“Get Out—You’re Breaking Our Church!”
by Loren Seibold | 13 December 2019 |
I, like many of my generation, grew up believing that everything that Ellen White wrote was absolutely perfect, and following all of it was necessary to salvation. By the time I was a young pastor, people such as Ron Numbers, Don McAdams, Fred Veltman and Walter Rea had begun unpacking what our denominational ancestors had known a century ago: that Ellen White was as much inspired by other writers as she was by God.
This revelation was first met with denial, then fear. I remember my conference president expressing it to us this way at a pastors’ meeting: “If Ellen White isn’t perfectly accurate and perfectly honest in everything, then our whole doctrine falls apart, and our denomination with it.”
Many feared that. But it was wrong. I am now retired, and Adventist doctrine has survived, as has the Seventh-day Adventist Church itself. It is now generally accepted that Ellen White copied extensively from many sources, employed editors and researchers, was influenced by husband James and son Willie and others, and stretched the truth when talking about the provenance of her writings. According to the notes of the 1919 Bible Conference, many of her contemporaries knew all this.
Yet we’re still here. We have adjusted the way we use Ellen White, but she’s still read, still respected. The whole church hasn’t disappeared, remembered only as an historical oddity. In fact, if church statistics are to be believed, we’ve never been so strong and healthy.
Might the church be more resilient than some of its defenders think it is?
Don’t Break Our Church!
One champion of the notion of church vulnerability is Cliff Goldstein, who often warns that without one specific belief or another, as he defines it, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is nothing but a joke on us. In response to a critique of the year-day principle, he writes, “If he’s correct, then the Seventh-day Adventist Church is built upon lies sandwiched between errors and errors sandwiched between lies … If what this ‘Adventist’ website published is true, Ellen White is a false prophet and we are what enemies of the Seventh-day Adventist Church have always claimed: a cult.”
This kind of overstatement is unfortunate, because Cliff has shown himself at times to be one of the church’s most creative writers. He can, when he’s not being scornful, make powerful arguments on our behalf. But Cliff seems to have lost his sense of nuance, falling back on all-or-nothing, slippery slope arguments. His most unfortunate rhetorical flourish is to tell you that unless you hold to his outline of Adventist orthodoxy, you don’t belong here at all. “I can respect someone who, believing in evolutionary theory, rejects the Adventist Church entirely,” he wrote in an essay labeling questioners “Seventh-day Darwinians.” “I have no respect for those who think they can meld the two.” “You can be an Adventist or an evolutionist,” he writes, “but not both.”
Indeed, many have absented themselves for this and other reasons—and I suspect that’s fine with the all-or-nothing crowd, who appear to believe that these pesky Jonahs are just messing up a perfectly good theological trip, and it’s better that we throw them over the rail and let them be gobbled up by big secular fish.
A Church of Fragile Ideas?
If you wonder why our denominational overlords are so tolerant of tossing questioners over the gunwale, it helps to know that to a certain set—and this set is heavily represented in the General Conference (GC) building by people like Cliff Goldstein and Elder Ted Wilson—the church is not communities of struggling human beings, as we pastors know it to be, but a set of propositions and policies propping up an organization. It is the propositions and the organization that must be saved, not the people or the community. People are troublesome things who don’t believe what you want them to believe nor do what you want them to do. Elder Wilson has even spoken approvingly about shaking critics out of the church in order to preserve its integrity, and threatens to expel from governance boards duly-elected church leaders whom he deems disobedient.
To these leaders, orthodoxy is the measure of value, not people or their experience with God. As for the church’s theology, it’s perfect. It has to be. It cannot be rethought or redefined.
Except, of course, it has been, over and over again. The investigative judgment as it’s now explicated would be barely recognizable to our founders. In virtually all early Adventist prophetic schemes, Turkey was a major player. Ellen White and others had an exclusivist view of salvation, starting with The Shut Door. The Trinity was an optional belief into the 20th century, as was the clean-unclean meat distinction. (James White wouldn’t have survived an examination of his theology by the modern General Conference president, nor Jesus or the apostle Paul their food and beverage consumption.) Ellen White thought miscegenation a sin, and said she’d met “old Enoch” on Saturn. A young scholar, Matthew Reeves-Korpman, has recently shown that she read and believed in the Apocrypha until the end of her days.
Heard any of those addressed lately as part of the orthodoxy discussions?
As for our aspirations, they’re admirable: we all want Jesus to return, and we all want victory in our lives. But where is Jesus after 175 years? Where are all the perfect people who are supposed to compel his return?
Much, too, has been added that wasn’t part of Adventism’s original charter—sometimes by the church’s defenders in the General Conference. Last Generation Theology and headship theology are innovations, not original with the founders. Ellen White had ordination credentials issued to her for 44 years, so making women’s ordination now appear anathema is to rewrite our history.
No, Adventist theology is not perfect, nor have all our expectations been realized. And yet, astonishingly, the church has survived! It has survived long enough for Cliff Goldstein to be “grafted in” so he could warn us that we who think differently are breaking the church—so would we please just leave? Cliff thinks we can’t survive rethinking 1844, as our GC president thinks that the church can’t survive female pastors, nor a score of other things he criticizes, from culturally-attuned worship music to engaging in social justice.
