By Alicia Johnston, October 11, 2016: Must one know the origins of the universe to be a Seventh-day Adventist? Or is it okay to not be sure? I sometimes wonder how many barriers we are willing to build between those who would follow Jesus, and full inclusion in this church. What must one do and believe in order to be a Seventh-day Adventist?
The answer has changed over time. If I were to step into a DeLorean and find myself in the mid-19th century, our founders would probably have a difficult time understanding my explanation of what the Adventist church is today. Aside from not know what a haystack is or how to play Rook, the most difficult part for them would probably be accepting that the church has become so creedal, that the boundaries have been pulled so tight.
We began with a group of people who were distrustful of organized religion, who took nearly 20 years to finally organize because of this apprehension. They began with a loose set of shared beliefs that we now refer to as the pillars of Adventism. They all conveniently started with “S”:
- Salvation by faith in Jesus
- The Sabbath (and all 10 commandments)
- The second coming
- The state of the dead
- The sanctuary message (including the 3 Angels message)
- The spirit of prophecy
As time went on, baptismal vows were created and became increasingly complex and specific. It wasn’t until the 1940s that we made the vows official and began to define more clearly what it means to be an Adventist. There are now two sets of baptismal vows. One is shorter than the other, but because choosing that set of vows still makes you promise to accept all 28 fundamental beliefs as published in a book, it actually means hundreds of pages to agree with. The other is 13 statements of belief. Even so, many of us who are pastors struggle with some of these 13 beliefs, and I doubt you could find many pastors who have not questioned at least one at some point, even while pastoring. If this is the case for the leadership, what must it be among the members? Yet these are the beliefs baptismal candidates are expected to sign off on before we baptize them in the name of Christ.
This is not an approach for which I find biblical precedent. I find myself longing for a different kind of church. I find myself longing for a bigger tent. Yet many at the General Conference seem intent on pulling the boundaries tighter around the chosen, more clearly defining what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist.
Big Tent Adventism
For a couple years I cheated on the Adventist church. I kept attending church on Sabbath morning, but on Saturday nights I snuck off to an evangelical mega-church’s young adult service. One of many things I learned was that there wasn’t as much diversity of thought and opinion in that evangelical church as in mine. I suppose that makes sense, since from that church you can just go down the street to a different church that more closely fits your viewpoint.
Adventists don’t have that luxury, and I guess that’s why we tend to stick together even when we see things differently. This has long been one of my favorite parts of being Adventist. I was able to swing relatively far in different direction while still finding a home in this tribe. This freedom has been good for me. This community has been a home to me and has held me even amidst questioning and changes that have come my way. This is a freedom I cherish, not only for myself but for all younger generations who are more comfortable with doubt, who approach their faith as fluid and revelation as progressive.
And it is one I fear is being threatened.
Recently a friend told me that while on a mission trip in the global south he heard of a woman who was refused baptism until she took the braids out of her hair. I supposed this was because of 1 Timothy 1:9, “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair…” So I guess for these folks we shouldn’t be caught waffling on the all-important braided hair issue if we want to be Adventists. I used to shrug these types of examples off as extreme, but now I’m not so sure.
Polarization is happening in Western society, too, on every level: economic, political, religious. Even sitcoms are having trouble appealing to a wide audience as in the days of “Friends” and “Seinfeld”. People are more different from one another than they have ever been, and increasingly people and institutions are having to decide whether to fight or embrace these differences.
What an oasis church would be if it were a place where we could stop worrying about whether we agree with everything and whether we approve of everyone’s behavior. I’m not saying we should stop affirming the pillars of Adventism, but that we should teach the truth and stop policing each other. Let’s agree on the essentials, with love for God and others above all and the pillars of Adventism as further common beliefs.
Instead, like political politicians and pundits, we seem to be choosing to fight. Case in point: Women’s ordination.
It Was Never About Ordination
It’s been over a year since 59% of the delegates in San Antonio voted not to allow variance in ordination practices, even in those areas where leaders and constituents feel conscience-bound to end gender discrimination. What has bothered me the most about this from the beginning has not been the discrimination, but the coercion. I’m not bothered that we disagree. I am bothered that we feel the need to police each other’s behavior. I want my church to hold together, but not by coercion.
Should we not closely guard the conscience of each person in our church? Should we not preserve their ability to follow their deeply-held convictions? Is it virtuous if we force people to violate the dictates of their conscience? Of course not. People should not be expected to violate their beliefs. Neither is this issue so central that one should be considered outside of Adventism who believes something different than 59% of delegates in San Antonio. After all, those who believe in allowing for local decisions on this issue are only siding with our very own Theology of Ordination Study Committee. So if there is diversity of conviction in truth while remaining Adventist, there should be diversity in practice.
The Adventist church is one of the most ethnically diverse organizations in the world. It began in one little region of the northeastern United States, and it was hard enough to hold together then. Now we span the globe. How can we ever hope to hold together if we seek to control each other’s behavior? What hope do we have if we require that only men are ordained, that everyone believe creation took place 6000 years ago in six 24-hour days, if we demand the same hermeneutics, same interpretations, same 28 beliefs with hundreds of pages of explanations? I fear we cannot hold together under such circumstances. I long for the days of the six pillars of Adventism, when one could say without irony that the Bible is our only creed.
But not only has it not been enough to resolve that those who disagree are by definition outside the blessing of the world church, now there appears to be an intention to use legal power to compel the desired behavior. The church has never been closer to splitting, and if compelling adherence continues to be the modus operandi of the world church, we will eventually split over this issue or another. The conflict isn’t really about women’s ordination, it’s about control and defining what it is to be Adventist. Who gets to decide? How do these decisions get enforced?
I want to be part of a church with enough grace to hold me even through life’s twists and turns. I want that for myself as well as for my friends and family. My wish for the Adventist church is that we would place our confidence in God, not in coercion, and return to the simplicity of love, Jesus, and the six pillars of Adventism.
Alicia Johnston serves the Arizona Conference of Seventh-day Adventists as the pastor of Foothills Community Church, (foothillsaz.org). She is an obsessive reader, a poor guitar player, and a lover of sunshine.