This is part 2 of a two-part series on church unity. Part 1 of “Unity: Then and Now” was printed in the March […]
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Published on: 04-05-2017
This is part 2 of a two-part series on church unity. Part 1 of “Unity: Then and Now” was printed in the March issue of Adventist World.—Editors.
It was at the ordination of the Twelve that the first step was taken in the organization of the church that after Christ’s departure was to carry on His work on the earth. Of this ordination the record says, ‘He goeth up into a mountain, and calleth unto Him whom He would: and they came unto Him. And He ordained twelve, that they should be with Him, and that He might send them forth to preach’” (Mark 3:13, 14 [KJV]).1
Following their ordination, the 12 disciples became the spiritual leaders of the early church. Their ordination was a crucial step in Christ’s plan for accomplishing Heaven’s mission to the world.
The church’s organizational structure continued to grow and develop more fully in the early decades of Christianity. In the book of Acts church organization is paramount to the unity of the church. Without organization false teachers could easily have hijacked the church’s message and sidetracked its mission. The biblical message of truth based on the Word of God would have been distorted and the mission of Christ diluted.
Function and Nurture
Let’s briefly review church organization in the book of Acts and notice its function in nurturing the believer’s spiritual life, preserving the church’s message, and fostering its mission.
In Acts 1 a united group of 120 believers met in the upper room to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (verses 14, 15). They were united in their love for Christ and were committed to His teachings. Their hearts beat with an overwhelming desire to share His love with everyone. The record states that they were in “one accord” in seeking God for the outpouring of His Spirit and power to reach the world (verse 14).
A potential problem arose at the end of the chapter. The position vacated by Judas’s betrayal and death needed to be filled. The early church considered two of their number as possibilities. This could have been problematic. The New Testament believers could easily have taken sides with hardened positions on the person they thought God wanted to fill the position. Instead, they mutually agreed to seek God’s wisdom on the matter (verse 24). They settled on a process of discerning God’s will and agreed to surrender their own convictions and accept the outcome. Even in its embryonic stage the church was learning lessons of submission for the sake of unity and mission.
In Acts 2, 3,000 people were baptized on the day of Pentecost. They united with the church and continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, and prayers (verses 41, 42). Those baptized became part of an organized movement.
According to Acts 6, as the church grew it faced new challenges. Greek widows were not receiving their fair proportion in the food distribution. Once again there was open discussion and a mutually agreed-upon solution. A representative group of deacons was chosen. These deacons ministered to needy Greek widows and maintained the unity of the church in a time of crises. They were chosen because they had “good reputations,” were “full of the Holy Spirit,” and were guided by divine “wisdom” (Acts 6:3).
At each step of its development the early church refined its organizational structure for the sake of nurturing the growing church, safeguarding its teachings, and fostering its mission.
A Church Representative
Acts 9 records the conversion of the apostle Paul. Immediately upon his Damascus road conversion, the Holy Spirit led him to Ananias, a representative of the church. The Spirit did not at this juncture lead him into the wilderness to spend time alone or send him out immediately on an evangelistic mission. Instead, the Spirit brought Paul into contact with a representative of God’s church. One reason for this was to illustrate the importance of church organization and authority.
In TheActs of the Apostles Ellen White explains: “Thus Jesus gave sanction to the authority of His organized church and placed Saul in connection with His appointed agencies on earth.”2 Ananias nurtured Paul in the faith, and instructed him further about God’s plan of church organization.
In Acts 15 the New Testament church faced a critical juncture in its development. A conflict arose over how Gentile believers who had accepted Christ should relate to Jewish customs, especially circumcision. This was no small matter. Jewish believers had practiced circumcision for millennia; it was part of their identity and deeply embedded in their culture. Consequently, Paul and Barnabas had “no small dissension and dispute” with these Jewish leaders (Acts 15:2). They mutually agreed to refer the matter to the Jerusalem Council. The church at large accepted the council’s decision, which brought unity to the body of believers.
Unity and Surrender
Unity came as individuals surrendered to the authority of the larger body. The important point here is not the decision that was made, but the process by which it was made. A complex issue was brought from the local church to a larger administrative body. Both leaders and members agreed to accept the decision of the Jerusalem Council.
Writing with prophetic insight, Ellen White describes the authority vested in the Jerusalem Council in these poignant words: “Meanwhile all controversy was to cease until a final decision should be given in general council. This decision was then to be universally accepted by the different churches throughout the country.”3
A very difficult issue that troubled Christianity was settled by the willingness of both sides to accept the decision of the Jerusalem Council. People had convictions on both sides of this question, but most were willing to accept the decision of a representative body of leaders for the sake of God’s mission.
