Thanks for the thoughtful piece. Well written and researched. I was struck with a thought while reading this:
John Stackhouse writes that we must remember the context in which the Scriptures are written. For example, Paul was instructing the church on how to “survive and thrive in a patriarchal structure that he thinks will not last long and to maintain and promote the egalitarian dynamic already at work in the career of Jesus that in due course will leave gender roles behind.”
It seems pretty clear to me that Paul believed Jesus was returning to usher in the Kingdom VERY soon. His attitudes seem to support the idea that Jesus himself predicted a new kingdom of God on earth with Israel at its head within the lifetimes of his 1st century followers. But perhaps that’s beside the point. Overall, Paul’s attitude and theology seems somewhat dismissive of worldly concerns and human suffering. His advice to women, slaves etc. all seems to boil down to “Sit tight everybody, we’ll be on to something better soon. In the meantime, all your effort should be focused on preparing yourself and others for the kingdom.”
Somehow, that attitude also seems uniquely prevalent in the SDA church 2000 years later. People still believe that Jesus and his kingdom will come within their lifetimes, just as segments of believers have in every generation since Jesus. When I hear certain segments of the Adventist church talk about social justice, humanitarianism and helping to reduce the suffering of their fellow man, I often feel like the same type of belief is used to minimize those concerns. It’s the same with the anti-women’s ordination crowd. Some certainly are theologically opposed to it, but many more, I think, oppose it simply because they think it’s far less important than the urgent business of evangelism. Like Paul, they’re saying, “Sit tight everybody, we’ll be on to something better soon. In the meantime, all your effort should be focused on preparing yourself and others for the kingdom.” It’s the very same message and belief of an IMMINENT return of Jesus… but somehow it’s still going strong after 2,000 years.
I think this belief gets in the way of actual human progress. Even when Adventists participate in humanitarian and social justice efforts (and many do) it often feels like either a duty or a sneaky way to trick people into listening to the gospel. I’m generalizing and of course not all SDAs think in this way, but I worked at ADRA for enough years to realize that many more DO think this way, and genuinely couldn’t understand why they should support “no strings attached” humanitarian work like that of ADRA.
If we’re trying to understand why the church seems to be standing in such open opposition to human ethical progress, it might be because, fundamentally, our eschatology makes us believe that the world will only ever get worse as we slide downhill toward the time of trouble. And, ultimately, if that’s our honest expectation, why bother trying to make it better? God’s in control, and Adventists seem to think he’s given the church a unique message. So instead of trying to make the world a better place, our evangelistic message of “good news” amounts to a proclamation that the world is screwed up and will never get better–and so are we. In both cases, the only solution is Jesus. It’s just too bad we can’t figure out how to try to make things better in the meantime…