by Lawrence Downing, May 23, 2016: How an organization responds to the unexpected is an indicator of whether the organization will survive or terminate. The Christian church is no exception. In the early years, the first Christians were time and again confronted with situations that had potential to inflict terminal damage. These crisis situations were the catalyst that led the early believers to define who they were and guided them to expand their mission. It was often crisis that served to move them out of their comfortable situations. The book of Acts records many of these transformational events.
Luke’s account of the development of the Christian church, written to a Gentile reader, in chapter after chapter, records events that impelled the first Christians to transcend their parochialism and include groups that, at their beginning, would have been excluded. Crisis goaded the new believers away from their set ways and traditions and directed them to modify belief and practice. Had it been otherwise, Christianity might well have been but one more asterisk in a History of Religion textbook.
In chapter after chapter, Luke’s history relates the challenges that confronted the disciples and others who followed in the Way. There were those who managed crisis well. Simon Peter learned to accept Gentiles as equals. Others, the Jerusalem contingent, were less successful. They, and others, were distressed when Gentiles were included as equals without accepting and following Jewish traditions. The personality traits, the successes and the failures found among the first believers are part of the story that describes how the first Christians adapted to their culture and environment. Yes, these people changed the world. It is also true that the world changed them. Crisis does that. Crisis forces evaluation and adaptation, and adaptation is change. Had the first believers chosen to hold to their values, traditions and beliefs, the Christian church would have a far different look than now exists.
The contemporary North American Seventh-day Adventist church, not unlike the early Christian believers, faces its own crisis situations. Our challenges both frustrate and cause fear among the saints. I believe we can learn from the first Christians who confronted, and then overcame, their prejudices and firmly-held beliefs that made it difficult to welcome Gentiles as part of God’s family. A circuitous and at times tumultuous route led the disciples and others to consider, and then accept, that Gentiles were their equals.
The diversity and complexity of the Adventist denomination is evident to any who attend a Sabbath service. Our members represent an astounding number of countries and ethnic groups. What do we do with this mix? We could seclude ourselves in our respective ghettos. Not healthy! We can, with vigor, affirm that the gospel does not allow isolation, nor does the message of Jesus promote the superiority of any one race, ethnic or denominational group. The challenge is to live out this ideal. It is not a simple matter. Tolerance, forgiveness, patience, a willingness to learn and to change, to go beyond the expected—all are part of the process that enables us to accept and cherish one another. We are not there yet—wherever “there” is. What a significant number of our fellow Adventists have concluded is that the leadership of the world church has not used its bully pulpit to promote the ideals valued by an organization that claims a mission to all people, nations and tribes. The motto “Forward, not backward,” is not matched by the published statements from the General Conference president and others who hold administrative positions. Restrictive statements published in official church papers that address science, social issues and other contemporary matters result in an atmosphere of mistrust, unrest, and alienation among our scientific community, our educators and other groups.
The Adventist world church has not done well with issues involving the compatibility of science and religion. What is a legitimate and reasonable response when one of our own concludes that the earth is far older than Adventists have traditionally taught? Men and women study earth-science. Their findings lead them to conclusions far different from those church officials advocate. Are we to oust those whose honest pursuit of knowledge takes them far from traditional church understandings? Must the scientist have a “church” mind and a “scientific” mind? How can we tell one of our family, “You are no longer one of us”? To deny one of our own is not an acceptable response! Casting labels on people who do not share our conclusions about when the earth was formed and how that formation occurred is not consistent with the Christian faith.
We live in a time when our explorations take us to earth’s deepest spots; out to the edges of the cosmos. Our science probes the mysteries of the gnome and dark holes; quarks, muons, and gravitational waves. Cosmologists tell us powerful forces were set in motion by massive events occurring billions of years ago and billions upon billions of miles distant. We non-scientists are flummoxed by such wonders. Findings such as these require that we take a broader and less certain view of our earth home and the universe we tentatively explore. It is unfair, and unrealistic, to expect the Bible writers to have addressed the matters that are part of our 21st-century life. It is not fair, nor is it realistic, to demand that those who pursue scientific studies fit their conclusions to a pre-scientific age. What scripture does, that science cannot, is proclaim God’s concern over and with creation. Scripture affirms the Lord’s love for humankind and the other components of creation. Our faith allows us to proclaim the hope of salvation and the assurance that there is life beyond life. These matters transcend scientific study. They are not the purview of the cosmologist, anthropologist, and others who pursue their scientific routes.
