A Crisis of Leadership

Crisis of Leadership

One of the highly successful—and deeply troubling—assignments in my Inspiration class focuses on the prophetic calling. Biblical examples of the prophetic call form the backdrop to the reading of Ellen White’s autobiography in the Testimonies (1T 9, 112).  Almost universally, my students have found Ellen White’s story very moving—and very troubling. The Lord’s hand was sometimes very heavy on her. And that’s what has troubled my students (and me. . .).

For example, from the summer of 1848 when her first child was just one year old, she recalled this wrenching story; I have italicized the most “troublesome” words:

And now a painful duty presented itself. For the good of souls we felt that we must sacrifice the company of our little Henry, that we might give ourselves unreservedly to the work. My health was poor, and he would necessarily occupy a great share of my time. It was a severe trial, yet I dared not let the child stand in the way of my duty. I believed that the Lord had spared him to us when he was very sick, and that if I should let him hinder me from doing my duty, God would remove him from me. Alone before the Lord, with most painful feelings and many tears, I made the sacrifice, and gave up my only child, then one year old, for another to exercise a mother’s feelings toward him, and to act a mother’s part. We left him in Brother Howland’s family, in whom we had the utmost confidence. They were willing to bear burdens to leave us as free as possible to labor in the cause of God. We knew that they could take better care of Henry than we could while journeying, and that it was for his good to have a steady home and good discipline. It was hard parting with my child. His sad little face, as I left him, was before me night and day; yet in the strength of the Lord I put him out of my mind, and sought to do others good. Brother Howland’s family had the whole charge of Henry for five years.[1]

I remind my students that this was not God’s view, but Ellen White’s perception of God.  All we have in Scripture and in the writings of Ellen White are human perceptions. With reference to our ability to read the mind of God, Scripture itself declares, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9, NRSV).

Ellen White reinforces this perspective when she writes: “Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen. Look at the different writers. It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired” (Ms 24, 1886, 1 SM 21).

Perhaps the most striking parallel to Ellen White’s anguish is provided by Ezekiel’s report of the loss of his wife:

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners. So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded (Ezek. 24:15-18, NRSV).

Isaiah 55:8-9, reinforced by Ellen White’s comments, can enable us to hear such horrific sentiments—and still believe.

But now let us return to Isaiah’s prophetic calling. And here I include his call in a list of eight Old Testament call narratives—with references and succinct descriptions that are often vivid and provocative. I want my free-will loving students to confront the text as it reads. And with the exception of Isaiah’s, all the call narratives appear to include coercive elements.  Isaiah was the only one who “volunteered”—but who wouldn’t “volunteer” in the face of such an overpowering sound and light show!

From the list that follows, it would be good to check the biblical references and read each “call” experience in context:

A)         (Exod. 3:1- 4:17) Moses: divine coaxing and urging; many excuses in return.

B)          (Num. 11:16-30) The Seventy: one-time, non-volitional experience.

C)          (Num. 22-24) Balaam: prophetic dictation (cf. Num. 31:16; Josh. 13:22).

D)         (1 Sam. 19:18-24) Saul: non-rational, ecstatic prophetic trance, seemingly imposed for defensive purposes (to protect the innocent).

E)          (Isaiah 6) Isaiah: a call “almost” freely chosen.

F)          (Jeremiah 1:4-19; 12:1-17; 20:7-18) Jeremiah: coerced, overpowered, openly complaining.

G)         (Ezekiel 2-3; 24:15-18) Ezekiel: coerced, overpowered, but uncomplaining and unemotional.

H)         Jonah 1, 3-4) Jonah: angry, reluctantly obedient – a failed “prediction” but successful “prophecy.”

So where is “free-will” in all those heavy-handed experiences? In my view, such heavy-handedness is something that God reserves for prophets. He treats ordinary humans much more gently. An insight from Adventist history has pointed me to that kind of distinction. In Ellen White’s day, some were appealing to her seemingly strong-arm tactics to justify their own use of the heavy hand. Ellen White discouraged such a connection. These are her specific words to those who attempted to justify their own approach by appealing to hers:

God has not given my brethren the work that He has given me.  It has been urged that my manner of giving reproof in public has led others to be sharp and critical and severe. If so, they must settle that matter with the Lord. If others take a responsibility which God has not laid upon them; if they disregard the instructions He has given them again and again through the humble instrument of His choice, to be kind, patient, and forbearing, they alone must answer for the results. With a sorrow-burdened heart, I have performed my unpleasant duty to my dearest friends, not daring to please myself by withholding reproof, even from my husband; and I shall not be less faithful in warning others, whether they will hear or forbear.[2]

Perhaps we could say that strongly theocentric temperaments are the ones most likely to experience God’s heavy hand. For more ordinary mortals (like thee and me), he is much gentler. These lines from Isaiah 42:1-4—echoed almost verbatim in Matthew 12:15-21—reflect God’s preferred way of relating to the human family:

Isaiah 42:1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

    he will bring forth justice to the nations.

