In 2001 when I arrived at the General Conference to begin representing the world church to the U.S. Government, I knew two things:
First, religious freedom is a tremendous blessing given by God, and it is the unique responsibility of Adventists to defend it publicly. In so doing, we don't only preserve a fundamental human right, we are witnesses to the character of God.
The second thing? All good Adventist religious liberty advocates oppose government money flowing to church schools.
After all, Adventists helped found “Americans and Other Protestants United for the Separation of Church and State” – an organization that not only advocates against state funds for church schools, they go to court to oppose other Christian denomination's schools from receiving funding. I'd heard talks, read articles, and I had been well schooled in all the constitutional, theological and rhetorical reasons why we should oppose state funding for Christian education.
Today I only know one of the two things I once did. Proving, I suppose, that the older we get, the less we know! This is the story of how I got to know less than I once did, and what it means for a very big question now facing the Adventist Church in the United States.
Jones v. White
My journey started with a faith-filled man named Bob Nixon. I realize that in describing a lawyer as “faith-filled” I may have lost some readers already. However, in this case, I believe the description appropriate. You may recall that Bob was General Counsel for the GC for many years—he was our church's top lawyer. One day he invited me into his office. In his kindly way, he opened up the topic of state funding for church schools.
I replied with the stock religious liberty analysis. We must support separation of church and state. Church schools are innately religious entities and thus should not receive government funds. If they did, they would be corrupted by the funds, and the state would be corrupted by the religious lobbying that would accompany such funds.
Bob smiled and said that I had perfectly summarized A.T. Jones' view on the matter. I felt rather proud of myself. After all, A. T. Jones was the founder of our religious liberty movement, a champion of righteousness by faith and an all round remarkable fellow. Whose example better to follow?
But then Bob went on to say something along the lines of, “However, you should know that your position is directly at odds with Ellen White's view.”
I was shocked. Surely Bob was joking. Or was he simply wrong? After all, it was Ellen White who said:
“The union of the church with the state, be the degree never so slight, while it may appear to bring the world nearer to the church, does in reality but bring the church nearer to the world.” Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p 297.
Isn't state funding a sort of union?
And more, doesn't she say on p. 573 of The Great Controversy, that efforts to secure state support for “the institutions… of the church,” is a step towards the coming repression of religious freedom? Isn't state funding of our school systems exactly the kind of support for religious institutions she was talking about?
Before I left his office Bob gave me a thick compilation of Ellen White's advice on church-state relations, pointed me to some pages to read and in his soft manner asked me to let him know what I thought after I'd studied the counsel in full.
Of course I'd read The Great Controversy cover to cover. And I knew plenty of Ellen White's statements on church-state issues, but before that day, I'd never sat down and studied them all—comparing one quote to another, analyzing the context for apparently conflicting principles and delving into the meaning of her message in total.
What became quickly apparent as I devoured the thick document was what I'd thought of as Adventist views on church-state relations were very far from Ellen White's views. And no place was this more apparent than in the area of government support for Christian education. Indeed, the volume contained documents about an early religious liberty controversy in our church that challenged everything I believed on the topic.
In the 1890's, the colonial authorities in the land that we now call Zimbabwe, offered the Adventist Church land to build a school. It was to be the first Adventist school located in a predominantly non-Christian society. Without the land, it seemed that it would be impossible for the school to be established. But it was a classic case of state support for a religious school. This, of course, was opposed by A. T. Jones. And he succeeded in swinging the church behind his view. The 1895 General Conference Session, at the behest of religious liberty leaders, voted to bar the church leaders in Southern Africa from accepting the land grant and, then for good measure, went even further, to ban churches in America from receiving tax-exempt status.
When Ellen White got news of the decisions of these 1895 General Conference Session votes, she expressed strong opposition to both. Writing in favor of receiving state aid, she stated:
“Just as long as we are in this world, and the Spirit of God is striving with the world, we are to receive as well as to impart favors. We are to give to the world the light of truth as presented in the sacred Scriptures, and we are to receive from the world that which God moves upon them to do in behalf of His cause. God has not closed the door of mercy yet. The Lord still moves upon the hearts of kings and rulers in behalf of His people, and it becomes us who are so deeply interested in the religious liberty question not to cut off any favors, or withdraw ourselves from the help that God has moved men to give for the advancement of His cause.”
