2 Types of Sect Leaders

I just finished teaching a course on Contemporary Religious Movements at Tyndale University College. One of the things that I enjoyed about the course was seeing the connections between the different groups. We focused on groups that developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

What was interesting was that there were two basic types of leaders of the sects that developed during this period. I call them the Bible teacher and the prophet. There is some overlap between them, but most leaders fall primarily into one or the other.

For example, Joseph Smith, Jr. was definitely in the prophet category, not that I consider him to have been a real prophet. But the religious group that he created was based primarily on what he considered to be his personal revelations. No one could have sat down with just a Bible and come up with Mormonism. It is based on the ideas of their prophet.

On the other hand, John Thomas of the Christadelphians and Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s Witnesses never claimed to be prophets. They sat down with their Bibles and attempted to discover the truth of Scripture outside of traditional interpretation. Even if we disagree with the teachings of Thomas and Russell, we can at least see where in the Bible they got their ideas. They were Bible teachers, even if orthodox Christians might argue that their interpretations were incorrect. (Check out my book, The Watchtower and the Word)

The Seventh-day Adventists are an interesting example (See my post Are Seventh-Day Adventists Christians?) William Miller, who had predicted that Jesus would come in 1844, was definitely in the Bible teacher category. His interpretation was not based on his own prophecy but on an interpretation of Daniel. Now the explanation by others about why Jesus didn’t return in 1844 was a blend of revelation/interpretation. And Ellen G. White, the founder of Seventh-day Adventism wrote her books in the style of a Bible teacher. But she was seen, during her lifetime, as a prophet by her followers.

Oneness Pentecostals are another interesting example (See my post How Did Oneness Pentecostalism Start?). Their understanding of the proper baptismal formula comparing Matthew and Acts was in the Bible teacher category (taught by Canadian R.E. McAlister). But the development of a Jesus only baptismal formula into a rejection of the Trinity was understood as revelation.

The categories of Bible teacher and prophet are not perfect, but they help us to understand the different types of sectarian leaders of this important time in history.

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Are Seventh-Day Adventists Christians?

Seventh-day Adventists are a group that appeared in the 19th century, out of the same religious culture that produced the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There has long been a debate among evangelicals as to whether or not to consider Seventh-day Adventists to be a Christian denomination or to consider it a cult. People are still divided about this.

Where Did Seventh-day Adventists Come From?

William Miller

William Miller

The 19th century was a time of great religious fervour with two specific trends: expectations of the imminent return of Jesus and careful study of the Bible apart from denominational traditions. The Seventh-day Adventists were the product of both these forces.

In the first half of the 19th century, there was a man named William Miller. Miller had predicted, by calculations from the book of Daniel, that Jesus would return in 1844. Miller convinced thousands of people that his theory was true. But when the day that was predicted came and went, many people were confused as to what had happened. This was called the Great Disappointment. However, many were to ready to give up yet.

Ellen G White

Ellen G. White

Some were still convinced of Miller’s calculations. The problem must be in the interpretation. It was determined that Miller was correct that something important had happened on that day, but it was not the return of Jesus. Rather it was Jesus entering into the heavenly sanctuary to cleanse it in preparation for his eventual (and soon) return.

Certain leaders, including Ellen G. White, took these beliefs and combined them with a renewed conviction that worship was to take place on the Sabbath, and from this emerged Seventh-day Adventism.

What Do Seventh-day Adventists Believe?

Seventh-day Adventists believe most of what would be considered orthodox Christian doctrine. This would include belief in the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the death and resurrection of Jesus and salvation by faith. Unlike the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh-day Adventists see themselves in the same line as Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley and other prominent church leaders.

Seventh-day Adventists do believe in some distinctive doctrines. This includes the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary in 1844. They also believe that it is important to worship on the Sabbath. While I see nothing wrong with Sabbath worship, I’m concerned by their identification of the mark of the beast as Sunday worship. To be fair, they don’t believe that Sunday worshipers today have the mark. Rather just before Jesus returns, the truth of Sabbath worship will be made clear and anyone who retains Sunday worship will receive the mark.

Seventh-day Adventists also believe in annihilationism or conditional immortality. This is something they share with Jehovah’s Witnesses. But is this enough to put them in the cult camp? The truth is that man orthodox Christians hold to conditional immortality. See my post Orthodox Christians and Conditional Immortality.

Are Seventh-day Adventists Christian?

Many years ago, Walter Martin caused a stir by classifying Seventh-day Adventists as a Christian denomination in his classic Kingdom of the Cults. That is not to say that Martin had no concerns. He did but argued that the weight of the evidence pushed them into the Christian side.

I have some concerns with Seventh-day Adventist theology. Their emphasis on following Old Testament rules can lead to a sense of legalism. This can be dangerous. Still, they do hold to salvation by faith and other Christian denominations also have expected standards.

The main concern is the role of Ellen White. I see two kind of religious leader in the 19th century: the Bible teacher and the prophet. Charles Taze Russel (Jehovah’s Witnesses) would be a Bible teacher and Joseph Smith, Jr. (Mormons) would be a prophet.

Ellen White seemed to see herself with a foot in both camps. I have read a number of her books and the emphasis was overwhelmingly as a Bible teacher, sharing interpretations from the Bible and church history. But many of her followers did and do consider her a prophetess. New Testament Christianity has a place for prophets, so this does not necessarily lead to heresy. The problem is when prophetic revelation is taken as an authority equal or superior to Scripture (as in Mormonism).

While some Seventh-day Adventists may have an overly exalted view of Ellen White, I would say, based on their official statements of faith, that they are a Christian denomination and not a cult. I would have no problem working with a Seventh-day Adventist pastor in ministry.

You might find this recent Twitter poll I did interesting.


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