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Private Independence and the General Conference

Posted Feb 28, 2011 by Gary Hullquist in Adventist Issues
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The following statement by Ellen White penned in 1909 is sometimes quoted to suggest that individual members of the church must surrender their conscience over points of doctrine to the decisions of the General Conference.

"But when, in a General Conference, the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence, contrary to the decision of the general body."  Testimonies to the Church Vol. 9  p. 260

When the context of this letter is examined, the true picture can be fully appreciated. Here is how it begins.

“Before leaving Australia, and since coming to this country, I have been instructed that there is a great work to be done in America. Those who were in the work at the beginning are passing away. Only a few of the pioneers of the cause now remain among us. Many of the heavy burdens formerly borne bymen of long experience are now falling upon younger men.

This transfer of responsibilities to laborers whose experience is more or less limited is attended with some dangers against which we need to guard. The world is filled with strife for the supremacy. The spirit of pulling away from fellow laborers, the spirit of disorganization, is in the very air we breathe. By some, all efforts to establish  order are regarded as dangerous--as a restriction of personal liberty, and hence to be feared as popery.”   {9T 257.1,2}

The issue is work, labor, experience, responsibility, order and supremacy—not theology, belief, or doctrinal views.

Additionally, she expresses concern that the pioneers who were at the beginning of the work are passing away and that younger men are attempting to exert their own ways of doing things.

“These deceived souls [the younger men with limited experience] regard it a virtue to boast of their freedom to think and act independently. They declare that they will not take any man's say-so, that they are amenable to no man. I have been instructed that it is Satan's special effort to lead men to feel that God is pleased to have them choose their own course independent of the counsel of their brethren.”  {9T 257.2}

Who are the brethren at this time? The ageing pioneers who began the work.

Who are the deceived souls?  The younger inexperienced men who want to take the church in a new and different direction.  Men like Lacey and Froom.

“Oh, how Satan would rejoice if he could succeed in his efforts to get in among this people and disorganize the work at a time when thorough organization is essential and will be the greatest power to keep out spurious uprisings and to refute claims not endorsed by the word of God! We want to hold the lines evenly, that there shall be no breaking down of the system of organization and order that has been built up by wise, careful labor. License must not be given to disorderly elements that desire to control the work at this time.”  {9T 257.4}

The “work at this time” is the same work that has been “built up” on a platform of truth that is unchanged for the past fifty years.

What are the “spurious uprisings”?  Kellogg’s “speculative theories about God” without a doubt.

“On the other hand, the leaders among God's people are to guard against the danger of condemning the methods of individual workers who are led by the Lord to do a special work that but few are fitted to do. Let brethren in responsibility be slow to criticize movements that are not in perfect harmony with their methods of labor. Let them never suppose that every plan should reflect their own personality. Let them not fear to trust another's methods; for by withholding their confidence from a brother laborer who, with humility and consecrated zeal, is doing a special work in God's appointed way, they are retarding the advancement of the Lord's cause.”  {9T 259.1}

Aside from a single reference to Kellogg, again the focus is on the way and manner in which the work is conducted, methods and plans—not theological positions.

“They leave the Lord God, the Mighty Worker, too much out of their methods and plans, and do not trust to Him everything in regard to the advancement of the work. No one should for a moment fancy that he is able to manage those things that belong to the great I AM. God in His providence is preparing a way so that the work may be done by human agents. Then let every man stand at his post of duty, to act his part for this time and know that God is his instructor.”  {9T 259.3}

It is at this point that the selected quotation appears:

“I have often been instructed by the Lord that no man's judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any other one man. Never should the mind of one man or the minds of a few men be regarded as sufficient in wisdom and power to control the work and to say what plans shall be followed. But when, in a General Conference, the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence, contrary to the decision of the general body.  {9T 260.1}

Notice the private independence and judgment is not being exerted by laity teaching others what they should believe—but it is being exercised by one man or a few men in a position of leadership attempting to “control the work” and determine “what plans” should be followed

“At times, when a small group of men entrusted with the general management of the work have, in the name of the General Conference, sought to carry out unwise plans and to restrict God's work, I have said that I could no longer regard the voice of the General Conference, represented by these few men, as the voice of God. But this is not saying that the decisions of a General Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field should not be respected. God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority. The error that some are in danger of committing is in giving to the mind and judgment of one man, or of a small group of men, the full measure of authority and influence that God has vested in His church in the judgment and voice of the General Conference assembled to plan for the prosperity and advancement of His work.”  {9T 260.2}

The appropriate use of the selected quotation should be directed toward consideration of the few in leadership positions who might attempt to independently control the work on the basis of their private judgment. We should always be careful to understand the context in which the words of Ellen White are employed that they might not be unintentionally misapplied.  Always, in following the example of our Master, the beloved Son of God, we listen respectfully to our earthly fathers, praying for them that our heavenly Father's will be done in all things according to His mighty power.