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When One Issue Drowns Out Others

When One Issue Drowns Out Others

After interviewing Allan R. Bevere a few days ago I discovered another video. First, here’s my interview with Allan. We were talking about the United Methodist Church General Conference in 2019 looking for a way forward as a denomination with regard to same-sex marriage and related issues.

The new video is from the Adventist News Network (HT Spectrum Magazine), which is an official project of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Long time readers of this blog will know I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, but am now a member of a United Methodist congregation. Here it is:

The issues in the two denominations are different. While United Methodists discuss homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Seventh-day Adventists are discussing ordination of women. In many discussions, I have heard the arguments against women’s ordination expressed in terms of the danger of a slippery slope toward accepting homosexuality. The claim is that the same arguments might be, and have been, used for both.

In the process of discussing these issues, however, we see a number of things:

  • Money becomes a key. In the United Methodist Church it becomes a question of how much power our brethren in the global south should have over the church seeing as they are financially supported by the American church. In the SDA Church the issue of tithe has now been raised, as the North American Division wants to reduce the percentage of its tithe sent to other divisions.
  • People are accused based simply on their viewpoint. I understand how this happens. Sincerity does not mean one is right. One can be passionately and sincerely wrong, even when rightly motivated. (I should know! I’ve been there and might be now!) But one can be firm on one’s convictions and still be respectful.
  • Each side accuses the other of bringing disunity. This is a choice that comes to all. When a “Martin Luther” moment comes is it an act of disunity or an act of conscience?
  • One’s opponents may be seen as guilty of putting a stop to the gospel message, such as the implication in the Adventist News Network video that those who support women’s ordination are holding back the work of the gospel and preparation for the coming of Jesus.
  • Conformity is seen as unity.
  • Everyone starts looking at the legal ownership of church property (see the first point)!

I have made my opinion on women in ministry clear, so I can’t stand back and play facilitator to a discussion. I believe that those God has gifted in any way should serve in that way, and I do believe women can be and are gifted for ministry. I believe God equips those he calls and the equipping is quite enough evidence. On homosexuality I’ve tried to stand back. A very good friend who passed away recently said to me once: “Henry, it’s very hard to be both a prophet and a facilitator.” He was very right. So I’ve refrained from any pulpit pounding type statements on homosexuality. It doesn’t mean I have no opinions; just that I’m going to let others do the discussion, and there’s no lack of those ready and waiting to engage.

But let me turn to two other issues on which I’ll make something of a statement. I’m a firm believer on the one hand that we should have unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and especially charity in all things. (Note the interesting and difficult history of the saying I paraphrase.) On the other hand I believe in keeping your essentials to a minimum, as reflected in the doctrinal statement I use for my publishing company, Energion Publications. I’ve discussed this before, and will link to my post Not All Doctrines Are Equal, which links to several others.)

For my first issue I’m opposed to just about any form of prosperity theology, or even letting finance drive the train. Financial management is necessary, but it’s generally the first thing to get in the way of good moral decision making. We simply don’t take the time to find a way to do things that is financially responsible and yet morally right.

In the case of the controversies I’m mentioning, this comes up in wanting to diminish the influence of some people over finance. Money is the presenting issue, but behind it is the fact that someone does not like the viewpoint of the other person. Whether I agree with someone or not, I believe as a Christian that I must respect that person. The believer in Africa, South America, or Asia is not diminished before God because I don’t like the way he or she will vote in a conference. Financial status should not change the nature of our relationships in the family of God. In this case, I think it would be better to lose a vote than to in any diminish another person.

Of course, this must include not diminishing the person who is on the other side, or who is being argued about. Whether we are talking about the level of a person’s financial contributions, their sexuality, or simply their gender, it can be (usually is) paternalistic and diminishing when the person with the power discusses whether to share that power with the person who does not. In the kingdoms of the world it may be necessary. I think Jesus calls us to better behavior. (Not that I know how to always do it right.)

Money comes up in terms of church property as well. Allan Bevere noted that the one thing that may connect us soon is our pensions (speaking as a pastor). One of the things that will likely cause controversy is those congregations who, no matter what happens, may want to withdraw from the United Methodist Church. Then we face the specter of people claiming the name of Jesus fighting it out in secular court due to church property. Quoth Paul, “Why would it not be better to be wronged? Why would it not be better to be defrauded?”

