I Have Not Left My Church. My Church Has Left Me
by Hannele Ottschofski | 17 November 2022 |
I am slowly waking up to the realization that the church that I belong to, and where I have grown up, with which I have identified myself for my whole life, has changed. It is no longer the church I joined when I was baptized 60 years ago.
I used to consider change a positive thing, connected with progress. But the change that I have seen in my church for the last several years is far from progressive.
When I was young, in my part of the world Adventists were considered a sect. A lot of effort was made to earn respect as one of the many Christian Protestant denominations. So we became a church.
But it seems to me that Adventists are turning back the clock and becoming sectarian again.
One definition of a sect highlights exclusiveness as a typical characteristic. The members consider themselves chosen and called out from the rest of the world. They often proclaim a special, narrow way to salvation, and absolute obedience to a charismatic (or, occasionally, despotic) leader.
This reminds me of all the talk about the remnant and the demands of conformity to the organization that we now hear from our church. When church leadership makes delegates vote for procedures of punishment on their fellow leaders who act according to their conviction and conscience, they are certainly on a path toward autocratic sectarianism.
An immovable movement?
The church of my youth was a movement that I was proud to be a part of. Though even back then there were things that concerned me about my church, mostly it felt good and reasonable. (Or maybe my memory is failing.)
All I know is that today, when I look beyond my local church (with its own problems) to what is happening in Silver Spring (or San Antonio or St. Louis, for that matter), I cringe. Now the movement that became the Seventh-day Adventist Church has entered a phase in which nothing moves. Everything is hewn in stone. The persons at the top of the church administration, probably influenced and pressured by far-right groups that want to impose their interpretation of the Bible on others, are cementing in place an immovable church.
That’s not the kind of world we live in: the world changes, and it needs dynamic answers, not immovable ones. Today’s church, it seems to me, is a far cry from the vibrant faith of the founders, who were ready to search the Scriptures as their guide to faith.
When I was baptized I was given a little booklet with a short list of our beliefs, and my baptismal certificate pasted on the first page. I pledged allegiance to these beliefs, and no one has ever asked me to sign up for the rest of the now-28 Fundamental Beliefs.
The early Adventists
I recently reread George Knight’s book about Adventist Authority Wars (which I would like to recommend to all who love their church). He quotes John Loughborough, whose words sound uncannily prophetic:
The first step to apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe.
The second is, to make that creed a test of fellowship.
The third is to try members by that creed.
The fourth is to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed.
And, fifth, to commence persecution against such.
If the church wants to “hold fast,” as one of our leaders recently preached at length, it should look back to the openness in its early times. The early church gave women a voice at a time when society restricted women’s roles. It advocated the abolition of slavery. It was active in promoting social actions and health reform.
Instead, said the president of the General Conference on June 7, 2022:
Let’s not get so involved in issues that the world has become involved in, in social action…let’s not become so involved in all of those things that you miss the opportunity of bringing people to the foot of the cross. That’s our mission in the Seventh-day Adventist church.
Such thoughts contradict all the innovative mission projects with which the church is trying to reach unchurched people through its centers of influence.
I have also read with interest the books by Michael W. Campbell, 1919 and 1922, where he explains the rise of fundamentalism in the evangelical and Adventist world at the beginning of the 20th century. That led me to the Kristin Kobes du Mez book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, detailing how evangelical churches turned to masculine Christianity and patriarchy. Beth Allison Barr’s book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth shows that the trend toward more patriarchy is not biblical. What people on the right fringe of the spectrum now consider the truths we should hold on to is not what God wanted his church to reflect.
These books have been eye-openers for me in understanding what is happening in the religious world, particularly in North America.
The matter of women’s ordination has still not been solved. During the 1881 General Conference Session, the delegates voted a resolution that it is appropriate for “females possessing the necessary qualifications to … be set aside by ordination to the work of the Christian ministry.” That is something we should hold on to!
There have been voices saying that the church is not yet ready for women’s ordination. Way back then, in 1881, the church was open to women serving as ministers. It’s not ready yet today?
We must be vigilant. The books I mentioned above, Jesus and John Wayne and The Making of Biblical Womanhood, show how just a few people can change the direction of churches and Christianity in general. We are seeing signs of our church’s being taken in the same rigid, controlling direction. As Simone de Beauvoir said,
Never forget that it will only take a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question.
Why serve the church?
My grandfather became an Adventist following an evangelistic series in 1921. He made notes of all the Bible texts used by the evangelist, and at home he checked everything. He read the Bible through in three months, and concluded that the evangelist had preached Bible truth. His decision to be baptized together with his whole family, including my 11-year-old father, changed the course of their lives and led to lifelong loyalty to his newfound faith and church.
My father’s baptismal text was 2 Tim 3:14-15:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
He passed this conviction on to all his children.
My father would defend his faith until his death, remembering from whom he had learned, and what his teachers had taught at (old) Newbold. When we discussed church business and leadership at home, he would always remind us that it was God’s church and had to be right. I never felt forced to accept the faith of my parents, but their example of loyalty was strong and compelling.
As the family of a denominational leader, we were aware of what was happening in the worldwide church, including things that were not so positive. We saw financial corruption and mismanagement, as well as nepotism.
But we served. Not everything was good in the good old days, but it felt better than now.
I have become so disillusioned with what this church is becoming that I have to ask, “Has my life-long service been in vain?”
I wanted to serve God. Why is my church causing me such frustration? The motto of the 61st General Conference Session was “Jesus is coming. Get involved.” But I find myself reluctant to get involved with the church as it is now.
The church, I have to remind myself, is not the General Conference. There are no positive changes from that direction. No renewal. No reformation. That part of the church is merely “holding fast” to the most rigid and restrictive forms of Adventism. The General Conference seems to be looking backward rather than forward to what the world needs today to be relevant. The General Conference is living in a bubble: the leadership doesn’t seem to understand local churches, and church members seem not to find the the leadership’s decisions helpful or relevant.
So I wonder where the church as we knew it has gone. I have not left the church. The church has left me.
But I still trust in God to take care of his children. I will not give up on God. All the prayers that have been spoken will have an impact. We would do well to remember Gamaliel’s words in Acts 5:38-39:
For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.
I want to be on God’s side. I want my church to be, too.
Hannele Ottschofski writes from Hechingen, Germany.