by Monte Sahlin

By Jeff Boyd, May 16, 2014

Over four days (May 12-15) academics, pastors, and other leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the International Missionary Society Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement (IMS) have discussed the impact of World War 1 on the Adventist movement. The IMS is one of the two small denominations that emerged from the Reform Movement which started during the war because Adventist leaders changed the historic position of the Adventist faith on pacificism. The other is the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement (SDARM).

Although relations between the larger denomination and these two groups have been strained at times, the open dialog this week about this difficult history demonstrated a spirit of respect. On Wednesday evening after Rolf Pöhler, a faculty member at Friedensau Adventist University (FAU), read the German Adventist Church's official apology for its treatment of conscientious objectors 100 years ago, members of the IMS and the larger denomination had an impromptu embrace. This gesture cannot necessarily be taken as a sign of solidarity, but at a minimum it was an indication of a desire to recognize the value of the other party despite some enduring differences of perspective.

On the fourth day of the symposium hosted by FAU near Berlin, Germany, two papers were presented addressing ethics and what is to be learned for the future. Using a virtue theory approach, Dr. Michael Pearson, professor of ethics at Newbold College, provided a reflection on the players involved in the WW1 Adventist situation. He explained that virtue theory focuses "not on the action itself but on the character of the agent," and is concerned with "well-being, prospering, excellence, living well, blessedness and success." This ethical approach has one eye on the individual and the other on the community, employing narrative to evaluate both.

With this methodology, Pearson considered the character traits of church members, conscientious objectors, and church leaders in Britain, Germany and the United States. This approach demonstrated how each participant pursued virtue in relation to various reference groups. Despite attempts to act with virtue, Pearson noted seven problematic areas, four of which most obviously relate to the broader church. These include (1) systemic rather than individual failure, that is pragmatic Adventism had no adequate model to guide a response; (2) a focus on Adventist corporate self-interest that lacked a view of the broader moral scene; (3) a singular emphasis on Jesus' second coming, which left Adventists unprepared for the moral dilemma; and (4) a focus on "doing our duty in the context of obedience to authority" that diminished "our capacity to think for ourselves." These issues will be present again as other issues confront Adventists in many contexts.

Dr. Reinder Bruinsma, who retired recently from a number of denominational administrative positions over the years, gave the final presentation. He addressed the question, "Where do we go from here?" He pondered the future by reviewing three significant themes of the conference; the prophetic disappointment regarding the "Eastern Question," how Adventists view military service, and the split among Adventists in Germany and other European countries involved in WW1.

Bruinsma then reflected on issues that could divide Adventists in the future, including ordination, homosexuality, definition of biblical creation, and other persistent theological controversies. If one (or more) of these factors leads to a split, Bruinsma saw the fundamental issue underlying all of these as "the way we read and interpret the Bible."

However, Bruinsma did not see these as the greatest threat to the vitality and unity of the Adventist movement in the future. He suggested "today the greatest danger is not that large groups will leave our ranks with the purpose of creating their own organization." Rather, he said, "It appears that … the more urgent threat to the unity of the church is the exodus of large numbers of young and not so young people" who fail to find in the Adventist church what they are looking for.

After highlighting characteristics of modern and postmodern segments within the Adventist community, Bruinsma called all Adventists to deal with conflict and controversy in a Christ-like manner. In this vein, he addressed concerns relating to how Adventists go about interpreting scripture.

Painting a vision for a positive way forward, Bruinsma called Adventists to deepen their understanding of stewardship, promote true Sabbath rest, and get involved with initiatives of hope. In this context he invited the church to "revive the radical option for peace and reconciliation." Bruinsma named Adventist Peace Fellowship as a meaningful initiative consistent with the need for Adventists to promote peace. [For more information see www.adventistpeace.org.]

Bruinsma connected peace initiatives with a concern for welcoming and retaining church members. "It would seem to me that large numbers of contemporary Adventistis will find a new relevancy in their faith if they see their church at the forefront of helping people and in efforts for peace and justice."

The symposium's final hour was an open discussion. Topics included how to balance or reconcile modern and postmodern elements among Adventists, pragmatism versus idealism in ethics and church governance, the desire of some present to make non-combatancy a fundamental belief of the Adventist Church, and how to deal with conflict and separation.

Two statements made on the final day of the symposium summarize well key features of the gathering. Speaking of the quality of the engagement at the meeting, Pearson shared from the heart, "This event is bursting with integrity, and I'm proud to be part of it." Acknowledging that not all of Adventist history is as virtuous as one might wish, Pöhler reflected on God's presence even during difficult experience such as WW1, "God is faithful even when we fail to be faithful. Praise be to God."

Adventist Today sent one of its editors to Germany for this important symposium examining a crucial turning point in the development of the Adventist movement. This is the fourth and final daily news report. Additional features will be published in coming weeks. Jeff Boyd is assistant editor of Adventist Today.