Ancient Israel had those who followed, sniping at its heels to disturb and harass. So does the church. Unity does not demand that we keep silent in the face of sin or error, but it does demand responsibility, n today's culture, everyone wants to do their own thing and be heard. In politics, strident voices shout loud and long as to how the king, prime minster, or president ought to run the country. Unity of thought and action among any sizable group is about as rare as a penguin at the equator.
Disunity is bad enough in the political world, but tragically the intensity and confusion of life in general has spilled over into religious circles. The church is not immune to elements of discord and strife, nor is our own Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Fortunately for our church─both leadership and laity─a remarkable degree of unity and loyalty exists among the vast majority. Those in our midst whose main objective in life seems to be making waves and rocking the good ship Zion are still in the minority even if they sometimes make a disproportionate splash. Although their numbers, I believe, are relatively small, I am deeply concerned about this class of individuals whom I call "Adventist Amalekites."
The term Amalekite usually evokes thoughts of a rather fierce, offensive tribe which relentlessly caused Israel problems during their wanderings from Egypt to Canaan. After Israel's settlement in Canaan, Saul and David had to continue the fight against these inveterate enemies of God. In modern parlance, the Amalekites were the ever-present "snipers" shooting at the people of God during their struggles in the wilderness and in Canaan. According to some scholars, they were related to the Israelites through Esau. If this is correct, then in a sense they were members of the same church! These defiant people harassed God's wearied ranks until they finally sealed their doom under the judgments of God. "I will completely erase the memory of the Amalekites from under heaven" (Ex. 17:14, NIV).
A CHURCH UNDER ATTACK
Spiritual Israel today faces a somewhat similar situation in its journey to heaven's Canaan. God's weak, faulty, but precious church is under attack by journals, books, tapes, pamphlets, magazines, and circulars of every description. Viewpoints range from the ultraconservative to the ultra-liberal. Some profess great loyalty by claiming to defend the purity of the church's faith and practice. They castigate the church for abandoning what they perceive to be its original heritage. Others are obviously cynical and faith-destroying. They criticize the church for clinging to outmoded forms and failing to move into what they see as enlightened Christianity. Some of the material comes under the guise of sophisticated scholarship, while other material is quite crude in both design and content. The subject range is as broad as the church. There is virtually nothing the church stands for, in doctrine, practice, policy, or structure, that has not come under suspicion, been questioned, called upon to change, or attacked. The content is not all bad, nor is it all good. Some of it is plainly "strange fire."
Several common threads run through these productions. They claim to be speaking for and/or to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They claim to represent Adventist thought. If not claiming to have "the truth," they claim to be searching for it. These missives also have in common a lavish treatment of the wrongs of the church and a very stingy record in offering solutions.
My concern for these critics, whether on the right or the left, is twofold: First, I am concerned for their own souls, and second, I am concerned for the souls of those who are adversely influenced by them.
I don't presume to judge the motives of these writers and speakers. Yet, looking at the materials they produce, I wonder how much time they spend praying for God's Spirit to bless this church, compared to what they expend criticizing it. Furthermore, I have wondered at times what their tithe and offering records have looked like. It would be strange indeed if one who feels so constrained to attack the church should also feel constrained to support it financially. Not that anyone's relationship to the church saves that person. But where we expend our time, energies, and financial resources certainly indicates where our interests lie.
It seems to me that those who have dedicated their lives to "setting the record straight" are jeopardizing their salvation. Need I remind us that as Christians we are in a life-anddeath struggle, with Christ on one side pleading for our surrender to Him, and Satan on the other side, pulling us down to perdition? The enemy is quite aware of how attractive the critical and negative can be.
For example, offer people 10 pages of exposes of church problems and criticism of church policies and leadership. At the same time offer them 10 pages of soul-winning accounts, reports of progress in the church, or God's blessings in individual lives. Which will be read first, or read at all? The fallen mental chemistry of all of us seems to enjoy the former. We revel in juicy details of wrong and errors. Such may sell newspapers, but it will not build Christian character (see Phil. 4:8). How much we like to discuss the latest rumor, but how seldom do we find ourselves talking about our Savior!
BE AWARE OF SPIRITUAL SICKNESS
Furthermore, I have learned that those who feed on criticism and are ever searching through the dirt and filth for errors and corruption in the church often fail to find true fulfillment in life themselves. Strangely, some try to build up their own egos by tearing something down. It is far easier to expose sin and evil than to expound on the cross of Christ.