2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,

    or make it heard in the street;

3 a bruised reed he will not break,

    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;

    he will faithfully bring forth justice.

4 He will not grow faint or be crushed

    until he has established justice in the earth;

    and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

But sometimes God has a really tough assignment that requires extraordinary methods, maybe even some arm-twisting. C. S. Lewis might put such arm twisting in the context of the great battle between good and evil: “If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.”[3]

Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

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[1]Testimonies 1:87. The autobiography was most likely written in 1885.

[2]Testimonies 5:20 [1882]; repeated in 5:677-78 [1889].

[3]. C. S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1987), 11.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10974
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That is interesting isn’t this the same prophet that supported the Investigative Judgment. Which apparently devolved into God on trial. Don’t get me wrong I agree with her statement God is not on trial, But I just found it interesting that this view of God on trial is so predominant in Adventism. You can see more quotes from Adventists about it in my article http://cafesda.blogspot.com/2006/09/is-god-on-trial.html

Does anyone really think that God behaves the same way after the New Testament times as He may have acted at the time of the slow foundation of the Hebrew nation and the Jewish religion? I don’t think so but then I don’t think God is harder on the prophets either as those snapshots of their lives leave a lot of data out as the intricacies of every prophet’s life is not necessarily germane to the story the writers may have written.

A thought about the burning coal that touches Isaiah’s lips. Not a pleasant idea at first. Every time I read Isaiah 6:7 I’m ready to hear a loud scream! But the prophet instead seems to be quite blisterfree and talkative afterwards. How come?

Maybe this other, proverbial, passage sheds a glow of light on it: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.” Proverbs 25:21.22, NIV - And Paul quotes it in Romans 12 to add: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” V.21.

There it is again! Our distorted idea of God as a punisher. Forgiveness as if we just had tasted an electric fence. And the biblical voice that tries to lovingly teach us: no no no! The opposite is true! God deals kindly with us! His glowing coals are acts of mercy. The fire of love that lets our prayers ascend also evaporates our guilt and shame and opens our mouths: Here I am.


I wonder if that applies to Republicans and Democrats today (just for an example)?
On the news, there is so much finger pointing and accusations, it is discouraging.
If one or the other is a Christian, how in the world would they share Christ with their polar opposite?
The crisis in political leadership seems to be because they are leading in different directions.

Politics is totally outside the realm of Christian behaviour. Politics is not based on “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Politics is an elaborate chess game, based on subterfuge and “Do unto others before they do it unto you”. A Christian politician is an oxymoron.


I agree, but I see folks who have difficulty sharing Jesus with people of opposing political views. I know of a church member who un friended his brothers in Christ because they voiced a political opinion that differed from his political views. How can such nonsense help us to get the gospel to the world, if such as that goes on?

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Interesting how we rationalize verses in the Bible so they can agree with our theology. All Christian groups are guilty of this because we all need to try to come to grips with the actions of, and thus try to compose a humanly comprehensible explanation of, our ineffable God.

Adventists have a bedrock belief in the idea of man’s unfettered free will. In the face of Biblical passages which contradict this belief, and in order to maintain it, certain concessions are formulated. Alden has proposed one in his thesis that God only overrules the free will of prophets. Is this idea Biblical?

In Isaiah 10:5 God calls Assyria ‘the rod of my anger and the staff in whose hand is my indignation. I will send him against an ungodly nation, and against the people of My wrath I will give him a command’ in speaking of the Assyrian king who would shortly attack Israel. And, when God has ‘performed all His work on Mount Zion and Jerusalem’, God will punish the king of Assyria because he boasts that the victories were by his own hand. ‘Shall the axe boast itself against him who hews with it? Or shall the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?’ Thus God took responsibility for the punishment of Israel by imposing His will on the king of Assyria.

There are many such examples in the Bible. In Isaiah 45 God takes similar credit for the future exploits of king Cyrus. God called Nebuchadnezzar ‘My servant’ and a servant does the will of his master. In 1Kings11 God tells Solomon that because Solomon was unfaithful, God would tear the kingdom of Israel apart during the reign of his son. Rehoboam’s excessive taxation was the mechanism God used.

On Friday in the adult Sabbath School we find the following passage:

“In Exodus 4:21, God says, “but I will harden his heart” (NRSV). This is the first of nine times when God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. But there were also nine times when Pharaoh hardened his own heart (for example, see Exod. 8:15, 32; Exod. 9:34).
Clearly Pharaoh possessed some kind of free will, or he would not have been able to harden his own heart. But the fact that God also hardened Pharaoh’s heart indicates that God initiated the circumstances to which Pharaoh reacted when he made his choices, choices to reject the signs God had given him. Had Pharaoh been open to those signs, his heart would have been softened, not hardened, by them.”

