V. Unilateralism

              Study of Church Governance and Unity  by GC Secretariat            
                         published September 25, 2016 
 ( PDF file )


      V.   Unilateralism

   Unilateral action on important matters is contrary to the biblical model and to longstanding Adventist practice. Significant decisions should be made after prior consultation with other levels of church structure and should be in harmony with decisions already taken by the wider body of believers. This approach helps to guard against distraction and division, promoting unity in church life and an emphasis on mission. 

      1.  Biblical Principles 

    Christ warned His disciples of the danger of distraction (e.g. Matt 24:24). The apostle Paul urged the early believers to emulate him in “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” and to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way” (Phil. 3:13-15 ESV). Our calling is clear: to witness to Jesus, making disciples by teaching and baptizing, and proclaiming the prophetic truths of Revelation 14. There is a danger that internal disputes will cause us to lose focus on the prophetic mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

   The divisiveness latent within unilateralism is inconsistent with the biblical model. When Paul famously uses the metaphor of the body for the Church, he describes different organs of the​  [ end of page 29 ]  body criticizing each other and imagining that they can be independent, before affirming that “God has harmonised the whole body,” intending its different parts to “work together as a whole with all the members in sympathetic relationship with one another.” Paul’s conclusion was quoted earlier, but deserves repetition: “Now you are together the body of Christ, and each of you is a part of it” (1 Cor. 12: 24-25, 27 Phillips). 

   Implicit, moreover, in Paul’s call to believers to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21 NIV) is that diversity and difference of opinion or practice will exist in the body of believers; and that that, at times, some believers will find themselves in a minority, having failed to persuade fellow church-members of their view. Paul does not depict this as a problem per se. What matters is how believers respond to this situation. Mutual submission excludes unilateralism. 

   In Ephesians 5, Paul takes for granted that believers, at times, will disagree—unsurprising, given that the first disciples had a history of “dissension,” sometimes expressed in strong terms, as in Paul’s disagreements with Barnabas and Peter (Acts 15:2, 37-39, Gal 2:4, 11-14). Yet though some of the new believers were initially inclined to forge independent identities, the early church did not split into separate sects; it remained united because leaders like Peter and Paul stressed unity in Christ, and, despite disagreeing on some specifics, endorsed each other’s ministries, urging harmony among believers (see 1 Cor 1: 10-13, 3: 22-23, 4: 6-7, 15, 16:12; Titus 3:13; 2 Pet 3: 14- 16; cf. Acts 18: 24-27, 1 Cor 9: 5-6, 15: 5-9). Despite disagreements, too, they did not create mutually exclusive leadership teams, but worked without factionalism: John Mark’s rejection by Paul led the latter to fall out with Barnabas, but Mark, having assisted Barnabas later worked with and was commended by Paul, before subsequently working closely with Peter; meanwhile, Silas, who may have been an associate of James, replaced Barnabas as Paul’s main colleague, and later collaborated with Peter (e.g. Acts 15:22, 39-40; 2 Cor 1:19; Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11; Phil 1:24; 1 Pet 5: 12-13). Instead of independent, parallel movements, operating with little reference to each other, there was mutual respect, and continued crossover between different leadership teams

    In practice, then, first-generation church leaders did submit to one another, as Paul enjoins the Ephesians, for, in spite of sometimes significant disagreements they forged a common path, focused on growing the kingdom of God. Unilateralism was absent from the early church. The New Testament consistently upholds cooperation and interdependence, rather than any one part of the body of Christ acting independently. 

      2.   Ellen G White’s Warnings

   Unilateral decision-making was a particular concern of Ellen White. As we will see, she consistently counsels against it. It is important to note that the Church has never faced a situation exactly like the one that currently exists, and so it is necessary to work out relevant principles from her counsels in other situations. A number of the following statements were written to individuals, to correct personal doctrinal divergence, and a degree of caution is necessary in applying such counsels to organizations (for this reason, testimonies correcting departures from moral standards have not been quoted). However, some of the statements quoted below were written during the period of notable contention over medical institutions in the late 1890s and early 1900s, when the independence of hospital leaders such as John Harvey Kellogg, supported by the boards of some [ end of page 30 ] of the institutions they led, is analogous to the current circumstances of unilateral action by Church organizational units. Furthermore, the number and consistency of statements is itself telling, and principles do emerge. This subsection is longer than the preceding analysis of biblical principles, which some may feel imbalanced, but Ellen White’s repeated testimonies indicate that overly independent, unilateral action poses a special danger to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

