December 20, 2019

The Truth About Inter-Church/Interfaith Relations

This article addresses some concerns that have been expressed regarding the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s engagement with other Christians. 

Though most Adventists, since the establishment of a department of Public Affairs and Religious liberty in 1901, understand the necessity to mingle with other Christians, the questions are still asked: “Why mingle with other Christians? Is this not a betrayal of Adventist identity, message, and mission?” To these, our unequivocal answer is no, it is not. The mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church cannot be fulfilled without mingling as Jesus did. Fears and objections are part of human experience, but they have to be addressed rationally.

First, a clarification. Inter-church and interfaith relations do not mean ecumenism in the sense of union with other churches, doctrinal alliances, obliteration of differences, or the loss of distinctive emphasis on biblical truths.

A misunderstanding of this basic fact has prompted a few at the fringes of the church to accuse Adventist leaders of betraying the church’s position, which they assume demands there be no interaction with other Christians at all. This radical rejection of mingling with others is, at times, expressed through violent and angry rhetoric.

Both in the Bible and in the writings of Ellen White, we have a clear picture that antagonism and hostility toward other Christians should have no place in a heart in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit. Love of even enemies is at the heart of the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus. Ellen White admonishes Adventists to present ourselves in a favorable light before all the world. The gospel, the good news of God, should never be sidelined. The gospel of the kingdom must be proclaimed, and then the end shall come, said Jesus. But this gospel of the kingdom cannot be separated from the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the first of which is love. After all, a distinctive mark of discipleship is love of God and love of one’s neighbor.


What, then, is driving these attitudes of hostility toward inter-church and interfaith relations and these unfounded fears that Adventist leaders have engaged in ecumenism, which is understood as a union of churches and loss of Seventh-day Adventist distinctives? To understand these issues, one has to dig deeper into aspects of the Seventh-day Adventist worldview that could be easily misunderstood and distorted, particularly as they pertain to eschatology and end-time events.

As the name “Seventh-day Adventist” indicates, members of our denomination emphasize the importance of both protology — the studies of origins or first things — and eschatology, the studies of last things. The importance of the reality of creation and consummation of all things — the end of this world and the beginning of the universal kingdom of God — are central to the Adventist message. This beautiful message is an invitation to life, a message of mercy and love, a warning from God’s heart not to share the fate of God’s enemies and be deprived of everlasting fellowship in love with God and with fellow human beings. It is God’s passion for the salvation of human beings that informs the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14. 

Yet, the ways in which this message is interpreted by some church members demonstrates how a legitimate biblical framework can be used to misleading ends. The worst is always the corruption of the best. When misunderstood, both protology and eschatology can be instrumentalized as weapons of hatred toward others and thus used to betray the very purposes of God. Prophecies themselves can become pretexts for the denigration and vilification of others who believe differently. 

There are better ways to model Christian character than verbal violence against perceived enemies. Jesus prayed for His enemies. Stephen prayed for his murderers. Christian martyrs throughout the centuries have shown the same spirit, for they knew they were not fighting against flesh and blood but against evil spirits, who use people to sabotage Christ’s work of salvation. 

The Undergirding Issue: An Anticipated Persecution Because of Sabbath Keeping 

In our church’s understanding of eschatology, the Sabbath will play a key role. However, in Ellen White’s writings, this phase when the Sabbath becomes a test of loyalty to God is called the last drama of end-time events. When Sunday observance becomes Sunday law and, specifically, when it is imposed as a universal decree upon all the inhabitants of the world, then people will have a final opportunity to choose between God’s sovereignty and counterfeit authority:

The substitution of the laws of men for the law of God, the exaltation, by merely human authority, of Sunday in place of the Bible Sabbath, is the last act in the drama. When this substitution becomes universal, God will reveal Himself. He will arise in His majesty to shake terribly the earth. He will come out of His place to punish the inhabitants of the world for their iniquity, and the earth shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain (Testimonies for the Church 7:141).

