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July 21, 2012 - Thessalonica in Paul's Day



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Lesson 3   21 July, 2012
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Thessalonica in Paul's Day

Verses: Acts 18:1-3; 1 Cor. 9:19-27; 16:19

Leading Question: How does the temperament and personality of a city effect how Christians share their faith?

In 168 BC, the city of Thessalonica invited Rome to take over their city and help protect it from its enemies. Rome responded positively, though granting the city considerable freedom to continue running its own affairs. Still, the church at Thessalonica had to learn to live in a Roman city. Though Thessalonica had more freedom than Jerusalem, the Roman presence still made life more difficult for some, especially the lower and working classes. In this lesson we address some of the features of city life that have a bearing on the work of the Gospel. This should help us understand Paul’s letters to the church at Thessalonica.

1. An occupied city. Do we have examples in our modern world where a dominant and perhaps alien power makes it more difficult for the indigenous population to carry on its life and Christian witness? What about the Christians in Iraq, Egypt, and Sudan?

2. Urban vs. rural. Most of Paul’s missionary contacts were with urban Christians. What can modern Adventists learn from that pattern, especially given the Adventist impulse to move away from urban centers?

3. Building ties with other religions and other religious movements. The official Sabbath School study guide describes a powerful religious movement that was prominent in Thessalonica, the Cabirus cult. The man who gave the movement its name was murdered by his two brothers. But in popular circles he came to be seen as a martyred hero. There were even blood sacrifices through which his followers could find relief from guilt. As the study guide notes, “Reminiscent of Paul, the Thessalonians spoke of ‘participation in his blood.’” Apparently Christians in Thessalonica were in a position to benefit from the similarities in language and motif. To what extent is it a help or a danger when we make contact with movements other than our own?

To cite a contemporary example, Rob Bell, with strong ties to the emergent church, has recently articulated a position on hell that is very close to the Adventist position. His book, Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011) has been hotly debated in evangelical circles. But should our worries about some aspects of the “emergent church” prevent us making common cause with him on a position that is central to Adventism? Isn’t that common ground something that we should view positively? What are the risks in making common cause with those who may not see things just as we do? At the end of his week’s lesson, are two articles that address this issue, one by James White from 1876, and one by the author of the study guide from In this connection, an 1876 editorial by James White in The Review and Herald may be instructive. It is reproduced below after this week’s study guide.

4. All things to all people. Closely linked with the previous question is Paul’s statement of being “all things to all people” in order to win some (1 Cor. 9:19-27). How does one know where the boundaries are when one begins to reach other people where they are?

5. House churches. The New Testament suggests that house churches were a strong part of the social fabric of the new Christian movement (cf. 1 Cor. 16:19). Is that early “urban” method one that we could employ with profit today when we seek to witness in heavily populated areas?

The Two Bodies:
The relation which the S.D. Baptists and the S.D. Adventists sustain to each-other.

By James White
The Review and Herald. October 12, 1876

On the broad platform of the divine law, and redemption from it’s transgression through the death and mediation of the divine Son, both the Seventh Day Baptists and the Seventh-day Adventists stand in general agreement. Here are the great tests of the Christian life, and a fitness for heaven; and besides these there are no others.

The principal difference between the two bodies is the immortality question. The S.D. Adventists hold the divinity of Christ so nearly with the trinitarian, that we apprehend no trial here. And as the practical application of the subject of the Gifts of the Spirit to our people and to our work is better understood by our S.D. Baptist brethren, they manifest less concern for us on this account.

But the views which both bodies entertain respecting free investigation and the right to personal opinion forbid any restriction whatever to be laid upon each other in the proper advocacy of the sentiments in which both cannot at present agree. We recommend, however, that there be no controversy between the two bodies. The differences between us are of such a nature, and we have in common so broad a field of labor with those who differ with us respecting the fundamentals, upon which hangs the destiny of a world lying in wickedness, that Seventh-day Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists cannot afford a controversy on doctrines which neither regard as tests of Christian character.

Both bodies have specific work to do. God bless them both in all their efforts for its accomplishment. The field is a wide one. And we further recommend that Seventh-day Adventists in their aggressive work avoid laboring to build up Seventh-day Adventist churches where Seventh Day Baptist churches are already established. If ministers or members from the Seventh Day Baptists regard it their duty to come with us, under the impression that the can serve the cause of God better, we shall give them a place with us. But we see no reasons why there should be any effort put forth on the part of our people to weaken the hands of our Seventh Day Baptist brethren in order to add to our numbers from those who were before us in revering the ancient Sabbath of the Lord.

