When People Find Jesus in a Different Church, Part 2: The Sectarian Identity
by Loren Seibold | 24 April 2023 |
This essay was originally published on 6 February 2019
Theologically, we Seventh-day Adventists are acceptably Protestant. The whole first half of The Great Controversy, arguably our most defining book, celebrates the Reformation. We should be able to say all but a line of the Apostles’ Creed without flinching—and all of it if we understood the difference between catholic and Catholic.
So it’s not just that we’re theologically right and everyone else is wrong. Sectarianism isn’t that simple. Our sectarian identity isn’t about being merely right, but being exclusively and defensively right. We must believe we are what no one else can ever be, that we have what no one else can possibly have. We have crafted this identity through a set of shared activities and symbols: time—we’re the only ones who keep God’s true day of worship—and food and dress and friends and shared vocabulary and shared stories and our own exclusive institutions.
And through enduring: sticking with it in the face of theological questions and fading, fighting congregations and, eventually (we have convinced ourselves, with as yet no evidence), persecution for keeping the Sabbath by our arch-enemies, the Roman Catholics. We can’t give up now: it will all prove to be right in the end, if we hold on.
Because just as important as what we’re for is who we’re against. Our sectarianism has to do with styling ourselves Christianity’s outsiders, the “remnant” who are misunderstood and rejected and are hated for it. It’s about “you and me against the world.” So what happens when you leave the you and me? You’re no longer one of us, and we can’t help resenting you for it.
Which is to say this isn’t just a conviction. It’s a reaction, and it comes from the deepest, most foundational part of us, which is why it’s so hard for us to process rationally.
Interestingly, even when certain of our beliefs soften—when we go to restaurants for Sabbath lunch and wear earrings and drink coffee and send our children to public school—the psychological hold still remains. Even as the years have passed, even as many of us have become intellectually more accepting and less exclusive, we still feel most at home among our own. Should we visit a Sunday church with non-Adventist friends, we feel a little adventurous, a little generous, but a lot outside our comfort zone. More of us than you would suppose are never completely comfortable with non-Adventist friends unless we tell ourselves that we’re witnessing to them.
The word “non-Adventist” itself tells you a lot about us: that we Seventh-day Adventists have a word, one we use regularly, that denominates the entire rest of the world as “not us.” Furthermore, it is our official denominational policy that we do not transfer a membership from any of our congregations to any of theirs. We will only drop you, not send you on your way rejoicing to another faith community.
Can We Talk?
I’m not sure if we can, or if we want to, talk about this. The first step would be to ask whether we’re willing to rethink our notion of being the only true church, about the Sabbath’s being the mark of God’s only true followers. I’m not optimistic that we can. This is deeply and essentially who we are, our reason for being.
I think of the times I’ve been criticized because I preached sermons about grace, because “you’re not talking about anything that I couldn’t hear in a Sunday church.” Here, laid out plainly, are the battle lines: unless you speak about those things that are peculiar to us—if you talk about the heart and center of the Christian faith as it is understood by all Christians—you’re not being faithful to the remnant and its message.
It’s almost a fair cop. Almost, because I’m not talking about grace in a Sunday church, but in a Seventh-day Adventist church, where many people don’t know or don’t believe in the grace of God and the security of salvation. Where too frequently they think they’re saved by knowing eschatological details and eating the right food and being a member of the right church. At points along the way I’ve felt like saying, “Fine, if that’s what you want, I’ll leave you to it. Carry on—without me.” But God dropped me into this denomination and asked me to do what I think the Bible says I should do, and that seemed to me to preach Christ, not endless eschatology and Sabbath rules. I suppose I’ll find out in the judgment whether that decision was right or wrong.
By the way, we’re not happy with backsliders, either, but in some essential way we’re a bit less alarmed by backsliders than by people who are finding Jesus somewhere else. Why do we tolerate dozens of non-participating members on our church list? It is here that we show that it’s not about your salvation, but about our own insecurity: it isn’t as threatening that you’re lost to us, than that you’ve taken up with someone else.
Joy for the Journey
Occasionally through my years as a pastor I’ve received a letter from a non-Adventist congregation asking us to transfer someone’s membership to them. There is no mechanism to do that, of course, so I haven’t bothered to bring it to my clerk or church board. But I have always written a letter of my own, giving my personal blessing and letting the other congregation know that they can gladly welcome the new member into their church family.
And yes, in doing this, I probably disobeyed the spirit, if not the letter, of the church manual. So, fire me. But I still think it was the right thing to do. Why should we behave badly toward someone who wants to pursue Jesus elsewhere? Is it better for them to leave feeling like we regard them as lost sheep? What does a resentful response say about us? It seems to me that nothing screams “insecurity” like an undeserved sense of superiority.
It has long been the conventional wisdom that people only left our denomination because they were treated badly. To our credit, we have sometimes admitted that, and owned it. But, we said, it wasn’t a good excuse. “It doesn’t much matter how we act: you must stick with us because we’ve got the truth.” I have friends who are worshiping in Adventist congregations that are unfulfilling and in some cases flat-out cruel. What if they don’t want to endure that any longer? What if having the right doctrines isn’t enough for them, and they go in search of a different—a better—experience?
This is to say, perhaps we need to cultivate some compassion toward those who are fed up with us. Perhaps we need to listen to them, and let them go find Jesus in a different church, and not just slam the door against their backsides as they leave.
Loren Seibold is a retired pastor, and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.