The Peculiarity Plague
By Thandazani Mhlanga | 20 August 2021
Christianity—Protestantism, in particular—is built on a foundation of theological and moral absolutes. These absolutes are at the heart of why we have so many denominations; we seem to have made a tacit agreement that we cannot peacefully coexist unless we have the same absolutes in common.
This agreement, notwithstanding its arguable merits, has limitations, particularly in how we relate to each other and how we relate to those who aren’t Adventists.
Consider this scenario: Imagine that you woke up one Sabbath morning only to realize that a family is moving in next door to you. Would you rather be late—or miss out on church altogether—to help your new neighbors move in, or would you go to church and try connecting with them on another day?
Another: Your non-Christian neighbors invite you to their 20th wedding anniversary dinner on a Friday night. Would you go to the function and share in their joy, or would you take a theological stand? Would you put more value on a perceived theological absolute, or recognize our shared human condition and desire the best (an encounter with God’s love, by means of your kindness shown to them) for all?
The case for humanity
This, I argue, is basic humanity. Humanity is not the same as humanism, which is a philosophy that promotes rational thinking as the source of knowledge and morality. Humanity is a thoroughly Christian idea, for it reflects the value we place on people vs. beliefs.
Many strange human inventions happen under the sun, but few are more hurtful than our categorizing of people. We differentiate and classify one another according to race, language, nationality, and religion—forgetting that regardless of all categories, present or yet to be invented, our shared humanity binds us together.
This willful amnesia of our shared humanity is commonplace among Adventists. Many of us struggle to see even our fellow Adventists as more than the theological positions they hold. In practice, it means that we place lawkeeping or doctrinal affirmation above kindness, decency, and love. Jesus said to the religious establishment of his time—those who thought their religious distinctiveness outvalued humanity—“The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27, ISV).
The most authentic expression of religion—yes, even of Adventism—focuses on people and not on distinctiveness. Whenever we find ourselves having “enough religion to make us hate, but just not enough to make us love one another,” to quote Irish essayist Jonathan Swift, at that moment we have disconnected from what an authentic religious experience is about.
The apostle James articulated this well when he said that “anyone who sets himself up as ‘religious’ by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this:
Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world (James 1:26-27, MSG).
What it means to be “special”
The toxic value we place on religious peculiarity can also be seen in how we relate to other religious groups.
In Adventism, this sense of specialness and peculiarity reaches its apogee in our prophetic understanding. We use passages such as Revelation 12:7 to identify ourselves as a special people—separate and, frankly, a bit better than everyone else. We are the people who “keep the commandments of God” and “have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
Whether or not we actually, personally, keep the commandments of God, which in Jesus’ teaching would include “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” is something we don’t spend as much time contemplating. It is enough that our church has the Sabbath and Ellen White, and we often act as though that makes us, to quote Peter, a “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9, KJV).
Yet the thing that Peter says should identify us as peculiar is not our remnant theology, but our willingness to “declare the praises of” Jesus. We live, to use the words of The Message Bible, “to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted” (verse 10, MSG). At the end of the day, the important questions are: “Which of my actions represent the virtues of Jesus, versus merely defending my uniqueness? Which of my actions will communicate unconditional acceptance and not rejection?”
The demeaning, disrespectful, sometimes abusive rhetoric that we share with our members concerning Christians of other denominations does not declare the praises of Jesus. Can we win people to Christ with a spirit that doesn’t reflect the essence of Christlikeness?
When we act as though whoever has the largest body of knowledge—and the skill to weaponize it—wins in religion, we treat one another as foes, not as brothers and sisters in Christ. This theological arm wrestling does not help us fulfill the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. It doesn’t get us talking about our differences and possibly learning from each other. All it does is to pit us against each other and leave a bitter taste concerning Christianity among those who have not yet said “yes!” to Jesus.
Jesus promised, “If I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people unto myself” (John 12:32, ISV). Interdenominational theological warfare is hard to defend or classify as “lifting up Jesus.”
Community, not camps
An argument for humanity among Christian groups is not a plea for ecumenism, but love. Consider the love shown by Jesus to Judas: He never shamed or embarrassed Judas, even though he knew that his disciple would betray him. Our Lord loved people. We were the reason why he came and died. And, therefore, it is incumbent upon us as Christians to laminate our religiosity with love.
Jesus often faced situations where he had to choose between humanity and religious peculiarity. Like many Jews, Jesus knew the Torah and its interpretations. But when it came to choosing between strict adherence to the law and humanity, he always chose people. The law said that women were inferior to men, but Jesus interacted with them and healed one who had a female problem that made her an outcast (Mark 5:25-34). Although the law prohibited healing on a Sabbath, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand (Mark 3:1-6). And Jewish religious practice regarded Samaritans as unclean, yet Jesus interacted with them without discrimination (John 4:1-42).
Jesus showed us that any religious practice that doesn’t have the love for people at the center is not a genuine and authentic expression of faith. We dare not weaponize God’s laws against humanity, because all of them have the good of humanity in mind.
I believe it is our Christian mandate to build community, not camps. Building community means working for the common good of all people. The alternative is to opt for camps: fostering religious peculiarity that results in homogeneity.
This tireless mirroring of God’s love will flavor our identity theology. We will see that the “remnant” is always a product of God’s grace, unconditional acceptance, and love, and not just a group of religious relics who are singled out for special recognition.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker and author serving the Osoyoos Church in the British Columbia Conference. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have been blessed with three daughters, who are the joy of their lives and their highest calling. His website is themscproject.com.
This article is reprinted from the Autumn 2020 Adventist Today magazine.