Late last night I came across this post which has made me do a little thinking about criticism within the church, particularly how what I wrote below is maybe exacerbating the problem rather than providing a way forward. The problems aren’t anything new; yet, I feel compelled to share what’s on my mind. I’m realizing more and more that it’s far too easy to be critical just for the sake of being critical. I have no idea how to be critical in a spirit of love, but I think that towards the end of this I make a small turn towards it. I read something else this morning that spoke about the difference between discernment and judgment, and maybe the answer lies somewhere in there. Anyway…
Seventh-Day Adventists have always troubled me, even though I am one. I’ve never felt completely comfortable among a group of them. I used to imagine going to an SDA college and thought I’d be in paradise: everyone would observe Sabbath, everyone would understand what haystacks were, and I’d find a guy who wouldn’t think I belonged to some crazy cult. That’s why I used to love Campmeeting, that week in summer when I’d hang out with kids with the same faith I had and we’d just understand each other. I miss my naivety from back then.
But if I think back to those summers and take off my rose-tinted glasses, I can remember feeling a small pang of discomfort – not enough to make those memories and friendships any less real and special than they were, but enough to remember that not everything I heard felt right.
Adventists are an evangelistic and apocalyptic group. The evangelistic part I understood growing up, although I was, and still am, mighty uncomfortable with it. I often live in denial about the apocalyptic part. But it’s only now that I’m slowly beginning to understand why I’ve always been uncomfortable with Adventism: unlike a lot of Adventists, I don’t think Adventism is the ONLY way to God.
Last year I really started to question my Adventism. Those questions and doubts had always been in my head, but I never really let myself explore them because I was afraid of what I’d find and frightened that questioning was somehow wrong, maybe even sinful. It’s hard to break away from something that you’ve been a part of your whole life. But what surprised me was that I found people who have the same questions, doubts and feelings about Adventism that I have, as well as people from other faith backgrounds who have a lot of those same questions in somewhat different contexts.
Spectrum Magazine is probably the reason why I’m still an Adventist (although to be honest, I don’t think I’d ever officially leave the church). It’s an independent magazine/blog that doesn’t pull any punches in its coverage of the Adventist Church and supports a diversity of opinions, although I don’t always agree with some of the voice on there. I truly appreciate how it’s called out the General Conference’s ridiculousness in preventing the ordination of female pastors (that’s a whole other post), invites questions on the creationism vs. evolution debate, and has really engaged in the dialogue surrounding the film Seventh-Gay Adventists.
I believe women should be ordained, that evolution is not some giant hoax and that the creation story in Genesis is largely a myth, and that LGBT people should be able to marry whoever they want to and be members of the SDA church just like any heterosexual. These beliefs are antithetical to Adventist doctrine; therefore, I am what some what call a ‘progressive’ Adventist, although some would probably say I’m not even an Adventist.
Labels aren’t helpful; they turn ‘us’ into you versus me. Yet the Adventist church thrives on labels; it defines itself with labels.
I came across the following video last week. It’s a discussion of the current state Adventism by Wintley Phipps, a glorious singer of worldwide renown, and US Senate Chaplain Barry Black. Both are heroes in Adventist circles because they’re Adventists who’ve succeeded in spite of their Adventism (Adventists know what I’m talking about).
I watched this and felt myself wanting to jump up and down and yell, “AMEN!” a thousand times over because there was so much truth in it. Adventists have been taught that they shouldn’t get involved in social issues or politics because it’s being too much of the world. Adventists are warned that they should only read material written by fellow Adventists and only listen to sermons from other Adventists in order to prevent themselves from being swayed by other ‘false beliefs.’ Adventists largely believe that only Adventists have unlocked the real ‘truth’ of the Bible. The list could go on and on.
This insular thinking has led to what Phipps so aptly termed a culture of arrogance. Lots of Adventists believe that only they have the ‘truth,’ and that God only works through them. Therefore, God is only on the side of Adventists. Hell, God is an Adventist!
This is such complete and utter BULLSHIT. Adventists do not have a monopoly on truth, but for some reason they think they do.
This superiority, I believe, mostly comes from a belief that the Adventist church is the remnant found in Revelation. I’m not even going to pretend I know the background or biblical foundation of that belief because I avoid Revelation like the plague; ‘end times’/’last days’ talk has unnerved since I was a kid. But I know what I’ve heard all my life: other religions just don’t understand the Bible and faith like Adventists do.
Last year one of the quarter’s bible study lessons focused on evangelism, a subject that irritates me. Not only does it bring to mind preachers talking about the mark of the beast and eschatology, which continues to scare the crap out of me and has probably scared a few people into the faith, but it makes me uncomfortable, as evangelism is usually undertaken by middle-aged, rather well-off white guys bringing the ‘Good News’ to the non-white unprivileged masses (this is a somewhat harsh and stereotypical description, but it’s my experience. The older I get, the more I understand the profound influence that American culture, with its manifest destiny, white supremacy and subsequent paranoia, had/has on Adventism. I’m starting to think that Adventism cannot truly be understood without looking at that background).
In Matthew 28:19, Jesus said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He should have stopped after ‘disciples,’ because the second part of that phrase has led to a focus on conversion and numbers rather than discipleship. I read the verse as discipleship being the primary goal.
So what’s a disciple? A disciple is a follower. In the context of this text, a disciple is a follower of Christ. While I was teaching part of the quarter’s lessons on evangelism, I pointedly said to my class, notice Jesus didn’t say “Therefore go and make Adventists.” Disciples are those that follow Jesus, and Jesus’ greatest command was to love one another. Therefore, being a disciple of Jesus means we must love one another. Can Adventists truly say they are disciples of Christ?
Well, I see a church that discriminates against women for no reason, a church that views itself as superior to any other church/religion, a church that emphasizes image over practice, a church that puts doctrine before people and a church that doesn’t make room for alternative visions and ways of thinking. I see a lot of pride and not a lot of love.
But there are many things I love about Adventism. I love and treasure its vision of Sabbath (minus the more legalistic elements), and its emphasis on prayer, health, Bible study and disaster relief. The Adventist church does a lot of good things. But it could do GREAT things if it would humble itself and remember that God is so much bigger than one church.
Adventism makes sense to some people and brings them to God. Catholicism works for others. Some find Judaism to be the Way. Islam is another path. Aboriginal peoples believe in another divine beings. Belief is a product of who we are: our experiences, our personalities, our culture and our faults. That’s why I think there are many religions: each of them speaks to people in different ways.
Adventists claim to be different from all other faiths. Yet if we truly want to be different, we need to put people first, and get back to searching for truth rather than believing all has been revealed, moving forward in love. We don’t have all of the answers, and pretending that we do is not only foolish, but dangerous, not only to our personal faith and our church, but to our wider calling to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.