ERE YOUR PARENTS HIPPIES?”
I had to laugh. My parents? “Nope.”
“Are they like animal rights activists?”
“No, it was for, uh, health reasons. Not that my parents don’t like animals. They like them, not to eat, but . . .”
“It’s weird that you ended up being so conservative.”
Life is full of small revelations, but this impromptu game of 20 questions threw me for a loop. My colleague at the law firm, knowing nothing about Adventists, had concluded that I must be at the left end of the spectrum because my parents had raised me as a vegetarian.
In many ways, being a conservative Adventist actually makes you a more liberal American. Favoring separation of church and state, taking a stand against smoking in public places, and eating a plant-based diet would certainly give one a home in the left wing of American politics. Of course, there are other factors that would place you firmly to the right: promoting private education, holding your family to strong moral values, and any other number of conservative positions.
In today’s complex world, identifying one as a liberal or a conservative is inaccurate, and in some cases, a prelude to a fight. With talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh blasting “these liberals,” and Hollywood activists such as Sean Penn railing against the “neocons,” there is little safety in affiliating too closely with either side. But the temptation to shove everybody into a polarized taxonomy of either “liberal” or “conservative” remains.
The church is not immune from this simplistic labeling, which can be based on any variety of stereotypes, ranging from dress to music to doctrine. In the church, these classifications tend to polarize and ultimately lead toward internal competition, often at the expense of what God intended to be a shared mission. Today, within Adventism, we have “conservative” churches and “contemporary” churches, many of which claim to have a better approach than their counterparts. Rather than acknowledge a shared sense of mission, they pretend that other kinds do not exist, and promote themselves to their communities as the face of Adventism. This type of competition can also exist within local congregations.
This intramural competition, which has fostered increasing congregationalism and segmentation, and undercut the supply of joint resources, threatens the future of the church as a united body of faith.
Describing this type of scenario, Ellen White once wrote: “I know that Satan’s work will be to set brethren at variance. Were it not that I know [that] the Captain of our salvation stands at the helm to guide the gospel ship into the harbor, I should say, Let me rest in the grave.”1
Today, the majority of those on the left and right hold many different views on many issues, but they still profess the core message of the gospel, which is to bring people to a relationship with Jesus Christ in the context of the end-
time message of Revelation 14. Certainly there are those on the outer fringes who hold more extreme views regarding grace and works, but by and large, there are large areas of overlap. We will never find a way to resolve each and every lifestyle variable, but there is a way to find enough resolution to regain our joint sense of mission so that the work God has called us to may be completed.
Victims of Culture
Western culture favors increasing polarization rather than understanding, and as a result, our common ground is steadily disappearing. Rather than admit that others might have a better take on certain truths, entire groups are locked in battle with each other. As time has progressed, an entire industry has arisen from both sides within the church that is dedicated to exposing weaknesses and fighting. As a result, the right and left are often driven more in response to each other than in fulfilling Adventism’s overall mission.
These questions of power and partisanship have caused the left and right to drift farther apart than ever before, creating a structural weakness in the formerly strong center of the church. Disagreements from vocal minorities in the left and right about any number of issues have forced those from the center to either join the factionalism or labor forward in isolation.
When left and right cannot agree on music, or worship style, or Christian conduct, the church is held hostage to its own politics. Attempts to favor a strong mission are misinterpreted as factional favoritism, and this results in either weakness or isolationism. Ultimately what remains is that which creates the least friction—and the tepid ingredients form a Laodicean soup that satisfies nobody, and which cannot be given away to a world that longs for the strong flavors of the gospel.
This dull soup does not sit well with left or right, and the partisan battles continue. Any and all initiatives brought by the other side are called into question, and the progress of evangelism and even personal growth suffocates. Ultimately the rift not only prevents the fulfillment of the Great Commission, which is a call for global renewal, but eats away at the good grain that the Holy Spirit has harvested.
The first step in throwing off the partisanship that the world has foisted upon us is the experience of a true revival, and the willingness to change direction. Revival needs to enter the doors of our own churches and change the lives of our congregations. Our motivation must proceed not from attempts to build our ego or to establish credentials against left or right, but from a Christlike compassion for a perishing world. As we surrender our lives, we will roll up our sleeves and get to work.
How do we move past arguments and immerse ourselves in God’s work even
if we do not agree with each other on everything? Is it fair to insist on philosophical consensus in the church before embarking on mission?
There will always be points of disagreement. If it is not about drums in the church, then it could be between “pleasing” and “unpleasing” rhythms sung a capella by a choir. There will always be those who view every slight variance as an issue of salvation, and there is an infinite number of differences. The key is what we do with these differences. We might concede that some of these small differences are irreconcilable, but we should be careful from saying that holding a difference of opinion excludes somebody from having a role in our overall mission.
