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A Multi-Gifted Prophet
The subject of spiritual gifts has only come to the fore in Christian thinking over recent decades. It was placed, for the first time, in the Fundamental Beliefs during the General Conference session at Dallas in 1980. Before this, most Adventists probably thought of spiritual gifts as being the gift of prophecy as manifested through Ellen White.
Adventism has now come of age regarding this subject and teaches that every believer has at least one of the gifts mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12 and Ephesians 4.174 There is also a general consensus that not all gifts are mentioned by Paul. The point laboured by Paul in 1Corinthians 12 is that all the gifts are necessary for the healthy function of the body. Even the gifts we do not think are so necessary are important (1 Corinthians 12:14-26). Willie White called for better understanding of the gifts. "Regarding the effort that should be made to emphasize in the minds of our people the importance, the sacredness, and the authority of the apostolic gifts, my brethren will find me fully in harmony with an effort to uplift confidence in this gift. It is my conviction that the gift of prophecy will be better understood when there is a better understanding of all the other gifts in the church"175 (emphasis added).
The message of 1 Corinthians 12 is that we must not let any one gift dominate and think that other gifts are not necessary. If we allow this to happen, we are out of harmony with clear New Testament teaching and we will never have a healthy body. There is a grave tendency in Adventism that while admiring the gift of one person, used mightily by God one hundred years ago, we may allow other gifts God has also given to His people to be eclipsed.
Some in early Adventism were determined to use their own gifts while still being true believers in Ellen White's gifts. One such highly respected person was Uriah Smith. Ingemar Linden states: "It is surprising that Uriah Smith could preserve his position in the Adventist denomination, when he at times rejected some views of EGW. [He references this statement with A. V. Olsen's book Through Crisis to Victory, chapter 9.] "Correspondence from 1883 reveal that Smith could be rather frank and independent in his attitude towards the 'Spirit of Prophecy.' . . . Smith defended the Protestant sola Scriptura view and saw no need for 'additional light' for doctrinal instruction. . . . He informed Canright: 'The idea has been studiously instilled in the minds of the people that to question the visions in the least is to become at once, a hopeless apostate and rebel; and to many, I am sorry to say, have not strength of character enough to shake off such a conception; hence the moment anything is done to shake them on the visions they lose faith in everything and go to destruction.' Thus Smith directly criticized EGW and her far-going claims."176
More Than a Prophet
There can be no doubt that Ellen White did show evidence of having the gift of prophecy, however, her own statement seems to indicate that she sees herself as being more than a prophet. "Some have stumbled over the fact that I have said I did not claim to be a prophet; and they have asked, Why is this? I have no claims to make, only that I am instructed that I am the Lord's messenger. . . . Early in my youth I was asked several times, Are you a prophet? I have ever responded, I am the Lord's messenger. I know that many have called me a prophet, but I have made no claim to this title. . . . Why have I not claimed to be a prophet? Because in these days many who boldly claim that they are prophets are a reproach to the cause of Christ; and because my work includes much more than the word "prophet" signifies.
"To claim to be a prophetess is something that I have never done. If others call me by that name, I have no controversy with them. But my work has covered so many lines that I cannot call myself other than a messenger. . . . My commission embraces the work of a prophet, but
it does not end there. It embraces much more than the minds of those who have been sowing the seeds of unbelief can comprehend"177 (emphasis added).
It is clear that she saw her work as being much more than a prophet, and gifts often come in clusters. Quite probably she also had the gifts of: Wisdom and discernment; insight and encouragement; leadership and faith.
Some have wondered if another of her gifts to be included should be the gift of apostleship. This is quite possibly a correct view if one understands the gift to be as one who pioneers new work for the church. This gift is mentioned in 2 Corinthians 8:23 where the original Greek language calls these people "apostles of churches." Roy Naden prefers to call this gift the "gift of pioneering" and clarifies what he means, "In recent years there has been quite a debate over whether or not this gift is still operative. As long as we use the usual term 'apostleship' to describe this gift we will have difficulty resolving such questions. But it seems to me that if we focus our attention on the function and not the title, we will conclude that this gift must be found today if the gospel is to reach the entire globe. We need tens of thousands of Christians gifted 'to pioneer' God's work. . . ."
He goes on to discuss more fully the meaning of the word "apostle" as he understands the function of this gift in the church today. He begins with a translation of 1 Corinthians 12:28: "Now you are Christ's body, and its respective organs, and God has placed these in the Community as follows: first envoys [pioneers]" (1 Corinthians 12:28, Schonfield). . . . The Greek noun apostolos means, 'a messenger' or 'an agent of another.' The verb means 'to send out in action' or 'to give a message.' The New Testament meaning, therefore, is quite plain: pioneers are those sent out on a mission with a special message."178
Using this definition of the word 'apostle' we find that Paul and Barnabas are called apostles in Acts 14:14 and Paul, Silas and Timothy likewise in 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2:6. This use of the gift is not to be confused with others who were called "apostles" on a basis that they had been taught directly by Christ in the flesh and had been witnesses to His resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). Paul lays claim to being an apostle with special authority because he had been a witness to the resurrection and taught directly by Christ (1 Corinthians 9:1).
