I grew up in the Netherlands in a small village some 20 miles north of Amsterdam. The population was almost equally divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Most Protestants belonged to one of two denominations of the Calvinist variety. One lady, who lived a few doors away from us, converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then there were we!

It seemed that most people did not exactly know how to classify us. We were Seventh-day Adventists, which was a strange name people could hardly remember. But we seemed rather “normal”, except that we went to church in a nearby town on Saturdays and did not eat pork, did not smoke or use alcohol. A few, who had taken the trouble to consult an encyclopedia in search of some information on Adventists, were sure that we belonged to a peculiar sect, which did not only read the Bible but also looked to guidance from an American prophetess.

I must admit that as a child, and as a teenager, I felt quite ambivalent about being an Adventist. Why did we have to be so different? Could it really be true that our church was the only true one—as our parents told me and my siblings? When we occasionally visited regional, or even nationwide church meetings, I discovered that our community was not so small after all. And when, at a given moment, it was announced that Adventism, world-wide, had passed the one-million-member mark, it actually gave me a sense of pride to belong to something quite big!

How do we see ourselves?

Of course, we want to know how others around us look at Adventism. At the different organizational levels of our denomination, a PR department, which later developed into the Communication Department, was tasked with fostering a positive image for the church. Its message was, and still is: The Adventist Church is not a cult or sect at the fringe of Christianity, but a bona-fide Protestant denomination.

However, important it may be how others see us, there is the (at least as important) question of how we see ourselves. Who and what are we as Seventh-day Adventists? In some countries, Adventists long preferred to refer to themselves with words that translate into English as “community” or “congregation”. They felt the term “church” was too loaded with ritual and tradition and smelled too much of a stale past. In some places, the word “movement” has long been the preferred term. It was thought to express the ideal of being a dynamically growing world-wide faith community rather than a static organization that shows little or no “movement”. More recently, however, the use of the word “church” has also become more commonly accepted in those countries where it was earlier frowned upon.

Some Adventist mission experts have suggested that we should, perhaps, see ourselves as a world religion and not just as a part of Christianity. We are sufficiently unique, they claim, to warrant that label. Of course, in numbers, we cannot compare with such world religions as Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, but the size of world-wide Adventism is about the same as that of the Sikhs or of Judaism, and these qualify as world religions. I have never been convinced that it would be a good idea to differentiate ourselves in this way from other Christians. In fact, I believe Adventists should always self-identify as Christians first, before pointing to themselves as Adventist Christians.

Church or sect?

Adventism has not yet completely shed its sectarian image, especially in areas in the world where it has so far numerically remained quite small. Many other Christians continue to see significant sectarian (or even cultic) traits in our church. However, most Adventists regard themselves as a church and not as a sect. So, let’s look a bit closer at the differences between a church and a sect.

Definitions of what a “sect” is differ very considerably. For most people, the term “sect” evokes rather negative associations. A sect, they say, is a religious group that turns secondary matters into main issues. This is, of course, a rather subjective approach, because who determines what is essential and what is not? Others claim that sects are the lice in the church’s pelt. Sects are mainly characterized by their critical attitude towards the “established” churches, without contributing anything significant themselves.

The famous German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) gave a definition that, over time, has been used as a basis for many other descriptions. Weber said that the church is a religious organization in which membership is determined primarily by tradition. In most cases one becomes a member of a church by birth. In a sect, on the other hand, membership is the conscious choice of the person joining the group. With many other denominations, Adventists reject such a definition, as they do not practice infant baptism, but baptize people who have themselves chosen to be baptized. Should that make them into a sect?

Often the word “sect” is used primarily for religious groups that are quite aggressive in their recruitment strategies and/or are strongly influenced by a powerful, charismatic leader (in which case one often tends to speak of a ‘cult’). Probably the most important characteristic of a sect is that their adherents are convinced that they are in sole possession of Truth.

