By Reinder Bruinsma … The United Kingdom is in many respects unique, and this also applies to its governmental structure. It basically has a two-party parliamentary system, with the governing party on one side of the aisle in the House of Commons, and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, with its “shadow cabinet,” on the other side. In the Brexit debates in the recent past, the system may not have worked in an optimal way, but the underlying principle of the system is clear: Opposition is not bad and can actually play a very constructive role in politics.

I live in the Netherlands, a country with a multi-party system. When we go to the polls, we seldom have fewer than ten parties to choose from, which must then divide the 150 seats in the Second Chamber and the 75 seats in the First Chamber of our parliament (comparable to the House and the Senate, respectively, in the US). Presently, the Dutch cabinet consists of ministers from four different parties. It can count on the support of a majority of just one in the Second Chamber, while it does not have majority-support in the First Chamber. In many cases the cabinet must seek support from one or more opposition parties. This requires a certain degree of loyalty from the opposition and presupposes from the government a willingness to listen to the opposition and, often, to seek reasonable compromises. Interestingly enough, when during the pandemic crisis the cabinet post that deals with hospitals became vacant, a member of one of the opposition parties was asked to temporarily fill that post, as he was deemed to be the most qualified person for the job.

I am so used to this political system that in my mind the concepts of “loyalty” and “opposition” do not necessarily conflict. But what about a “loyal opposition” in the church— at its various levels? Those who have sat on local church boards, conference boards or other church committees, know how awkward things can be when there is a person who is opposed to any proposal that might come from the chair, or when there is a small group which is always com- plaining about various programs and policies, and is always suspicious that administrators are keeping vital information from them. And, unfortunately, all too often pastors and other church leaders are confronted with constant accusations about their alleged lack of orthodoxy. That kind of opposition can easily poison the atmosphere and have a toxic influence on the church. Yet, at the same time, it must be admitted that not all complaints and criticisms are unjustified. But is the idea of a “loyal opposition” in the church not too far-fetched?

Independent Ministries and Critical Voices

To define “loyal opposition” is far from easy. Let’s first look at the phenomenon of independent ministries. Christianity in the United States, much more than elsewhere in the world, is characterized by innumerable “independent ministries.” The fact that in the United States of America these ministries flourish more than anywhere else may well have to do with the American utilitarian spirit: If you see a need, you investigate what it takes to respond to that need, and then you start a “ministry” to do deal with that need. No one knows how many independent ministries are operating in Adventism. They vary from one-person-led websites to well- oiled organizations with multi-million-dollar budgets, and everything in between. Traditionally, the church has established a number of criteria to differentiate between “supportive” and “non-supportive” ministries. One of these criteria is whether a ministry truly supports or competes with the denomination or with denominational entities, in particular with regard to financial resources. It seems to me that organizations that are truly supportive may be classified as “loyal,” even when they may have their special emphases, that the church may see as one-sided, and may be critical of some tendencies and methods of the church. The church should not too easily feel threatened by the activities of such supportive ministries. Continuous dialogue between the church and these independent entities can only be beneficial for both parties.

There is, however, another kind of opposition that is not always thought of as loyal. Some independent publications are very critical of particular denominational policies and some authors’ books—either published by Adventist publishers or elsewhere. They point to tendencies in the church that they want to warn against in no uncertain terms. And quite a few lecturers tour the world with messages which a section of the church finds quite objectionable, while another section at the other side of the theological spectrum warmly welcomes this point of view. It is clear, however, that these popular speakers in most cases do not represent middle-of-the-road Adventism.

Do the publishers of these journals, the authors of these books and these traveling speakers belong to the church’s loyal opposition? It is impossible for me (or anyone) to give a definitive answer. Whether opposition is “loyal” depends to a large extent on the methods that are used (which are at times quite dubious) and the underlying motivation. Do they build and strengthen the church or is their own status or organizational structure their primary concern?


It is crucial that those who see themselves as part of the “loyal opposition” continue to recognize the authority of the church and its duly elected leaders. Gilbert Meilaender, a professor in Christian ethics at the University of Valparaiso, makes an important point when he maintains that the authority of the church must be respected, because the church is addressed by the Lord. However, he adds that there is also another aspect: “The believer is also addressed singly. That is, each believer is addressed not only by the Body of Christ, but also by the Head of that Body, the Lord Himself.”1

While it is true that individual church members or groups of members must listen to the voice of the church, the church also has the obligation to listen to, and examine, the views of the loyal opposition. “Even if found unacceptable in many respects,” such opinions may contain “a part of the truth, which can then be opened up in fuller and richer ways.”2 Johannes A. van der Ven, a Dutch professor in practical theology, is of the opinion that the church is always in need of reformation and that this reformation will never take place without conflict. It may actually be a sign that a church is quite dead, when there is no diversity of opinion and when no dissenting voices are heard. 3

It is important that the church—at all its organizational levels—find productive ways to deal with persons, groups and organizations that challenge it with respect to methods and policies, the use of resources, and yes, also with regard to theological and moral issues. Dialogue is of the essence. Listening to each other before speaking (and condemning) can prevent misunderstandings and will prove to be enriching.

There may, however, come a point when the tension between the official views of the church and those of the “opposition” rises to a point where the church must take measures to protect its identity and unity. The church has the right to discipline members (including pastors), when they manifest a persistent lack of loyalty and no longer support the essential Adventist beliefs. History has, however, provided ample proof that this should always be a measure of last resort. Re- moving dissenting voices has usually resulted in acrimonious controversy and widespread polarization.

Love for the Church

In a world church of over twenty million members, with a large number of cultural and historical backgrounds, diversity is not only inevitable but also a great enrichment. Church members who make up local churches also tend to come from very diverse backgrounds and are at various stages of spiritual growth. It is to be expected that opinions differ about spiritual issues as well as organizational and material matters.

The fact that individual or corporate opposition arises in various forms can help the church to develop, to avoid and correct errors and to find new and promising ways of ex- pressing and spreading its message. The one absolute condition is that all forms of opposition are “loyal.” Opposition must always be anchored in love for the church and for the Lord of the church. In his famous chapter about love, the apostle Paul expressed what loyal opposition looks like from a biblical perspective. Just exchange the word love with the term “loyal opposition”:

Loyal opposition is patient, loyal opposition is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Loyal opposition does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)  

–Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. Among his latest books is “I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine.” Email him at: [email protected]


1Meilaender, op. cit., p. 37.
2Ibid., p. 35.
3Johannes A. van der Ven, Ecclesiology in Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), p. 381.