The current denominational crisis offers an important opportunity to ask a difficult yet essential question: should we be surprised?
Put more specifically, should the emergence of centralized authority demanding universal compliance in the service of protecting corporate identity be viewed, in an Adventist context, as an unexpected, unanticipated reality or as an anticipated, even highly predictable eventuality? Are we to interpret the current actions of senior church leadership as foreign, and even hostile, to the spirit and practice of Adventism or are they welcome, familiar, at home within the Adventist journey?
I offer this reflection because many who have expressed concern regarding the imperatives of current world church leadership (and I include myself among the concerned) have generally argued that the ways and means of General Conference governance over the past several years are patently out of step with the history and personality of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The critique has largely gone something like this: “These proposals, and the theologies upon which they are founded, are outside the scope of the church’s teachings and established practice.” Rationale in support of the protest has included appeals to the traditional importance of progressive revelation, the value of unity above uniformity, the denomination’s decision to implement shared authority through a federalized church governance structure, freedom of personal conscience, the Protestant spirit, and more.
Critique of current General Conference leadership actions, however, has almost exclusively been a judgment held up against an early Adventist ideal, near-wholly constructed of first-generation Adventist experience. Appeals to 19th century Adventist libertarian impulses, the founders’ anti-authoritarian concerns, and particularly the historic pen of Ellen White pushing against administrative overreach, have all been employed as the measuring stick by which current General Conference actions are judged. In so many words, the argument of protest has been, “What is now going on in 21st century Adventism is in violation of 19th century Adventism.”
THE MISSING CENTURY
I suspect what has been missing in the conversation surrounding our 21st century Adventist crisis is how it should be understood against the backdrop of 20th century Adventism. I fear we have too quickly jumped from 1900 (or 1915, the year of Ellen White’s death) to 2018, and declared, “This business isn’t legitimate Adventism!” And what we have meant is the older variety.
We have, I suspect, skipped a century.
What about the experience of Adventism in the 20th century? How did the denomination develop over the past 100 years or so? Is it possible the current priorities of top church leadership may well be in disharmony with early Adventism but in partial or even full harmony with more recent Adventism?
Returning to our original question, is it possible we are in a moment of great surprise held against the backdrop of our 19th century story but in a rather predictable place given our 20th century story?
I wish to explore the possibility that two 20th century retreats from earlier 19th century Adventist impulses have led us to the present moment. These retreats, I argue, largely occurred in the second half of the 20th century but found root in friendly soil well-tilled in the first half of the 20th century, when Adventism failed to successfully navigate a third way amid the fundamentalist/liberal storm.
Here’s an oversimplified summary of that earlier stormy period (a familiar topic for many readers, of which many capable historians have written):
Adventists fell prey to a polarized, binary choice set before Christianity: will you be (a) fundamentalist or will you be (b) liberal? Old 19th century Adventism, of course, would reply, “(c) neither, we don’t like either option.”
20th century Adventism, however, strayed from its ancestor, rejecting the possibility and path of a third way. Instead, they (properly) rejected the liberal course but (improperly) embraced the way of the fundamentalist. And the church emigrated philosophically (and theologically) to foreign territory.
As a result, our collective denominational temperament grew stricter, more rigid, more literalistic, more protectionist, more warlike in our defense of ourselves and our propositions about God. The first half of the 20th century changed the very personality of the denomination. (I remember watching my very Adventist grandparents, and to some degree my Adventist parents, children of this period, labor to negotiate the expectation of the era.)1
The first-half of the 20th century changed the very nature of the Adventist Church and led to, I believe, a preoccupation with two powerful ideas: authority and identity. In each category the church renegotiated (reinterpreted) its earlier priorities and principles. Then, in the second-half of the 20th century, the period I grew up in and became witness to, the church watered down and, in places, substantially rejected original Adventist convictions.