He also demonstrated his apostolic calling with signs and wonders (2 Corinthians 12:12). Today we do not have such people in the church beyond the first generation of Christians. Nowhere do we find Ellen White laying claim to such authority or exercising it.179
We do, however, find her opening up "new work" as does an apostle in the sense of being a pioneer. In the early years she along with her husband were both pioneers. For many years they traveled large distances to open up new areas to the newly found faith. In this way they were gifted as was Paul, Silas, Timothy and Barnabas. Later, after her husband's death, she pioneered the founding of many of our institutions such as Loma Linda University and Avondale College.
Multi-giftedness seems to be part of the New Testament teaching regarding the receiving of the gifts of the Spirit. And so it is that Paul can write of himself, "And for this purpose I was appointed a herald [preacher] and an apostle . . . and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles" (1 Timothy 2:7, emphasis added). In Acts 13:1 Barnabas is linked with prophets and teachers yet in 14:1-4 he along with Paul is called an apostle. From this we can see that prophets along with others also teach and preach. They can at times open up new work as did Barnabas. There is a definite overlapping of ministries.
E. Earle Ellis after wrestling with multi-giftedness of leaders in the early church comes to the conclusion, "It is not always easy to distinguish the role of the prophet from that of other ministries. . . . there is no clear division in Judaism or the primitive church between the teaching of a prophet and of a teacher. . . . There is also an overlapping of the roles of apostle and prophet. . . . In summary, the ministries of the apostle and the prophet in Acts may be compared to two concentric circles, in which the circle of the prophet's activities is somewhat smaller."180
Applying Ellen White's Multi-Giftedness
The question then is, Are we always to regard Ellen White as acting as a prophet? We have seen that inspiration does not work with a prophet constantly. We have previously seen there are times when prophets give their own opinion on matters—such as Paul's perception that the boat was going to sink and there would be a loss of life (later
he was corrected by an angel), or Nathan giving advice to David only to be corrected later on by God. The prophet knows what God reveals, beyond that they know no more than anyone else.
At one time when the magazine the Health Reformer was struggling and rapidly losing subscriptions, James, Ellen White's husband, took over as editor to save the magazine. He requested that she furnish up to six pages a month as her contribution. This she did with some articles from her own pen and others, which she clipped from other periodicals. It was while acting in this capacity that many of the statements she made regarding health, which we would consider to be wrong today, were made. Statements such as the wearing of wigs causes insanity and the claim that women tightening their waists into what was called "wasp waists" could be passed on to their daughters.
The question is, Was she acting as a prophet during this time or was she using some other spiritual gift? Both Arthur White and Robert Olson took the position that she was not wearing the "hat" of a prophet but that of an editor.181 Olson goes on to put forth a dilemma regarding her writing which is, "How can we determine what is inspired and what is not?" Then he asks, "Who makes this determination? The White Estate? The GC? Does the church need to go through a process similar to the canonization process of the New Testament in order to ascertain this?"182
This is a valid point. It is obvious that in the area of health she was, for the most part, a product of her time. She does, at times, borrow from current health reformers for many of her ideas. This she uses freely as well as ideas given to her in vision. Previously we have seen that originality is not a test of inspiration and that prophets are prone to be part of their culture in areas where God has not given them special knowledge. It is obvious that some of the concepts she borrowed from health reformers were not correct.183
Even if she is acting as a prophet in these cases it is helpful to remember the need to evaluate prophecy, to understand that wheat and chaff may come out. God does not expect that we will lay aside our minds, we must use common sense. Most of what she wrote in the area of health is still of great value. We must not let a few minor points invalidate the many good points she makes. After all, she never claims
to be infallible: "In regard to infallibility, I have never claimed it; God alone is infallible. His word is true, and in Him is no variableness, or shadow of turning" (Letter 10, 1895).
Once, when a believer was upset because she spoke of one of our hospitals as having 40 rooms and he stated there were only 38, she responded by saying, "The information given concerning the number of rooms in the Paradise Valley Sanitarium was given, not as a revelation from the Lord, but simply as a human opinion. There has never been revealed to me the exact number of rooms in any of our sanitariums; and the knowledge I have obtained of such things I have gained by inquiring of those who were supposed to know. . . . But there are times when common things must be stated, common thoughts must occupy the mind, common letters must be written and information given that has passed from one to another of the workers. Such words, such information, are not given under the special inspiration of the Spirit of God."184
Inspiration does not stay with the prophet for 24 hours each day. God may reveal things to them in certain areas, but in other areas they may know no more than others. Our problem is how to sort out the sacred revealed messages from what is common or not revealed. This is not any easy task, which is why Paul exhorts us to evaluate the prophet's messages—all prophetic messages must be evaluated by the biblical messages and be subservient to them.
Another thing to keep in mind is that she may be speaking when another one of her gifts is operating, such as the gift of wisdom or discernment. When this is happening we would anticipate she would not have the same authority as when she has something directly revealed from God. How then can we know what is revealed from what is her own wisdom? How can we sort out what is revealed from what is borrowed? We may never have satisfactory answers to these questions. There are good reasons to follow the biblical injunction to evaluate prophecy. We do not lay aside our minds, we use our common-sense enlightened by a knowledge of the Bible.