There are two important pieces of information here that help us understand the issues at stake:

  1. The universal imposition by law of Sunday as a substitute for the biblical Sabbath is considered the last act of the drama called the great controversy.
  2. There is another key element in the unfolding of end-time events, and it is an element rooted in the time of trouble predicted in the 12th chapter of Daniel. In this last act of the great controversy drama there is the prospect of the persecution, suffering, and martyrdom of those who affirm God’s sovereignty by observing and celebrating God’s sign, symbol, and seal—the biblical Sabbath.

Predictions regarding end-time restriction of religious freedom and persecution of those who refuse to comply inform the anticipation of the future and, in particular, end-time events.

The Supposed Actors of the Persecution of God’s Faithful 

This time of trouble, writes Ellen White, is to be carried out by other Christians in coalition with governments who will restrict the religious freedom of God’s people.

The remnant church will be brought into great trial and distress. Those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus will feel the ire of the dragon and his hosts. Satan numbers the world as his subjects; he has gained control of the apostate churches; but here is a little company that are resisting his supremacy. If he could boot them from the earth, his triumph would be complete (Testimonies for the Church 5:472).

Regarding the role of other churches in the future predicament of Sabbath-keepers, she continues: 

Satan will excite indignation against the humble minority who consciously refuse to accept popular customs and traditions. Men of position and reputation will join with the lawless and the vile to take counsel against the people of God. Wealth, genius, education, will combine to cover them with contempt. Persecuting rulers, ministers, and church members will conspire against them. With voice and pen, by boasts, threats, and ridicule, they will seek to overthrow their faith. By false representations and angry appeals, they will stir up the passions of the people. Not having a ‘Thus says the Scriptures’ to bring against the advocates of the Bible Sabbath, they will resort to oppressive enactments to supply the lack. To secure popularity and patronage, legislators will yield to the demand for a Sunday law.... On this battlefield comes the last great conflict of the controversy between truth and error (Testimonies for the Church 5:450, 451).

These quotes anticipate that the issue of the Sabbath will be pivotal in the last great conflict. When that time comes, the persecution of Sabbath-keepers will become a reality.

Yet, it is crucial to understand that this passage speaks of the future — the final act in the great controversy. If we misunderstand these words, they can be used to feed into a misplaced suspicion that the Christians who will one day conspire with political powers to persecute God’s people are the very same ones who live today. 

This is the heart of the mistake — to conflate the future with the present.

For some, the prospect of future persecution brings not only fear but antagonism toward other Christians, yet this is not a just response. We must be clear.  These prophetic words do not justify labeling other Christians as “evil.” They do not prescribe shunning other Christians. They do not excuse treating supposed future persecutors as present dangers. 

Paranoia can perhaps lead some to forget God’s injunction to not fear those who can only kill the body and can do no more; or Christ’s assurance to His followers that when they see end-time signs, they should lift up their head, for deliverance draws close. 

Fear tries to do the impossible, crossing time and space to go into the future and remove a burden that makes life toxic. In this scheme of things, the present and the future are confused. It is profoundly unfair to others and also unjust. Moreover, it leads to neglecting the gospel commission and to abandoning the cardinal Christian virtues: faith, hope and love.

One has to remember that according to 1 Corinthians 13, even prophecy without love is nothing.

Neglecting the True Mission to Share the True Gospel 

The danger of focusing on potential enemies is that we neglect the true biblical gospel. This gospel is not that God’s people will be persecuted, even by those who claim to belong to God. The good news is always about liberation and God’s gracious attribution, His imparting and imputing of Christ’s righteousness in view of everlasting fellowship with God in God’s eternal kingdom of peace, justice, righteousness, and love.

Jesus said, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world, and then the end shall come.” 

The current time is therefore a time for mission. The good news of God’s kingdom must be shared. Now is a time to articulate and translate the everlasting gospel in ways the current generation can understand. It is a time to be enthusiastic about the blessed hope, for God wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.

Interestingly, Ellen White writes that “the last message of mercy to be given to the world is a revelation of His character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them” (Christ’s Object Lessons, 415, 416).

