21 Oct


I was picking up folding chairs with the head elder of a small church after a service. A very small church. I was a sponsor on a mission trip within the United States, and our group quadrupled the size of the congregation at services that morning. They also reduced the average age to about 70, all of whom treated the students like royalty and fed them a wonderful meal. The elder was now enthusiastically telling me about his church and the new pastor they would be welcoming soon.

“He’s young, which is a good thing because we are all getting older, and he believes we can do some successful evangelism here. I’m excited about it because we want to grow.”

Then he paused, and with a concerned look on his face, continued in a lower tone. “Well, the truth is, we do want to grow, but I want to make certain it’s the right kind of growth.”

I nodded in understanding. “In other words, you want to have more people, but you don’t want to change.”

His demeanor brightened. “Yes, that’s it exactly. We want to stay the same.”

“Well, you know, growth is change. The people who join a church are blessed with gifts of the Spirit, and God expects them to use those gifts. I imagine that many of them will have gifts that you may not have among your members right now, and they will allow you to do new ministries that a small group of retirees might not have the skills or energy to do. Things that can bless not only the church but the community. You can’t grow and expect to not change.”

His response almost floored me: “Then I don’t want to grow.”

To him, the great gospel commission was far less precious than the view from inside his cocoon. Dying off was preferable to passing the light on to another generation. To preserve his way of worship, he would deny others the truth that he claimed to treasure. But it was not his attitude that shocked me, only his transparency about it. I had encountered many people who felt the same way but were too cagey to admit it. At least he was honest.

Before I make a statement that should be obvious to everyone, let me lay down some markers: truth is eternal, the Bible is the only reliable source of spiritual truth, and I believe in the interpretation of the Scriptures as found in the 28 fundamental beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Now for the obvious statement: we don’t live in the same world as James and Ellen White. While the truth has not changed, the world has, and we must adapt to new realities that affect how Adventism is practiced in the changing world.

When I was a boy growing up in a small Indiana town in the 1960s, I loved going Ingathering. At first I rode in the car with my father, a reel-to-reel tape recorder on the seat beside him blaring the King’s Herald’s Christmas album through the giant loudspeaker strapped to the top of the Studebaker. When I got a little older, I would go door to door with my uncle, who eventually began to coach me on what to say and let me try it. Before I was off to academy, I was going to the doors alone trying to reach my goal without my parents chipping in.

They quit making Studebakers after 1966. You must go to a museum to see a reel-to-reel recorder. The King’s Herald’s musical style has changed. And in the few communities that have not legislated against door-to-door collections, it is not safe after dark to go to doors or open them to strangers, with or without a live choir in tow.

How can we re-imagine Adventism so that it stays relevant while remaining faithful to truth? If the problem is Ingathering, we can simply recognize that its time is over and move on. After all, not pounding on doors to ask for cash isn’t in violation of any of the 28. But it is more challenging to come up with answers to other changes in the world.

  • The response to public evangelism is growing weaker
  • Systematic, disinterested giving is becoming rare
  • Fewer members see the value of Adventist education
  • It is easier to watch worship from home than participate at church
  • The overhead of our schools, churches, and institutions are being driven higher by inflation, regulatory burdens, medical costs, and legal fees
  • Our colleges and universities are finding fewer and fewer students willing to take education or theology, resulting in critical shortages of essential workers to replace retiring baby boomers

We have no choice but to re-imagine Adventism. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I am aware that new models must be explored for how we staff our schools and churches, how we spend our dollars, how we communicate our message, and how to appropriately praise God in a service that draws people in. If we don’t shake off our Laodicean tendency to cling to the familiar, then God will not be alone in spewing us out.

Already there are generations raised in the church who have decided that lukewarm is not good enough. They can’t relate to hymns about keeping the lower lights burning. They have, through no fault of their own, attention spans that are short enough to begin with, and shorter still when they must sit in motionless rows while someone talks. They can’t see a good reason why they are shut out of the decision-making process. And if they are frustrated enough to not hang around, why would we expect great success in attracting others from their generation who did not have the advantages of growing up in the church?

Change can be made without sacrificing truth. In fact, change is imperative. Without it, there is no growth. Which takes me back to my story of the elder who admitted what many others believe, but most will deny. Once I had recovered from his stunning declaration, a response popped into my mind.

“Well, you have that choice. You don’t have to change, and you don’t have to grow. But there are some words you need to remember, because you are going to need them someday. ‘I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth. Look, here is your money back’, “(Matthew 25:25, NLT)

Douglas Inglish is RMC vice president for administration. Email him at [email protected]

21 Oct


Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give to every man according as his works shall be.  I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.Revelation 22:12-13 KJV

Getting older is an interesting (wait, is interesting the right word? Perhaps disconcerting?  disturbing?  deconstructing?  disheveling?) experience, not just for the body and the mind, but for the constructs of the body and the mind.  For one thing, certain texts in the Bible just don’t seem to say the same things they did when I read them years ago.  And yet it doesn’t strike me as though I was wrong in my past reading, but rather that I was as right, generally speaking, as I could be at the time, and I am as right, Lord willing, as I can be now.  All of which is not to automatically make the judgment that my “now” view is superior to my “then” view—only that in many ways life experience makes the “now” view inevitable, or maybe better, unavoidable.

“New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.”*

But perhaps all this is a minor problem since there will always be people ready and eager to tell you what Jesus requires of you.  Sometimes they might even be right.  Yet even if they are right in the hour of their speaking, are the specific requirements of Jesus in the moment the unchanging requirements through time?  Or is it possible James Lowell got it right, that new occasions do teach new duties, and time does makes ancient good uncouth?

Can we keep doing the same things we always did and still be faithful?  Can we keep saying the same things we always said and still be telling the truth?  Are we sliding into error if, when we read the Bible, it doesn’t seem to say the same thing to us now that we heard it saying to us then?  Is it possible we could be right “now” without having been wrong “then”, even if “now” and “then” don’t agree?

