28 Mar

A LOYAL ADVENTIST: SKEPTIC, HERETIC, AND REBEL

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]

06 Jan

COMMENTARY: “GRANDPA, THERE’S A TORNADO OF SMOKE IN THE BACKYARD.”

By Dr. Mark Johnson … My wife and I were in the mountains, driving back from visiting my aging father.  Our 6-year-old granddaughter, who currently lives with us, had called to share her concerns.  My daughter soon got on the line and informed us that it appeared that there was a house on fire in the adjoining neighborhood, and the smoke was so bad that she was leaving the house with her two daughters.

At this point, the conversation was interesting but not too worrisome.  Perhaps there was a house fire in the neighborhood, but the fire department should soon have it under control.

The next call shook us to the very core.  “I’m on the highway, and all I can see is flames on both sides of the road!  The smoke is so black and thick that I can’t see anything else!  I don’t know what to do!  I’m afraid we might be hit by another car!  Wait, I’ve got to go!”  The line went dead.

By now, you can surmise that my daughter and granddaughters were caught in the middle of the worst wildfire in suburban Colorado history.  Fortunately, the reason she had hung up was because she saw a Highway Patrol car flashing its lights and going down the wrong side of the highway.  She did a rapid U-turn and followed it out of the conflagration.

Our story is just one of thousands that occurred on December 29, 2021.  Many of the stories are nothing but miraculous.  The fire, driven by hurricane-force winds, moved so fast and at times in such a random fashion that many had only minutes to grab a few precious items and flee their homes.  Almost a thousand of those homes were destroyed.  So were many businesses.

The physical damage from the fire is obvious.  Whole neighborhoods have disappeared, and thousands have been displaced.  But the social and mental health costs of such devastating events is harder to observe and measure, and on the surface, can appear contradictory.

Research on the after-effects of disasters shows some interesting and, at times alarming, trends.  After natural disasters, marriage rates go up slightly, but so do divorce rates.  However, after man-made disasters, the divorce rate tends to drop!  It is thought that the responses differ between disasters that have a relatively small loss of life but a great deal of physical damage and those that have a relatively small amount of physical damage but a larger loss of life.  If that is true, we can expect to see both the marriage rate and the divorce rate rise after the Marshall Fire.

Suicides may also increase after disasters with an increased rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  However, data shows increases in suicide after earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes, but not after tornadoes or severe storms.  Suicide rates are high among firefighters, though, and may also increase among first responders and health care workers after a disaster.

In summation, it is difficult to predict what the behavioral health effects will be on any group or individual after a disaster such as the Marshall Fire.  We should, however, be aware of the tremendous stress that occurs and be ready to assist friends, family members, coworkers, and acquaintances who have recently undergone such a traumatic event.  And while none of us who are not behavioral health experts should in any way attempt to treat those experiencing symptoms, experts say that it is healthy, in a safe and compassionate atmosphere, for them to talk about the traumatic experience through which they have lived.

–Dr. Mark Johnson is a member of Boulder Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Johnsons live in Louisville, Colorado; photo by Diane Johnson

29 Sep

WHY ARE WE SO WEIRD?

By Mark Johnson — A painted line ran down the middle of the sidewalk in the center of the school campus. “This line separates the boys’ side from the girls’ side,” our student guide explained. “The boys walk on that side of the sidewalk, and that is their side of the campus. The girls stay on this other side.”

Our family was visiting one of our Church’s boarding academies in the 1960s, looking at potential schools for my sister and me. “That has got to be the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” I thought to myself.

Unfortunately, it was not to remain so.