Bracketing these irreconcilable differences, and setting them aside for the time being, may be a necessary step in solving the larger problems of the church. If God’s people are willing to “agree to disagree” on certain nonessential points, it will allow the conversation to proceed and will display a genuine respect for the other without ushering in a fight that could irretrievably damage the mission.
Each segment of the church has its own priorities, which it holds in high esteem. These segments typically hold particular values that don’t overlap with the values of other segments. Some may feel that the priorities of other segments are overappreciated, or that the other segments are “majoring in minors,” but even having a discussion about cooperating in the larger mission requires a climate of mutual respect. Acknowledging and respecting the conflicting views of believers can advance the mission of the gospel without requiring the various segments to relinquish their particular nonoverlapping values.
Practical teamwork and task-specific coalitions within the church are also helpful in moving us past the doldrums and will guard us against isolationist tendencies. Ends and means can indeed be brought back into balance. Involving people with philosophical differences in neutral tasks where variation in viewpoint will not add volatility is a good start. Churches in some cities, for example, can work together on volunteer projects or other activities that move the focus away from themselves and onto the needs of the community. This is the method that Christ used—reaching the needs of the people. Whatever the specific project, this would put liberals and conservatives on the same side of the table or, remarkably, on the same side of the fence that needs painting. They would not be opposed to each other. Focusing on following Christ, both sides would find that they are growing closer together as they grow toward Him.
The deeper debates we face as a body will probably never be solved by arguments, but only through the fellowship of Christ as we work together to advance the kingdom. There’s nothing wrong with open, honest discussion of issues among people who recognize that each believer’s unique history will likely result in unique views about life, society, and the church.
In the United States, our Constitution has survived because of our “historically extended tradition of argument.”2 This tradition has created a national consensus of common values, and has laid the foundation for the expansion of human rights.
In the church, we are also the beneficiaries of an extended tradition of debate. Early Adventists struggled over such basic fundamentals as the Trinity and justification by faith, and the church survived because the majority managed to bracket out the differences and focus with their brothers and sisters on the shared sense of mission. This history provides Adventists of today with the tools necessary to move beyond tendentious argument and to cooperate in our enduring mission.
Some members will fear that developing a practical or pragmatic approach that respects the value of philosophical differences will place too much at risk. But pretending that discussion and debate do not exist on controversial issues is even more dangerous because it drives the argument underground and encourages the sides in passive-aggressive sniping at each other. Failing to acknowledge and engage in this process places the mission of the church at risk, and is a chief cause of Laodicean stagnation or mindless authoritarianism.
Fostering healthy discussion, alternatively, fulfills several important objectives. First, it recognizes and respects the individual’s capacity for understanding the Bible—a key Protestant principle—and second, it provides a limit on arbitrary power. Rather than simplify doctrine to appeal to the larger majority by employing the least offensive terms, this approach encourages in-depth study, and the promise of the self-authentication of Scripture inherent in the principle of sola scriptura is fulfilled. Outside of this combination of openness and study, there will always be questions about the correctness of various applications of the biblical truths.
This doesn’t mean that the substance of belief has or should become unimportant or irrelevant. For left and right to cooperate in a shared sense of mission, they need to commit to earnestly approaching the cross. Psalm 19:7 states: “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul” (NKJV).* Fully appreciating this law requires a huge dose of humility, particularly when one realizes that their best efforts are pockmarked with sins of commission and omission and do not come near to divine perfection. Consistently underrating the law of God leads to an underestimation of God’s grace, which fulfilled this very law. Without God’s power in our lives, the gospel means less and we lose direction.
The Common Goal
What we learn through this process is that although left and right don’t agree on all the methods to fulfill the mission, most of us do share the goal in common. It may seem easier to avoid the arguments of left and right in order to “affirm” or to avoid offense. Scripture, however, doesn’t leave room for relativism, or statements such as “You have your truth and I have mine.” Such expressions are less a recognition of the equality of belief than a surrender to the pain that would be caused by applying the sword of Scripture.
Ellen White describes this power of Scripture as follows: “The vague and fanciful interpretations of Scripture, and the many conflicting theories concerning religious faith, that are found in the Christian world are the work of our great adversary to confuse minds so that they shall not discern the truth. And the discord and division which exist among the churches of Christendom are in a great measure due to the prevailing custom of wresting the Scriptures to support a favorite theory.”3
As we recognize where we are in Christ, ground ourselves in Scripture, and bracket out points of disagreement, left and right have the opportunity to regain their unity in purpose. The status quo is no longer an option. We are living on the brink of the Second Coming, and as the ground begins to shift under our feet, we need to build a cohesive center. When we lay aside our own self-generated righteousness and cling to the perfection of Christ and His law, we will get a clearer view of the love of Christ, which calls us to Him and, consequently, to each other.
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, vol. 1, p. 29.
2H. Jefferson Powell, A Community Built on Words: The Constitution in History and Politics (University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 2.
3The Great Controversy, p. 520.