All of the post in recent weeks and months about Women’s Ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church lead me to reflect upon other times of theological turmoil in Adventist history. Perhaps one of the more tumultuous episodes occurred at the 1919 Bible Conference. It was intended to be the meeting that would unite Adventist Bible teachers, theologians and administrators into a cohesive whole and “finish the work” so that Christ will come. Such lofty goals were quickly not realized. Issues over minute details of prophetic interpretation led to theological polarization. As far as I can tell it is the first time in Adventist history where the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are bantered about. At one point the issues were so divisive that General Conference president A. G. Daniells forbade discussion unless he was present in the room to chair the proceedings, and even commented that he wished he could just take all these topics they were fighting, place them in a balloon, and let them float away.
The part that is perhaps the most memorable is the fact that as they tried to resolve theological conflict they eventually turned to the authority of Ellen G. White’s writings. Thus the conference is perhaps best known today for the candid discussions about the nature and authority of Ellen G. White’s writings at the very end during a post-session with a small group of teachers. As it turned out, it was the first major discussion about such matters after the death of Ellen G. White four years earlier. Despite the fact that those present at that time acutely sensed their need to educate the church about such topics, the conference was afterward soon forgotten. Buried in piles of papers in the basement of the General Conference until after the General Conference Archives was begun to bring order to such chaos.
George R. Knight was fond of saying in class (when I was a graduate student at Andrews University) that there should be an eleventh commandment: thou shalt not do theology against thy neighbor. The reason is simple: when a person defends their position, they actually tend to create theological polarization. Almost unconsciously the person retreats into a defensive posture as others around do the same. Although he or she may share quite a lot in common (as did the conferees in 1919), they can thus create discord and polarization. As a pastor I saw this on a regular basis among church members, especially during Sabbath School class. It is so easy to cling to one’s own opinions. Thus what we really need is a healthy dose of humility, the need to listen and understand where others are coming from, and to take a posture that assumes the best, even with those with whom we disagree.
Recently, as I read through two books by Andrew F. Walls, I was impressed by his presentation of the “Ephesian principle” across church history. Perhaps God has given us such diversity of opinions within the Christian Church because we need one another in order to more fully comprehend God’s truth that may yet still beyond us. Truly God is not limited to our own understanding.