by Loren Seibold | 22 October 2023 |
I remember a pastoral colleague of another denomination some years ago asking me about the origin of my denomination. I told her about the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, when hopeful believers expected Jesus to return.
She listened for a bit and said (kindly but matter-of-factly), “And you’re still disappointed.”
Yes. Oh yes.
That was the first time it occurred to me how the myth of my church’s origins has reverberated down through the decades. The story describes not just who those people were, but who we are. It wasn’t just about what we wait for, but how we act and live and feel while we wait.
On October 22, 2023, we are still the disappointed.
How odd, I think, that I belong to a church whose most familiar date is the day we were wrong. But that wrongness, and the defensiveness it created, has shaped who we are.
No, Jesus hasn’t returned. None of the things our prophecies said would happen have happened. And the more time has passed, the less happy we seem to be, and the less we are a community of people who are able to live out the goodness and peace of Jesus.
And the more time has passed, the less happy our leaders seem to be with us, and the more obsessed they have become with doctrine and authority.
I know the given explanation for that original mistake: that something huge took place in heaven that day. On that day, someone has decided, Jesus began his work in the heavenly sanctuary. But even if you can set aside what the Bible says about Jesus having begun his mediation for us at his ascension, this question remains: What does it matter? So a ceremony is going on in heaven—does it make a difference to our lives here? Does it affect our assurance of salvation?
Of this last, sadly, for some it does. They fear the close of probation. They doubt that they are perfect enough to be saved, and that they ever will be. Shame on those of you who have led our people—even our children!—to think that way! Shame on you! When you leave searching souls with the picture of an angry, fearful, excluding God, a God unloving and unlovable, may the Holy Spirit bring to your mind Matthew 18:6.
An abusive parent
Yes, I’m disappointed. But not because Jesus hasn’t returned.
I can confess now—now that most of my lifetime is in the rear view mirror—that I have never really looked forward to Jesus’ return. That’s because you—evangelists, pastors, and Ellen White—gave us nothing joyous to look forward to.
You called it a blessed hope, but then you outlined a future of persecution and torture and rejection. You told us that it was more horrible than we could imagine—so severe that it was nearly impossible for us to be ready for it. You warned it could happen at any moment. An edict from the pope! A law by a government! A war in the Middle East! The next door neighbors dropping by to torture us! A dramatic cloud in the eastern sky!
Then you told us that by the time these things happen, it is already too late! In fact, you suggested, it may be too late for us anyway!
Let’s be honest, evangelists and pastors and church leaders: you gaslighted us. It was a typical abusive relationship: you told us we should be happy about something terrible, something dreadful. We must suffer and put up with it—and by extension, with you—because no matter how hopeless you assured us things are, we should just be happy we’re in this church.
You implied our eternal destruction if we didn’t believe it all. And though it was oh, so horrible to believe, we did believe it. We quaked every time the sun outlined a dramatic dark cloud. We awakened at night wondering if our record book had already been examined and it was too late to repent. We listened to every news report for clues to to the end-time signs you warned us about: Sunday laws, papal power, earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars. Even a Roman Catholic president was a sign!
You listed all that we must do (actually, mostly it was what we couldn’t do) to be saved. But we knew we could never be good enough. Your rules: there was no mercy in them, no softness, no “give.” You told us to scrutinize our every action, especially those having to do with food and Sabbath.
Certainly we could expect no assurance of salvation. We tiptoed around an angry, impatient God. You feared, I think, that if you let us get too comfortable feeling that God loved us and wanted to save us, we might get soft. Sometimes you discouraged us from believing the gospel at all, except as a sort of theological concept. The real gospel, you told us, was about becoming perfect—or as near to it as we could get through paying tithe and coming to church.
Oddly, it was assumed that things like beating your wife or grabbing your secretary’s bottom or stealing from the treasury weren’t problems we needed to address out loud. We were already too advanced to admit to needing help for such basic sins like that. We were way, way beyond that: we were already perfecting our diets!
So those things kept happening—but for decades they were swept under the rug. Often, they still are.
It’s too late for denial
Don’t say you didn’t do this, pastors and evangelists and administrators, because you know you did. And don’t say you don’t anymore, because you do. Rarely does someone from church headquarters rise to his feet without engagine in abusive double-talk.
You start by telling us how successful is God’s true church: we are establishing new congregations, raising up new offices (oh, how we love new offices!), starting new programs, printing reams of paper, baptizing people by the thousands! How astonishingly effective we are!
