The Church Under Scrutiny: Will the Centre Hold?
by Alvin Masarira | 17 November 2020 |
The COVID-19 pandemic is posing serious and unprecedented challenges to everyone. As people face serious personal challenges that reduce the resources at their disposal, they begin to ask themselves questions about what is critical and core to their lives, and what is optional or peripheral. These resources are not necessarily monetary. They could be things like time, allegiance, devotion, faithfulness and loyalty.
Personal crises bring up questions in the areas of relationships, career, general society and even religious beliefs and affiliation. What is worth fighting for? Am I placing my resources in the right place? Is this thing that occupies so much of my life worth my undivided attention? Shouldn’t I make a change in this or that area? What are the really important things in my life? What can I dispose of? The answers to these questions are highly personal and subjective.
The risk of infection is ever-present, so real that deep down no one feels a hundred percent safe. And in the absence of a cure, everyone knows that if he/she gets infected, it could possibly lead to hospitalization or even death. This is leading people to do some serious soul searching, to ask existential questions.
If I were to get sick and die (which is a genuine possibility), would I have spent my life and resources and commitment on things that are pleasing to God? Have I been faithful to the call God has placed on me? These existential questions are directed at our organizations, belief systems, faith and practice, too. Are the teachings and practices I have accepted and followed aligned to God’s will and purpose for my life? Or have I been simply following traditions of man under the guise of religion? There are no sacred cows; we come to a realisation that we are at the end of it all. When we come face to face with the Lord, it will be us and our lives under judgement, and we won’t be able to hide behind the organization we belonged to. It is you and I as individuals who will ultimately be answerable to God.
Yet along with that, we will also scrutinize the organization to the extent that it played a crucial role in shaping our belief system. It therefore shouldn’t surprise anyone that there appears to be an uprising and revolution, a sort of internal rebellion, among church members across the world. Leaders of religious organisations who have been accustomed to a high degree of loyalty, unwavering and unquestioning support, commitment and dedication are finding this quite unsettling.
Some leaders believe these conversations are personal attacks on them, and miss the point that people are actually asking themselves very deep personal questions about what they have believed in and held dear. Is what they have believed for all these years really been truth? Has their loyalty really been to God, or to man under the banner of religious organizations? Have they been committed to God or to the church? Though the leaders may take it personally, this process of questioning is more excruciating and painful to the ones asking the questions than to the organisation and its leaders. The realisation that one might have been wrong (even though sincerely wrong) for many years can be devastating and earth-shattering.
Can the church self-examine?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded on the belief that God has called it into existence for these the last days, which is why we call ourselves “the remnant church”. That means there is no other church with the truth that will come after us. Our understanding of Revelation 14 places us right at the toenails of the statue of Daniel 2. Some members of the church, and even some leaders, will publicly say “there was only one Martin Luther and one Reformation and there will be no other.” This leads to a belief that the church has now attained the full truth.
With such a view, it is difficult for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to believe that there might be many things within our structure, organisation and belief system that need to undergo extreme scrutiny. Yet this leads to a strange contradiction, given our teaching that the church today is the Laodicean church. Revelation 3:17: Jesus says “…You say, I am rich and have become wealthy and have need of nothing, and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked”. The wealth referred to here is not necessarily material, but includes wealth in knowledge and understanding.
Could it be possible that the Seventh-day Adventist Church might have lulled itself into a belief that there is nothing else to learn and there is nothing about us that needs changing? This, in spite of the many statements from Ellen White to the contrary?
“It is a fact that we have the truth, and we must hold with tenacity to the positions that cannot be shaken; but we must not look with suspicion upon any new light which God may send, and say, Really, we cannot see that we need any more light than the old truth which we have hitherto received, and in which we are settled. While we hold to this position, the testimony of the True Witness applies to our cases its rebuke, “And knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” Those who feel rich and increased with goods and in need of nothing, are in a condition of blindness as to their true condition before God, and they know it not.” The Review and Herald, August 7, 1894.
