Category Archives: History

An Alternative View of Church Unity

Weiers Coetser

An Alternative View of Church Unity

This article was first published by Adventist Today in June 2017.


Midway through 2017 we find ourselves, for better or worse, on the rutted and pothole-filled road of “church unity.” The landscape that this road tries to navigate has been defined by some as justice. But it’s all very complicated, and here I’m going to try to give you a better lay of the land.

“The beat of justice resonates within you,” said Dan Jackson warmly and reassuringly shortly after the October 2016 Annual Council decision to accept the draft Church Unity document. He was addressing those in the North American Division who felt disillusioned by the Church’s persistent unwillingness to deal equitably and fairly with all its members and clergy—male or female.

But will things take on a different nuance if we look back at our past? Commentators have observed our tendency to co-opt, and collude uncritically, with the dominant socio-political realities of our time. A bird’s-eye view back to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is in order. We bought into the great American dream. We shaped our global expansion on the same lines. We did it with the same inexorable drive as the most august institutions of colonialism and global capitalism.

The Historical Path

Here are some connections between Adventist history and the history of colonialism:

In 1863, when the Seventh-day Adventist church was beginning to take official shape, David Livingstone was still exploring the Zambezi. Much of the African continent had not even been charted. The West was enthralled by stories of adventure purveyed by newspapers who sponsored exploratory journeys through the “dark continent.”

As the Seventh-day Adventist church put down its roots in America, and as the civil war was being fought around the issue of slavery, colonialism was far from a retreating force. Significant swathes of the world were still up for grabs by exploitative entrepreneurs and nation-states. The conditions that the colonial drive created over the next few decades were truly horrifying. Between 1860 and 1910 more than 10 million people would die in the Congo alone.

The Seventh-day Adventist church’s first missionary drive into Africa and the Orient coincided with the height of colonial optimism. Diamonds, gold, and rubber all drew prospectors and businesses to this new frontier to amass a fortune without regard to the welfare of the local nations.

Along with them went our church’s first missionaries on their own project of global expansion.

Along the way, it would be safe to argue, we Adventists bought into the worldview that underpinned colonialism. We exported an American product to the world, laced with the language of a peculiar kind of exceptionalism. In return we were buoyed by the accomplishment of our great commission as the world was transformed by this American/European vision of reality. Seldom did the Church show a deep-seated interest to engage with the cultures that it encountered, to risk being transformed, or to acknowledge the potential for diversity. Additionally, our inspired organisational structure allowed for strong centralised control.

The extent to which the Adventist church mirrored the colonial project deserves to be explored in more depth, but the evidence shows that we cannot claim that we were immune to the ideologies that undermined the fabric of society. The South African church, for example, simply mirrored South African Apartheid. We’ve been slow at setting up centres of leadership and learning in the countries we entered, relying much more heavily on a retainer class of church administrators and thought leaders who had studied in the United States, such as in the halls of Andrews University.

Colonialism insidiously undermined the fabric of the historic communities where we drew our members from. Many argue that patriarchy was a rarity in earlier indigenous societies and was a result of colonial exploitation. Women bore the brunt of the economic and physical violence perpetrated by the colonial project. Think of a system where men are forced to become migrant laborers, in cities that are designed to exploit labour but destroy family bonds. They would return only occasionally to rural areas to bring money and HIV/AIDS infections to the women and girls at home. Did we preach headship theology historically? Perhaps this was a tacit endorsement, validating violent systems of patriarchy.

Colonialism eventually collapsed, giving rise to anarchic political situations in the countries that were under the grip of Western powers for many decades. The West’s exploitation, however, did not end there. Now the international market economy took over, creating the dependencies (sometimes by propping up deeply flawed dictators, or loaning excessive amounts of money to weak nations leaving them forever indebted) and the opportunities for great multinational companies to exploit every bit of wealth that might still be present in these parts of the world.