A RETREAT FROM BIBLICAL AUTHORITY
The first retreat came in the realm of authority. The earlier church was unwavering in its conviction that Holy Scripture was the seat of doctrinal authority for the church. Church leadership, including Ellen White, spoke and wrote with passion and regularity about the danger of displacing the Bible’s authority, naming the threats of church tradition, papal pronouncements, modern whims, societal trends, and even turning to the writings of “Mrs. White” as a substitute for Scripture. This emphasis, claiming the exclusive, supreme, unrivaled authority of the inspired, canonical Text is almost without peer in the theological priority list of 19th century Adventism.
The wake of this Bible-only conviction still rippled in the second half of the 20th century. My own recollection, in fact, as a boy growing up in 1970s and 1980s American Adventism, is of preachers reminding congregations and Sabbath School teachers reminding students: The Bible and the Bible alone!
Scripture was sacred, the Testaments holy, the bound Revelation was never allowed to sit underneath another book. Authority was Genesis through Revelation and we sat in awe and respect of this inspired Book: too great to ever fully comprehend, too powerful to ever subdue. We were made to feel humble under the weight of the Bible.
And it humbled us.
What I did not know as an elementary church school kid, blissfully enjoying Adventist education, is that cracks in the Scripture’s stronghold were emerging. My wild Bible was being tamed. It had to be. After all, the wars raged: secularism, modernism, liberalism, Catholicism, apostate Protestantism, higher criticism, and on it went. The early Adventists had fought against formation of creed and creedal thinking. But now, times were different. For friend and foe alike, we needed to nail down our fundamental (fundamentalist) convictions. And so, a process was put in place, substituting the enormity of the Bible for a tightly curtailed list of statements.
And The Authority was abridged.
The change I noticed as I grew from child to teenager to young adult to adult was subtle but unmistakable: while, at first, I heard about the importance of the Bible, slowly, but surely, it gave way to the importance of the Fundamental Beliefs. This change, in my experience, didn’t happen all at once; it was like two lines on a graph, one slowing rising from the bottom toward the top, the other slowly sinking from top to bottom. The lines crossed, and the Fundamentals gained greater authority than the Bible. And the authority gap continued to grow.
Here is a sampling of appeals to this “new authority” from my own experience.
• A General Conference Biblical Research Institute theologian told me not long ago, “Alex, it’s my job to protect ‘the 28’.” (Setting aside the inherent problems with “protecting” doctrine, should not the job of the Biblical Research Institute be stewardship of the Bible?) It seems to me this exchange is indicative of where we are now in prioritization of authority.
• In countless clergy conversations, and particularly participating in job interviews for pastors and other denominational employees, “Do you support ‘the 28’?” is a standard, predictable question. It’s asked almost as the key litmus test question. Rarely, in my experience, are questions asked about the sweep and wonder of Scripture in the life.
• I have often heard rationale for change, doing new things, building fresh ministries, expanding mission (including the appropriateness of the ordination of women) argued for this way: “In no way does this new idea violate ‘the 28.’ We are 100% committed to the Fundamentals. We can do this because it doesn’t touch our ’28’ – we are legitimate, faithful, orthodox Seventh-day Adventists.” A pledge of loyalty to the doctrinal list is the authoritative standard by which change agents gain sanction.
• Finally, and notably, in the many recent, public critiques of the current actions of General Conference leadership, I am struck by a relative paucity of Scriptural reference in contrast with numerous appeals to the quotations of Ellen White, early Adventist leaders, the Adventist tradition and spirit, and even propositions set forth in the Fundamental Beliefs. Evidently, if you really want to employ effective force in support of an argument, referencing Scripture simply holds insufficient rhetorical and persuasive power. Other sources bring a more forceful authoritative punch: Ellen White, Adventist tradition, ‘the 28.’ (In fact, using Amens! as a barometer, many preachers will tell you a verse from Matthew or Luke pales in congregational volume compared to a quip from the Spirit of Prophecy or Adventist history.)