The North American Adventist church is not immune from the social and societal changes that rile religious and political structures. The environmental movement has taken on the trappings of religious zeal. The media have documented antics of environmental extremists who damage property and harm those they perceive to be opposed to their cause. We shake our heads in despair over actions taken by those who argue for the sacredness of the natural world while they desecrate other parts of the same world. And yet, as individuals who have been charged by the Creator to nurture and protect our earth-home, we have too often remained quiet, satisfied to be on the sidelines, as others seek answers to environmental concerns. We have done little to remedy the factors that mar our neighborhoods and oceans. Critics charge that Christian’s lack of concern is the result of our conviction that, as the old hymn proclaims, “Earth is not my home, I’m just a stranger here,” so why worry? When it comes to environmental concerns, our youth are not so placid.
The sexual revolution has shaken many to their core. The Adventist church has not come through unscathed, nor have we given adequate response to what is an important family matter. We as a Christian church, and as people of faith, ignore the issues associated with the sexual revolution at our peril! How we respond to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and unsure communities has deep and long-lasting consequence. Statistics tell us that 3% or so of our population is a member of one component of the LGBTQU community. It is likely that most Adventist families, including church leaders, have someone who is a member of one of these groups. The question is: how are we as a church family to respond? Consider how you would like people to treat your gay, lesbian transgender or unsure child.
Several years ago I accompanied my pediatrician wife to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics meeting in Atlanta, GA. One of the plenary sessions was a panel composed of parents of gay children. One of the mothers shared her experience when, soon after her son told her he was gay, she made an appointment with her pastor to seek his counsel on how to respond to this new information. The pastor looked at her and said, “You know that your son is lost! He is a sinner. He is going to hell where he will burn forever!”
As this mother related her story, I, as a pastor, shriveled inside. “How could a man who called himself a Christian be so cruel? What kind of god does he worship? As I reflected on that day in Georgia, I concluded that a valid possibility for a response consistent with my values, beliefs and theology can be based on reconfiguring the trite WWJD to read WDJD (What did Jesus do?”). How did he treat those whom others rejected? Who are the ones he touched, the ones he welcomed? What can we learn from his contacts with the desperately lonely, hurting individuals?
We turn to another crisis: Economic inequality. When compared to most of the people in our world, we are wealthy. When, according to the New York Times, the richest one percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. What role do we Adventists have in the strategy and practices that are part of the United States economic world? Are we exempt from concerns over how money flows? If we gave all our money to the poor would it make a difference? Individuals who chose to shed their wealth would, with certainty, be affected! In the scope of the monetary pool, would this sacrifice prove a lasting benefit, or, would the now-poverty-stricken be additional social burdens?
There is no simple answer to complex questions. It is leaders’ responsibility and opportunity to work with others to provide reasonable and responsible solutions to help their organizations thrive. It is unfortunate that our organizational personnel are more skilled at erecting fortress walls and quoting shibboleths, “We have nothing to fear for the future as long as….”, but less proficient in providing creative response to matters that vex the contemporary congregation. Absent such leadership, it is the local congregation and its leaders who are called upon to take action.
Each congregation is the Adventist church in its community. The congregation has the authority to decide what is important to it. The book of Acts records the struggles and trauma experienced by first believers as they responded to a changing world. They were the gatekeepers to the Way. Members of each congregation are gatekeepers to their church. We in the local church alone have the authority and right to decide who is and who is not a member of our congregation. We decide who is, and who is not, welcome in our congregation. This is a sacred responsibility. When making our decisions on who is and who is not accepted into our congregations we are under an imperative to reach deep into Jesus’ teachings and practices. The book of Acts, an account of the first Christians’ response to real-world crisis, is one important guide. There are powerful lessons to learn from the experience of the first believers—the women and men whose lives inspire and challenge, defied social norms; broke with tradition; ventured into uncharted territory; reached out to diverse peoples. With the blessing of God, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians changed their world. We today are called to perpetuate their courage, their grace, and to practice their acts of mercy and acceptance.