Perspective: Can a Church Survive if It Gives Up Its Sectarian Identity?

An interesting essay and responses. Aage gives a very secular, no Holy Spirit leading view of things, reminding me of Numbers’ view of the world (more or less agnostic). I would not argue too vigorously against the tension between church and sect that he presents. But for a church to say, “We must take the sect road to remain viable.” shows a wrong focus. Rather, it is the church/sect that takes its call seriously that would gain adherents.

I agree there are always social pressures on the church. But Adventism seems to respond to them in a way that has kept the church more or less on the right track. The QOD was a minor glitch, leading to some disagreement among us compared to the things I see coming down the pike. The liberal/conservative divide is much deeper. And I think David’s point about Ford seems to show that the church is willing to take a stand on a distinct doctrine. But Aage would just say, still being sectarian.

I have read Wesley’s comments before. Our tithing system seems to prevent that sort of love for money, if it is followed. Methodists have not adopted that.

And, I might add that I find Aage’s approach rather cynical. That there are just these sociological pressures, and no Holy Spirit or other Heavenly influence. A very secular view. I discount it for that reason.

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You see GV as an endorsement?

And most folk, at least outside the church, would say the SDA view was one of the “foolish things of the world” you mention. At least the intellectuals here would say that, don’t you think?

The definition of a sect with reference to sociological tension is interesting and helpful. This tension presumes that majority society is uniform.

In practice our societies are substantially divided at least between the haves and have nots, or the powerful and the oppressed or constrained.

To be in tension with the powerful, rich and respectable may bring disapproval from those included. However for the church or sect to be a voice for the alienated is to express mercy and justice for their limitations and a force of liberation.

Tension against power abusers is to be craved, I suggest.


Oh, well, Aage - perhaps that’s why we share such deep respect for Mike Pearson. :innocent:
But indeed, my thoughts were going in a similar direction in that “having the right answers” is less relevant than “doing the right things” - or at least attempting to. Certainly not as a means of earning “salvation”, but as a way of living the gospel.


George Knight terms it, The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism … A suitable summary perhaps being, The End of the Apocalypse is the Apocalypse of Adventism.

So is there a prophecy that actually applies? John records Jesus prophesying, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” While John notes that this was a metaphor for Jesus crucifixion, it surely addresses the effect of his claims. (John 12)

Perhaps with the proper understanding of the Three Angels Message, which Ellen White declares is Righteousness by Faith in verity, Seventh-day Adventism will experience soaring growth here in North America as well as around the world. The Three Angels Message is not about the few, the faithful, the forever. The Three Angels Message describes the end of the whole of Babylon in the proclamation of the truth of the Gospel.

There is no need to be a cult to grow. Let’s not let Fink and Stark or wild growth in population segments around the world trump John 12 as the true measure of the Divine validity of what a church proclaims.


Allen, the insights gathered by sociologists beg the question of what role the divine plays in church growth. I suggested to Spectrum that they assign that topic to somebody who has enough faith to make the analysis of relevance to those who believe. Given my own lack of faith, I’m not the right person to address that question. Still, that is no reason for dismissing the facts on which I built my article–which you seem to be doing. Instead, why don’t you try to address the implications of these facts?


absolutely therefore the church must be true to Dan. 8:14 and Romans 5. Christ is the new Federal Man without sin, conceived by the Holy Spirit. Not man! Tom Z


A good response.

Note that I do accept your viewpoint to a certain extent. i do not deny the sociological aspects you mention, and there will always be pressure to conform to less sectarian views.

I, in my churches, have striven to represent Adventism in its “true” fashion, being faithful to its beliefs, which I see as reasonable if one accepts the Bible for what it says. I have faith in its precepts, based on experience and a life of dealing with others. Subjective (personal experience) and objective (prophecy etc.) evidence has convinced me of its truth, even a young earth etc.

I do not see that EGW has been so discredited among the believers that I know. More liberal folk, maybe, but they do not even constitute a majority in the NAD. Here on Spectrum, there is even a group of nonSDA’s that make it seem that there is little support for her, but that is not true in the church at large, even here in the NAD.

So, I have tried to address the issues in my sphere. There is still tension here.

And I think, to a certain extent, you can’t answer the deep questions of mission and purpose by the view you take, for it is not one of faith. How could you without the insight that gives? No offense, mind you, I think you realized it yourself. I blame the editorial board for their insistence.

It would be hard to argue that you, yourself, can be unbiased since you work for the church, etc. However, I have read the article and am in agreement with what Aage has written. I am not Adventist but Christian, I am neither pro or con the SDA church- so am in a more unbiased position to comment. It would be interesting to hear what others in my position have to say on the topic.


