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Eugene W. Prewitt

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Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty and Church Order

Affirming both through a Biblical Balance


“Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” Amos 3:3.

Religious Liberty, that noble principle that animated the framers of the American Constitution, assures men in disagreement that though they may not be able to walk together, at least they are both welcome to walk as they see fit. It is the right to be Baptist, Quaker, Adventist, Muslim, Atheist, Hedonist, or to be ambivalent.

Within an organized body of believers, religious liberty takes on a different hue. It does not authorize the Baptist minister to practice mass, or the Muslim imam to espouse the Trinity. It does not grant an Adventist minister the liberty to practice monogamous homosexuality.

It does, however, grant these three men an important liberty. The Baptist is at liberty to become Catholic. The Muslim is at liberty to become Baptist. And the Adventist is at liberty to espouse hedonism. Liberty grants these men the right to believe as they choose and to live according to their conscience.

Liberty is justly limited by relationships. I have a right, for example, to believe that God has given me your car. But you also have a right to believe that God has not given me your car. Our mutual right to believe, an aspect of Liberty, collides if I feel at liberty to act out my understanding.

When liberties collide in more difficult situations, which ought to prevail? My liberty to oppose the heretical teaching of the Sabbath-school teacher may oppose his liberty to bring his class to order. If he asks me to leave the class or to be orderly, do I have liberty to expose his errors out of turn?

In corporate situations such as schools, churches, nations, or families, individual liberties may also collide with the liberties of corporate bodies. What right does a school have to impose rules upon its students? Do churches have the right to say who will and will not be permitted to preach before the congregation?

The affirmative answer to this question illustrates a principle that individuals must surrender a portion of their individual rights to each other for the greater good if they are to work together. Further, an infant has no right to self-rule to be surrendered. Our rights to self-rule derive from our responsibilities to God. While parents are responsible, they are authorized to rule. If they rule well, they shed layers of authority as they skillfully teach their growing children to bear personal responsibility.[1] Teachers derive their authority from the parents that delegate it to them.

In this essay we want to examine the principles of religious liberty so as to be able to answer the question, what authority legitimately belongs to the church body and what rights regarding faith and practice are rightly left to the individual.

Religious Liberty

Jesus preached as an unauthorized person in Palestine. What got under the skin of some persons is that He sometimes did it in the temple.

Matthew 21:23  And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?

Luther preached as an unauthorized person. He even wrote books when banned by the empire of Charles V. And Luther absolutely refused to submit his faith to the authority of any man or to any set of men. The German princes defended his views regarding freedom. And Adventists today lobby for those views worldwide.

But when we Adventists began to organize in the 1860’s, we had to give the issue of liberty more scrutiny. Is the right to speak up in protest of the Little Horn proof of a universal right to speak up against the elders in your own congregation? In short, can order be maintained and church authority be exercised properly without violating the religious liberty of members? Our pioneers said “yes, it can.”

The Basis of Authority

God hasn’t authorized men to think for their fellow men. We are authorized to counsel and to suggest plans, but that is all.

It is not the work of any man to prescribe the work of any other man contrary to his own convictions of duty. It is right to give counsel and suggest plans; but every man should be left free to seek direction from God, whose he is and whom he serves.   {6T 334.1}

The principle in this statement could be worded this way: Since I am responsible for my actions in the judgment, I have authority to choose my actions. Since no one can answer for me in the judgment, no one has authority to tell me what I should do with my life.

To say this more generically, authority and responsibility are directly related to each other. God gives the church authority for this reason: He gave the church responsibilities. The church has just the authority it needs to carry out its mission responsibilities.

Intrinsic to this authority is the responsibility to regulate doctrinal integrity. The Adventist Church has authority to make sure that its workers are faithfully promoting the present truth, the Three Angel’s Messages.

Church Order and Doctrinal Regulation

Paul and Timothy charged men not to teach certain errors that countered the decision of the Acts 15 council. These errors included the idea that persons must be circumcised to be saved. (See Acts 15:1-2; Titus 1:10). Paul wished that men harming churches and opposing the true gospel by these errors, years after the council, would be “cut off.” Galatians 5:12

 1 Timothy 1:3  As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, . . . that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine,

The work of maintaining doctrinal integrity, in other words, was a warfare that included, in certain situations, the disfellowshipping of false teachers.

