In 1995, Martin Weber wrote a book entitled Who’s Got the Truth?: Making Sense Out of Five Different Adventist Gospels. Weber claimed his primary goal was to help fellow Seventh-day Adventists sort through the particular theological emphases of Morris Venden, George Knight, Jack Sequeira, Ralph Larson, and Graham Maxwell. Ironically, what Weber ended up doing was exposing a glaring truth to Adventists and the rest of the world: at any given moment, there are many different versions of Adventism, and Adventists are happy to debate which version is authentically Adventist and which versions should be deemed heretical.

This situation is simultaneously understandable and regrettable. On the one hand, it is natural for Adventists to try to determine which expressions of Adventism accurately reflect the truth of God’s character, love, and plan of salvation. On the other hand, our individual and corporate desire to discern the authenticity and inauthenticity of different versions of Adventism too often falls prey to the temptation of becoming inquisitors for God.

Nevertheless, the question still remains: What is authentic Adventism? While avoiding the pitfalls of tribalism, elitism, spiritual snobbery, judgmentalism, and idolatry, it is still essential for Adventists to determine what is authentic Adventism. Otherwise, we will continue to fight each other over who is a true Adventist and whose version of Adventism is authentic. And this fight will continue to spill over into our interactions with secularists, former Adventists, and the few young people left in our denomination.

But Adventists already have a blueprint for figuring out the answer to this question—and it’s not what you think. The answer to determining authentic Adventism is not in the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14:6-12. That message is a gift from God. But Adventists are divided on what those messages mean. Some maintain those messages are about the Sabbath and the papacy; others claim the emphasis is on a six-day creation week, the seventh day Sabbath, and avoiding other religious groups; and still others assert that those messages are all about Jesus’ love for us, our need to love him, and the importance of surrendering to him. Such disparate understandings of the three angels’ messages can never achieve the kind of unity or authenticity we so desire to see in Adventism.

Likewise, the 1888 message of righteousness by faith is sometimes touted as the remedy for our denominational malaise and the key to restoring “authentic Adventism.” Yet again, this is not the case. Every Adventist insists that we must put our faith in Jesus. But some Adventists stress God’s grace, the beauty of Christ’s character, and the all-sufficiency of Jesus, while other Adventists stress our obedience to God, our replication of Christ’s character in ourselves, and the addition of Jesus’ power to our moral effort. Whatever this dichotomy ultimately means, the one indisputable conclusion is that the message of righteousness by faith is not a silver bullet. There are no shortcuts to authenticity, and this is a hard lesson to learn.

The source for authentic Adventism is actually located in early Adventist history. In the years immediately after the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, early Adventists fractured into many varieties of Adventism. Adventist groups differed widely from each other all over New England and the Midwest. One type of Adventism believed the kingdom of God had arrived, which required us to behave like children to enter it—inclusive of wearing diapers, nursing, and throwing temper tantrums. A second type of Adventism believed God was now judging the world, so all forms of “vanity” must be rejected: forks, shoes, pants, public greetings, manners, hygiene, church attendance, and doing any work or holding a job.

Perhaps none were more rowdy than the charismatic forms of Adventism, which emphasized exuberant worship services, speaking in tongues, prophesying, anarchy, miraculous healing, exorcism, and even forms of fortunetelling, clairvoyance, and hypnotism. The charismatic groups tended to be mean and sometimes unethical in their attempts to convince other Adventists to adopt their version of Adventism. Finally, a clandestine form of Adventism encouraged sexual dalliances as true spirituality: swinger lifestyles, polygamy in communes, and loose forms of “free love” practices similar to what characterized the 1960s.

James and Ellen G. White belonged to one of the smallest versions of Adventism at this time: the Sabbatarian and Sanctuary Adventists. These Adventists believed Jesus loves us so much that he gives us Sabbath rest and works to save us as our high priest. But how could all these versions of Adventism unite in love and a cohesive sense of mission?

The answer was Jesus. As James visited each group and spoke of Jesus’ soon return for his friends, different kinds of Adventists either left Adventism altogether or moved closer to each other in love. As Ellen presented her visions of heaven, mission, and Jesus’ victory over sin and Satan to each group, different kinds of Adventists began to lay aside their own personal interpretations of Adventism and became more Christ-centered. As early Adventist leaders fasted and prayed together, practiced communion together, and confessed and forgave each other, different versions of Adventism began to dissipate and an authentic Adventism began to take shape: a movement of people on fire for Jesus, who had been seized by a great affection for the risen Savior and Lover of their souls.

What does this history lesson mean for authentic Adventism today? According to Adventist history, the essence of authentic Adventism comes when people discover to their shock and delight that Jesus loves them, has already achieved their salvation, and invites them to have a relationship with him—one that starts now, but which is intended to last for eternity. Authentic Adventism is where there is no fear of being unloved, rejected, or unaccepted by Jesus, because we know we are safe in his love—and in that love, we feel safe enough to make friends with others and extend the love and compassion of Jesus to them. True, authentic Adventism sees the Sabbath, the second coming, the state of the dead, the heavenly sanctuary, and the presence of spiritual gifts in the Church through the lens of Jesus, and not merely as doctrines: as indicators of how much Jesus loves us, enjoys our company, delights to take care of us, and desires to equip us for mission and service in preparation for his soon return.

Does any of this look like the Adventism you practice and hold dear? Many Adventists tend to shy away from having too much Jesus and too much of his love in their Adventism. It’s not that we think Jesus is a bad idea; rather, the temptation has always been to “complete” Jesus by having something else serve as the centerpiece of Adventism.

But if Jesus is the author of Adventism, which Adventists have always believed, then a stress on Jesus, his love, and his ongoing work of salvation on behalf of those inside and outside the denomination is the only factor that makes Adventism authentic. It is only as Adventism focuses on Jesus, accepts his love for us, and prioritizes and reaches out to the people Jesus values (everybody!), that we will discover authentic Adventism. The challenge for each of us is to leave behind our factional versions of Adventism, and become authentic Adventists who practice authentic Adventism by worshiping Jesus with all our hearts, souls, minds, and love—in short, with every fiber of our beings.

Nathaniel Gamble is the RMC public affairs and religious liberty director and senior pastor of Denver West Seventh-day Adventist Church and Aspen Park Seventh-day Adventist Church. He is in the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Email him at: [email protected]