But, you add in the next breath, look out! Probation is about to close. Persecution will commence shortly. Your religious liberties are circling the drain. Jesus is already in dress rehearsal for his appearance in the sky surrounded by angels, all armed to destroy sinners. Now, you might be fortunate enough to be one of those whom Jesus receives with gladness. But don’t take it for granted, because there are many ways (at least 16, according to Ted Wilson) in which you are probably falling short at this very moment.
So recommit yourself to God’s one true church. Send in your tithes and offerings. It is your only hope. Admittedly, it is but a frail hope, because no matter how you try, you probably have some secret doubts, some unconfessed sins. God is expecting so much more from you.
And I know that some of you I am addressing are at this moment still protesting that you don’t do this, that you never did. But the rest of us know that fear and guilt have long been your favorite methodologies, and you are so accustomed to using them, they are so mingled into your theology, that you don’t even realize it.
Here’s my biggest disappointment on this October 22, 2023: that my church, which can do so much good—that has such potential for even greater goodness—continues to do so much bad. That for all our successes (I love our universities; our hospitals; many of our good, hard-working pastors; and so many, many dear Adventist people) we are still, from the top on down, a tragically dysfunctional family.
Our leaders are increasingly abusive. Rarely does Ted Wilson rise to the microphone without blasting LGBTQ people. (You should wonder, as many of us do, why this topic so obsesses him to the exclusion of every other.)
Rarely does he fail to say—to a church started by a female prophet whom he apotheosizes—that female pastors are disobedient when they choose to minister for God.
And of course he loves to rebuke the church for not bending totally to the authority of his office, even while warning us that the last deception (one about to be perpetrated upon us) is the world bending to the authority of another church’s office!
I once read this epigram: “The church is like Noah’s ark: you couldn’t stand the stench on the inside, except for the storm on the outside.”
At the time, I thought it quite clever. I don’t anymore. Our church has too often used the excuse that you must remain in God’s true church where it’s safe because oh, how terrible it is out in the world!
No. It’s not always safe in here. Congregations are dying for want of joy. 80% of congregations report significant conflicts in the church. Many of us feel more abused in the church than outside of it.
For all of our talk of evangelism, rarely does it work. (When it doesn’t, you say it’s our fault for being “lukewarm.”)
We are hemorrhaging children and young adults. (For that, too, you blame us: we’ve not been sufficiently stern and unbending. You love the idea that disapproval and discipline and scolding fixes things, which is why Elder Wilson so often uses those tactics.)
Meanwhile you, our church leaders, by emphasizing doctrinal orthodoxy and denominational fealty and talking endlessly about the “shaking,” are assiduously trying to divide us. How often have you told us we should leave—must leave—if we don’t like everything about this church? “Love it or leave it” is one of Elder Wilson’s favorite sermon topics!
So when I hear that I must resign unless I agree with him, I have a hard time believing that the storm out there is worse than the stench of authoritarianism, doctrinalism, and exclusivism in here.
The world is bad, to be sure, but it doesn’t tell us it loves us, and we must love it, while it is beating us up. The church does.
The church is our abusive spiritual father, and Elder Wilson appears to take pride in that.
I have seen no repentance from the General Conference. No softness. No insight. Only more expressions of disappointment. More scolding. More self-righteousness. More stubbornness.
Some say that the older you get, the more conservative you become, and the more you cling to your faith. Perhaps it is true of some people. Perhaps as some get closer to death they seek hope (if fearfully) in a denominational identity.
That hasn’t been true for me. The older I get, the more inclined I am to place my hope in God—but a more mysterious, less defined God than my church offered me; a good, loving and accepting God; the God of Jesus, not of denominational offices. I fully believe God wants me in heaven, and won’t consult Silver Spring first.
Because the older I get, the less foolishness I’m willing to abide from organized religion.
So I don’t blame anyone anymore—child or youth or adult or elder—for saying, “I’m disappointed in my church.” Because I’m disappointed, too.
General Conference, I remain an Adventist not because of you, but in spite of you. You have no spiritual authority over me. North American Division, Columbia Union—you either.
I remain a Seventh-day Adventist in honor of godly parents and grandparents, in honor of some precious church members who treated me with grace and kindness.
I remain here in honor of the teachers who taught me truth, not fear, and the pastors who didn’t berate and scold or scare the living hell out of us. (I tried to be one of those kind, encouraging ones. Where I didn’t, I hope you can forgive me.)
I remain because of the good done to me by people who braved the fear and still reflected Jesus.
I remain a Seventh-day Adventist because I am a member of a congregation of kind, thoughtful, good people who accept everyone—even LGBTQ people and female pastors, Elder Wilson.
And I remain here to minister to those who, like me, dwell in the liminal space: like a cat sitting in the open door, both in and out.
But I am still disappointed.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today