A man was a new student of the Bible.
One day he was looking into the Bible for some guidance. Not knowing where to look, he simply opened the Bible randomly and pointed his finger at a passage. Wherever his finger landed, he would take the text as advice. The first text he pointed at was Judas “went and hanged himself.” Not knowing what to make out of that, he tried again. This time it was “Go and do likewise.” Completely baffled, he tried a third time, and his finger landed on “What you do, do quickly.”
Examples abound of individuals using the Scriptures out of context. Sometimes we too are guilty of such false attribution by removing a passage from its original background in such a way as to distort its intended meaning, and using it as an authority to support some position. Such misuse and abuse of statements are commonly seen in politics, advertising, social media, and, unfortunately, in the usage of the Spirit of Prophecy.
A case in point is the phrase “kingly power.” The phrase has been used indiscriminately without regard to the original situations and circumstances under which it was written. The phrase “kingly power” is mentioned 103 times in the Spirit of Prophecy. Its use falls into three basic categories: counsels on general matters, counsels to specific individuals, and counsels to the General Conference.
In these references, the term “kingly power” is used in a broad sense to describe Jesus’ kingly power that He laid aside at His incarnation and in His self-sacrificing life. Several of the general references are related to James and John and their experience of coveting the highest positions of honor and desiring kingly power in Christ’s kingdom.1Here is an example of Ellen White’s use of the term “kingly power” in relationship to Jesus:
“When Christ laid down his life on Calvary, He put aside His kingly power and demonstrated to the world a life of self-denial and sacrifice.”2
A careful analysis of this statement and other similar statements reveals that the term kingly power is used to describe the rightful authority of Christ as the divine, eternal Son of God that He willingly surrendered in loving self-sacrifice to redeem the human race. One day He will return with “kingly authority” as “King of kings” to deliver His people (Revelation 19:11-16).
Aside from these general statements, Ellen White also penned personal messages regarding kingly power to specific individuals, most notably, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and Elder A.G. Daniells.
Ellen White highly respected Kellogg as a medical missionary pioneer, but she cautioned him against assuming too much responsibility and control in the medical missionary work in Battle Creek.3She warned him against using kingly power over “God’s heritage.” Time and again, Ellen White talked about the importance of humility in God’s service. “God has given you special endowments,” she told Kellogg, “but because of this you are not to feel that you can exert a kingly power.”4
In this sense, kingly power is the abuse of one’s rightful authority. This aspect of kingly power was also manifested during the General Conference presidency of A.G. Daniells.
On June 5, 1901, Ellen White counseled him about God’s displeasure over the greed and selfishness in “demanding high wages” at the publishing houses.5In this message, she repeated the phrase kingly power twice in reference to the managers of the publishing houses who used “unsanctified wisdom” and “corrupted principles” in managing the work.
She wrote, “For two or three years the kingly power that ruled closed the door against the light God had sent to the world in Great Controversy and Patriarchs and Prophets.”6If the managers had allowed God to purify the publishing work from “selfishness, covetousness, and unfair dealing,” many more books would have been purchased, and many souls would have read the two books and found their way to the kingdom.7
Three weeks later, on June 28, 1901, Daniells received another message from Ellen White lamenting about leaders who had “taken to themselves a kingly power,”8 controlling church finances and using them in a “most disproportionate manner.” Throughout her prophetic ministry Ellen White wrote to various individuals about the abuse of authority using the term kingly power.
GENERAL CONFERENCE SESSIONS
She also used the term to refer to General Conference leadership. Most of these testimonies spanned the course of three years (1901-1903) and, generally, were also messages of reproof and counsel to specific individuals at specific times under specific circumstances. To take them out of their historical context is certainly to misapply the counsel of Ellen White. Two days before the General Conference Session in 1901, a group of church leaders met with Ellen White in the Battle Creek College library to listen to her counsel.9She went straight to the point by saying that the work of God should not be dependent on one person or a small group of people. She continued:
“Over and over again men have said, ‘The voice of the Conference is the voice of God; therefore everything must be referred to the Conference. . . .’ As the matter has been presented to me, there is a narrow compass, and within this narrow compass, all the entrances to which are locked, are those who would like to exercise kingly power.”10
She went on to urge the 1901 delegates to implement the distribution of responsibilities. Without such reorganization, the voice of the General Conference could not be regarded as the voice of God.
“That these men should stand in a sacred place, to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be, —that is past. What we want now is a reorganization. We want to begin at the foundation, and to build upon a different principle.”11
Then for the second time in the same address, she talked about the danger of exercising kingly power by a few individuals controlling all aspects of the work: “Now I want to say, God has not put any kingly power in our ranks to control this or that branch of the work.”12
Ellen White went on to elaborate on the urgency of reorganizing the church, switching from an exclusive approach of a handful of people controlling the church to a more inclusive system with broadbased representation.