1 Timothy 1:19  . . . some . . . concerning faith have made shipwreck: 20  Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.

Not all errors, however, were so grave as to require church discipline. There were false ideas of a more benign nature. And some of these were also related to the council in Acts 15. Some wrongly believed  that Christians should keep Passover. And some believed that food offered to idols was thereby cursed.

These errors relate to liberty because they were doubtful conclusions. Earnest faithful Bible students came to opposite conclusions regarding these points. Liberty, then, demands that we settle the question of responsibility.

Individuals stand before the judgement seat of Christ and answer directly to Him as individuals. They should, therefore, have liberty regarding their convictions on doubtful points.

Romans 14:4  Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. . . . 10  But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.

I Must Never Violate my Conscience

If I answer directly to Jesus in the Judgment, then no man and no set of men has authority to tell me to violate my conscience. To violate my conscience is sin, even if my conscience is mistaken. In other words, if I believe it is wrong to wear shoes, it is a sin for me to wear shoes even though I am greatly mistaken in my opinion.

 Romans 14:23  But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.

I should assume that though differing from me in your views that you are sincere in your stated convictions and that you are faithfully serving the Lord by practicing your convictions.

 Romans 14:3  Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. . . . 6  He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. . . .

I should, in fact, respect your convictions so highly that I modify my own behavior so that I don’t influence you to violate your conscience. Paul explained it this way: Even if I know that food offered to idols is just food, I should be careful around other believers. If they see me eating it, they might surrender to their temptations to give up the faith. So, for their sake, I should curtail my liberty and live kindly.

 1 Corinthians 10:28  But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: . . . 29  Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience? . . . . 31  Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.

Not only may individuals stumble through my unkind liberty, the church is also to be guarded as if it were a weak brother.

 1 Corinthians 10: 32  Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God.

The issue in 1 Corinthians 10, food offered to idols, was an issue of gigantic proportions. It was part of that argument that was threatening to split the early church. It was part of that issue that consumes the books of Galatians, Ephesians, and Titus. It is alluded to by other books. It was part of the controversial decision made by the highest authority on earth – the representative body of the church session in Acts 15.

 Should I Submit my Reason and Judgment to the Church?

The answer is “no, that is hypocrisy.” But a more precise answer is, “No, but you may humbly admit that you are weak and could be mistaken. You may offer to change your opinion if constrained to do so by clear reasoning from God’s Word. You may reasonably agree that since your beloved brethren see differently, that you will not make an issue of your doubtful opinion.”

But in certain cases the answer is “yes, you may submit to the church’s judgment.” And that will require a little explaining later.

The answer is “no” when it is a local church, or a conference, or a division, or a non-universal representative body of the General Conference. As a weak person, the church should receive me with my doubtful opinions, but not to the extent of letting me be argumentative.

 Romans 14:1 Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things.

The “no” in the paragraph above parallels thoughts by Luther at the point of his greatest trial.

I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by the clearest reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me. Amen.” –Ibid., b. 7, ch. 8.  {GC 160.2}

Luther was initially a member of the Little Horn power. It is no wonder he differed with its pronouncements. But even if you find yourself part of the church that is taking the everlasting gospel to the whole planet, you may at times differ with its official pronouncements. To what extent are you at liberty to oppose its actions and statements? And to what extent may it suppress your potentially-heretical self without impinging on your liberty of conscience?

Romans 13 and Rebellion

Not all authority is created equal. Authority is tiered and obedience is well rendered only with rank in view. When authorities differ, we must obey the higher authority.

 Romans 13:1 Let every soul be subject to the governing [read “higher”] authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2  Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.

Lovers of liberty do not often quote these two verses. And neither are some men fond of their parallel thoughts in 1 Peter 2:13, “submit yourself to every ordinance of man.” And reader, how do you feel personally about 2 Peter 2:9? Peter rebukes those who “despise authority” and who “are not afraid to speak evil of dignitaries.” (Doesn’t it seem that very few today are afraid to speak evil of dignitaries?)

