06 Mar


A few months ago, I had a clarifying conversation with a young lady who’s been journeying with our church for the last 18 months or so, after she met one of my church members in line at the post office.

Since they both had children around the same age, they soon started getting together for playdates. And the friendship quickly ratcheted up when the young lady—we’ll call her Stephanie—tragically lost her son in a freak accident. My church member immediately provided emotional care and support and recruited others from our church to do the same.

Unfortunately, Stephanie’s bad luck didn’t end there, as the loss of her son led to one series of tragic events after the other. And each time tragedy struck, she kept coming back to the inevitable age-old question: If there truly is a God, why does all this bad stuff keep happening to me?

The reality is, Stephanie’s unsure of the God thing altogether. She was raised in a country where animism was the religion of the land, and though she was adopted by a family here in Maine when she was 12, her adopted family practiced a very strict, fundamentalist version of Christianity, leaving her confused about God and turned off by organized religion altogether.

Despite spending a lot of time, and having lots of open conversations about God, with our church family, she still feels very unsettled about God (which isn’t surprising, considering all she’s been through).

A few months back, however, it seems like we had a bit of a breakthrough. As she and I, along with one of my female elders, sat for a couple hours in her small, dark, upstairs apartment, it seems like the lights flickered on—just around the time that she literally decided to turn the lights on to brighten up the room.

What was it that finally seemed to help things click?

I told her a story.

But not just any story. I told her the biggest, grandest, and most captivating story ever told.

I told her, in short, about the cosmic conflict.

The Story Behind the Story

It was then and there that I realized something—though I’ve had moments of clarity about this before.

It occurs to me that, in our current cultural moment, there are two ways that we as Seventh-day Adventist are uniquely positioned to reach the growing post-Christian and secular population in the West.

The first way is through our storytelling. We live in an age when the power of story trumps just about every other form of communication. People have always loved stories, of course—which is why Jesus never spoke to the masses without a parable—but I think it’s truer today than ever before.

Most people today aren’t interested in propositional ideas; they’re turned off by dogma. But they’re captivated by stories.

And we, as Adventists, for nearly as long as we’ve existed, have understood our theology in the form of a grand story—a great controversy, a cosmic conflict.

We understand the main characters, Christ and Satan, and the basic plotline. We understand how God’s character has been maligned and how He’s seeking to return the universe to a place of eternal safety and security, which can only be accomplished by fully demonstrating His trustworthiness.

We understand Christ’s plans to return, and how we’ll bring us back to heaven for a thousand years, at which point all our questions will be answered and all our doubts will be alleviated. We’ll then return to this earth, where God will set up His eternal home with us, and we’ll live forever with Him in peace, harmony, and love—with trauma, abuse, and hatred never rising again.

We understand that the story truly ends with God and His people living “happily ever after.”

Though I’m omitting a lot of important chapters in the story, this is a broad overview of how we understand the grand story. And it’s what I shared with Stephanie—seemingly helping the “light” turn on for her.

And that’s just it: after spinning our wheels for nearly two hours, with me patiently listening and trying to answer her questions with propositional answers, I finally decided to put it all in story form—and it was then that it started to make sense.

The second way we as Adventists are primed to reach secular minds is something I’ve already hinted at. We have not only a story to tell; we have a theological story to tell.

Indeed, we have a story about God.

And I’d humbly submit that this big God-story makes more sense of all the smaller stories than other theological narratives.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on all other versions of the big story. I haven’t exhaustively studied any other religion—nor familiarized myself with every nuance of each version of the story that various Christians tell.

I can just say, purely from anecdotal experience, that the God-story that Adventists tell (properly understood and articulated) seems to resonate a lot more with thinking people today than the way many other Christians tells the story.

Instead of telling a story about a God who predestines some to be saved and others to suffer the eternal torments of hell, we tell a story about a God who loves all equally and desperately wants everyone to live eternally.

Instead of telling a story about a God who’s going to torture people forever in the flames of hell, we tell a story about a God who, despite His deep desire to live eternally with everyone, honors the choices of all, realizing that eternal existence with Him would feel like hell to those who can’t imagine living only ever by other-centered love.

And so, in His mercy, he will gently “pull the plug” on all those who refuse to embrace and be embraced by His love. He won’t torture them eternally.

Instead of telling a story about a God who refuses to be questioned by His creatures, and who pulls a “power-play” by insisting that we’re to blindly follow Him, we tell a story about a God who eagerly opens up his decision-making process and actions, inviting examination and even “judgment” from us as a way to demonstrate His trustworthy character.

I could keep going with this line of thinking, but I trust my point is clear.

In short, we tell a story about a God who is love at His very core—and all that he does stems from and flows out of His character of love.

And I’ve discovered that that story really resonates with thinking people today.

Adventist Worldview

Essentially, what I’m talking about here is the Adventist “worldview.” The way we make sense of the world, the lens through which we see all that exists, is through a story—a theological story.

Indeed, we don’t simply have a worldview. We have a universal view.

As mentioned above, we sometimes refer to it as the “Great Controversy” or perhaps even the “cosmic conflict.”

Oftentimes, when we use the term “Great Controversy” especially, we think of fear-inducing end-times scenarios. We think of “Sunday laws” and the “mark of the beast.” We think of the “time of trouble” and hiding in the mountains.

For some Adventists, this worldview causes them to look suspiciously at every little event, seeing it as a “sign of the times,” and to look suspiciously at other people, seeing a Jesuit behind every bush.

This isn’t the type of “Great Controversy” worldview I’m referring to—it’s not, I’d submit, a healthy lens through which to see the world.

This isn’t to deny the reality of last-day events. But such scenarios and prognostications are too speculative to provide solid footing for us—and often lead us to be unpleasant residents of this world rather than the “aroma of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:15) that brings healing, wholeness, and happiness to those around us.

What isn’t too speculative is God’s love. What isn’t too speculative is His commitment to freedom and justice and mercy. What isn’t too speculative is his invitation to us to participate in His story—to step into His plan to renew and restore all things, to bring “healing” to the nations (see Revelation 22:2).

When we put on that pair of glasses and look at the world, we don’t look with fear, we look with hope and love. We answer the invitation to participate in God’s redemptive work, while recognizing that our task will ever be incomplete this side of His return.

We see suffering and pain and sin and understand that was never God’s plan—and we rest in the assurance that He will one day, at last, put things to rights, even as we strive to bring that future reality into the present.

Indeed, when we put on those glasses, we recognize that the story ends (or, really, it would be more accurate to say that the story begins) with those lines that come at the end of every great love story: “And they lived happily ever after.”

Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace and sign up for his weekly newsletter at: shawnbrace.substack.com

21 Dec


A few months ago, I found myself in a delightful situation that I realized could likely only come as a result of being a Seventh-day Adventist. Needing to travel to the UK for my doctoral studies, I decided to go a few days early so I could—among other things—go to Newbold College to worship on Sabbath with the Adventist community there and connect with some old and new friends I’ve made along the way.

On Friday night, I was hosted by a couple who I’d met during my previous trip, with them graciously allowing me to stay in their guest room. That, in itself, was quite remarkable, since I was welcomed into the home of a family—with the husband from eastern Europe, and the wife the daughter of missionary parents who’d lived all around Europe and Asia—I didn’t even know existed 12 months before.

On top of that, we went to their friends’ home—both of whom were from Brazil—for dinner that evening. And as we crowded around their small table, in their tiny apartment in Newbold’s student housing, all eating pizza together and laughing, it suddenly hit me: in what other religious community could this experience be replicated?

There we were, some of us relative strangers to each other a few minutes before, experiencing the gift and joy of Sabbath, all from our various parts of the world—Brazil, Europe, Asia, America—eating Italian food together. It was the quintessential Adventist experience, a community in which you can go anywhere in the world and immediately find family.

And that, to me, is one of the gifts of Adventism—a faith community whose theology implicitly and explicitly appeals to and seeks to reach those from every nation, tribe, tongue, and people (Revelation 14:6).