Second, however, is the issue of hierarchy. All of these issues become issues of power. Who gets to tell who else what they should and shouldn’t do, and who gets to enforce the result. Again, after noting how the rulers of the nations behaved, Jesus told his disciples it was not to be that way with them. The greatest should be a servant. (Mark 10:41-45) I wonder how the debate would change if we saw it as a question of serving rather than having power over. (In fact, I have a problem with the whole idea of a separated class of ordained clergy, but that is a different debate.)

I hope and pray that both my former and my present denominations will find a Christ-like way through their divisions. I don’t actually feel very hopeful. Perhaps it’s “Oh me of little faith!” Still it doesn’t look that good, no matter which direction the wind blows on the various doctrines. There is likely a right and wrong answer.  I tend to believe in moral absolutes while doubting our ability to come very close to them. But we must not violate much clearer moral values, such as the way we treat one another, in the pursuit of those truths.

When we pursue absolutes at the expense of other absolutes, the resulting mess is absolute.

The Little Horn of Daniel (Again)

The Little Horn of Daniel (Again)

Since I grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist, I almost have to be interested in Daniel 8, particularly 8:14, which is critical to the development of the Adventist movement. For those not acquainted with that history, this is the verse from which the prediction of the second coming of Jesus on October 22, 1844 was derived. In turn, that doctrine developed into the doctrine of the investigative judgment, which I list as one of my reasons for not being an SDA today.

While at first my objections were exegetical and based on Daniel 8:14, I have come to be more concerned with the soteriology involved. I still hold to those original objections.

Thus I link to an article from Adventist Today, Why the Little Horn of Daniel 8 Must Be Antiochus Epiphanes. I would note that the author, Winston McHarg, resigned from the SDA ministry in 1978, while I was a student at Walla Walla College, and still a few years before I left the SDA church. For a short article, this one is well-done exegetically.

Why I Publish Books by and for Seventh-day Adventists

Why I Publish Books by and for Seventh-day Adventists

This may seem like a simple question. A better one might be, “Why not?”

Some Prefatory Remarks

sda booksSeventh-day Adventists (SDAs) are often misunderstood, which complicates the issue. If I had transferred my membership from a Presbyterian church, for example, to a United Methodist congregation, it’s unlikely anyone would ask me why I maintain relationships with Presbyterians. As an ex-SDA, however, I’m often asked questions like the one I’m trying to answer right now. SDAs ask me how I could possibly leave the church. At an SDA church where one of my authors was speaking, a young man exclaimed to me, “How could you possibly have difficulties with SDA doctrine?” If you want to understand why I left the SDA church or how I feel about it, you might try reading The Joys and Sorrows of Being ex-SDA.

Here’s my key point: While I disagree with the Seventh-day Adventist Church on a number of doctrinal points, especially on issues of prophecy and some applications of the (otherwise valuable) term “remnant people,” I still regard them as brothers and sisters in Christ, in the same way and on the same basis that I regard fellow Methodists, or members of Presbyterian, Baptist, Assemblies, United Church of Christ, independent, or any other Christian congregation. I have disagreements on doctrine with pretty much everyone I know (often including yesterday’s version of myself), and that doesn’t make me deny Christian fellowship.

But there are always those other questions about SDAs. They’re different, yes, but they’re more different in weirder ways than others. Which reminds me of the church Staff-Parish Relations committee that decided that an SDA speaker, who had also spoken at continuing education events for pastors at the conference level, could not be allowed to speak at their church. Having read something about Latter Day Saints, they were certain they didn’t want an SDA to speak. Surely we should stick to Methodist speakers.

There are two forms of ignorance here. 1) There’s ignorance of precisely who SDAs are and what they believe, and 2) There’s the ignorance of just how much weirdness we have in mainline denominations. If I need to find a crazy speaker, but am limited to those who are United Methodists, I will have no difficulty at all!

What I Publish

So what does this have to do with publishing?

Very little, actually. It’s just that people expect it to.

I frequently have to remind people that I am a Christian publisher, publishing books selected for a Christian audience. That doesn’t mean that all our readers are Christians. What’s more, it doesn’t mean that all our authors are Christians. In a blog post titled Why Did You Publish THAT Manuscript? (on the Energion blog), I noted that “We judge manuscripts and not authors here at Energion Publications.”

