By Shawn Nowlan — The Seventh-day Adventist Church traces its particular origins to the 1830s when a certain prosperous Baptist lay preacher and farmer in Upstate New York, William Miller, began studying the question of when the world might come to an end—focusing particularly on the book of Daniel.
William Miller would have remained relatively obscure, except that over time—beginning in the 1830s—a group of like-minded Christian individuals became convinced of what he found in his study. They felt that the world needed to hear these conclusions. On February 28, 1840, an experienced pastor and publisher established the Signs of the Times to bring this community into focus and to share with the world that community’s conviction of what was about to occur. Millerism was born, and it took on a life of its own (independent even of William Miller himself).
We are examining how we discern the working of the Holy Spirit—and in the story of the Millerites’ origins, I see something absolutely necessary to the work of the Holy Spirit. That something is a like-minded and open community of believers, in which the Holy Spirit can work and inspire us, humans, to discern what we, in a Seventh-day Adventist worldview, call “Progressive Revelation.”
This focus on community is shot through the entire New Testament. I begin in the Book of Acts, where we read about an earlier open community where this same fertile ground gave the Holy Spirit room to work:
Paul and Silas in Beroea: That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them, therefore, believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. (Acts 17:10-12 NRSV).
We, as Seventh-day Adventists, often focus on the Bereans’ searching of Scripture. By contrast, I want to focus our notice on the characteristics of the Berean community; they were open and receptive to the Holy Spirit as a community. As the early Millerite community was open and receptive, so were the Bereans.
I started with the Bereans to point out their community, yet once we see their community, then we can also notice that community is even more archetypically present in the Acts of the Apostles’ account of Pentecost—the birthday of the Church itself: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven, there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (Acts 2:1-2 NRSV).
It’s easy with all the following spectacular events (i.e. the Holy Spirit descending and the fire, and the spectacular speaking in tongues) to overlook what gave the day its power, to begin with. The believers were already all physically together in one place. They had already formed the community on which the Holy Spirit then descended.
I am choosing these very famous examples from the Book of Acts because they illustrate vividly that the church has always been a community. If you read the greetings in each of Paul’s Epistles, he is almost invariably addressing an already-formed community of believers (even when Paul is specifically addressing individuals, i.e. Titus, Philemon, and Timothy, he sees them as the leaders of a community).
Whether Paul is addressing an individual or a community, he invariably discusses the community’s common life together, bound by the Holy Spirit and in Christ. To Paul, the church is fully present only in community. His attitude is perfectly captured in the Book of Hebrews:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25 NRSV).
Paul’s attitude toward community reflects that of Jesus Christ Himself. When He was praying for his future disciples, He also characterizes them as a community: I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21 NRSV).
The New Testament is so shot through with the idea that Christians should live together in community under Christ and the Holy Spirit, that the idea almost disappears under the individual details of each book. Yet from Christ to Paul to Luke, the importance of the community of the believers is everywhere in the New Testament.
I write this because I think that we, as Seventh-day Adventists, need to recover that sense of the importance of the community of believers as we work to discern what is “true” among the competing narratives that demand our attention and allegiances.
Jesus gave us our community to help us work with the Holy Spirit to discern truth. And in every case from the New Testament, it was the community acting as a whole community that channeled the Holy Spirit in that discernment process. This was also true among our own pioneers and those of the Millerites as well. Christianity works best in community. We are all connected. Christ is the vine and we are the branch- es living together. It takes all of us living together, working to discern what the Holy Spirit has to teach the church at this time in history
–Shawn P. Nowlan is a lifelong member of the Boulder Adventist Church—who sometimes reminds people he was born at Boulder Memorial Hospital in the shadow of Mt. Sanitas. Email him at: [email protected]