It was the result of many converging factors—some theological, some cultural, some missional.

The Sabbath unites Adventists around the world, as we all commit to setting aside the seventh day of the week in order to celebrate God together and fellowship with one another.

Also, because we have strong institutions and annual gatherings—academies, universities, hospitals, camp meetings, prayer retreats—we all seem to know each other, or know someone who knows someone.

Similarly, because we have a worldwide mission, believing we’re called to share the gospel with everyone, there’s hardly a corner of the globe you might travel to where you won’t run in to someone who at least knows someone you know.

This is Adventism at its best—at least one way in which Adventism is at its best. When we can all sit at the table together, having a common understanding, a common language, a common mission, and a common belief in the sufficiency of God and his message of love to the world, it’s a powerful experience.

Of course, sometimes it can also be Adventism at its worst—promoting insularity, exclusiveness, arrogance, and navel-gazing. Instead of inspiring us to reach out to others, seeking to extend that same powerful community to them, it can often encourage us to stick to ourselves, as we congregate in Adventist “ghettos,” and criticize the culture around us (and especially ourselves).

But that is, I’d submit, a corrupted version of the beautiful message and mission of Adventism—and not its most authentic expression. When properly understood and embodied, the Adventist message and mission propels us into the world as we attempt to live out and extend a safe and Jesus-centered community to others.

The Koinonia of God

One of my favorite passages of Scripture of late has been the words John starts his first epistle with. There, he launches right into his message, sharing with his audience, That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3, NKJV).

This is a thought pregnant with meaning. John testifies to the reality of God’s incarnation in Christ. He was a real person, whom the apostles heard, saw, and touched. He was also the center of their theological reflection, as they sought to pass along the Jesus-story to others.

But sharing the Jesus-story was for a specific purpose, he notes.

That, John says in verse 3, using a Greek word that signifies purpose, you also may have fellowship with us. In other words, they weren’t simply sharing the Jesus-story so others could hear it, accept it, and be saved. They weren’t merely preaching it so people could accept abstract teachings and check off doctrinal boxes. They weren’t merely sharing it so people could be safe against deception.

The purpose of John’s preaching of the Jesus-story was so that others could be drawn into fellowship with him and with other Jesus-followers.

The word for “fellowship” is the Greek word koinonia, which denotes the idea of communion or commonality. It’s coming into true community and experiencing a shared life. It is, to use a phrase that is quite popular today—and the recipient of an eye-roll or two—“doing life together.”

And that’s the whole point of the whole Jesus-story!

Not only that. John goes on to say that koinonia was not only to be shared amongst themselves, but it is, actually, to be shared with the Father and with the Son!

This is the end for which we were created and redeemed. It’s the reason we do evangelism or preach anything. The goal is not simply to get people to agree with us doctrinally. The goal is to draw people into community—safe, rich, beautiful, authentic, vulnerable, diverse, other-centered community—with the triune God and God’s family.

And I think that’s what Adventism—at its best—has the capacity to do.

Through our wonderful message centered on God’s character of love, which expunges false pictures of God (like an ever-burning hell, for starters), we have the chance to draw people into communion with God to greater depths than have been experienced in earth’s history before. They no longer have to run away from God out of fear but can allow His Spirit to draw them deeper into his heart of love.

And as we explore the depths of God’s love to greater degrees, it draws us into safe and authentic community with each other to greater degrees.

This is the precise point my good friend, Tihomir Lazić—who, quite incidentally, teaches at Newbold and also did his doctorate at Oxford—made in his doctoral dissertation, which was a reframing of the remnant concept within Adventism to have it focused on koinonia.

“The ultimate cause and basis of the church’s existence,” he thus writes in his dissertation, “is the whole-life response of the community of believers to the continuous presence, words, and actions of the Triune God, who dwells among them and draws them into mysterious union with himself and with each other.”

Indeed, he goes on to propose, echoing what I’ve outlined above, the whole purpose of mission and evangelism is to spread koinonia—to extend a safe and loving community to others, sharing life with them as we point to the God with whom they can ultimately share life.

I believe this is what God has always been after—seeking to help us recognize that he is chiefly defined as a relational being, whose ultimate hopes and dreams for us is to experience the warm, safe, and loving community of the Triune God for all eternity.

After all, this is eternal life, Jesus said, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent (John 17:3).

This is, I’d submit, the end toward which our theology, our beliefs, our mission aims. And the degree to which we understand and embrace it, is the degree to which we will fulfill God’s purposes for Adventism.

Let us, therefore, find ourselves around those tables, sharing life with those from “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people,” doing what Adventism at its best so often does.

Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace and sign up for his weekly newsletter at: shawnbrace.substack.com  

24 Jul


A few years ago, our congregation decided to recruit Adventists from around North America to move to our city to help us participate in God’s mission there. We created a promotional video that we paid to show Adventists on Facebook®, explaining our vision and inviting those Adventists who had a heart to reach a secular context to join us.

One of the lines in particular is rolling around in my mind right now. In it, we said, “Maybe you want to join a movement that is pursuing authentic Adventism in the midst of America’s most secular region.” By “authentic,” what we had in mind was an open-minded, forward-thinking, relational community that’s imagining creative ways to live out the gospel and connect with the growing unchurched population.

But as I was reflecting about that idea after we produced and published the video, I really got to thinking: is that “authentic” Adventism?

And who gets to decide what’s “authentic” anyway?

It’s a question I’ve really been wrestling with for quite a while—one that has resulted not only from my pastoral and personal pursuits, but my academic ones as well.

After all, one popular way of telling the Adventist story is that we started out as a progressive, non-traditional, anti-institutional, anti-creedal movement. Emphasizing “present truth,” we were ever open to “new light” and didn’t want to draw doctrinal boxes, nor exclude people on the basis of theological differences.

Perhaps the “patron saint” of such a story is J. N. Loughborough, who, in 1861, famously outlined the quickest way to create a heretic. “The first step of apostasy,” he thus explained, “is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And, fifth, to commence persecution against such.” 1

Such a quote, and others like it, are frequently cited as evidence of the progressive nature of early Adventism—and, by extension, what we should be like today—which is a perspective I’m very sympathetic to. We therefore shouldn’t carefully police theological boundaries, but be more inclusive and open-minded about further doctrinal development and ways to express our faith.

Unfortunately, the historical record is a lot more complicated. As I’ve gone through early Adventist materials, I’ve found most of the early “pioneers” to be a lot more closed-minded and self-confident than I’d originally thought, expected, and hoped for. While we were very critical of other denominations that failed to continue to “advance” into further “light,” we ourselves seemed to suffer the same fate. By and large, our own theological system was mostly developed by the early 1850s, and we didn’t really budge from it after that.

We were also very intent on defending that system, and quick to attack any perceived threats.

Thus, two years after Loughborough’s famous reflections on creeds, the General Conference Committee, for example, very publicly defrocked Moses Hull from ministry and expelled him from Adventist membership for being a “heretic of the most obnoxious kind.” 2 Hull had been Adventism’s most celebrated and accomplished evangelist up to that point, and had even, somewhat ironically, toured with J. N. Loughborough in New Hampshire just months before his defrocking in an attempt to keep him on the straight and narrow.

But by this time, Hull had started flirting with Spiritualism, after he debated a Spiritualist, and, by the end of 1863, had essentially cast his lot with the movement, apparently abandoning, at least according to an Advent Review and Sabbath Herald article entitled, “Astonishing Apostasy: Elder Moses Hull Departed from the Faith, and Gone to Spiritualism!” all the foundational teachings of Christianity and most of the doctrines of Adventism (except, interestingly, the Sabbath).

The relevant point here is a question: which episode is “authentic” Adventism? The sentiments of Loughborough in 1861, who expressed grave concerns about doctrinal witch hunts, or the General Conference Committee in 1863, who carefully guarded theological orthodoxy and publicly shamed a celebrated evangelist for going astray (no doubt, by the way, with the approval of Loughborough, who was intimately acquainted with Hull’s theological outlook)?