Turning of the tide

In recent decades, however, the instability that culminated from centuries of exploitation without building healthy societies has begun to bite back. Perhaps the most telling example is the current migrant crisis where Europe and the West is being overrun by the same people whose natural resources and labour they have benefited from over the last five centuries of slavery, colonialism, and globalisation.

“Postcolonial” migrants are now coming with huge needs and stringent expectations. Europe’s response is to be completely perturbed. The European states seem inept in engaging with the crisis in any way other than to protect self-interest. Fences are being erected (literally and figuratively). The response is mostly defensive, trying to find ways to define how the situation should be managed. But the rest of the world now seems unwilling to play according to the Western rules. They keep piling in by the droves. In boat after boat they arrive to claim some of the perceived wealth and stability that Europe and America had benefited from for hundreds of years—at their expense.

Unsurprisingly it seems a parallel phenomenon is happening with Adventism. The global product of American evangelical fundamentalism that we exported to the rest of the world is coming home. I would suggest that this global picture of justice, (or the historic lack thereof) is what shapes the landscape that presents itself on the floors of the General Conference and the Annual Council.

As I listened to the October Annual Council debate last autumn, I sensed that the church still has a long way to go to deal with its colonial legacy.

  • In gathering of global church leadership we are still having problems pronouncing the names of international speakers while those of many North-American speakers pose little problem. To what extent is the notion of a global, international church just a veneer even at the level of the highest most global of executive committees? Is this perhaps a marker that we have some way to go to develop the necessary relationships and skills to deal with the intricacies of being a global church?
  • The overwhelming majority of responses were from American and Europeans. Whether opposing or supporting the motion (having to do with a document to bring North American unions that ordain women into line with the General Conference) one wonders who the real intended audience of these entreaties were. Was it the small group that drafted the report? Was it top level administration? How successful were they in addressing the global church?
  • Almost every African member that spoke (there were very few) seemed to demonstrate a completely incommensurate view of the world.  I perceived little or no interest to engage in any of the clever or intricate arguments made by the North American and European speakers. They defined the issues differently and they too were unapologetic about their point of departure.

It was like two ships sailing past each other at night. The one was largely silent. The other was full of sound and fury, but the occupants of this ship did not seem to recognise how radically power has shifted in the church. In the battle for the correct view of justice, meaningful relationships seem to have fallen on the wayside.

What about Ted Wilson?

Those in favour of women’s ordination see Ted Wilson as the one who embodies the fundamentalist drive to enforce unity. If they can make him out to be the pariah, they can still believe that they are busy with an internal theological debate within a Western church with a range of Western theological perspectives.

One commentator recently asked if Ted Wilson does not merely have his finger on the pulse of the church and knows where the power lies and the energy flows. I think that Elder Wilson embodies the challenges that face the church. His leadership has become the focal point of tensions brought about by our colonial legacy. Our real failure seems to lie in our incapability to meet in meaningful engagement across the divisions created by our legacy.

What lies ahead?

There is a danger that the church will become more fragmented. The Western church could easily dissolve in the face of the results of its own historic legacy, and become invisible. It could continue to insist on its right and ability to define the terms of engagement, erecting more robust boundaries, leaving the rest of the global church poorer. Administrative decisions by Annual Councils and General Conference sessions could become punitive, even more quickly weakening the Western church.

Or we could choose a more hopeful route. We could acknowledge the complexity of the situation and open ourselves up to learn a new set of skills to pursue justice on a broader level. The clarion call of the Gospel will never go away: for us to be big hearted and generous as we encounter the strangers at our gates.


Storms in the Adventist church

Can the Adventist Church survive the 21st century?