Ours is not the first time when believers struggled to deal with disagreement regarding what things still mattered and what things had served their purpose for their day.  Remember the whole circumcision controversy in the early church?  Circumcision was the divine sign given to Abraham to serve as the definitive mark of God’s people, an irrevocable indicator in the flesh delineating the chosen people from the unchosen, an act so indispensable that according to Exodus 4:24-25 it was the LORD’s intention to put Moses to death for breaking this rule by not circumcising his sons (a situation Zipporah speedily rectified, but not without denoting Moses as a “bridegroom of blood” over the incident).

Yet in the New Testament we find Paul making this rather confusing statement:  “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts”  (1 Corinthians 7:19 NIV), causing one to rightly reflect, “Wasn’t circumcision God’s command?”  Paul seeks to fix any misunderstanding in the next verse by saying, “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (v. 20), which is true enough if taken in the narrow context of circumcision, but not a position we traditionally would be inclined to encourage if the situation in which one was called was “living together out of wedlock.”

Back to Paul:

“Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.”  Philippians 3:2-3 NIV

How could circumcision, the sign given to Abraham, the definitive mark of the people of God, suddenly, without any divine statement [beyond that of the indirect implication that a new reality had begun when the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his family prior to them being circumcised (see Acts 10)], be now considered unnecessary?  You think traditions regarding ordination are hard to give up, imagine if we had had to make the decision on circumcision (not to make trouble, but isn’t it ironic how most of us in America who are male are, in fact, circumcised?).  Yet Paul, in describing those who were still trying to remain faithful to the standard passed down from Abraham, refers to them as “dogs” and “mutilators of the flesh”, while stating this about himself and the others who have moved on from what in the past was held as unchallengeable truth:  “we … are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.”

“New occasions teach new duties
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.”

Are we moving ever upward and onward?  Are we keeping abreast of truth?  I’m pretty sure I have a decent idea what it meant to be a faithful Adventist in Ellen White’s day.  Does it mean the same thing now?  What is Present Truth, not for the 19th Century, but for the 21st?

Five generations ago my great-great grandfather, Ernst Schoepflin, moved with his wife and children from a region in Germany just north of Basil, Switzerland, to eastern Washington state, where he and his family (which grew to 12 children) would become Seventh-day Adventists at meetings held in the region, as family lore has it, by none other than A. T. Jones.  Today, I find myself the son and grandson of lifelong Adventist pastors from that Schoepflin line, and myself a pastor of the Boulder Seventh-day Adventist Church, the current incarnation of a community of believers bearing this name on Mapleton Hill since the church’s founding here in 1879, probably within a few years of when my ancestors were themselves first becoming Adventist.

My ancestors were fervent in the faith, as we should all hope to be, seeking to be faithful to what they understood to be their duty in their day.  And for the most part, I think they succeeded, considering that five generations later I am still a believer.  Yet so much has changed.  When my grandfather was born, his parents made the statement, “He will never be old enough to bring in wood,” meaning Jesus would come before he could even do chores.  He died in 2006 at the age of 96, having served as an Adventist pastor for all his working years.  His son, my father, now in his eighties, also spent his working years as an Adventist pastor.  Now here I am, 57, having pastored for 26 years.  But it doesn’t stop with me.  I have, as of today, a granddaughter, a seventh-generation proclaimer of the soon coming of Jesus.  And to that you might at first be inclined to say, “Amen”, but then follow that up with, “Wait, what?”

As I said at the beginning, certain texts in the Bible sometimes just don’t seem to say the same thing they said the first time I read them.  And life experience ought to make a “now” view sometimes inevitable, or even unavoidable.  What new duty does today’s new occasion teach?

If we would remain God’s people, we must, I think, continue ever onward and upward, with one eye on the road down which our Lord has led us (the beginning), and the other on the unknown future (the end), for which of us can say with certainty my granddaughter will “never be old enough to bring in wood”, or if one day her 7th-generation descendent will write fondly of her?

I have in a sense always envied this one thing about first generation Adventists: they are able to speak of the expectation of the imminent return of Jesus without any hint of irony, something I cannot do.  And please, don’t come at me with the trite phrase, “imagine how much closer the return is now!”  That means nothing, you know, because sure, I know exactly how much closer the return is now (seven generations, based upon my family history).  But knowing that tells me exactly nothing about how close it is until Jesus actually appears.

Based on the Matthew chronology of the coming of the Messiah the first time, my family spans roughly Jeconiah to Zadok (see Matthew 1:12-16).  Are we willing to wait, even if it means seven more generations, until the Christ appears again?

New occasions teach new duties…

Luke 12:42-43 says: “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns.”

It is not the timing of the beginning and the end that matters as much as it is the One who is The Beginning and The End.  May God give us the wisdom to be faithful in our day.

 Geoff Patterson is senior pastor at Boulder Adventist Church, Boulder, Colorado. Email him at [email protected]

*James Russell Lowell, “Once to Every Man and Nations”, quoted from the Church Hymnal (otherwise known as the “Old” Hymnal), song number 513, verse 3.

21 Oct


On Adventist Heritage Tours, one of my favorite places is in New Ipswich, New Hampshire. Leonard Hastings, a local farmer during Adventist beginnings, was passionate about the soon return of Jesus Christ. On October 22, as the anticipated date drew near, he left his crops unharvested as a testimony of his faith. Shop owners closed down, made restitution for loss, damage, or injury and paid their debts. They were serious about their faith.

Another favorite place is the bridge between Fairhaven and New Haven, Massachusetts. It was on this bridge that Bates, fresh from having discovered the truth of the seventh-day Sabbath, saw a friend who asked, “What’s the news?” To which Bates replied, “The seventh-day is the Sabbath of the Lord our God.” Soon his friend, James Hall, joined him in observing the Sabbath and they shared their faith with several of their friends. Soon Bates was another fellow Advent believer and abolitionist, the singing blacksmith, Heman Gurney. “The cause of truth lays near my heart,” he wrote in 1852.

