The Church: Love It or Leave It?
by Loren Seibold | 9 April 2023 |
This essay was originally published in August of 2020.
Ever since I began writing, there’s a response I know I’ll get to certain articles, a response as reliable as wildfires in California in August. If I write something that challenges a doctrine or practice of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I know I’m going to hear, in a comment or a message or an email or even an old-fashioned paper envelope, some version of, “You shouldn’t even be a Seventh-day Adventist!”
It’s easiest to take when it’s a courteous question, like “Could you explain why you are still a Seventh-day Adventist if you disagree with [the teaching or practice in question]?” Sometimes it takes the form of a sharp back-of-the-hand concern: “The devil has control of you, and I’m praying that you can be converted to true Seventh-day Adventism.” Occasionally it’s been the risible accusation that I must be a Jesuit infiltrator. Most fascinating to me are comments like this: “You [vulgarity] heretic, what you write is [vulgarity]. You are destroying God’s remnant church and God is going to [vulgarity] destroy you in the lake of fire.” (Yes, people have written notes like that to AT in defense of the church. We have some very angry, very unhealthy, people on the side of Adventist orthodoxy.)
Love it or leave it
The challenge frequently comes, as you might expect, from those who consider themselves the true Adventists, faithful and conservative. I’ve noticed they often seem to not have read (or understood) what I’ve actually written. They note only a divergence from what they believe (such as when I said that pork is not, according to the New Testament, intrinsically unclean, even if some feel it is less healthy than some other meats) and they react to it. Sometimes they appear to have not seen the article at all: they hear it referenced by some fringy offshoot “ministry” and that’s enough to damn me.
To these folks, being part of our church is an all-or-nothing matter. You see the faith precisely as they see it without deviation or disagreement, or you should take a hike. I’m reminded of a vaguely threatening old country song by the late Merle Haggard about America: “If you don’t love it, leave it/ let this song that I’m singin’ be a warning./ If you’re runnin’ down my country, man, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”
Showing similar anger at my remaining a Seventh-day Adventist are folks who have left the church and now consider themselves its opponents. The anti-Adventists are sometimes just as rigid and just as angry as are the true believers—they’re just on the other side of the divide. I respect those who have gone elsewhere, who have found another church or belief system, or perhaps none at all—God bless you, that’s where God has taken you, and it’s not for me to pronounce judgment upon.
Though I have deep ties to the Adventist church, I really don’t subscribe to religious tribalism as such: God is in lots of places, in the hearts of lots of people.
So I don’t have a desire to defend that border between inside and outside. I think of this church and my belonging to it in quite different terms than either the true believers or the strong opponents do. It’s not a case of “love the church and everything it stands for, or leave it.” I love God, and I love people. And for right now, I’m quite comfortable doing that here, among wonderful Christian folks I’ve known all my life.
Who gets to define us?
My much-respected professor Fritz Guy once said to a class of us pastors-in-training, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you aren’t a real Seventh-day Adventist. No one but you and God get to say whether you’re an Adventist or not.”
At the time I wasn’t sure I believed him. I was starting ministry, and I was being told that being a Seventh-day Adventist meant not only a certain defined orthodoxy, not just a set of precisely spelled-out behaviors that I had to perform flawlessly, but full loyalty to the institution and its leaders.
For all of our historical calumny of Roman Catholicism, our leaders, with their constant refrain of “the General Conference is the highest authority of God on earth,” seem to have adopted our chosen enemy’s attitudes about church authority. Yet it seems clear to me that a loosely defined group with a dynamic, Spirit-led theology was the intention of our pioneers. Having studied the mistakes of Protestantism, they resisted defining the church by creeds and statements. Wrote LeRoy Froom in Movement of Destiny, the founders of our church:
“clearly recognized that Bible truth must continue to unfold through continuing study and divine leading. . . . They feared any hampering, stultifying creed or rigid formulary. They determined not to drive in any creedal boundary stakes, as most others had done, saying, ‘Thus far and no farther.’ The tragedy of the creed-bound churches all about them was an example of that fallacy and futility” (135).
That’s hardly what we get now from Silver Spring. Editing and adding to the 28 articles of our creed is part of every General Conference (GC) session, and our current GC president has made church-wide orthodoxy, as defined by him, the center tent pole of his leadership.
One of the reasons I write as I do is that I want everyone to know that the church is far bigger than a list of fundamental beliefs. It is bigger than the General Conference. Bigger than what’s published in Ministry magazine and the Review. Bigger than the doctrinal points of the typical evangelistic crusade. Bigger than the angry demands of the weak brother or weak sister in the congregation.
It should, I believe, be big enough for large, varied, and imaginative expressions of our common faith.
A broad church
The Anglican notion of a broad church means something quite specific in the history of that communion. But I, a Seventh-day Adventist, use it to describe a church flexible enough to allow among us a wide range of understandings of God and God’s expectations, and members of many sorts who, despite our differences with one another, are loved and treasured members of our community.