Of course, perhaps neither represents “authentic” Adventism. Perhaps we shouldn’t look to the 1860s or even the 1960s to determine what is the truest expression and representation of the faith. Perhaps there are as many “authentic” versions of Adventism as there are Adventists—which, as of this writing, is over 20 million persons worldwide—which is somewhat of an attractive approach, since we don’t believe in Popes who can single-handedly declare, by fiat, what is the truest and most authentic expression of faith.

But, for my part, as I look especially at our history, searching for clues as to what our denominational identity and trajectory has been and should be, my gaze turns in one particular direction.

What is that direction? Ellen G. White.

Ellen G. White’s “Authentic” Adventism

Whether one recognizes Ellen G. White’s prophetic gift or not, it’s hard to deny one simple reality: her ministry has been unparalleled when it comes to shaping Adventism. Some view this as a great thing, others as catastrophic. I think it’s a mixed bag.

I don’t say this because I don’t believe in her prophetic ministry. Quite the opposite. I say it because any “battle” over what constitutes “authentic” Adventism is, to some degree, a battle over how one interprets Ellen G. White.

The truth is, just like people do with Scripture, we can all make Ellen G. White say whatever we want to say (and perhaps even more than we do with the Bible, since we have so much more material from her).

So, obviously, my appeal to Ellen G. White is just one perspective. I can probably see what I want to see in her writings.

But here’s what I see: when I read many of the other pioneers of her time, I get very discouraged. While I’m incredibly grateful for the determination they had and the convictions they remained committed to, I don’t see the gracious, large-hearted, and open-minded spirit that is sometimes attributed to them.

I see people who were confident in and dogmatic about their own opinions, judgmental towards other Christians (some of whom they said weren’t even Christians), and resistant to anything new or novel. I say this with all due respect.

And I’d also say that Ellen G. White herself saw—and identified—this. Especially as her own understanding developed
in the 1880s, and she recognized how Adventism was gospel-deficient, she started sounding the alarm and trying to correct the denomination, centering it firmly on Christ.

Thus, she started saying stuff like, “Of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world.” 3 She also said that “we have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn.” 4 She started writing prolifically on the life of Christ, and began and ended her Conflict of the Ages series with the words “God is love.” She even wrote, in Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, that we should not intrude upon the “province of conscience” of another and make our “interpretations of Scripture” the “criterion” by which to judge them.

In short, “authentic” Adventism for Ellen G. White, was—grounded firmly in Scripture—open-handed, large-hearted, and centered on Jesus. And she desperately tried to steer the denomination in this direction.

This doesn’t at all mean she was theologically-shallow or that she lacked doctrinal convictions, having an “anything goes” attitude. She was firmly committed to the “pillars” of the faith, as she called them, but presented them in the light of Christ, refusing to turn everything into a theological debate, or majoring in minors.

And this is what discourages me so much. There’s such a huge and tragic paradox between what Adventism could be, and what it is.

I do believe Adventism, when properly articulated and lived out—because of the “God is love” paradigm we have access to (but so often ignore or deny)—could be the most beautiful, awesome, loving, and powerful religious movement in the world. Instead, we are so often the opposite.

This doesn’t mean we should run everything through Ellen G. White, especially since she wanted us to base our lives on Scripture, rather than on her. But we can at least gather a few hints from her about what “authentic” Adventism is: a Christ-centered, love-saturated, open-minded, world-engaging movement.

Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at: shawnbrace.substack.com  

1  Bates J. and Smith, U. (1861). “Doings of the Battle Creek Conference, Oct. 5 & 6, 1861.” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. Vol. 18, No. 19: p. 148.

See  Byington, J., AndrewsJ.N., and Amadon G.W. (1864). “Astonishing Apostasy: Elder Moses Hull Departed from the Faith, and Gone to Spiritualism!” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. Vol. 23, No. 6. p. 45-46.

3  White, Ellen G. (1888). The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials. p. 891.

4  White, Ellen G. Review and Herald. July 26, 1892.

24 Apr


I remember the first time I ever saw a movie in the movie theater—as well as the lecture I received from my mother as a result. I was 10 or 11 years old and had a sleepover at one of my neighbors’ houses on a Saturday night. When they announced that the plans for the evening consisted of going to a movie, I gulped.

I had been taught from very early on that going to a movie at the theater was wrong and perhaps even sinful—that somehow, some way, the same movie you’d watch in your house was more evil and less holy if you watched it in a theater. I knew that didn’t quite make sense, but being a pretty obedient young boy who didn’t like to get in trouble, I’d carefully followed that line of thinking, despite the fact that my older siblings had been less compliant.

Nevertheless, my opportunity finally came, and I was unwilling to be a difficult guest. So I went and felt an overwhelming sense of guilt the whole time I sat in that dark theater—a guilt which was only exacerbated when I returned home the next day. My mother had somehow learned of my great sin and took me privately into her room, where she expressed great sadness and disappointment about my decision.

For the record, my mother is a very kind, gracious, and Jesus-loving person who, I believe, was just doing the best she knew how. And also, for the record, I’m not even necessarily trying to address whether going to a movie theater is right or wrong. I respect everyone’s personal convictions on that.

What I’m speaking more to, and what strikes me as interesting, is how Seventh-day Adventists have, historically, had a bit of a complicated relationship with the wider culture. We don’t know exactly how to relate to it.

There are many people who have a very adversarial stance toward it. Everything the “world” produces is evil and must be resisted and avoided. Popular culture—movies, music, television, even social media—is a prime tool of the devil to draw people away from God and His truth.

There are plenty of other Adventists, of course, who take the opposite approach. Culture is something to be celebrated and embraced. Not only should we fully imbibe our surrounding culture, but we should be active participants in it and even positively contribute to it. At the same time, whether one has explicit Christian goals when engaging and participating in culture, is somewhat irrelevant under this model.

Somewhere in between is perhaps the biggest group of Adventists. There is an underlying ambivalence and perhaps even cognitive dissonance when it comes to culture. There’s some participation and consumption of the surrounding culture, but not a full embracing of it. It’s like my upbringing where we wouldn’t watch movies in the theater but would watch those same movies in our home. We aren’t quite sure how to relate to culture—on the one hand, we enjoy it, but on the other hand, we’re also a little nervous about it.

What’s more, with this stance, if we do participate in the surrounding culture, we only do so with explicitly Christian goals. The music we create, the services we provide, ever have in mind some larger evangelistic goal. We would have a hard time writing a song, for example, that didn’t have explicitly Christian lyrics. Or we couldn’t imagine serving a marginalized population without making sure we provided them with plenty of Christian literature.

Simply put, to whatever degree we do step into our surrounding culture under such a model, we want to clearly communicate we’re doing so because of Christ, and with an eye toward inviting them into a commitment to Christ.

So, what are we to make of all this—and how should we relate to and either participate in or avoid our surrounding culture?

Christ and Culture

Seventy years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr, who was one of the twentieth century’s most influential theologians, wrote a seminal work entitled Christ and Culture. The book addressed the topic we’re presently discussing and largely set the parameters within for discussion over the next many decades among Christians.

Niebuhr proposed that there were essentially five different models of how Christ—and, by extension, Christ’s followers—relates to culture. Those five models, to some degree, map very well on to the three categories I outlined above. The first model is Christ against culture, where “the world” is so corrupt and irredeemable that one must avoid it altogether, living in complete isolation from and ignorance of the culture. The second is the Christ of culture, where there’s very little distinction between the values of “the world” and the values of Christ, encouraging the Christian to fully participate in it.

The last three have significant overlap and represent the sort of “middle road” that has been characteristic of much of Christian history—the Christ above culture model, the Christ and culture in paradox model, and Christ the transformer of culture model. These three approaches, to various degrees, basically propose that one shouldn’t wholly avoid culture, recognizing there are important reasons to participate in it, while keeping one’s Christian commitments and priorities firmly intact while doing so.