“Let these men [Religious Liberty leaders] read the book of Nehemiah with humble hearts touched by the Holy Spirit, and their false ideas will be modified, and correct principles will be seen, and the present order of things will be changed.” Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 200 & 202 (emphasis added).
Writing about the extreme positions taken by the religious liberty leaders on the issue of state funding, Ellen White went so far as to state:
“[I]deas of religious liberty are being woven with suggestions that do not come from the Holy Spirit, and the religious liberty cause is sickening…” Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, 200 (emphasis added).
After reading this analysis, and statements like them, I reread her writings on the union of church and state and support of Christian institutions. In context, the “institution” Ellen White was talking about was not healthcare or educational institutions, but rather doctrinal institutions—and specifically, Sunday laws. Her statement was not related to funding for schools. Similarly, the “union” she was talking about was not fiscal support, but rather the use of the state to impose doctrinal positions. I had completely misapplied her statements because I had misunderstood her message.
When I read her counsel, and other counsel similar to it, reexamined statements I had thought supported my views and realized they did not, I was faced with a choice. Maintain my allegiance to the A. T. Jones’ view of religious liberty, or accept the Ellen G. White view. Both have compelling rationales. The A. T. Jones stream remains very much alive and well in Adventism. And many of our non-Adventist allies continue to espouse it as well. It neatly fits with what I'd been taught in law school. It was respectable. And it was the safer option.
But I didn’t want my work to be, as Ellen White put it, “sickening.” I didn't want to adhere to views that are not, as she put it, sourced from the Holy Spirit. I didn't want to be out of step with the light the Adventist Church was so uniquely entrusted with.
So I changed my views. Rather than opposing state funding for Adventist schools, I supported it as long as it didn't compromise the character of our schools. I included this general support in the official Seventh-day Adventist Statement on Church-State Relations that I was asked by the GC Administration to draft, which was passed through the relevant committees and continues to be available on the General Conference's website. The relevant portion of the statement reads in part:
“[W]hen laws of a nation permit government assistance to churches or their institutions our principles permit receipt of funding that is not accompanied by conditions that inhibit our ability to freely practice and promulgate our faith, to hire only Seventh-day Adventists, to retain governance by only Seventh-day Adventists and to observe without compromise principles expressed in the Bible and the writings of Ellen G White.” General Conference Official Statement on Church-State Relations.
But are there any examples today where state funding is actually working for Adventist schools? And even if there is, is it fair or moral for parents to be able to choose where school funding for their children goes? And how does this relate to the education the children of President Obama, Trump, Clinton, and Bush received? And what does Senator Elizabeth Warren have to say about allowing poor parents the educational choice for their children that wealthy parents already enjoy? And will permitting choice provide opportunities to disabled students and disadvantaged students, or will it result in worse results? And what ever did happen to that school in Zimbabwe that Ellen White wrote so passionately about? Was she proven right, or should we have stayed with the A. T. Jones approach?
These are all very good questions. And, yes, you can find a thoughtful analysis of each one of them in a new article I've written, published by Compass:
I encourage you to click over to Compass as these questions are not small ones and there are very few places you can go to find analysis from a thoroughly Adventist perspective.
How the issue of educational funding is handled has, as is clear in Australia and many other nations around the world, a dramatic impact on the success and reach of Adventist education. And, more generally, the success of the nation's educational system. So it’s worth thinking the issue through carefully. And, like I did when Bob Nixon kindly and gently provided more information to me, be willing to change our minds even if changing our minds is hard.
May God bless you as you think through these incredibly important questions,
Windsorsda.org editor Note: The above was an E-Mail I received. I did follow the link to The Compass Magazine and read the full article. It is worth your reading. At the end I copied the following information about James Standish for those who are unfamiliar with him.
About the author