My church is infallible.
Well, at least it’s in-fall-able.
We have been promised that “the church may appear as about to fall, but it does not fall.” 1
But why even talk about failure, or falling? We are one of the fastest growing and most diverse religious denominations in the world. We have the largest Protestant educational system and the largest Protestant healthcare system in the world. Our members, at least in North America, live 10 years longer, on average, than the typical American. One of our members ran for U.S. president and served in a presidential cabinet position. A major Hollywood movie about another one of our members won numerous national and international film awards, including two Academy Awards. We Adventists are doing quite well, thank you.
Many of the local churches with which I am acquainted seem to be living on life support, and “two radically different versions of Adventism are competing for the future” 2 of the church.
Perhaps it would be well for us to remember that “the promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.” 3
I believe culture is basic to the conditions that are threatening our church.
Culture is a society’s way of life. It includes its art, its music, its theology, its manners, its food, its dress, its language, its entertainment, its customs, and its standards of morality. The scope of a culture may be worldwide, or may include an entire hemisphere, a geographical region, a single country, a business, a religious organization, a small group, or even a single family.
Cultures are also constantly at war, at least since the Middle Ages, when we have the deceptive sense that there was some level of cultural tranquility. Subsequently, however, there has been constant tension in almost every society between what we may call a conservative view, with those who wish for things to remain as they are, or to even retreat into the safe, warm bosom of the past, and what we may call a progressive outlook, made up of those who are consistently agitating for change. I believe these two divergent views clearly describe the two versions of Adventism that are currently competing for the future of our church.
The conservative cry is, “We have abandoned the faith of our forefathers! We must nail down and stand firm on the principles of truth!” The response of the progressives is, “We are still here. ‘Had the church of Christ done her appointed work as the Lord ordained, the whole world would before this have been warned, and the Lord Jesus would have come to our earth in power and great glory.’ 4 Change is necessary and we must constantly be alert to revealed present truth.”
To the progressive, “knowledge is elusive and mistakenness the inescapable human condition.” 5 To the hard-core conservative, “there is one clear truth in the world and many liars. The other side is not merely wrong, it is lying … The very best you can say about people who deny obvious truth is that they are … ‘willfully naïve.’ ” 6
Despite those who fight change, culture is constantly changing, and that change is bi-directional—smaller groups influence larger groups, and vice versa. While most religions attempt to change the culture around them, many groups are more worried about how the larger culture of “the world” will impact their members, especially their young people. This is especially true in small groups, but can also be true in larger ones, even entire countries. China, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan historically limited or excluded foreigners from entering their countries in attempts to preserve their religions and unique cultures. Conversely, many non-religious people now worry that the cultures of religious organizations in America are impacting them and their families in ways they feel are detrimental to their way of life.
The Seventh-day Adventist church is a worldwide organization, and the overall culture of the church varies from country to country. Although there are wide variations in what is considered necessary or allowable in each of the following categories, I believe there are six principal arenas of social life that are commonly found among cultural Adventists: an abiding interest in healthful living; an impetus for a witnessing ministry, including the healthcare ministry; a strong motivation for educational achievement; a traditional standard of morality; an awareness of last-day events; and a reverence for the seventh-day Sabbath.
In each of these areas, we have had significant impacts on the culture of the world. Vegetarianism and veganism are now viewed as integral parts of a healthy lifestyle. Our hospitals and health facilities for many years provided the best health care available in many countries. Governmental leaders and politicians around the world have been educated in our schools or raised in our churches. Our official stance on the inability for women to be ordained and the perception of a growing acceptance of Headship Theology in the church continues to impact our society. And the two doctrinal beliefs highlighted in our very name, the second coming of Christ and the value of a Sabbath-like rest, have moved from being obscure theological ideas to widely appreciated principles in many religious denominations.
It could be argued, however, that the greatest influence our church has had on the culture of the world has come from two unlikely sources—the music of Little Richard and the dietary innovations of John Harvey Kellogg. Richard Penniman, professionally known as Little Richard, strongly influenced popular music and laid the foundation for the rock and roll music that has inspired rock groups and young people around the world since the 1950s. John Harvey Kellogg’s inventions changed the world’s eating habits with his breakfast cereals and, at least in America, the vital ingredient in peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
Adventism, however, was not primarily founded to introduce the world to Long,Tall Sally, or to help the world enjoy peanut butter. Our ultimate mission should be like the mission of Jesus—to provide the world with a clear revelation of the character of God.
When the object of his mission was attained—the revelation of God to the world—the Son of God announced that his ork was accomplished, and that the character of the Father was made manifest to man.7
To help us with our mission, we were given some cultural aids: guidance on a healthy lifestyle, a health-care ministry, an educational ministry, a Sabbath-like rest, a prophetic voice, and a cosmic picture of God’s activities for the salvation of his creatures. This includes a somewhat nebulous timeline to help prepare the world for the “soon” Second Coming of Christ. These aids have, to a large degree, helped form our unique church culture.
We as a church have benefited from these cultural aids. We are a healthy church. We are a health-giving church. We are a well-educated church. We are a diverse church. We are a prophetic church. We are a growing church.
All these things are good, in and of themselves, but they are not, and never were meant to be, our ultimate mission. They were intended to be useful in helping us achieve our ultimate mission, but too often they have distracted us from that mission. We are famous for being the best or the largest in many arenas, but I have never yet had anyone tell me that our church has the best picture of the character of God that they have ever seen. No one has ever told me that they believe our church exhibits the greatest ability to love others unconditionally and disinterestedly that they have ever experienced.
Christ was clear about how the world would be able to recognize his followers. This is how all men will know that you are my disciples, because you have such love for one another (John 13:35, J.B. Phillips translation). Until it can honestly be said of us that we are a healthy church because we love, that we are a health-giving church because we love, that we are a well-educated church because we love, that we are a diverse church because we love, that we are a prophetic church because we love, and that we are a growing church because we love, the world has every right to look away from us because they do not recognize that we are followers of Christ.
And until we preach the gospel, the best of all good news, that the character of God the Father is just like Jesus showed it to be, we will continue to be just another cymbal in the cacophony of the world’s culture.
Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Adventist Vision Board. Email him at: [email protected]
1 White, Ellen G. Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 380.
2 Johnsson, W. G. (2017). Where Are We Headed? Adventism after San Antonio. Oak and Acorn Publishing.
3 White, Ellen G. Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 67.
4 White, Ellen G. The Desire of Ages, p. 633-634.
5 Rauch, J. (2013). Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. The University of Chicago Press.
6 Ibid (p. 107).
7 White, Ellen G. Signs of the Times, January 20, 1890.