My contention: Scripture has lost its primal punch. For Adventists, the Bible is no longer wild, but tamed; no longer mysterious, but controlled. The Bible, bigger than us, has largely been disintegrated and reaggregated in a list of propositions, which are smaller than us. God breathed the Bible; we breathed the ‘28.’ And herein lies ground ripe for our present moment.
We, ourselves, have become the higher authority. We no longer find a natural and impulsive accountability to a rule outside ourselves – God-breathed Scripture. Instead, our inherent inclination is a turn toward other authorities … of our own making.
The result? Ecclesiastic humility, under the weight of Scripture, has been replaced with ecclesiastic over-confidence, the result of relying on an authority source of our own creation.
The creator is always greater than the creation.
A RETREAT FROM THE JESUS IDENTITY
The second retreat of the second-half of the 20th century is in the realm of identity. Our historian George Knight has written extensively on this subject, naming one of his masterworks, A Search for Identity. The thesis of his book: Adventists have been trying to sort out who we are since the beginning. And we continue to “search” for this somewhat elusive answer.
Are we Christian? Are we Adventist? Are we both? How are we unique? Peculiar? Prophetic? Remnant? Why do we exist? Who are we?
The identity shift I have in mind draws upon Knight’s deft observation, but it is broader. My contention is the Adventist story has not only been about an attempt to sort out the question of who we are but also the question of who Jesus is. In fact, I think we have maintained a determined and prioritized focus on discovering our own identity with intermittent periods of interest in the identity of Jesus Christ.
Childhood memories may, of course, be clouded, but I recall a heavy dose of Jesus in my youth. I remember a preoccupation with the Desire of Ages and the person of Jesus, his miracles, his conversations, his stories, his death, his resurrection. A fascination with the identity of Jesus seemed to at least be on par with my church’s interest in its own identity. “A search for identity” had much to do with finding out who the 1st century Rabbi really was, who this risen King of kings and Lord of lords really is.
And this was the case at the beginning.
Knight points out that the personality of Jesus was a (the) dominant focus in the very early days of the Millerite and Adventist movement(s). Setting aside all the failed predictions, miscalculations, and overcorrections, the primal, foundational impulse of Adventists was clear: they wanted to be with Jesus. The emotional, gut-wrenching reactions during the period of disappointment provide powerful evidence of the core desire of our founding parents: they longed for Jesus.
Subsequent decades (through the mid-1880s) were filled with other organizational interests, but then a return to the topic of Jesus. Knight suggests 1886-1919 as an era the denomination asked, What is Christian in Adventism? which is at the very least a question of how we relate to the larger “Jesus community.”
Ellen White, during this period, goes beyond a mere interest in Christianity to the personality and life of Jesus Christ himself: Steps to Christ (1892), Thoughts on The Mount of Blessing (1896), The Desire of Ages (1898), Christ’s Object Lessons (1900), Ministry of Healing (1905). This Christocentric crescendo marked the conclusion of White’s ministry and the focus of the church at the turn of the century.
The 1900s Adventist story, I believe, reveals a general retreat from that Desire of Ages epoch, when interest in the personality of Jesus (his identity) was prominent, if not paramount. 20th century fundamentalism, as I referenced above, and ecclesiology – sorting out the identity of the church, our doctrines, our values, our culture, our eschatological place – took center stage.
Indicative of this lasting pivot away from the supremacy of Jesus is the nature of later Adventist outliers. In the second-half of the 20th century I knew the name Morris Venden, for example, because he was “preaching Jesus,” which was uncommon. I don’t mean to suggest that the collective guild of professional Adventist preachers was wholesale abandoning a teaching of the person of Jesus. What I am suggesting is that then, and even today, the notorious preachers of Jesus often stand out explicitly because they are in the distinct minority. Ecclesiology, eschatology, denominational identity and lifestyle – these are common, expected Adventist themes.