What did Hastings, Bates, and Gurney have in common? They had a passion for studying the Bible. They further maintained that God’s people will and must grow in their understanding of truth. Gurney wrote:

Truth is precious; but all truth is not alike precious; for all truth does not send forth its rays of light to the same generation. There is a portion due to every generation. It is not the labor of the church now to show that Jesus was the true Messiah, as did the apostles. But there is another portion of truth more appropriate now, and calculated to act upon the interest and motives of men with greater power. Although the portion of truth that has awakened an interest in the speedy coming of Christ has been proclaimed by a minority, it is therefore no evidence that a providential hand has not ordered it in a manner which fulfills prophecy, and reveals the hearts of men.[i]

So, what of these early Adventist truths remain relevant for Adventism in 2022? If our Adventist pioneers were still alive, how might they re-imagine Adventism for our present world? Do these truths still matter, and if they do, what might they look like?

Adventist Activism

While the discovery of core truths, such as the Sabbath and Sanctuary, are well-known, what is not is the fact that our earliest church pioneers cared deeply about the world in which they lived. This was a seeming paradox for those who, anticipating Christ’s return, believed that this present world would indeed fade away. Therefore, early Adventists believed that it wasn’t enough to merely proclaim the Advent truths—they had to deeply shape the world in which they lived until the end arrived.

It is this deep sense of urgency coupled with activism that made the pioneers care deeply about a wide range of social issues—everything from advocating for temperance (against alcoholic beverages in particular) to health and dress reform. Adventists built sanitariums to not merely help people get better, but to teach them how to live healthier and happier lives. Many of the denomination’s earliest institutions were concerned about providing for those less fortunate, including those who were poor, widows, or orphans in their midst. Adventists raised money not only for churches, but to provide relief to those who were suffering. In what might seem ironic, Adventists cared deeply about the world in which they lived, just as they cared deeply about being ready for the world to come. They believed they were a divinely called movement, and thus had a unique message and mission, that changed the way they lived.


Adventists today can, by studying the past, capture a glimpse of the passion the early pioneers had for the world around them. This sense of urgency to be ready for Jesus’ soon return, with the passing of time, remains an imperative part of our Adventist identity. This world is not our home, and we are left to faithfully wait for and hasten the return of Jesus. In the meantime, God’s people are described as having the “patience of the saints.” It isn’t easy to be patient, and yet that is what God’s people are called to do.

Reflective Remnant

If these truths remain just as relevant today, what must change is our application of how we apply them to our lives. What does it mean to be a Seventh-day Adventist now after 171 years since the Great Disappointment?

Perhaps while God’s reflective remnant patiently wait, there can be new ways to take these same old truths and apply them to our present lives. The seventh-day Sabbath remains just as imperative as ever. It is the defining mark of God’s end-time people. It is God’s remnant church who keep the seventh-day Sabbath, not merely because it is the right day, but because it represents who the true God is and what He stands for—a moral government of God, and that God’s character will ultimately be revealed through the Great Controversy.

Could it be that a more relational understanding of the seventh-day Sabbath could be just what people in the 21st century need? That in a frenetic age, with instantaneous communication and social media, God calls His people to be in right relation with Him and with others. That in a world that yearns for authenticity despite the artificial nature of social media, God invites us to live in community. The Sabbath can become a touchstone whereby a new generation finds true value and meaning, both with God and with one another.

God’s remnant people also value the seventh-day Sabbath because it is a symbol of His creation. For a people at the end of time who recognize that this world will literally burn, yet because they value God’s Word who made this world even though it is corrupted by sin, God has entrusted it to our care and keeping. In this way, God’s end-time people who care deeply for the seventh-day Sabbath should also care for the environment. They know they aren’t going to save it, as some may hope, but they are good stewards of this earth because they know they must be good stewards of the earth made new. In other words, Adventists can and must care about the environment, not for political or social motivation, but simply because it is the biblical perspective. Adventists in the new century, particularly as climate change becomes more disruptive, need to care deeply for God’s creation for the same reason that they care for the seventh-day Sabbath. It is part of what God has tasked us with.

Adventist Advantage

God’s remnant people have a unique and important responsibility as they patiently wait for Christ’s return. They are tasked with the proclamation of the “everlasting gospel” to the world.

This is indeed the work of the Three Angel’s Messages of Revelation 14. While we don’t know how long time will last, until Jesus does return, each generation will be tasked with the mission of sharing this message. That means taking the same “present truth” of the pioneers and making it our own. Not for one moment will this change our distinctive beliefs. They remain and will only become all the more important, but it is this distinctive Adventist outlook—a worldview—that gives hope in an uncertain world. It is this hope that drives Adventism and is indeed the Adventist advantage. It is, after all, a sacred responsibility, not because it makes anyone better, but instead, humble us to recognize that as the world changes, our Adventist perspective changes the way we live in this world. We cannot sit idly by but must remain in the spirit of the pioneers as activists living out our beliefs in an ever-changing world.

Michael W. Campbell PhD, is director of archives, statistics, and research for the North American Division of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He has spent over a decade teaching in higher education in schools in Texas and the Philippines. Previously he pastored in Kansas and in the Rocky Mountain Conference. He is married to Heidi, a PhD candidate at Baylor University, and they have two teenage children, Emma and David.

[i]H. S. Gurney, “Communication from Bro. Gurney,” [dated Feb. 19, 1854], ARH, Feb. 28, 1854, 47.

21 Oct


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

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

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

How do we see ourselves?

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

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

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

Church or sect?

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

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

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

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

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

A Church or the church?

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

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

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

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

Becoming a sect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1]  Nederlands Dagblad, June 11, 2021.

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

21 Oct


This topic explores the spiritual quality of discipleship in Christ’s well-known Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1–12) and Ellen White’s description of the spiritual journey. The subject of spirituality unveils a plethora of perspectives, definitions, and practices. Reflecting on the amassing of existing landscapes, Richard Wolman maintained that “Spirituality in the contemporary culture is a designer spirituality, tailored to the needs of individual tastes and preferences.”[1] Yet, for many, spirituality provides an escape from the traditional form of religious practices bound by rules, traditions, demands for conformity, and a lack of authentic Christ-like attitudes.

