Editorial: Adventist Identity Angst

(Spectrumbot) #1

The recent, newly formatted issue of the Adventist Review[1] focuses on the question “Am I an Adventist?” Bill Knott’s editorial rightly notes that asking this can be uncomfortable, writing: “The question, with its open-endedness and call for self-examination, seems, well, un-Adventist.” That insight resonates with me because I have seen that reaction before – notably when someone raised questions about whether a belief we have always assumed was true perhaps ought to be reconsidered. When not everything about the traditional Adventist world-view story seems to hold together as well as we once thought.

There is threat in revisiting assumptions. Fear of a slippery slope away from familiar, supposedly solid ground. Fear of fragmentation – in mission, message, and the familiar, comfortable rationale, perhaps unquestioned for years. But now, for some, everything seems to be questioned. From meaning: like doctrine or mission, to mechanisms: what happens in a church service or what forms of outreach are promoted.

Two Review sidebar authors, Carlton Byrd and Chris Holland, understandably focused on the two distinct but interlocking parts to the official church name: Seventh-day and Adventist. Dating from October, 1860, the pioneers felt these two features of the faith were so central as to warrant completely comprising the denominational name, and thus presumably, our fundamental core identity. But what was not emphasized in the cluster of Review articles was the eschatology legacy interwoven in these two doctrinal pillars of Adventism. The “Am I an Adventist?” question used to also mandate an extensive understanding and acceptance of a detailed eschatological landscape.

The Seventh-day portion was not just about rest and seventhness. Included was the end-time doctrine of the Mark of the Beast, with Sabbath being the precise, determining factor separating God’s people from Babylon. Likewise, the word Adventist carried much more detail than just Jesus’ return. SDA evangelism expounded the pre-eschaton in great detail, including the Close of Probation, Time of Trouble and (now arguably) the necessity of a sinless last-generation allowing Jesus to return.

These parts of heretofore Adventist identity are, not so curiously, largely absent in the Review’s treatment of the question. Why?

I don’t think there is one clear or simple answer. But a significant component, I will assert, is whether the eschatological vision and expectations of our pioneers is holding up over time. And asking this question is likely even more uncomfortable for some church members to address. It’s been almost 171 years since that October 1844 disappointment. Jesus has not returned. There is no time of trouble for Adventists on the immediate horizon. No one is singling out SDAs and implementing a death decree for Sabbath observance.

One expected and understandable response to these doctrinally inconvenient present realities is to quote a verse like: “"For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, "Peace and safety!" then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape." (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3 NIV). But the focus of this text is to provide a response to critics. Skeptical and derisive critics who are ridiculing the faithful. To apply it to a neutral and (I say) agenda-less question about whether the pioneers’ vision needs revisiting – is simply a defensive move to terminate legitimate questions. Not to mention an evangelistic impediment as it elevates the original Adventist vision to inerrancy. No review required or allowed. And no prospective convert would accept such a prerequisite.

Regarding the Second Coming, many reasons have been proposed for the delay so far yet retaining the belief that Jesus’ coming is still “nigh, even at the doors” (Mk 13:29 KJV). But once the shackles of demanding adherence to historical orthodoxy through social intimidation are removed, some of the arguments seem questionable, and the data employed, cherry-picked. Adventists have always been watchers of “The Signs of the Times”. Typical pew-level apologetics in my life-experience-hearing include pointing to crime, world tragedies (such as the Holocaust, Gulag, World Wars), rise of evolution and atheism, etc. Also frequently mentioned is technological advances – thus presumably fulfilling Daniel 12:4 – “seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased”. Where the “run to and fro” part might reference air travel or even electronic communication and the internet.

But if one wishes to make a case for worsening world conditions as the slam-dunk precursor to the Second Coming, it is necessary to ignore considerable other data, such as world GDP growth over the past century.[2] Depending on the metrics used a strong argument can be made that the world as a whole is getting better and better. But this is inconvenient when a desired hypothesis is searching for verification. Thus church members can easily lose objectivity in the face of ambiguous and complex external realities when there is risk to one’s heretofore unchallenged world-view.

Likewise for the eschatological component of the Sabbath doctrine. Adventists have historically taught that Catholics and Protestants will unite, with Sunday-sacredness being a focal point of unity. Then, when Adventists become too vocal and annoying, increasingly severe measures will be enacted by civil authorities (Sunday Law, initiating the “Time of Trouble”), culminating in a death decree. It’s difficult for me to see how anyone, in the near term, can find data to support such a hypothesis, except by severe cherry-picking. If you wish to push out the scenario by multiple decades, perhaps something will change. But, according to traditional Adventist interpretation, that would also necessarily push out the Second Coming as the Sunday Law must precede it.

Those who believe current evidence indicates this scenario is just around the corner ought to first consider the primacy of World Judaism. Adventists are almost invisible on the world stage. But Judaism and the State of Israel are, and have been, increasingly central in world politics since 1948. Any law affecting Sabbath observance would have major political ramifications toward Jews. I frankly am not creative enough to even conceive of some near-term scenario involving Sabbath/Sunday/secular law – without seeing the Arab-Israeli conflict (with the massive political problem of US support of Israel) totally taking anything like the Adventist Sunday Law scenario completely off the table for a long time. Such world politics could not have been conceived of by the pioneers.

