Half-Discipleship: General Conference Adventism’s Truncated Bible

In the name of the Genesis creation story delegates to the 2015 General Conference session jabbed a thumb in the eye of Adventist scientists; then the session’s preachers mostly ignored—in effect, dismissed—the meaning of the story. Despite pious-sounding words inserted into Belief #6—“recent,” for example, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary—the doctrine of creation was an orphan in San Antonio.

Besides that irony there was another, just as alarming: the General Conference theme announced the ultimate victory of Jesus—“Arise! Shine! Jesus is Coming!”—yet the session’s preachers mostly ignored the Jesus story.

If today’s General Conference Adventism (as I will call it) concerns itself at all with discipleship, it is, at most, half-discipleship. The 12 preachers who spoke in the Alamodome were picked to accentuate the understanding now dominant among top administrators. Judging from their sermons, General Conference Adventism comes down to two fixations: evangelism and the Second Coming; and each of these, as it turns out, is skewed toward otherworldliness.

The Bible teaches evangelism and Second Coming hope—let’s not forget that—but the Bible teaches other major themes largely ignored in San Antonio. General Conference Adventism now rests, indeed, on a canon within the canon, a truncated Bible. It embraces (but in an otherworldly way) the Pentateuch, the books of Daniel and Revelation, the apocalyptic passages in the Gospels and writings of Paul, and material from the letters to Titus and Timothy that can be pressed into the service of male headship. It leaves out—in San Antonio this was simply glaring—the Hebrew prophets and most of the Gospels and letters of Paul.

There were doubtless small exceptions to what I’ve just said, and there was one major exception, the Tuesday morning sermon by Mathilde Frey, an Andrews University trained Romanian woman. She spoke from John 14 about Jesus’ promise, for the here and now, of the Holy Spirit. But except for passing remarks Thursday morning by the remarkable young evangelist, Taj Pacleb, you could not have guessed that the biblical version of mission involves taking care of creation, standing up for justice on earth, struggling for the wide human flourishing the Bible calls shalom or “peace.” For General Conference Adventism, mission is evangelism and evangelism is (predictive) prophecy concerning the coming replacement of life on earth by life in heaven.

The Bible exclaims, “How beautiful…are the feet of the messenger…who brings good news.” Further, it bids followers of Jesus to “Go…and make disciples of all nations…” (Isaiah 52:7; Matthew 28:19). But in both Testaments love of and care for creation—a kind of sacred this-worldliness—belongs to the center of the human experience with God. The divine covenant, Ezekiel declares in a crucial passage, is a “covenant of peace,” or human flourishing (Ezekiel 34:25f.). God’s call to faithfulness prompts the prophets to say: “Seek Justice, rescue the oppressed” Isaiah 1:17); work for “the welfare [that is, the peace, or shalom] of the city where I have sent you” (Jeremiah 29:7). And Jesus puts this very prophetic passion into the heart of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he declares, “for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Is this new? For all their otherworldliness, some Adventist pioneers joined the struggle against slavery. One of them, Anson Byington, remarked wittily in an 1850 letter to The Advent Review that you should no more postpone a slave’s freedom until Jesus comes than postpone your “breakfast” until then.1 But this aspect of pioneer spirituality, evident also in Ellen White, faded. More recently, Roy Branson re-awakened Adventist seminarians to the vision of the Hebrew prophets at just the point when some of today’s GC leaders, including Ted Wilson, were studying for ministry at Andrews University. Just a bit later Gottfried Oosterwal, by now himself a fresh voice at the Seminary, was arguing, in his widely read book Mission: Possible, that the church’s work is both rescue from sin and “the fight against disease, hunger, social injustice, and the evil structures of society…” The church’s work, he said, is “never completed just with proclamation.”2

Such views have stayed alive in Adventism, so that just this past year, Australians Nathan Brown and Joanna Darby published a book of essays entitled Do Justice: Our Call to Faithful Living. But these views have little sway in today’s General Conference Adventism. What is old and well-attested is largely ignored. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency stands braced against the tide, but the Agency’s underlying convictions figure hardly at all in General Conference Adventism—not, that is, if you judge from the preaching in San Antonio.