“A spirit of pharisaism has been coming in upon the people who claim to believe the truth for these last days. They are self-satisfied. They have said, ‘We have the truth. There is no more light for the people of God.’ But we are not safe when we take a position that we will not accept anything else than that upon which we have settled as truth. We should take the Bible, and investigate it closely for ourselves. We should dig in the mine of God’s word for truth. ‘Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.’ Some have asked me if I thought there was any more light for the people of God. Our minds have become so narrow that we do not seem to understand that the Lord has a mighty work to do for us. Increasing light is to shine upon us; for ‘the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.’” The Review and Herald, June 18, 1889.
“New light will ever be revealed on the word of God to him who is in living connection with the Sun of Righteousness. Let no one come to the conclusion that there is no more truth to be revealed. The diligent, prayerful seeker for truth will find precious rays of light yet to shine forth from the word of God. Many gems are yet scattered that are to be gathered together to become the property of the remnant people of God. Counsels on Sabbath School Work, 34 (1892).
Room for growth
When Adventists read these statements, many find it difficult to believe that it applies to them. Who do they think Ellen White was writing to? These and other Ellen White statements imply that the Adventist faith should always be under constant scrutiny because there is always need for growth in our human and fallible understanding and application of the truth.
Where do we need to grow? Perhaps in what some believe is our overly Eurocentric interpretation of end-time prophecy or our liturgy, and the perception of what are appropriate worship styles and music (for which others accuse us of ignoring cultural diversity). Does the church’s organizational structure and system of authority and decisions enable or hinder mission? Or, how about the way the church has historically responded to issues of racial and gender discrimination in society? Has the church been faithful to Micah 6:8: “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”? Many questions can be asked about the church’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, there are social ills in many parts of the world—and what is the church’s understanding and application of truth, righteousness, mercy and justice in regard to them?
There is a real danger that the church will behave like the Jews of old, who were convinced they were the people of God and had God all figured out. But when the incarnate God appeared right in front of their eyes, they rejected and, indeed, killed Him.
As I said above, we are now in a period of examining ourselves as to whether there is a barrier between the individual and God. We are beginning to understand Paul’s injunction “…Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). We realize that one day we will stand before a holy God who will require us to account for what we believed and did. On that day, it won’t be enough to say, “My church told me so.” Yet it shouldn’t surprise us that in times of personal crises, times that bring to the fore one’s own mortality, people will challenge some of those things they have always taken for granted, and that includes the church as an organization and what it stands for. As the millennials acquire a bigger and louder voice in the Adventist Church (and indeed in other religious organisations) we will see the centre being challenged. Questions are being asked, not necessarily about God, but about how the organization has represented or reflected God. My question is: Will the centre hold? Will the church as an organization come out of this scrutiny unscathed?
A necessary scrutiny
I am personally convinced that this scrutiny is good for the church because it can only make it a better vehicle for mission. I also hope the church leadership will welcome this and not look at it with suspicion. Although there is a tendency by church leadership to take questions as a personal attack on them, this is not about them. The church is bigger than them. The COVID-19 lockdown has moved the church from the sanctuaries to people’s private homes. This has led to an exponential growth in conversations convened by lay members, often taking place on online platforms such as Zoom. With the tremendous capacity the internet makes possible, church members are engaging in conversations not convened by church leadership and structures. This has also created global networks among Adventists in North America, Africa, Europe, Asia, etc,—such as Adventist Today’s own Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar. Many of the questions people are asking, across the globe, are about the organization.
I have always been of the view that, in spite of the tremendous pain the COVID pandemic has inflicted on people, organizations and nations, it has presented a great opportunity for the church as an organization and believers as individuals to do some serious introspection on who we are, what our purpose is, and whether we are still focused on the mission. The pandemic has brought us to the realization that many things we thought were essentials are actually peripheral. I hope we use this window of opportunity wisely to reconsider and reset and ask: what will the church look like when we finally get to the other side? Will the centre hold?
Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife, Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.