It was angels, of course, that pioneered being subversive (Jude 1:6) and that is why Samuel says rebellion is “as the sin of witchcraft.” 1 Samuel 15:23.

Two strong truths, now, seem to be on a collision course:

We must never submit our conscience to the mind of another.

We must submit to authority.

The Authority of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists

Can the General Conference make a mistake? Yes. The General Conference has, in fact, made at least two notable blunders in its voted policies.

In 1888 the brethren voted to require potential ministers to first be successful canvassers. This was a pragmatic decision based on the observation that successful canvassers make successful ministers. But pragmatic or not, it was not a good decision. God reserves the right to call men to ministry without channeling them through the canvassing work[2].

Ellen White’s protest (“the Lord did not [authorize] that resolution” PM 260) aided one worker who had been stymied by it. He never would have been hired without her intervention.

The second notable mistake happened on Friday, July 7, 2000. Its most objectionable feature was the way the decision was made. Instead of being voted by the entire body (through representatives), it was brought to the floor after most delegates had left.  That undermined the 1901 reorganization. Let me explain.

In 1901, a century earlier, the church was reorganized to give the highest authority in the church to a large committee of representative men from the whole world field. That is not how it had been organized at the time of 1888 (woe to the world.) But that 1901 reorganization is, thankfully, still the basis for how the church is organized today. And that is how it was organized in Acts 15 also.

These two decisions illustrate the idea that not all authority is equal. It isn’t the vote of the GC that carries weighty authority. It is the vote of the GC as a representative collection of the whole world field. When the vote is truly representative of the body, it has the authority of the body.

That is why the decision of Acts 15 was so authoritative.

The four servants of God were sent to Antioch with the epistle and message that was to put an end to all controversy; for it was the voice of the highest authority upon the earth.  {AA 195.3}

And that is why the GC in session should also be so authoritative. When deciding the duty of the church, or the duties of the workers, it is the highest human authority on earth. While it has no authority to command me to break the Ten Commandments, it does have authority to give me marching orders. It is truth that I have personal responsibility to decide my duty – no man can tell me my duty. But it is equally true that I am part of the church. And when the church decides its duty, it may tell me mine as a constituent part. What no man can tell me, the church can tell me. Taking my individual responsibility to an extreme makes me unruly.

      Brother A, your experience in reference to leadership two years ago was for your own benefit and was highly essential to you. You had very marked, decided views in regard to individual independence and right to private judgment. These views you carry to extremes. You reason that you must have light and evidence for yourself in reference to your duty.  {3T 492.1}

I have been shown that no man’s judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any one man. But when the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority that God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered. Your error was in persistently maintaining your private judgment of your duty against the voice of the highest authority the Lord has upon the earth. . . .You did not seem to have a true sense of the power that God has given to His church in the voice of the General Conference. . . . You accordingly manifested an independence, a set, willful spirit, which was all wrong.  {3T 492.2}

Making Sense of the Highest Earthly Authority

What is the right way to understand and apply these principles? Here are a few thoughts:

Choir members need a choir leader so they can work in concert. Angels and angle choirs need leaders for the same reason. And so does the church. To look beautiful, to honor God well, it needs to operate as a unit. Voices united well are more beautiful and more powerful than lonely voices. Reasoning done in concert by a world-wide representative body is more accurate and more powerful than lonely reason.

But lonely reason can’t admit such a thing without help from above. Pride denies its need of help thinking.

So when I find that the worldwide body of Adventists has judged that such and such is true regarding some controversy, I must put my own judgment above the combined judgment of the saints to oppose that conclusion. This is not to say that the body is infallible, only that it is less fallible than an proud individual. If I deny it, then that which God intended to “put an end to all the controversy” is neutered by my arrogance. That happened after Acts 15 also. Since the decision was made by representatives (rather than by a democratic vote of each member in the worldwide church), it was despised by some.