Allen, I think you misunderstood. I suggested Spectrum find somebody like you to write an article that explored the question that my article leaves unanswered: what role does the divine play in church growth? For all I know, the editor of Spectrum might be pursuing that idea as we speak.

When it comes to EGW’s standing in the church today compared to the time before 1980, there is no comparison–if what I see is indicative of what’s going on. In the 1970s, when I was a member, every argument would be clinched with a quote from EGW, on all sides of every debate. Robert Brinsmead and Desmond Ford knew EGW’s writings almost by heart. SS lessons abounded in EGW quotes. No high-ranking official would casually drop, in writing, that they’d stopped by a coffee bar on the way to such and such a religious gathering or outing or that they’d had seen this or that movie–because EGW so clearly disapproved. Today they do. I have no doubts that in the hinterland, in the warren of small country churches, this reality may not yet have sunk in, but that’s a different matter. Think about yourself. If Spectrum asked you to lay out the 1844 dogmas of Adventism, would you build your case on EGW? Wouldn’t you agree that no doctrine that can’t be “proven” from the Bible is suspect? Before 1980 that was not the case. At that time, EGW was de facto an inspired Bible commentator; when she laid out the meaning of any text, it was God’s textual intent that she revealed.


Excellent analysis and assessment.

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There are two perspectives that are at play within the church dynamic. This extends the “sect” mentality mentioned in this excellent article.

When I joined the church early in my teens - you had to get up to turn the knob on the TV set. There were 5 channels tops to watch, no internet, no computers, and for the greater population - no dissemination of information per se.

300+ people joined the church. (SDA). The emphasis was on joining the church based on the end time readiness motif. Prepare and make your heart right, and join a church that agrees with the bible – the main thrust of the health message and the uniqueness of the Sanctuary were not heavy subjects but were included within the symbols used heavily in the presentations.

As time has moved forward 40 years - distributed church wealth within the membership dynamic - non-gospel related ministries (that have focus on localized tithe/offering generation), the church as a retirement alternative, forced maintenance of sectarian identity - these are solidly established within the culture. Since the youth work has for the most part never really included spending $$$ for poverty ministries. Bible Conference and doctrinal peculiarity become the common denominator.

I had a chat the other day with an SDA. Asked him what kind he was. He said that EGW was canonical. I said well… there are 4 ways you can look at that:

  1. Sola Scriptura
  2. Bible prominent, EGW secondary
  3. Bible and EGW equal
  4. EGW prominent, bible secondary.

You can take perfectionism, nature of Christ and a lot of the other “hot button topics” that are in SDA very quickly determine where someone “sources from” to get their “weighted conclusion”.

Since I now consider the bible the final say on doctrine, that puts me smack dab in the middle of conflict with the official statement on the church site which states that EGW is authoritative for doctrine. So … since I am “option 1”… I cant really have a conversation with “option 4”.

If I don’t accept prima facia that EGW is fully inspired (then I’ve joined my soul to Satan or some other iterative response or variant). Or if I don’t pass someone’s litmus test of her inspiration.

I find it comical that this is NOT considered sectarian.

QOD or not by definition (this is very much a constant within 2015 biblical culture). If you have a book or author that is extant to the bible that is more definitive and source-able - it means you are a cult.

It’s like playing whack-a-mole. You can only talk with people that align with your defined “option”.

I thought church powered through sectarianism based on the value upon which the person holds their chosen faith - which goes to the conclusion point of the article – very powerful question. What did the disciples practice with Jesus during their ministry with him? What did it cost them? Does it cost us anything as SDA… not really – third world yea. But domestic – not as much.

with kind regards,


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Can a church survive if it gives up its sectarian identity?

I find that your analytical model “Sect v. Church” is rather inadequate to enlighten our answer to this question, at least if we accept the generally accepted definitions of these two entities.

Doesn’t our God call us to live always in a state of high tension with our environment. It is one thing to be misunderstood by the society around. It is another thing to be unique and distinctive. It is a great thing that people understand what we stand for as unique and distinctive. When they charicature us as semi-Christian that’s when I get worried.

Once in 2004, I was interviewed for the position of a full professor at a small Christian university in Korea. Everything was going super well, until I was asked, “What denomination do you belong to.” I answered, “You’ll be pleased to know that I am an Adventist.” The barriers went up immediately, even although my Adventist roots were written all over my CV. QOD wanted the Christian world to understand them. In many ways they were not phased about being unique and distinctive. Where they muddied the waters is that Froom, Read and Anderson bent over backwards to fit in with an alien Calvinism. Afterall, Adventism had grown from Armenian/ Methodist roots. Des Ford progressed one step further having embraced this alien emphasis. He applied such Calvinism to our prophetic message and castrated it.