For Niebuhr’s part, he never fully revealed which model he preferred or embraced, though many have noted that he seemed most sympathetic to the last view—that the Christian should choose to participate in the culture for the purpose of ultimately trying to transform it for Christ’s purposes and glory.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I think the first model is very problematic—the idea that Christ is against culture. As Niebuhr points out, seeing “the world” as purely evil fails to account for the fact that we are all evil—even us Christians. Trying to therefore escape from culture does not at all remove us from the influences of evil because evil resides in all our hearts. And, unfortunately, and ironically, sometimes that evil is even more pronounced—and hidden—in separatist religious groups, where it can exist under the cloak of darkness and remain unchallenged. At the same time, completely separating from “the world” makes it really difficult to reach, much less love, the people of “the world,” which Christ clearly calls us to do.

And yet the Christ of culture approach also seems to inadequately account for the ways in which “the world” does have its challenges and limitations. Not everything created in the name of culture is praiseworthy. Similarly, we do have a God who, while embodying Himself in this world in the Person of Jesus, does stand outside this world and points beyond it. Indeed, we do live with an eye toward a “new earth” that we want to tell people about—a new earth that more fully aligns with God’s heartbeat than the present one does.

At the same time, I don’t think we should be myopically focused on trying to “convert” the world, only participating in it if we can be annoyingly explicit about our evangelistic agenda. Serving and blessing and benefiting others, whether they know we’re doing it because of Jesus or not, is worth doing no matter what.

This doesn’t at all mean we should bury the gospel component; we should ever want to be open about our faith in Christ and how He has been our only true source of hope. But we don’t merely focus on proselytizing others in our cultural engagement, and we recognize how the full range of human experiences and emotions reflect God, whether we ever mention Him or not.

On the other hand, we also recognize, as those who believe Christ will return before the whole world gets fully transformed, that cultural transformation will ever be an unfinished task this side of heaven. At best, we can be, as N. T. Wright likes to put it, “signposts” of what the new heavens and new earth will look like, but never its full realization. So, we seek cultural transformation with the understanding that it will ultimately be incomplete.

Christians have traditionally said, playing off Christ’s words in John 17, that we should be in, but not of, the world. I’m not sure if this is or isn’t a good way of explaining it, but I think I prefer another way I’ve heard it articulated: following the lead of Christ, who loved the world so much that He stepped into it and gave His life for it, we should be in and for the world.

In so doing, we don’t run away from culture, but we also recognize the ways it can be used to ultimately undermine the world’s well-being. We recognize the ways we’re all evil, and yet we recognize the ways the Spirit is working on every heart, since, in the words of Paul, the Spirit is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:27).

So, yes, let’s listen to the ways the Spirit is working on everyone’s heart—through the culture they create—and ultimately point to God’s other-worldly love through the culture we create.

Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at: shawnbrace.substack.com  

31 Jan


I recently watched the story of a Seventh-day Adventist couple in my area who was kicked out of their local Adventist congregation for promoting anti-trinitarian views. The YouTube video had been watched nearly a quarter of a million times, which is an astounding number for an episode that took place in a small congregation in rural Maine. But there is, apparently, an appetite for such stories.

Though I don’t know the couple personally, we share a lot of mutual friends and I know much of the leadership of the church they were nudged out of, including the pastor, whom I consider to be a good friend. They are all really good people, as the couple themselves repeatedly admits in their YouTube “testimony.”

I don’t really know what to make of the whole situation, having questions about the role of church discipline in general and the degree to which we should hold people’s feet to the fire when it comes to theological precision. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m firmly trinitarian, of course. And I certainly wouldn’t want to reduce this important truth to the realm of theological minutia (though it does seem there’s a line we can cross that enters fully into the sphere of speculation). I’m also aware that, for whatever reason, there continues to be a growing anti-trinitarian faction within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which is unfortunate.

What struck me the most about the couple’s testimony, perhaps more than anything else, and which I think speaks to the growing trend of anti-trinitarianism within the denomination, was the underlying preoccupation with uncovering some new and novel biblical insights. They were deeply intent on—perhaps even obsessed with—theological correctness.

To me, this is just a symptom of a much larger reality within Adventism—and, in many ways, their experience is just the proverbial chickens coming back to roost.

Adventism is certainly not unique in this, but we have, essentially from our very beginning, emphasized a religious experience that is primarily focused on doctrinal rightness. We mostly stay in our heads and have intellectualized our faith. We have largely turned the Bible into a mathematical equation—literally following the lead of our grandfather William Miller—which we think simply requires rational engagement. We often read the Bible like it’s the Da Vinci Code, with hidden meaning behind every jot and tittle. And then we argue over those jots and titles as though eternity depends on them.

I’m speaking in very broad strokes, of course, and perhaps sounding a bit too cynical. There are many, many wonderful features about this faith community—and I absolutely wouldn’t be a part of any other denomination. 

I believe, by God’s grace, we’re blessed to understand the most beautiful and fullest expression, at least to this point, of God’s character.

But in my 15 years or so of pastoring—and in particular, in my 15 years of pastoring in northern New England, where Adventism essentially began—I’ve noticed that much of Adventism is characterized by a preoccupation with being intellectually and biblically right.

We are, in short, addicted to theological correctness.

Is Religious Addiction a Thing?

Five or six years ago, my friend Jim, who is a pastor-turned-alcohol-and-drug-abuse-counselor, introduced me for the first time to the existence of something he called “religious addiction.” It was a new term for me, but one I found intriguing and clarifying.

Religious addiction, he explained, is when people are overly focused on and obsessed with religious rituals, practices, and beliefs. 

Of course, it’s good to be highly committed to and zealous about our faith. We don’t want to be lukewarm and non-committal, after all. But the real issue with religious addiction is that people cling to and obsess over religious rituals, practices, and beliefs as a way to avoid dealing with deeper emotional and psychological wounds that are too painful to face and process.

This is the nature of addiction in general. People experience trauma, for example, which produces significant shame—and that shame is too painful to acknowledge or process. So as a way of avoiding the feelings of shame, they turn to various substances—drugs, alcohol, sex—which buries those feelings and masks the pain.

Religion, it turns out, has been one of the best tools to help us avoid processing and dealing with our pain. For example, instead of sitting with our shame, and processing the things that have deeply affected us on a psychological and emotional level, we quickly turn to a positive Bible verse that allows us to assure ourselves that everything is going to be okay. Or we use prayer—not as a way to share our feelings of emotional pain and shame to God, but as a way of bypassing those feelings.

Similarly, a religion of the head is also a symptom of religious addiction. The more we can stay in our heads—the more we can argue about theological minutia—the more we can avoid what’s going on deep down inside of us. It’s why the average Sabbath School class, at least in my experience, is an exercise in theological argumentation. It’s just a lot safer that way because if we’re arguing about the Bible, it means we don’t have to be open and vulnerable in the way the Bible wants when it seeks to address our wounds and traumas.

What also happens so often is that people who are converted to faith in general, and Adventism in particular, from an experience that was characterized by substance abuse, are often prone to high religious addiction. Such people just trade one addiction for another. This is also especially true for people who have experienced traumas over which they felt they had no control, since rituals and traditions offer a sense of control.

In laying this out, I hope I’m not giving the impression that I’m immune to any of this or that this is a problem only other people have, as though I’ve reached some sort of superior religious experience. Neither am I wanting to give the impression that rituals, traditions, studying the Bible, or pursuing and being excited about theological insights are wrong. These things are all well and good and important. 

The point, however, is that we must be very intentional about growing three-dimensional disciples who are well-rounded intellectually, physically, socially, and emotionally. We must create spaces that help foster an environment that allows people to openly process what’s truly going on inside—not just discipling people to be in their heads all the time.