Editor of website
Dr. P.W. Coetser

Storms in the Adventist Church

“A low pressure system has moved in across the borders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Everywhere on the leading edge, and in the wake of this frontal system, storms of mixed intensity are raging. Huge trees that have stood the tempests of time for a hundred and fifty years or more are being shaken to their roots and being bent into contours and shapes that could never be imagined. Historic landmarks are being defaced or pushed into the mud. In some cases churches (congregations) are splitting down the middle. In others, doctrinal controversies have erupted and church leadership is called in to try resolve the issues – or at least to prevent the flames of dissent from spreading to neighboring communities. Many valiant guardsmen, overcome by poisonous “fumes of heresy,” have fled to “cities of refuge” (such as the welcoming arms of atheism, Buddhism  or any of another number of “isms”). Some have discovered safety and security in traditionalist mainline churches.  Still others have, in the process of switching loyalties, become vocal and active critics of the Church.

From metaphor to reality: Why people leave Adventism

There are many  doctrinal storms raging in the Adventist church today. The following are possibly the most significant:

  1. Disagreement with regards to women’s ordination
  2. Lack of clarity relating to the nature of biblical inspiration as well as the inspiration of the writings of Ellen G. White.
  3. Renewed challenges around the Trinity and the deity of Jesus Christ
  4. Longstanding conflict around the Church’s view of eschatology – specifically the 2300 day prophecy and interpretation of the book of Revelation.
  5. Questions around a recent 7 day creation week
  6.  Reaction against the Church’s dealings with sexuality and GLBT issues.
  7. Consistently high rates of “de-conversion”- the large number of Adventists who leave the Church for various reasons.

In the rest of this article  we will focus on only one of the contemporary “storms”in Adventism and what the Church is doing, or should be doing, to deal with it: The “de-conversion” issue. However, none of the “storms” in the Adventist church today exist in isolation of one another. More often than not aspects of one issue are also interrelated to aspects of some of the other issues.

The scope of the problem

During the 2016 Annual Council the General Conference Secretariat reported that the Adventist world church, now with nearly 18 million members, has lost at least 1 in 3 Seventh-day Adventist members in the last 50 years. Also, in this century, the ratio of people lost versus new converts is 43 per 100.

These statistics are alarming and call for deep introspection, to determine why people leave Adventism, and to implement bold strategies to reverse this trend.

Reasons why people leave Adventism

There was never a time in the history of the Adventist Church that converts and believers did not for one or other reason decide to leave the Church. This phenomenon has always been a matter of concern and of study to Adventist leadership. The precise causes and exact nature of why people leave Adventism have been debated for generations. Let us note the input of three different voices on this issue:

The first voice: Fritz Guy

Fritz Guy1, respected Adventist scholar, thirty years ago already, shared the following insights regarding the “de-conversion” issue. He compares his observation of why people leave Adventism in the 1980’s with why they left the church in earlier decades: He states:

  1. In previous generations those who left the Adventist Church tended to be careless, rebellious, or embittered. Now they are often serious and thoughtful women and men whose personal pilgrimage leads them away from Adventism.
  2. Previously, when people gave up Adventism they usually gave up Christianity along with it. Now, however, more and more young people give up only their Adventism, and remain seriously Christian—as Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Catholics.

Guy’s investigation on why people leave Adventism also brought out the following factors:

  1. They think that Adventism is not entirely believable. For one thing, Adventism has been talking about the soon coming of Jesus for more than 160 years. After all this time, it is not clear what soon means. The prophetic time periods and “signs” plausible in the mid-1800s don’t seem to matter much to them in the late 1900’s (or in 2017, for that matter – Editor).
  2. For another thing, some people who leave the church are convinced that literalistic interpretations of the Bible are no longer viable. Such interpretations, they believe, are contradicted by an overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. Adventism has always understood itself as being committed to the truth, but some of our sons and daughters think that is no longer the case. For them Adventism is not credible.
  3. They think that Adventism is not relevant to today’s world. On the one hand, it seems stuck in the past, trying to preserve the culture of another century and perpetuate the thinking of an earlier generation. On the other hand, Adventism doesn’t seem to have anything to say or do about the current problems of the world. . . .

According to Fritz Guy, therefore, people were leaving the church, in the 1980’s, mostly for doctrinal, or other intellectual type reasons. Our “intuitive” observation is that this has not changed significantly in today’s world , thirty plus years later.

