The Theology of Ellen G. White

The Church

In general terms, Mrs. White's doctrine of the church follows very much along Reformed lines. The various features and emphases of this doctrine receive their character from the theology we have outlined.

This point should be duly noted. Truth is seen as a connected system—"a complete system of truth, connected harmonious,"(1) "a straight chain of Bible truth, clear and connected,(2) "a chain of evangelical truth."(3) The doctrine of the church is part of that chain. What we are saying is this: The doctrine of the church which we will now consider is dictated by the doctrine which we have already reviewed.

The Church of the Old Testament

The church existed in Old Testament times.(4) (This agrees with the view of most Reformed theologians, who often cite Acts 7:38 in its support.) "From the beginning, faithful, souls have constituted the church on earth."(5) In this respect the church was "invisible." But it also had a visible aspect. At Sinai Israel was "incorporated as a church and a nation under the government of God.6

The Jews came to think that they had a monopoly on God. Were not they alone the children of Abraham? But Isaiah's "teaching was not in harmony with the theology of his age."(7) He declared that God numbered non-Jews "among spiritual Israel—His church on earth."8

In Old Testament times, therefore, God had a physical Israel and a spiritual Israel—a church visible and a church invisible. Although these two were inseparably related, they were not identical.

The Church of the New Testament

The doctrine of the New Testament church also follows the general lines of Reformed theology. The word church is applied to local churches (often congregations gathered in houses), groups of churches (as in Galatia), the whole body of believers or their representatives (as in the first general council, recorded in Acts 15), or finally to all the faithful in heaven and earth—including angels (as in Ephesians 1:22; 3:10, 2l).(9) The church is variously seen as the body of Christ (as in 1 Corinthians 12) or, to change the figure, the temple of God (as in Ephesians 2:20, 22 and 1 Peter 2:5) "The Jewish tabernacle was a type of the Christian church. . . . This tabernacle is Christ's body," and is composed of "all who believe in Him as a personal Saviour."(10) Christ is both the Builder of the church and the Rock upon which it is founded.11

The Church Invisible and Visible

Mrs. White follows the great Reformation concept of the invisible church. The words of Melancthon are quoted approvingly: "There is no other church than the assembly of those who have the word of God, and who are purified by it."(12) Zwingli also cited: "In every nation whosoever believes with all his heart in the Lord Jesus is accepted of God. Here, truly, is the church, out of which no one can be saved."13

As it was in ancient Israel, the church must also have a visible aspect. Believers in Christ must associate together in Christian fellowship and work together for the advancement of God's kingdom. In order to function correctly the church must have a form, a government, an order and a discipline.14

The roll of the visible church and the Lamb's book of life are not necessarily identical. There are many in the visible church who do not have their names in the book of life.(15) No one can be saved outside the invisible church,(16) but there are unusual circumstances where men may be saved outside the visible church.(17) (Mrs. White herself, as Ellen Harmon, was disfellowshipped from the Methodist Church on a point of conscience in 1843.(18) Due to the element of human ambiguity, "false brethren will be found in the church till the close of time."19 No one should therefore expect a perfect church, for such perfection "exists only in our imagination."20

The Necessity of Church Order and Government

Ideas against formal organization—advanced by the Quakers, Darby, and some of the sects—are repudiated and declared to be contrary to gospel order.(21) In God's plan "there is no such thing as every man being independent."(22) According to the directions of the Bible, believers are to be subject one to another and strive to keep the unity in the bonds of peace.(23) The church must have a duly appointed ministry, officers, and be organized to own property and to conduct all necessary business.24

The type of church government that Mrs. White advocates is a representative form which is not greatly dissimilar to the Reformed system.(25) The general assembly of the church, represented by its elected delegates, should have supreme authority in the church,(26) while local churches and groups of churches should have autonomy subject to those limitations necessary to preserve unity in overall polity.

The Ordinances of the Church
    The ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper are two monumental pillars, one without and one within the church.27
The correct mode of baptism is seen to be immersion(28) "in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.(29) Infant baptism finds no support in the Word of God.30

There is an objective and subjective meaning to Christian baptism. Objectively, it points to and commemorates the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.(31) As such, it is baptism into His death.(32) On the other hand, it also is a witness that the believer has died to the old life, renounced the world and entered the service of Christ.(33) Being a "mutual pledge," a covenant between God and the believer,(34) baptism is a sign which is worthless apart from Christ.(35) "It is only by the power of Christ, working through faith, that they [the ordinances] have efficacy to nourish the soul."36