During the initial period of the church’s development, Battle Creek became the national and international headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The work was centralized with a small group of church leaders in control. Since its inception in 1863, the church had grown exponentially, not only in terms of membership, number of conferences and missions, but also educational, publishing, and healthcare institutions. Yet, the original administrative structure remained unchanged. The two basic organizational levels (local conference and the General Conference) continued from 1863 to 1901.
The General Conference Executive Committee is the decision-making body of the church when the General Conference was not in session. This committee had just three members in 1863, five in 1883, seven in 1887, nine in 1889, eleven in 1893, and thirteen in 1899.13 With such a small administrative body caring for the various logistical and financial matters around the world, it became obvious that the mission expansion of the world church had outgrown the original structure. The General Conference could not adequately supervise the day-today operations of the conferences in North America as well as entities overseas. Under such an untenable situation, Ellen White gave the following counsel:
“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 say what plans shall be followed. The burden of the work in this broad field should not rest upon two or three men.”14
This reorganization that Ellen White appealed for came at the 1901 General Conference Session. It went down in history as having made major decisions to embark on an “entirely different course of action” as Ellen White had admonished. The new union conference structure was put in place, the General Conference Committee was enlarged and expanded to include representatives from the world field, departments were established, and independent organizations were brought under the control of the General Conference.
Ellen White’s concern about General Conference leaders exercising kingly power and her comment that she could no longer consider the decisions of the General Conference as the voice of God were in this way addressed and rectified.15
Apart from general statements referring to Christ’s rightful authority, the phrase kingly power was used by Ellen White at specific times, for specific needs, for a specific group of people. It referred to the abuse of authority rather than the rightful exercise of administrative authority. Ellen White is very clear regarding the authority of God’s church: “God has invested His church with special authority and power which no one can be justified in disregarding and despising, for he who does this despises the voice of God.”16
ELLEN WHITE EXPRESSES CONFIDENCE
After 1901, Ellen White increasingly expressed her confidence in the future of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Her clear testimonies reveal her unwavering confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s church.
The 1909 General Conference Session held in Washington D.C. was the first session with delegates from each of the world’s major continents. It was also the last Session Ellen White attended. She took this opportunity to reiterate the authority of the General Conference in session:
“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 as sembled in a General Conference, shall have authority.”17
She frankly states, in the same address, that “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.”18
The notion that Ellen White’s statements regarding kingly power have universal application is incorrect and should be debunked. We should use Spirit of Prophecy statements responsibly and always in context. Aside from a general use of the phrase “kingly power” and her specific counsels to individuals, Ellen White also applied it to the General Conference leadership as it existed up until 1901 when she identified the great need of reorganization for mission. Her counsels were followed and measures were put in place to pave the way for mission expansion.
What is “kingly power” and when does the legitimate exercise of church authority become what Ellen White calls “kingly power”? Speaking of church authority she queries, “What would be the use of a church if each one is permitted to choose his own course of action? Everything would be in the greatest confusion; there would be no harmony, no union.”19
The 1913 General Conference Session delegates were privileged to listen to Ellen White’s final message to the Church in session. Her reassuring words were read to the session by the General Conference president, A. G. Daniells.
“I am encouraged and blessed as I realize that the God of Israel is still guiding His people and that He will continue to be with them,” she wrote, “even to the end.”20
1. Ellen G. White, The Acts of Apostles, Mountain View, Calif., Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 541.
2. Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, August 18, 1904, par. 5. Here and in subsequent references when “kingly power” is italicized, the emphasis is supplied.
3. Ellen G. White, Ms. 156b, 1901, par. 15.
4. Ellen G. White, Letter 199, 1901, par. 17.
5. Ellen G. White, Letter 59, 1901 (June 5, 1901) par. 14.
6. Ibid., par. 8.
7. Ibid., par. 9.
8. Ellen G. White, Letter 60, 1901 (June 28, 1901) par. 2.
9. Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Elmshaven Years, vol. 5, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2002), p. 76.
10. Ellen G. White, Ms. 43, 1901, par. 4.
11. General Conference Bulletin, April 3, 1901, par. 25.
12. Ibid., April 3, 1901, par. 34.
13. Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Elmshaven Years, vol. 5, p. 71, regarding the 1899 GC Committee: “Even so, the group was widely scattered and did not often meet for a full meeting. Six of the thirteen men were the district leaders spread out across North America. Two men represented overseas work and resided overseas. This left four members of the General Conference Executive Committee resident in Battle Creek. These, with the secretary and the treasurer of the General Conference, who were not members of the Committee, formed a sort of unofficial officer group that carried the day-to-day responsibilities of the operation of the church.”
14. Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 13, p. 192.
15. The Lord revealed to Ellen White after the 1901 Session that reformation effected in the Session had not gone far enough. She expressed her agony in the famous chapter “What Might Have Been” found in Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, pp.104-106.
16. Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 164.
17. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, pp. 260-261 (emphasis supplied).
18. Ibid., p. 260.
19. Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 5, p. 296.
20. Selected Messages, Book Two, p. 406.