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Religious Liberty in the Church

Hierarchical control inevitably destroys purity and leads to persecution 

God’s great desire is that He might have a pure and glorious church, without “spot orwrinkle or any such thing.”Ephesians 5:27. God has made us stewards of His church, and has called for each member to guard its spiritual interests. Jesus warned in Matthew 13 that “while men slept,” an “enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat.”

There are four basic ways the Lord has given for keeping the church pure and to prevent tares from taking over the field:

1) The church is to exercise loving and judicious care when accepting new members into church: “When a person presents himself as a candidate for church membership, we are to examine the fruit of his life, and leave the responsibility of his motives with himself… Great care should be exercised in accepting members into the church; for Satan has his specious devices through which he purposes to crowd false brethren into the church, through whom he can work more successfully to weaken the cause of God.” Evangelism p.313. 

2) When there is sin manifested in a member, we are to individually go to the one involved, and in love and humility appeal for a change of heart and practice. We are then to follow the steps of Matthew 18:15-17 until there is either a change or the church is purified from the sin of the offending member.“If the sins of the people are passed over by those in responsible positions His frown will be upon them, and the people of God, as a body, will be held responsible for those sins. In His dealings with His people in the past the Lord shows the necessity of purifying the church from wrong. One sinner may diffuse darkness that will exclude the light of God from the entire congregation.” 3T p. 265 

3) God has promised to send judgments in answer to the prayers and concerns of His people for the purifying of the church. “Elijah… prayed earnestly that it would not rain;and itdid not rain on the land for three years and six months.” James 5:17. When the New Testament church was in danger of being affected by unsanctified members, two such members, Ananias and Sapphira, were struck down by the Lord, which caused “greatfear… [to come] upon all the church and upon all who heard these things…[so that] none of the rest dared join them.”  “The judgments of Christ in the church were a terror to hypocrites and evildoers. They could not long remain in connection with those who were, in habit and disposition, constant representatives of Christ.” GC, p.44. This signal manifestation of the Lord kept the unconverted from joining the apostles, but it did not hinder their soul winning, for immediately afterward, “Believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudesofboth men and women.” Acts 5:11-14. In our own denominational history, when the church was sliding into apostasy, God sent judgments of fire upon the denominational headquarters at Battle Creek. “In the visions of the night, I saw a sword of fire hung out over Battle Creek. Brethren, God is in earnest with us. I want to tell you that if after the warnings given in these burnings, the leaders of our people go right on, just as they have done in the past, exalting themselves, God will take the bodies next. Just as surely as He lives, He will speak to them in a language that they cannot fail to understand.” PM, p. 171

4) And, finally, God has chosen to purify the church through the preaching of the straight testimony. “The searching testimony of the Spirit of God ‘will separate those from Israel who have ever been at war with the means the God has ordained to keep the corruptions out of the church. Wrongs must be called wrongs. Grievous sins must be called by their right name. All of God’s people should come nearer to Him… Then will they see sin in the true light and will realize how offensive it is in the sight of God.’ ‘The plain, straight testimony must live in the church, or the curse of God will rest upon His people as surely as it did upon ancient Israel because of their sins.’” 5T,  p. 676.

These are God’s true methods for maintaining the purity of the church. But, there is another, counterfeit method for purifying the church that actually produces the opposite result.  Down through the ages this has been the most popular method for church preservation, yet it has always led to apostasy, and that is church legislation and persecution.

Whenever the church has sought to maintain church order by giving power to its hierarchy to control its members, it has always, without exception, led to apostasy and persecution. Thus it was in the days of Jesus. The leaders of the Jewish church had assumed great authority over its members, so much so that they could disfellowship someone for believing in Jesus. Yet, that control by the leadership did not purify the church, but effected just the opposite result. The hierarchical control did not protect the church from abuse of sin, but it did protect the church from receiving the straight testimony which God sent through John the Baptist, His Son, and the apostles in order to purify the church. It was, in fact, the hierarchy that prevented people from accepting Jesus.