To me that is a rather obvious point, but it has raised questions. In order to guarantee the publishing of Christian authors only I would have to first define the boundaries of Christianity, and then make myself the judge of whether someone had met those criteria or managed to fall within those boundaries. I can do that for myself with regard to organizations and systems. It’s a simple matter of definitions and categorization. To do it with persons would be problematic. In fact, I personally simply accept anyone’s self-confession of what their religious view is.

Further, as publishers have discovered before, it’s much more difficult to determine whether a person is a good person than it is to determine whether a manuscript is a good manuscript. I choose to deal with manuscripts.

Seventh-day Adventists

I think my earlier remarks largely answer the question. When a manuscript by an SDA author seems to me to be of interest to my audience, an audience which definitely does include SDAs, I’ll publish it, always provided it meets other necessary criteria. I avoid publishing books that are of interest to only one denomination, for example.

Here are some specific points:

  • Am I on a mission to convert SDAs and get them out of the SDA church? No. I have no intention of persuading anyone to leave their denomination. In fact, I will state that if you’re leaving any church, including the SDA church, because of anger at the organization, you’re going to find plenty of imperfections wherever you go. If you leave a church congregation or a denomination, do so for positive reasons. I may disagree with some doctrines of the SDA church, and so I moved to an organization that is more doctrinally compatible with my views, but I applaud and highly value the SDA educational and health systems. I also value much of the theological work done by SDAs over the years. I can both disagree with, and value, ideas.
  • What about the seventh day Sabbath? I consider the Sabbath a part of one’s approach to worship and a spiritual practice. Where I have seen it carried out as a spiritual practice, I find the seventh day Sabbath valuable. As with any other activity, it can be converted into a legalistic “work,” but the key here is “any other activity.” Because keeping the seventh day as the Sabbath stands out as unusual, people take it as extraordinary evidence of legalism. But it’s simply one more practice that can be positive or negative. I have said before that I miss the Sabbath as practiced in SDA circles. I have other means of seeing sacred time, but there’s nothing that quite matches taking sacred time together with a community.
  • Don’t SDAs think they’re the only true Christians? Some of them do. So do one or two Methodists. I think this is a problem for the SDA church partly because of teaching about God’s remnant people. But I have no problem with SDAs as a group over it. Most SDAs that I encounter treat me as a fellow-Christian even though I have left the church. There are occasional folks who treat me as an apostate. I believe that could be solved if there were no people in the SDA church. As things are, we’re stuck with it.
  • But SDAs don’t believe we go to heaven when we die! Indeed they don’t. Neither do I. I think the Bible is actually quite unclear about what happens after death, but the balance, I believe, favors soul sleep and a resurrection. I just don’t happen to think it matters. Arguing about this is very time-bound thinking. If I die and go to heaven immediately, there will be one breath here and next (breath? who knows?) on the other side. If I die and sleep with God until the resurrection, there will be one breath here, and the next (whatever!) on the other side. I won’t know the difference. (I publish several books related to this: Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide, From Here to Eternity, Journey to the Undiscovered Country, and the forthcoming Death, Immortality, and Resurrection. The first and last are by Edward W. H. Vick, an SDA author.)
  • SDAs believe in Ellen G. White, a false prophetess. Got you now! Ellen White did indeed have a great deal to do with the founding of the SDA church, though I find her own view of herself and her mission refreshingly humble. I also find a number of her writings to be excellent devotional works (Steps to Christ, Desire of Ages, etc.). We have a voluminous collection of her writings, including letters that she wrote over a long life. The SDA church has had some struggles over how to view her and her relationship to the Bible. Bluntly, however, I’ve found traditions in local congregations of the United Methodist Church that have more sacred standing, in practice, than her writings do in the SDA church. I would say, rather, that the church as a whole, and the modern Charismatic and Pentecostal movements in particular, would do well to learn from the SDA experience. Speaking of which, I’m in the process of releasing Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers by Alden Thompson. He deals with issues of Ellen White in connection with discussing biblical inspiration in a work that I think the wider church would do well to study.
  • How do I deal with SDA authors in my catalog and marketing? Like any other author. I’ll advertise their books for their own denomination, but also present them to others for their wider value. And just like any other author, SDAs may write something that’s addressed more to their own church than to others. In that case, they will be more likely to publish within the denomination, again just like any other author might. I neither emphasize nor do I conceal the denominational connections of my authors.
  • Do my SDA authors quote Ellen White in their works? Yes, and no. I tell them to quote Ellen White as they normally would and if it’s necessary, we will add an explanatory note to the book so that others can understand and still benefit. This is a function of the level of controversy surrounding her work, rather than any judgment of it that I might make. Because there is controversy, explanation is helpful. On the other hand, when addressing the larger Christian community, SDA authors often feel it’s best to make their points without reference to an SDA specific source.
  • Are you trying to provoke dissent in the SDA church? No more so than in any other church. I do have some books in my catalog that have gone out of print from SDA publishing houses. The level of controversy in the SDA church has nothing to do with my decision. I still judge the book, not the author, and certainly not any former publisher. But beware! I’m not the arbiter of truth, and certainly not the arbiter of SDA doctrine. If you don’t want your beliefs challenged, then it’s my hope that my books are not for you!