If it pleases our Seventh Day Baptist brethren, let the interchange of courtesies in the appointment of delegates to be continued, and be conducted in a manner to secure mutual benefit. The visits of the worthy delegates from the Seventh Day Baptists, Pres. Allen, Elders Wardner, Burdick, Rogers, Hull and Prof. Whitford, have done our people good. And if the delegates from our people to that body, Elders Andrews, Smith, Canright, and others, have failed to do that people good, it has been from want of ability and a knowledge how to work out that good which was in their hearts to do.

What God in his wise providence has marked out for these two bodies in their future labors and destiny, the future alone can unfold. But whatever that may be, it seems a certainty to us today, while looking with faith and hope toward that untried future, and cherishing a filial love for those whose history of loyalty to High Heaven stretches across long centuries, that no good can result to either from controversy and proselyting, and no harm can come to either from those courtesies and labors of love calculated to build each other up on our common faith.

We do not say that we have seen the proper relation between the two bodies as clearly and joyfully as we do today; neither do we wish to be held responsible for what some of our people have done, or may do, not in harmony with the foregoing. But that our settled convictions on the subject for more than five years maybe understood, we quote from our report of the Clear Lake (Wis.) campmeeting, which appeared in Review and Herald for July 4, 1879:-

At the close of the Sabbath morning service, we were cordially greeted by many who reported themselves Seventh Day Baptists, who gave our hand the very next thing to it, if not the real Advent Shake. Among these was Prof. Cornwall, of the Albion, Wis., S.D. Baptist Academy, who invited us to speak to the citizens of his place. Nothing could have given us greater pleasure than to have responded to this, and similar courtesies by speaking freely to this people upon the great fundamentals of our common faith – the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ; but hoarseness, fatigue, and the labors of the Minnesota Campmeeting the next week, compelled us to pass on without even calling on any of our S.D. Baptist friends.

Here we may, by divine grace, enjoy a strong union; and while Seventh-day Adventists may prize very highly, and tenaciously hold, their views upon the immortality question, and may cherish as important to the glory of God and their own prosperity, their definite views of the manifestation of spiritual gifts, they will agree that it will be much better to seek for that union that may be enjoyed upon the broad fundamentals of our faith, than to sacrifice that union in urging upon the Seventh Day Baptists sentiments peculiar to Adventists.

We are happy to say here that a full statement of our views and feelings, outlined in this article, was given by the writer before the recent General Conference of the S.D. Baptists, which apparently met with a full approval from that body. It is with great pleasure that we look back to the happy hours spent with that good people, and only regret that we could remain no longer with them.

– J.W.

Ellen White: An “Emerging Church” Spokesperson?
By Alden Thompson
Cf. Adventist Today 19.3 Summer 2011, 20-21, 29.

Ellen White never heard of the “emerging church.” Nor did Isaiah or Paul. Jesus hadn’t heard of it either.

So with conversations about the “emerging church” raging all around us, how can we appeal to “inspired” writers in the discussion?

That’s a crucial question to which I will propose a simple three-part answer. But first let’s explore the possibility of Ellen White being a spokesperson for the “emerging church.”

Ellen White: An Early Rob Bell?

Without fully vouching for its accuracy, I would recommend the Wikipedia article on “emerging church.” It’s a good place to start in trying to grasp the complexity of the movement. To summarize and oversimplify, we could see it as a late 20th-century attempt to break away from some of the rigidities of traditional Christianity.

Adventists should prick up their ears, for emergent spokesperson Rob Bell has recently published Love Wins, a book that moves close to Adventist positions on hell and salvation for non-believers. Evangelicals have criticized Adventism for its liberal stance on these doctrines and Bell is now getting the same treatment. We should be able to affirm him for the good things he says without being unduly preoccupied with his errors.

The American religious right, however, has developed a powerful negativism that attacks a long list of “evils” including “spiritual disciplines” and “emerging church.” Someone recently sent me a YouTube link with all the presentations listed under the heading, “Know Your Enemy.” Every entry was an attack against an “enemy” of Christianity. Unfortunately, many in Adventism have adopted this negative rhetoric against the “emerging church,” making it nearly impossible to affirm the good in Bell’s book.

