Chapter 08 Aa

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From 1844 to Eternity Chapter 08

The origin of the Protestant model of ministry

It is easy to see that the model of ministry that we are using today in most of the world is not like the model which the apostles and the early Adventists used. Today, in much of the world, Adventist ministers are responsible for oversight of the existing churches rather than letting the elders oversee the churches. Ministers of most other Protestant churches use the same method. What is the origin of the model of ministry used by Protestant churches?

One day, while visiting a deacon at his place of business, one topic in our conversation was: What is the origin of the model of ministry that we use today? Before becoming a Seventh-day Adventist, the deacon had been raised as a Roman Catholic and served as an altar boy during his childhood. He made a comment that caught my attention. I believe that God directed him in his comment. He said, “It must be something Catholic.” I had a Catholic encyclopedia on my computer hard drive, so I searched in it and found the origin of the Protestant model of ministry.

In the 16th century, during the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church became concerned as their members were leaving the Catholic Church to join the Reformation churches. Martin Luther and other reformers had done excellent work in building the foundation for many Protestant denominations. Martin Luther died in 1546, but the effect of his work lived on throughout history. Others followed in his footsteps with Bible truth and still do it today.

The Roman Catholic Church had to deal with the Protestant Reformation problem and addressed it in what is known as the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent was not just one session, but a series of 25 sessions over 18 years, beginning in December 1545 and ending in December 1563. During the 24th session, which convened in November of 1563, the following information was documented and is accessible today in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

The definition of the term “pastor,” and the duties of the pastor are as follows:

“Pastor. This term denotes a priest who has the cure of souls (cura animarum), that is, who is bound in virtue of his office to promote the spiritual welfare of the faithful by preaching…

The Council of Trent (Sess. XXIV, cap. xiii, de Ref.) shows it to be the mind of the Church that dioceses should, wherever it is possible, be divided into canonical parishes (see Parish), to be governed by irremovable parish-priests. . .. Pastors, besides having rights, have also obligations. They must preach and take care of the religious instruction of the faithful.”1

A “diocese” in Catholic and Protestant denominations, is a geographic area. A “canonical parish” is a group of churches which are cared for by a priest or pastor. Adventists, by comparison, use the term “conference” when referring to a geographic area, and “pastoral district” when referring to a group of churches assigned to a pastor.

The parish priests were supposed to oversee the Catholic Church members who were already faithful very carefully so they would not convert to the churches of the Reformation. The priests were to do everything possible to keep Catholic members in the Catholic Church. While the origin of this model of ministry began long before the Council of Trent (perhaps as early as the Second Century, A.D.), the Council more clearly defined the duties of parish priests. Before that, the priests had minimal personal contact with the members of their parishes other than at the Mass on Sundays. The Mass was attended more by the wealthy, while poor parishioners rarely participated. Also, the work of the parish priest had little to do with spreading the gospel to those who had never heard it before. There was really nothing evangelistic about this model, nothing. That is why the apostle Paul did not use that method. The early Adventist church did not use that method either. Ellen White did not advocate that model. Instead, she strictly warned and counseled against it. The model which, over the centuries had become associated with the Catholic church, promoted the idea of members being dependent upon the priests for spirituality, instead of encouraging members to grow spiritually through personal devotions and Bible study. The early Adventist model was vastly different; it was like the apostolic model which was demonstrated in the ministry of the apostle Paul.

During the Reformation, the Protestants separated from the Roman Catholic Church because of Bible doctrines, not because of a model of ministry. The Protestants at that time kept the model of having salaried, settled pastors who were paid to oversee the church members and their spirituality. A few centuries after the Protestant Reformation, the early Adventist ministers had an intense urgency to spread the Three Angels Messages rapidly. This demanded a better model of ministry, a more itinerant model – the Biblical model found in the New Testament. After evangelizing and planting new churches, the ministers would ordain elders to shepherd or pastor the new churches. Then, the ministers would move elsewhere to evangelize and start more new congregations where the Three Angels’ Messages had never been shared.

