Adventist in Name Only?
by Mark Gutman | 7 April 2023 |
This essay was originally published on November 30, 2014
Liberal Republicans have often been termed RINO’s by more conservative Republicans. RINO (pronounced “Rhino”) stands for Republican in Name Only, and the name caller is usually accusing the alleged RINO of failing to hold the party line in a key area. “If a Republican doesn’t sign Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, or oppose abortion under all circumstances, or claim that evolution is a myth and global warming a hoax, he or she likely will be tagged as a RINO, or worse yet, as a moderate.”1
Some Adventists tend to regard other Adventists as AINO’s – Adventists in Name Only. As with politics, so in religion. Some who are more conservative don’t want those who are more liberal being grouped with them. “If I can’t do that, it’s off limits for all church members.” “I don’t believe that, so you shouldn’t either.” What would be the standard for deciding if someone is an AINO?2
The 28 Fundamental Beliefs would surely be a good starting point for a measuring rod. But not every Adventist sitting in a pew (or no longer sitting in a pew) agrees with all 28. How many of the 28 must one agree with in order to be considered a genuine Adventist? Having a problem with 1 out of 28 may raise the hackles of those who keep score. Even as Republicans who are much more Republican than Democrat get called RINO, so Adventists who are much more Adventist than Presbyterian or unchurched sometimes get classed as AINO’s. Alden Thompson points out that some want to make every doctrine crucial to Adventism.3 To miss one means you’re not an Adventist. On the other end, some don’t want to make any doctrine crucial, but may at least agree that the Sabbath and the second advent are important.
Perhaps someone agrees with all 28, but takes issue with parts of a few of the 28. The Church Manual does not allow disfellowshipping a member for not attending church (part of #11) or not paying tithe (part of #21). Many members either do not understand or openly disagree with at least a couple aspects of the sanctuary doctrine (#24). Yet they remain members of the church, even if that distresses some.
How certain does one need to be of each of the 28 to be on safe ground? Most members who agree with all 28 beliefs are not 100% certain about all of them. On the crucial doctrines, what % of certainty is sufficient? 90%? 51%? Human beings vary in their moods. Member Smith believed belief #__ 90% yesterday, but has a stomachache today and his certainty has dropped to 60%. Tomorrow all’s well, and Smith is back in church, and the 60% has rebounded to 95%. (Your companions will affect your beliefs and doubts.)
Statements of the Fundamental Beliefs are useful, but as a tool for deciding who is a “real” Adventist, they have their limitations. Which beliefs are critical? How much of each doctrine must be accepted? What percentage of certainty is required?
Doctrines or actions?
So far in this discussion, the judging has been focused on something printed in a book as the criterion. When explaining to the “expert in the law,” Jesus didn’t mention any “doctrine” that would be in that type of test.4 He told a story about a compassionate person who probably would have failed the test that the expert in the law had in mind. A kind person who would have failed a test on the 28 fundamental beliefs. Jesus, though, recommended the caring “heretic” (Samaritan) as an example. Sometimes, looking at a beliefs book can lead us to overlook plain old real-life Christianity.
I heard about a lady who was furious when the Adventist church of which she was a member showed kind treatment to LGBTQ+ people. She was ready to pull her membership from that church and move it to another place that would be more fundamental, more “Adventist,” more “Christian.” Her berating others who differed from her and her insistence on unfriendly treatment of such people does not qualify as heresy. She hasn’t denied any fundamental belief. Her membership is not in danger. What a person thinks about belief #__ tends to engender more concern than how Christlike the person is.
Jesus gave a rule by which others would know that we were his followers. Here’s how: that we love each other,5 as demonstrated by Jesus and by the compassionate Samaritan. He said that love is the best Christian ID card. Sometimes in our eagerness to judge others, we forget about what Jesus said mattered most. The fact that we’re Adventists doesn’t mean that we have something that superseded what Jesus taught, that now it’s all right to be harsh with others. As Barbara Brown Taylor put it, “What I noticed at [where she used to pastor] is the same thing I notice whenever people aim to solve their conflicts with one another by turning to the Bible: defending the dried ink marks on the page becomes more vital than defending the neighbor. As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God..”6
If people do not know what denomination we belong to, will they be attracted to ours on the basis of how we treat those who don’t see things our way? Church members who are cruel to others can lead out in the church, while members who mimic the Good Samaritan can get booted from the church because they are considered to be AINO’s. They, like the kindhearted Samaritan, may act Christlike but fail to get a good enough grade on the fundamental beliefs test to be allowed membership.
Disagreements are OK
In our local church, we can stand for something. We don’t have to let people who openly disagree with important church doctrines (however we rank them) promote their disagreement from the pulpit or a Sabbath School teacher’s position. But would it hurt to let the people who are not entirely orthodox (according to us) enjoy our fellowship and ask their questions? We don’t help our cause by only allowing those who agree with us to be heard in the church. Most readers of this column have read many times the Ellen White quote that combines the words “as real spiritual life declines” with “[t]hey become conservative and seek to avoid discussion.”7 We can be fairly certain in our belief without being unkind (unchristian) to those who disagree.
The early Christian church had its disagreements. Paul didn’t see things exactly the way Peter did. Paul even scolded Peter in public.8 The fact that Paul and Peter had their differences didn’t mean that Paul considered Peter a CINO (Christian in name only). Neither tried to stop the other’s ministry. One individual from a particular set of circumstances and teachers cannot fairly impose her moral judgment on someone’s else’s theology or actions. “Religious people are notorious for confusing acceptance with agreement. When that happens, people assume that disagreement must result in rejection and condemnation. . . .”9
I may disagree with you on certain doctrines, but making it plain that I want nothing to do with you (and that I’m superior to you) because of those differences will mainly teach you that I have a hard time accepting people who don’t agree with me. By keeping you at arm’s length, I will cost myself any chance of winning you by my actions or by my words. Placing a label of AINO on you will make it harder for the two of us to enjoy Christian fellowship.
He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
1See column by Geoffrey Kabaservice at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/geoffrey-kabaservice/conservatives-not-republican_b_1236972.html
2I don’t know how AINO would be pronounced. If it’s pronounced as “I know,” it should remind the labeler that we actually know very little about the people we label.
3See the last section, A Model for the Church, in the article “Must we agree?” from Ministry, Feb 1988. https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1988/02/must-we-agree
6Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir Of Faith (HarperOne, 2006), p. 106.
7Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 39.
9Bruxy Cavey, The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2007), p. 66.
Mark Gutman has worked as a pastor, a teacher, and an auditor for the church. He is now retired and living in Battle Ground, Washington, with his wife, Heather.