A More Perfect Union: The Local Church and Mission

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A More Perfect Union: The Local Church and Mission

What You Will Learn:

The purpose of this four-article series is to help the reader to:

  1. Understand the basis on which theological unity in the Seventh-day Adventist church is built (see article 1: Unity and the Structure of Belief)
  2. Understand the role (a) hermeneutics and (b) theological method plays in establishing theological doctrine and unity (see article 2: Unity and Diversity in the Context of Mission)
  3. Understand (a) the theological factions in the church, (b) the existing barriers to church unity, and (c) how divisive debates over working policy, fundamental beliefs, and the church manual are merely symptoms of deeper issues in the church (see article 3: The Local Church and Mission)
  4. Explore practical solutions that (a) solve the root problems behind church disunity, (b) rebuild trust between church entities, and (c) help members to experience biblical unity in diversity (see article 4: We Have This Hope)

Introduction—A Look at Church Organization in the Old and New Testaments

Church Organization in Scripture: In the Old Testament, Christ gave Moses extensive instructions regarding the structure of Israel’s priesthood, the Sanctuary service, and the organization of Israel. However, very little instruction is recorded in the Gospels or in Acts regarding the organization of the church. Christ emphasized his method of reaching souls–sending His disciples out in pairs and instructing them on the details of their work—yet it appears that He left the actual mechanics of organization to the church itself to decide.


New Testament Experiences Tremendous Growth: According to the biblical account, some five hundred people saw Jesus ascend to heaven, yet shortly after that point we see the church growing exponentially–three thousand being added to the church on the day of Pentecost—and following Pentecost, the Lord added to the church daily. With this kind of growth, it was necessary for the New Testament church to establish a model for organization. In this article, we will explore the New Testament model for organization, and then look at the early Adventist model for the local church.


Section I: Historical Context for the Local Church and Mission


Russell Burrill on the New Testament Model: The New Testament Model for the church is built on the great commission’s command to make disciples. Dr. Russell Burrill writes that,


[S]ince the early church was organized for missionary function and not a nurturing function, it follows that the clergy in the early church served in a mission capacity even if their work was to oversee the churches. The missionary function was the primary reason for the existence of the church, and it was the sacred responsibility of the clergy to be sure that the church did not lose its mission orientation.[1]


Burrill shows that the mission described in the great commission includes three works: “disciple-making, baptizing, and teaching.” Without “these three works” he writes, “mission is not complete.”[2] He holds that the modern Church has failed, not because it hasn’t baptized, made disciples, or taught, but rather it has failed precisely because it has not “seen the absolute necessity of ensuring all three actions.”[3]


Deeper Issues to Roles and Mission: It is important to not ascribe modern-day definitions to biblical terms for the leadership positions in the church. A full exposition of the roles exceeds the scope of this article; however, there are similarities and important differences between the roles that have a greater impact on the mission of both the local and global church than merely the issue of gender.


The New Testament Model for the Local Church: The New Testament model of the church involved building up churches in areas that were strategic in nature due to their vicinity to major trade routes or metropolitan centers of geopolitical influence. Apostles and other missionaries would plant a church in an area and stay there long enough until local church leaders were able to take over.


Local Leaders in the New Testament Model: These local church leaders were lay leaders and not paid clergy. They were primarily responsible for the teaching and equipping of the local church members for mission. Their position is analogous to our local church “pastors” today, however, unlike our pastors today, they were unpaid lay individuals.


The Work of the Pastors: Others who were “overseers” had greater responsibilities than just a local church and were part of the paid clergy. They traveled from church to church in a defined region and administered discipline, teaching, and exhortation as needed by the local churches.


New Testament Members doing the Work of Modern Pastors: The members cared for each other, providing the type of care that our members today generally expect from their pastor (i.e. visiting the sick, caring for the spiritually weak, and providing accountability and spiritual support).


Introduction of change to the Model Leads to the Papacy: This model of the church persisted from AD 34 through AD 100. As persecution removed those who were in positions of leadership, slowly and imperceptibly changes to the model were introduced so that by the end of the second century, the clergy were “settled” in the local churches and paid from the tithes and offerings of the church. These changes and later consolidations in leadership structures led to the creation of the papacy several centuries years later.