The second voice: Br. Anderson2, one of many critics of the Adventist Church

Critics of the Church are generally less tactful  when they point out their understanding of the causes of the high de-conversion rate in the Adventist Church. Brother Anderson, creator of the anti-Adventist website seems to come to similar conclusions as Guy when he writes:

“There are a myriad of reasons why people leave Adventism, but in recent years, one reason has begun to stand out above all others: Knowledge. With easy access to the Internet, Adventist members have at their fingertips a wealth of knowledge about the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Thanks to former SDA ministers such as Elder Dale Ratzlaff, Elder Sydney Cleveland, Elder Walter Rea, Dr. Desmond Ford, and many others, a wealth of knowledge regarding the fallacies of Seventh-day Adventism is now available to anyone willing to take the time and effort to study their religion.

He explains:

Adventists are often sucked into the SDA Church through cleverly disguised and advertised evangelistic campaigns held in a public location with no mention that the meetings are organized by Seventh-day Adventists. The multimedia presentations are designed to appeal to the senses and the emotions. End-time prophecies are presented in such a way as to arouse alarm and fear. Participants are bombarded with proof texts and one-sided arguments until they are convinced of the necessity of joining God’s “one and only true remnant” church: Seventh-day Adventism.

Later, after the rush of excitement fades, these new Adventists start asking questions. It is not long before it dawns on many of these new arrivals that all may not be exactly as they had been told. Cracks begin to appear in the once-thought-to-be ironclad presentations of SDA Bible prophecy. They start asking questions, and instead of getting answers, they find that their questions are getting dodged. They soon discover there is a large and growing segment of Adventists who do not believe in Ellen White, or the peculiar SDA views of Bible prophecy. And yet, these are often the very reason the new arrivals joined the SDA Church! It is not long before they discover there are different factions in the SDA Church, each with their own idea of “truth”. As they begin examining the SDA doctrines more closely, they soon discover that there is a BIG difference between Bible Truth and SDA truth.

He concludes:

More and more, Adventists are now studying their way out of Adventism. Click To Tweet

In this connection the reader is referred to 2 recent blogs on this website:

Martin Bredenkamp’s story My Journey to Biblical Truth and Kamy’s Journey, part 1 and 2

 The third voice: The voice of Church-sponsored research3

In a recent study (2013) conducted by the Center for Creative Ministry, former and inactive Seventh-day Adventists were asked what contributed to leaving the church the most. The top three reasons cited for dropping out of the Adventist Church were:

  • No big issue—just drifted away (28%)
  • Lack of compassion for the hurting (25%)
  • Moral failure on my part (19%)

A study conducted by the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (2014) asked what event triggered former members’ decision to leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The most significant reasons respondents gave for leaving were:

  • Perceived hypocrisy in other church members
  • Marital difficulties
  • Lack of friends in the church
  • High level of conflict in local congregation
  • Family conflicts other than within marriages
  • Personal conflict with local church members

Veteran Adventist Church researcher Monte Sahlin summarizes the conclusions of the various studies that were commissioned by the Church by concluding  that the reasons people leave Adventism often have less to do with what the church does and its doctrines than with problems people experience in their personal lives—marital conflict or unemployment, for example. What the church does that contributes to the problem, he said, is not helping people through their tough life experiences.

The Church's answer to growing membership may not be in adding new faces, but taking care of… Click To Tweet

From Sahlin’s interpretation of the results of the official studies it seems evident that the Church’s research does not quite support the conclusions of both Fritz Guy and the critics of the Church who see unhappiness with the doctrines and the teachings of the Church as the main reason why people leave Adventism.

So, why then do people leave Adventism in large numbers?

Probably the true answer to the reason for the large number of de-conversions in the Adventist church lies somewhere in between the points of view of Fritz Guy and the critics of the Church on the one hand and the findings of various surveys and Church commissioned research projects, on the other hand.