I prefer to see Adventists as a prophetic minority. As such, we have a unique and distinctive gospel perspective to offer to the world. And Christians have often appreciated portions of that perspective eg the Sabbath, wholism, second coming.

What might have happened if together with the re-formation among Adventists in 1901 Kellogg and others had sought for a revival by humbling themselves and pressing together in unity with their brethren. The whole Daniells - Spicer era would have achieved much more than was possible otherwise.

It is the Spirit of God that will ignite the Adventist prophetic minority with great power and success. Will we choose to be part of such a prophetic minority? The future for Adventists is bright with hope.

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Of course the irony in all this is that within the SDA sectarian construct, the mainstream Christian positions have become the “sect” within the sect, hearkening back to traditional Christian views (not necessarily Evangelical). I guess I’m stating the obvious.

If the sectarian message is alarmist, as SDA message is, it’s bound to wane since no one can stand on tip-toes forever.

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…There is this little awkward detail everyone would rather forget which reminds us that National Socialism of 1930s was admired by almost everyone (including Brits & Americans). Nazism brought stability, full employment, unprecedented economic growth, brought masses out of poverty, strong leadership and the promise of glorious future in a collapsing world.
My point/question; Does it mean that just because something brings exceptional results means it is always good?

What is religion about?
Sects are much better at growing things rather than growing people. Instead of liberating and making a decent, loving, humble and at peace human beings they are more likely to produce rather neurotic people who feel threatened by everything and everyone outside and inside their carefully built sectarian walls.

Otherwise, thanks for an insightful article.


May be we should be much less concerned with church growth. I don’t even find that term in the Bible. It is the kingdom that should grow and it is the Holy Spirit who actually makes it grow. If our motivation is primarily church growth, we miss the goal. Administration will be guided more and more by political considerations, the bigger a church becomes.


What is orthodoxy? Your construct or mine?
That well known question, ‘What is truth?’

I can’t say it better than Rob B,

"Several years ago I was in an intense meeting with our church’s leaders in which we were discussing several passages in the bible. One of the leaders was sharing her
journey in trying to understand what the bible teaches about the issue at hand
and said something like this:

‘I’ve spent a great deal of time recently studying this issue. I’ve read what the people on one side of the the issue say, and I’ve read what the people on the other side
say…in the end I decided to get back to the bible and just take it for what it really says’

What was she really saying?

…this view of the bible is warped and toxic to say the least. The assumption is that there is a way to read the bible that is agenda and perspective free. As if all these other people have their opinion and biases, but some are able to just read it for what it says…

It sounds nice to say, “I’m not giving you my opinion. I’m just telling you what it means.” The problem is , it is not true.
I’m actually giving you my opinion, my interpretation of what it says. And the more I insist that I am giving you the objective truth of what it really says, the less objective I am actually being…

Ann Lamott, put it, ”Everybody thinks their opinion is the right one. If they didn’t they’d get a new one.”

The idea that everybody else approaches the bible with baggage and agenda and lenses and I don’t is the ultimate in arrogance. To think that I can just read the bible
without reading any of my own culture or background or issues into it and come
out with a pure or exact meaning is not only untrue, but it leads to a very
destructive reading of the bible that robs it of its life and energy…
Somebody in your history decided certain bible verses still apply and others don’t.”

Thoughtful article, thanks.


Very interesting and sobering response.

I have been a member from the early sixties. Grew up in California. I never had the opinion that every argument could be clinched by an EGW quote, or at least I do not remember such an attitude. I came to believe through reading DofA, and have great respect for her writings, but do not recall that they were authoritative for doctrine. I could be repainting the past, but would think I would have had a more clear view that we did that. Even QOD from the 50s did not use EGW to prove doctrine. So I think you may have overstated this to a certain extent. Now, you are correct, we would always only use the Bible. But did not even Ellen say that is the way we should do it?

However, you are spot on as far as practice goes. Certain practices have become the standard. Some in my flock do drink coffee or caffeinated beverages, and do attend the theater. So, I agree, in that regard, you are correct. I think this has been a slippage from the way the church should be, but it is a fact.

Well, as I do work for the church, there is no way to answer such an accusation. However, I did not have to, and chose to of my own accord. I agree with its teachings, not because I have to (I could work somewhere else, and have other ways to make money), but because I agree with them. I am convinced they are true.

So, it would be better to show me my bias rather than to just accuse me of it. At least I could answer. But a nonspecific claim such as this cannot be answered.

EGW and Wagoner and Jones went on tours after 1888 to promote Righteousness by Faith. EGW wrote strongly in favor os RbyF. To compare 1888 with Ford seems a bit farfetched to me. Some here may support Ford, and a few others, but the church has not embraced his thinking, clear and simple. And his is not the only thinking that is grace filled.