Conclusion

I publish SDAs in the same way and on the same basis as I publish anyone else. It’s that simple (he says 1600 words later)!

Adventists, Other Christians, and The Great Disappointment

Adventists, Other Christians, and The Great Disappointment

Substantially changing beliefs have been a defining characteristic of my life. That may be hard to comprehend. It’s even hard to write in a grammatical form. This admission makes some people uncomfortable. Why should they listen to me now, if I have already changed what I may have believed and advocated decades, years, or even months ago?

I can definitely understand the question. We seek certainty and safety. It’s thoroughly bred into us. Around the caveman campfire, the Saber Tooth Tiger fundamentalist was king. He knew what to do with that spear. He didn’t dither about whether to put out a side of meat, reach out his hand and say “nice kitty,” or kill the tiger.

But certainty also is dangerous, both when it is not justified and when circumstances change. Thus I embrace passionate action and enough uncertainty to make me willing to change my mind.

The largest single change was when I left the denomination I grew up in, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and became first unchurched, and then finally a United Methodist. There are those who find that change mind-boggling. Others find it obvious, as though anyone with adequate intelligence would have made the move.

Even in that dramatic change in my life I remained convinced of the value of the people whose views I was rejecting. I became an ex-SDA. There are a few SDAs who consider that horrifying. I have left the truth. I have become an apostate. I am now working for the enemy.

Let those who are not SDAs not rise up to cast the first stone. The condemnation from the SDA side meets its match on the other in those who say, “See! Just like those cultists! They can’t accept that you’ve come over to an orthodox community!” There’s an ironic twist to this accusation from folks who generally believe they have all the truth, are never wrong, and thus SDAs are cultists, especially because SDAs are, well, intolerant.

Last night in an interview I mentioned that it was a good thing God could work with people who are wrong. That way God can work with me. If you think God is working with you because you have everything right—I suspect you’re wrong about that! But I still believe God is working with and likely through you.

I’m an un-angry ex-SDA. I affirm the work of my former denomination in many areas while at the same time I differ, sometimes substantially, with that church in matters of doctrines. Differing in matters of doctrine is, I believe, good cause to find fellowship elsewhere. It is not good cause to belittle and condemn. Many mainliners find it very easy to condemn SDAs for views they, the mainliners, don’t even comprehend. I have lost count of the times someone has told me that they really don’t like SDAs because they have such incredibly false doctrines, then when I ask them just which doctrine they find so wrong, they fall back on, “Well, they’re a cult.”

And that leads me to Adventists and The Great Disappointment. There’s a great deal of detail around this event in Adventist history. There was a lesser disappointment before the “great” one. Prophetic interpretation was adjusted as people moved on. This happens frequently in many, many groups. This occurred before there was a Seventh-day Adventist Church as such, but SDAs grew out of the Millerite movement and the responses to this great disappointment.

When and what was this great disappointment? October 22, 1844. The expectation was that Jesus would return in glory and take His children home.

It didn’t happen. The day passed uneventfully.

Some Adventists came to believe that the date was right, but the event was different. This interpretation is one of the key elements of the reason why I am no longer an SDA myself. Yes, I can list specific doctrines and the interpretation of Daniel 8:14 is one of them. A rather minor one, that is. I could co-exist in a church with people who are wrong about how to interpret Daniel 8:14. Come to think of it, I manage to hang around a church in which I would be surprised if anyone could name the general topic addressed in Daniel 8.

It’s easy for mainline Christians to point fingers at those who name times for the coming of Jesus or who express excessive certainty about the end-times, life after death, or prophetic interpretation. After all, we have the perfect solution: Ignore those issues. Maybe nobody will notice.

