“Do you believe that Ellen White was a prophet of God?” It’s a question that many of us dread. When asked by someone who does not belong to our church, the question often is asked in a shocked tone. Prophets?! You mean, today?!

Unfortunately, it can be no less daunting when asked by a fellow Adventist, because the question is often accusatory. Traditionalists often mean “Do you really believe Ellen White is a prophet?” And then they proceed to interrogate you concerning their interpretations of obscure quotations. Compassionates and Progressives often ask exactly the same question, but with a tone of incredulity. They then interrogate you about what they consider to be either ridiculous or contradictory utterances by Mrs. White.

Any series of essays that proposes to address the issue of Adventist identity sooner or later must take up the question of who and what Ellen White was and is. And so, not without some trepidation, I take up the question.

It turns out that similar as they may appear, questions about Ellen White’s role in the Adventist Church, and her function as a prophet, are quite different, and must be answered in the context in which they are asked.

For example, someone of a different Christian faith who asks whether one believes Ellen White was a prophet may actually be asking, “So you really belong to a cult, is that what you’re saying?” Other Christians believe that prophesying is a common occurrence in the church, and wonder why we don’t think there are contemporary prophets in every congregation.

Traditionalists often are highly emotionally invested in the most literalistic verbal interpretations of obscure passages, or have fixations on things like cheese, and insist that if you really believe Ellen White is a prophet, you would agree with their interpretation and do as they tell you.

Compassionates and Progressives often consider that if you really believe Ellen White was a prophet, that you are the gullible sort of uneducated rube who believes the moon is made of green cheese.

So we often find this question most daunting. More important, how are we personally going to deal with the writings of Ellen White? Before we can answer the multitude of questions others may ask, we need to have a firm grasp on how we answer the questions for ourselves.

In my own writing and speaking, I rarely use Ellen White authoritatively, for three main reasons.  First, it’s a bad habit, and a little lazy. If a doctrine really matters, it will be found in the Bible. We may have to dig for it, may have to wrestle with the text, may find evidence in unexpected places. But the digging, the wrestling, is good for us.

Second, it weakens our testimony to those who are not members of our church. They mostly have not heard of her, and if so, often not in a positive fashion.

Third, it ends up diluting the authority of her works. In fact, quoting her authoritatively is a terrible introduction to her works, much more likely to lead to a total rejection of her prophetic gift than to acceptance of it.
Whenever dealing with difficult questions, I find it helpful to always examine foundational issues.  Fundamental Belief #18 begins as follows:

One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen. G. White.

While I do not disagree with this, I personally prefer the stance taken by J. N. Andrews in his “Our Use of the Visions of Sister White,” in which he concludes with this (emphasis mine):

Finally, in the reception of members into our churches, we desire on this subject to know two things: 1. That they believe the Bible doctrine of Spiritual gifts; 2. That they will candidly acquaint themselves with the visions of Sr. White, which have ever held so prominent place in this work. We believe that every person standing thus and carrying out this purpose will be guided in the way of truth and righteousness. And those who occupy this ground, are never denied all the time they desire to decide in this matter.

Notice where Andrews begins: the Bible doctrine of Spiritual gifts. That is the point of contention between the Adventist view and the view of many others. Did prophecy end with the closing of the canon? In other words, when the Bible was finished, did that end the gift of prophecy?

The  short answer* is found in Ephesians 4, where the gifts are listed, and then Paul concludes with the purpose and function of those gifts.

” . . . to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Clearly, we have not yet achieved unity in faith, or matured into the whole measure of the fullness of Christ–nor will we this side of the 2nd Coming–and the gifts will continue until then. But that opens up an area we seldom go into. It isn’t only the gift of prophecy that endures, it is all of them. So the question becomes much broader. Not just how do we identify an individual with the gift of prophecy, but what about all the others? How do we know about any of the gifts of the Spirit? That is the foundational question I mentioned earlier. And examining it led me in a quite unexpected direction, which I will take up next time. We emphasize the gift of prophecy. But should we? Is it the greatest gift of the Spirit?

Read other posts from this series on Adventist Identity.

*A longer examination can be found in an article I wrote for the October 2012 issue of Signs of the Times, called “Messages From God.” Note: the byline says “Dean Edgar.” That’s because I already had another article in that issue, “How to Understand the Delay in Christ’s Return,” and the editor prefers not to have two articles with the same byline in one issue. (My formal name is “Edgar Dean,” so I simply reverse that as a pseudonym.)