Juliette Lee described her experience as follows: “The church was a highly hypocritical institution that preached about things like loving and accepting everyone, giving to those in need, and trusting God—because this is what Jesus did.”[2] Then, she touched on the core of the crucial problem. “Yet I saw and heard groups of women congregating in the back pews gossiping about each other; I saw those with the most to give cling to their wallets and look away; I saw people leave the church angry at God for the plans he was ruining. At the end of the day, the church succeeded in telling me who Jesus was and who I should be but failed to follow its own practice.”[3] The story is one of many I had heard from students in my classes and people in my pastoral ministry.

Such a scenario is not very different from the world Jesus embraced to engrave on the pathway of life the authentic nature of spiritual discipleship. Matthew’s gospel outlines the beginning of Christ’s Messianic ministry in the context of religious abuses devoid of spiritual authenticity. The broader context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount addressed the superficial understanding of God’s principles. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago […] but I tell you […]” (Matthew 5:21–22; 27:28; 33–32; 38–39; 43–44). He spoke against the superficial practice of religiosity, showmanship, and hypocrisy (Matthew 6:1–3; 16–18). He warned about the danger of judgmental attitudes (7:1–6). Instead, as He spoke to His disciples, the central theme of His teaching aimed to build a foundation for spiritual authenticity in God’s mission in the world (Matthew 4:18–21); namely, the spiritually transformational nature of discipleship.

Matthew’s narrative juxtaposes the spiritual hypocrisy with Christ’s call to discipleship: “Come follow me … and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19), between two purpose-oriented descriptions of His all-inclusive missional activity (Matthew 4:12–16;23–25). The impact of His sensitive attitude to human needs engendered a movement of attraction (Matthew 4:25). What followed is fascinating, inspirational, and thought-provoking. The descriptive narrative of Jesus’ ministry swayed attention from His successful activity to a reflective stopover that determined what truly matters in God’s mission in the world. He then began to teach the disciples (Matthew 5:1).

David Bosh argued that in Matthew, Jesus’ teaching is “by no means an intellectual enterprise,”[4] outlining specific details of successful methodology. He continued to suggest that Jesus’ teaching is not an “appeal primarily to the intellect; it is a call for a concrete decision to his listeners to follow him and to submit to God’s will … as revealed in Jesus’s ministry and teaching.”[5] For this purpose, the Beatitudes contrast with the aforementioned religious practices and highlight the spiritual and transformational nature of discipleship.

The Beatitudes and the Spiritual Nature of Discipleship

The structure of the Beatitudes draws attention to a specific objective. First, Jesus positioned the qualities of discipleship, the poor in spirit, the meek, the pure in heart, and the persecuted (Matthew 5:3,5,8,10) in the secure space of the kingdom of heaven–“theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3,10). Millard Erickson argued that Matthew used “heaven” as a synonym for the Kingdom of God in writing to a Jewish audience.[6] The four Beatitudes expressed in the present active voice placed discipleship in the space of God’s life-transforming activity and secure assurance of the gift–the Kingdom of God.

George Eldon Ladd described the presence of God’s kingdom as follows: “Instead of making changes in the external and political order of things, it is making changes in the spiritual order, and in the lives of men and women.”[7] Furthermore, the specific focus on the kingdom of God uplifted the disciples’ minds to the future hope of inheriting the earth (Matthew 5:5) and the anticipated joy of seeing God (Matthew 5:8). The listed qualities of discipleship entrenched in a relational connection to Jesus (Matthew 5:10,11) stood in direct conflict with the distorted values and practices espoused by human traditions and religiosity and with the distorted view of God outlined in Matthew chapters 5–7.

In this context, Christ’s reference to the poor in spirit denoted a life empty of self; meekness, the attitude of complete trust in God’s providence; and the pure in heart, the quality of spiritual authenticity. The enumerated characteristics of discipleship collided with the superficial nature of religious practices, devoid of a sensitive response to human needs. No wonder Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11). Nevertheless, Christ’s Beatitudes highlight another aspect of spiritual discipleship.

The Beatitudes and the Transformational Nature of Discipleship

 A careful reading of the Beatitudes demonstrates that the character of the four other Beatitudes seems somewhat different: (a) Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4); (b) Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6); (c) Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7); and (d) Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God (Matthew 5:9).

The last part of each Beatitude, expressed in a passive voice, suggests that those who mourn, thirst, and hunger due to spiritual emptiness, become the recipients of the blessings proceeding from the object of their adoration, God. Consequently, the qualities mentioned earlier—poverty in spirit, meekness, and purity of heart—defined as self-emptying and openness to be filled with the sensitivity of spiritual authenticity, are shaped by the overflowing abundance of God’s grace and love (Romans 5:1–5).

The spirit of meekness enables disciples to comprehend and have a share in the full measure of God’s protective care (Matthew 6:25–26). The transformational dynamism of God’s love endows them with the spirit of mercy and a secure identity as God’s adopted sons and daughters (Matthew 5:7,9). The described transformational process prepares Christ’s followers to step into the world of human brokenness as peacemakers and healers transformed by God’s grace (2 Corinthians 5:16–21).

Referring to the spiritually transformed nature of discipleship, Johannes Verkuyl asserted, “To become a disciple of Jesus involves sharing with him his death and joining him on the march to the final disclosure of his messianic reign.”[8] In Christ’s teaching from the mountain, discipleship is not presented as a production line or methodology designed primarily to initiate an exponential growth of God’s kingdom. Instead, His teachings unfold the view of what matters to God—an all-inclusive and sensitive response to human needs role-modelled by Jesus. Note the overwhelming attraction generated by Jesus’ ministry—Jesus, the champion of authentic spirituality. “Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him” (Matthew 4:25).

The Inspirational Focus of Spiritual Discipleship

In 1894, Ellen White wrote in Sign of the Times an interesting reflection on “the progress to be made in the spiritual journey and many lessons to be learned from Christ, the Great Teacher.” Her description is fascinating and challenging. “Could our spiritual vision be opened, we should see that which would never be effaced from memory as long as last should last.”[9]

What follows challenged my view of life and ministry. It challenged me to ask: “Am I spiritually blind that I do not see what matters to God?” Her words touched on the very essence of spiritual discipleship. “We should see souls bowed under oppression, loaded with grief, and pressed down as a cart beneath the sheaves, and ready to die in discouragement. We should see angels flying swiftly to aid the tempted ones who stand as on the brink of a precipice.” More so, she delineates the challenging view of God’s presence in action. “These souls are unable to help themselves and avoid the ruins that threaten them, but the angels of God are forcing the evil angels, and guiding the souls from the dangerous places, to plant their feet on a sure foundation.”

