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Ellen White: Supporting, Seldom Seen
By Dan Martella
My first year college Greek class was filled with young ministerial students who were eager to step into their pulpits and wow folks with their command of the biblical languages. Knowing that real-life people in our churches are far more interested in the practical encouragement found in Scripture, our professor wisely brought our “heads in the clouds” class back down to earth when he said, “When you preach, use the Greek like a good pair of underwear — Supporting, but not seen.”
Through the years I have found this pulpit ministry insight to not only hold true with the Greek, but with the writings of Ellen White as well. The “Red Books” are chock full of inspired insights that shed light on the biblical passages and brighten the path in our walk with Jesus. My personal journey with Jesus has been blessed by this gift, and my preaching ministry has delivered deeper, richer veins of golden truth through the insights gained from the writings of this dear woman. And yet I seldom quote her in my sermons.
Why? Because I am a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who believes that ultimate authority for what we preach and teach is found in the Bible. The Bible is the written Word of God. An infallible revelation of His will. The standard of character. The authoritative revealer of doctrine.[i] That is why the apostle Paul tells us to “preach the Word,”[ii] and why Ellen White tells us that “the words of the Bible, and the Bible alone, should be heard from the pulpit.”[iii]
I am also a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who has a profound respect and gratitude for the gift Ellen White’s writings still bring to the life and ministry of our church today. I believe that this requires a proper and balanced understanding of the relationship shared between the Bible and the writings of Ellen White. We have always believed that Ellen White’s writings are “a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light (the Bible).”[iv] When our sermons strike that kind of balance, Adventist preachers not only affirm the gift of light seen in the writings of Ellen White, they affirm the even greater light found in the Word of God.
Lastly, I am a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who is committed to the mission of the church. We are not here just to talk to ourselves – we are here to win our friends for Jesus Christ. Every ministry of the church – even the Sabbath morning worship services – finds its meaning and purpose as we meet people where they are and lead them to the foot of the Cross. Every Sabbath I know that there will be non-Adventist guests in my church – People who are unchurched. People who belong to other faiths. People who have never heard of Ellen White. People who wonder what Adventists are all about. People who wonder if we are truly Jesus-following, Bible-teaching Christians. If I frequently quote Ellen White as a source of authority for what I have to say, my guests are likely to question the integrity of our church’s message. If I preach Christ from the Scriptures, with uncited insights from Ellen White’s writings tucked into my sermon, then my guests are more likely to embrace the relevance of our Christ-centered message.
In his book, Feed My Sheep, H.M.S. Richards tells the story of the time when he was a little boy and Ellen White showed up unannounced at the church his father pastored. Out of respect for the prophet, the young pastor offered her the pulpit. Knowing that God had given Pastor Richards a message for the people, Ellen White declined the invitation and took her place in the congregation.
After the worship service the preacher and the prophet fell into conversation. “Your sermon helped me spiritually; it blessed me,” she told him. Then she added, “If you keep preaching as you do, your voice so high and strained, you’ll die in a few years.” Over the next 15 minutes she taught him more about public speaking than he had learned in all of his homiletics courses at Battle Creek College.
The young pastor had one more thing to ask the prophet – “Sister White,” he said, “I'd like to ask you how to use your writings in my public work. I hear one man say this, another that. Some men bring in a pile of those red books this high. Some men read quotations. Some men do this, some men do that. What should we do? How should we use your writings in our public work?"
The prophet answered wisely, "When you decide to preach on a subject, go to the Bible and study that subject thoroughly. Read everything the Bible says on the subject and anything in connection with it. Study it thoroughly and exhaustively from the Bible. Then go to these writings that the Lord has given to me and read everything on that subject and see if there are not some rays of light focused on those scriptures. Then (and here's the important part of it) go to the people and preach the message to them out of the Bible." [v]
Ellen White’s writings directly conclude the matter by telling us, “The testimonies of Sister White should not be carried to the front. God's Word is the unerring standard. The Testimonies are not to take the place of the Word ... Let all prove their positions from the Scriptures and substantiate every point they claim as truth from the revealed Word of God."
Is there a place for the writings of Ellen White in our preaching? You bet! Often supporting, seldom seen.
[i] Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Seventh-day Adventists Believe, (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2005), p. 19.
[ii]2Timothy 4:2
[iii] Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1943), p. 626.
[iv] Ellen G. White, Colporteur Ministry, (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1933), p. 125.
[v] H.M.S. Richards, Feed My Sheep, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1958), pp. 120 – 124.
[vi] Ellen G. White, Evangelism, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1946), p. 256.