A truncated Bible thus produces a truncated vision of the Christian life. For many church members—certainly for many younger and highly educated members—this is simply baffling. How could the actual message of Jesus—so redolent of the Hebrew prophets, so focused on our responsibilities today as well as our hopes for tomorrow—be so lost at a General Conference session? How could this happen when our community’s signature Bible text (in Revelation 14) calls us to keep “the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus”?

I could guess, but I do not know. What I do know is that today’s General Conference Adventism is simply not the full Gospel. Grace is both forgiveness and empowerment, and the empowerment enables us, like the once-blind beggar Bartimaeus, to follow Jesus. If grace heals our anxieties, it also enables our discipleship. And if discipleship turns ours eyes upon Jesus, it also aligns our hands and feet and voices with his hands and feet and voice.

The current leadership seems too rutted—and too self-satisfied—to catch on. More than ever, therefore, women and men from other sectors of the church than the General Conference are going to have to step forward and actually define Adventism for today. The best lay people, pastors and theologians are going to have to overwhelm bureaucratic communication channels by banding together, through websites and social media, for Adventist renewal. And they are going to have to do this in the name, precisely, of biblical faithfulness and relevance.

All this may seem harsh, or self-righteous. And it is certainly true that any iteration of the Adventist message will fall short, not least any attempt to fully align Second Coming hope with the sacred this-worldliness implied in the doctrine of Creation. Here as in in many aspects of lived faith, the effort to communicate bumps up against intractable mystery: God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours. But the effort must be made. It is certainly no lapse into arrogance to resist half-discipleship and the truncated Bible on which it is based.

Everywhere the world is strife-torn. Wherever the world is “modern,” it is doubt-ridden and (paradoxically) self-satisfied, not to mention impatient; it is particularly impatient with mere otherworldliness. So if, in such a context, we specialize in otherworldliness, we doom evangelism and even pastoral care. What is worse, we betray the very Gospel, just as we would if we abandoned Second Coming hope.

Again, our best lay people, pastors and theologians are going to have to overwhelm—out-perform—bureaucratic communication channels if anything is going to be accomplished on this front. Aligning Bible-based hope with Bible-based this-worldliness is one good starting place for conversation. Half-discipleship is not what Jesus had in mind. __________________

1. Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic, 28. 2. Gottfried Oosterwal, Mission: Possible, 70, 71, 77.

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, which publishes Spectrum Magazine.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6994
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The operative word that seemed so absent at the GC was Justice of the sort so often echoed throughout the Hebrew prophets, not least of which is here: “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?” And the Hebrew prophets have much to say on the topic, as did Jesus himself.

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Yes, Bryan, it is all about what Jesus said…but are they listening?

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actually, i think it can be safely accepted that jesus, who said his kingdom was not of this world, and paul, the most important apostle, who called for the management rather than the eradication of slavery, both fell far short of a this-worldly view of the doctrine of creation…we also know that egw readily sacrificed the rights of blacks for the sake of the spread of the gospel among whites…while it is possible to fixate on examples of a this-worldly view throughout the bible, i think a more natural, perhaps thoughtful approach perceives a meta-narrative that is decidedly other-worldly: “love not the world”, “lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth”, “let the dead bury their dead”, “woman, what have i to do with thee”, “for the poor always ye have with you”, etc…

given this reality, a this-worldly interpretation of the doctrine of creation may not really be a valid paradigm for adventism…we know that non-adventist christians have already cornered whatever market exists for a this-worldly view, which hasn’t necessarily impacted first-world non-christians who may already be practicing a this-worldly view outside any notion of any creation or even jesus story…

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Chuck, Paul said that if any other gospel is preached besides the one he preached, then those that preach it are anathema.

If you think that “GC adventism” is preaching that other gospel, you have to shake your garment against them and move to more fertile fields, not so? I mean, you are making some pretty big accusations as far as I can tell. But of course 12 sermons can’t cover the whole of Adventism. And with your view that science is more truth-laden than scripture, there will be differences.

