by Arthur Sibanda  |  6 August 2020  |  

My friend Antony and I had spent four years of high school studying Adventist teachings and watching video sermons together, and I felt I understood his theological views. Our spiritual bond deepened when, years later, I reached out to him at a time when I was a mess spiritually. He had loved me back to the Lord at a time when I felt God would not want me to talk to Him again.

But I noticed that Antony seemed to have changed his views about God. This was worrisome to me, because our conversations occurred at a time when I had been reading a lot about how Adventism was changing in the West under the influence of culture and secularisation. They said that the West was ordaining women to ministry and had grown soft on same-sex issues. “New Theology” was a fancy phrase I had just learned, having something to do with an Australian theologian who had moved to the United States to spread false teachings in Adventist theological institutions. 

It is generally accepted here that Africa is the bastion of unwavering Adventist standards, and the West is compromising, destroying the pillars of the faith. When Antony (who lives in Australia) suggested I search for the Loma Linda University video lectures done by the late Dr. Graham Maxwell, I suspected he was captured by these Western falsehoods, and I set out to straighten him out.

I had not anticipated that my views would change too.

A new way of teaching

I was charmed by Dr. Maxwell’s calm and sincere demeanour. I was raised in a culture of loud sermons with big gesticulations. His manner was the extreme opposite. He would typically do his presentations while resting on a chair, something which he said reminded him of how Jesus had given His greatest lessons while seated. It seemed to me that he was showing that the message we bear is best taught after we have cultivated a relationship of genuine trust and relaxation with those with whom we converse. 

To a mixed spectrum of various age groups and races, he simplified complex theological themes in ways that even a child could understand. After each presentation Dr. Maxwell always invited questions, to clarify and prevent misunderstanding. This was new to me. 

The theme of Dr. Maxwell’s teaching was “the larger view”. He looked at scripture to see the character of God as it unfolds through all the stories of the Bible. He would often say he liked to read the Bible through from story to story, as opposed to taking scripture “here a little and there a little” (this last an obvious misapplication of the contextual meaning of Isaiah 28:13). I found this approach both holistic and mature. 

Anyone using this view would not major on minors, or focus on petty, immaterial issues, but would see the broader, higher themes of scripture. This is a safeguard from a compulsive preoccupation with the non-essentials, which I’ve always found a problem in the various sects of Adventism. 

I am of the opinion that the larger view is a mentally healthy approach to doctrine, and presents a favourable face for our message. I have given links to Dr. Maxwell’s Sabbath lecture to non-Adventist friends whenever they make enquiries. I have always received positive feedback, probably because of Dr. Maxwell’s winsome disposition and his respect for personal freedom for one to make their own decisions after they have considered the evidence and have been “fully persuaded in their own mind” (Romans 14:5). Sometimes I wish Dr. Maxwell would have been the brand ambassador for my church—the face of Adventism.

Of conspiracies and name calling 

Having himself been a subject of rumours and suspicion, Dr. Maxwell wrote and spoke about how disheartening it was to be misconstrued. He insisted on the importance of verifying facts rather than believing rumors.

According to Dr. Maxwell, the great controversy started in heaven because of rumour mongering. Lucifer spread falsehoods in heaven about God’s character, and rebellion ensued. So we should check facts whenever we hear anything of concern about another brother or sister. 

I had developed a deeply suspicious perception of Western Adventism because of rumours I had read. 

I remember “Let’s Talk,’’ a program on Hope Channel where former GC president Jan Paulsen moved across the globe to give young people the opportunity to ask him questions. I will remember him for encouraging meaningful exchanges between young people and the church leadership. 

I won’t forget the sessions which Paulsen had in Africa, where some of the questions had to do with how our youths felt about those elsewhere who were living the Adventist lifestyle differently. I don’t know if Jan Paulsen shares Dr. Maxwell’s views, but Paulsen would always try his best to give the bigger picture to the issues being raised, with a global perspective and Biblically sound argument. This helped to allay anxieties and suspicions, and prevented rumours from spreading. I think it would help if the world church encouraged more such conversations among us around the world. 

Harmful rumors seem to arise from those of us who want to safeguard the church from doctrinal contamination. Though the motives may be sincere, the result is hurtful. Dr. Maxwell discouraged accusing others and calling them names. All his discourses seemed to focus on explaining truth as he understood it, without maligning those who understood the same truth differently. 

Enlarging the Larger View

I am finding a growing movement within Seventh-day Adventist circles of pastors and laypeople with “the larger view”. They present an attractive and engaging view of God as One whom even secular people would wish to know. They invite the sceptics to an intelligent dialogue on faith issues, which means first appreciating sceptics as genuine seekers of truth. They present the Christian faith as consistent with intellectual rigor and the scientific method. I have to concede that most of the Adventists who have embraced this “Larger Perspective” are mostly from the West. 

Of course none of us would claim to know all the answers to existential questions. But modern audiences value intellectual honesty. No one in our age believes anything without being offered evidence. Even Adventist academics should feel they can be intellectually honest to their professional calling, and be sincere Seventh-day Adventist Christians at the same time.

Often the developing world has presented a message of existential escapism. We ignore current realities of pain, sorrow, hunger and poverty while hoping that a solution will appear in the future. This approach is showing its deficiency as more and more bright young minds are confronting bigger questions, and actively seeking solutions that traditional beliefs are inadequate to address. People want to experience relief now, and just knowing the correct way of dressing or the right foods to eat is no longer appealing in a world where some may not have food and clothes in the first place. 

God on Trial

God is on trial here, as He has always been. The coronavirus has exposed some “prophets” as charlatans feasting on the poor and vulnerable. I predict that the future of the message in Africa will require a teacher who addresses broader existential issues, not mere threats, and preoccupation with how our “system” is holier than the other denominational “systems”. The future audience in the developing world will be intelligent, searching, and pessimistic of simplistic religious answers. Maybe sitting down for intelligent discussion, as Dr. Maxwell did, would be a better way of showing genuineness and purity of intent.

At a time when secular thought continues to present intellectual barriers to traditional methods of evangelising, and when the world scrutinizes any idea that claims to be ultimate truth, the church needs a view of doctrine that is holistic and balanced. We need a message that transcends cultural and societal barriers, a message that will resonate with every fibre in the hearts of the billions of God’s children. 

An approach like Dr. Maxwell’s responds to the bigger existential questions the world is asking. If people could learn an appreciation of how God’s character is revealed amidst the world’s pain and woes, perhaps our misfortunes would be at least bearable. Like Job, the world wishes it had an opportunity to put God in the dock to get answers for the many ills of human existence. (See Job 23:3-5.) 

What if we made our main fundamental belief the understanding of God’s character? Dr. Maxwell would often say “God is not the kind of person His enemies have said He is,” and he would show from the Bible that God is exactly like Jesus revealed Him to be. This ought to be our message. The everlasting Good News is to present God’s character in a good light, and it makes those who fear Him want to know and love Him. 

We are to reveal the truth about God’s character. “You are my witnesses…” Isaiah 43:10 NLT

Arthur Sibanda is a mental health nurse in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. He and his wife, Mercy, have one daughter, Nobukhosi Tashanta. He enjoys writing, composing songs, and singing, and is also involved in a ministry helping people overcome sexual brokenness.

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