New Testament Model Still Held Through the Middle Ages: Notwithstanding the gradual spiritual decline which took place in the succeeding centuries, there were groups of people who rejected a clergy-dependent model of the local church and adhered to the New Testament model. These dissident groups paralleled the Papacy through the Middle Ages and resurfaced in the “Radical” part of the Protestant Reformation. It is from these “Radical” reformers that the Adventist church draws much of its model for the local church.


Early Adventist Local Church Model: The Adventist pioneers put a high premium on the message which they were rediscovering from Scripture. As they studied deeply to understand why Jesus did not return in 1844, they gradually understood the global nature of the message, and that in order for them to take it to the world they must have organization.

Early Adventist Adopt New Testament Model: Most of the Millerites came from churches that had models of organization which ranged from Episcopal to autonomous congregational churches, thus they took elements from each organization to fit their biblical sense of mission. Because of their deep dedication to understanding Scripture, the post-1844 Sabbatarian Adventists unsurprisingly adopted the New Testament model of local church leadership.


Model Confirmed by Scripture and Ellen White in Vision: In this model, James White differentiated apostles and overseers, whose responsibilities were to the entire movement and the work in well-defined regions, from elders and deacons, whose responsibilities were confined to the local church. This sense of a need for “Gospel Order” was both confirmed by vision through Ellen White and affirmed through their understanding of Scripture.


Establishment of the General Conference: The centralizing aspect of the early publications–pioneered by James White—and the “Bible Conferences” started to discuss the newest discoveries in Scripture, led to a central organization for the denomination, in 1863: The General Conference.


Safeguarding the Message: James White issued credential cards to safeguard the message from “self-sent men” who had apparently taken it upon themselves to expound Scripture–mixed with errors—to far-flung groups. White’s efforts to safeguard the message in his day was welcomed by the local churches, however, it is not clear whether such attempts would be seen as favorably in the church of today’s theologically “diverse” environment.


The Work and Duties of the Minister: According to Dr. P. Gerard Damsteegt, in his essay on New Changes in Local Leadership,


James White considered the work of Seventh-day Adventist ministers similar to that of the early Christian ministers who entered a town, began preaching and teaching the Word, until they had formed a group of believers whom they organized into a church. ‘Then these ministers would pass on to a new field of labor. These churches were not carried upon the shoulders of their ministers, but were left to sustain the worship of God among themselves. Occasionally would they pass through and visit the brethren, to exhort, confirm, and comfort them.’[4]


The Best Evidence of a Minister’s Calling: James White believed that the best evidence of whether a Seventh-day Adventist minister was called by God, depended upon his ability to raise up a church. Said Elder White,


In no way can a preacher so well prove himself as in entering new fields. There he can see the fruits of his own labors. And if he be successful in raising up churches, and establishing them, so that they bear good fruits, he gives to his brethren the best proofs that he is sent of the Lord.[5]


Failure to establish a new church would indicate that God had not called him and that he was not needed in the work. Elder White wrote,


If they [ministers] cannot raise up churches and friends to sustain them, then certainly the cause of truth has no need of them, and they have the best reasons for concluding that they made a sad mistake when they thought that God called them to teach the third angel’s message. [6]


The Need for a Fresh Look: Analysis of Mrs. White’s ecclesiological contributions to the church have largely been narrowly focused on her mediation in theological and re-organizational-structural debates in the latter part of her life. However, it would be good for the present church to take a fresh look at her thoughts and reflections on local church leadership.

Ecclesiology: /əˌklēzēˈäləjē/ n. theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church.