So strong a hold did the hierarchy have on the people that the only way they could receive the straight testimony was first for the power of the hierarchy over their lives to be broken. “Through their reverence for tradition and their blind faith in a corrupt priesthood, the people were enslaved. These changes, Christ must break. The character of the priests rulers, and Pharisees must be more fully exposed.” “For a time, it had seemed that the people of Galilee would receive Jesus as the Messiah and that the power of the hierarchy in that region would be broken.” DA, p. 611, 395.

This same experience was realized during the Dark Ages. Never has the church assumed more control, which resulted in greater persecution, than it did during the Middle Ages. Yet, the more control the church exercised through its leadership, the deeper it sank into apostasy. When the Protestant Reformation began, it sought to break the power of the hierarchy over the people in the same way that Jesus did in His ministry. Those who blindly held unto their reverence of the church leadership, like a child, holding unto his security blanket, rejected the Protestant Reformation.

“Wycliffe… fearlessly arraigned the hierarchy before the national council and demanded a reform of the enormous abuses sanctioned by the church.” “The fears of the hierarchy were roused, and persecution was opened against the disciples of thegospel.” GC, p. 89, 97.  After the reformation of Germany, the church sought to intimidate with threats and cajole with promises the Protestant leaders to once again accept the hierarchy, but they realized that “…the re-establishment of the Romish hierarchy…would infallibly bring back the ancient abuses.” GC, p. 199. “When the leading churches of the United States…have formed an image of the Roman hierarchy…the infliction of civil penalties upondissenters willinevitably result.” GC, p. 445.One of the chief differences between the Protestants and the Romanists was their church structure, but, today, “…there is an increasing indifference concerning the doctrines that separate the reformed churches from the papal hierarchy… The time was when Protestants placed a high value upon liberty of conscience which hasbeen so dearlypurchased.” 4SP, p. 380. Hierarchicalism always curtails religious liberty and inevitably leads to persecution.

Hierarchicalism denies the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Though God ordained that there should be a judicious administration and shepherd-like leadership within the church for the furtherance of the gospel, never did God turn all lines of control over to human authority. “He [Jesus] is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He might have the preeminence.” Colossians 1:18.Whenever mankind assumes undue authority in the church that belongs only to Christ, they bring the church into apostasy. This is the sin of the Beast power, “Who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped, so that he sits as God inthe temple ofGod.” 2 Thessalonians 2:3.Is this not the danger of our own church? Should we not learn the lessons of history?

The Lord foresaw this danger developing within our own church and sent faithful warnings against its development. In 1895 the servant of the Lord wrote: "The spirit of dominationis extending to the presidents of our conferences… They are following in the tracks of Romanism." TM, p. 362. Her counsel for this situation was that: "If a man… seeks toexercise dominion over his brethren, feeling that he is invested with authority to make his will the ruling power, the best and only safe course is to remove him, lest great harm be done and he lose his own soul, and imperil the souls of others." Ibid

In the New Testament, there was an efficient organization, but it was a simple organization that was not hierarchical in nature. There was cooperation, but not control. Paul sought to cooperate with the brethren, but he did not ask permission from Jerusalem to raise up churches in Corinth or Philippi or the other towns he visited, nor did he ask for permission to speak. In fact, one of Paul's greatest concerns and sternest warnings was concerning the possibility of undue control being exerted upon the local members of the church by some outside force, such as from the leadership in Jerusalem.

On his last trip to Jerusalem, he called for the local elders of Ephesus to meet with him as he was traveling through Miletus. Acts 20:17. It should be noted that it was not the "elder," but the "elders" from Ephesus that he called together. These elders were not some professionals that were appointed from headquarters in Jerusalem to preach to the people and to dominate their boards and committees and to control the church as though the church and the pulpit were their own, no! These were the local elders chosen from the local congregation. Acts 14:23.So, Paul met with the local elders and gave them the following counsel: "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirithas made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also, from among yourselves, men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore, watch, and remember that for three years, I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears." Acts 20:28-31.

