by Larry Downing  |  26 July 2019  |

“Never underestimate the power of the environment you work in to gradually transform who you are.” David Brooks, The Two Mountains, p. 22.

Organizations, as do individuals, confront pivot points. Events, opportunities or decisions arise that provide opportunity for an action one way or another, or at times, demand decision. At other times, an organization, group or individual, when reaching a pivot point, may choose to ignore a situation or event and do nothing.

The Seventh-day Adventist denomination is no exception. The Great Disappointment was a significant pivot point. When the proclaimed and hoped-for Second Advent failed, church leaders responded: they created an alternative prophetic scenario centered on a new interpretation of the sanctuary and its services.

As the “Little Flock” increased and matured, circumstances and pragmatism directed church leaders to incorporate and select a name. Despite strong opposition, the Advent believers voted to become the Seventh-day Adventist Church and submitted papers of incorporation to make legal their decision.

In the post-Great Disappointment years, church leaders taught that only those who had responded to William Miller’s proclamation that Jesus would return in October of 1844 would be saved. As for the others, the door of salvation was shut. The Shut Door teaching was, for the first Adventists, a central part of the believer’s theological kit. This narrow interpretation negated the need to reach out to neighbors, other family members, people in other countries and any who were part of Babylon. The “Babylonians” included Sunday keepers and those who rejected the Millerite teaching. A pivot point for the Little Flock that led to a rejection of the Shut Door belief came with the realization that the belief they held excluded their children and grandchildren from salvation. These kids had not experienced the Millerite revival. The Shut Door teaching was not the only belief that diverged from traditional Christian theology. Early Adventists emphasized the necessity to keep the Ten Commandments and taught that Jesus was a created being and not fully divine, a belief promoted by Christian Connection groups.

Uriah Smith, James White, Joseph Bates and other influential leaders in the Advent movement had come out of the Christian Connection. It would take several years, vigorous debate, and the prodding of Ellen White for the Adventist church to affirm the Trinitarian statements set forth in the creeds of the Christian church. Echoes of anti-Trinitarianism can be heard even today among some Adventist members.

It was in the early years that Adventist leaders began to consider the establishment and operation of an educational system. The first school was established in Battle Creek, Michigan. No one could have predicted the impact this decision would have on the church and its members. An educated membership holds prospect of both glory and pain to the organization that founds and supports a world-wide educational system. An examination of the impact education has had on thousands of individuals leads one to consider two divergent claims and one conclusion:

  • The Adventist educational system has brought significant benefit to individuals, the church and society.
  • The Adventist educational system has introduced people to the world of ideas, options and information that has resulted in people’s questioning and, at times, rejecting church teachings.
  • There is high probability that an educated population will not conform to or show consistent obedience and unquestioned loyalty to the organization that provided the education or to those who administer the organization.

The above leads one to propose that if an organization desires unquestioned loyalty, unity and conformity, an uneducated population is the optimum way to fulfill this intent. Fortunately, the Adventist church, at a pivotal point in its history, chose to direct resources, both financial and human, to implement a world-class and effective educational system. Now that the gates have been swung wide, what are we to do with the outflow? Church administrators struggle to find a satisfactory answer to this question. It is a pivotal point awaiting an answer.

Responses to this question include appeals by church leaders to conformity, the creation of a conformity process administered by denominational leaders, and an emphasis on unity among the church members and employees. The response from a significant number of individuals who are the recipients of administrative exhortations has been less than ideal.

Individuals who have taken advantage of and benefited from church-initiated educational processes express their dissatisfaction with what the church asks of them that they believe to be in opposition to what their expertise and experience confirm. In personal conversations with educators and other church employees, I have found that the vast majority I have interviewed consider the denominational expectations and demands to be an embarrassment, troubling and irrational. It is irrational to demand that a geometry student accept that a round object is really a trapezoid. It is equally irrational to tell a geophysicist that the data that confirm an ancient age are a faulty interpretation. No surprise that collegial relationships between many in the scholarly community and those who occupy administrative offices are less than optimum and a question of credibility exists between church leaders and the academic and pastoral communities.

The tension that now exists and separates church leaders from many church members satisfies no one. There are, however, options that have potential to provide a more satisfying conclusion: Church officials recognize that there are honest, loyal people who have conclusions they are not willing to reject or modify merely because someone tells them this is what they must practice and believe. Accept people and their ideas, and attempt to understand those whose education and experience leads them to where they are now. Redirect the energy and expense that has been expended in futile attempts to change and control people. Direct resources and energy to provide superior spiritual support to men and women whom church leaders label fringe. For pastors, require minimum Continuing Education Units and provide resources that address contemporary issues. Encourage creativity and be gentle with the risk-takers.

It is to be expected that within our congregations are men and women whose reading, careers or experience raise questions that challenge traditional Adventist conclusions. Some individuals seek resolution of matters that arise when their understanding of science challenges what they were once told is important to their spiritual life. Other conflicts arise when there is disparity between what they read in their Bibles and theology books and traditional Adventist teaching. It is the pastor’s opportunity to listen to our church members and attempt to understand their frustrations and their spiritual journey. We may not have answers but there is value in letting others know we empathize with the struggles they endure. When pastors and church officials have been intolerant of alternative views, church members have exercised their freedom to walk. The result is that the local parish and the church at large suffer. The unfortunate results that follow are evidence of a faulty system that demands renovation, or demolition. If the official church continues on its present track, that may be the only action that will make space for a new model. It need not come to this!

Church leaders, hear the women and men in the pew. Listen to them when they share their questions. Accept that what they once believed is no longer compatible with what they now understand. Cease applying the apostate label to those who differ from what is important to you. Accept that the church holds to traditions and beliefs many can no longer support. Visit these people’s world. Listen to their struggles. Accept that election to a church office does not grant you the right to be arbitrators of what is and what is not “Truth.”

We religious professionals are responsible to minister to those who have spiritual and personal needs. It is our opportunity to offer spiritual support and to be effective witnesses to the openness of God extended to all people. We have the unique opportunity to affirm the Lord’s willingness to accept all people. The church’s marching orders do not include the imperative to create, administer and evaluate a heavenly examination process.

Church administrators, you have often said to us pastors: “We are here to help you.” The proclamations, threats and warnings that now originate from your offices do not support this statement. Today, there is desperate need for you and your colleagues to practice authentic reform and reformation, a process that will affirm men and women in their quest to integrate the findings of science, a sound theological hermeneutic and a willingness to welcome all God’s people! Untold numbers of Adventists wait with longing desire for the manifestation of understanding and acceptance of those whose journey may take them on paths other than the official ones, yet they choose to be part of the religious body they value and appreciate. The Adventist church supports a world-class educational system. It is vital that we listen to the products of that system and respond with charity and respect to those we have trained to think and to do.

Lawrence Downing, D.Min, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines. 

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