 Elders from Jerusalem, and deputies from Antioch, were present; and the most influential churches were represented. The council did not claim infallibility in their deliberations, but moved from the dictates of enlightened judgment, and with the dignity of a church established by the divine will. . . . The entire body of Christians were not called to vote upon the question. The apostles and elders–men of influence and judgment–framed and issued the decree, which was thereupon generally accepted by the Christian churches. All were not pleased, however, with this decision; there was a faction of false brethren who assumed to engage in a work on their own responsibility. They indulged in murmuring and fault-finding, proposing new plans, and seeking to pull down the work of the experienced men whom God had ordained to teach the doctrine of Christ. The church has had such obstacles to meet from the first, and will ever have them to the close of time.  {8Red 33.3}

Since God has given the church responsibility for guarding its internal doctrinal integrity, He has granted it authority to regulate the same. If you find the church, then, being opposed to the present truth for your time, your only consistent position would be to leave it. The faction took a different course and worked to undermine the wise course of the council.

Sometimes there is little authority in the decisions of a General Conference or Council. In 1901, before the reorganization, that authority we are attributing to the General Conference had been lost as a few men had hijacked the church’s highest committees.

      O, my very soul is drawn out in these things! Men who have not learned to submit themselves to the control and discipline of God, are not competent . . . . It is just as much an impossibility for them to do this work as it would be for them to make a world. That these men should stand in a sacred place, to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be,–that is past. What we want now is a reorganization. We want to begin at the foundation, and to build upon a different principle.  {GCB, April 3, 1901 par. 25}

It was the reorganization of 1901 that reconstituted the General Conference as a potentially representative body with authority. With what authority? With the authority of the very men who were represented by it. To borrow from a patriotic document, it is authority “by the people, for the people.”

The difference between 1900 and 1902 is not trivial. And it is relevant to us. It explains why the decisions of 1888 and of 2000 cannot be treated as ultimately authoritative over our judgments. And it explains why a decision in 2015 could, indeed, be either authoritative or non-authoritative depending on how it is made.

     I have often been instructed by the Lord that no man’s judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any other one man. Never should the mind of one man or the minds of a few men be regarded as sufficient in wisdom and power to control the work and to say what plans shall be followed. But when, in a General Conference, the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence, contrary to the decision of the general body.  {9T 260.1}

At times, when a small group of men entrusted with the general management of the work have, in the name of the General Conference, sought to carry out unwise plans and to restrict God’s work, I have said that I could no longer regard the voice of the General Conference, represented by these few men, as the voice of God. But this is not saying that the decisions of a General Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field should not be respected. God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority. The error that some are in danger of committing is in giving to the mind and judgment of one man, or of a small group of men, the full measure of authority and influence that God has vested in His church in the judgment and voice of the General Conference assembled to plan for the prosperity and advancement of His work.  {9T 260.2}   (Published in 1909.)

But What about Religious Liberty?

Today the church’s collective wisdom doesn’t designate every decision as a test question. You may be an Adventist and believe any number of things differently than do I. Rarely, and on only a few issues, is the world-wide church likely to use its incredible authority in doctrinal pronouncements.

The principles laid out in this paper counter the brainwashing techniques of men who feel competent to think for others. God has laid the great mass of issues requiring good judgment on the shoulders of individuals and local churches, rather than on the body. Acts 15 was a solution used only once, as far as we can tell, in the period of the early church. The authority of the body was reserved for an issue that seriously threatened the unity of the body.

It wasn’t the judgment of the brethren that each region of the church could decide for itself whether Gentiles should be circumcised. Teachers that differed with the decision were asked, not to stop thinking, but to cooperate by dropping the issue. This level of compliance, since it is in harmony with God’s will, must not be an impingement of religious liberty.

But for more on the limits of liberty and authority in more local situations, see the article “Forbid Them Not” published by Adventists Affirm. It is  available online in several places.

No authority, other than the highest authority, is authorized to establish tests of fellowship for the body. Not even careful Bible study warrants me the right to limit membership in our local church in ways unique to us. Even when the revered Stephen Haskell in the 1850’s made pork-eating a test question, he was rebuked for not waiting until the whole church would see it and make it an issue. Obviously, they did see it and did make an issue several years later. (See 1T 206 for fascinating details.)

Which Questions Should be Made Test Questions?

It is up to the world-wide church to establish its fellowship test questions. From Ellen White statements we can gather that any question used as a test should be one that is easily and simply defendable from Scripture. (This is why the Reform Movement has erred in making dress reform and vegetarianism into test questions.)