Paul's concern, which he unceasingly preached about with great emotional appeal for three years, was that there would arise leaders within the church who would seek to draw attention to themselves and to become a controlling power. He told the local elders that they (they, plural, as local elders; not he, singular, as an appointed elder from some outside controlling committee acting alone) were to be the shepherds to the flock. They were not to be set above the flock, but were to be servant shepherds, realizing that they were "all brethren" Matthew 23:8. 

The question is, what wolves were these local elders, who met the criterion of an elder as found in Titus 1, to guard the flock against? They were to guard the church from all wolves that should come in sheep’s clothing -- both from the wolves within the local congregation and those who should visit from the conference or some other church. This was demonstrated in the situation at Galatia, which formed the purpose for the epistle to the Galatians.

The church or churches in Galatia had been established by Paul, and he had set up elders in the local churches there. These churches were not independent of the body, but, like all the churches that Paul started, were highly self-directed, self-sustained, and locally organized under the direction of the Holy Spirit; with proper respect for the council, help, and Biblical direction that might come to them from the headquarters' church in Jerusalem, or from any other source that the Lord might choose. There came a situation in Galatia however, when leading brethren came from the very headquarters of the Christian movement -- namely Peter and the brethren from James, the two most principle leaders at headquarters -- to minister to these churches of Galatia.

With what respect the brethren in Galatia must have had for these representatives from Jerusalem, and rightfully so as long as that respect did not lead to blind obedience. These Galatians had been steeped in Pagan idolatry before their conversion, but Peter had been taught the scriptures from a child, and had been one of the three closest disciples of Jesus. James was the brother of Jesus and had grown up with him. And so, these two leaders had a tremendous influence over the Galatian brethren. And when Peter, because of the influence of those who came from James, withdrew from the uncircumcised, it affected the whole congregation.

Paul was unsparing in his denunciation of the Galatian brethren for allowing these leaders from Jerusalem to bring apostasy in the church. He said: "Oh foolish Galatians! Who hasbewitched you that you should not obey the truth…?” Galatians 3:1.Notice that he does not say "what"has bewitched you, but "who"has bewitched you. The real situation was not simply "what" they did. Paul should clear up this one situation of apostasy. What would prevent some other equally bad apostasy from being introduced into the church by other leaders somewhere down the road? So Paul's major concern was not just what they did, but "who" caused them to do it, and why they were so weak as to be influenced by these outside forces! Why were they so easily influenced by mere human teachers from Jerusalem? Would Paul not wonder the same about our churches today? Would he not say to our churches: "Oh foolish churches! Who has influenced you to yield the high-standard of truth and practice that was once manifested in your movement?"

Paul told the Galatians to "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with the yoke of bondage." Galatians 5:1. That yoke of bondage was not just circumcision and the law, but, according to his question in Galatians 3:1, it was also the yoke of bondage to the leadership that caused them to waver on this point of doctrine. He goes on to say that "This persuasion does not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump…but he who troubles you shall bearhis judgment…for you, brethren, have been called to liberty." Galatians 5:8-13.Notice that throughout his letter of rebuke to the Galatians, he is talking about the influence that caused them to apostatize.

Paul was very fearful of hierarchical forms of government that would inevitably cause the members to look to church councils and leaders for direction, rather than to the Holy Spirit. His churches were formed with simple organization, as a part of the world-wide body of believers, and with due respect for truly representative conferences (as in Acts 15) and for sanctified leadership, mindless branches and obedient servants of a parent organization. The parent stalk that the churches were to be grafted into was Christ, not the conference. This is the kind of organizational purity that must come back into the church in order for the pentecostal blessings of God to return to the organization. Organizational purity and doctrinal purity always go hand in hand -- they cannot be separated one from the other.