Mrs. White's view of the supper appears to be very similar to Calvin's. The bread and the wine are "emblems of His [Christ's] great sacrifice."(37) This "sacramental meal" is a commemoration of Christ's sacrifice and a pointing forward to His second coming. But it is more than a memorial. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ is especially present to set His seal to His own ordinance.(38) It is a covenant meal in which Christ pledges to the believer "every blessing that heaven could bestow for this life and the life to come."(39) The words in John 6 about eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ apply in a special sense to the Holy Communion.(40) No exclusiveness should be practiced at the service except in the case of open sin.41

The ordinance of foot washing is part of this service of covenantal renewal. When the Lord washed the disciples feet, He was not merely enjoining hospitality. "Christ was here instituting a religious service."42

The Authority of the Church

God invests the organized church with authority. He directs the church to exercise it and the members to submit to it. Whoever despises the authority of the church despises the authority of Christ.(43) The church has the responsibility to separate from its fellowship those whose apostasy from the faith is manifested in open sin.(44) This action must not be taken against "tares"—those thought to be unregenerate, but who practice no open rebellion.45

Yet there is a limit to church authority. Since only God's authority is absolute, the Word of God stands above the authority of the visible church.(46) The church is not given authority to legislate commandments which are binding on the conscience.(47) Its decrees are not to be made articles of faith. "The Bible, and the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants."(48) "The Bible, and the Bible alone, is to be our creed."(49) If there is a conflict between the claims of God and the claims of the visible church, the believer must obey God rather than man.(50) Luther is quoted on this point: "But when eternal interests are concerned, God wills not that man should submit unto man. For such submission in spiritual matters is a real worship, and ought to be rendered solely to the Creator."(51) That the church can never err is a notion without support in Scripture.(52) The Word of God alone is infallible.53

The Church's Relation to Ancient Israel

Mrs. White believes in the concept of one church from the beginning of time.(54) It has been composed of faithful souls (the people of God) found among all nations and all denominations. This concept is in harmony with the author's view of one "everlasting gospel."(55) The gospel that was first given to Adam and Eve in the promise of Genesis 3:15 is the same gospel that was given to Abraham, David, the prophets, apostles and Reformers. True, there has been a gradual unfolding of the purposes of God in His holy gospel,(56) but it is nevertheless the one holy gospel of God's Word In the same way, the Word of God in Old and New Testaments is one Word. The New Testament does not present another religion, another ethic, another gospel. The New Testament is the Old Testament unfolded.(57) In the very nature of this scheme of things, the church of the Old Testament and the church of the New Testament constitute one church. Or to change the terminology, the Israel of the Old Testament and the "Israel" of the New Testament constitute one Israel—"the Israel of God."(58)

This principle of harmony and unity runs through the author's entire theology. There may be distinction and contrast, but nevertheless, unity and harmony. Thus there is no such thing as leaving the religion of the Old Testament and going on to the New, or leaving law and going on with gospel. There is no such thing as leaving repentance and going on with faith, or leaving justification and going on with sanctification. Old and New Testament, law and gospel, repentance and faith, justification and sanctification, must be kept together. In the same way, the Israel of the Old Testament and the church of the New Testament must be kept together. Just as it is proper to speak of the church of the Old Testament,(59) so it is proper to speak of the Israel of the New Testament.

Those Jews who accepted their Messiah were the goodly remnant of Israel.(60) And those Gentiles who accepted the gospel were brought into the fold to be counted as the children of Abraham.(61) This whole body of Christian believers—composed of believing Jews and believing Gentiles—became inheritors "of all the covenant promises" given to Abraham, Isaac and Israel.(62) The nation of Israel was God's visible church to whom was entrusted the oracles of God (especially the law) and the care of His "vineyard."(63) But according to the words of Jesus, national Israel proved unfaithful to the trust. They had killed the prophets, and at last they killed God's Son. The sentence must be pronounced, "The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof."(64) At the crucifixion of Christ, when the leaders of the Jewish nation made their choice to reject the King of Israel, they divorced themselves from the theocracy.(65) As natural branches of God's olive tree, they were broken off.(66)

This means that the privileges and responsibilities that belonged to national Israel were transferred to the Christian church. "That which God purposed to do for the world through Israel, the chosen nation, He will finally accomplish through His church. . . .(67) The real church, or Israel, did not change; it was only the form, organization, the "visible" aspect of the one church, which changed. It was placed under a new "administration." The church organized by Christ and the apostles took the place of the Jewish nation as the custodian of God's truth and the instrument of carrying forward the cause of His one everlasting gospel.

This concept of Israel and the church is not new. It is really the view of orthodox Protestantism, going back to the Reformers, Augustine, and to the church Fathers.