Two key Ellen White quotations point Adventism in a healthier direction. First: “The Lord wants His people to follow other methods than that of condemning wrong,” she wrote, “even though the condemnation be just. He wants us to do something more than to hurl at our adversaries charges that only drive them further from the truth.” – Testimonies for the Church 6:121 (1901).

The second quote is from an 1887 letter to a Brother Boyd who was headed to South Africa for mission service. She advised him not to emphasize our unique doctrines because they would “often erect a formidable barrier between you and those you wish to reach.” Speak on “points of doctrine on which you can agree,” she counseled. “Give them evidence that you are a Christian, desiring peace, and that you love their souls. Let them see that you are conscientious. Thus you will gain their confidence; and there will be time enough for doctrines.” – Gospel Workers, 119-120 [1915]; Evangelism, 200; cf. “Letter to a Minister and His Wife Bound for Africa” [June 25, 1887 = Letter 12, to Elder Boyd; almost verbatim “original” of the Gospel Worker quote] in Testimonies to Southern Africa, pp. 14-20.

Adventism As an “Emerging Church”

I would argue that when we attack the “emerging church” we are denying an essential part of our heritage and losing a wonderful opportunity to spread the good news. In our early years, Adventism was clearly an “emerging church,” a counter-cultural movement – “sectarian” is the technical term. Such movements begin when the dominant culture no longer seems able to nurture genuine spiritual life. Thus Adventism became an “emerging church,” seeking to break loose from orthodox rigidities. Greg Dodds, a colleague in our Walla Walla University history department, quipped that early Adventism formed a movement by bringing all the old “heresies” together: Seventh-day Sabbath, sabbatarianism, no immortal soul, no eternally-burning hell, no Trinity or full divinity of Christ, and no creed.

But rarely does a new movement stay put. That was true of Adventism, especially in regard to the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. In 1852 James White could talk about that “old trinitarian absurdity.” [Review and Herald, Aug. 5, 1852, 52, cited by George Knight, A Search for Identity (RH, 2000), 17] But in 1898, in The Desire of Ages, Ellen White, though not using the term “trinity,” affirmed the full divinity of Christ, a key aspect of the trinity doctrine: “In Christ,” she wrote, “was life original, unborrowed, underived.” [The Desire of Ages 530 (1898)] Today Adventists still maintain their convictions on soul and hell, but believe God used Ellen White to help us see in Scripture the full divinity of Christ. That was not an easy change. M. L. Andreasen called it “revolutionary.” He actually visited Ellen White in person to see if she had written it. He was “astonished” to see the quote in Ellen White’s own handwriting. [George Knight, Search for Identity, 116-117]

Jesus, the Apostles, and Early Adventism

Jesus, too, was a founder of an “emerging church” movement, one that was clearly counter-cultural as far as Judaism was concerned. In seeking a more people-centered approach, Jesus trampled on key Jewish traditions, putting his new wine in new wineskins, as he put it (cf. Matt. 9:17). His people killed him for it.

Typically, sectarian movements are confrontational, challenging the status quo. That was certainly true of the early church. If one reads Steven’s speech in Acts 7 it’s not hard to see why they stoned him.

Adventism, too, was confrontational in its founding. The Second Angel’s message, “Babylon is fallen” (Rev. 14:8), played a key role, especially when linked with Revelation 18:4, “Come out of her, my people.”

But if one takes Jesus very seriously, as Ellen White did, then a sectarian movement can begin to reflect more fully the methods of Jesus. The Desire of Ages (1898) is masterful in that respect. Confrontation is still part of the story, but the tone is dramatically different. Now you can hear the “tears” in Jesus voice when he utters his “scathing rebukes.” [Desire of Ages, 353 (1898)][

Furthermore the preferred mode has become cooperation instead of confrontation. As in the 1887 letter noted above, Ellen White was now advising Adventists to work with people on “points of doctrine on which you can agree.” – Gospel Workers 120 (1915 [1887]).

A Surprising Example: The Great Controversy

But perhaps most surprising is the way Ellen White followed the principle of working with others on points of agreement in the writing of The Great Controversy, one of the more “confrontational” books to come from her pen. But even in that confrontational book, Ellen White focused on points of agreement when she dealt with the various reformers.

Thus Ellen White celebrates John Wycliffe as the “morning star of the reformation” and translator of the Bible into English. [The Great Controversy 79-96 (1911)] But Wycliffe was a predestinarian and did not believe in the separation of church and state at all, points on which Ellen White would sharply differ with him. But she doesn’t mention those distractions. She focuses on points on which she could agree.