Usurping God’s Prerogatives: Trying to Do What Only God Can

Misunderstanding Adventist eschatology can lead to serious consequences. Those who confuse future events with current reality dismiss relationships with other Christians as unnecessary and useless. They conflate other Christians with future enemies and act as if their destiny is already sealed; and further, that the “the mark of the beast” is already affixed on those who do not keep the biblical Sabbath. This fundamental hermeneutical fallacy clouds their thinking as to faith, hope, and love.

It is important to understand Ellen White’s consistent teaching regarding the “mark of the beast,” which is expressed in the following:

No one has yet received the mark of the beast. The testing time has not yet come. There are true Christians in every church, not excepting the Roman Catholic communion. None are condemned until they have had the light and have seen the obligation of the fourth commandment. But when the degree shall go forth enforcing the counterfeit Sabbath, and the loud cry of the third angel warn men against the worship of the beast and his image, the line will be clearly drawn between the false and the true. Then those who still continue in transgression will receive the mark of the beast (Evangelism, 234, 235).

Similarly, Ellen White’s declarations regarding the seal of God are sobering and should never lead to a spirit of triumphalism or accusation of others.

Now is the time to prepare. The seal of God will never be placed upon the forehead of an impure man or woman. It will never be placed upon the forehead of the ambitious, world-loving man or woman. It will never be placed upon the forehead of men or women of false tongues or deceitful hearts. All who receive the seal must be without spot before God — candidates for heaven (Testimonies for the Church 5:216). 

There is a paradox here. Those who see themselves as victims of future persecutions are in fact led by fear. They adopt the very practices they claim to revile. Those are inquisitions, condemnations, accusations, and discriminations. They become promoters of hate speech, slanderers, accusers of the brethren, and character assassins. 

But there is no room for hatred in the heart of a Seventh-day Adventist, someone who, by calling, welcomes the Holy Spirit of Christ to dwell in his or her heart along with God’s fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, g
entleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. 

Public Affairs and Freedom of Conscience

The counsel of Ellen White provides a fundamental rationale for why Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) leaders of the church continue to promote freedom of conscience, liaising between the church and governments, civic leaders, religious leaders of all Christian denominations, and leaders of world religions. Ellen White wrote clearly and unequivocally regarding the responsibilities and duties of Adventist leaders:

It is our duty to do all in our power to avert the threatened danger. We should endeavor to disarm prejudice by placing ourselves in a proper light before the people. We should bring before them the real question at issue, thus interposing the most effectual protest against measures to restrict liberty of conscience (Testimonies for the Church 5:452).

We are not doing the will of God if we sit in quietude, doing nothing to preserve liberty of conscience.… Let there be more earnest prayer; and then let us work in harmony with our prayers (Testimonies for the Church 5:713, 714).

To disarm prejudice is core to the work of the General Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty department. Yet it is impossible to dispel prejudice without mingling with others, engaging others, having conversations, dialogues — and honest disagreements, certainly, but in ways that are respectful of their dignity.

This is not just about making friends in case we need them in the future. Human dignity precludes such utilitarian instrumentalization of human beings created in the image of God. We enter into genuine relationships with people for the sake of human solidarity, respect, and tolerance. Developing friendships does not mean believing the same thing, downplaying differences, or diluting one’s distinctiveness for the sake of mingling with others.

However, in obedience to Christ’s command to be salt and light and to be His witnesses everywhere, we must continue to mingle. 

In obedience to Jesus’ admonition to engage even opponents at law, we make no difference between friends or enemies in what we owe them: love.

An Appeal

Every follower of Christ is faced with a critical question: Does the love of God, which compels us to love our neighbors as ourselves, dwell in our hearts, or is the wrath of the “dragon” stirring passions of hatred and accusations and condemnations against other brothers and sisters in humanity and in Christianity?

Jesus Christ prayed for the unity of His disciples. This unity is unity in God, unity in the truth of God, and unity in the purposes of God.

I hope and pray that for us as witnesses of Jesus Christ, the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit will inspire and model every relationship we are privileged to be graced with.