Is it conceivable that the frantic rush of producing discipling resources to devise ways of achieving success induces spiritual myopia that hinders us from seeing what God cares about?

Conclusive Reflection

 Perhaps it is time to climb the mountain to catch a gestalt of human suffering, injustice, abuse, and enslavement—the real world. Perhaps it is time for the church to reflect on itself to recapture the passion of spiritually authentic discipleship that touches the brokenness of human life with the inspiring presence of God (Matthew 6: 25–34), and Jesus, the champion of spiritual authenticity and healing.

John Skrzypaszek, DMin, a retired director of the Ellen White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre, is an adjunct senior lecturer at Avondale University College, Coranboong, NSW, Australia. Polish by birth, John takes a keen interest in heritage, spirituality, and identity studies. He is married to Brenda and has two sons Raphael and Luke. Email him at: [email protected]

 [1] Richard N. Wolman, Thinking with Your Soul: Spiritual Intelligence and Why it Matters (New York: NYL Harmony Books, 2001), 21.
[2] Juliette Lee, “Why I am More Spiritual than Religious,” Spectrum (May 15, 2017).
[3] Ibid.
[4] David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shift in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 66.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House), 1226.
[7] George Eldon Ladd, “The Gospel of the Kingdom.” In Perspectives in the World Christian Movement, edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, A-69. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1922.
[8] Johannes Verkuyl, “The Biblical Foundation for the Worldwide Mission Mandate.” In Perspectives in the World Christian Movement, edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, A-62. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1922.
[9] Ellen White, “To Abide in Christ the Will Must Be Surrendered,” Signs of the Times 20, no. 51 (October 29, 1894): 3.

21 Oct


Another woman died because she wore her hijab incorrectly.

I saw that in the news this week. It’s outrageous. It’s insane. It’s utterly evil.

This is not a statement against God or the many people who practice Islam. It’s a statement about the people who have stopped seeing God and instead are protecting their own comfort and hiding their own spiritual and moral insecurities.

We could make that same statement about any established religious group. This was just the most recent example of that reality at the time I wrote this.

Let me state this less clearly. I have no problem with Islam. And, I have every problem with Islam. Also, I have no problem with Christianity. And, I have every problem with Christianity.

By extension, I have no problem with Adventism. And, I have every problem with Adventism.

What do I mean by any of that? It sounds like a paradox that can’t possibly be true.

Maybe. Or maybe, to quote Obi Wan Kenobi “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”

Let’s try it this way. There is the Adventist-based faith and practice of a single believer. And then there is the corporate mandate of the Adventist organization. One is a person whose faith was informed by Adventism, who then went on and grew and found connection with God and became something more beyond that which sparked the journey. The other is a group that not only refuses to move beyond that beginning but punishes those who try to grow and become more than Adventism was designed to contain.

“So, Tony, I’m not sure that was less unclear.”

Ok, fine.

Jesus picked food to eat on the Sabbath. Acts 15 created a clear path for a completely alternate set of beliefs for different “Christians”. Paul later altered it even more when he told one group to do a thing and another group to not do the same thing. Everything about the New Testament grinds the idea of uniform belief AND practice into dust.

And yet, people in Adventism are still excommunicated for not practicing the Sabbath the way someone else decided they should. Others are removed from fellowship for eating or drinking the wrong thing. People are chastised and punished for wearing the wrong thing, or listening to the wrong thing, or watching the wrong thing.

And that’s just in THIS country. No, it’s not universal. But it IS still allowed to happen. And THAT is a failure. The fact that if you were born with your genitals on the inside instead of the outside means you’re considered less than in Adventism, which suggests Adventism has failed. If the color of your skin dictates your place and value in your Adventist faith community, and it still does in some places, Adventism has failed.

“But Tony, sometimes things happen locally that the organization doesn’t condone.”

True. And, they also haven’t taken the steps to stop it, AND some of it they do condone.

“But Tony, if someone is going to be part of a group, shouldn’t they obey the rules of the group?”

That’s a fair point. Now, ask me what the purpose of the group was supposed to be? Is the purpose of the group to defend the group? Or was it supposed to launch people on their way to a connection with God that leads them down a path of God’s choosing?

When I was told the theme of articles, we were all asked to write about, I liked it. It’s the correct question: Reimagining/Redefining Adventism and what that looks like.

And the very fact that we are asking that question means we’ve failed. It’s the correct question AND it’s the wrong question. We are asking that question because we all know things have gone off the rails. It’s the wrong question because we shouldn’t have to be asking it.

The moment we start saying things like “That’s not the Adventist way” or “Adventism believes…” or “How do we fix Adventism…” we’ve ignored a very important point.

It’s not about Adventism. It illustrates that we have made Adventism the point and the goal, and no matter how we say it and justify it, we are trying to defend a group and its beliefs.

But if we are growing with the spirit, that will be a moving target. We will be ever changing as our understanding is ever changing and we will never need to, or want to, defend a static system of practice.

If we are doing it right, we will never care about what Adventism is or what it needs to be because we will be so focused on God and being part of that connection, it simply won’t matter. We only defend the basic set of practices and thoughts because it’s warm and comfy there. There is no need to stretch and grow. It’s the soft recliner we sit in while we watch our favorite show.

Safe, entertaining (maybe), and tells us exactly what we want to hear to ensure we never strive beyond our chair. It validates our worldview, but never forces us to reexamine it and change it.

Jesus challenged everything. Adventism challenges nothing. Adventism is focused on maintaining Adventism. Jesus was focused on changing lives, empowering those lives, and setting them free from the borders other people want to place them in.

Christ didn’t make Christianity. People did. Christ wanted to show people a better way. Therefore, its first followers were called Wayists. Followers of The Way. But then people codified it, stamped it into law, and here we are wondering why no one gets along.

