On October 31, All Saints’ Eve, in 1517, a gaunt-looking young monk called Martin Luther attached 95 “preposterous” ideas to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. After years of personal distress he had made an amazing discovery from his study of the Bible: humans were saved by faith in the gracious sacrifice of Jesus Christ alone, and not by any good deeds they themselves could do. His understanding of the centrality of the saving power of Jesus Christ propelled the church of his day into the Protestant Reformation.1
On the first Sunday of August, 1831, a reluctant William Miller, ex-farmer and ex-army officer in the 1812 USA war against Britain, began preaching his decades-long studies on the time prophecies of Daniel. He was a very meticulous student, and had checked and rechecked the maths of his dates so he was absolutely sure he was right about the 2300-day prophecy of Daniel, and its meaning. His study propelled the church of his day into the Millerite movement that heralded the second coming of Jesus.2
In 1845, on the bridge between Fairhaven and New Bedford, the teetotaller, vegetarian, ex-sea captain Joseph Bates responded to a question from his friend James Madison Monroe Hall with, “The news is the seventh day is the Sabbath, and we ought to keep it.” Joseph went on to convince a young couple by the name of Ellen and James White that the seventh day of the week was the true Sabbath, and together they propelled some of the disappointed Millerites into establishing the Seventh-day Adventist Church.3
While all of these men contributed greatly to the understanding of Christian doctrine, none of them was right about everything they believed and taught. But even more tragically, they all tended to rigidly stick to their personal understanding of Scripture without allowing the insights of others around them to enrich their appreciation of God’s message, and to thus grow in wisdom and in grace. Luther, absolutely right about the importance of sola Scriptura, sola Gratia and sola fide, tragically clung to a concept of predestination which actually implies God is very arbitrary in who He chooses to be saved. Miller had a wonderful insight when he realised the well-known 70-week prophecy of Daniel 9 was part of the 2300-day prophecy of Daniel 8, which would thus end in 1844, but he clung to the idea that the second coming was what was in view in this prophecy. Joseph Bates was absolutely right about the importance of the seventh-day Sabbath, but his understanding of the deity of Jesus Christ was significantly imperfect. The good news is that in spite of their limited understanding God used all these imperfect people to proclaim His messages.
These men are only a very small sample of all the numerous good and sincere people down through the ages who have had only partial understanding of the truth about God and biblical teachings, but who could, if they had opened their hearts and minds to God’s leading and the ministry and concepts of others around them, have grown even more in wisdom and understanding. And they are not alone. How many of us cling ferociously to our personal ideas, and block the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our hearts!
When I was doing biblical studies my associate supervisor, Dr Steven Thompson, deeply upset me by criticising my bland use of conventional ideas about one biblical character, as well as what I considered was the pivotal idea of my whole thesis. I was both devastated and angry. But my supervisor encouraged me to think again, to re-examine my ideas. I rather sulkily obeyed, and discovered that the man who had challenged me had given me the opportunity to strengthen and improve my work, and these two issues became powerful points in my study. Of course, now I am very grateful, but at the time I certainly wasn’t at all happy about changing my thinking!4
There are many examples of this in the Bible. We all too often present Bible characters as pretty perfect people, but their failures can help us learn a great deal. Elijah was absolutely right as he stood on Mount Carmel defying the hundreds of priests of Baal. Fearlessly he asked for God to send fire from heaven, pouring water over the offering to make the heavenly conflagration as difficult as possible. His faith was rewarded spectacularly. But when a wicked woman threatened him with death his towering faith took a nose dive, and he sprinted out into the desert to escape her. But alone on Mount Horeb he listened to the still small voice of God, learned to think differently, and went on to do many more things for God. (1 Kings 18 and 19).
And then there was Saul. If ever anyone thought they were right, it was Saul. Not only did he know he was right, but he was absolutely sure he knew who was wrong. He was prepared to chase such wickedly wrong and misguided people literally to the ends of the earth, which for him at that point of time was Damascus. But when confronted with light from heaven, and the voice of Jesus Himself, Saul changed his mind, and his life (Acts 9). It is impossible to imagine what would have happened to the early Christian church if Paul had not been willing to learn new things.
This is not to suggest we should all be carried away by every wind of doctrine (James 1:6).
However, for all of us in the South Pacific Division the past couple of years have been hard; for those in prolonged lockdown it has been very, very hard. But this unwanted and challenging situation gives us opportunity to not only reassess our own personal walks with Jesus Christ, but also how we do church. Unwittingly many of us have followed more popular worship service styles, but these may not be the best way forward to share the good news of Jesus. Central to our worship should be Bible study, and that is best done in small groups. It is amazing how we have survived without those long sessions of repetitive singing. Of course, singing praise to God is wonderful, not only because it is enjoyable, but because it can be a powerful witness. But perhaps we should focus more on the witness and less on personal enjoyment.
The Adventist Church has been teaching what is right for a long time, and doing things to the best of its ability. But re-evaluating everything can only be a blessing to all of us, and, if we listen to God, can only make us better people in a better church.
Dr Elizabeth Ostring is a retired medical doctor and missionary, now theologian and author based in Auckland, New Zealand.
1. Metaxas, Eric. Martin Luther. Viking: New York, 2017.
2. Swartz, Richard and Greenleaf, Floyd. Light Bearers. Pacific Press, Nampa, ID 1979.
3. Knight, George. Joseph Bates: The Real Founder of Seventh-day Adventism. Review and Herald: Hagerstown, MD, 2004.
4. Ostring, Elizabeth. Be a Blessing: The Theology of Work in the Narrative of Genesis. Wipf & Stock: Eugene OR, 2016.