Jesus is not.
The lasting, primary interest of the denomination is revealed in the recent formation of five General Conference oversight committees. Here are the topics (of priority) worth investing precious time, coin, and the energies of top denominational leadership:
• General Conference Core Policies
• Doctrine, Policies, Statements and Guidelines on Creation/Origins
• Doctrine, Policies, Statements and Guidelines Regarding Homosexuality
• Distinctive Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
• Doctrines, Policies, Statements and Guidelines Regarding Issues of Ordination
In summary, the subjects of choice articulate our primary denominational concern:
• our policies,
• our distinctive beliefs (the ones held by no other group),
• and three issues we regard as markers of our denominational identity: origins, homosexuality, and women’s ordination.
I am, here, not making a critique on the subjects themselves but rather on the theme of the set as a whole: the concern is, in total, about the identity of our denominational organization. Knight was right: A Search For (Our) Identity.
By contrast, if the primary concern were instead an exploration of the identity (the person and priorities) of Jesus Christ, a list of five committees might look something like this:
• The Committee on worshiping the person of Jesus
• The Committee on living the moral ethics of Jesus
• The Committee on practicing the healing ministry of Jesus
• The Committee on building the vision of Jesus for human community
• The Committee on celebrating the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus
This imagined suite of General Conference governance committees reveals a very different focus, yes?
There is not space here to articulate the many ways we consistently relegate exploration of the identity of Jesus (a) to a place of tertiary importance and/or (b) as a real threat to the greater work of Adventist identity.
I can say, from my own experience as a co-founder and leader of the One project, an organization with a stated mission of celebrating the supremacy of Christ in the Adventist church, that resistance to the priority of Jesus is common. One recent exchange with a notable Adventist evangelist is illustrative. “Alex, what I need to know is this: do you believe in the regular Christian Jesus or the Adventist Jesus?” he asked. This question plainly suggests “Jesus” has been subsumed by Adventism – a lessor identity useful only in support of something greater.
AUTHORITY AND IDENTITY: SUMMARY
What does this all have to do with our present crisis?
First, a retreat from biblical authority to creedal authority shifts church leadership from a posture of accountability under Scripture to holding the church accountable under denominational authority. Scripture is God-breathed, and therefore, above us; church creeds are man-breathed, and therefore, beneath us. Doctrinal statements have a place in the life of the church but cannot supplant Scripture without this consequence.
Second, a retreat from a focus on the identity of Jesus to our own identity shifts the priority of church leadership from worshiping Jesus to worrying about ourselves. A focus on Jesus, who is “the image of the invisible God,” “the exact representation of his being” (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3) conceives a spirit of humility in the church. By contrast, when we “exchange the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being” (Romans 1:23) we focus on our own identity, which leads to self-centeredness, and human arrogance. Perhaps, this is why John pleads, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
AUTHORITY AND IDENTITY: CONSEQUENCE
The original question of this article asked, “Should we be surprised?” In other words, should the current crisis in our denomination be viewed as unexpected or expected?
I believe the emergence of centralized authority demanding universal compliance in the service of protecting corporate identity would be shocking, and unacceptable, to the founders of church and most of all to Ellen White. However, I believe the present circumstance is not a surprise when the story of the post-Ellen White 20th century is considered. During those important decades, we substantially substituted the authority of Scripture for Adventist creed; we substantially abandoned as our primary occupation the identity of Jesus in favor of a focus on ourselves.
This new, twin commitment, to the establishment of the church’s authority and the protection of the church’s identity, has led to the growth of a substantial administrative governing structure, well-nourished by the tithes and offerings of the church. This system of ecclesiastic management is populated by wonderful, godly men (and a few women). These men are good people: dedicated, committed, loyal. But their collective task – authority and identity – has been made altered by the influential weight of the church’s more recent history.