I didn’t attend that school, but over the next few years I attended four different Adventist academies and an Adventist college. Each of them had their own unique set of rules, customs and regulations. Based on those, it seemed to me that the main purpose of most Adventist schools was not necessarily to ensure a high level of education, but to safeguard their students from being “conformed to the world”, mainly by keeping the boys away from the girls* and by keeping all of them away from drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

The weirdest example of this I found at a boarding school for missionaries’ kids high in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. They had a system of one-star, two-star and three-star social events. For a one-star event, you could invite the girl of your choice. As I recall, there were only two one-star events during the entire school year. For two-star events you could invite anyone except the girl of your choice (the faculty was occasionally fooled because it was difficult to know who was dating whom in such an atmosphere), and for a three-star event, you were either assigned a date, or you rotated, and spent time with each of the girls (except your girlfriend) during the event. It was really weird.

This archaic process made more sense when I learned that there had been several student pregnancies in the preceding years, but it still felt weird. It also highlights the notorious, but not unique, problem that Christians seem to have with sex. The unchurched love to gossip about the sexual exploits of prominent, fallen Christian clergymen and women, but research in neuroscience using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) may help to explain this apparent hypocrisy. It has identified an area in the brain that activates and rewards highly emotional experiences, whether they are induced by drugs, music, sex or religion. Thus, for someone whose religious life is highly emotional, the rewards they receive from their spiritual and sexual lives may be indistinguishable. This can be problematic in relationships.

As a child, it hadn’t taken long to learn that our Church was different. We worshipped on a different day than most others, we played Rook™ instead of poker, and we went to our own separate schools. Officially, we didn’t eat many of the foods others ate, we didn’t drink many of the things others drank, we didn’t dance, we didn’t smoke, and we frowned on the use of makeup and jewelry. To top it all off, we had our own somewhat iconoclastic female prophet.

By socially clustering together, we tended to camouflage our differences, at least from ourselves. We seemed to believe that isolation would provide insulation from temptations and from “outsiders.” This produced our own cultural hierarchy and status symbols. We had our own magazines and books. We had our own television shows, record labels and recording “stars.” We had our own food companies, making many food products that only weird people seemed to enjoy. We had our own youth groups. We had rather inward-looking church congregations and we “partied” with ourselves for Saturday night entertainment.

There were some among us, however, who stood out as being particularly odd. In the church of my youth, there was a family in which the mother and girls always wore long-sleeved blouses, with pants under their skirts and dresses. There was a couple who ate so much garlic that you needed to stand upwind, and, there were rail-thin “nuts and berries” folks who seemed to be constantly dyspeptic but smugly believed they would live forever. They had a special scowl of disapproval for the young people of the congregation.

There were also those folks who just looked and talked weird. They always included a, “happy Sabbath,” or a “thank the Lord,” even if you were talking about something as secular as football. They seemed happy, and were typically friendly, with a personality that some have called “Midwest nice”, but it appeared that their highest form of humor consisted of corny stories. They seemed to feel that using painful puns made them clever. Their personae often came across as being more pleasantly plastic than human. Unfortunately, many of our pastors fell into this category.

We actually took pride in being weird. We believed we had “the truth”, so what did we care what others thought of us? We memorized Bible verses that praised those who were “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” We lustily sang about being pilgrims in a world that was not our home. We didn’t belong here with the worldlings, we were just passing through to our glorious reward. Unfortunately, it took me years to learn that being peculiar, in the biblical sense, meant having a special, or unique, relationship with God, not being weird. I also learned that this world apparently is our home, and will be so for eternity.

Perhaps at this point I should clarify a couple of things. By its very nature, this is a critical and judgmental article. Any critic opens themselves up to receiving criticism in return. This is one reason I have included a “we” in the title, not a “you.” I wholeheartedly include myself in the weird group being examined. The truth is that every group and tribe is weird in some way. That’s one reason they’re a separate group or tribe.

I have also discovered that it is very difficult to define “weird.” Psychologists have struggled with this as well. There seems to be some consensus, however, that you are weird if you are considerably socially awkward or inappropriate; if you are significantly non-conventional; if you don’t mix well with others; if you are really naïve; if you are inappropriately hyperactive or childish; or if you have truly odd beliefs compared to the norm. While the word may be difficult to define, I believe most of us “know it when we see it,” to use the phrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart coined when attempting to define pornography.