I have only scratched the surface of problems and push-backs to historically-accepted Adventist eschatology. And, believe it or not, my intent is not to engage in a subverted attack on the church. It is to propose that, after the amount of time that has passed since our initial understanding solidified, we can no longer pretend that everything we’ve inherited still computes or is “just around the corner”. Perhaps the standard evangelistic approach – with unmodified eschatology – will still have traction in parts of the world. But far less so, I contend, in the so-called “developed” economies. One can deny these assertions. But a healthier approach, I suggest, is neither facile and blanket acceptance or denial. It would be to wrestle with the problem – openly and honestly.

The “elephant in the room” for Adventist identity – and thus the angst – is the disquieting concern that we don’t have everything figured out like we comfortingly like to tell ourselves. And, for some members, that is a quite unwelcome message. One that church leaders don’t want a “shoot the messenger” response to, especially since they would be the ones getting shot. So there is largely administrative and academic silence. There aren’t a lot of career alternatives for someone with many years inside the Adventist employment universe. Thus it is difficult to push the envelope, even when it would be healthy in the long run to do so.

[2] Such as: GDP Growth Over the Very Long Run – “if we compare the economic prosperity of every region in 2003 with any earlier time we see that every single region is richer than ever before in its history. Though some regions are more productive than others every region is doing better than ever before – hugely better.”

Rich Hannon is the Spectrum website Columns Editor and a member of the Adventist Forum board.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6778

(George Tichy) #2

In my opinion, the need for a religious identity as related to being labeled with a denominational stamp is a major problem. Why is it important to be labeled anyway?

I understand the psychological need for those labels, but they can be very damaging since they have the potential to become one’s priority! Based on what I read in the Bible, the only priority is to become a Christian. This is the only “label” that actually matters.

Adventism has fueled the “need” to be identified as an Adventist only because it has the hidden (sometimes explicit) meaning of being part of the only true Church on Earth, the Remnant and superior denomination that will lead a special group of (selected) religious people during the end time. No wonder that being an Adventist may generate a tremendous and horrific angst!!!..

Someone will probably ask me how I identify myself. My answer is:" I am a Christian, and I worship God in the SDA Church where I was raised." Though I have no problem doing the same in a different religious Christian environment.

There should be no angst for being a Christian.


Reason for edit-
Need to read article more carefully.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #4

just imagine if the translators of the King James Bible had used the word Restored instead of cleansed. There have been no Wm Miller, no Ellen White, no Glacier View, No dire consequences. Imagine a world in which being lost would not be related to “He gave up the Sabbath!” Giving up on Christ might be a different proposition.

(Elaine Nelson) #5

The Review title should have asked: “Are Adventists Christians?” How is that possible when the official title prominently displays “Seventh-day” which is and always will be the Jew’s sacred day, never given nor designated to Christians?

At the time of Adventism’s beginning there was, and continued into the early 19th century, U.S. animosity to Catholicism which at that time was largely Protestant.
Now, more than a century later, there is far less fear of Catholicism as fewer people are as intensely religious or devoted to a single denomination. The questionable interpretation of Revelation of a future Sunday Law becomes even more doubtful.

“Adventist” is not at all unique to this denomination as it was first preached by Jesus himself and has been the belief of all Christians since that time. The one obvious difference from all Christianity is the devotion to Sabbath and interpreting the Jewish restrictions of its observance. Choosing some parts of Judaism in its name, while adopting belief in the Second Coming it becomes a hybrid of both OT and NT systems which results in neither fish nor fowl.

(SurprisedByGrace) #6

Hum, not sure the work chosen by the translators of the KJV determined the births of Wm Miller or EGW. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: But your point is well taken. It does seem that if “restored” had been given, rather than “cleansed,” there may not have been a Millerite Movement, and consequently no disappointment of largely Christian Connexion and Methodist members coalescing to form what eventually becomes Seventh-day Adventism. Your point is worthy of reflection.

(SurprisedByGrace) #7

171+ years is an increasingly uncomfortable truth for the Adventist movement.

(Richard Ludders) #8

Here is how Graham Maxwell handled this when asked if he was an Adventist. “Tell me what an Adventist is and I will tell you if I am one.” I use that myself when asked.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #9

great retort Ruchard

(George Tichy) #10

This should be our official response to all those who ask us this very same question here once in awhile. I will keep it in mind, to use it on a “prn” basis…

(Elaine Nelson) #11

The emphasis is: “I worship God in the SdA church where I was raised.”

That is the honest question of most all religious believers: their beliefs were not entirely a conscious choice but was inherited.

Some who would answer: “Baptist,” “Catholic,” " or Lutheran."

(efcee) #12

“Am I an Adventist?” is a distracting question, in my opinion. “Am I a Christian?” is almost equally so; the “Christian” label has morphed over time and is now barely recognizable. “Am I a follower of Jesus?”, however, is a question worthy of reflection. My honest answer, when I ask myself that question, should put the other questions to rest.