The church survived the 20th century intact but not unchanged. The founding generation, including Ellen White, formed a new Christian denomination upon the idea that the authority of Scripture and the identity of Jesus should be supreme. These charter impulses were sidelined in favor of denominational authority and denominational identity – and this is now what we expect of our leaders.
Therefore, the 21st century actions of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists should not surprise us. These leaders are children of the 20th century. These administrators were elected by the global congregation – a fellowship carrying the DNA of our 20th century ancestors – with the expectation that they would be faithful custodians of our collective priorities.
I have come, slowly, to this conclusion: we must not carelessly scapegoat our current leaders as uninvited proponents of a divergent way; we cannot interpret the present crisis simplistically as leadership run afoul of the regular Adventist order. Rather, we must recognize these leaders are guarding, if imperfectly, Adventist authority and identity, which is precisely what history and what we have asked them to do.
And they are doing it.
And they will continue to do it.
For they, as elected leaders, will be faithful to the church’s wishes.
AUTHORITY AND IDENTITY: FUTURE
The problem, as I see it, is that we are asking our leaders to do the wrong things.
In fact, we are asking them to do unAdventist things – as measured by our founding mothers’ and founding fathers’ example. When we, essentially, hold our leaders accountable, at every level, to (a) lead a robust creedalism in support of denominational authority and to (b) govern some system of compliance in support of denominational identity, we are, I believe, failing in our role as Adventist constituents. (Yes, I’m arguing that we are all on the hook for the present crisis.)
We have given our leaders the wrong marching orders.
But what if we changed our expectations? What if we held 19th century (or better yet 1st century) expectations of ourselves and of our 21st century leaders?
What if we suspended our easy, habitual appeals to our private portfolio of sectarian authorities and instead returned to reading Scripture, telling Scripture, talking Scripture, quoting Scripture, thinking Scripture?
What if we took down all the mirrors in the house of the church – reflective surfaces designed to consider our own image, to search for our own identity, and instead, erected God’s One True Idol, Jesus Christ, and poured ourselves into considering “the exact representation of His being”?
Imagine if we, on the cusp of the second-quarter of the 21st century, re-engaged founding priorities. Imagine how the Movement might blossom under a fresh revival in areas of authority and identity. Imagine a re-engagement with the life-giving authority of God-breathed Scripture: exploring its songs and stories, history and hope. Imagine an interface with the Bible (does this sound too old-fashioned?) with pen and paper in hand – charting the Holy Writ anew.
And, above all, imagine an infatuation with Jesus and His identity – preaching His biography, teaching His ethic, living into his Way by the God-breathed Winds of His Spirit. Imagine Sabbath School classes for a decade that never leave the wonder of Him; imagine pulpits captivated, uninterrupted by the One Who is before all things and in Whom all things are held together.
Imagine, if we, like John the Baptist, declared, “we must decrease, He must increase.”
What a great surprise that will be.
1. I wish to acknowledge – and this footnote was not included in the original version of this essay – a wealth of Adventist achievement in the 1900s. The period is freighted with acts of gospel mission in the Way of Jesus and in the original Spirit of Adventism.The church and the world were blessed through the well-applied gifts of pastors, teachers, missionaries, physicians, Kingdom entrepreneurs, laypeople of all stripes, and the formation of thoroughly Christian institutions (churches, camps, colleges, community centers and more). Further, we must include the positive contribution of 20century theologians and theology. Ample biblical reflection, product, and popular application nourished the church. The story above does not erase the many ways the church lifted the human family and made buoyant a sinking world community. Rather, the retreat is best understood as an undercurrent, a slow, often unnoticed, drift away from original Adventist shores.
Alex Bryan is a founder of the One Project and administrative director for mission identity at Adventist Health. This article originally appeared on the One Project website and is republished here with permission.
Image: Aaron Burden / Unsplash
Editor's Note (Oct. 19, 2018, 6:55 a.m. ET): This article has been updated to include the footnote.
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