Many religious communities have undergone a development whereby they slowly, but surely, lose their sectarian characteristics and, as a result, are no longer labeled as a “sect”. This has happened in many areas of the world with Seventh-day Adventists.

A Church or the church?

The word “church” can be used in many and varied ways. One frequent meaning is that of a “denomination.” The word “denomination” is derived from the Latin verb denominare, which simply translates as “giving a name to something”. Many (how many no one exactly knows) groups of Christians have organized themselves as separate denominations with a specific name. Thus, it is perfectly legitimate for us as Seventh-day Adventists to call ourselves a church. We are a denomination—a church—among thousands of different denominations or churches, large and small, all around the world.

But can we, with confidence, claim that we are not only a church, but rather the church that can self-identify as God’s remnant church? Are we the only church with full Truth? Are we the group that will form the nucleus of those who are going to be saved when the Lord returns?

To these questions, many others could be added. And to many of these questions, we do not yet know the answers. History tends to surprise us, and prophetic interpretations are not intended to give us precise predictions of how end-time events will turn out in every detail. One thing is, however, certain: it has never been official Adventist teaching that only members of our church will be saved. But Adventists do believe that their church has emerged as a community with a special message, with specific emphases that want to correct particular theological standpoints and to apply biblical principles to a number of lifestyle issues.

As Adventists think about their identity as a Christian body, they must always ensure that they build on the biblical view of the essence of “church”. Although the New Testament stresses the bond that unites all local Christian communities, and the fundamental fact that all believers, anywhere, are one in Christ and form a universal priesthood, the emphasis is consistently on the church as a congregation in a specific place. For the apostle Paul, the believers were “the saints in Rome” or “the saints in Ephesus”, etc. Translated to the twenty-first century, this means that, although an organizational system such as Adventists have adopted is useful and will facilitate the church’s mission outreach, the Adventist Church is not primarily the General Conference, the North American Division, or the Rocky Mountain Conference, etc. The Adventist Church is, first and foremost, the “saints” in the 80.000 or so local communities of Adventist believers.

Becoming a sect?

 Some time ago I read in my newspaper an interview with the Belgian Roman-Catholic Cardinal Jozef de Kessel, who has now been archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels for several years.[1] The 75-year-old Catholic leader comes across in the interview as an optimist, but also as a realist, and as a man with a strong faith. He acknowledges that the Catholic Church in Belgium is decreasing in size, but firmly believes that ‘a more modest church’ can be more ‘faithful to itself’ and to its vocation in the midst of today’s secular culture.

What particularly struck me in this interview were de Kessel’s comments about sects and sectarian characteristics. According to him, even a large church can in many ways be sectarian. The bishop is looking for a “confessing church that is carried forward by an inner core of active believers . . . But the church must remain open and avoid being focused on itself”. The interview concludes with this notable statement:

In a sect, you know exactly who is inside and who is outside. Moreover, a sect does not tolerate dissent. If you disagree with something you can go. So, you can be a majority church with sectarian traits, and you can be a smaller church with an open mind. It’s nice when the door of a church is open. When you enter, nobody asks: what are you doing here, why are you sitting here, why are you walking around here? Are you a believer or a non-believer? We must be a church that is open and welcoming, without imposing itself.

The cardinal’s words also apply to my church—the Seventh-day Adventist Church. With our twenty-two million members, we may have become a relatively large church. We may, over time and in most places, have shaken off the sectarian characteristics of the past, but the danger of reverting to some sectarian, or even cultic, traits always remains ‘a clear and present danger. In whatever terms we define our church, it must be an open church. It must be a church that is not just focused on itself but knows the problems and the language of the secular world around it. It must be a church that warmly receives all people without imposing itself. It must be a faith community where all are welcome.

Ask yourself: When I look at my church, do I see that kind of open, welcoming community? That remains the most important question.

Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. Among his latest books is I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine. Email him at: [email protected]  

[1]  Nederlands Dagblad, June 11, 2021.