I don’t actually view myself as “ex” anything, even though we all are ex-something and headed onward to something else, I hope. But I don’t shun contact with members of the church in which I grew up, and thus I sometimes have to deal with the default identity of ex-Seventh-day Adventist.
Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of SDAs who see me as a person apart from that one point of identity. There are even some non-SDAs–who were never SDAs–who define me as an ex-SDA. The connection between the church in which I grew up and my present identity cannot be severed in their view. What they would like me to do is cut all ties as clearly as possible and make myself anti-SDA. It’s the old “if you’re not for us, you’re against us” approach. And of course that approach isn’t bad if the question is good and evil, God or satan, constructive or destructive. But for brothers and sisters in Christ, I reject that approach.
I can illustrate this through two experiences. The first came as I was coordinating a series of events with Dr. Alden Thompson, professor of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University. One of these was at an SDA church. While I was in the back of the room selling copies of Alden’s book, a young man approached me and asked me about my own affiliations. When he found out I had been raised and educated SDA and yet was now a Methodist, he said, “I just can’t imagine how anyone could have issues with Seventh-day Adventists doctrine!” Well, I can.
The reverse occurred when I gave a copy of my mother’s book Directed Paths to an evangelical non-SDA to read. She objected to the fact that I quoted Ellen White in the preface, even though the specific quote was certainly harmless. To her, my quoting Ellen White implied some kind of endorsement of every word she had said, and thus put my dedication to orthodox Christianity in question.
But I simply don’t see it that way. I’m ex-SDA, and now United Methodist because I do not agree with certain specific SDA doctrines that would make it difficult for me to worship and do ministry as a member of an SDA church. There are similar doctrinal issues that would make it difficult for me to work and ministry through a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America, the Southern Baptists, or the Assemblies of God. Yet I have no problem calling all of the above groups Christian brothers and sisters. In fact, rather than calling myself a Methodist, I like to call myself a Christian who is a member of a United Methodist congregation. You see, there are plenty of Methodists with whom I have similar doctrinal disagreements.
I would prefer to ask just what strengths there are in the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, and to look at just how I can benefit from those strengths. In my own experience there are quite a number. I was steeped in the Bible as a young person. I took an extraordinarily varied set of courses in Biblical studies and Biblical languages from skilled instructors in Seventh-day Adventist schools. I got an excellent view of ethics and some holiness teaching. I don’t agree with everything I was taught, but I have to ask who does agree with everything they were taught in school? More importantly, who should agree with everything?
If I am to criticize my SDA education I would say that I actually agreed with way too much of what I was taught, and was not challenged by enough “foreign” ideas. I didn’t spend enough time sufficiently early in my life learning to evaluate a variety of ideas.
As a Methodist, I’m not going to make the same mistake. I have a particular heritage because of my background. That gives me the opportunity to bring the broad center of Christianity into contact with Seventh-day Adventists and vice-versa. I think this is a good thing. It does force me to fight the ex-SDA label from both sides, but that’s worth the price. That is not the only barrier I’m interested in crossing, but it is one that I am well-equipped to challenge.
As Christians we are far too fearful of seeing our beliefs challenged, even by those within our own faith. As a Wesleyan-Arminian, I need to be challenged by Calvinists, and they by me. Those who tend toward antinomianism need to be challenged by the more positive view of law present in the Adventist tradition, and of course the reverse is true as well. If our doctrinal beliefs are so fragile that hearing a sermon or a teaching that challenges them frightens us and makes us want to go hide in our denominational caves, then those beliefs are too fragile, either ontologically or perhaps merely in our own minds. Fear is a sign of weakness, not of strength.
This weekend there is a conference going on at Andrews University commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book Questions on Doctrine. Some SDAs would prefer this event not be commemorated. I think it’s a good thing, simply because it stirred up thought. The bad thing is those who try to smooth the waters before the benefit of living water is gained by all.
At the same time I will be putting my words into action, as Pacesetters Bible School again hosts Dr. Alden Thompson on the campus of a United Methodist Church, in our conference on restoring Biblical literacy. This is too late for advertising. I simply provide the link as evidence that I practice what I preach on this point.
Those who tend to think of me as a closet SDA because I was raised SDA, have to do no more than read a little bit of this blog (the creation vs. evolution entries would do nicely) to realize that this isn’t the case. SDAs can ponder how I could possible reject SDA doctrines, and that’s fine too. Other ex-SDAs can wonder how I can both leave the church and still have a positive view of it. I hope they do think about that. One of the greatest tragedies is someone who lives their life in resentment over how someone treated them and whose identity is truly provided by what they have rejected.
There are joys and sorrows to being ex-SDA, and in the end, I find it’s not so different from any other piece of my life that I’ve left partially behind, but is still part of me.