Confidence in the present truth should be a test issue. And why so? Because the church exists to promote the present truth (compare 1Timothy 3:15 to Matthew 28:18-20). But the present truth must be expressed in broad terms. To believe in the end-time manifestation of spiritual gifts is sufficient. That is what can be proved from Scripture. Though confidence in Ellen White is a critical issue in the end of time, it is not fit that it be a test. Persons should have plenty of time to conclude for themselves regarding this question.

In this regard, the issue of ordination certainly shouldn’t be a test question. No one should be refused baptism on the basis of their view of ordination. The question is not settled by a collection of plainly stated unambiguous commands.

It is sensible for the church to have a higher standard for responsible church offices than it has for entry-level at baptism. In this sense, qualifications for overseers in the church are parallel, but unequal,  to tests of fellowship. In another sense, the standards differ fundamentally. Tests required for baptism divide believers from unbelievers on the basis of their views of individual duty. Qualifications for overseers divide believers on the basis of their preparedness to execute the church’s duty.

Constitutions and bylaws determine how an organization functions. They should not be confused with the company goals, vision, or mission. Rather, they are the mechanics of how men work together to accomplish the goals and mission in view of the vision. Qualifications for the overseer position are like that. They are not the present truth for the world or church. But they are the mechanics of how the church functions together to accomplish its mission.

A man that is baptized in Mexico and ordained in Peru has no need to be rebaptized or reordained on account of his emigration to the United States. The tests related to ordination and baptism, then, are all issues of church order. Since membership and ordination introduce persons into special fellowship with the world church, it would be incongruous for various parts of the field to establish alternate or competing tests.

So though ordinations views should never be a test of fellowship, it is nonetheless sensible that the church adopts God’s counsels on the topic as an essential aspect of its unity so that the church may function Biblically.

Conscience in Acts 15-21

What is “conscience”?  It is more than a value judgment. When I think it is better to eat almonds than peanuts, that is a value judgment. (That is what I think.) But if you give me peanuts, I will eat them. That is another value judgment. Now if you give me a shot of whisky, I won’t accept it. I believe it is evil abuse of my mind to indulge in the use of whisky.

Conscience is your view of morality. When you violate it, you know that you have done something to displease God. And that is why a man should never violate his conscience. That would be breaking the first commandment.

Sometimes the word “conviction” is used quite differently than this. I may be convicted that I should work as a missionary in the United States. But that conviction is not, properly, conscience. More properly, it is a value judgment regarding my duty. That is the kind of conviction that may need to be sacrificed to the better judgment of the world church.

In the New Testament the question over the Law of Moses created a mass of conflicting consciences. All sides agreed that sin was breaking the law. The question was whether circumcision and other laws of Moses were still obligatory. This is where Pharisees show up again in Scripture. In Act’s succinct way:

Acts 15:5  But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.

With an equally strong conviction, Paul believed that it was morally wrong to require such a thing from believers. He went so far as to openly rebuke Peter for capitulating on this point. Galatians 2:11-14.

When I say that these things were convictions, I am not exaggerating. Both parties believed that the truth about salvation was at stake. They had a serious argument about it even in the sanctified halls of the Jerusalem Council, Acts 15:7.

How could men with such strong convictions surrender them to the decision of the council? Let’s get this straight – they couldn’t. Instead of surrendering their conclusions to the conclusions of the council, they were to surrender attention and pride to the council. They could even surrender their value judgments regarding what they should do about the truths they believed.

They could, in other words, sacrifice their convictions regarding personal duty, but not their consciences regarding what was true. That is why the council itself was obliged, not only to decide, but to persuade. That is how it could win consciences – a much safer than solution than merely winning submission.

The decision was made and the work of persuading the Pharisees began. But a group of Pharisees refused to submit. How do we know they didn’t submit? We know because the “prison epistles” of Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians continue to mention their influence. Years after the Jerusalem council, Paul warns against them, calling them the “mutilation party” (my phrase for what the KJV calls “the concision” Philippians 3:2.) They desired to be “teachers of the law” but were ignorant of the truth of the law.

