The tent is shrinking.
Like many Adventists around the world, I’ve been following all of the news from the General Conference session in San Antonio this week. We elected new leadership, made changes to the Church Manual, and more. But I perceive a very disturbing trend.
Adventism’s big tent got a lot smaller.
I certainly don’t advocate sacrificing truth. We must always and ever be faithful to Scripture and to the Jesus that is revealed in them.
Unfortunately, we’ve probably done more to limit God this week than we have in a long time. We’ve decided as a corporate body that the mystery of creation took place not long ago in six literal days. We’ve decided that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman (even while giving dispensation to certain areas of the world to continue to engage in polygamy after conversion). We’ve decided that divisions cannot decide for themselves whether or not to ordain women (and as that debate raged, it became clear that it was much less an issue of divisional autonomy than it was about the role of women in the church).
It seems to me, as a lay member of late Generation X (or an early Millennial depending on who you ask), that our emphasis as a church has changed from a certain freedom of belief (within a given framework) that allows us to search the Scriptures for ourselves to a demand for absolute conformity to a dogma.
Our forbears in this Advent faith would be horrified if they saw some of what we witnessed this week in San Antonio. For all of the desire among some elements to recapture some elements of historic Adventism, we have done what our founders would have cringed at.
We have become a creedal church.
Few will say that (at least publicly). But that’s the implication of the way this session has gone. Early in the process, there was a motion to have all modifications of our fundamental beliefs be ratified by a 2/3 majority. The steering committee, thankfully, did not grant that request. However, would it have been better if they had? Would it have preserved a bit of our big tent?
Our founders never wanted to establish an official creed. They always wanted to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit as He guided into more understanding of the Word.
We seem to have done our best to put God’s Spirit into a tidy box.
I believe I’ve seen God’s Spirit at work. And the thing I always come back to is this:
The Holy Spirit always brings surprises. The Holy Spirit doesn’t work like we expect Him to.
Our human mind has a hard time dealing with God. We want concrete answers. We demand proof. We need to create beautifully word-crafted statements that clarify our beliefs.
We want to tell God what we want to believe.
As a musician, I am sort of forced to work outside of the Adventist Church to make a living (I’m sure I’ll get to a post about that at some point in the future). I work at a different church on Sunday morning. I don’t believe everything they preach. I don’t believe they are following the Sabbath of the Bible. They don’t really believe in sin. But I will tell you one thing.
They have a huge tent.
The church I work for belongs to the United Church of Christ, which has descended from the Puritan congregations in New England. They believed that they should be open to more light. They still are.
There are a couple of proverbs that define their church. One is, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” Another is this: “God is still speaking.”
The Seventh-day Adventist Church could learn something from these two statements.
At the United Church of Christ where I work, all are welcome. And I mean all. You are free to have faith questions. You are free to believe differently. You are free to believe nothing.
And you are loved and welcomed nonetheless.
I have at times been frustrated by their preaching. An associate pastor has minimized the role of Jesus to being a nice teacher. A former senior pastor argued that a little sin is okay if it leads to a greater good. There are issues, as you might tell. But when the community needs an advocate, they are there.
When migrant workers are fighting for respect and fair wages, they are there to boycott the companies that are oppressing their workers. Their mission trips consist of providing education and medical care instead of building churches. They lobby Congress on legislation to improve the lives of the poor and hungry. They are in the community working to express what they refer to as God’s extravagant welcome.
And they are open to new leading by God.
And at the same time, our church (collectively) is trying to purify the church from any variance of opinion. Of any potential for new light. Our church is trying to achieve orthodoxy in the name of unity.
We are becoming victims of groupthink.
Business analysts have tried to come up with a good definition of what groupthink is, but the basic idea is this: groupthink is achieved when there is no diversity of thought and everyone merely repeats the same ideas as everyone else.
Sad to say, many of our Sabbath School classes have become victims of groupthink. Anyone who has been a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for any length of time knows the right answers. Our classes descend into mindless repetitions of the “right” answers.
Sometimes, we need to be challenged with wrong answers in order to reconfirm the right ones. And we need to listen to each others’ varied thoughts to help crystalize our own.
Unity is a word that has been thrown about frequently in San Antonio. It is a funny word whose meaning can change significantly based on the context. It can mean that we are working together toward one goal despite our differences. Or it can be a weapon used to silence any dissent from faithful, God-fearing people who have been led to a different understanding of God.
My hope and prayer is that my beloved church, for whom my grandparents and parents worked for years, will be open to growth and change.
And ultimately, I hope my church will learn to be more responsive to the Holy Spirit.