by Loren Seibold  |  5 July 2019  |  

Read Part 1 here: “The Dream Job”
Read Part 2 here. “The Sausage Factory”

Every pastor, it’s said, has one especially loud string on his fiddle. No matter how much you try to be creative, flexible and wide-ranging, there are certain themes, certain ways of saying things, that characterize your message.

As I came down to the last Sabbath of my ministry, I wanted to to say in one sermon what I’ve tried to preach for most of my life. How do you put 40 years of preaching and study into one sermon? You can’t, of course. I settled on five things that I’ve said frequently, and that I believe are key understandings of our faith, as I see it. I entitled it, “As I Was Saying…”

1. God is good

This may seem so obvious as to be entirely unnecessary to say. But in fact many Christians, and many Adventists, don’t think God is very good—or at least that he’s good to everyone.

I remember once walking past a loud conversation after church. A man was telling a woman about someone he seemed to know, someone who was apparently angry and very judgmental, who disapproved of nearly everyone in our church and actually hated some of the people. I was only picking up snatches of conversation (it wasn’t my conversation, after all, so I didn’t want to butt in), but I do remember thinking, “What an unpleasant man he’s describing. I wouldn’t want to be around that guy. Whoever he is, I’m glad he doesn’t attend our church.” 

A moment later, something he said made me realize he wasn’t describing a person at all. He was describing God, as he saw him. 

We recognize kind, gracious people and we appreciate them. So why should we think that the God who made us, who saved us, is going to be crueler and less kind and forgiving, and make life more unpleasant, than the nice people we know? I’d rather be destroyed in hell than be in heaven with a God like the one that man claimed to know. 

That’s a slur on the character of God! Over and over again, the Bible says that God loves us and has mercy on us.

“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. Psalm 103:8

The difference between nice Christians and angry Christians is that the nice Christians look at God’s goodness as primary, while the mean Christians see judgment and destruction. The nice Christians are grateful to God for salvation through Jesus. The mean Christians want to draw lines between people, based on whatever belief or activity they think they’re on the right side of. Their emphasis says more about who they are than who God is. 

There’s a reason that John 3:16 is a favorite Bible verse. It says that God so loved the world. It doesn’t say he came to divide the world. In fact, he told a parable where he said that our judging the church is likely to destroy it entirely. He said to leave judging up to God.

People sometimes dig out Old Testament stories about God’s anger and destructive tendencies, and say, “Yeah, if you think God is so good, explain this, smartypants.” I’m not sure I can. My working theory is that in some cases, Bible writers described God as they wanted him to be—that is, they pictured God hating the people they hated, not unlike the man I told you about above.

All I can tell you is that the God I want to spend eternity with isn’t a hurtful, hateful, angry, excluding being. He wants to save everyone—he’s “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (1 Peter 3:9).

Which leads me to add that I think we will be shocked and surprised at the people we’ll see in heaven—that they won’t be the people we thought would be there.

2. It’s all about Jesus and being like Jesus. 

We Adventists often reach back into the Old Testament to make doctrinal arguments: the Sabbath, clean and unclean foods, the time prophecies of Daniel, the state of the dead. Yes, the Old Testament has some important stuff. But please realize that if you are a Christian, the Old Testament is background information. You are a Christian, not a Jew. You do sometimes reference the Old Testament, but you always read it through the lens of the cross, never on its own.

Because the essence of being a Christian is all in the New Testament. 

When I serve communion, I quote first, “This is my body, broken for you.” And then in the second part I say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Get that? There is a new covenant of salvation! Which, by the way, parallels “new testament,” because the plan of salvation is new in the New Testament. If we didn’t have this new covenant, I would be standing before the congregation with butchering knives instead of a Bible. My suit would be spattered with blood. But I’m not, because whoever believes in Jesus and trusts him gets eternal life.

The Old Testament was based on rituals, but also on rules. Some of them were more useful and universal than others—particularly the Ten Commandments. But the new covenant is about internalizing moral rules, like Jesus did.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us…” (Ephesians 5:1-2). 

I’ve come to deeply appreciate Philippians 2 as the best description of what Christians in a church community should be. The basic message is this: if you are converted, you’re going to want to be like Jesus. 

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:1-2). 

We Adventists are always ready to talk about Jesus coming again—which he is. But Jesus’ second coming will be useless to you unless he has already come into your hearts through faith and made you good, godly people. I don’t think anyone could argue with me that there will be many in heaven who don’t know a thing about eschatology, and probably many who know very little theology. But there will be no one in heaven who isn’t a follower of Jesus—at least in spirit, even if they didn’t get a chance to learn his name.

This leads naturally to this next point:

3. Being good and kind is more important than being right. 

No one is saved by facts. No one is saved by knowing the most theology. No one is saved by having joined the denomination with the right doctrine.

The place we Adventists need to grow is not in theological understanding—we have far more theology than we need already, much of it of no practical good to us—but in quality of community.

Yes, I know that chiefly what we do in church is study the Bible and talk about theology and doctrine. But knowledge alone doesn’t save. Jesus saves. 

I’ve come to believe that the kind of person you are in Jesus Christ is far more important than what you know. Again, Philippians 2 (3-8) describes what that kind of person will look like—which is, to put it plainly, like Jesus.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

I would love to see churches that weren’t just gatherings of people going over the same doctrines endlessly, in the midst of the same rituals, but gatherings of people trying to find ways of doing good—and not just to one another, but to the world. How tired I am of gathering in our “clubhouses,” studying endlessly, turning over the same stones on the same paths over and over and over. The next big step in our evolution, it seems to me, will be churches spending the Sabbath outside of the clubhouse helping people—rather than reading through the Sabbath School lesson, all of which points they already know and apparently never tire of repeating.