On the other hand, the people who have been out on a limb, taken the plunge, made the hard call, and lived with the result may have something to say to us as well. That’s where I see SDAs and also other Adventist groups. They may have been disappointed. I may disagree with some of their interpretations even after the disappointment, but they’re still engaged with the topic.

And so I’m going to do a few things. Starting tomorrow I’m going to publish some articles by SDA authors, folks who are published by my company Energion Publications, specifically about the Great Disappointment and 1844. What might we learn from the experiences of the SDA church? Are we making any of the same mistakes as we read scripture? They felt they were faithful to scripture. We (and they) know they were wrong at the time. But do we carry on some of the same mistakes?

Join me Thursday night for a discussion on my weekly video study and then watch here and on the Energion Publications News blog for links as the remaining articles are published. The introductory article is already posted.

Eschatology: Future and Present

Eschatology: Future and Present

Some Eschatology SourcesOn Thursday night I’m going to do two things: 1) Present some material related to chapter 6 of Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide (titled “Eschatology Future and Present”), and 2) Discuss October 22 as the anniversary of the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, as it is recalled in Adventism. On Thursday I will also kick off publication of some articles by Energion authors on that event and its implications for how we study the Bible generally and eschatology in particular. I’ll provide links to that material here.

Here are the links for the event. Below the YouTube viewer, I will post a couple of questions to consider relating to Thursday night’s study.

Google+ Event Page

 

In the study questions (page 67 of the book), Dr. Vick asks:

(3)     We cannot construct a theology without making assumptions. With what assumptions would you organise your beliefs? Which of the assumptions suggested in the chapter would you be in agreement, and which would you reject? [emphasis mine]

9781938434105sThe latter part of this question will be hard to answer without the book, but consider the first line. Do you agree or disagree? Feel free to comment here or to bring your comments to the study on Thursday night. If you enter the comments via the Q&A app, they can become part of the study.

For some perhaps even more provocative suggestions, the following questions come from page 65, and might help in feeling out your way on assumptions.

What can I believe and what can I not believe? What are the implications of the answers I give to the question? This question then ramifies into more precise formulations.

What can I not believe about how things happen in the system of an ordered cosmos?
What can I not believe about how historical reports come to be written?
What can I not believe about the reliability of human testimony as an avenue to knowledge, whether given verbally or in writing?
What can I not believe about the capacity of a being with human limitations to foretell the future?
What can I not believe about the supernatural?
What can I not believe about claims that the supernatural causes events to take place within the cosmos? (p. 65)

I’m sure that as you consider these questions, you’ll quickly see their implications for how you might read scripture. One can be open on some of these, certainly. But thinking about how you would approach the question can nonetheless be critical.

What the Bible Really Says? Really?

What the Bible Really Says? Really?

bible_really_saysI opened my mailbox today to be greeted by a slick flyer inviting me to discover what the Bible really says about a variety of things. Among the the questions I’m told I can get answered: What is the future of our country during this economic downturn? What does the Bible really say about the second coming? What does the Bible really say about law and grace? What does the Bible really say about a vacation every week?

I’m rather well acquainted with this type of brochure, because I grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist. We had plenty of opportunities to see this sort of advertising. We were supposed to be the people who were right, and thus who would eventually straighten out the rest of the world. Well, at least those who were not destined for the lake of fire.

One of the things that my SDA teachers wanted me to learn was to go to the Bible about everything and to study it for myself. I did, and as a result I decided that the SDA church wasn’t the church for me. Especially on the topic of eschatology, I came to very different conclusions.

That’s the critical thing. The internet and the airwaves are filled with people who claim that they know precisely what the Bible teaches about almost any subject you can imagine, even when the Bible may not say much of anything about it.

To discover God’s message for you in scripture, you need to study for yourself. Now one of the things I was taught to do as a child was to look up the texts the evangelist used to see whether he was citing them correctly. There’s nothing wrong with doing so, but in a way this is a trap.

Studying the texts that someone else provides in the order and in the structure in which they provide them will very often lead you precisely to their conclusions. What you need to do is study the scriptures for yourself, in an order that you may discover, prayerfully, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit that God promises to you, not just to experts or ordained leaders.

While you’re doing that you need to examine just how it is that you come to understand the text, and especially to understand the way in which the text applies to you and to your life.

You can illustrate the problem with the way that the brochure I received talks about a “weekly vacation.” What the writers of the brochure mean is the seventh-day Sabbath. For various reasons that seem good to them, they believe that the command to keep the seventh day holy still applies, while other commands, such as various sacrifices do not. I don’t mean here to argue that they’re wrong about that, but rather that their view comes from a particular way of understanding scripture.