"Simple organization and church order are set forth in the New Testament scriptures, and the Lord has ordained these for the unity and perfection of the church. The man who holds in the church should stand as a leader, as an adviser, counselor, and helper in carrying the burdens of the work. He should be a leader in offering thanksgiving to God. But, he is no appointed to order and command the Lord's laborers. The Lord is over His heritage. He will lead His people if they will be led of the Lord in the place of assuming a power God has not given them. Let us study the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of 1 Corinthians and the fifteenth chapter of Acts." Loma Linda Messages, p. 464.

"A great many of the difficulties that have come into our work in California and elsewhere have come in through a misunderstanding on the part of men in official positions concerning their individual responsibility in the matter of controlling and ruling their fellow laborers…For several years there have been leading men in the…conference who exercised an authority which they supposed was theirs by virtue of their office, to control the work according to their own disposition and judgment." Ibid. 

Repeatedly, especially as the church began to grow bigger and to become more highly organized, Ellen White warned against the "kingly power" that was coming into our midst. She said: "The high-handed power that has been developed, as though position has made men gods, makes me afraid and ought to cause fear. It is a curse wherever and by whomsoever it is exercised." TM, p. 361.

Many of the leaders that Ellen White wrote to and warned the church about were basically wonderful men, who began very humbly and with a sincere desire to serve the Lord. But, as time went on, they began to assume more and more authority and control, supposing that the prosperity of the work depended upon their wisdom. But, however sincere they might have been, this wrong course, as with those who sincerely smoke cigarettes still worked its baleful woe. Ellen White feared for the souls of these men and for the prosperity of the work. "Rule, rule,"she said, "has been their course of action. Satan has had an opportunity of representing himself." TM, p. 363. "Let me entreat our state conferences and our churches to cease putting their dependence upon men and making flesh their arm…Our churches are weak because the members are educated to look and depend upon human resources." TM, p. 380

One of the inevitable results of hierarchical control, besides general apostasy, is persecution against those who do not yield to the control of the hierarchy, and especially against those who give the straight testimony. This is what led to the burning of the martyrs during the Dark Ages, and to the imprisonment and death of countless prophets and messengers throughout the history of the Bible, including that of Jesus upon the cross. It will also lead to persecution within our own church. The Scribes and Pharisees never dreamed that they would kill or imprison a man simply because they "had to" nail Jesus to the cross in order to preserve the integrity of the church. And even then, it was the state authorities that did the actual execution. But it was also the church that turned to the state to enforce its decision. When, after trying everything else to limit Jesus' influence, they turned to the cross as a last resort, "They regarded themselves as patriots who were seeking the nations salvation." DA, p. 541.

Today we have received the legacy of religious liberty from the apostles and the Protestant reformers. "This principle we our day are firmly to maintain. The banner of truth and religious liberty held aloft by the founders of the gospel church and by God's witnesses during the centuries that have passed since then, has, in this last conflict, been committed to our hands. The responsibility for this great gift rests with those whom God has blessed with a knowledge of His word. We are to receive this word as supreme authority. We are to recognize human government as an ordinance of divine appointment, and teach obedience to it as a sacred duty, within it's legitimate sphere. But when its claims conflict with the claims of God, we must obey God rather than men. God's word must be recognized as above all human legislation. A 'Thus saith the Lord' is not to be set aside for a 'Thus saith the church or a 'Thus saith the state.' The crown of Christ is to be lifted above the diadems of earthly potentates." AA, p. 68, 69. 

As the standard bearers of religious liberty, none of us would ever imagine that we could ever come to the place that we, ourselves would become the persecutors of those who offend church policy, or that we would cooperate with the state, as the Jewish leaders did in the days of Jesus and the Catholic hierarchy did during the Dark Ages, in order to fine or imprison someone on religious grounds simply because they did not come under our control. But we have already done it.

In one situation recently, a disfellowshipped preacher was first fined, and then actually thrown in prison because he and his followers continued to call themselves, according to their convictions Seventh-Day Adventists. This was not done in some far off land by some apostate administrators who were running afoul of the General Conference, but rather it was a prolonged court case here in the United States, perpetrated by the General Conference itself, in union with the state, and admittedly financed by the tithe money of the members of the church. Whether the individual was theologically right or wrong is not the point of concern, but the very fact that the church has appealed to the strong arm of the state in order to enforce its decrees is the point of principle. It is "when the authority of the state willalso be employed by the church to accomplish her own ends"that the church makes an image to the Beast power that united church and state during the Dark Ages. GC, p. 443.