If we keep in mind the biblical concepts as to why the gift of prophecy is given, from New Testament times onward, we have no problem facing these issues. Paul tells us that the gift was for "strengthening, encouragement, and comfort" (1 Corinthians 14:3). Ellen White frequently took ideas that were common knowledge in her day and
culture and applied a spiritual lesson to the lives of God's people. Recognising this, we will not become too disturbed regarding the data she uses, but continue to uphold the principle behind what she is saying.
Understanding Her Prophetic Ministry
So how do we understand how her prophetic ministry operated? This question will always be hotly debated within Adventism and we may never have full agreement. Even she seemed ambiguous about her function. When she said her work included more than a prophetic ministry it would have been helpful if she had said more to guide us. When we look at the prophetic ministry of Ellen White we see a range of things happening.
At times her ministry resembles that of Daniel and John the Revelator. She does have apocalyptic visions. She also showed the physical manifestations of Daniel—particularly in her early years. Under this prophetic mantle she claims an authority of one who has a message from God that needs to be heeded by God's people. In this mode she is similar to the classic prophets of the Old Testament who believed God used them in a special way. They confidently stressed that if the people refused to listen and heed their call it would be to their great loss.
There are times when she appears to have a ministry similar to that described in 1 Corinthians 14 when she reveals the secrets of people's lives. However, unlike the Corinthian prophets she is not restricted to a local congregation and is not one of many local prophets operating at the same time. Instead she moves around to different churches encouraging the believers. In this ministry we can see a similarity to the prophetic ministry of Agabus.
At times she bears messages that need to be evaluated by the hearers as to their appropriateness. Some of these messages need to be understood in the light of the cultural setting of the time when they were first delivered. We also have to bear in mind the human aspect in receiving and delivering the messages (as previously stated in reference to Romans 12:6). That is, there is a chance she may not get things quite right in every precise detail. Remember she never claimed infallibility.185
Mingled with the above is the fact that she may be using gifts given to her by God other than the prophetic mantle. How her multi-giftedness coordinates is a subject that invites further study. Perhaps Arthur White and Robert Olson have opened that door when they stated that she was not working in the prophetic office when acting as a sub-editor of the Health Reformer at her husband's request.
Although some issues above may be hazy, other matters are clearly important. The main one is that Ellen White repeatedly said we ought to go to the Bible and not her writings for church teachings. She says she is only the "lesser light" to lead people to the "greater light." She does not claim the authority of a biblical writer.186 Rather than claiming this authority, she is grateful to have the help of others in understanding biblical material (more on this later).
Perhaps it is best to stay with her own definition of her work—as God's messenger. She was especially called and equipped with the appropriate gifts needed to do a work in helping to establish the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Her calling and equipping was unique and in harmony with the task God had in mind for her. There is no one to whom she can be compared. That makes it difficult to tie her role down neatly, even if we do like neat packages.
____________________174 It is strongly implied by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-30, that all believers are part of the body of Christ and as such have a function according to their particular spiritual gift. [back]
175 Letter from Willie White to A. G. Daniels, 31/12/1913, p. 10. [back]
176 Smith to Canright, April 6, 1883 as quoted in The Last Trump, pp. 208-209. [back]
177 1SM, pp. 31-32, 34, 36. [back]
178 Roy Naden, Your Spiritual Gifts - Making The Great Discovery, (Berrien Springs, MI: Instructional Product Development. 1989), pp. 115-117. [back]
179 Sinclair B. Ferguson and Dasvid F. Wright, Editors, New Dictionary Of Theology, (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1988), article "Apostle". [back]
180 W. Ward Gasque and Ralph P. Martin, Editors, Apostolic History and the Gospel. Biblical and Historical Essays presented to F. F. Bruce on his 60th Birthday. (Devon England:. paternoster, 1970), pp. 64-65. [back]
181 "Current Issues On Ellen White's Writings" by Robert Olsen, March 28, 1986. p. 10. [back]
182 Ibid., p. 11. [back]
183 George W. Reid, A Sound of Trumpets, Americans, Adventists, and Health Reform, (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1982). Is an excellent work to describe how she borrowed some material from current health reformers in her day. It seems that orthodox medicine in her day was in a terrible mess. She does borrow much of what was good from the reformers but not infallibly. Some ideas had to be discarded and other ideas carried on as they were of great benefit. Proof of this is the fact that many surveys in the late 20th century have shown Adventists to be far healthier than the general population. Her warnings against the use of tobacco and vegetarianism have become well respected in our day. Her book Ministry of Healing upholding natural living is just as valid today as ever. [back]
184 1SM, pp. 38-39. [back]
185 Ibid., pp. 24, 37. [back]
she wrote "The testimonies of Sister White should not be carried to the
front. God's Word is the unerring standard. . . . Let all prove their positions from
the Scriptures and substantiate every point they claim as truth from the
revealed Word of God." Letter 12, 1890.