9781631990991s
Some of our presuppositions and their impact.

I remember a certain book about the King James Version, one that advocated it as the only Bible Christians should use. “It’s a very scholarly book,” I was told. “It’s filled with footnotes.” The problem is that the footnotes varied between those that were to unreliable sources, those that were plain wrong, and those that were to other examples of the author’s own work.

Similarly, just because a presentation of scripture has a large number of texts doesn’t mean it’s scriptural. Neither does it mean it’s not. What it means is that you should examine it and decide for yourself.

When I cite SDA documents many people approve. Of course we should examine (and dismiss) the claims of schismatics like Seventh-day Adventists. They are, after all, wrong! But there is no type of mistake in understanding scripture that is truly exclusive to SDAs. You’ll find these mistakes in many denominations and tradition streams.

You need to examine everything. Think about these things for yourself. Get multiple scholarly opinions and test your own work against those. If you do this, you may be surprised at how many opinions about the Bible are predetermined by the presuppositions of the person holding that opinion.

Including mine.

Are Seventh-day Adventists Christians?

Are Seventh-day Adventists Christians?

This question, which I’ve written about before, was brought to my attention again both through reading and through some conversations. As an ex-Seventh-day Adventist, I’m often asked whether I believe my former denomination is truly Christian, or whether it is some sort of cult. Ignoring what I consider the hopeless muddle in the usage of the term “cult,” I suppose I could divide this question into two, neither of which I actually like. I’m going to use Methodists throughout as the foil for this discussion, because I am a member of a United Methodist congregation. Note that I prefer to call myself a Christian who is a member of a United Methodist congregation rather than a “Methodist” or “United Methodist.”

The first would be to ask whether the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a Christian denomination. I dislike this question, because I think “denomination” is largely an extra-Christian idea. I’m not going to throw out all concepts of denominations simply because they can provide accountability to congregations, something lacking amongst independent churches. Both independent churches and denominational churches have their share of problems, but neither reflects the kind of connections that I believe a Christian congregation or assembly should have. I would like to be held accountable by my brethren in Baptist churches as well as in the United Church of Christ. As for Seventh-day Adventists, I would say the same thing. They suffer from all the problems of being a denomination, but they also are brethren to which I would like to be connected, and in a sense, accountable.

The second option would be to ask if members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church are Christian. I think this is worse. It identifies membership in the body of Christ with membership in a particular human organization. However, my answer would be that it is about as likely for a Seventh-day Adventist church member to be a Christian as a United Methodist church member. Probably a bunch of people in each are not.

That leads me to a question I was asked regarding evangelism. If I was discussing Jesus with people, and this led to the idea of getting involved in a local assembly of believers, would I be willing to refer someone to a Seventh-day Adventist congregation? Hmmm! Now the rubber meets the road. Do I really mean it when I call SDAs Christian brethren? The answer here is that I’d do so on the same basis as I would refer someone to a Methodist congregation, with the additional note that I’d be specific about SDA distinctives. In other words, it would depend on the congregation. I know plenty of Methodist churches to which I would not refer a seeker. I know quite I number to which I would. The same issues would be in play. Where I think I might have more questions about an SDA congregation would be in whether the distinctives of the denomination got ahead of the gospel. But that is not a problem that is exclusive to SDAs. Any denomination, in fact, any independent church, is quite susceptible to replacing the gospel with its own distinctives, and even viewing the gospel as synonymous with its traditions.

Now there’s a certain arrogance to this post. Who am I to decide who is a Christian and who is not? Nobody. Absolutely nobody. It’s not my job. What I do have to decide, what I think I have scriptural warrant to decide, is how I will help connect others to the body of Christ, and to do that I must discern. If I believe that I am referring someone to a place where they will be torn apart by judgment rather than led to join fellow overcomers, then I must choose some place else. But God is the only one who knows what’s on the inside, i.e. who is a “true” believer.

A Liberal Adventist Pastor and Young Atheists

A Liberal Adventist Pastor and Young Atheists

Pastor John T. McLarty, a Seventh-day Adventist who blogs at Liberal Adventist Pastor has posted his sermon for today, titled Church and Young Atheists as well as another related piece Questions My Kids Ask, written for the Green Lake Church Gazette.