This general meeting of believers with delegates from varying churches brought unity to the body of Christ. Once again they focused on that which is most important to God: the saving of lost people.
Think of what could have happened if the rest of the book of Acts had been spent discussing the varying sides of a debate over circumcision for Gentile converts to Christianity. Imagine the tragic impact on the growth of the church an endless debate on this matter would have had. Wisely, the New Testament church accepted the decision of the larger body—the general council of the church—and passionately moved on with mission.
In Acts 20:17-32 the apostle Paul instructed the elders of the church on both the building up and the safeguarding of the flock of God. He counseled them that one of the functions of church organization, and an ordained ministry, was to protect the church from false teachers and keep it focused on mission.
Church Organization: An Essential Element of Unity
The New Testament church was unified in its commitment to Christ and His present truth, prophetic message, mission to the world, and divinely established church organization. We are on a very slippery slope if personal opinions or preferences are placed above the authority of Christ’s organized church.
Ellen White states it clearly: “Oh, how Satan would rejoice if he could succeed in his efforts to get in among this people and disorganize the work at a time when thorough organization is essential and will be the greatest power to keep out spurious uprisings and to refute claims not endorsed by the Word of God! We want to hold the lines evenly, that there shall be no breaking down of the system of organization and order that has been built up by wise, careful labor.”4
Church organization, and its subsequent policies based on biblical principles, play an indispensable role in unifying Christ’s church. Rather than being arbitrary decrees by authoritarian leaders, the church’s policies are mutual agreements based on trust. They outline how the church functions. They are developed by a broad base of representative leadership.
The church’s policies are not infallible. They can change—and sometimes do—but they represent the best judgment of a representative group of leaders at a given time. They are agreements guided by the Holy Spirit to determine the best way forward for the church. They are not to be equated with salvation or timeless biblical truths, but they are one of the cohesive elements that hold the church together.
Policies: Mutual Agreements Based on Trust
The Bible is clear in its teaching of the tithing principle, but it does not delineate tithe percentages from the local church to the conference, union conference, and division. These decisions are made by committees. What would happen if each church or local conference decided for itself how much of its tithe to retain and how much to pass on? The church would suffer a financial disaster. Its ability to function as a world body would be severely curtailed.
Here is another example of a mutual agreement based on trust. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has 28 fundamental beliefs. Why not 25 or 30? Who determines that there be only 28? The Bible does not specify exactly 28. In fact, the twenty-eighth fundamental belief was added to the church’s list of fundamentals only recently. What if each local field determined the fundamental beliefs it thought appropriate to its culture and territory. and left the others out? The issue here is not the biblical truth of the fundamental belief, but the determination of what a fundamental belief is and how many to include. This is a decision of responsible church leadership, mutually agreed upon by the General Conference in session.
When We Differ
The Scriptures are a revelation of God’s eternal, unchanging, authoritative truths. In the development of policy the principles of Scripture guide the church. The role of church leadership is to be faithful to this sacred trust. Honest people will see some issues differently. In these instances, the gospel invites us to treat one another with respect and dignity. But one thing is clear: the gospel also demands that we place a high priority on the unity of the church and respect the decisions of the corporate body. The unity of the church is near to the heart of God, and the organization of the church is a central truth in the New Testament.
Without church organization we would have a congregational system of theological pluralism, weakened mission, and organizational chaos. Ellen White echoes this critical thought: “God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority.”5
The unity of the church is a clear, unequivocal biblical doctrine. To disregard or minimize the corporate decisions of representatives of the world church creates disunity and pains the heart of God.
Unity and Commitment to Christ
The unity of the church is maintained when our commitment to Christ is foremost; when we are united in the truths of Scripture through the guidance of the Holy Spirit; when we place priority on mission and are moved by what moves the heart of God; and when the mutual agreements or policies of the church serve as the foundation for a system of church governance and authority. To neglect any one of these four aspects of unity is to invite disunity, a dismantling of biblical truth, and a distortion of mission. To downplay church organization or authority is to leave the church in disarray and fundamentally erode its mission.
May we be filled with the Spirit of Christ while proclaiming the message of Christ, fulfilling the mission of Christ, and upholding the church of Christ. Then, and only then, will the church arise to fulfill its destiny and reveal the glory of God to a waiting world and a watching universe.
1 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 18.
2Ibid., p. 122.
3Ibid., p. 190.
4 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 9, pp. 257, 258.
5Ibid., p. 261.
Mark A. Finley retired in 2010 as a general vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists following nearly 40 years as a pastor, evangelist, and media ministry leader. He now serves as an assistant to the General Conference president.