When we followed the example of the apostle Paul and the repeated counsels and warnings of Ellen White, our church multiplied rapidly. Other denominations were amazed at our growth. During the last years of Ellen White’s life, there were some appointments of settled pastors over the largest churches, but these were exceptions to the rule of assigning ministers to territories to evangelize and plant new congregations. While still alive, she repeatedly counseled ministers and members alike, warning of the dangers of settling ministers over existing churches. After her death, the practice of assigning ministers to serve as settled pastors increased rapidly. In 1932, the first SDA Church Manual was published, and the official role of the ministers changed.2 Ministers were then officially sanctioned to serve as local, settled pastors, and the overall growth rate of the denomination declined significantly over time. Our model of ministry began to look more and more like the model used by other Protestant churches. As a result, everything that Mrs. White predicted would happen as a result of ministers hovering over the churches became a reality. Many of our churches today are weak and in a state of decline. Young people are scarce in many churches. Churches are demanding the services of the salaried clergy to sustain them. Some churches in the more developed nations are essentially on life support. The ministers are no longer as free to plant new churches in unentered areas, and the populations in those areas remain ignorant of essential, last day truth.

In a letter dated May 15, 1980, Elder D. A. Delafield, Associate Secretary for the Ellen G. White Estate wrote to Pastor Jere Webb, giving answers to some questions he had asked. One question dealt with where the concept originated that each individual congregation should have a pastor. Elder Delafield’s response was as follows: “On the matter of the first question, I have never found any support for the view that each individual Adventist congregation should have a pastor - - that is in the development of Adventist church history. This concept I think has come into our ranks from the evangelical churches where pastors are provided for each flock regardless of size. At least, in evangelical circles, and for that matter, in the moral liberal churches, the concept that congregations demand in each case pastoral care, has I think, itself led to an attempt to satisfy that demand. To be sure, whether we are discussing Adventist, or other churches, it would be ideal if such a program could be supplied. But the New Testament teaching that local elders should be appointed in every church, would represent, I think, God’s plan that this need should be supplied by local elders, leaving the minister free to carry on this work as an evangelist and to raise up new congregations.”3

A quick look at some data will show how the growth rate of both churches and members in North America decreased as the method of ministry changed. From 1863 to 1932, a period of 69 years, we used a more Biblical method of ministry, like the one we find in the New Testament. From 1932 onward, we adopted a different method of ministry similar to other Protestant denominations. Before examining the growth rate comparisons, something needs to be said. The Seventh-day Adventist Church does not have an autocratic leadership model for administrators, ministers, or for churches. General Conferences sessions are attended by voting delegates from all world divisions. The official delegates are made up of both church workers and lay members representing their various areas of the world. The changes that took place in the way ministers are assigned, were not the result of any one president, or any single GC Session. The changes took place gradually at first, then more rapidly, as both lay members and church workers alike, drifted away from the apostolic model in Scripture, and the counsel of Ellen White.

North America – Comparing Growth Rates of Churches and Members From 1863 to 1932, and From 1932 to June 30, 2017.4

As the focus on evangelizing and planting new churches in unreached areas changed to pastoring the existing churches, our growth rate for both baptisms and new churches decreased dramatically.

Questions for Consideration

  1. In chapter 8 you learned that the idea of settled ministers comes from the Catholic parish-priest model and nothing of that idea is founded in Adventist doctrine- why do we to keep this model of ministry?
  2. What possible benefits do we gain from having settled ministers?
  3. Refer to question number 2. Why couldn’t the same benefits be offered by an elder?
  4. Refer again to question number 2. Which of these needs ought we be relying on God for, rather than ministers, elders, and deacons- who are mere men?
  5. What benefits might we receive if we rely on God for all of the needs thought about in the previous question?


  1. Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 11, page 537. Copyright 1911, by Robert Appleton Company, Copyright 1913, by The Encyclopedia Press, Inc.
  2. General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Church Manual:(Washington, DC: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1932) 23.
  3. D. A. Delafield, Letter to Pastor Jere Webb: May 15, 1980. (Ellen G. White Estate: Washington, DC.).
  4. Information for the statistics used for the colored graphs can be obtained from the following documents: 2018 Adventist Statistical Report, 1932 Statistical Report of Seventh-day Adventist Conferences, Missions, and Institutions, General Conference Yearly Statistics from 1863 to 1900.