We suspect, furthermore, that there are complex cultural factors, both in our broader society, and in the church at large that also impact on the reasons why people leave Adventism. Many church denominations are experiencing similar difficulties in retaining members and presenting an authentic voice in the common culture.

Within the church at large – both Adventism and other main line churches –  there also seems to be increasing fragmentation of views on doctrine, church tradition, and church authority. Often these perspectives actively vie against each other. Daniel Duda, field secretary for evangelism in the Trans European Division, states that groups in the church quite possibly spend more money and energy trying to convert members in the church to their own perspective of truth, than they do to convert people from outside the church.

We think that one factor that deserves more study is that the methods that we use to bring people into the church often rely on simplistic and sensationalist interpretations of Scripture, while the factors that keep people in the church require a greater focus on nuance, and faith maturity. Are these two approaches incompatible? Do new converts to Adventism need to undergo a second conversion to a more nuanced perspective on history and doctrine. Is this even possible?

What is the way forward?

We think that proposed solutions to the complex problems of the church should be aimed at dealing with some of the underlying interpretive difficulties that affect how we present our doctrines. But there should also be a concerted focus on discipleship and spiritual growth.

When we reflect on the personal stories related in this blog, along with the theological debates that we find ourselves engaged in, we think the following interventions could be helpful. 

  1. The Church should do more to disseminate “accurate” knowledge and information about the nature of prophetic inspiration coupled with a correct understanding of the role and function of the Spirit of Prophecy in the Adventist church.

We do recognize that the Church has already made a huge investment of time and talent in the establishing of various Ellen G. White information centers around the world. The contribution of these centers has been significant in making information on Ellen G. White available. But in a sense these centers have also contributed to the present controversy around E.G. White in that they have, by and large, perpetuated a view of an “inerrant prophetess”, rather than to educate the Church regarding the true nature of Ellen G. White’s inspiration – “thought” -inspiration rather than “verbal” inspiration – which has been, and still is, the dominant understanding of the Church at large.

During the 1919 Bible  and History Teachers Conference A.G. Daniels asked the following rhetorical question:

Is it well to let our people in general go on holding to the verbal inspiration of the testimonies? When we do that, aren’t we preparing for a crisis that will be very serious some day? If we had always taught the truth on this question, we would not have any trouble or shock in the denomination now. But the shock is because we have not taught the truth, and have put the testimonies on a plane where she says they do not stand. We have claimed more for them than she did.4

What we therefore propose is that the Church embark on a purposeful and concerted effort to implement Daniels’ suggestion. It may be a hundred years late in coming, but if we fail to do this, the de-conversion rate, because of a wrong understanding of Ellen White’s inspiration, will escalate exponentially as people are able to freely access criticisms on this point

2. Devise strategies to support and establish new converts.

In this connection, we support the recommendations that the General Conference’s Anthony Kent, makes in his report to the 2016 Annual Council:

  1. Implementing comprehensive, widespread, practical and effective training in conflict resolution and reconciliation throughout the Seventh-day Adventist Church
  2. Incorporating discipleship mentoring into the DNA of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
  3. Initiate: ‘Operation Reconnect”

There is of course, a very real danger that these recommendations will go the same way as the Daniels’ recommendation in 1919.

Let us pray that this will not be the case!

How do you view the changing Adventist landscape of the 21st century? Can the Church stem the exodus of Adventist believers? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below or join the discussion on Facebook. Please remember to “like” our page and to share it with your friends. If you subscribe, you will automatically receive all new posts in your inbox.



Blogging Through “The White Elephant” No.1

An "interactive" review of Brian Neumann's "The White Elephant in Seventh-day Adventism"

Author of Book Review: The White Elephant in Adventism
Weiers Coetser.
Devil's advocate
Devil’s Advocate



Paul Coetser: co-editor and Devil’s Advocate



Weiers is a pastor in Northern Ireland and co-editor of the Adventist Soapbox website and blog.