The only way for Adventism to succeed, is for Adventism to die.

Or, at least, die to what it is. Just like the followers of Jesus, Adventism must die and be reborn. We must stop trying to make it look like something and stop trying to keep it looking like it used to. For Adventism to succeed, it must become a place that has nothing to do with Adventism, and everything to do with supporting people as they seek God and follow God’s lead WHEREVER it takes them, even when it results in that person’s life looking very different than old Adventism would have allowed for.

Because it isn’t about Adventism.

It’s about God leading a person and people regardless of if anyone else likes it.

Because if it isn’t about that, we should just pack up and go home. Otherwise, we will do nothing more than argue about Hijabs and food and Sabbath “rules”.

There is a quote from 2013’s “Man of Steel”. “What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater?”

Or said this way…

What if God led a person to become something other than what Adventism had intended? What if that person could become something greater?

We need to stop placing limits on what God can do and what people can be. We don’t know what we are doing, and Adventism needs to accept that.

We need to get out of the way and let God show us what can really be done.

Tony Hunter is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and a hospice chaplain working for Gateway Hospice in Northern Colorado. Tony, his wife Nirma, and daughter Amryn live in Firestone, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]

21 Oct


One of my favorite books from graduate school wasn’t even required. I found it by following a footnote to an appendix and a book review, and thence to the full citation and to the card catalog at my graduate school library, and finally to the shelf. This was years before the Internet and the process of tracking down information could be tedious at times, but if you were simply following a whim, the search itself could be a treasure hunt.

The book was Models of the Church, by Avery Dulles, S.J., a survey of historical metaphors for the church and how they have shaped the Church and its practices.

I found it fascinating because it gave me a visually stimulating index card that I could carry in memory. The models functioned as bins that I could toss ideas into, empty out occasionally or transfer questions, skepticisms, and enthusiasms back and forth between them.

Avery Dulles–who became a cardinal between the first and second editions of the book–suggests there are two types of models. Explanatory models synthesize what is known and believed; exploratory models open our thinking to new possibilities. He gives us five historical models that have described and shaped the Church through history: Institution, Mystical Communion, Sacrament, Herald, and Servant, and adds his own–Community of Disciples.

Dulles proved to be eclectic in his tastes and ecumenical in his reach. He provided the models to all Christians, not just Catholics, in the hope that they would prompt discussion and practical use by academics, pastors, and laypeople.

Early in life I discovered I could remember ideas and concepts easier if I could put an image to them. I also found that I had an odd propensity (or was it a compulsion?) to associate an image or a person with a recurring and routine activity that I did every day at the same time. Sometimes there was no conscious link that I could see between the persons and the activity, they just popped up on my mental screen.

This still happens to me. When I shave, I hear myself answering the question of my seven-year-old son as to why I lather up. I lean over to turn on the shower tap and an image of a friend from high school comes into view. I water the plants in the garden and hear my grandfather’s tips on watering. I’m on my hands and knees, clearing away volunteers between the established plants and I hear a woman I worked for as a teenager proclaiming, “A plant out of place is a weed.”

I’m a creature of habit, believing that certain tasks can be trained into muscle memory and into the humming little centers of automation in my brain, thus freeing up the vast open spaces there for more imaginative, more interesting things. Now and then, this gets me into trouble when habits become ruts and ruts cause the little mining cars of blind knowledge to overrun some needed action because the operator is asleep at the switch.

One of my earliest models of the Adventist church was abstract until I gave it an image. My grandparents, stalwart Adventists who had both converted as young adults–my grandfather from the Church of England and my grandmother from generic Protestantism on Vancouver Island–often spoke of Adventism as being “the Truth.” This made little sense to me at the time, but it had the advantage of stickiness. Later, I thought of the monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as the image most appropriate for this abstraction: self-contained, enigmatic, unbreakable, and conducive to violence in the wrong hands.

Another common phrase was “the [Adventist] Church will go through to the end,” conjuring images of enormous snowplows or battering rams or a ship steady on course carrying hundreds through a gale at sea.

My experience of model-making is not unique. We humans are meaning-makers and metaphor-eaters. We leap from one image to another in conversation as from one ice floe to the next. To change the metaphor slightly, some images are so easily grasped and understood that they become solid bridges over which thousands travel daily. They make communication easier. As symbols they can be molded, shaped, and compressed to contain multiple meanings that can be triggered by the mere mention of the word in the right context.

Clinging to one model to the exclusion of the others leads to distortion, says Dulles, but he notes that when a particular model seems to answer several problems and promises to clarify yet unknown difficulties, it becomes a paradigm, capable of containing whole systems of thought, processes, and actions.

I see the Institutional model as dominant among many administrators in the Adventist Church. It presents a hierarchical structure with the members passively receiving the authoritative decisions of “the ruling class.” To a lesser extent, the church as Herald is also current. This model emphasizes mission and proclamation over against Mystical Communion and the church as Sacrament. The power here resides in the word preached and taught.

Models arise in context, however, and contexts can differ. Friction between them comes from holding historical models that cannot meet current needs or that conflict with other models. The Servant model, one that many progressives in the church seem to hold, sits uneasily with the Institutional and Herald models. It takes a dialogical position with the world, it calls for modeling the church after Jesus’ teachings, and emphasizes justice and mercy over proclamation and mission.

Dulles offers the Discipleship model as the church community set apart from the world and yet deeply in tune with its needs. It incorporates the best of the previous five models and tries to avoid the worst. Disciples are servants who work within a structure that is both a mystical communion and a sacrament. Proclaiming is but one part of its work in the world.

I offer another model complementary to discipleship. It is a via negativa, revealing something important by what it is not. It is not hierarchical nor authoritarian. It emphasizes change, transition, adaptation, and naturalism.

My model of the church is an ice cube on a hot sidewalk. As it melts it slides smoothly along until the bulk of the ice is transformed into liquid. Eventually, the liquid evaporates, completing the cycle from solid to liquid to gas.

I intend by this model that the calcified institutional form of the church should transmute into a flowing community of local churches and their members, and then in due time, be absorbed into the life of the Spirit in the full transfiguration of all things. Innovation begins at the root.