Of course, we already have far more variation among us than is usually admitted, and I’m not talking just about the “backsliders,” the “dead wood” (I despise both phrases) on the church rolls. Even those who are regular attenders and tithe payers have private views and human frailties, such that the doctrinal and behavioral purity so many want to believe in is a myth.
There is—let us at last admit it—no such thing as purity of belief or perfection of behavior among us. This is not because we’re especially bad people but because, in common with every believer in history, “we know in part and we prophesy in part,” even as all of us “fall short of the glory of God.”
The notion that one denomination in the entire Christian world should be the only one that is right, and that ours will forever display perfect consistency in belief and practice, is nonsense, and we all, in our hearts, know it. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” We have become, it appears, a church presided over by divines obsessed with just such a hobgoblin. I, at least, refuse to be one of them.
So let us flush away once and for all this arrogance we have about being the sole possessors of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We finite creatures understand little enough about God, and are morally so frail that we are wholly dependent on His grace.
I believe, as apparently James White and the other pioneers did, in a church that is constantly evolving. Adventists don’t subscribe to biological evolution, but they had better believe in organizational change because without it, the Adventist church wouldn’t have arisen at all. Organizations are living, growing, changing things. The sure recipe for extinction is to say, “No matter the changing environment, no matter the cultural differences among us, we’re going to stick with what we said the first time—and if you don’t like it, leave!”
To the people who tell me and people like me that we should just leave the church if we don’t agree with everything Elder Ted Wilson says: have you forgotten the Protestant Reformation? Or did the series of reforms that are so carefully charted in The Great Controversy get as far as Seventh-day Adventists, and at that point God said, “Yup, OK, now you’ve got it absolutely right. No further thinking necessary. Just enforce perfect orthodoxy and perfect behavior among 20 million people, and you can all go to heaven immediately”?
This last is actually taught by proponents of the perfectionism movement known as Last Generation Theology. Even Ellen White didn’t believe this! She writes in Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (page 30) under the heading of “Unity”:
We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed. As long as we hold to our own ideas and opinions with determined persistency, we cannot have the unity for which Christ prayed.
Please, people, think about this: 200 years have passed. Jesus hasn’t come. We are becoming less and less relevant to the world. We are hemorrhaging members. Shouldn’t that tell us that sticking our feet in wet ecclesiastical cement and letting it harden around us wasn’t much of a success strategy?
My dream is a church that is as dynamic as the pioneers wanted it to be, one that encourages respectful and open dialogue. So I’m doing my part by remaining a part of this church. I write supportive articles for the church press, but I also address those things among us that need to change, that I feel should be overhauled or remodeled. I am not always right, but at least you can’t fault me on the grounds of silent complicity.
But what about pastors?
It shouldn’t be surprising that if you work for the church, the church has expectations about the kind of Seventh-day Adventist you should be. There are thousands of pastors who keep their heterodoxies to themselves for fear that talking about them will cost them the opportunity to minister the gospel of Jesus Christ to people they love.
In any system that has defined itself as tightly as this denomination has, there will be the potential for conflict between pastors, congregations, and church leaders. It seems to me that one way we could approach this is to trust our pastors to the guidance of the Spirit and their congregations. If a pastor is a godly, moral believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ, if the pastor is taking care of people, if the pastor appreciates the Sabbath and believes that Jesus is returning someday, if the pastor is pleasing her or his congregation, then that’s a pastor we want to keep.
I propose we initiate détente and declare a truce. We will disagree with one another, but we will not expel one another from the church, nor consign each other to the lake of fire. To those of you who have very opposite views of this church to mine: as long as you behave as a Christian, I will never tell you you don’t belong, in my congregation or any other. And I would never, ever, say that you should be kept out of heaven—something fellow believers have occasionally threatened me with.
I don’t believe in “love it or leave it”—unless, that is, you hurt people. Should the things you believe and say make people think God is a cruel monster or a petty tyrant; if your teachings leave them with lifelong nightmares and insecurity about their salvation; if you take their last dollars while flying around on private jets; should you make them think they have to achieve a perfection that you yourself have never achieved; then—to quote Merle again—“you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”
Stick with Jesus
As a pastor, my job is to do what Jesus did: to shepherd and comfort hurting people. The gospel of Jesus Christ that I am charged to teach is clear in the New Testament, and some of what we Adventists emphasize is deeply opposed to that gospel. Some of it flat out hurts people. There, I will be your opposition.
Living under the constant guilt of an impossible perfection is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Terrifying eschatology is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Calling other churches (who have never shown us the slightest animosity) our enemies and accusing them of setting up to persecute us is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Making insignificant things, like food choices, into big things and judging people’s spirituality by them is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. A hierarchical church administrative structure that calls itself “the highest authority of God on earth,” led by an authoritative president who confuses doctrines with policies, is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Enforcing on every Adventist the world over exactly the same beliefs, and expecting us to operate in lockstep across a diversity of cultures, is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is much simpler than that. It says that those who believe in Jesus and do their best to model their lives upon His can have the certainty of eternal life.
That’s all I’m trying to say and all I’m trying to do, and I will not be expelled from the church for it.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.