The White Elephant in Seventh-day Adventism  

The editors of The Adventist Soapbox have recently been handed a copy of Brian Neumann’s book, The White Elephant in Seventh-day Adventism to review1. In the book, Brian, who grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist home and has more than 18 years experience of ministry in the Church, sets out to explore all the evidence he could find about the life and the work of the Seventh-day Adventist prophetess, Ellen G. White.

I followed some of the run-up to the book’s publication. Brian had published an early version of one of the chapters on his Facebook page. The chapter did not give any of his conclusions away, but already he was drawing angry, defensive responses from Seventh-day Adventist church members, who I know had been friends of his in the past.

The title of the book may already be a giveaway about the conclusions that he came to. He states however that his conclusions are the result of an objective unbiased study in which he set out to find answers to some troubling questions that he had encountered previously but never dealt with. The results of three years of research turned his world upside down.

The White Elephant in Seventh-day Adventism is over 700 pages long. Initially I was also reluctant to read the book, thinking that it would just be a repeat of the common polemic against Ellen White’s ministry that circulates endlessly on many websites on the Internet. But the introduction grabbed my attention. Immediately I became aware of somebody who was on a quest; a life-journey where the stakes seemed high. I felt drawn by Brian’s willingness to embark on this journey, regardless of the challenges or transformations that it might bring.

Over the last twenty years of ministry, I’ve come to appreciate that what gives life meaning and makes it worth living, does not always lie in staying put within a way of life, or within a particular set of beliefs. The most exciting moments of my ministry have been when I met people who embarked on journeys where they could not always determine where their explorations would take them. I’ve met many people whose experiences brought them into the spiritual home of a new church or a new way of life, sometimes into the Church that I have devoted my life to. These stories are almost always compelling and liberating. I’ve learned however, not to shy away from stories where people have stepped beyond the confines of the Church that I love. An intuition says to me that it is often the same spirit present in humanity that sets us off on these quests however divergent they may be.

I think of the iconic story of Nicodemus (John 3) who came to Jesus in the middle of the night enquiring about Jesus’ project. The day-to-day realities of life in the religious community that Nicodemus lived in established a rigor and a structure that was almost impossible to escape. This did not stop Nicodemus from a nightly quest for something deeper.

Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus captures something profound. He gives Nicodemus a means of escaping the material realities of his day to day life. He talks about a rebirth into the life of the Spirit. This Spirit is like the wind that blows where it wills. You cannot see it. You cannot grasp or control it. But you know it is there, and you know that it doing something and that it is going somewhere.

I’ve decided to dedicate a series of blogs to The White Elephant in Seventh-day Adventism as I make my way through the book. I know that it is a bit of a risk. I am not sure how I will interact with the book as I go on. It is not my intention to interact with the book from the perspective of an apologist for the writings and standing of Ellen G. White. Neither will I willy-nilly support any or all criticisms against her prophetic claims and ministry.

In life you can often distinguish between those who are foot soldiers for a cause, and those who take time for originality and to produce new knowledge. I believe that sometimes new knowledge can be produced through honest dialogue.

In recent years, I have also been on a journey of discovery about Ellen White and her writings. My interaction with Brian’s work is an attempt to further process and integrate these developing perspectives. I will therefore share some of my internal critical dialogue as I engage with the text of Neumann’s book. Hopefully my contribution will result in a mutually enriching conversation with Brian Neumann, and with readers of his book. 

Deviil's advocate
Devil’s advocate

Paul Coetser, the other editor of this blog is also reading The White Elephant and he will every now and again play Devil’s Advocate with reference to something Brian or I might be saying. Hopefully ours can be a pair of meaningful voices in the conversation about the role of Ellen White’s writings and ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist church.  

Read Kamy Lynn Neumann’s story as told by herself and Brian Neumann in The White Elephant.

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Why do we have four Gospels?

A story of unity in diversity

Author of the four gospels

Pastor Weiers Coetser

Weiers is a pastor in Northern Ireland and co-editor of the Adventist Soapbox website and blog.