I mostly want you to go, read these posts, and hopefully comment and enter the discussion. What I want to add here is that we need more pastors to try to hear what young people are saying, learn what they’re thinking and see how the church can respond. I have friends who are very leery of the idea of the church, or God, trying to be relevant. They suggest we should become relevant to God. And I agree that the end result is supposed to be that we become more Christ-like, more God-like. But I see the whole story of the Bible as God becoming relevant to us first, so that we have the opportunity to move on from there.

Too much of the discussion of young people that I hear has to do with our stereotypes of who they are and what they are doing. For example, there’s the stereotype of the atheist who was hurt at church and therefore really hates the church and not God. And, like most stereotypes, there’s a basis for this. There are many people who have distanced themselves from faith because of the people in the church.

But there are also those like the young lady Pastor McLarty describes, who have simply found too many things they were asked to believe by the church that they couldn’t manage. They aren’t really atheists. They disbelieve a number of things they were taught, are unsure about many others, and they have more important things to do with their lives than to try to create their own theological system.

Further, there are those I would call real atheists. These are people who have come to the conclusion for various reasons that there is no God. And yes, my Christian friends, these people exist. You can tell yourself that they aren’t real, that deep down they do believe and are just rebels. I’m sure it’s comforting at some level to pretend that this form of rejection of everything you hold dear doesn’t actually exist. But it does. Not only that, they’re generally good people, great neighbors, and credits to their communities.

Why am I saying all of this? Simply to say that in any conversation on any topic we need to listen to what the other person has to say and then respond to them, not to a label. And Pastor McLarty is quite correct that for those he was referring to, rolling out proofs of God’s existence isn’t really relevant. In fact, I rarely find that rolling out proofs of God’s existence, all of which are quite inadequate in so many ways, is the best approach. These “proofs” answer certain objections in certain ways, but they don’t really prove that the Christian God is real.

But that is another subject …

The SDA Chaplain of the Senate

The SDA Chaplain of the Senate

The Adventist review has a taste of Barry Black’s testimony, which makes excellent reading (HT: Dave Black Online).

As an ex-Seventh-day Adventist I find his story very interesting. In his career, he was fighting not just racial but also religious discrimination. Some people thought he shouldn’t be in his positions because he was black. Others thought his faith was a problem. His story is well worth reading.

I want to reiterate a few things I’ve said (perhaps too often) about being an ex-SDA. If you’re currently an SDA and you’re thinking of moving to another denomination, check your reasons. If, like me, you find your beliefs incompatible with your denomination, I consider it completely appropriate for you to find an organization you can support more wholeheartedly. In fact, I find it inappropriate for you to remain at that point!

There are several things to avoid, however:

  1. Leaving the SDA, or any church, because of personal issues with people. Those will be with you no matter what organization you join.
  2. Being dishonest with yourself about your reasons for leaving. Often point #1 leads people to claim some other reason, perhaps without even realizing it. You’re going to find people problems in all organization that have people. I don’t like the people of the United Methodist Church better than I did those of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. What I like is that I am more free to carry out ministry in the UMC, and that I also find its doctrinal positions much closer to, though not identical with, mine.
  3. Living with a legacy of hate. People leave denominations or even local church congregations angry. That’s not good for you. You’re not sticking it to your former church by remaining angry. You’re sticking it to yourself.
  4. Don’t live your life as an ex. I call myself ex-SDA when I need to talk about the SDA church and my relation to it. I don’t think of myself that way on a regular basis. I’m a Christian who is now a member of a United Methodist congregation. I used to be a Christian who was a member of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation. Whatever any of the members of these congregations may think of me, I consider them all brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m not some sort of paragon of virtue who experiences no anger or resentment. I just do my best by God’s grace to confess it and leave it behind. I don’t enjoy being called an apostate, but I’m not going to let it define me or my attitude(s).
  5. Always go to, not away from. Find the place where you will be able to be what the Lord wants you to be and serve as the Lord wants you to serve. Then go there. The physical journey is the same, but spiritually it is a much different thing.

These are just my recommendations. They were brought to mind by the story of Chaplain Black’s colleague who told him to change denominations as a career thing. I am impressed, though not surprised, by Chaplain Black’s response. He was absolutely right to stick with his convictions. I believe God honored him for that. I’m thankful for his testimony.

Confessional School vs. Freedom to Explore

Confessional School vs. Freedom to Explore

Peter Enns’ post, “If They Only Knew What I Thought” struck a chord with me and at the same time called up one of my concerns, or perhaps I should say areas of conflict.