Similarly, she praises Martin Luther for his teaching on righteousness by faith, his attack on papal abuses, and his work in translating the Bible into the language of the people. [GC 120-170 (1911)]. But she does not tell us about his predestinarian theology, his brutal suppression of the peasant revolt, and his rabid anti-Semitism. She focused on points on which she could agree.

Finally, in the chapter, “The French Reformation” [GC 211-236 (1911), Ellen White describes the work of several reformers, John Calvin being the most prominent. She speaks highly of his efforts to establish the principles of Protestantism, but she does not mention his predestinarian theology or his heavy-handed rule in Geneva where 58 dissenters were killed and 76 banished during his rule (1541 to 1564). She looked on the positive side, focusing on points on which she could agree.

In short, Ellen White was indeed a champion of the “emerging church.” She felt no obligation to attack or even mention points of disagreement. She simply practiced what she preached: “The Lord wants his people to follow other methods than that of condemning wrong, even though the condemnation be just.” – 6T 121 (1901)

Ancient Texts: Modern Issues

So how can we use inspired writers to address issues like the “emerging church”? Here are three steps:

First, we look to Jesus, searching his life and teachings for principles that can be applied elsewhere in Scripture and in our modern era.

Second, we illustrate those principles with the applications we have found in Scripture.

Third, we compare the applications from Scripture with the situations and circumstances in our day.

With such an approach we may not find a specific text for every issue we want to address. And that’s troubling, indeed unacceptable, for those devout people who want only clear-cut applications. But if we insist on finding a specific text for each issue, the result can be highly selective. The Bible, for example, doesn’t say anything against tobacco or drugs – so, the logic would go, we can’t say anything against them either.

I well remember a conversation with an Adventist brother who objected to my support for women in ministry because Paul said women should not teach or have authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12). In the conversation that followed he ended up arguing in favor of slavery, polygamy, and blood vengeance – with good proof texts for them all.

But if we take Jesus – and sin – very seriously, we can understand why we won’t always find good key texts for everything we want and why some key texts that we do find should not be used at all today.

We start with the simplest principle stated by Jesus: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12, NRSV).

That’s simple, but not easy. Because sin has had such a devastating impact on humanity, we constantly have to ponder how to adapt God’s message to particular people in particular situations. When we treat them as we would want to be treated if we were in their place, we have to follow Paul’s example of being “all things to all people” in order to “save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, NRSV).

The Hazards of “Adaptation”

But such “adaptation” is deeply troubling for some, including many evangelical Christians. For example, when I was looking for a publisher for my book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? [Paternoster Press, 1988; Pacesetters, 2003; Energion 2011), an evangelical professor at the University of Edinburgh noted that the evangelical publisher, InterVarsity UK, would never touch the book because I had stressed “accommodation” far too strongly.

Based on my own study of Ellen White, I have concluded that she also did not readily make peace with the idea of accommodation (or adaptation). The only explicit statement I know of is a relatively late one (1890) commenting on the custom of blood vengeance which required the next of kin to redeem the family’s honor by tracking down a killer to even the score. The cities of refuge were established as a kind of half-way house, blunting some of the more horrific aspects of the custom (cf. Numbers 35:9-34). Ellen White called this plan a “merciful provision” that would “insure the safety of those who should take life unintentionally.” But perhaps more revealing are these words: “The Lord did not see fit to abolish this custom at that time.” – Patriarchs and Prophets 515 (1890).

She does not explain why the Lord could not abolish such a deadly custom immediately. But if God is going to be “all things to all people,” change cannot come immediately. He must win; he must convince. He cannot simply overpower.

Ellen White’s superb explanation of that principle is based on her own experience with health reform: “We must go no faster,” she argued, “than we can take those with us whose consciences and intellects are convinced of the truths we advocate. We must meet the people where they are.” Some have required “many years” to grasp an advanced understanding of health reform. “If we should allow the people as much time as we have required,” she noted, “we would be very patient with them, and allow them to advance step by step as we have done until their feet are firmly established on the health reform platform. But we should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps. In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people.” – 3T 20-21 (1872).

The “emerging church” is seeking to do a noble work, but the results will always be erratic and partial. That’s inevitable when the Spirit leads his children to break new ground. But let’s not attack them for their errors. Let’s rejoice with them on points on which we can agree. That’s what we can learn from Ellen White, that notable spokesperson for the “emerging church.”

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