Whether or not you believe Ellen G. White was inspired, it is undeniable that she had an enormous influence on our Church and its culture. It is also true that some of her teachings regarding diet and fashion, among others, have caused us to be different from the rest of the world, and have increased our appearance of weirdness. But a summary of her thoughts on this topic reveals that she was actually quite open-minded.

She plainly states that by believing the Bible and obeying God’s commands we will be seen as being different (“singular”) from most other people. But she then tells us not to be weird about it. It is not our duty to be out of fashion. We should not be odd in our dress or diet just to be different. We shouldn’t be any weirder than we have to be to avoid sin and to honor God. In fact, it’s wrong to be different than others unless being different is required for us to do right. Being different just to be different is “positively detestable” and damages our influence with others. God doesn’t require us to have strange, odd doctrines and theories. “There is a medium position in these things. Oh, that we all might wisely find that position and keep it.”

When I imagine the Seventh-day Adventist Church of the future, I see a people who are different from most because they are true to the principles of the Bible and they shun sin. But they are not weird. At least they’re not any weirder than they have to be, or any weirder than most people are. Through wise counsel and example, they immunize their children against using harmful substances, unhealthy sexual relationships and other destructive practices, but they do so in ways that make good sense. They mix freely with others and are not socially awkward or inappropriate. When people think of Adventists they don’t focus on their odd behaviors, doctrines and theories, they don’t tremble at their view of the judgment, but they marvel at the love and compassion they show for others, based on a most loving picture of the character of God.

And they don’t use puns.

–Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at mark[email protected]

*At that time there was no consideration of LGBTQ relationships in our schools, although I am aware of several that occurred, and the boarding school model actually facilitated them.

29 Mar

SLEEPING ON BORROWED TIME

By Mark Johnson … “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations, and then shall the end come” (Matthew 24:14, KJV).

Enjoying time with children and grandchildren is a blessing from the Lord. So is sleep. Often, however, these are mutually exclusive pleasures. Parents and grandparents soon learn that any “late” morning slumber is sleeping on borrowed time.

The world, too, is sleeping on borrowed time. An incontrovertible argument that change is needed in the Christian church can be summarized in a simple phrase—we are still here.

Judged by Matthew 24, the gospel has not yet been given to the world. Apparently, either “all the world” has not been reached, the true “gospel of the kingdom” has not yet been preached, or it has been presented in a manner that is not a winsome “witness unto all nations.”

Is it possible that in spite of our well-thought-out official Adventist beliefs, practices, and widespread evangelistic campaigns that we, too, have failed to appropriately preach the gospel? We pride ourselves on our worldwide presence, but as Christ noted, missionaries can end up making children of hell, too (Matthew 23:15). We have also been told by Ellen White in The Desire of Ages that, “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.”

The most satisfying response to our dilemma would be to conclude that we do, indeed, have the true gospel of the kingdom and we are presenting it in an attractive manner—we have just not yet reached all the world. Neither of the other two options is acceptable, but nothing could be more serious than to find that we are actually misrepresenting the gospel of Christ, despite our apparent success.

Many reasons have been suggested for why we are still here. Most of them call for the church to go back—back to a legendary time when the Adventist message was pure, our witness was alluring, and the manner in which it was offered made it almost irresistible. Unfortunately, those times, if they ever existed, pre-date my experience with the organization.

It has also been suggested that what is needed is a return to the purity of the Protestant church in the Reformation period. Some of Ellen White’s observations, however, cast doubt on that option as well. “Luther and his co-laborers accomplished a noble work for God . . . It was their work to break the fetters of Rome, and to give the Bible to the world; yet there were important truths which they failed to discover, and grave errors which they did not renounce.”

Thus, we should not look to the past for reform—change must move us forward.

There are many problems in today’s Adventist church. We act as if our facilities are country clubs instead of hospitals. We dogmatically limit the God-given potential of women and members of the LGBTQ community. We are the world’s most diverse Protestant church, yet racial tensions persist. We have lost the trust of many of our most generous donors. We do not do enough to reach and help the neglected and downtrodden. We do not adequately care for the earth, and we seem to have little to offer those of higher status in society.

