I was just a teenager when the North American Division, in league with the General Conference, produced a book entitled Issues: The Seventh-day Adventist Church and Certain Private Ministries. As I recall, the document condemned, along with other things, the acceptance and use of tithe money by self-supporting ministries in violation of General Conference policy.
To my family and friends within the wider self-supporting community, this threatening missive was no better than a papal bull. We considered it to be further confirmation that the denomination was in deep apostasy. At the very least, we suspected there were Jesuits calling the shots at the General Conference. If this wasn’t persecution, it was at least the precursor to persecution, we thought. What would the General Conference do next? Try to disfellowship everyone who worked for or sent tithe money to a self-supporting ministry? Suddenly, the more to fear from within than from without persecution scenarios were coming to life! Yet, we believed we were following our convictions and standing up for the right. The church was in apostasy and did not deserve our tithe. After all, hadn’t Ellen White sometimes sent her tithe money to retired ministers for whom the denomination had failed to properly provide?
Fast-forward a few years to 1994, the year that I entered Hartland College (one of the proscribed self-supporting institutions) as a first year pastoral evangelism student. Hartland was (and still is, I presume) a very spiritual place. My time there was filled with good memories, wonderful friends, and many spiritual highs. My appreciation for the Bible and the writings of Ellen White was deepened. Granted, there were some imbalances (e.g., some faculty tended to major in minors, and salvation as a gift wasn’t emphasized like it should have been), but it was a spiritual stepping-stone on my journey with God that I do not regret.
Is an “Apostate” Church the Voice of God?
During my four years at Hartland, I listened to chapel talks and class lectures and read books in which college faculty emphasized that the church was in apostasy. Speakers at self-supporting convocations around the country preached that the church was in apostasy as long as things like female elders, celebration churches, and false doctrines about the human nature of Christ were condoned by the General Conference. Implicitly and explicitly, the message was that the General Conference was not the voice of God as long as these apostate conditions existed.
Therefore, it was taught, the “storehouse” into which to bring our tithe was not primarily the church but rather any self-supporting ministry that was doing the real work of proclaiming the undiluted, historic Three Angel’s Messages. One self-supporting ministry leader argued that not only did independent ministries have the right to receive tithe money, they must take tithe if they were to be obedient to the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy.
While many self-supporting ministries (like my alma mater, Hartland College) have recently fallen into line with General Conference policy and no longer ostensibly receive or solicit tithe, there is no question that many Adventist church members currently divert their tithe money to independent ministries deemed more worthy than their local conference. (It’s also an open secret that some “supporting” ministries who do not solicit tithe funds may actually receive donations of tithe money – unwittingly, they would argue).
In the 1990’s, most of the conservative historic Adventists I knew weren’t concerned about following the General Conference as the voice of God. If General Conference policy required them to violate their conscience, they would gladly stand on their interpretation of the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy above any man-made working policy or church manual (and perhaps rightly so, I would argue). Calls for church unity were fine, but unity could only be achieved if it was based on Bible truth, they argued, not on a man-made policy that contradicted what they believed the Bible taught.
The North American Division and the General Conference responded in kind by publishing their book Issues, and what followed was basically the severing of any working relationship between these “rebellious” institutions and the worldwide church. The result? Self-supporting ministries grew and flourished. Instead of silencing or destroying them, these institutions felt emboldened to do the work of God in the face of opposition and reproach. They were Elijah, maligned and persecuted, fearlessly proclaiming an unpopular message to an apostate church.
The New Schism
Fast-forward again to 2016. Another schism is taking place in Adventism. This time, the divorce is not between self-supporting ministries and the organized church but within the denomination itself. A few Union Conferences have chosen to allow the ordination of female pastors. They have done this because their constituency believes that the Bible not only allows for this but that it compels them to recognize the gifting of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life regardless of their gender. They argue that it is a violation of their conscience to do otherwise. Sound familiar? But in this more recent schism, the roles have been reversed. The “conservative” General Conference is accusing the “liberal” Union Conferences of rebellion against the voice of God. The argument is that since the General Conference voted in session against allowing the Divisions to choose whether to permit ordination of female pastors, Unions that are ordaining females are rebelling against General Conference policy. Thus, these Unions are rebelling against the very voice of God on earth.
However you may choose to reconcile Ellen White’s various statements about the General Conference being God’s voice, one thing that I’ve noticed is that most of us tend to use those statements selectively and as a club to batter those with whom we disagree. When we happen to agree with a General Conference policy, it’s the voice of God. When we disagree, most of us appreciate a little latitude to be free to believe and practice the truth as we see it revealed in God’s word.
Which brings me to my point: The self-supporting tithe rebellion of the 1990’s should be instructive for conservative Adventists today whose fortunes have been reversed and now find themselves “in power.” They should be cautious to join a bandwagon that seeks to quash a movement of conviction just because it goes counter to their beliefs and, coincidentally, counter to General Conference policy. If they do join the bandwagon, they should at least be honest about whether their concern is really about following General Conference policy (which, by the way, also allows for female local church elders and female commissioned pastors) or whether it is simply about using their newly acquired power to quash the convictions of others and advance what they believe is the truth.
If the Bible clearly defined “the storehouse” or told us “thou shalt not ordain women or let them do pastoral ministry,” then by all means, we should take a stand and, if necessary, split the church over these issues. But the Bible doesn’t say these things so clearly, so perhaps we should learn from our history and give others a little latitude on issues that God has left to individual conscience.
Once upon a time, long ago, another movement of conviction challenged the status quo. Those in power moved to quash the movement, but a wise man said the following: “I say to you now, stay away from these men and leave them alone. If this teaching and work is from men, it will come to nothing. If it is from God, you will not be able to stop it. You may even find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:38-39, NLV).
Steve Allred served as an Adventist pastor for 14 years before recently transitioning to be a stay at home dad and practice law part time, providing legal counsel to various Adventist church entities. Steve is a fourth-generation Seventh-day Adventist who passionately loves the church, it’s biblical message and God-given mission. He lives in Auburn, California with his beautiful wife, two energetic kids, a flock of chickens and a cat.
 For those interested, there is a plethora of books written and published by self-supporting ministries on this topic. For a sampling, check out this webpage: http://www.tithetruth.com/resources.htm.
 Of course there were those conservative Adventists who never agreed with the fact that these ministries accepted tithe. However, many of these Adventists still supported the “rebellious” self-supporting ministries because they believed in their mission and message. They attended their convocations, sent their children to study at their schools, and contributed money to their support.
 I realize that these two situations are not perfectly analogous. Self-supporting institutions violating church policy is fundamentally different than an actual church entity ostensibly violating church policy. However, the argument being advanced in both cases is essentially the same. In both cases, the rationale is that the General Conference is the voice of God. Therefore, the policies decided by the General Conference must be followed. In the early 1990s, self-supporting ministries said no, that it was a violation of conscience for them to obey a policy that they deemed misguided and unbiblical. In the present day, Union Conferences are saying no, that it is a violation of conscience for them to be forced to deny ordination to female pastors who believe they are called by God.
 I do believe that there is a time and place for the church as a body to draw a line in the sand, but only upon issues that are fundamental, clearly revealed Bible truths. Here’s a graphic that illustrates the intersection between fundamental Bible truth, issues of conscience, and church authority: https://sacredconscience.com/2016/11/28/the-spheres-of-god-the-church-the-state/.