Preserving Relationships

By Stephen Terry


Commentary for the July 14, 2012 Sabbath School Lesson


“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” 1 Peter 3:15-16, NIV

Approximately two decades ago, billboards like the one in the picture began appearing along Interstate 5 in the state of Oregon. These were the result of anti-Catholicism fomented by disaffected, ultra-conservative Seventh-day Adventist church members who felt God was calling them to attack the Catholic Church on several fronts. One of the key representatives of this view point was and is, Les Balsiger, a former used car salesman and self-styled reformationist preacher. Through his “Printed Page Ministries,” which publishes a magazine, “The Protestant” as well as several other publications, he has continued to excoriate the Catholic Church and those within the Seventh-day Adventist Church who do not agree with his acidic style of evangelism.

While he and the church he belonged to were removed from fellowship with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he continues to use the name of the church to attack and vilify Catholicism. Several sources on the internet continue to this day to identify the phone number and address of his “Printed Page Ministries” as that of the Troy, Montana Seventh-day Adventist Church. To those who call themselves “Historic Seventh-day Adventists,” he is seen as a faithful and persecuted martyr. To others who are members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he is seen as doing more harm than good by needlessly solidifying opposition to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and thereby creating obstacles to evangelism.

So who is right? Is an in-your-face style of evangelism the way to go? Or does the Bible advance a more gentle approach to introducing people to Jesus? A struggle continues within the Seventh-day Adventist Church among those who unlike Mr. Balsiger have remained in good standing with their memberships yet continue to advocate his views, and those members who are opposed to those views. Some of that conflict has touched the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which as the administrative body for the world church, is promoting the distribution of a flood of copies of a book, “The Great Controversy.”  In apparent recognition of the vitriolic potential of some of the anti-Catholic rhetoric in the book, the distribution copy has been abridged to remove those chapters. However, the distribution copy provides information on how to obtain an unabridged copy of the book if the reader chooses. Some feel very uncomfortable with this form of evangelism and have expressed reservations, while some others feel it is God’s plan to finish the work.

“The Great Controversy,” written by Ellen G White, a founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is an attempt to portray the flow of history as a great struggle between good and evil that began in the Garden of Eden and culminates with the second coming of Christ. Many Christians, even Catholics, have no problem with the concept of an ongoing struggle between good and evil. However, the book appears to be heavily influenced by the prevailing anti-Catholicism of Ellen White’s day.

This anti-Catholicism did not have its beginning with her, however. Its genesis can be found in the writings of the great Protestant reformers. Even Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses were rabidly anti-Pope. Any book which traces a pure line of Christianity through history and identifies Protestantism as that pure line as “The Great Controversy” surely does will be bound to pick up some of that flavoring in the process. It certainly would have been possible to portray individuals both within and without Catholicism as seeking to preserve a pure faith, individuals like Saint Francis of Assisi, but that was not done.

Instead the focus became the excesses of the Jesuit inspired Inquisition and the political motivations of the Church of Rome, political motivations that continue to be a part of the Protestant tradition, also. For example, the willingness of the Evangelical Church to use political power to legislate morality on such issues as abortion and marital rights are issues that are not only advanced by the Protestant Evangelical movement but are positions that are shared in common with the Catholic Church. These are also issues that some within the Seventh-day Adventist Church would have no problem with supporting. So why would these Adventists continue to support a negative approach to Catholicism?

Perhaps the continued thrust in that direction is because the Seventh-day Adventist Church venerates Ellen White as a prophetess. What does that mean? Perhaps the closest example in actual practice would be the veneration of saints by the Catholic Church with the exception that Adventists do not pray to Ellen White. The writings of both are seen as spiritual guides for their respective denominations in the present even though both have long since died, and the churches have changed in the interim. Is it wrong to study the writings of such individuals? Perhaps not if we are able to separate the spiritual gold from the cultural milieu that to some degree influenced the writings. Maybe the abridgement of “The Great Controversy” is an attempt to do that, to remove the outdated cultural encumbrances to allow the deeper worth to be seen. But is it the best way to evangelize?

Paul, to his credit, did not openly attack the pagan temple worship that was popular in the Greek and Roman cities he carried the Gospel to. Instead, he carried a message of peace and hope, not condemnation, and he carried his message to those who were most likely to be receptive to it. He carried the message first to the Jewish synagogues of the diaspora and then to the Greeks who were already favorably disposed to the Jews. Much of his opposition came not from in-your-face preaching but from jealousy aroused by the evangelistic blessings he received from God.

The Jews had a difficult time winning converts to Judaism because of the many onerous requirements to become a convert, not the least of which was circumcision. Now, Paul shows up in the synagogue with the message that circumcision is not required and that God will grant salvation to all. With this wonderful news, those who were drawn by the Holy Spirit but were put off by the requirements naturally flock to the message of such grace. Paul’s message was blessed with converts who rejoiced at the freedom of the Gospel. This would naturally arouse jealousy in those who had spent their lives advocating that only through the requirements of the law could salvation occur. As a result, those who could not find freedom for themselves or others hounded Paul from town to town in opposition to the freedom he was proposing.

As it was then, so it continues to be, today. While the message of grace and salvation by faith alone in the promises of a merciful God is a refreshing breeze in a hellacious world, some continue to oppose it because they are committed to a lifetime of bearing burdens they were never meant to bear. They place legalistic requirements on themselves, and, even in the face of their own imperfect obedience, they condemn others for failing to keep the standards that they themselves struggle to observe. Then out of a frustrated spiritual experience they build upon that foundation of condemnation an acerbic edifice of evangelism that condemns even as it seeks to save the lost.

Seeing themselves as modern-day Phinehases, they go through the camp seeking what sinners they may run through with the spear of condemnation. This leaves little wonder why the world shies away from the church as a repository of grace and salvation. Instead church is perceived as a place of wounding and judgment. But this was not the Gospel that Paul sought his converts to understand. He saw Jesus as a Savior. As John recorded about Jesus, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3:17, NIV

Of course the Bible speaks about a judgment, but that judgment has not been given to us to perform, today. Jesus made that clear in the parable about the wheat and the tares, or weeds. (See Matthew 13:24-30)  Perhaps, He knew that such activities would only scatter the flock with divisiveness instead of bringing them together in unity and love.

Considering the sinful natures making it necessary for us to seek God’s grace, we could certainly find many things to be judgmental about toward one another. But in judging others we condemn ourselves as well, for we are no better. All sin pays the same wage: death. The brother or sister who thinks that he or she can safely point out the flaws in another is guilty of a greater sin than the one they would condemn. Each of us is a unique creation of God. When we point out one another’s flaws, we trivialize what God has created, and in so doing, we trivialize the Creator and make Him subject to our judgment through His work which we condemn.

The Holy Spirit’s work upon the human heart is not easily discerned. As Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” John 3:8, NIV How then can we speak with certainty about the presence of the Holy Spirit and His work in the heart of another without the possibility of grievous misunderstanding?

We should not presume to judge but rather to build up one another in the kingdom of grace. When we do, we can take joy in our work as Paul, who wrote, “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20, NIV  How wonderful to have a glory like that in the presence of Jesus when He comes.



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