It is the local church that gives rise to all other levels and branches of work in the denomination. Much of the conflict that is baked into the processes at the institutional levels of the church stem from the problems at the local church level. Several astute observations from Ellen White are included here for analysis:


Ellen White Endorses New Testament Model: She endorses that idea of theological accountability that is similar to the New Testament model by writing,


I saw that we are no more secure from false teachers now than they were in the apostles’ days; and, if we do no more, we should take as special measures as they did to secure the peace, harmony, and union of the flock. We have their example, and should follow it.[7]


Traditional Pastor’s Job is to Quell Disputes: Paradoxically, the response from the conference office is to install a pastor to quell theological and personnel problems at the local churches. Mrs. White’s counsel goes against that school of thought as expressed above. Damsteegt writes:

Some conference leaders may have defended the role of a ‘settled pastor’ to solve conflicts in the various congregations. Ellen White, however, argued that it was futile and would ultimately weaken the churches.[8]

Petted Church Members Become Weak: Ellen White writes:

God has not given His ministers the work of setting the churches right. No sooner is this work done, apparently, than it has to be done over again. Church members that are thus looked after and labored for become religious weaklings. If nine-tenths of the effort that has been put forth for those who know the truth had been put forth for those who have never heard the truth, how much greater would have been the advancement made! God has withheld His blessings because His people have not worked in harmony with His directions.[9]

Warning Against Depending on Ministers: According to Damsteegt,

Shortly after the 1888 General Conference in Minneapolis, Ellen White warned believers against depending on ministers to work for their churches. She wrote: ‘Do not depend on the ministers to do all the work in your church and neighborhood.’ The task of ministers is to ‘seek the lost sheep’ while the members are to ‘help them.’ The church members ‘must have light in themselves’ so they can care for themselves.[10]

Ellen White further predicted that ministers giving time and talent to members instead of the unconverted would produce weak churches. Said she, ‘It weakens those who know the truth for our ministers to expend on them the time and talent that should be given to the unconverted… So long as church members make no effort to give to others the help given them, great spiritual feebleness must result.’[11]

Ministers to Evangelize New Areas: Damsteegt continues,

Members should be taught to work for God and depend on Him, not ministers. She said, ‘The greatest help that can be given our people is to teach them to work for God, and to depend on Him, not on the ministers…There are times when it is fitting for our ministers to give on the Sabbath, in our churches, short discourses, full of the life and love of Christ. But the church members are not to expect a sermon every Sabbath.’ Instead of spending time on believers, ministers ought to evangelize new areas, raise up churches, and then move to other territories.[12]

Members Must be Put to Work: After organizing a new church, the minister is to set its members at work, teaching them how to begin to work successfully. Ellen White writes:

Just as soon as a church is organized, let the minister set the members at work. They will need to be taught how to labor successfully. Let the minister devote more of his time to educating than to preaching. Let him teach the people how to give to others the knowledge they have received. While the new converts should be taught to ask counsel from those more experienced in the work, they should also be taught not to put the minister in the place of God. Ministers are but human beings, men compassed with infirmities. Christ is the One to Whom we are to look for guidance.[13]

Section II: Implementation


Theological Integrity: It is clear from the historical context above that both the New Testament church and early Seventh-day Adventist church pioneers emphasized a concern for safeguarding the message and ensuring the quality of the messengers.


The Danger in Trusting to Ministers: However, just because the New Testament writers and Ellen White called for the members to rely solely on God and His word for guidance, does not imply that the local church should be exposed to the latest charlatan or self-sent minister. The same root problems that ended up killing the local churches of the New Testament are prevalent in our day. Our over-reliance on pastors to solve every problem in the local churches and to be the spearhead for mission in the local area is fraught with danger.


Theological Methods Affect Understanding of Scripture: The correct safeguard is Scripture and our people should be taught how to extract from Scripture that which is needed to discern between truth and error. Members should understand that theological interpretation is subject to theological methods which, depending on the method employed, can make the meaning of Scripture clear or distorted.


Evangelism not Confined within the Limits of Church: The local church’s primary task is to fulfill the great commission in their area of direct influence. Many have taken this to mean that all ministry and evangelism must take place within the four walls of the church. Thus, every evangelism seminar and series is conducted at the local church and the members are required or “invited” to attend and bring their friends.


Evangelism Crippled by Dependent Member Model: The model for evangelism and discipleship in North America is broken precisely because members are over-reliant on a speaker or evangelist to do for them what they should be doing for themselves. Members with this mindset towards mission are rarely effective in 1) bringing souls to Christ or 2) training them afterward. In fact, members learn to segregate their “spiritual life” to Sabbath hours only, and thus only think of church when the weekend draws near.


