A Question of Identity
by Lawrence Downing, May 8, 2015: “Am I an Adventist?” This question, on the cover of the newly formatted Adventist Review, is superimposed on the picture of a young woman, eyes directed away from the reader; her folded hands, a ring prominently displayed on her right middle finger, rest lightly on what appears to be a Bible.
The article that is intended to answer the question is written by Adventist Review editor Bill Knott. The article itself carries the by-line, “Your answer expresses your integrity.”
Knott is not unique in his quest to identify the “real” Adventist. Others have found the answer and are free to share their insight. General Conference President Ted Wilson, for one, has decreed “real” Adventists believe in a short-earth chronology and a world created in seven literal 24-hour days. Those who do not agree, he states, are not the genuine article and, if an employee of an Adventist institution, should resign their position. Others are less inclined to accept so precise boundaries as those set forth by church officials.
The internecine debate related to the determination of who is and what determinants define a “real” Adventist brings to mind, for those of a certain age, the 50’s TV show To Tell the Truth, hosted by Bud Collyer.
To Tell the Truth featured a panel of four celebrities who faced three contestants, one of whom told the truth. Each of the three would introduce himself or herself with a statement such as, “I invented the TV rabbit ears.” The two “ringers” attempted to convince the panelists that they were who they claimed to be. At the end of a time period, each of the four panelists selected the person he or she thought was telling the truth. Made for great TV entertainment, but not the best system for deciding who is or is not the “real” Adventist. Scientology has the E-meter. Any possibility someone can create a similar gadget to assure a church is populated by “real” Adventists? There is another option that holds some promise: a local congregation is authorized to determine and identify “real” Adventists.
The diversity found in a collection of Adventist congregations boggles the mind. Some congregations define an Adventist as one who does not do certain things: eat cheese or meat, wear jewelry, work on the Sabbath, evidence homosexuality, and other behaviors the congregation members do not approve. With these negatives as the ground-rules, a congregation may decide to exclude from membership individuals who, in reality or perception, practice or affirm any one of the congregation’s forbidden behaviors. A congregation is empowered to rule in such matters. Should someone object to the congregation’s decision, a higher authority cannot change or modify the verdict.
Other Adventist congregations are less concerned about behavior and what a person believes. The individuals in these congregations value whether a person desires to become a member of their congregation. People who are members of any of these congregations are fully Adventist. They are so because the people who accepted them say they are! About those people who have been dropped from membership of a congregation or are rejected by a church, are these people Adventists? Why not? Membership does not control or trump one’s beliefs. A person can be Adventist and not be a member of any congregation, as evidenced when the United States Census Bureau reports thousands who claim to be Adventists but are unknown to any congregation. We begin to understand why defining a “real” Adventist can be a sticky and perplexing business.
Individuals and groups, including church hierarchy, even the General Conference in session, may adopt statements that they believe define a “real” Adventist. The authority these bodies have ends at the front door of the local congregation. It is the congregation that determines who is and who is not a member of that congregation. Governing bodies and administrative personnel may parse, define and calculate ad infinitum questions related to doctrine and behavior. Elected people may vote and make declarations. Their actions and conclusions related to church membership, in the end, are suggestions and opinions only. The final action relating to church membership is the responsibility of those who populate the pews of a specific Adventist congregation, each of which has been voted into the sisterhood of churches by the constituency of a specific local conference.
Who, then, is a “real” Adventist? Knott, in the conclusion to his article, offers answer to this question. ”Those waiting for others—some General Conference session vote or gathering of world church leaders—to define them as ‘in’ or ‘out’ of Adventism have missed the vital, beating heart of the Seventh-day Adventist movement.“ His takeaway points, as I understand them: We are to ask whether we are in tune with the people with whom we worship? Do we believe like they say they believe? Do we intend to live our lives in harmony with what scripture teaches and hold to what God commands and live by faith in Christ? “These poignant and enduring invitations still comprise the warm heart of the Seventh-day Adventist movement,” writes Knott. Our response, he posits, determines our answer to the question “Am I an Adventist?”
How one can recognize “real” Adventists has led me to consider what it is that draws people to associate with any church group. Do we believe that joining a church assures a special relationship with God? Is there a certain satisfaction in having someone state that because our membership resides in a certain church we have an advantage in the kingdom of God, as compared to others? Does associating with people who, together, say they share a common set of beliefs, produce confidence and a sense of well-being?
Some Adventist church members identify themselves as cultural Adventists. They grew up with Adventist people. They attended Adventist schools. Their family and friends are Adventists. They like the people they associate with who are Adventists. They attend church on Sabbath and hold various church offices, including that of elder or deacon. They will confess, if asked, that they share few of the Adventist Fundamental beliefs. Nevertheless, they are members of an Adventist congregation that welcomes and loves them. They are Adventists. Some Adventists may retort with a vigorous, “They cannot be Adventist! They do not believe what we believe; therefore, they are not who they claim to be.” Membership in a local parish states otherwise. Is it a problem when a congregation does not demand uniformity? Why? Is it wrong to welcome people who hold diverse beliefs and allow God to sort out who is “in” and who “out”? Is it a problem that some find their social needs met by a group of people they know and like? We do well to remind ourselves that a denomination is a corporation established to hold property and transact other business matters. The true church, if theologians are correct, is invisible, known only to God. Might we allow the Lord to act as gatekeeper to that church and trust that his decisions are just? Sociologists, church historians, church administrators and the curious seek answer to the question “Am I an Adventist?” An alternative question might read something like “Is what others think important, as long as the Adventists I worship with every Sabbath accept me as part of their church family?” The answer these people have to the question “Am I an Adventist?” is “Yes, I am, for my friends tell me so!”