As my friend Ty Gibson likes to say: religion is one of the best places to hide from God. It’s also one of the best places to hide from our pain and shame, in unhealthy ways, and to experience “clean” addictions that nevertheless deeply hinder our ability to love our neighbors as ourselves to the degree they need.

It all reminds me of a term Ellen G. White frequently applied to others as she looked over the theological and religious landscape in her day: “fanatics.” This was used in reference to people who were unbalanced in their religious approach, who became obsessive about biblical interpretations, couldn’t consider alternative perspectives, and zealously, annoyingly, and closed-mindedly promoted their viewpoints every opportunity they had.

In one instance, for example, she spoke of a church in Norway that was comprised of members who were “magnifying matters of little importance into tests of Christian fellowship,” displaying a “spirit of criticism, fault-finding, and dissension” over the issue of dress. They were “making the matter of dress of first importance, criticizing articles of dress worn by others, and standing ready to condemn everyone who did not exactly meet their ideas.” Such people, she said, were “fanatics” and “extremists,” “one-idea” people who “can see nothing except to press the one thing that presents itself to their minds,” which ultimately caused the church’s witness to suffer in the surrounding community. “The church,” she boldly proclaimed, “needs to be purified from all such influences” (see Historical Sketches, pp. 211-212).

Though I don’t know that Ellen G. White connected any of this to deeper psychological deficits, I think the connection is clear and obvious. At the same time, I think it would be a mistake to assume that such individuals are outliers or exceptions. It seems to me that precisely because of our nineteenth-century DNA, which places a premium on theological correctness, Adventism is especially prone to produce such an approach to faith—where we become addicted to doctrinal rightness and consequently correct those who don’t get in line. 

The solution to such religious addiction, just as it is for any form of addiction, is prioritizing healthy relationships—with God, with ourselves, and with others. Only as we allow ourselves to be embraced by the gospel, and realize God wants us to be made whole—spiritually, intellectually, socially, emotionally—can we step into freedom.

Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at: shawnbrace.substack.com

21 Oct


I was speaking with a family who recently joined our church, having moved to Maine from another state, and I asked them what prompted them to move to our area, especially since they moved from a long way away and they had no family here.

Of course, Maine is a beautiful state with much to offer, so I’m not all that terribly surprised when people find their way here, but I’m especially intrigued when young Adventist families do so, especially ones who have no real connections to the area.

With little hesitation, the husband and wife explained that they had largely wanted to move away from the “Adventist bubble” they’d been a part of for well over a decade. There was much they appreciated about that Adventist community, especially since it provided a solid relational network and wonderful Christian fellowship and programming for their kids. But something was missing in their religious experience.

That something, mainly, was being a part of their non-Adventist community.

They had become so absorbed with and involved in all the great things that being a part of a larger Adventist community provides people, that they found it hard to immerse themselves in the much larger non-Adventist community just outside their door.

Of course, one doesn’t necessarily have to choose between the two. One can, theoretically, live in a community with a high concentration of Seventh-day Adventists and yet still be heavily involved with the (many more) non-Adventists in that community.

But as we all agreed during our conversation, it just seems like whenever one lives in close proximity to a community with a high concentration of Adventists—due to, say, an Adventist hospital or college or academy—it inevitably becomes a sort of vortex of activity and attention. It’s so easy to get sucked into and participate almost exclusively with all the Adventist stuff going on.

But is that the life we’re called to live?

It reminds me of another conversation I had with a friend of mine here in my city who is a Jewish rabbi, leading one of the three Jewish congregations in Bangor. One day, as we were talking, he somehow got to explaining how he fantasized about living in Israel. Despite having been born and raised in America, it would be a dream come true to live there, he told me.

“Why is that?” I wondered.

Because, he explained, it would be amazing to live in a place where everything was oriented around Judaism—to live in a country where just about everyone was Jewish; where everyone ordered their lives around the ways, customs, and culture of his faith.

It’s natural, of course, to gravitate towards peoples and communities that look like us, talk like us, think like us, eat like us, dress like us, believe like us. It’s very reassuring and comforting, giving us ample opportunity to participate in the practices and values that are most important to us.

But is that the life we’re called to live?

What if, instead, one of our core values was living with and participating in community that didn’t look like us, eat like us, dress like us, behave like us, and believe like us? What if we were so grounded in the gospel that our highest joy was surrounding ourselves with and being among people who are different than us?

That’s what my dream for Adventism would be—what it would look like if I could reimagine it.

In short, a church that wasn’t so enamored with and focused on itself, characterized by people who were so afraid of the outside world or so doggedly comfortable with just being with and listening to one another, that we, filled with the gospel, lived among and with the 99.9% of the population that comprises the rest of the world.

“In” not “of”?

 In Christ’s last prayer, as recorded by John, He explained that He didn’t hope His Father would take His disciples “out of the world.” He wanted them to remain in the world to participate in His mission. “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world,” He said, “but that You should keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). A few verses later He further clarified: “As You sent Me into the world, I also sent them into the world” (v. 18).

This is where we get the popular idea that Christians should be “in the world” but not “of the world.”

Though such a phrase has probably reached the status of cliché, and there is seemingly quite a bit of truth to it, in my experience, it feels like most of the time it’s used, it emphasizes the latter part of it. Most of the people who I’ve heard cite this idea focus on the part where we should not be “of” the world. By this, it seems like they generally mean we shouldn’t listen to “worldly” music, watch “worldly” entertainment, or wear “worldly” clothes.

I don’t necessarily believe Jesus had that in mind though. While this is, in many ways, a whole other topic that deserves its own extended discussion, Jesus nowhere singles out such things as being “worldly.”  I think He was probably talking more about the attitudes and priorities of the heart, which can be expressed through any and all forms and styles of music, dress, and entertainment (one can be just as “worldly” when singing a hymn as when singing a contemporary worship song).

The point here though is that we don’t seem to spend as much time on the being “in the world” part. But Jesus made it clear: the disciples’ mission was to be in the world. Just as He had been sent into the world by His Father, He was sending the disciples as well.

A few years ago, I came across a thought from Ellen White that gives interesting insight into the way Jesus lived “in” the world. “Though He was a Jew, Jesus mingled freely with the Samaritans,” she explains, “setting at naught the Pharisaic customs of His nation. In face of their prejudices, He accepted the hospitality of this despised people. He slept with them under their roofs, ate with them at their tables, partaking of the food prepared and served by their hands, taught in their streets, and treated them with the utmost kindness and courtesy. And while He drew their hearts to Him by the tie of human sympathy, His divine grace brought to them the salvation which the Jews rejected” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 26).

Talk about being radically “in” the world! The Samaritans were despised religious outsiders to Jews. They were “unclean.” They weren’t good “Adventists.” And yet Christ stayed at their homes, ate their questionable food, and recognized and honored their dignity.

How does that align with your own life and practice?

Again, what if Adventism was so grounded in the reality of the gospel—so clear on how God, in Christ, “moved into the neighborhood,” as The Message renders John 1:14—that we felt secure enough to bust out of our Adventist bubbles and live with and among those who don’t share our customs, culture, or beliefs?

Such a posture wouldn’t require us to diminish our belief in and practice of the “truth.” On the contrary, it would actually be the precise outworking of that truth, recognizing that the gospel, and the Adventist understanding of the gospel, invites us to step into the lives of “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Revelation 14:6).

During the course of my conversation with our new friends who’d moved to our area and joined our church, the wife explained to me that they actually wouldn’t be at our worship gathering the next Sabbath. “We’ve been invited by our neighbor to his harvest party,” she explained to me. “Everyone from the neighborhood is going to be there.” They had decided to forgo worshipping with church people in order to live out the gospel with non-church people.

I just got a big smile on my face. I loved it.

I think it’s critically important to gather with God’s people regularly. We need that fellowship and encouragement. But just as important as gathering with God’s people, as I understand it, is gathering with those who aren’t consciously God’s people. We are called to be salt, shaken out of the Adventist salt-shaker and into the world.