Members Must Make Personal Effort: Instead, members should be taught by ministers to open their homes to Bible study care groups, in which members can teach their friends and co-workers the things of God. This way, evangelism happens at the pace of the person that is seeking after Christ rather than some arbitrary schedule based on the availability of a professional evangelist. Thus, the local church can fulfill all three actions in mission: 1) discipling, 2) baptizing, and 3) teaching.


A Representative form of Church Organization: Mrs. White set the principle of representation that begins at the local church and goes all the way to the General Conference in Session. This way every member has input in the work at each level according to their sphere of influence and expertise.


Church Members not Educated on the Issues: The problem we have in our church today is that our representatives from the local churches are under-trained on the issues and procedure (as many pointless “point of orders” at constituency meetings show). When the representation is sub-optimal the outcome of the decisions will be sub-par. Many in administration recognize this, yet few take the steps to put processes in place for the education of members.


Need for Members to not Only be Educated but Integrated: When I say processes, I am not speaking of a one-time PowerPoint presentation on parliamentary procedure; I am talking about the realization that each member is a part of something larger than themselves and their local church or conference. It is the realization that every aspect of the work done within their scope of influence and authority must not be wasted or done haphazardly. There must a driving sense of purpose that is informed by strategy and hard data. Members must be taught the aspects of local church leadership regardless of their “gift,” and there must be a pathway for them to serve and grow in greater and greater capacity for leadership.


Local Conferences Engage Little with Local Churches: Most conferences act on auto-pilot mode. They collect membership data and offerings, and pass on the results to the next higher structure. Rarely, if ever, do conferences actively engage in the local churches within their region.


Members and Pastor’s Expectations: Local church members have been raised to believe that having one pastor over them is a goal to be attained. Thus, once they meet the tithe and offering quotas, the expectation builds that the conference will supply a pastor to exclusively serve them. Often when they are requested to “share” a pastor with a smaller church, resentment starts to build. Many ministers too look forward to the day when they will be able to work at one church and concentrate their labors there.


Push to Keep Pastors Stationed: Damsteegt reports that there is a movement to keep pastors at the same church for longer periods so that greater stability can be achieved. All these efforts run counter to the Adventist model of local church leadership envisioned by the founders.


Pastors not Equipped to Plant Churches: It has been argued that the church has “matured” since that time, and that there are many graduates who “need” jobs. However, this ignores the reality that most of the graduates would not survive in a church planting type setup because their training does not reflect realities on the ground.


The training instead reflects the latest trends in Christendom. The Doctor of Ministry programs are filled with prospects which are looking to “specialize” into some track of ministry. Often these programs are replete with protestant ministry methods that scarcely have compatibility with our church’s doctrinal and missional understanding.


Embracing New Testament Model will Cause Church Growth: Dr. Damsteegt argues that conferences that embrace the Adventist/New Testament model for local churches will experience tremendous growth as their members become active in their regular lives. The conferences will be able to truly be a resource rather than passively collecting data and offerings, and constantly trying to “balance” out the theological tensions.


When the conference shifts from having pastors “hover” over the churches there will be some initial pushback from churches, however as local churches find their footing through strong elder-board led leadership they will stabilize. In this way, churches will become a springboard for growth into un-entered or underserved areas.


Unity and Diversity at the Local Church


Sola-Tota Scriptura Necessary to Unity: Unity is only possible in the local church if the members are taught the theological method that the Seventh-day Adventist church’s system of truth is built on–Sola-Tota Scriptura. Every member needs to understand that doing theology is a necessary part of their spiritual experience.


Members Must be Taught How to Evangelism Effectively: They need to be taught the basic elements of Christian thought. They need to understand Scripture’s salvation history and the framework upon which it is built –the sanctuary. They also need to understand competing worldviews and how to relate to individuals who are either of another faith or entirely secular altogether. Few pastors ever build a systematic presentation of our message and integrate and teach our members how to think about the problems that it is trying to solve.


Diversity Necessary in Mission: Dr. Canale writes that diversity “assumes theological agreement.”[14] In the local church context, there is a need for diversity. Each member interacts with people online and offline, and has a sphere of influence that is greater than that of their pastor in the real world, yet, most members are unconscious of the effects of their witness, which is often narrowly defined by the clothes they wear and the food they eat.