What a bunch of frightened pessimists! Do we really have so little to offer that any change will make the church crumble?
The Organizational Squint
The notion that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a house of cards is a misunderstanding by those who, even though they lead the church, see it with a distinct organizational squint. I’ve come to believe that mature organizations, because they tend to prepare, preserve, and promote their own, are more likely to cultivate defensive leadership than creative leadership.
And their own don’t always know the organization they lead. I would assert that the people most out of touch with the real Seventh-day Adventist Church work at 12501 Old Columbia Pike in Silver Spring, MD. That’s because most of them haven’t immersed themselves in the local community life of a congregation for decades. Cliff has never been a pastor, and though he’s a popular guest speaker, he has admitted that he doesn’t really appreciate congregational life. Elder Ted Wilson calls himself “pastor,” but that’s a bit disingenuous: he worked as an intern for a year before being pulled into higher responsibilities by his famous family name. Like Cliff, if he’s at a church, he’s in front speaking—and that’s not the same thing as living with and pastoring a congregation.
Yet these are the people who have a platform to shape who we are. And they’re shaping it around orthodoxy, not community.
What’s Really Breaking the Church
This autumn two statements were presented to the General Conference Executive Committee, one on Ellen White, the other on the Bible. Though neither was surprising, the Ellen White statement was problematic in that it implied that only Ellen White could tell us what the Bible means. Neither listed an author: they materialized from the organizational aether. Neither was released for public review before your leaders voted to send them to the General Conference session, nor were they discussed.
This—crafting statements of orthodoxy—is the sort of thing that denominations are good at, and ours is no exception. But more statements won’t save the church. The biggest threat to the church isn’t doctrinal disharmony. It’s judgmentalism, exclusion, arrogance masquerading as Holy Spirit leading, unrecognized hypocrisy, misused resources, ingrown leadership, overvaluing triumphal statistics, undervaluing ordinary churches, and generally substituting ideas about God for the grace and goodness of God.
If you want to see what’s most hurting the church, watch Ted Wilson’s face and listen to his tone of voice when he’s forced to talk to people he disagrees with, such as Dave Weigley or Ricardo Graham. Watch him manipulate committees and meetings. Watch him cut people off when they try to make motions he doesn’t like. Listen to his sermons, always warnings about things he disapproves of that are about to destroy us unless corrected. Cliff, for his part, doesn’t seem to understand how hard pastors work to draw people in. Yet Cliff gets a denomination-wide platform to tell people who disagree with him that we don’t care if they stay around anymore!
Both Cliff Goldstein and Ted Wilson are experts at denominationalism. Neither understands the church as community. Remember: it was Jesus who said, “Don’t rip out all the weeds, lest you also destroy the good grain”—which means that community is more important than orthodoxy.
Tougher Than You Think
What we learn in local congregations (and what some of our leaders don’t appear to realize) is how durable, flexible and diverse the Adventist community is. A significant proportion of the members in the North American Division disagree with Ted Wilson about women ministers. Yet they’re still attending church on Sabbath, paying tithes and offerings, and supporting Adventist schools. A few have doubts that the church’s interpretation of creation as described in Genesis jives with the geological record—and many of those, too, are still with us (though it can’t help when someone from denominational headquarters tells them he has no respect for them, and they shouldn’t be allowed to call themselves Seventh-day Adventists). I have dozens of acquaintances who are gay who, though constantly disapproved of by church leaders, still attend a local congregation and participate. I have had church members who work on Sabbath or play ball on Sabbath, and some who use alcoholic beverages. I didn’t kick them out, nor remind them every time I saw them that they didn’t belong. I encouraged them to come to church, listen to a sermon and make friends, and I prayed for them. That’s what pastors do.
So even if they don’t understand the church (and I’m sympathetic to how difficult that is while working inside a denominational office) perhaps our leaders could at least rethink that notion of telling our customers to leave because they’re messing up our good ideas. Could they perhaps understand that the church is filled with hurting, doubting people, people who are trying to make sense out of the complexities of life—broken people, broken families, finding comfort and help in church on Sabbath?
I believe Cliff Goldstein, Ted Wilson, and others in the GC are well-intentioned. But I wish they would spend a few minutes absorbing this passage from Ellen White:
“Every association of life calls for the exercise of self-control, forbearance, and sympathy. We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things vary. We judge differently. Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life, are not in all respects the same. There are no two whose experience is alike in every particular. The trials of one are not the trials of another. The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing.” Ministry of Healing 483.
Yes, beliefs are important. But they’re not the only important thing. Orthodoxy should be continuously attempted, but history shows that it is a moving target, which means that we approach it with some humility.
You can, on the other hand, make a pretty good argument that the church community is more than a doctrinal study group, more than a way of unifying our ideas, and certainly more than a way to gather money for church business. It is actually the means for people to experience and apprehend God. It is where two or three, 20 or 30, 200 or 300, gather with the Holy Spirit among them. That’s where lives are changed.
And that means, Cliff and Ted, we out here are a rather diverse bunch of weeds, one that you oughtn’t to rip out unless you actually want to destroy the church. Couldn’t you, as Jesus said, leave judgment for the judgment?
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Loren Seibold is a retired pastor and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.