going to testify about what they had experienced. They had experienced the death and the burial of Jesus; but, more importantly, they had experienced the risen Christ. That is what the first Christian confession that has come down to us said, as recorded by Paul in To the Corinthians I (15:3-6). What the power of the Holy Spirit does is to empower those who were not actually there to witness these events to actually experience them existentially and, thereby, be raised to life by the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead (Romans 6:5-11). Thus, those who have been raised to life in the new creation, established by the same Spirit that moved over the waters in the original creation (2 Corinthians4:6), live crucified and risen with Christ (Galatians 2:20).
That is what the Holy Spirit empowers witnesses to do. They are witnesses to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ in which they participate at their baptism. That was the mission given to the original disciples, and all true disciples should understand that to be their mission. If the unity of the church depends on the commitment of its members to fulfil her mission, all members should be faithful witnesses by the way they live, like Paul, crucified and risen with Christ. I am quite certain that the day this becomes the official mission of the Adventist Church, its future under the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit is secure. While this is not the case, her mission is misguided, and her future is dependent on the power of others than the Holy Spirit.
I would welcome being corrected by anyone who thinks my reading of The Acts of the Apostles is unwarranted.
Herold Weiss is professor emeritus of Religious Studies at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana.
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