Second Hand “Convictions”

What I am saying is that I can submit my value judgments to the spiritual authority of a general council of the church. I can submit my ideas regarding my individual duty (where I should go, when, and to do what). But I can’t surrender my conscience (to obey the Law). Most importantly, I can submit my pet ideas and conclusions regarding the church’s duty.

Did you follow that? I can’t have a “conviction” regarding what the church should be doing. Only the church can have a conviction regarding its duty. As no man is authorized to think for the church, no man can have a conviction for the church. And when the church makes a judgment about its own duty, no man can say that the church was violating his convictions.

But if the church makes a decision about my personal duty, that is different. I can submit plans and goals (and I should), but I must follow my conscience because I answer to God for how I obey His Law.

I’m going to say it again because I am worried you may misunderstand me. When the church in Acts 15 decided that new believers were not obliged to keep the ritual washings and circumcision laws, the Pharisees couldn’t have a conscientious conviction contrary to this point.

One of them could be convicted that he should be circumcised. And he could be convinced that everyone should be. But I can’t have a conviction for you. And I can’t have a conviction for the church.

And that is why I can submit my judgment to the decision of the church council. I am submitting my judgment about the church’s duty to the church itself which must answer to God for its faithfulness to duty.

When my views differ from those of men delegated to teach me, I am not obliged in any sense to submit to their views. I am obliged to prayerfully listen. Further, I am obliged to exert my local influence in favor of the truth even while I am obliged to be a learner. (See 1888 532.4 for information on properly opposing error in Sabbath-school.)

Do you remember Paul’s counsel that we observed in 1 Corinthians 10:31-32? He said that we should guard the conscientious convictions of both Jews and Gentiles. But he added something more. We should be careful not to offend “the church.” He spoke of the church as a weak brother (to use his own phrase for less-enlightened persons).

That is key. The church may have convictions about its own duty (such as it convictions regarding unclean meats) that differ from your own. You are not to act or speak in a way that would encourage the church let go of its conscientiousness. It would be better for you as an individual to give up your liberty than to cause the church, or any weak brother within her communion, to stumble.

Regarding the doubtful question, let each be fully persuaded in his own mind. You may be persuaded. And so may the church. It has ultimate authority for its practices and answers to God accordingly. It is not to be despised for differing from you. Romans 14.


Authority and responsibility are the twin pillars that uphold order. The church has the highest responsibility of any entity on the planet. The individual has a life-and-death individual responsibility to God. Neither the individual nor the church can safely outsource their authority.

So when the church decides its own duty, if that decision is made properly by a representative authority, it is the duty of all members to recognize the church’s authority to decide its own duty. It is even the duty of members to respond to calls from the properly represented body to take up responsibilities.

And when a local church decides the duty of individual members, it has no authority at all except to preach the Bible truth. The individual is obliged to obey the Bible.

In Acts 15 the church decided its own duty and no teacher in the church had a right to teach otherwise in the church, though they had a right to think and even to separate from the church’s communion. To oppose the decision of the church on doctrinal grounds would be to place individual judgment above the judgment of the body and would be grounds for church discipline.

We have no liberty in the gospel to rebel against properly constituted church order. But we have broad liberty to think for ourselves and to use our judgment to know our own duty even if men in the highest rank of the church try to assume the authority that belongs solely to the properly constituted church order.

[1] When government leaders view their role as parental, rather than as civil servants, it leads to socialism and erelong to totalitarianism. Unlike parents, civil officials are dealing with adults. If they do not recognize the competency of adults to think for themselves, they will never give up their oppressive parental oversight.

[2] Similarly, many conferences today have voted not to hire ministers without bachelor degrees or graduate degrees. This pragmatic decision would be protested by Ellen White on the same grounds as the resolution of 1888.

(3) Comments

  1. Thanks for this clear and Scriptural exposition on the relations between religious liberty and church discipline/authority.
    It is definitely an area I need to study more and I have struggled with some confusing questions regarding this topic and its relation to the RC church and the Protestant Reformation.

    I am glad the Bible has answers. Hallelujah!

  2. Thanks for this article. I found it helpful in preparing to lead Sabbath school discussion today. (This week’s (Aug. 18-24, 2018) lesson study is on the Jerusalem council).

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