Personal Work Needed to be Done by Each Member: Mrs. White envisioned that our members would be touch-points for every member in their neighborhood. She frequently called for personal work to be done, and advocated the use of what we would today call, “effective bridge builders.” These bridge builders would be activities such as simple remedies, a home cooked meal, a social gathering of friends, or a cell group bible study.


Evangelism a Lifestyle not an Event: We need to move away from event-based evangelism to interaction-based evangelism. If every member in our church, was trained to conduct personal evangelism in an effective way, then every time an opportunity presented itself, the member would be well-positioned to share the Gospel in word or deed. In fact, members would actively work to create such spaces of trust with their friends and co-workers so that when the time was right, the member would be a trusted confidant or friend.


Social Media a Huge Tool in Evangelism: The vast amount of content that is shared every second on social media platforms is immense. Our members likely share and engage more content online than all our official church mass media services combined. This presents both a challenge and a solution to the church. While most of our younger members understand how to use social media instinctually, each member, whether young or old needs to be taught how to develop and use social media in evangelism.


Soul Winning a Personal Endeavor: We need to redefine for our members what it means to engage in soul winning. Soul winning is a personal endeavor that is done person to person. If members were trained to think that church exists outside of the walls of the local congregation, then the membership of our division would grow exponentially. It is in these contexts that diversity is essential. However, this kind of biblical diversity springs from a shared understanding of 1) Scripture, 2) our place in history, and 3) our contribution to the world through our message.


Conclusion—A Return to the New Testament Church Model


Church Model and Hermeneutical Theological Method Important: When we return to member-care led congregations and simultaneously move away from settled pastors, we will see our members begin to grow spiritually. However, this growth cannot occur in a vacuum. It has to be fed by the word of God through the correct theological method. If we continue to move towards either an evangelical model of Prima Scriptura based on the Quadrilateral or towards a progressive understanding of Scripture that uses a multiple-source matrix for determining the interpretation of Scripture, then our local churches will reflect the churches around them.


Return to Early Adventist Method at All Levels: Both administrative and local church leadership need to return back to the Early Adventist and New Testament model of local church leadership. Our Seminary at Andrews is teaching students to engage in this concept of mission, however, without structural support on all levels in the division, success will prove illusory.




[1] Dr. Russell Burrill, Recovering an Adventist Approach to the Life and Mission of the Local Church (Hart Books, 1998), p. 107.

[2] Ibid, p. 12.

[3] Ibid. p. 12.

[4] Dr. P. Gerard Damsteegt, Here We Stand: New Changes in Local Church Leadership (SDA Theological Seminary, 2006), p. 654. Quote of James White in: “Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel,” Review and Herald, April 15, 1862, p. 156, par. 2.

[5] James White, “Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel,” Review and Herald, April 15, 1862, p. 156, par. 22.

[6] Ibid, p. 156, par. 24.

[7] Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington, D.C: Review and Herald, 1945), p. 97.

[8] Dr. P. Gerard Damsteegt, Here We Stand: New Changes in Local Church leadership, (2006), p. 665.

[9] Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7 (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1902), p. 18.

[10] Dr. P. Gerard Damsteegt, Here We Stand: New Changes in Local Church Leadership (2006), p. 662. Quote of Ellen White in: “The Necessity of Connection with Christ,” Review and Herald, May 7, 1889, par. 8.

[11] Ibid., p. 665. Quote of Ellen White in Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7 (1902), p. 18-19.

[12] Ibid., p. 665. Quote of Ellen White in Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7 (1902), p. 19.

[13] Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7, p. 20.

[14] Fernando Canale, From Vision to System: Finishing the Task of Adventist Theology Part III Sanctuary and Hermeneutics,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 17/2 (Andrews University Theological Seminary: Autumn 2006), p. 65.

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About the author


Adrian Zahid is a recent survivor of advanced-stage cancer, he is trying to make the most of the second lease on life that God has given him. He is the co-founder of Intelligent Adventist and in his free time enjoys helping nonprofits be sustainable and the Seventh-day Adventist Church succeed in fulfilling the Great Commission.