But what did Paul do in Corinth (Acts 18:6)? Shake and leave.

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Jesus taught His disciples to pray that the Father’s will be done on earth.

Jesus announced His ministry in a way that focused on this world and His purpose in it. Aren’t we called to emulate His example?

Luke 4:16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

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well, is good news for the poor money to help them pay bills, or is it the abundance of the holy spirit for those who feel their need…is freedom for prisoners a legal review that leads to amnesty, or is it freedom from death for a world imprisoned by the certainty of death…is the recovery of sight for the blind the recovery of sight for the blind, or is it spiritual perception for those who were carnal but are now born again…is setting the oppressed free breaking systems of slavery, or is it victory over sin…

were the miracles of jesus intended to help the ailing around him, or did they have additional meanings…what was the real purpose of jesus’ mission…was it an unbroken lesson in charity work, or was it something else…what is the priority of our church…is it to do what the unchurched do, or is it something else…

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They don’t appear to be.

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Don’t worry. Many are “shaking” and leaving. I certainly have rid myself of this turn away from God’s ideals. Most of the Adventists I talk to are moving on to communities of faith that understand the full Gospel.

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Jesus came to show us how God, as human, deals in everyday situations. Those that accompany Him in doing this are His Church. If there has been some change from His intent that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven we would need some real clear verification of that.

Trust BEing!

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Very sadly, yes…they see the trees but not the forest.

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How kind of you, Allen, to suggest this…doing your Christian or Adventist duty??

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Jesus’ example and instruction are very clear, even in a literal reading of the KJV.

John 13:14 If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.

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but even this act was designed to be more than the act itself, was it not…

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I am not sure that I clearly understand your point.

As I read in the Gospels’ stories about what Jesus did, I see him feeding thousands of people, healing lepers, etc. with no (recorded anyway) expectation of any particular response to His earthly, physical act. I almost can hear pleasant surprise in His voice when one leper out of the ten comes back to thank Him. Part of His mission was bringing freedom, and I believe that included/includes freedom to choose how to respond to Him.

So I believe that following His example includes extending to others that same freedom.

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Indeed, if someone says “anathema” … it might be an idea to listen, and listen carefully. Becoming defensive might miss the point.

Corinth … yes an interesting example… A few years later Paul writes a letter to the church in Corinth, a church torn and split, not fullfilling its mission… And he preaches to it: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Perhaps, just perhaps … there is a difference between vindictive bitterness, and bitter disappointment and distrought over one’s church.

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Thank you for the challenge. It is the “other half” that speaks to me. It is where I live.

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Nonsense! If there was a “thumb in the eye,” it was in the eyes of those who would try to incorporate the myths of evolution into SDA teachings. If that were allowed to happen, it would eventually emasculate the church, as has happened to so many other churches which have embraced evolution, and are now shadows of their former selves. I agree with Clifford Goldstein, that if science teachers in our schools believe in evolution, rather than the plain teachings of Scripture, they should have the integrity to resign rather than stay and plant seeds of doubt in the minds of our young people.

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Chuck,

We discussed it often in Texas. Thank you for this best summary of San Antonio yet produced. It is at once a prophetic summoning to whole “truthiness” (as Colbert calls it) and a call to full life discipleship, energized by the Holy Spirit and actualized by Jesus Christ.

We don’t have to succumb to either/or reasoning. This earth is real and the new earth is real. Adventism brings the two together like no other body on . . . earth. What we do here matters for eternity–what we do here, not merely what we proclaim or write as a doctrinal belief.

God has shown us through the marvelous Son what is good, and Jesus of Nazareth asks of us now to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

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Chuck, as I reflect on what you have said I am finding great comfort in the parable of the five wise virgins. All ten women had the same evangelistic message regarding the coming of the Bridegroom. Yet it was the five wise women who also were able to tell the world where to buy oil while they waited. They understood the vital importance of living a loving, responsible life while waiting for the Bridegroom. The ultimate reward was theirs.

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