Other people around the world, and especially in communist countries, have found themselves first disfellowshipped and then persecuted by the state, apparently through the instigation of the church, for giving straight testimony against the apostasy within the church. I personally, have traveled to Hungary on several occasions and met with hundreds of disfellowshipped and persecuted brethren of that country. These dear brothers and sisters are true and faithful Seventh-Day Adventists, but simply gave the straight testimony against the involvement of the church in state politics and interdenominational ecumenicalism. Their message was given directly to the church leaders by ordained pastors and committed laymen, and the response was they were all disfellowshipped without a trial. Although the Review acknowledged that the whole process was illegal, nevertheless by the total silence of our leaders to even reprimand the offenders of this case, and by our continued barring of all the disfellowshipped members from all official church functions or activities and by our admitting of the perpetrators of this persecution into the official activities of the General Conference, we have fully condoned their actions as a corporate entity.

Hungary is mentioned merely as an example, and to point out the fact that we are beginning to travel down the same road as was traveled by the church in the time of Christ and again during the Dark Ages? Disfellowshipping within the United States, and the firing of pastors from coast to coast, could be mentioned. There are even areas where faithful, life-long Seventh-Day Adventists who have moved into a new area are barred from transferring their membership into local churches, simply because of their association with an independent ministry that is not under conference control. Is history repeating itself again? It was this road to hierarchicalism, which leads to persecution, that caused Ellen White to tremble. 

"My heart trembles in me when I think of what a foe we have to meet, and how poorly we are prepared to meet him. The trials of the children of Israel and their attitude just before the first coming of Christ, have been presented before me again and again to illustrate the position of the people of God in their experience before the Second Coming of Christ." "At the time of the first advent of Christ to our world, the men who composed the Sanhedrin exercised their authority in controlling men according to their will. Thus the souls whom Christ had given His life to free from the bondage of Satan, were brought under bondage to him in another form." 1SM, p. 406, TM, p .361.

For many years, Ellen and James White fought in order to establish organization. "It wasevident, that without some form of organization there would be great confusion, and the work would not be carried forward successfully." TM p.24Heaven is a place of order, and God will not bless disorganization. But organization was never intended to become controlling in nature. It was never intended to hinder the preaching of the straight testimony or to persecute those who gave it or to dictate how God should direct His servants. It was always intended to be a simple organization, relying upon God more than upon human power and wisdom. Organization was never intended for the purpose of wresting the local churches out of the hands of the local members, so that they became mere pawns in the hands of the leadership and the ministry. Rather, leadership was intended to lead by example, prayer, and faith. The leaders were to be one with the members, as brethren. Organization was to coordinate and promote the preaching of the gospel and the straight testimony, not to restrict and control it.

The devil worked hard to keep this church from being organized, but, as soon as he was defeated in that point, he concentrated his efforts on another -- to get us to become over-organized. Already, by 1867, just four years after the General Conference was organized, Ellen White saw the church had changed from a lack of organization to the misuse of organization. Listen to this vision, as recorded in a general testimony for the church of that year: "I dreamed I was in Battle Creek looking out from the side glass at the door and saw a company marching up to the house, two and two. They looked stern and determined. I knew them well and turned to open the parlor door to receive them, but thought I would look again. The scene was changed. The company now presented the appearance of a Catholic procession. One had in his hand a cross (ceremonialism), another a reed (the scepter of a king). And as they approached, the one carrying a reed made a circle around the house, saying three times: 'This house is proscribed. The goods must be confiscated. They have spoken against our holy order." 1T p. 578

What was the holy order that the Spirit of Prophecy had spoken against? It was  the order of the church organization that had become controlling and persecuting in nature. Ellen White was constantly fought by church officials. As with all prophets who were persecuted, now that she is dead she is revered. But the persecution continues against those who repeat her concerns.