It’s a core value of our local congregation and the main reason why this young family decided to become members of our particular church. They know what we’re about (however imperfectly we execute it).

What would Adventism look like if I reimagined it?

Just that: Adventists, being so grounded in the gospel that they showed up to parties their non-Adventist neighbors put on, living as salt and light, instead of clinging together—either because they’re scared of the world or most comfortable with people who are just like them.

Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at shawnbrace.substack.com

01 Jun


A few years ago, I was hanging out with an older friend, and we were talking about the trustworthiness of the Bible. A Yale- and MIT-trained Jew, we focused only on the Hebrew Bible, since that is his context, but he was fairly skeptical of my confidence in its authority. Despite being Jewish, or arguably because of a certain rendition of Judaism, he leans more toward a pantheistic understanding of God, maintaining that divinity inhabits everyone and everything.

Growing a little impatient and somewhat frustrated that I wasn’t making much headway in my attempts to convince him of the Bible’s reliability, I decided to bust out an evangelistic “secret weapon” that Adventists have used since our inception in the nineteenth century: Daniel 2. I described the statue Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream—the head of gold, the chest of silver, the thighs of bronze, the legs of iron—and how they unequivocally align with the four historical kingdoms, starting with Babylon, that dominated the world from the time of Daniel. I pointed to the feet of iron mixed with clay, and how that represented divided Europe, and the rock cut out of the mountain without human hands, representing God’s kingdom, that would shatter all earthly kingdoms and nations and ultimately set up God’s eternal kingdom. It was all directly out of Adventist Evangelism 101, used thousands of times by confident and zealous evangelists.

And it was all thoroughly unconvincing.

After listening to my passionate explanation, my friend looked at me, and without a hint of sarcasm or guile, simply said, “It sounds like you’re really stretching that interpretation.”

His response was quite jarring to me. I didn’t expect him to jump into the baptistry the minute I finished my exposition, but I at least thought it would give him pause. Instead, he displayed utter ambivalence.

To make it clear, I know that’s not the end of the story. Despite what many “mission spotlight” type stories leave us impressed with, sudden come-to-Jesus’ conversions, at random coffee shops, rarely occur. Conversion is more like a slowly developing journey, with smaller accumulated insights, rather than a sudden burst of revelation that dramatically alters a person’s trajectory in an instant. Who knows as to whether my exposition of Daniel 2 might serve as just a tiny dot that one day, when combined with other small dots, turns into a beautiful painting of a Jesus-centered life.

I also remain fairly persuaded that Daniel 2 pretty accurately reflects, in broad strokes, the scope of human history from the time of Daniel to our day. I don’t say this with absolute certainty, but despite my friend’s apprehension, I still find the outline of Daniel 2 pretty impressive.

The point is, however, that I found myself using a nineteenth-century argument, and a nineteenth-century evangelistic approach, with a twenty-first-century person. This is not at all to deny that such an approach can work with many, many people in the twenty-first century. It’s simply to point out that, as one of my friends—who himself is an evangelist—once told me: “Adventist evangelism is very creative . . . for the 1950s or 1850s.”

The truth is, Adventist evangelism has, it seems to me, suffered from arrested development. Where once our denomination was a creative and risk-taking movement, willing to try new and innovative approaches in order share the gospel, we have now become conservative and stale. This is not necessarily unique to Adventism, since the natural—and, to some degree, appropriate—development of organizations is to institutionalize and conserve, providing a somewhat-appropriate conservatism that promotes stability. But the trick is to take all the positives of institutionalization and combine them with fresh approaches.

In pointing to the need for creative and innovative approaches to evangelism, I’m not even talking about anything all that crazy or revolutionary. I’m not talking about dancing bears or fog machines or strobe lights at contemporary worship services. I’m not talking about having the fanciest or most up-to-date websites, or killer social media platforms. Those things may be all well and good, and part of the answer, but, to me, it’s even more fundamental—and perhaps even more creative and scary—than that.

What I’m talking about is this: the most creative and innovate evangelistic thing we can do is to draw close to people, enter into life with them, and listen to their stories. That is truly revolutionary—though I would propose it actually works at all times and in all places. It is, in many ways, trans-cultural and effective in any historical era.

Too many of our evangelistic approaches are drawn up in laboratories or after reading books. Even methods that are deemed “innovative” are often implemented as the result of learning them from a sort of cookie-cutter, one-size-fits all evangelism template. We have, in the words of Ellen White, taught our people to become thinkers of “other men’s thoughts,” instead of teaching them to listen to the Spirit for themselves, and to listen to the stories of those they’re trying to reach with the gospel, and then sharing the gospel with them in creative and relevant ways.

This idea really hit home for me a few years ago when I spent three or four days at the General Conference headquarters, visiting a couple friends who worked there. As I just floated around the halls, occasionally popping in on various meetings, a thought suddenly occurred to me: these people, dedicated servants of God, are trying to create content that will reach people in Bangkok as well as Bangor, Laos as well as Los Angeles. How does that work?

I don’t write this to be critical of anyone at the General Conference—or anywhere else. The same could be said for content that comes out of our Divisions, Unions, and Conferences. We are extremely reliant on one-size-fits all programming that, by its very nature, cannot connect in completely relevant ways to your neighbor in Denver or Boulder the same way it does to mine in Bangor or someone else’s in Tokyo.

The truth is, as they say about politics, evangelism is local. It must be local. Only then can it be innovative and creative, in the truest sense of the word. It’s only as we enter into life with real people, who have unique stories, that we can fully understand how the gospel speaks and applies to them in unique, innovative, and beautiful ways. While the content of the gospel doesn’t change, utilizing a canned evangelistic approach, and prescribing canned evangelistic arguments, is like prescribing surgery by simply consulting with WebMD.

In other words, instead of thinking about and planning creative programs, we should think about coming alongside people—our neighbors, co-workers, and friends—and asking the Spirit to show us how to share the gospel, in both word and deed, in ways that uniquely apply to each individual.

Of course, all this challenges traditional Adventism. In my experience, Adventists typically prefer to keep people—especially non-Adventists—at arm’s length and to do our evangelism from afar. We would often rather send out a tract or post a YouTube video than to draw close to people and share life with them. We’re afraid of keeping bad company that might influence us away from the truth.

There are many reasons for this attitude and posture, but I’d propose that chief among them is our failure to fully grasp the gospel, both intellectually and emotionally. At its core, the gospel teaches us that the God of Scripture is a God of incarnation—of one who steps into our mess, meeting us where we are and embodying His truth amidst all our mess and sin. As John declared, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—or, as The Message renders it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14).

Simply put, when we understand the radical condescension of God in the Person of Jesus—when we understand and appreciate the depths to which Christ went in order to reach and save us—we will embody such a posture in our own approach to evangelism, seeking to meet people where they are and fully communicating the gospel not only in word but also in deed.

And that is the most creative and innovative thing we can do to share the gospel.

Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at shawnbrace.substack.com

28 Mar


By Shawn Brace … One of the most heralded and influential theologians in nineteenth-century America was a man by the name of Charles Hodge. He taught at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, one of America’s most important schools of divinity, and was an architect of the so-called “Princeton theology.” An “Old School” Presbyterian who didn’t care for the revivalism that swept over America in the nineteenth century, Hodge was devoted to classic Calvinism and had a deep suspicion of and disdain for novel theology and religious expression.

Of all the things Hodge wrote and said, however, one passing statement, shared in 1872 at the fiftieth anniversary of his professorship at Princeton, has captivated my imagination the most. Looking back at his long tenure at the seminary, which began just a decade after its founding, Hodge boasted, without a hint of irony or embarrassment, that “Princeton had never been charged with originating a new idea.”

While perhaps given to a bit of hyperbole, Hodge viewed this as a badge of honor, of course. As a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, who believed it was his mission to preserve and defend the great verities that the Reformers had uncovered in the sixteenth century, Hodge looked with incredible suspicion at theological innovation.