But I believe the real reason we are still here, sleeping on borrowed time, is because our evangelistic outreach is upside down.

Morris Venden raised this issue in his series of sermons on the similarities between the Exodus and Advent movements. He pointed out that God’s work with the children of Israel began with a magnificent revelation of His love and mercy. He next worked to build their trust in Him. Finally, He presented them with His law, the blueprint of how they should live. Elder Venden then commented that we Adventists have frequently gotten this sequence of messages backwards, or upside down, in our evangelical outreach.

The pattern mirrors Christ’s approach. Ellen White writes, “He mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’”

This is to be our method, too. “There is need of coming close to the people by personal effort . . . The poor are to be relieved, the sick cared for, the sorrowing and the bereaved comforted, the ignorant instructed, the inexperienced counseled. We are to weep with those that weep, and rejoice with those that rejoice. Accompanied by the power of persuasion, the power of prayer, the power of the love of God, this work will not, cannot be without fruit” (White, Letters and Manuscripts, Volume 13).

Many Adventists are well-grounded in scriptural proof-texts. They could win most disputes dealing with biblical teachings about how we should live in accordance with the law. We are not nearly as facile, though, in discussing why we should put our trust in God, or in describing His loving character. And often, our debating spirit is anything but appealing.

Ellen White directly addressed this approach to witnessing, “The combative armor, the debating spirit, must be laid off. If we would be Christ-like, we must reach men where they are.” She then commented that some of our pastors “are as sharp as a razor, [and] cut off the ears of the people, and make them mad, and that is the end of the business so far as converting them to the truth is concerned.” You cannot simultaneously antagonize and persuade.

When our church leaders argued in 1888 that it was not the special work of the Adventist church to preach Christ, since other Christian denominations were doing that, but to preach the law of God and the third angel’s message of Revelation 14, Ellen G. White responded that “as a people, we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa,” and asserted that the third angel’s message is the message of righteousness by faith in Christ alone.7 We were counselled to find “Christ in the law” and Christ in the third angel’s message.

We are still working on that.

Instead of a fearful emphasis on the law, and displays of the terrors of the last days, we should begin our outreach with a revelation of the love and mercy of God, followed with evidence on which to build faith and trust in Him. When we finally present the law, it should be clear that to love as Christ loved is the fulfillment of its requirements (Romans 13:8,10). The return of Christ then becomes “good news” instead of a “fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation” (Hebrews 10:27, KJV).

God wants friends He can trust eternally with infinite freedom. He can heal and will save all who trust Him. He is not primarily concerned with forgiveness, for, according to White, “to all, forgiveness is freely offered.” Instead, He is concerned with character. Ellen White writes, “It is the will of God that each professing Christian shall perfect a character after the divine similitude. By studying the character of Christ revealed in the Bible, by practicing His virtues, the believer will be changed into the same likeness of goodness and mercy.”

The greatest change needed in our church today is for more of us to spend time each day, as White puts it, “studying the character of Christ revealed in the Bible.” Surveys show that currently only a minority of our members do so. This is how we come in contact with the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is where our characters are changed into the likeness of Christ, for “it is a law both of the intellectual and the spiritual nature, that by beholding, we become changed. The mind gradually adapts itself to the subjects upon which it is allowed to dwell. It becomes assimilated to that which it is accustomed to love and reverence” (White).

When the world sees us uplifting Christ, they will be drawn to Him (John 12:32) and will either accept or reject Him. As the goodness of God’s character is revealed, those who accept Him will be led to repentance (Romans 2:4). Those who learn to know and trust Him will glorify Christ, who declared that His work on earth was finished when He had glorified the character of God before mankind (John 17:4).

That is how our work will end as well.

–Dr. Mark Johnson is chair of the vision board of Boulder Adventist Church. Email him at: [email protected]