In tandem with the discipleship community, the ice-cube model suggests the church as a hierarchical institution will, of necessity, give way to local churches in fellowship with each other to provide the water of life to their own contextual communities. And when the final day comes, the community of disciples will be drawn up by the Spirit, together with all those whom God has called from every nation, religion, tongue, and people. “And thus, we shall be together with the Lord.”

Barry Casey has published in Adventist Society for the Arts, Brevity, Faculty Focus, Lighthouse Weekly, Mountain Views, Patheos, Spectrum Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Purpled Nail. His collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf and Stock in November 2019. He writes from Burtonsville, Maryland. Email him at [email protected]

21 Oct


I didn’t win the $1.337 billion Mega Millions lottery.

I’ll bet you didn’t either.

I would assume, though, that many of us played the “what if…” game.

The first thing I would do if I won a huge lottery, of course, would be to pay my tithe and give a generous offering to the church. I have been assured by more than one pastor that the church would gladly accept my ill-gotten gains.

Next, I’d take care of my children and grandchildren. I like Warren Buffett’s philosophy on this–give them “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.”

Then I’d work on building a bigger library in my basement.

Finally, I’d probably tell my wife I’d won some money, just to see if there was anything she wanted.

I don’t think anybody really expects to win the lottery, but it is fun to play “what if….”

Well, “what if…” you could significantly change, or even start the Adventist church all over again today? I mean it in the sense that an appellate court hears a case de novo.  That means that as we play this mental game, in addition to what we know now, we assume we have all the knowledge and understanding available to us that were present when the church was originally established, but we start again, brand new.

The world has changed dramatically since our church was founded, but has the church?  Should it?

In the mid- to late-1800s, the birth and growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church was powerfully influenced by the current events. Notwithstanding renewed interest in the second coming of Christ, manifested most prominently in America by William Miller and his date-specific predictions, the predominant Christian belief was in the imminent establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth, with the promise of a thousand years of righteousness, peace, and prosperity.

The knowledge of medicine was rudimentary. Most medical facilities were tuberculosis sanitaria, or glorified health spas for the rich and famous. Most “educated” physicians were the products of relatively short courses at proprietary diploma mills.

Poverty and civil unrest in the new Kingdom of Italy, and the Potato Famine in Ireland, sent a wave of unwelcome Roman Catholic immigrants to the “Protestant” United States. In 1888, the American Sabbath Union was formed by representatives from major Protestant denominations (It continues as The Lord’s Day Alliance and is an ecumenical Christian first-day Sabbatarian organization that lobbies for the passage of Sunday-rest laws). It had some very powerful congressional champions in the late 1800s.

Into this environment came a new church. It addressed these social, political, and theological positions aggressively, but not always winsomely. It espoused the soon return of Christ, a radical dietary and health message, and the seventh day of the week as the true biblical Sabbath. It accused the Roman Catholic Church and “apostate” Protestantism of attempting to break down the wall of separation between church and state. This defiant organization had the temerity to clothe itself in the mantle of the Three Angels’ Message of Revelation, and to call itself the Remnant Church. It claimed it did so with the endorsement of a last-day prophet.

In response, mainstream denominations labelled it a legalistic, quasi-Christian cult.

Religion in America is much more diverse today. The three major religious traditions in most states are Catholicism, white evangelical Protestantism, and the religiously unaffiliated. The controversial theological and political issues facing many churches are now same-sex marriage, abortion, the role of women in ministry, public funding of private religious schools, and immigration reform. To many of the unchurched, “Christianity” and “evangelical” are words of contempt and derision.

How has Adventism responded to these changes?

It really hasn’t. It appears that the things for which we are still best known to the public, in no particular order, are: (1) an emphasis on last-day events, the second coming of Christ, and a day of judgment; (2) a concentration on health; (3) worshipping on Saturday instead of Sunday; and (4) having a founding prophet.

For the most part, those to whom I speak think we Adventists make good neighbors, but they are rather confused about Adventism. They usually know about our hospital systems. They believe we are all non-smoking, teetotalling vegetarians. They know little about our religious beliefs, and are either unaware of, or are too polite to mention, our rather embarrassing beginnings. A few still aren’t sure if we’re Christian. The majority vaguely remember that we had a prophet, but they’re not sure if it was Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy.

So, what if…?

This game is not new, nor is it original with me. Many Adventist thought leaders have been playing it for years. George Knight and William G. Johnsson, among others, have written extensively on the subject. If you haven’t heard, or read, some of their reflections and projections, it is probably because they are so painful that they have not been widely disseminated. It is not easy to admit we might need to change, or that we are a deeply divided church. Change implies error, which is particularly embarrassing for us.  We have boasted for years about our “remnancy” and have preached that we are the ones who will in perfect unity finally and perfectly reflect the character of Christ to the world.

When we speak about possible flaws in today’s Adventist church, we usually focus on organizational, administrative, or doctrinal issues. But if I could change the Adventist church, I wouldn’t start by changing its fundamental beliefs (much) or its administrative and organizational structure (much). I also wouldn’t begin by addressing the major controversial religious and political issues facing Christianity today. While each of those arenas may need to eventually be addressed, I believe our primary problem is much more basic–we are viscerally afraid of God.

We whistle in the dark, and pretend we are not really afraid, but our presentations of last-day events, the day of judgment, Christ’s work in the heavenly sanctuary, the second coming of Christ, and the final destruction of the wicked are dripping with fear.  In the short term, fear may work well as a motivator, and may be necessary for immediate survival. Over a longer period, however, it is usually detrimental to performance, relationships, and well-being. A constant state of fear causes chronic stress, and eventually either breaks one’s body and spirit or leads to a complete disregard of important warnings. We’ve all heard recalcitrant smokers say, “Well, we’re all going to die of something, it might as well be lung cancer.”

If I could change the church, I would change its focus.