I’d like to say that Adventism in the twenty-first century would not align with Charles Hodge. But I wonder.

Ironically, it was in this precise setting that Adventism arose. And their theological approach was diametrically opposed to Hodge’s. Just about every theological idea the small Advent movement recovered—from the sanctuary teaching to the state of the dead to the rejection of an ever-burning hell—was new and novel in the nine-teenth century. The early Adventist pioneers repeatedly went against the grain in their theological agenda, seeking to follow truth wherever it might lead, even if it was considered heretical to the mainstream.

They believed truth was ever advancing and that no idea should be rejected outright, but should be honestly evaluated in light of Scripture, come what may.

It was precisely for this reason that they committed themselves to “present truth” and strongly resisted the idea of setting their stakes in the doctrinal ground, zealously rejecting creeds and any move toward creedalism. Just 11 years before Hodge’s famous statement, the leaders of the fledging movement expressed that precise commitment.

Meeting together to decide if they wanted to organize, in what would ultimately become, perhaps ironically, the Michigan Conference, James White proposed that interested churches “associate together” under the name “Seventh-day Adventist,” covenanting merely to “keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ.” That was literally the only thing a church had to affirm in order to come under the name “Seventh-day Adventist.”

And yet, despite this minimal requirement, James White sensed some resistance among those present, even as the motion passed. He therefore urged a “full and free discussion,” insisting that “the sisters” take “part in the vote” as well. In the ensuing discussion, various speakers expressed their support for the resolution, while James White himself played the devil’s advocate, noting that organizing might appear to some like they were “patterning” themselves after the churches of Babylon.

But then J. N. Loughborough came forward, proposing that it would not be like Babylon to organize by covenanting together, just as it wasn’t to set up “meeting-houses,” as they had done. The way a church could become like Babylon, he offered, was by setting up strict doctrinal parameters and carefully policing theology.

He then dropped this bomb, which has captured the Adventist imagination to varying degrees throughout our history: “The first step of apostasy,” he explained, “is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth, to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And fifth, to commence persecution against such.”

Loughborough was making it clear: Adventists believed in the continuing advancement of truth. They had no interest in shutting down doctrinal and theological discovery. God was still revealing more truth—“present truth”—to them, and they must be open to it, refusing to become settled in their views and making those views into a “creed” whereby they “denounce[d] as heretics” those who did “not believe that creed.” James White, for his part, fully affirmed Loughborough’s perspective. “Making a creed,” he said, “is setting the stakes, and barring up the way to all future advancement.”

It was clear for James White and J. N. Loughborough— and all Adventists of their day: foundational to the Adventist identity and mission was a belief that God was continuing to unfold the revelation of Himself. They must therefore be open to further truth, refusing to categorically close their ears and minds to diverging viewpoints, even if they challenged existing doctrine.

This was, of course, at odds with the program of Charles Hodge and others who constituted “Babylon” who believed the great task of the church was to simply bog down and guard orthodoxy at all costs.

Are we still open?

This historic openness to new light and disdain for creedalism has become a particularly intriguing topic for me. Soon after my local church started taking its missional calling more seriously, prioritizing incarnational living and personal discipleship, the history of anti creedalism within Adventism became more relevant and confrontational to me. What does it mean to be a part of a community? What are the parameters by which a person can belong? Do they have to check off all the doctrinal boxes that our church has insisted upon for the last 75 or so years? Are we truly open to “new light” and “present truth” anymore?

Such questions led to an intellectual crossroads for me, and I chose to make them the basis for doctoral research. I’ve been studying the history of anti-creedalism—not only in Adventism but other religious communities as well. And, as anyone who has ever pursued an advanced degree can tell you: it’s complicated.

Thus far, my research has led to more questions than answers. And it’s not as simple, it doesn’t seem to me, as just allowing an “anything goes” approach. I highly doubt, for example, that J. N. Loughborough or James White, as open as they were to varying perspectives, would have been enthusiastic about welcoming a dogmatic anti-Sabbatarian to preach from their pulpits Sabbath after Sabbath after Sabbath.

At the same time, even the most committed progressives in our day probably wouldn’t be excited about giving a platform to an anti-LGBT, pro-Trump, doomsday preacher. None of us, in the end, are so committed to anti-creedalism that we fully include anyone and everyone. There are, I think, some ideas worth protecting, and that’s where the rub comes.

But we need to at least acknowledge our history and recognize the tension. We need to get back to the doctrinal basics—being, perhaps, theological minimalists—and create a space where people can respectfully share their viewpoints, even if they seem novel, believing there is still more to discover (it seems to me that perhaps the attitude with which people hold and offer their perspective is more important than the perspective itself). Only then will we be truly Adventist.

–Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at:shawnbrace.substack.com

10 Jan


By Shawn Brace — Recently, while visiting the leader of a church plant that our church sponsors, a gentleman walked into the café that this church plant has started and struck up a conversation with the leader and myself. I’ve known this fellow for almost a decade now, and he’s always eager to talk about the latest conspiracy theory. He’s a nice guy, but one of these precious souls that doesn’t seem to pick up on social cues and remains stubbornly committed to strange ideas.

On this particular day, he wanted to talk about COVID, passionately pressing me on whether I knew that the US government has deliberately and intentionally prevented Americans from utilizing treatments that could cure the disease. “They don’t want us to have this stuff,” he insisted. “They are just trying to make as much money as they can on all of this.”

Of course, his perspective is, whether right or wrong, not all that unique these days. Though the giant social media outlets have, at least in theory, tried to curb the dissemination of such theories about COVID on their platforms, there is a lot of information swirling about that may or may not reflect reality. And it’s not just COVID: we are continuously bombarded with theories and ideas and messaging that offers all manner of perspectives on elections and religion and end-time scenarios. One can’t go on Facebook without reading long diatribes from self-styled experts on an infinite number of topics. The term #fakenews has become an influential force in our vocabulary and thinking.

What is one to do in response to such an onslaught of various theories and perspectives? How do we make sense of the diverse opinions that are all competing for our acceptance and allegiance? If the apostle Paul encourages us to think about those things which are “true” (see Philippians 4:8), how can we first know what things are true in order to think about them?

Philosophers use a big fancy term to describe such an exercise. It’s called epistemology. This is essentially the study of knowledge—of how we know what we know. It’s the process by which we make sense of the world around us, the filters through which we determine what makes sense and what doesn’t. It’s the sources of authority we judge ideas against to decide if those ideas are true or not.

When someone shares information with me, whether I accept that information or not is based largely on whether I trust the source of that information or not. That’s because I am a fallible human being who is limited in my ability to know things. My knowledge and expertise are not exhaustive and I therefore have to outsource my decisions to other trusted sources. I am but one person and I have to place my confidence in people other than myself—people who have proven themselves trustworthy in the past.

This is really the underlying dynamic in this age of disinformation and #fakenews. We so often get into arguments about the specifics of people’s claims when the divide is on a much more fundamental level relating to the sources of that information. In the case of COVID, when people try to engage me on various theories and ideas, I don’t even bother trying to rebut their ideas—whether good or bad. I just throw up my hands and admit that I am not a scientist or the son of a scientist. I am, therefore, in no position to break down the arguments of aYouTuber or an epidemiologist from Harvard. Thus, no matter how well-argued and seemingly scientific a person’s perspective might be, I’m simply unable to figure out the truth or falseness of it. I simply defer to others I trust on the topic, following their lead, trusting that God will honor my simple faith.

And yet there is an even more fundamental reality going on than epistemology. As I’ve said often over the past few years: when we find ourselves arguing with people, we are very rarely actually arguing with their ideas. We are much more often arguing with their trauma.

As much as we’re sometimes tempted to think otherwise, we’re not exclusively rational beings. None of us makes decisions based solely on intellectual grounds. We are creatures who not only think rationally; we also think emotionally, spiritually, socially, relationally. We are the sum total of our experiences and the degree to which an idea makes sense to us is largely determined by the sum total of those experiences.