God's Purpose for His Church

It naturally follows that God's plan for His people of all ages is one. In principle, His purpose for ancient Israel was the same as His purpose for modern Israel.
    It was the privilege of the Jewish nation to represent the character of God as it had been revealed to Moses. In answer to the prayer of Moses, "Show me Thy glory," the Lord promised, "I will make all My goodness pass before thee." "And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.". . . Through the Jewish nation it was God's purpose to impart rich blessings to all peoples. Through Israel the way was to be prepared for the diffusion of His light to the whole world. . . God desired to make of His people Israel a praise and a glory.68
So it is with the church, God's "holy nation," today.(69) The church is the depository of God's saving truth, the custodian of His holy law and gospel. Its joyful privilege and solemn responsibility is to exemplify the truth and character of Christ in its life in this world.
    Christ has given to the church a sacred charge. Every member should be a channel through which God can communicate to the world the treasures of His grace, the unsearchable riches of Christ. There is nothing that the world needs so much as the manifestation through humanity of the Saviour's love. All heaven is waiting for men and women through whom God can reveal the power of Christianity.

    The church is God's agency for the proclamation of truth, empowered by Him to do a special work; and if she is loyal to Him, obedient to all His commandments, there will dwell within her the excellency of divine grace. If she will be true to her allegiance, if she will honor the Lord God of Israel, there is no power that can stand against her.(70)

    . . . . the Lord has a people, a chosen people, His church, to be His own, His own fortress, which He holds in a sin-stricken, revolted world; and He intended that no authority should be known in it, no laws be acknowledged by it, but His own.(71)

    Christ designs that heaven's order, heaven's plan of government, heaven's divine harmony, shall be represented in His church on earth. Thus in His people He is glorified. Through them the Sun of Righteousness will shine in undimmed luster to the world. Christ has given to His church ample facilities, that He may receive a large revenue of glory from His redeemed, purchased possession. He has bestowed upon His people capabilities and blessings that they may represent His own sufficiency. The church, endowed with the righteousness of Christ, is His depositary, in which the riches of His mercy , His grace, and His love, are to appear in full and final display.(72)

    . . . .[God's people are] the depositaries of His holy law and [are] to vindicate His character before the world. (73)

    Christ hungers to receive from His vineyard the fruit of holiness and unselfishness. He looks for the principles of love and goodness. Not all the beauty of art can bear comparison with the beauty of temper and character to be revealed in those who are Christ's representatives. . . . . God desired that the whole life of His people [ancient Israel] should be a life of praise. Thus His way was to be made "known upon earth," His "saving health among all nations." So it should be now.(74)

1 Ev 222
2 3T 447
3 FE 385
4 PK 16; 1T 283
5 AA 11
6 PP 303
7 PK 367
8 PK 372
9 AA 91, 92, 161, 162, 197-200; 6T 366
10 7BC 931
11 DA 413; Matt. 16:18
12 4SP 237
13 GC 181
14 ST 461; 1T 649; TM 228, 489
15 4BC 1166; COL 304
16 GC 181
17 1T215; DA 638
18 LS 52, 53
19 COL 73 (cf. TM 47)
20 RH Aug. 8, 1893
21 1T 414, 432, 433; 2SM 68
22 TM 489
23 TM 491
24 TM 26
25 ST 107
26 9T 260, 261
27 6T 91
28 LS 25
29 Ev 307 (cf.6T 91)
30 GC 238
31 5BC 1113; EW 217; DA 149; 4T 41
32 DA 148
33 Ev 315; 6T 98
34 6BC 1074, 1075
35 6T 91; DA 181
36 DA 149
37 DA 660
38 DA 656
39 DA 659
40 DA 661
41 DA 656 (1 Cor. 5:11 cited)
42 DA 650
43 ST 107, 108; AA 122, 162-164
44 DA 440-442; 3T 428; ST 617
45 COL 71, 72
46 GC 605; AA 69
47 DA 826; DA 550
48 GC 448
49 1SM 416
50 AA 69; TM 69, 70
51 GC 167
52 GC 57
53 TM 105; 1 SM 416
54 AA 11; 1T 283
55 Rev. 14:7
56 PP 373
57 6T 392; AA 247
58 1T 283; PK 15-22
59 Acts 7:38
60 PK 22
61 Gal. 3:29
62 PP 476; PK 22
63 Is. 5:1-7; PK 17; COL 285-287
64 Matt. 21:43
65 DA 737, 738; COL 294
66 DA 620; Rom. 11:14-24
67 PK 713
68 COL 285-288
69 1 Pet. 2:9
70 AA 600
71 TM 16
72 DA 680
73 5T 746
74 COL 298, 299

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