   At times her concern seems to be chiefly that the Adventist Church not be distracted from mission and become less effective. For example, in a testimony from the early 1880s on unity, she counsels church members: “When those who believe present truth are united, they exert a telling influence. Satan well understands this” and is “determined . . . to make of none effect the truth of God by causing bitterness and dissension among the Lord’s people.” (129)  In an 1886 testimony to believers in California, she cautions that “Satan will make special efforts to distract the interest” of God’s people “from the all-important subjects that should arrest every mind to concentrated action.” (130) A similar concern is evident in a 1908 testimony on the work in the South of the United States, which had been characterized by different individual approaches and debates about which was superior. Ellen White urges: “Let every believer do his best to prepare the way for the gospel missionary work that is to be done. But let no one enter into controversy” with other church members. She then pronounces a stark warning: “It is Satan’s object to keep Christians occupied in controversies among themselves. . . . We have no time now to give place to the spirit of the enemy”.  (131) 

   Ellen White was, however, not only concerned with internal debates, lest they distract from mission by making us focus inwards; her counsel also stresses that independent action makes outreach less effective. In her 1882 testimony on unity, she declares plainly: “Union is strength; division is weakness.” She connects this to mission, continuing: “The last message of mercy is now going forth. . . . How careful should we be in every word and act to follow closely the Pattern.”(132) Two years later she told leaders of the embryonic Adventist mission in Europe: “We have not six patterns to follow, nor five; we have only one, and that is Christ Jesus. . . . We should endeavor to bring all into the harmony that there is in Jesus, laboring for the one object, the salvation of our fellow men.” (133)

   In the 1886 testimony quoted above, she employs a martial metaphor and stresses that joint action is vital if the Church is to be effective in mission: “An army could do nothing successfully if its different parts did not work in concert. . . . Instead of gathering strength from concentrated action, it would be wasted in desultory, meaningless efforts. . . . Whatever good qualities a man may have, he cannot be a good soldier if he acts independently.” She stresses: “A limited number, united under one head, all obeying orders, will accomplish more than ten times the number who are drawing apart, who expend their strength on many things at the same time. . . . All must pull in one direction in order to render efficient service to the cause.” (134)  In 1900, while sailing back to the United States from Australia, she reflected in her diary in similar terms: “Those who belong to Christ’s army must work with concerted action. . . . United action is essential.” (135) 

   Often, however, White articulates her opposition to unilateralism not merely in practical or missiological terms, but as a principled objection. She repeatedly maintains that collective and collaborative (rather than independent or unilateral) decision-making processes should be the norm in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, because the Church is one body.  For example, in an 1875 [ end of page 31 ] testimony, she declares that God’s “people . . . will not be at variance,” with different members believing or practicing differently, “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.” She rebukes the recipient, urging him to “yield his judgment and opinions, and come to the body.” (136) In a testimony written in the mid to late 1880s (first published in 1889), she states firmly: “One point will have to be guarded [against], and that is individual independence.” Employing the military metaphor again, she suggests: “As soldiers in Christ’s army, there should be concert of action in the various departments of the work.” She continues: “Each laborer should act with reference to the others. Followers of Jesus Christ will not act independently one of another. Our strength must be in God, and it must be husbanded, to be put forth in noble, concentrated action. . . . In union there is strength.” (137) ​

   Around the same time, in 1885, she enjoined Adventist leaders in Europe: “All should make it a point to counsel together . . . . No one worker has all the wisdom that is needed. There should be a comparing of plans, a counseling together.”(138) Twenty years later she counseled church leaders who disagreed about how to work for different national and ethnic groups; writing of divisions arising from ethnic differences, she encourages them to “put all this aside.” She charges them to “work together in harmony . . . forgetting that they are Americans or Europeans, Germans or Frenchmen, Swedes, Danes, or Norwegians,” before warning: “We have no right to keep our minds stayed on ourselves, our preferences, and our fancies. We are not to seek to maintain a peculiar identity of our own . . . which will separate us from our fellow laborers.” (139)

   In 1898, Ellen White counseled a member of longstanding and considerable influence, “Your judgment is to be one among the judgment of other minds. You are to take your fellow workers with you, and regard their judgment as of some value. Through your entire life you have rather encouraged a preference to differ from others. The judgment of others is not to be discarded as of no value. . . . Unity of mind must be preserved. It is necessary that our opinions harmonize.”(140) The same year, in the face of increasingly uncooperative and independent behavior by the longstanding leader of Adventist medical work, John H Kellogg, and some of his followers, White had written to Kellogg of the danger of “standing apart from our people.” She warns him not “to think that in order to carry forward the medical missionary you must stand aloof from church organization. To stand thus would place you on an unsound footing.” Even if he were joined by “those of your own mind,” they could not stand “apart from the church, which is Christ’s body . . . for no union can stand but that which God has framed.” (141)