Psychologists have thus understood that a person’s ability to succeed in life is much more dependent on their EQ than on their IQ—that is, their emotional intelligence, rather than their intellectual intelligence. Our ability to navigate relationships, to understand the fundamental principles of human behavior and emotion, is a lot more of a significant factor in how we travel through life than our level of education (this is partially why highly educated people can latch on to some extremely crazy ideas). If we are thus relatively emotionally well-adjusted people, we will be more likely to gravitate to and trust sources of information that more accurately reflect reality. On the other hand, if we have significant emotional deficits, we will have a harder time with reality, and making sense of reality—which is the sum total of all human experiences.

Put another way: emotionally unhealthy people will latch on to and believe unhealthy ideas. We have to further understand that it’s not the untruths or the conspiracy theories themselves that are necessarily attractive to people; it’s the sense of belonging and community they bring to people who have felt wounded by traditional sources of authority and society as a whole. When one has significant emotional wounds, they feel like an outsider and there is thus a certain sense of belonging that comes by accepting the views of and joining with other outsiders.

In other words, what a conspiracy theorist usually needs is not a good argument to rebut their views, but some good therapy to heal their souls. Christ, when He invited people to embrace the truth, invited them to embrace Him. When we accept Christ as the Truth, we are not simply accepting Him as a provable idea that does or doesn’t make intellectual sense. To be sure, there is intellectual content about Christ, but that is just one aspect of who He is. We are thus not simply invited to accept ideas about Christ, but to place our trust in Him. When we embrace Him in all His beauty and love, He heals us and sets us free.

But I would add this: embracing Christ isn’t a wand that magically causes our emotional deficits to automatically disappear. God has gifted other humans to help us with the hard work of identifying, processing, and healing our wounds. We are embodied creatures who need other embodied creatures to help us become whole. Just as Jesus doesn’t cause our hunger to go away when we pray to Him, but points us to physical food, so Jesus places other humans in our lives to help us heal from our wounds. So, as I say to all my church members quite frequently: everyone needs therapy.

The bottom line is this: when it comes to figuring out how to make sense of what is true and what isn’t true among the myriad of voices that are peddling me information at a hundred miles an hour, the most important thing for me is to pursue the healing heart of Jesus, often through the empathic and therapeutic ministry of others God has gifted. The more grounded I can become in the gospel, and the healthier I can become emotionally, the more easily I can sift through the various sources of information as I try to make sense of the world.

–Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine. His book, The Table I Long For (Signs Publishing), further expounds upon this vision for Adventism. He is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at: shawnbrace.substack.com

29 Sep


By Shawn Brace — A few years ago, when we were visioning to replant our church, one particular gentleman asked if he could meet with me privately to express some concerns about our direction. Over the course of our visit, he described what was troubling him, pointing to a few proposals we’d made about our reformatted worship gathering. In particular, he was bothered by our rhythmic-guitar playing, which was apparently a little too sensual for his scruples, as well as our proposal to serve refreshments at the beginning of the service (“After all,” he said, “Adventists don’t eat in between meals”). It all left him exasperated. “Is this even an Adventist church?” he wondered incredulously.

I want to make it clear: I know this man loves Jesus and was just trying to stay true to his conscience. I don’t want to make light of that—or him—at all. He is sincere and honest. But it left me concluding that we have two diverging visions of Adventism.

It’s not that I yearn for an Adventism that is characterized by snack-eating and guitar-playing, as though that is the height of denominational achievement. Perhaps snack-eating and guitar-playing are issues that need to be curbed. But the point is this: I’m not sure I want to be a part of an Adventism where these issues are the litmus test of a person’s or church’s fidelity to the denomination’s core principles and identity. Truly, do we want—or do we think—that only those who don’t eat in between meals are the true Adventists?

Instead, what I see for Adventism, what I see for its future, is a faith that is defined by one thing and one thing only: Jesus.

Going Back to the Future

The tension I describe above is nothing new, of course. Long ago, Ellen White saw this vision for Adventism as well, when she encountered and rejoiced over the preaching of two young preachers, Alonzo T. Jones and Ellet J. Waggoner. Culminating in the denomination’s 1888 General Conference session in Minneapolis, these two young men brought the Gospel to a dry and thirsty faith. “As a people,” Ellen White recounted two years after Minneapolis, “we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain.” Many ministers, whom she referred to as “unconverted men,” were so zealous about the church’s recapturing of the seventh-day Sabbath teaching, as well its emphasis on other issues like diet and healthy living, that they had left out “Christ and His matchless love.” They instead presented “argumentative discourses.” But they needed “to have their eyes directed” to Christ’s “divine person, His merits, and His changeless love for the human family,” because “many had lost sight of Jesus.”

Jones and Waggoner brought exactly what the church was missing: Jesus, in all His beauty and love. When Ellen White heard them preach in Minneapolis, her whole heart leaped for joy, and “every fiber of my heart said, Amen,” she recounted. She called their presentations as a “most precious message” that God “in His great mercy” had sent. It was “the message that God commanded to be given to the world” so that “the world should no longer say, Seventh-day Adventists talk the law, the law, but do not preach or believe Christ.” What’s more, the message they proclaimed, according to White, was “the light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory.”

But it was not to be. The old guard, believing they were protecting Adventism and the “old landmarks,” violently pushed back against this “new light” that Jones and Waggoner brought. The tragic irony is that the old guard thought they were just protecting the “old landmarks”—that is, they thought they were protecting true Adventism—when, according to Ellen White, “they knew not what the old landmarks were.”

The upshot of the whole Minneapolis episode was a great turning away from Jesus. “By exciting that opposition,” Ellen White later lamented, “Satan succeeded in shutting away from our people, in a great measure, the special power of the Holy Spirit that God longed to impart to them. . . . The light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory was resisted, and by the action of our own brethren has been in a great degree kept away from the world.”

And we’ve been reaping the results ever since.

Reimagining Adventism

When I look at the Adventism of the future, I see Jesus. I see a Church that has fully embraced Him and fully embraced His Gospel. He is our only hope. Our future success won’t come because we’ve figured out the right evangelistic or missional formula; it won’t be the result of having nicer buildings or recapturing some sort of “historic Adventism.” It will happen because we’ve gone all in on Jesus.

This is not to create a false dichotomy or diminish the importance of missional innovation (of which I’m a big fan). When we go all in on Jesus—truly go all in on Jesus— creativity and innovation naturally follow in His train.

Neither does it mean that Jesus stands over-against Adventist theology and doctrine. Embracing Jesus does not come despite Adventist theology but results from a proper understanding of it.

Indeed, I’m not speaking of a vague and vacuous notion of Jesus. I’m talking about a full-orbed expression of Jesus that has definition and substance. I’m talking about a Jesus who literally experienced hell because He deemed our eternal existence more important than His own; a Jesus who died to prove that we are worthy and valuable; a Jesus who gives us rest, including a weekly reminder of it, so we can be liberated from our guilt, shame, fear, and constant hustling; a Jesus who looks at us with love, rather than condemnation; a Jesus who gives us principles by which to live, so we can experience optimal human flourishing; a Jesus who will one day finally vanquish all evil so we can live forever in peace and safety; a Jesus who has even put His reputation on the line, willingly being marred and maligned, believing that His love will ultimately win out and His character proven right.

That’s the Jesus I’m talking about.

And there is nothing or no one more beautiful. And there is nothing more worthy of our contemplation, nothing else around which we should organize our faith. If Adventism is to be about something, let it be Jesus. Everything else is pointless and a dead-end street.

Can Adventism get there in the future? I hope and trust and believe we can and we will. And I am committed to laboring to that end—through pen, voice, and, most importantly, action.

–Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine. His book, “There’s More to Jesus” (Signs Publishing), further expounds upon this vision for Adventism. He is also a D.Phil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at shawnbrace. substack.com