“Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58:1).
Many conscientious church members are deeply troubled by the problems in the church today. They honestly do not know what to do. They may feel like the deep-sea diver who was busily at work on the ocean floor when suddenly from the tender 200 feet above, the captain’s voice crackles in his ears: “Hurry! Get ready to come up on deck!” “Why, what’s the matter?” the diver asks. “The ship is sinking!” the captain shouts back.
It is one thing to live and work in the dangerous environment of this world; it is devastating to be told that the one place above all that we have counted upon as our haven of refuge is sinking into apostasy.
The church has always had problems. Much of the Bible is taken up with a recounting of those problems, and many of the prophets were virtually full-time protesters. The church was so backslidden in Ezekiel’s time that he referred to it as “the sister of Sodom” (Eze. 16:49). Isaiah described the church in his time as “a people laden with iniquity” (Isa. 1:4). Jesus referred to the church leaders of His day as hypocrites and “a brood of vipers” (Matt. 23:29, 33). Paul was appalled at the gross sins committed in the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 5). Ellen White was forced to address virtually every sin known to man in the church of her day (and ours).
Plenty of publications, websites, and audio and video materials tell us about the church’s problems today—pastors who have rejected the Spirit of Prophecy, rock-and-roll worship services, members who are attending sports events on the Sabbath, college Bible teachers who are promoting some unorthodox theology, etc. Our church members usually respond to the perceived wrongs in the church in one of four ways:
Vent their anger and disappointment on anyone who will listen. Following Matthew 18 is not a requirement they take seriously. Criticizing and complaining is their way of sighing and crying.
Try to ignore the problems. They may be troubled, but they decide to “go with the flow.” They pretend not to see. They conclude that it is not their responsibility to confront the wayward ones. They decide the issue is not worth causing hard feelings and dividing the church. It may sound harsh, but Isaiah called such people “dumb dogs that cannot bark” (Isa. 56:10). They are guilty of the sin of silence.
Disconnect. While some may pull away with a self-righteous desire to avoid contamination, this group may include many whose hearts are breaking. They may actually feel that to stay involved in the church puts their family’s spiritual experience at risk. They may seek for fellowship in another church or a home church, often only to have their disappointment and disillusionment repeated.
Offer a proper protest. I believe that is God’s plan for all who are genuinely concerned about the spirituality of the church. We protest because we want the church to be the best possible witness to the truths we are taking to the world. We protest because we love the souls of our fellow church members, and we want them to be corrected and saved at last. We protest because “Indifference or neutrality in a religious crisis is regarded of God as a grievous crime; and equal to the very worst type of hostility against God” (Review and Herald, Sept. 30, 1873). We protest because if obvious wrongs are ignored, “the blessing of the Lord is withheld from His people, and the innocent suffer with the guilty” (Signs of the Times, Jan. 20, 1881).
Here are some suggestions on to how to do that.
1. Try to be realistic in your expectations of your fellow church members.
It is only natural that people joining the Seventh-day Adventist church would expect such a perfect message to produce perfect people. And when they find it otherwise, they become disheartened, complaining that the evils they had hoped to escape from in the world are in the church as well. “But we need not be thus disappointed,” Ellen White writes, “for the Lord has not warranted us in coming to the conclusion that the church is perfect, and all our zeal will not be successful in making the church militant as pure as the church triumphant” (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 47).
2. If you decide to address wrongs in the church, make sure you hold the right people accountable.
“Make your complaint, plainly and openly, in the right spirit, to the proper ones” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 249). We must keep the lines of accountability clear if we are to make an intelligent protest. Individual members, local churches, conferences, and the General Conference all have different jurisdictions and different levels of accountability.
3. Focus primarily on the spiritual health of the local church where you have membership.
What good does it do to spend your life’s energies trying to correct perceived problems in the local conference office, an Adventist school, or some medical center, when your own church is floundering spiritually? You may have met people, as I have, who fret because they think the General Conference is getting too cozy with the World Council of Churches, but whose own church is failing to deal with a member’s coziness with someone else’s spouse. We need to address both.
We can, and we should, write letters and make telephone calls to church leaders at every level, but our influence outside our own congregation is pretty limited. “If matters need adjusting at the head of the work, God will attend to that, and work to right every wrong” (Selected Messages, bk.2, p. 390). If things need to be put right in our own local congregation, let’s go to work correcting those. The very best protest many of us can make is to support church discipline in our own church.
Lee Roy Holmes, retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor, College Place, WA.