Yes, Pharaoh had ‘some kind of free will’. But to maintain the idea that in every instance Pharaoh had a choice and hardened his own heart is simply false. And to say his heart was never softened is also untrue. Three times Pharaoh requested that Moses ask the Lord to forgive him, once saying, ‘I have sinned this time; the Lord is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones.’ So, he was open to the signs and his heart was frequently softened but after each plague, if Pharaoh did not harden his heart, then God did it.

Thus, God carried out His plan, which he announced to Moses beforehand, ‘But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt’. Why? So that, ‘The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’

Paul understood this when he wrote,‘ For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and He hardens whom He wills.’ Paul reinforces his argument with the examples of Jacob & Esau, and the potter & clay (see Romans 9).

So, is Alden’s limited concession Biblical? I think not. It appears that God controls the will of anyone when doing so furthers His plan.

It seems to me that the summary of this week’s lesson applies to our time as well:
“At a time of insecurity, when the weakness of human leadership was painfully obvious, Isaiah was given a grand vision of the supreme Leader of the universe. Petrified by inadequacy but purified and empowered by mercy, Isaiah was ready to go forth as God’s ambassador into a hostile world.”

Please never forget that we serve a God who is sovereign over His creation and that regardless of how dark and even dangerous things look to our human eyes, He has a plan for us, to give us hope and a future - a plan that no one can overrule, forestall or impede.


The Bible is full of stories that reveal the author’s personal theology. God brags in Exodus about His clever plan to force Pharaoh to discipline him and show off His ability and willingness to kill thousands of first-borns. Balderdash. A major feature of Jesus’ ministry was showing us what His father was like. But what sense does it make to tell us that God’s love for us was demonstrated by the death of His innocent son if He killed other sons just to show off His power to do it? It sure sounded like braggadocio to me, and I don’t buy it.


Harry, I understand the difficulty we face trying to reconcile the accounts of some of the actions of God as recorded in the OT with the teachings of Jesus.

This has been a long-standing quandary for Christians. Some have suggested that the OT god was a subordinate one, a demiurge, and not the Father of Jesus. Others agree with your solution that the Bible, particularly the OT, as written, is not accurate, that God would never do such things.
So, I assume you believe that either these writings became distorted as they were passed on orally, or as they were transcribed and then translated, or they were not truthful to begin with. That last supposition implies that whatever believing that the OT authors were under inspiration means, it cannot include telling the truth. Do you want to go there? (One of the reasons I included some writings of Paul in my comment was to show that an inspired writer, the man who gave us much of the NT, agreed with their OT accounts.)

What if the problem is instead with us? What if our theology, which is based on our assumptions about God, is faulty? When we bump into the acceptable limits of God’s actions, as defined by us through our theology and our concepts of good and evil, we are forced to judge the Bible, and sometimes conclude that parts of it are not true.
The presuppositions upon which our theology is based put limits on what we deem are acceptable things for God to do or order man to do. It seems to me that you cannot accept the OT examples of the actions of God I mentioned because they fall outside these limits.
God gave us laws to live by, and it appears to me that you cannot entertain, let alone accept, the idea that He is free to operate outside them.
Are we in a position to judge God?

As I said, one of the foundational suppositions of Adventism is that God will never interfere with our free will. Alden, who I am sure knows the Bible better than I do, has recognized this problem and suggested exceptions were made in God’s dealings with His prophets. I applaud him for trying to be faithful to the Bible but I think he realizes he cannot go too far (and point out other examples as I did) because that would put him in opposition to Adventist theology and the writings of Ellen White.

I assume you are under no such constraint (at least privately) and are free to re-examine your assumption that the Bible is inaccurate and instead consider what tenets of your theology could be modified.

[quote=“DaveMoffatt, post:9, topic:21240”]
Are we in a position to judge God?

I’m a lot more comfortable trusting God than trusting a packaged collection of writings, composed by often anonymous authors, passed along orally, eventually written, copied by who knows whom, redacted, translated and then disputed as to meaning.

Believe it or not I appreciate your observations.

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Thanks for your response, Harry.
Like other Christians through the years, we struggle with reconciling some of the actions of the OT God with the teachings of Jesus.

