By Mark Johnson … “Why are you so loyal to the Church?”
This question was recently asked of me by my father, whose journey into and out of Adventism over a 97-year period makes an interesting case study.
He was not being critical or cynical. He was not necessarily being complimentary. He was just comparing the similarities and differences in our experiences with the organization.
I had no ready answer for him but after some thought,
I have concluded that there is one main reason why I have remained in the Church while he has chosen to leave. He was raised in an era when Adventists were not “allowed” to ask questions, and I was blessed with parents, pastors, and teachers who encouraged them (my father was led to believe the Church wouldn’t, or couldn’t, seriously address his issues and concerns, while I have discovered a robust and cohesive theology, hidden away in Adventist teachings, that makes a great deal of sense to me).
Paradoxically, while my father marvels at my loyalty, others have wondered if I am a real Adventist.
A church is recognized by its beliefs and behaviors. Beliefs are determined through the processes of exegesis and hermeneutics, and these beliefs then lead to certain behaviors among the members. Those who doubt a church’s use of exegesis and hermeneutics, are skeptics. If one disagrees with a church’s beliefs, they are a heretic. If one flouts a church’s behaviors, they are rebellious.
Rebels send the message to the youth and weaker members of a church that the rules of the carefully cultivated lifestyle are irrelevant. This threatens social disintegration. Thus, the community must act to stigmatize dissent.
But it is so easy to be a rebel in the Adventist Church! There are so many rules to break!
As a young man growing up in a small-town Adventist church and school, I subconsciously categorized my class- mates’ families by how strictly they adhered to the Adventist “blueprint.” The best Adventist families had a mother and a father who were still in their first marriage; they did not, however, wear wedding rings to prove it, nor did they wear any jewelry; they claimed to believe in the Bible as the only rule of faith, but they also tended to include the writings of Ellen G. White; they regularly attended and actively participated in the weekly church services; they did not work, eat out, or do anything personally pleasurable on Sabbath; they did not go to the theater, nor did they dance; they had daily family worship, reading from the annual Adventist devotional books and the Sabbath School lesson quarterlies; they were vegetarian; they did not smoke; they did not drink alcohol, coffee, tea or cola; the females dressed modestly and behaved with appropriately-subdued decorum; the males had crewcut or flat-top haircuts and took strong leadership roles; the children went to Adventist schools; they denied being legalistic, but the attitude of “give me another law and I’ll keep it,” was frequently encountered; and, those of appropriate age voted a straight (in both meanings of the word) Republican ticket (I did not meet an Adventist who was openly a Democrat until I was in college, or a gay or lesbian Adventist until many years later).
Unconditional and disinterested love was a concept we heartily endorsed, but just as vigorously ignored.
The clearest way to express rebellion in the Church was by smoking. Alcohol use was a close second. These behaviors essentially signaled to other members that you no longer wished to be considered an Adventist. Many of the rest of the rules could be breached in ways that conveyed individuality without showing an unacceptable level of open defiance. In those halcyon days of communal naivete, one could retain membership, though draw a great deal of criticism, by wearing earrings, or short skirts, or Beatle-length hair, or by swimming on Sabbath, or publicly drinking a CokeTM or going to see something like The Sound of Music in a movie theater.
Over time, the level of rebelliousness attributed to various questionable behaviors waxed and waned. In college, the stigma of movie-going had become rather passé, but the length of my hair was of very great concern. Also, the attitudes and guidelines around sexual behaviors took on a much greater emphasis.
Heresy takes more work than rebellion. It begins with a skeptical attitude of doubt, but it requires a fairly in-depth understanding of doctrine to achieve. For Adventists, the most common source of heresy is uncertainty surrounding inspiration. While several pastors have told me one does not need to believe in the inspired writings of Ellen G. White to be a good Adventist, her pronouncements are so intertwined in our basic beliefs and doctrines that it is a very difficult position to balance successfully. It has been my experience that most members who lose faith in the inspiration of Ellen G. White eventually see little reason to remain in the denomination.
While many members may rebel against the apparently rigid rules found in some of Ellen G. White’s writings, I believe that true heretical dissent in the Church comes mainly from a resistance to her views of what happened on the cross. C. S. Lewis stated that “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter.” I would argue that theories as to why Christ had to die are also important matters.
In large part, it is these atonement models that separate denominations from one another and differentiate heresy from orthodoxy in the Adventist Church. While many of us may focus on those things that we think make us different, such as our beliefs on a recent creation, the gift of prophecy, Christ’s work in the heavenly sanctuary, the meaning of the Sabbath, the nature of man in death, the role of the remnant and the end of sinners, I believe the crux (Latin for “cross”) of the problem that ultimately divides us is what we believe happened on the cross and why.
I do not have the space here to explore the various atonement models, but suffice it to say, it has been
my experience that most evangelical Christians and Adventists agree that the importance of the cross is that by shedding His blood, Christ somehow bought forgiveness from sin for those who accept His sacrifice, thus granting them a path to eternal salvation and keeping them from the fires of hell. This is basic Reformation theology, and it may be wonderfully good news for sinners.
My reading of the Bible, Ellen G. White, and some leading Adventist theologians, however, has led me in a slightly different direction. It has been called a heretical direction by some. I believe that my personal salvation is not of primary importance to the rest of the universe. It was not the principal reason for Christ’s mission to earth. It is, however, a wonderful by-product of His infinite goodness. Christ came primarily to reveal and vindicate the character of God. This needed to be done to answer the questions that had led to the rebellion of sin in the first place: Can God be trusted? Does He truly love His creatures? Does sin really lead to death? What is God’s role in the death of sinners? Are His methods and motives as benevolent as He claims them to be? Can the universe truly be governed on the principle of love? What difference does it make why we obey Him, just as long as we do?
The problem, as I see it, is not with our fundamental beliefs. It is in how we emphasize and present them.
Every Adventist I know claims to love Jesus and supports justification by the righteousness of Christ as revealed on the cross and agrees that the preeminence of the character of God is vital and sees the importance of an orderly universe governed by the laws of God, including the Sabbath.
But there are at least two streams of Adventism. Each stream accepts our fundamental beliefs but presents a very different picture to the world of what we claim to believe. One group appears to value mercy and the unconditional, disinterested love of God for all fallen humanity. They believe that the truth spoken in love is God’s only instrument of persuasion and healing. The other group appears to worship a God of fearful judgment. They believe that the truth presented with terrifying images of apocalyptic beasts and final destruction is the best way to achieve conversions.
While our theology must account for both mercy and judgment, we do not worship a two-faced God. Fear is used to manipulate and control. Love casts out fear. Skep- tic, rebel, and heretic that I am, count me in the group that believes in unconditional love, even in judgment.
–Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at: [email protected]