Once we allow ourselves to travel through the valleys of vinegar, the sweetness and wholesomeness of what Jesus is doing in and through His church goes unnoticed. The mind sees what it is trained to dwell upon. Maliciousness, skepticism, and cynicism are diseases difficult to overcome.
I know this from personal experience. In my earlier years, I developed a rather critical attitude. I sadly confess that early in my ministry I thrived, at times, on the faults of church leaders. I remember a fiery letter I wrote to my old friend F. D. Nichol. His sweet reply disarmed me completely. (The point I was making was not necessarily wrong, but my attitude and spirit were!)
As years went by, I found myself feeding more and more on the church's problems. I didn't publicly criticize, but in my heart I found an estrangement with my brethren, which left me empty. My relationship with Jesus Christ became extremely fragile. Personal devotions were often interrupted by irritation over something I knew was happening in the church. The day came when I reached the conclusion that my own soul was at stake. I was building barriers between my own heart and my fellow workers and my God. Gradually, through the help of the Lord, I began to look for the good and to see the best. I still have a long way to go, but I thank God for the direction the Lord is leading me.
So I fear for the spiritual well-being of those whose work revolves around the negative.
Then, too, their production and organizations require cash to operate. The amount of money siphoned from the church by these "Adventist Amalekites" and their supporters would be enough, no doubt, to hold sizable yearly evangelistic crusades in major cities or to expand our radioTV ministry. Every dollar diverted from the true mission of the church hinders the fulfillment of the commission God has given us.
My second concern is for our poor sheep who get hold of these documents and read them. Deep impressions are made on their minds. Questions are raised. Doubts are strengthened. Who is accountable, then, for souls that have been discouraged and misled? Who will eradicate the poison that has been taken in by the reader?
Think of what would happen if the tongues and pens of those turning out these negative productions would be used to the glory of God in speaking words of encouragement and confidence! I urge those with talents for speaking and writing to use these abilities to strengthen God's people and to encourage His leaders who are striving to advance the gospel. Let those who have a burden to set things straight go to their neighbors with the glorious news of Christ's plan to set straight sin-twisted lives. Let those who feel convicted that they must explore every facet of some church problem and expose it to those within and without the church begin to explore the fantastic truths in God's Word and set these before the people. Let those who rejoice in ferreting out some secret sin of the brethren study the secret and hidden things in the Word.
LET US LINK ARMS TOGETHER
I plead with "Adventist Amalekites" to stop this sniping at the heels of modern spiritual Israel. Rather, let us link arms together and in true Christian love work out our differences. Then we can join in the unity for which Jesus so eloquently prayed. One thing is certain. No one can truly pray the prayer of Christ in John 17 and at the same time undermine the church.
"But," says someone, "unity does not mean ignoring problems, hoping they will disappear. Unity does not mean saying all is well with the church, when all is not well."
I agree. Lest anyone feel I have assumed the ostrich posture, let me assure you that I am as aware as anyone that this church has problems that need to be acknowledged and solved. (In fact, I am probably more aware of these problems than are some who spend their time mimeographing, printing, and recording what they do know!) I am aware of the moral and ethical problems that may exist at times among both ministers and members in our church. But I do not believe that the solution to these things lies in sowing cynicism, criticism, castigation, innuendo, and suspicion by means of proliferating productions that spread these matters before all who will listen. I don't deny that the church has problems, although I also believe that she has more wholesome, positive, and uplifting aspects than her critics can imagine. I don't deny that we as leaders in the church have made mistakes and that in some cases we may have brought upon ourselves the criticisms that we are receiving. The unity Christ prayed for doesn't demand that we keep silent in the face of sin or error. But it does demand that we respond to such things as responsible members of Christ's body. There are proper ways for effecting changes and righting wrongs and getting the church back on track when she has lost her way.
The tragedy is to see such a prodigal squandering of precious brainpower and money in such negative pursuits when the church needs every bit of help possible in doing a constructive work in forwarding the banner of Prince Emmanuel throughout the world.
J. Robert Spangler was a pastor, evangelist, Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference, and for 23 years Editor of Ministry. He died on September 19, 1997 in the line of duty working for his Lord.