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Ellen White Against Being “At Variance”


The vote is in. Women’s ordination is history for at least three Adventist Union Conferences: the North German, Columbia and the Pacific.

As I contemplate the momentous events of the past few weeks and observe some of the exchanges between the echelons of the church and on the blogosphere, I returned to Ellen White’s thoughts for reminders of what she has said about similar issues. I often find her reflections to be helpful historical guideposts in matters of church governance–especially now that terms such as “opposition” and “at variance” are being used frequently.

A search through White’s writings reveals that the expression “at variance” referred primarily to a state of mind, an attitude, a trait of character, a habit. Variance for her was often synonymous with “stubbornness and self-will” (for instance, Counsels of Leadership, 11). When talking about the “unity of the church” she used “variance” again in the sense of interpersonal conflict, strife, enmity:

“The unity of the church is the convincing evidence that God has sent Jesus into the world as its Redeemer. This is an argument which worldlings can neither withstand nor controvert. Therefore Satan is constantly working to prevent this union and harmony, that unbelievers, by witnessing backbiting, dissension, and strife among professed Christians, may become disgusted with religion, and be confirmed in their impenitence. God is dishonored by those who profess the truth while they are at variance and enmity with one another. Satan is the great accuser of the brethren, and all who engage in this work are enlisted in his service” (5T 619).

When faced with the prospects of bitter conflict among the brethren, she bared her soul, saying:

“I know that Satan’s work will be to set brethren at variance. Were it not that I know [that] the Captain of our salvation stands at the helm to guide the gospel ship into the harbor, I should say, Let me rest in the grave” (1888 Materials, 29).


“God is the embodiment of benevolence, mercy, and love. Those who are truly connected with Him cannot be at variance with one another. His Spirit ruling in the heart will create harmony, love, and unity. The opposite of this is seen among the children of Satan. It is his work to stir up envy, strife, and jealousy” (5T 28.1).

There, unity meant the opposite of “envy, strife and jealousy”, disunity and disharmony. She also created a litmus test for the good type of “variance” by asking:

“Does this light and knowledge that I have found, and which places me at variance with my brethren, draw me more closely to Christ? does it make my Saviour more precious to me and make my character more closely resemble His?” (3T 444).

Although she used “at variance” in a variety of contexts, below I list four instances of the use of “at variance” in connection with church relations which may shed light on the current discussions. This list is certainly not exhaustive but may set the overall tone of her views on the matter.

1. Being “at variance” because of emphasis on “conservatism” and “tradition”

1888 provides vital clues to her treatment of conflict in the church. During that year, she came to the defense of Adventist authors and preachers who were seen as being “at variance” with the General Conference leaders. Writing two years afterward, she said:

“There are men among us who profess to understand the truth for these last days, but who will not calmly investigate advanced truth. They are determined to make no advance beyond the stakes which they have set, and will not listen to those who, they say, do not stand by the old landmarks. They are so self-sufficient that they cannot be reasoned with. They consider it a virtue to be at variance with their brethren, and close the door, that light shall not find an entrance to the people of God. … Light will come to God’s people, and those who have sought to close the door will either repent or be removed out of the way. The time has come when a new impetus must be given to the work. … We must accept every ray of light that comes to us” (ST May 26, 1890, par. 12).

Ironically, even Ellen White had her run-ins with the General Conference in her day. Her anachronistically dated letters brought ominous revelations of back room dealings at the top echelons of the church. At one point she said:

“The people have lost confidence in those who have the management of the work. Yet we hear that the voice of the Conference is the voice of God. Every time I have heard this, I thought it was almost blasphemy. The voice of the Conference ought to be the voice of God, but it is not, because some inconnection with it are not men of faith and prayer, they are not men of elevated principle.” (April 1, 1901, Ms. 37-190).

Strong words indeed.

2. Being “at variance” because of imposition of ideas

“Many because their brethren do not follow their leading, manifest toward them a spirit of hatred. Is their leading right? Is it wrong? God has never bidden us follow the leading of any man, and he has said, “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of a tumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes. Can we not see from this what it means to be at variance?” (KC 109.3).

3. Being “at variance” for opposing advancing truth

“The brethren [at Minneapolis] had all the evidence they would ever have that words of truth were spoken in regard to the righteousness of Christ. I knew that if they had distinguished the voice of the true Shepherd, if they had opened their hearts to receive the light, such speeches would never be made to create sympathy and leave the impression upon the congregation that we were at varianceand at enmity one with the other” (8MR 312.3).

I find the statement that leaders “had all the evidence they would ever have” especially germane to our discussion.

4. Being “at variance” for doctrinal disharmony

Ellen White cautioned against being “at variance” in ways that would create doctrinal ruptures. She wrote:

“God is leading a people out from the world upon the exalted platform of eternal truth, the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. He will discipline and fit up His people. They will not be at variance, one believing one thing and another having faith and views entirely opposite, each moving independently of the body. Through the diversity of the gifts and governments that He has placed in the church, they will all come to the unity of the faith” (TM 29).

Before the statement above is used against women’s ordination advocates for “moving independently of the body,” Iet me remind readers that the recognition of women as duly appointed ministers is not only part of Fundamental Belief 14, but it has also been affirmed since at least the 1990 General Conference. If believing in the equality of men and women to be ministers is used to label Adventists as rebellious, Ellen White would top the list.

It is striking that we do not see her use “variance” to promote absolute uniformity of practice and policies. To the contrary, she argued for “unity in diversity” and that whereas “there may appear to be dissimilarity, the work is one great whole, and bears the stamp of infinite wisdom.” (GCB February 27, 1895, par. 5). She used the variety of the branches of a vine which all work together to produce one fruit.

In what appears to be an oxymoron, Ellen White considers diversity as the key to unity: “Through the diversity of the gifts and governments that He has placed in the church, they will all come to the unity of the faith.” (EW, CET 201).

In sum, I believe Ellen White was very much against being “at variance” in the form of bitter, negative, overbearing spirit. In turn, she was very much for a diversity of operations, methods in church work. She was not a uniformitarian; thus she could write in 1899:

“We believe fully in church organization, but in nothing that is to prescribe the precise way in which we must work; for all minds are not reached by the same methods. Nothing is to be allowed to keep the working servant of God from his fellow man. The individual believer is to labor for the individual sinner. Each person has his own lamp to keep burning…” (RH May 9, 1899, Art. B, par. 14).

We can certainly replace “methods” with “same music, same food, same color of clothes” and, alas, “same gender of pastors”!

I believe that, were Ellen White alive today, her pen would be firing off letters of support, copying and pasting her 1895 appeal for the ordination of women and maybe one or two “testimonies” with the foreboding P.S.: Light will come to God’s people, and those who have sought to close the door will either repent or be removed out of the way.


André Reis has a BA in Theology from the Adventist University in São Paulo, where he worked as a Research Assistant at the Ellen White Resarch Center. He is currently pursuing a PhD in New Testament.

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