I lived through this growing up as a Seventh-day Adventist and being educated in Seventh-day Adventist schools. In fact, I made a significant transition twice, once when I moved from schools in the self-supporting movement to those in mainstream adventism, and then out of the Seventh-day Adventist. Most evangelicals I’ve discussed this with have been quite supportive of my move. To many of them I moved from at least marginal heresy to a more orthodox form of Christianity.

But the same type of issues came up as I tried to decide what to do with my life after graduate school (at Andrews University, an SDA school), as I hear from evangelicals who go to secular schools. There were certain elements of my belief system that had changed, and others that I was still exploring. Could I be a Seventh-day Adventist? Could I be a Seventh-day Adventist teacher? I remember one professor saying to me during this period, “You don’t have to teach everything you know.” He was someone I respected, and still do. Yet I didn’t like his answer.

But what do you do when you not only see the boundaries of the permissible playing field looming, but think that perhaps you have crossed them? Is it right to continue to be a member of an organization you do not fully support? Is it right to teach for such an organization? Can you conceal what you actually believe in order to stay within the boundaries permitted?

We hear two sides of this conflict. The first is from people like me who have experienced changes in their understanding of scripture and doctrine, and feel the need of freedom to explore and to follow truth as they see it. We also feel the need to be honest with others. On the other side we have those institutional guardians who want to keep the faith pure. The former see the latter as barriers to truth, real spirituality, and scholarship. The latter view the former as persons who don’t fully care for the safety of the souls who gather in the pews.

I have a certain empathy with both sides. I recall a conversation with my uncle, Don F. Neufeld, associate editor at the time of the Review and Herald, of the SDA Bible Commentary, and editor of the SDA Bible Dictionary. Several of the issues I had (and still have) with SDA theology, and even with much evangelical theology, came up. In some cases he agreed with me against the common SDA position. In others, he didn’t. But he suggested to me a certain pastoral concern, a sensitivity to the people he served, and I was to serve. He told me how carefully he wrote at times, leaving the door open to exploration while not cutting the people off at the knees. Theology didn’t occur in a vacuum, according to him, it was something we did in service of God’s people.

While I couldn’t follow his advice at the time, and imagine I still would fail, I do understand what he’s talking about. A church community has to have some form of definition, and that definition will involve beliefs that are acceptable and ones that are not. If there are to be such institutions as confessional seminaries, schools operated by a religious community to support their needs and their people, there are going to be boundaries to the playing field.

If this were a matter of social clubs or of businesses, it would be easier. If you find yourself outside the boundaries of one, move to another. Such a solution can still work for someone who is raised as an Arminian, for example, and becomes Calvinist. I’ve known a few of those (and the reverse) and they usually just end up moving from one denomination to another to solve their problem. I think we would have little difficulty suggesting that someone who can no longer consider themselves Christian would do best to teach in a secular institution. Yes, this is not complete academic freedom. But it is also not deception. If the institution is operated by the Roman Catholic church, it is likely to have certain positions. If it’s Seventh-day Adventist it will have a different core perspective. (If it’s Methodist, of course, it will be whatever it turns out to be!)

My prayer would be that we set those boundaries as far out as we possibly can, to allow those who study and teach in church-related academic institutions to explore and challenge as much as possible. I think truth thrives in an atmosphere where it is challenged. Stupidity does not. For both those reasons challenge is good. But at the same time I would hope that all of us in our various churches would be prepared to gently help and encourage those who might need to find somewhere else to go.

I’ve managed to handle the “apostate” label before from those SDAs who see nothing but a rebellion against God that could get me out of the SDA church. I think most of them should be delighted that I left. I wouldn’t be making their lives easy from the inside. Perhaps a better approach would be to encourage someone to try their walk with God in another community. Don’t do this with the “left foot of fellowship.” Be welcoming, but at the same time don’t condemn the move to find someplace else. Encourage the exploration of other traditions.

There’s always going to be a tension between the need of the community to have cohesion and the need of scholars to explore. I believe that tension can be constructive rather than destructive.

(And as a final commercial, let me recommend a book I publish, Crossing the Street by Bob LaRochelle. Bob grew up Roman Catholic, was ordained a deacon, and is now a minister in the United Church of Christ. No, he’s not telling all Catholics to follow him. Rather, he’s encouraging us to look across to other faith traditions, learn, and feel the freedom to explore.)