I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: "Stop. Don't do it."
"Why shouldn't I?" he asked.
"Well, there's so much to live for!"
"Are you religious?"
He said: "Yes."
I said: "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"
He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."
I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.
In 2005, that absurd joke won a contest for funniest religious jokes from 951 submissions. They say the most humorous jokes have a smidge of truth to them. Perhaps this joke resonated with so many people of faith because it’s more than a smidge. The punchline of being divided by a small difference within a corner of a particular brand of a specific denominational group within a faith is something familiar to many of us. As we look at the state of Adventism in 2018, it seems like the joke’s on us.
I remember myself eliciting a hearty laugh from an older friend and colleague after I had finished my theology undergrad degree. I was convinced I was a religious “liberal.” He shook his head at my naïveté and smiled, “no, you’re not.” The term was often casually tossed around to designate people who thought drums were fine in church and women wearing slacks to worship wasn’t heresy. Perhaps distinctions like those are the ones that come to the forefront of your mind when you hear that term, too. Things like jewelry or makeup or vegetarianism or reading an electronic Bible vs. a paper one are all defining issues in many of our minds. But my friend knew better. “Those superficial things don’t define whether you are conservative or liberal.”
His comment wasn’t based on any contempt for either of the words themselves. Although some people use the terms “liberal” or “conservative” as pejoratives, they are really just descriptive labels. And he helped me understand that I was using them incorrectly. Though he was only slightly my senior, at this point in his career, he had already been in several theological scholarly circles that exchanged ideas in various arenas that were not exclusively Adventist. On the other hand, while I knew many non-Adventists on a personal level, I wasn’t immersed in the world of engaging in deep theological conversations with other religious scholars from different faiths. Because of our Adventist infrastructure, we can become isolated if we aren’t intentional. Because of that, it’s easy to become so inwardly focused that we believe our tiny corner of the earth is the entire world. Yet, we are just a small sliver of the Church Universal and only a speck in the overall religious community.
Once you appreciate the vast array of faiths worldwide, it becomes abundantly clear: the truth is, theologically speaking, it’s almost impossible to be both Adventist and liberal simultaneously. While that statement is bound to unite folks in all pockets of Adventism in disbelief and irritation, it’s grounded in reality. Adventism is an inherently conservative denomination. Things like believing in God as Creator and the Bible as revelation are actually not shared to the same extent by all Christians. Anyone who goes by the moniker “Seventh-day Adventist” has a particular view about God and Scripture that is definitively and firmly right of the spectrum. Certainly, there are gradations within that band. But if we zoom out to see the big picture of faith as an entire rainbow, the difference between so called “liberal” and “conservative” Adventists is like the difference between manganese and cerulean.
To be fair, I am not attempting to trivialize the concerns of those who are affected by the sharp disagreements we have within our denomination. Obviously as a woman in ministry, several of the issues we debate are not merely theoretical for me. I am very much invested not only in equal treatment of women, but in our advocacy role in the wider justice arena worldwide. However, even considering the divisions we have, it’s odd to ascribe heretical ideals to those whose overall theological perspective is separated from mine by a hair’s breadth. Does that mean those differences aren’t real? Of course they are real. But do we need to push each other off of bridges over it? I think not. After all, before we are anything else, we’re Christians. And as followers of Christ, we have overwhelmingly more that binds us together than divides us. Or at least we should.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/courtney-ray
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