By Dick Stenbakken … The title itself raises red flags.
It is often thought that as Adventists we, along with many other conservative Christians, adhere to theological concepts firmly rooted in biblical truth and practices that are absolute, and do not change. That means (changing) social norms and diversity of opinions (that might challenge prevailing thought) are, at best, as welcome as ants at a picnic. At worst, anathema. But is that true? Or is it an emotional reaction to the never-ending change of life and society?
Any change brings a sense of discomfort and or disequilibrium. For the most part, we are more comfortable with the familiar because, well, it is familiar. True enough, social norms do change. That is the trajectory of history. As an example, many Old Testament patriarchs had multiple wives. Not so in New Testament times, and certainly not acceptable in our congregations today. That is a change in social norms that we welcome and gladly follow.
Diversity of thought also brings the challenge of change. Ancient maps told mariners to avoid certain uncharted areas bearing the stern warning: “Here be dragons.” That would certainly not encourage exploration. And, by the way, folks were absolutely certain that the earth was flat. So, if you dared wander too far from the accepted certainty of the times, you just might fall off the edge of the earth, unless the dragons got you first.
Social norms do change. Diversity of thought, even theological thoughts, change. Does that mean there are no fixed points and we, as a church and as individuals, merely “go with the flow” in an unthinking passivity, wringing our hands in distress? Hardly. There are bed-rock realities articulated in the Bible that set out norms and thoughts that don’t change with time or location. Those are like the magnetic north for a compass which holds true, and from which we calibrate and evaluate all other directional values.
Jesus, concluding His parable of the net, says, “… every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 3:52 NIV). Jesus values the “old,” but also the “new” treasures. He is not at all “right or wrong” binary, but inclusively open. He mirrors the Old Testament concept in Proverbs 4:18: “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” That contrasts with, “… the way of the wicked is like deep darkness: they do not know what makes them stumble.” The contrast is striking. Truth expands with growing light. Darkness stays static, with no change.
Ellen G. White put it this way: “Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do … It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train young people to be thinkers and not mere reflectors of other people’s thought.” (TEd 12)
The real challenges for us as individuals, as a denomination, or as a congregation, is when we begin to sanctify, solidify, and defend thoughts and norms that are actually opinions and interpretations. We then make hard realities out of our own interpretations and norms rather than from clear scriptural reality. The inevitable outcome is division, fracturing, and judgmentalism. If I am right (and in my own mind I certainly am!) then by sheer definition and contrast, you must be wrong. It’s simple. The next step is obvious: I am not only right but righteous. Meaning you are both wrong and evil. You might well think the same of me. Now, we have a serious problem working or worshiping together.
Binary thinking leads to an “us” and “them” polarity feeding exclusivism and strife. That kind of rigid thinking was what drove the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others to kill Jesus. After all, He broke their norms. He actually healed people on the Sabbath! He touched lepers! He ate with sinners! He spoke to heathen women!
Regarding diversity of thought, Jesus really went off the rails according to the religious leaders of His day. They were looking for a savior to deliver them from Rome. They wanted a king to re-establish the political nation to dominance and past glory. He, on the other hand, was about building a spiritual kingdom and deliverance from sin. He said that His kingdom would be open to everyone, including folks not at all like them. He welcomed all, not just one group. Radical thinking for many in His culture.
The tension between what I want and expect, and what is or could be, goes back to spiritual warfare starting in Genesis, and continues with the eternal tension through the rest of the Bible until that tension and warfare ends in Revelation.
Tension isn’t always bad. In fact, we could not live without tension and pressure. Think of your blood pressure: too much is bad. Too little is bad. If the tension/pressure is within reasonable range, all is well.
When we were at the Seminary, we inherited my aunt’s 1956 Oldsmobile 88. Not exactly my dream car, but it ran well. The suspension system was coil springs on each wheel. Driving it was like being on your couch steering your living room. If you hit a pothole or bump, the coil springs absorbed the shock then gave you a lingering, bouncing, bounding, lurching ride. Think bungee cord. It was entertaining. Ten years ago, I fulfilled a life-long dream and purchased a used Corvette. The ride is exponentially different than the Olds. The Vette will take a corner like the Olds never could. The difference is the tension rod stabilizers at the front and rear of the Vette. When you turn a corner, the inside wheels want to lift off the pavement. The torsion bars twist to keep weight, and tires, on the ground to give more traction and control.
Changing or challenging norms and diversity of thought will create tensions personally and corporately. That is inescapable. However, we can use those changing norms and diversity of thought to help us meet the curves and corners. Tension can be used to stabilize us as we navigate twists and turns of our journey, on the road or in the church.
The early church had tensions over norms and diversity of thought. Look at Paul and Barnabas, or Paul and Peter. In early Adventism, there were long and loud debates over beliefs. The Adventist pioneers were not content with “what is.” They were out-of-the-box thinkers who challenged and changed society and theology. They endorsed a woman to speak, write, and teach theology. They advocated abolition and education for people not like them. They impacted things as diverse as breakfast food, health care, and hospitals. They were bold enough to wrestle and wrangle with new ideas, concepts, and theologies. They were open enough to be surprised by, and adopt, new insights. They were not content with the mental laziness of just going along because “That’s the way we have always done/seen/believed it.”
The question is how we deal with shifting social norms and diversity in thought, here, now, in our life and church. We have options. We could take the binary, black and white thinking with no shades. We could just “go with the flow” and pretend all is well. We could be open and exploratory in thought and discussion. We could rebel and walk away. We could sit together and discuss our differing interpretations and opinions, realizing that they are, after all, interpretations and opinions, not necessarily proven facts. Doing the latter, we might all learn something new.
Perhaps an ancient saying, the attribution of which is debated, can be refreshingly instructive:
“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
It’s easy to read. Harder to do. Ah … there’s the creative tension that can keep us open, discussing, loving, accepting, and grounded. Hopefully.
–Dick Stenbakken, Ed.D., retired Army Chaplain (Col.), served as director of Adventist Chaplaincy Services at the General Conference and North American Division. With his wife Ardis, he lives in Loveland, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]