by Smuts van Rooyen  |  22 October 2021  |

Even a life lived in a dysfunctional family can be rewarding and wonderful, although unpredictably so.

Some might call that euphoric recall—that is, over-remembering only the good times. Maybe so, but for me dysfunction has not been an unmitigated disaster. Both my father and my mother were desperate alcoholics, and I struggled to keep my head above water competing with three assertive, older brothers in a tense environment. 

Nevertheless I thrived within what might be called a tumultuous, confusing love. Despite alI, I knew I was loved, albeit by people who were not always up to par. This has been my experience with the family of my childhood, and, unfortunately, with my church.

And how did I defend myself? In two ways. 

First, I tried to be a totally open book, because to be misread was dangerous. I therefore developed a keen desire and knack for clarity so that I was always clear—clearly right or clearly wrong, but clear! My naive approach was, “If you know where I stand you will see I mean you no harm, so please don’t hurt me.” 

Second, I learned to withdraw into myself when a storm gathered, or a dark tower loomed over me. As a consequence, I have a rich internal thought-life that has been a great blessing to me and, I hope, to others.

Church family of origin

I wish to recount some of my history with my troubled community of faith, and why I have remained committed to it. 

During the 1970’s a spiritual revival occurred in the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. The Lord gave to the church, warts and all, a number of tarnished gospel preachers, of which I was privileged to be one. Men such as Morris Venden and Hans LaRondelle, among others, hit the camp meeting circuit and brought a new spark to the church. Admittedly, the gospel we preached was bent gold, and not fully 24-carat metal—but nevertheless real gold. Our preaching was a hybrid of the Wesleyan and Lutheran traditions, and seemed to be of enormous benefit to thousands of members.

I cut my gospel teeth on the writings of John Stott and Donald Grey Barnhouse—but above all on the New Testament itself. Somehow it fell to me to teach a college class dubbed “Survey of the New Testament.” My task was to squeeze the juice from the pulp of every document in this canon for the nourishment of the students. 

In doing so I myself came to life. With time I could walk myself chapter by chapter through many of the gospels and epistles. I knew their themes and idiosyncrasies. As I studied, the resurrection of the living Christ took hold of me. I discovered the gospel. What utter joy! As Charles Wesley wrote: “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

By invitation, I began to speak across North America. My preaching schedule was extremely busy. I spoke at many weeks of prayer at Adventist colleges and academies nationwide. Summers were taken up with camp meeting and youth camp appointments from Florida to Washington state. On free weekends I spoke at local churches. Romans and the Gospel of John became the inspiration of my life. To my amazement, people responded with relief and enthusiasm as they discovered acceptance by grace through faith in Christ without the deeds of the law.

The ailment, yea, the sickness unto death, that I consistently encountered as I preached to my fellow Adventists was their conviction that they had to attain perfection of character before their names came up in judgment. The church taught that beginning in 1844 God started checking the record of every Adventist to see if “the household of God” had gotten victory over their sins. He investigated the books, recording their provisionally forgiven sins. Nobody knew when their sins would come under review. Many Adventists lived in holy terror of this process. 

I too had suffered from this burden grievous to be borne. Because there is no security of salvation in this doctrine, and because it is a false gospel I could not remain silent. Nor could the denominational leaders let my preaching stand.

Rejection

I do not wish to recount in detail the series of actions perpetrated against me and my family, other than to say that the church administration has an enormous capacity to redefine who you are to the church membership, and to nullify your ministry. The expectation placed before me was that of a king who cuts off a subject’s tongue and then demands that he praise the royal family with the stump that’s left. My first response was to become paralyzed with extreme frustration and anger. At times I was physically unable to lift my arms.

When I was defrocked from Adventist ministry by the General Conference, it felt more like a divorce than a mere loss of a vocation. I was trapped in tumultuous, confusing love. I still felt Adventist. My children continued to attend the local Adventist school, my wife went to church on the Sabbath, and I put in an appearance as my damaged psyche allowed. We remained practicing Adventists.

Before I explain how it is I maintained this awkward—some might even say cowardly—position, I want to salute the men and women who chose to leave the church, among them my three brothers in South Africa. I respect their uncompromising stand against error and for truth. They have suffered the injustice of ecclesial discipline with dignity and courage. 

How I’ve stayed

I do wish to show how I have justified my stance to stay the course with the denomination.

To begin, I accept the abiding presence of Christ within Adventism. Although he is imperfectly revealed, the denomination’s best instinct is to love Jesus. He is the Desire of the Ages, the beautiful Savior to the church. 

Sometimes administrators have to be reminded that the history and identity of the denomination are far less important than the history and identity of Christ. The “eternal verities” and “our unique truth” are not equal. Calvary and the empty tomb tower above 1844 in importance. 

I, and many other fellow travelers, continue to state those priorities clearly even in the face of repeated assertions by church leaders to the contrary.

Furthermore, I stay because the church has demonstrated a capacity to change and adapt. It is not totally stuck in the murky past, although its refusal to ordain women and affirm LGBTQ+ people might seem to say that it is. 

Adventism has evolved into three distinct branches that live in competition with each other. There is a conservative, 1844 perfectionistic tradition, an 1888 righteousness by faith tradition, and a progressive Loma Linda tradition. Although radically different in theology, these branches (if not quite denominations) live in relative peace with each other. They have their spats, but they are not at war. 

I embrace this evidence that change is still possible.

Moreover, the liberal stance I take by accepting other denominations and religions as valid in God’s eyes despite their heresies and faults, enables me to accept my own church. If I can see merit in the Presbyterians, the Pentecostals, and Islam, I certainly can see value in different expressions of Adventism. 

Then too, I understand that differentiation and rejection are not the same notion. I was able to say to my alcoholic parents, “I am not like you. I am different, but I do not reject you. I still love you.” These are also my sentiments in regard to Adventism. I don’t believe all of it. I don’t embrace the total lifestyle. But this is still my shining church and my people.

Finally, I need to admit that there are times when I feel overwhelmed by a sense of failure, of wrongdoing, of hypocrisy. At such times I am sustained by the beatitude of Jesus: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” It speaks to those mourners who attempted to reform a system, but could not do so without sinning. Who found that whether they left the church or remained with it they could not avoid guilt and regret. Who loved the church but were confused by its expectations. Who for all their trying, could not achieve the pinnacle of perfect truth. 

But then, praise God, they were comforted by the Spirit, were able to see the excellence in so many of the people, understood that fellowship with Christ in his sufferings is a high honor, and therefore stayed the wonderfully difficult course. 


Smuts van Rooyen is a retired pastor living in Central California. He holds an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Andrews University. His ministry was divided between teaching undergraduate religion and pastoring. He retired as the pastor of the Glendale City Church. He has been married to Arlene for a long time.

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