   She counseled Kellogg again the following year, telling him: “This is God’s plan. He desires all His workers to fill their appointed places in the work for this time.” All, together, “compose the whole body. All are to be united as parts of one great organism.”(142) These concerns went wider than Kellogg and the medical work. Writing in 1900, in words published in 1902, she stresses that “It is the Lord’s plan that His workers shall consult together . . . . Those who have any part to act in the work are to labor in connection with the whole heart [of the work].”(143) A testimony of 1902 declares: “Matters of grave import come up for settlement by the church. God’s ministers ordained by Him as guides of His people, after doing their part, are to submit the whole matter to the church, that there may be unity in the decisions made.”(144) In the spring of 1903, tensions with Kellogg and his supporters were rising; speaking to that year’s GC Session Ellen White is clear: “No one is to gather around him a party of men who will think as he thinks, and say, Amen, to  [ end page 32 ] everything that he says.”(145) Writing to publishing leaders in 1905 White affirms that it is the “union of heart and action which testifies to the world that we are children of God” [emphasis supplied].(146) She admonished the 1909 Session: “It is not a good sign when men refuse to unite with their brethren and prefer to act alone.” (147)  

   The lessons are clear. Neither individuals nor small groups of leaders should act without consulting widely. Further, they ought not to act contrary to the counsel of the wider body, once it has been given.

   Ellen White makes it plain, moreover, that unilateralism can arise not just from independent-mindedness, but sometimes from the influence of evil forces. She also emphasizes its damaging effects. In 1875, for example, in a strongly worded testimony to an independent-minded church member in California, she reproaches him because: “The church of Christ is in constant peril. Satan is seeking to destroy the people of God,” and were “each member of the church . . . to move independently of the others, taking his own peculiar course,” then how, she asks, could “the church be in any safety in the hour of danger and peril?” (148) 

   In the 1886 testimony to Californian Adventists, quoted earlier, in which she alerts them of the devil’s interest in distracting Adventists, Ellen White goes on to warn that many church members make “independent assertions . . . not realizing the order that must be observed in the church of God. Such are a greater affliction to the church than any of the influences we meet with from unbelievers.” Furthermore, she writes in stark terms, Satan will seek “sympathizers” and then set them “to work, to clog the wheels, to question, to find fault, to create suspicion, disunion, and a disordered state of things; and all the time they will think they are doing God’s service.” (149) 

    In a testimony written two years later (1888), she likewise cautions that in the “last days” there would be, “among the remnant . . . as there was with ancient Israel, those who wish to move independently of the body, who are not willing to be subject to the body of the church, but . . . that God has a church upon the earth, and [to] that church God has delegated power.”(150)  She warns that “those who . . . do not labor to have harmony of purpose and action are verily doing the work of Satan, not the work of God” and continues in similar vein: “It is a delusion of the enemy for anyone to feel that he can disconnect from the body and work on an independent scale of his own and think he is doing God’s work. We are one body, and every member is to be united to the body.” (151) 

   Addressing the 1909 Session, she warned against some “deceived souls” who “regard it a virtue to boast of their freedom to think and act independently. They declare that they will not take any man’s say-so, that they are amenable to no man.” Yet Ellen White explicitly states that “the persistent maintenance” by a church worker of a “position of independence contrary to the decision of the general body” is not a “virtue.” (152) On the contrary, she also writes: “I have been instructed that it is Satan’s special effort to lead men to feel that God is pleased to have them choose their own course independent of the counsel of their brethren.” Indeed, “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.”(153) This testimony continues: “Some have advanced the thought that as we near the close of time, every child of God will act independently of any religious organization. But I have been instructed by the Lord that in this work there is no such thing as [ end of page 33 ]  every man’s being independent.” Instead, Ellen White powerfully affirms, “in order that the Lord’s work may advance, healthfully and solidly, His people must draw together.”(154)

   In 1911, she returned to this theme, commenting on the book of Acts: “There have ever been in the church those who are constantly inclined toward individual independence. They seem unable to realize that independence of spirit is liable to lead the human agent to have too much confidence in himself, and to trust in his own judgment rather than to respect the counsel and highly esteem the judgment of his brethren, especially of those in the offices that God has appointed for the leadership of His people.” (155) 

   Words that Ellen G White penned in the early 1880s regarding “Christian unity” are both indicative of her wider thought on the need to preserve unity and applicable to the Adventist Church today: “We cannot afford now to give place to Satan by cherishing disunion, discord, and strife.” (156)

     Footnotes:   128  to  156



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