If I can be so bold, I would like to suggest how my views on several important doctrines accepted by virtually all Christians which contribute to this quandary have changed.
My own studies have led me see that God’s plan is being revealed and implemented over ages and stages and there are several more to come, so, I think that what we believe at the time of our death (or when this age ends) does not determine our ultimate fate.
I don’t want to downplay the suffering and death in the world but my current understanding means I believe that God regards our temporal existence in this age differently than we do. It is not the final answer. Yes, there is a coming judgment at the end of this age and yes, there will be rewards and punishments resulting from this judgment depending upon what we have done with what we have had the opportunity to know. (Jesus said it will be more tolerable for Sodom in the judgment than Capernaum.) But, I believe that Christ defeated and abolished death (on the cross) as Paul stated.

So, when I read about the events such as the deaths of the firstborn of Egypt at the time of the Exodus, I believe that God will not forget them, and His agapé love means He has a plan to ultimately reconcile them to Himself.

The OT tells us that God upbraided Jonah for being angry that God cared about the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, Israel’s enemy. In Jeremiah 29 God tells the Israelite exiles that He has plans ‘to give you a future and a hope’ but only after He admonishes them to ‘Seek the peace of the city [Babylon] where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it’.

In the OT God took certain actions that appear cruel, even brutal to us now and we don’t understand why, but, as Paul wrote, ‘For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed to us.’

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I enthusiastically agree with you. So did Will Shakespeare with what I take to be tongue-in-cheek. As I recall, Hamlet said something like, “My uncle killed Daddy in a rare moment of debauchery so God sent him to eternal hellfire. If I kill Unc’ in an equally rare moment of contrition, he’ll go to Heaven. What kind of revenge is that? I think I’ll catch him later!”

This article, rather than restoring my faith in EGW’s self-proclaimed “gift” of prophecy, reinforces the Gnostic-esque assertion that her words, like those of the Old Testament, were penned by mortals under the thrall of an emotionless, amoral, terror-inducing demiurge (which was most likely a distorted reflection of their own psychoses) rather than being an inexpressible message of universal compassion related by the all-loving creator to whom Jesus referred to as his “dad” or “papa”.

In this view, the NT god is similar to a daemon available to all while the OT god is a demon capable of propagandizing the credulous many while possessing a “prophetic” one-per-generation.

This view is quickly lost again, however, when Paul fell nder the sway of the imposter while on the road to Damascus, if in fact the letters attributed to him are to be believed rather than seen, in many instances, as outright forgeries created in an attempt to codify that which is essentially ineffable.

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When the lesser light led me to the greater light,
I had light on my path that allowed me to see the Light in His beauty.

Or it didn’t happen at all. Funny that Luke knew about such an important event in Paul’s life, but Paul evidently didn’t.

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are you suggesting paul should have written about everything he knew, and would have had reason to believe others knew, and that if he didn’t write about it, it means he and others didn’t know about it…

it seems the main difference between paul and luke is that paul’s letters are mostly didactic, whereas luke’s books are mostly narrative…it may be that this difference in approach and emphasis is why the book of Acts complements the letter of paul - they need to be studied together…

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I would have absolutely no suggestions for any of the Bible authors in regards to how they should have written their messages or letters.

However I can say that studying the discrepancy between the two accounts of Paul’s mystical adventures while traveling to Damascus in the NT marked my first step along the road toward a more mature, nuanced and rational approach to the assertion of biblical inerrancy.

Did Saul’s fellow travelers hear the voices but not see the light or see the light but miss the voices?

Or how did Judas die? By hanging himself or falling off a cliff?

And does Solomon insist that a person should or should not argue with fools?

Such divergences were disconcerting to say the least for a sophomore at an SDA boarding academy who had been raised in a household where everything in the Bible absolutely agreed with every word in that book, as well as with whatever poured out of EGW’s pen, and all of it was necessarily the word of god because all its authors claimed that their words were inspired by god.

I.e., the old “trying to prove the text with the text” fallacy.

So come to think of it, I would suggest that just as I must leave it to my neighbors to say whether or not I am a good neighbor, no author should claim to be god’s middle man and should instead leave it to his readers to decide whether or not his work is of divine origin.



Can we at least agree that God didn’t physically write the OT, including all the mayhem attributed to Him?


BTW, Jeremy, my bad for responding to this, as I didn’t notice that your question had been addressed to Harry Elliott.
Further, and while I don’t feel the need to correct and/or retract my comment, I’d encourage Mr. Elliott to respond as he sees fit–and not that he needs my permission to do so. (:slightly_smiling_face:)
In any case, thanks, in advance to both of you, for your forbearance.

That’s an important fact. I wonder how many SDAs think that God did write it. Generally, our belief on this subject isn’t the result of careful study but the environment we were raised in.

Very few SDAs believe that the Septuagint is “God’s word”, but it used to be a part of the King James Version. Was it God’s word until it was separated? (I suspect that most Adventists would respond, “The sept what?”)