(James J Londis) #13

This essay so clearly articulates what many are feeling (and thinking) that I cannot imagine anyone denying its insightfulness. Change in the church has already happened and more is underway, if we are talking about our basic eschatological understandings or identity in the stream of Christian faith. As a long-time Adventist, it is painful to think about these former certainties since I lived by them for so long. Looking ahead, no clear course has emerged, but if we can give each other the freedom to pray and think about it, one may present itself.

(Elaine Nelson) #14

Christianity is defined by “Christ.” All Christians of every denomination claim to follow Christ; ergo they are Christians.

“Adventists” classify their church with Christianity but follow some of Jewish teachings that cannot be harmonized with NT Christianity.

(David Read) #15

I find that Adventist eschatology is not problematic. Various interpreters of our eschatology have always pointed to the wrong current events and trends, but in broad outlines, the situation is playing out just as we’ve always thought. The United States emerged from the cold war as the sole superpower. The character of the United States is changing before our eyes from lamb to dragon.

The U.S. is clearly becoming a persecuting power. Right now, that persecution is directed at those who retain a biblical world view on homosexuality, but once the principle of persecution is established, the subject of persecution can easily shift, for example, to Sabbath-keeping.

The U.S. government has become a panopticon spy state that spies on all of its citizens without warrant or probable cause, in direct violation of the 4th Amendment, under the pre-text of fighting terrorism. The president claims the power not only to enforce the law, or not, at his whim, but to re-write the law at his whim, thus bypassing the legislative branch and destroying the separation of powers in the constitution. The president has made a policy of using the all-invasive Internal Revenue Service to harass his political opponents, just like in some banana republic or third-world caudillo. We are moving toward elected Caesarism, where we elect an essentially all-powerful despot every four years.

I note that Rich mentions that we’re all getting rich, but the very things that make that level of wealth creation possible–international trade and mobility of capital and labor–are also creating the very international structures that would make global persecution possible and enforceable.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Papacy is becoming an international political player again, as per the pope recently brokering a deal between Obama and the Castros for recognition of Cuba.

Is this cherry-picking the data to make a case for Adventist eschatology? Maybe, but it illustrates that there’s actually quite a lot of data to cherry-pick, if one is open to the possibility that Adventist eschatology has been right all along.

(Carolyn Parsons) #16

To claim persecution is a gross misrepresentation of the situation. In short it is paranoid. A small fraction of people are pointing out the reality of people being marginalized by the church and alternative interpretation of scripture; all of a sudden the church is being persecuted? The SDA church has not, in any way, been forced to give up any of it’s rights and privileges. This is scapegoating a group that actually knows what it is like to be a .persecuted minority.


How poignant that this Spectrum Article, and the Adventist Review article it refers to (which I had not been aware of before today,) are published now. I have been drafting a ‘Transition of Membership Status’ letter/memo to send to my church for the past several weeks. I love my local congregation, have not been mistreated, have no ax to grind. I am heterosexual and cisgender. I’m not searching for another faith community. I hope to continue the friendships, and even church and small group attendance, and potlucks, too; unless doing so causes distress for others. I have no agenda to try to persuade anyone to see things the way that I do.

However, the lack of resonance between what I truly believe, and what the SDA church posits as its fundamental beliefs, has grown to the point where I can not genuinely, authenticly or honestly say that I am a Seventh-day Adventist ‘Believer.’ I consider it a matter of integrity to ‘come out’ to my local church.

For the past 20+ years I have sought, as opportunities allowed, to study the original contexts of biblical writings: history, contemporary cultures, archeology, textual criticism, etc. What I have learned has changed my understanding of the Bible.

It’s not an easy letter to compose, but Spectrum seems like a safe to share my ‘angst’ over it!

(David Read) #18

Carolyn, I didn’t say the church was being persecuted, I said people who retain a biblical worldview on homosexuality are being persecuted, and that is certainly true. Look at Dr. Eric Walsh, Brendan Eich, the Atlanta Fire Chief Kevin Cochran, and others. Being denied the opportunity to earn a living in your chosen profession is very real persecution.

And just a few weeks ago, the whole gay-activist community and their fellow travelers went nuts, became completely unhinged, because of an Indiana law that they thought (wrongly) would deny them the opportunity to persecute and destroy bakers, florists and photographers who don’t want to be dragooned into the public celebration of same-sex "marriage."

(Carolyn Parsons) #19

I have a question. Are anti-discrimination laws persecutory? It seems to me that these laws limit discrimination on the basis of all kinds of characteristics. The addition of Sexual orientation, gender identity and expression to these laws all of a sudden create a problem. When a business owner opens to the public, part of their responsibilities is to follow the law. Having responsibility to follow the law is not persecution.

The law in Indiana was too broad and even the law makers found an issue with the working. It is going to be fixed and no one will be persecuted as a result.

(Elaine Nelson) #20

It is not Catholics that are killing Christians today, but a power completely ignored by the church’s prophet.