The story of the four Gospels

The Christian New Testament that we have in our Bibles today contains 27 books. The most prominent of these are the four gospels known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We seldom pause to think that the early Christian church had to wrestle with other alternatives. 

The story of how the four gospels were accepted into what we today know as the Bible, offers a captivating glimpse into the world of the early Christians, and how the early Christian church dealt with diversity.

One of the challenges in telling the story of the four-fold gospel is that there are no original manuscripts of the four  Gospels in existence today. Over the years, fragments of early versions of the Gospels have been found, but these fragments were already copies of copies of the original manuscripts.

But let us try to re-trace the story.

The development of the four-fold gospel

To the best of our knowledge it begins in the earliest days of the Christian church. The early Christian disciples were traveling around the Ancient Near East, sharing the story of Jesus’ life and teachings. We think that Peter’s recollections and sermons were the first to be written down, forming the Gospel according to Mark. This written account was useful to serve as a teaching tool and a reference aid in the fledgling Christian communities that were being established around the Roman Empire.

But the Gospel according to Mark was quite short. There were more experiences and stories about Jesus to recount and we can assume that many felt a need for a more comprehensive reference to elaborate on what was written in Mark.

It is likely that Matthew’s Gospel came next. We know that Matthew’s Gospel, and Luke’s Gospel that followed a little later, incorporated a lot of Mark’s original material, but that additional and different accounts with different emphases were added to enhance the original material. Sometimes it even seemed as though the new material contradicted the accounts that came before.

The Gospel according to John stood on its own, in that it hardly drew on any of the sources that the other three gospels had drawn on.

Churches which already had Mark’s Gospel were almost certainly keen to acquire the additional accounts of Jesus’ life; with the result that collections of the various gospel accounts began to appear among the Christian communities.

Each of these books were carefully copied by hand on sheets of papyrus that were then bound into books, known as codices. Binding books in this way was a new invention, and not yet widely practiced. Prior to this time, almost all literary material was written on papyrus scrolls that were carefully rolled up. Writing on scrolls was still a common practice even in the time of the early Christian church.

The Christian church was an early adapter of the new “communication technology” and used the codex format almost exclusively. Perhaps these codices were easier to travel with, to distribute, and to use as reference works or in worship.

In the early years, there was no immediate expectation that these books would eventually be incorporated into Scripture. They were written and distributed to address the practical need for the church’s teaching and liturgy. By the end of the first hundred years of the Christian church we know that all four the gospels that we know today were circulating among the churches. It is believed that the first compilations of these four gospels into one book came into use somewhere between 100 and 150CE.

An early naming convention was developed referring to each gospel as “The Gospel according to Mark or Luke or John.” The early church did not regard the actual book as the gospel, but the message that each of the books contained of Jesus’ life and teaching was seen as the gospel.

Questioning the number of gospels. Shouldn’t there be just one? Should there be four? Should there be more than four?

In addition to the four better known gospels there were other documents produced in the early period of the Christian church. One was the Gospel of Mary, in which Mary was regarded as a disciple, a leader of a Christian group. Another early Christian text known as the Gospel of Truth, reflects on the teachings of Jesus, but does not talk about his death and resurrection. The Gospel of Thomas contains only sayings attributed to Jesus .

Soon questions began to arise about which of the documents were more authoritative. Most Christian churches agreed that material that originated from the disciples and apostles, who had known Jesus personally, were more authoritative.

Challenges from the enemies of the Church

There were also some challenges from the enemies of Christianity. Some of these critics of the early Christian church made fun of the fact that this religion was based on texts that do not seem to agree with each other.

One such group was known as the Valentinians.  “Each of the four books start differently,” was their main accusation and “they portray the facts in a different light, and sometimes they even contradict each other.”

A historian of the time, Celsus, tells of an antagonistic Jew who joked about the Christians acting like people who had too much to drink, because they keep changing the beginnings of their gospels.