I would focus it on what Jesus said His mission was. Both the Bible and our prophet claim He came to show us the true character of the Father. That was the basic problem of sin in the first place—we, as creatures, did not trust God or believe He had our best interests at heart. The serpent in the garden claimed the Creator had lied to us, and that He was holding us back from our full inherent potential. We literally fell for the shiny object–a beautiful, shimmering, miraculously talking snake. Since then, because of our lack of trust in God, we have taken the gifts He gave us to help reconcile us back to Him and have legalistically either turned them into heavy ritualistic burdens or made them into objects of worship themselves.

The legalistic solution to this problem is to attempt to either appease our angry God or somehow buy His forgiveness. The biblical solution is to learn to trust Him.

To trust God, we must first find Him trustworthy. This was Christ’s whole mission on earth. In the upper room, Christ reminded the disciples that in His life and work on earth, He had irrefutably revealed the loving and trustworthy character of the Father to the universe. Moreover, He told them He was going to die as if He was a sinner to demonstrate that the Father had not lied about sin leading to death. If this led us back to trust, there was no need for us to die.

Our primary mission should be spreading the Good News that God can be trusted and that He is searching for friends whom He, in turn, can unconditionally trust for eternity with infinite freedom. To become such friends, we must believe that He can heal all that is wrong with us. That is a promising message of love, and love obliterates fear.

It might be well for us Adventists to remember that we are not the first Sabbath-keeping, tithe-paying, Bible-believing people with rigorous dietary restrictions and prophetic “proof” that we are God’s special people. I imagine there were many colorful, wall-sized charts, graphs, and beast-filled illustrations predicting a glorious future for Israel that went up in flames in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

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

21 Oct


As churches and denominations, we tend to spend quite a bit of time writing down, debating, defining, and then re-defining what we say we believe. In our faith community, our core statement of doctrine is the “28 Fundamental Beliefs.” But for such a large number of “fundamentals,” it is surprising how much of what is core to our faith and faithful living is mentioned only briefly or even not at all.

And then there are all the things we actively disbelieve. A few years ago, one of my assigned textbooks for a class in systematic theology was a book that set out to define Christian faith by what we do not believe about life, God and faith.[1] It’s an interesting approach and there is some value in clearing away some of our misnomers and assumptions—and stating those things explicitly—but at 400 pages, it is not such a snappy way of describing or sharing what we believe or a guiding framework for what it means to live well.

But for all we specify about what we do believe and what we don’t—after all, we do spend a bit of time in some parts of our faith community critiquing the different beliefs of others—perhaps our most defining attitude is what we do with uncertainty, the things we don’t know. In “an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, it turns out that what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.”[2]

Informed and good thinking, determination and a sense of assurance are valuable to a credible faith, but what we do with what we don’t know might be more important for sustainable faith and what our faith might offer to others. As 1 Peter 3:15 put it, we might be ready to explain our faith, but verse 16 counsels that this must be done “in a gentle and respectful way.”[3]This calls for something more than a well delineated list of what we do—or don’t—believe. It is a call to live and believe with humility, courage and curiosity.


In a personal letter, C S Lewis—writer, Christian apologist and long-time tutor at Oxford University—summed up this important goal of his teaching: “One of my main efforts as a teacher has been to train people to say those (apparently difficult) words ‘we don’t know.’”[4] Those “apparently difficult” words don’t come easily to any of us—and perhaps even less easily to people of faith, those who feel like they ought to have the answers.

But to admit “I don’t know” is an important spiritual discipline that we need to practice, precisely because it does not come easily. “Yes, we know that ‘we all have knowledge’ about this issue,” wrote Paul to people who did know how to answer the specific question. “But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much” (1 Corinthians 8:1, 2).

Humility is not trying to doubt things we know and firmly believe, but it is to honestly admit when we don’t and that there is often some margin between. If we can simply answer that we don’t know, we are relieved of the burden of knowing the answers and respecting the person whom we might otherwise be trying to convince of something we, ourselves, are not certain about.


It takes courage to admit that “all that I know now is partial and incomplete” (1 Corinthians 13:12) and then to seek to live well, as if our lives depended on it—because they do. But whatever we believe, most of us still must get out of bed tomorrow morning and make countless choices throughout the day, some of which might seem inconsequential but many that might cost us something and all of which will compound into a much larger life trajectory. All of which is decided with incomplete knowledge, human inconsistencies, and growing fatigue.

Yet so many of us keep doing it. If we were truly certain about everything, life would require little courage. But we keep showing up, even when it might not make sense. We courageously do things we don’t have to do and when we can never be sure of their outcome. We are brave when we are kind and still more courageous when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.


What we don’t know and what we don’t understand are also an invitation to curiosity. Honest humility about our incomplete knowledge is not a cause for shame, but an opportunity for wonder. There will always be more for us to learn, create, discover, and grow. Curiosity should be a practice of our faith—in a God who made us and our world, in our recognition that the world is not what it was intended to be, in our hope for a world that will be redeemed and re-created.

By its beauty and its tragedy, by its wonder and its brokenness, our world is riddled with questions, urgencies, and possibilities. “They are an invitation to engage in an apologetic that is more concerned with ‘gentleness and respect’ than merely ‘giving an answer.’ They are an indication that Christian apologetics must shift its approach from having all the answers, to being present in the questions.”[5] One of the greatest gifts we can give—to our world, to others—is our curiosity and attention.

We live on fertile ground for humility, courage, and holy curiosity. What we don’t know or struggle to understand offers us the space to be most human and most faithful. More than further refining or adding to our doctrinal statements, whatever we might be for or against, our faith must be shaped by our listening and living. And the invitation we can most usefully offer to others is to join in with this incomplete project of humbly and courageously learning, discovering, and working together. What we do with what we don’t know is what makes our faith most real.

Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing near Melbourne, Australia. His Christmas devotional book Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth is great for seasonal reading and gifting. Email him at: [email protected]

[1] Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (2nd edition, T & T Clark, 2009).
[2] Jamie Holmes, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (Crown, 2016).
[3] Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.
[4] “To Father Peter Milward, September 26, 1960,” Letters of C S Lewis (Harcourt Brace, 1993).
[5] Daniel Montañez, “From Truth to Trust: Reimagining the Future of Christian Apologetics,” The Anxious Bench, <https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2022/08/from-truth-to-trust-reimagining-the-future-of-christian-apologetics>.