In 1888, Ellen White's main concern was not the doctrine, but the organization. She was shown that "Neither [Dr. Waggoner or Elder Butler] have all the light upon the law; neither position is perfect." 1888 p.93. Again she said: "The question at issue [concerning the law in Galatians] is not a vital question and should not be treated assuch." Ibid p.220. So, what was the issue of concern with Ellen White? It was the issue of organization and control by the leadership. God had given Waggoner and Jones a message, but the brethren thought that these gentleman should go through the "official" channels for approval or disapproval before sharing their message.

The issue of 1888 was "Christ our Righteousness." But listen to Ellen White's definition of "Christ our Righteousness." "God designs that men shall use their minds and consciences for themselves. He never designed that one man should become the shadow of another and utter only another's sentiments. But this error has been coming in among us, that a very few are to be mind, conscience and judgment for all God's workers. The foundation of Christianity is 'Christ our Righteousness.' Men are individually responsible to God and must act as God acts upon their mind; for if this method of indirect influence is kept up, souls cannot be impressed and directed by the great I AM. They will, on the other hand, have their experience blended with another, and will be kept under a moral restraint, which allows no freedom of action or of choice." 1888 p.112.

"The Lord will never sanction the exercise of arbitrary authority…Yet these things have been manifest in the management of affairs in connection with the work in Battle Creek. Words cannot express too strongly the offensive character of the disposition to rule or ruin which has for years been revealed, and which has beenstrengthening by exercise…Plans areset on foot for restricting the liberty of workers. Through these oppressive plans,men whoshould stand free in God, are trammeled by restrictions from those who are only their fellow-laborers…Our people, who talk of religious liberty, have lessons to learn as to what liberty in Christ really is. The Lord has marked the oppression that has been practiced." 1888 p.1357, 1358

"There are many classes of religious teachers who seem to be determined to close every avenue whereby fresh rays of light from Heaven may come to the people. They would bind the members of their churches by certain rules and regulations that forbid them to go to other places of worship or listen to messengers outside of a certain class of teachers. In this way, men and women are led to give up the liberty that God has ordained for them, and they fail to improve the mind and gather up thedivine rays of light which emanate from sources outside their own church." Signs of the Times, August 27, 1884

The thing that made this country strong and prosperous was its principle of religious liberty under God. "The Christian exiles who first fled to America, sought an asylum from royal oppression and priestly intolerance, and they determined to establish a government upon the broad foundation of civil and religious liberty. These principlesare the secret of ourpower and prosperity as a nation." 4SP p.277It is also one of the secrets for prosperity and peace within the church. Here is where religious liberty needs to start. That liberty is not a license to bring in false doctrine into the pulpit, nor to bring in disorderly elements within the congregation, but it does give freedom of speech, freedom to dissent and freedom of the press without recourse to the law or the defamation of character. When there are doctrinal differences, they need to be openly and fairly met and discussed, and error needs to be called by its right name. But today, it seems to some that any kind of error can be taught in our colleges or our churches as long as it comes through the proper channels, whereas any kind of truth, however important it may be, is condemned unless it goes through the official channels. Thus it was in the days of Jesus, but God chose a different channel through which to give the gospel. 

As when Jesus was here, so in the last great movements, God is going to work apart from those who have sought to control God's work and to persecute those whom they could not control. "The Lord will work in this last work in a manner very much out of the common order of things and in a way that will be contrary to any human planning. There will be those among us who will always want to control the work of God, to dictate even what movements shall be made when the work goes forward under the direction of the angel who joins the third angel in the message to be given to the world. God will use ways and means by which it will be seen that He is taking the reins in His own hands. The workers will be surprised by the simple means that he will use to bring about and perfect His work of righteousness." TM p.300

The church will once again be perfected, but it will be accomplished through God's methods, and not through the control of ecclesiastical power and the curtailing of religious freedom.

1.      Texts from the New King James Version

2.      Most emphasis are supplied

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