4. Never doubt that you have eternal life. 

Some of you, like me, were raised not with the assurance of salvation, but were just offered a vague possibility of it. Quotes floated around of Ellen White insisting that we should never feel certain in our walk with the Lord, never take comfort in knowing we are saved.

I remember visiting an elderly woman who had gone to an assisted living facility. She said, “Elder, [I was at the time ⅓ of her age, which made the honorific slightly humorous, I thought], I’m very worried, because I don’t know if I’ll be saved.” I was surprised, knowing her to be an admirable and good woman, a saint of the church. “The way I understand it,” she said, “if I happen to have just confessed all my sins to the Lord and then I die, I have a chance of being saved. But what if I’m a little impatient with my nurse, and then in a moment before I can confess and ask for forgiveness I have a stroke? Then I’ll burn in hell.” 

What an unfortunate understanding of salvation! A person’s salvation doesn’t hinge on one single moment, but on her life trajectory. I was able to assure her that God didn’t work like that—that she could rest in the assurance of salvation.

Here’s what John says:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13).

It doesn’t say that you could hope you might possibly, if you’re very lucky, get to be saved. It says that we can live, sans uncertainty, in the assurance of eternal life. 

None of us knows how long we’ll live. But if you, like me, are beyond your 50th birthday, the odds are high that more of your life is behind you than before you. I’m not being morbid. I’m just saying that we need to be prepared to face the end of life. For that, you need more than a chance at eternal life. You need the assurance of eternal life.

There is nothing sadder to me than people going through their whole life serving the Lord faithfully and trusting in him, while still in doubt that they’re going to be saved. Pastors, I believe we often make faith far too complicated. Just assure people that if they trust in God through Jesus, they’ll inherit eternity. Is that so hard?

5. The church should be a place of happiness and safety.

I grew up in a church that was quite ready, and in some cases seemed almost enthusiastic, to push people out. If someone committed adultery, or got divorced and remarried, or were caught smoking or drinking, they were no longer welcome. Even wearing earrings or a wedding ring back then would get you the evil eye.

I sometimes wonder how big the Adventist church would be if we’d been even marginally more gracious.

I have met many Adventists who still think of the church as a place only for the pure. That is as unhelpful as saying that only very healthy people should come to the hospital. It is my conviction that anyone who does not create misery among us should be allowed in church. That means adulterers, drug users, homosexual people, and common sinners like you and me. 

Try to square the critical, exclusive personality of some congregations with these descriptions of the church from Paul:

All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ (Ephesians 4:31-32).

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience… (Colossians 3:12).

I once asked a group of pastors, “For what have you disfellowshipped people from the church?” They said, for things like adultery, divorce, criminal activity, being gay, working on the Sabbath, using alcohol or drugs, moving in with a girlfriend unmarried, or someone just declaring that he or she didn’t believe a doctrine anymore. “How about the self-righteous people who believe all the doctrines and keep the Sabbath and are morally acceptable, but are critical and judgmental and make the church a living hell for others? Have you ever disfellowshipped those people?” No, they said. Those people are not just tolerated, they’re often regarded as the best Adventists—no matter how many others they chase away! Said one pastor with a rueful laugh, “You’re describing my church elders. We’re not going to kick them out!”

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is reputed to have said that the church was like Noah’s ark: you couldn’t stand the stench on the inside except for the storm on the outside. I told that to encourage a friend who attended a very unhappy church. He replied, “I’ve decided I’d rather brave the storm.” Isn’t that a sad story? 

I’ve been a pastor for almost 41 years, and I’ve seen some church unhappiness. I’ve had people shout at me right in church, and accuse me of utterly stupid things, all in the name of God as they saw him. I’ve had people contact the conference office and insist they get rid of me. Someone once called Pacific Press and told an editor that I shouldn’t write for their magazines anymore because they knew for certain that it was my goal to turn my congregation into a Roman Catholic church! As for the poor church members, I’ve heard just about every kind of criticism from some church members of others—not infrequently totally preposterous, more in the nature of scurrilous gossip than anything helpful. I’ve seen young people flee the church after a single encounter with an angry saint. 

We must be better than that, people. We simply must, or we don’t even deserve to survive. The church could be something so wonderful, but not if it keeps “crashing” on people like a computer program with faulty code. There’s some instruction that we’re missing here, something that accounts for why more people are leaving churches than joining them. 

This should be the cutting edge of spiritual study right now: how to make a Christian community that both embraces sinners (which we all are) but that is happy and peaceful and loving and makes people feel good to be there. I am weary of mediocre churches. The philosopher of religion John Hick wrote, “It is because the church ought to be startlingly better that in being mediocre it is bad.”

And I am embarrassed—angry—about all the fighting churches out there. There is no greater shame to a congregation than to be known as a church that makes members (and pastors) flee from you in pain and sadness.

So I say, with all the emphasis I can get into this line:

The place we Adventists need to grow is not in theological understanding—we have far more theology than we need already, much of it of no practical good to us—but in quality of community.

Nor do we need more programs generated by the men in offices. Stop it right now, guys. Go out and start churches of your own and show us how it’s done rather than generating more tons of paper telling us how it’s done. 

No, what we need is happy churches

Wherever that is happening is where I want to spend the remainder of my life.

Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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