Defending the four-fold gospel

At least two early Christian authors stepped up to defend the four gospels. Perhaps the most famous person to do this was Irenaeus who wrote around 180 CE and who became the bishop of Lyon at a time when the church was experiencing much persecution. 

Irenaeus’ defence

Irenaeus explained that these gospel books were the written records of the preaching of the Apostles. He claimed that two apostles, and two of their followers wrote these words down.

After focusing on the process in which these books came to be, he stated that they form a theological unity. “They have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ, the Son of God.” (Adv Haer III.1.1-2)

In a later book, he added arguments that have become famous in Christian history. He found various analogies from nature and scripture to defend the number four:

  • A compass that points in four directions,
  • the fact that in nature there are four winds.
  • The Bible, speaks of the four-faced cherubim (Ezekiel 1),
  • the four living creatures of Revelation 4:7.
  • He also referred to the fourfold activity of the word of God,
  • and made a reference to four covenants between God and mankind.

Irenaus’ arguments defending the use of four gospels do not satisfy the scientific mindset of today. Many have pointed out that his reference to four covenants is plainly erroneous.

His emphasis, however, that there is a broader unity within the diversity of the four gospels, and the fact that this is desirable, is very clear.

The Muratorian fragment

An early Christian text, the Muratorian fragment, that survived (in part) from that time, also defended the unity of the four gospels. “Everything is declared in all the gospels…concerning his two comings, the first in humility when he was despised, which is past, the second, glorious in royal power, which is still in the future.”

But not everybody agreed, and from all the evidence it would seem as though the debate in the early Christian church was quite vigorous.

Alternative models: Why not have just one gospel?

Tatian’s model: The Diatessaron

Tatian was one who preferred a single text, which he set out to write. Tatians’ Gospel became known as the Diatessaron, in which he harmonized the text of the four gospels into a tighter unity.

  • He proposed his own sequence for the events of Christ’s life.
  • He also chose to leave out some of the sections of the four gospels that he could not harmonize.

Churches who felt that four different gospels would do damage to the unity of the Christian witness adopted this new work into their Scriptures. The Syrian church was a prime example. The Diatesseron became their main Gospel for almost four centuries before the four separate gospels once again replaced the Diatesseron in their Scriptures.

Other churches distributed Tatian’s gospel as a supplement to the four gospels.

Marcion’s model: A modified gospel of Luke

Marcion also preferred to “unify” the early Christian witness. His solution was to propose that the church only recognize a slightly modified version of The Gospel according to Luke, and that only the writings of Paul be used to interpret the life of Jesus. The early Christian church by and large rebuffed Marcion’s drive for “unity”.

The eventual outcome. Are there lessons to be learned?

The debate around the four gospels continued for at least two centuries but gradually a consensus emerged, ratified by various councils of the church, that they formed an integral part of the 27 books of the New Testament that we know today. 

In the end, the Christian church favored diverse witnesses to the story of Jesus above a single unitary approach.

One of the main arguments that was repeated regularly in the debate was that the four gospels, despite being different from each other in details, showed the same unity of spirit.

It is possible that these arguments for the unity of the four gospels in the face of their diversity was inspired by Paul’s plea in Ephesians 4:3 “Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future.…” The Christian church over the ages have benefited and have been enriched by the availability of the four gospels.

Could the early Christian church’s decision to favor diversity over unity, be a model for how we could approach questions of diversity and disagreement in the life of the church today?

Further Reading

If you would like to do more in depth reading on the history of the four gospels and their implications for church unity:

Graham N Stanton, “The Fourfold Gospel

Larry Hurtado is a scholar who recently pointed out the implications of the acceptance of a four-fold Gospel for the way that evangelical Christians think of church unity.  “You’ve got to ‘Accentuate the Positive’: Thinking About Differences Biblically

Ellen White’s main statement about the formation of the Bible as we have it today is found in the preface of the Great Controversy.



How do you relate to the history of the Four Gospels in the Christian Bible? Could this history serve as a model or case study to deal with diversity in our Church today? Share your opinion in the comment box below. [Comments]

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