“If you can’t support all our beliefs, why don’t you do the honorable thing and leave?” This sentiment, or some variation of it, is often made by some of our conservative church members when doctrinal disagreements occur. Besides being conversation stoppers, such statements do not model a welcoming church. If anything, they may mask the speaker’s apprehension about confronting uncomfortable topics, or betray an incoherent understanding of how our beliefs developed over time.
The founders refrained from making a list of fundamental beliefs precisely because they worried such a list would become creedal with time. Instead, they prized the idea of “present truth.” There is a certain tentativeness in this notion. It telegraphs a humble recognition that we can only see so far in our faith journey, with more road ahead for discovery. Ellen white captured this beautifully in her contention that “Truth is progressive,” by which she meant our insights into truth should grow with us. We should never settle. Consider an expansion of this same counsel in her post-1888 statement: “Much has been lost because our ministers and people have concluded that we have had all the truth essential for us as a people; but such a conclusion is erroneous and in harmony with the deceptions of Satan; for truth will be constantly unfolding." (Signs of the Times, May 26, 1890)
Asking fellow Adventists to leave the church because they don’t believe exactly the way others do assumes that there is a uniform template to understanding our doctrines. Even more confounding, such a declaration presupposes a static universe where ideas and experience are frozen. But observation teaches us that frozenness is incompatible with the human impulse to attain clarity. We often change our minds based on insights gained. Whereas it was reasonable in pre-antibiotics times to attribute the ravages of infectious diseases to divine retribution, it is inexcusable to continue to attribute such diseases to these same gods when we now know about infectious diseases and how to treat them. One indisputable trait of humans is that we learn and continually change as we apply that learning in tangible ways.
Religious groups are not bound together by their “bibles” but by the ideas contained in them. If a group has a sacred text, that text may tangentially, and often only temporarily, serve as a unifier. Even this conclusion is problematic because if a sacred text truly unified, there would be no reason for the existence of 34 thousand Christian denominations. There are so many because, contrary to what we often say, the Bible is not its own interpreter. If the Bible was self-interpreting, then all readers would have a uniform understanding of its message, which would invalidate the multiplicity of denominations.
When a group’s identity is based on ideas, at some point differences or divergent understanding of those ideas will emerge. In this sense Martin Luther’s theological conflict with the universal church of his day, which gave birth to Protestantism, was not only predictable but inevitable. Subsequent Christian groups that have splintered from a mother church have pointed to the Bible in legitimizing their split.
Let us be charitable and pretend that all schisms throughout Christen history happened because of genuine concerns that the parent churches did stray from a perceived right way. At bottom, schisms happen because times change our ideas and view of things. Inevitably then, all groups grounded in ideas will modify some aspects of long-held beliefs to accommodate new “truth”. Resisting new possibilities thus risks a group splintering or devolving into irrelevancy.
Adventism, like other religious organizations, is held together by a set of ideas – call them beliefs, policies or doctrines. Over the span of 170 years we have made many changes to our positions. Some have come through a slow, grinding, deliberative process, so that the decisive nature of the change is only appreciated in hindsight. Occasionally changes to our beliefs have been forced upon us. When that has happened, the implementation, as well as repercussions, have been quite sudden.
I will discuss two instances, one doctrinal and the other policy, where our church has made position changes that are the opposite of the former belief. No doubt there are many more that have taken place during our more than a century and a half of history. I highlight these two to show the tenuousness of ideas, and how today’s beliefs, for which some are eager to throttle a fellow Adventist, may not stand the test of time.
Currently, our church believes and teaches that Jesus is a self-existent God. The publication of Questions on Doctrine in 1957 by the Review and Herald was the culmination of a slow cautious dance between our church leaders and the mainstream Christian community as we sought to convince them that we were not a cult. It was in this book that we made the clearest and most sweeping statement about Jesus’ position in relation to the Trinity: “Christ is one with the Eternal Father – one nature, equal in power and authority, God in the highest sense, eternal and self-existent, with life original, unborrowed, underived; and that Christ existed for all eternity, distinct from, but united with the Father, possessing the same glory, and all divine attributes.” (p. 36).
This statement, powered by a thousand transcendent qualities, showcases Christ’s divinity. But this is not how we have always thought of Jesus. Our founding leaders were predominantly Arian, and believed that Christ, as the son of God, was “begotten” by God at some point and therefore was subordinate to the father. Such early Adventist stalwarts as James White and Joseph Bates were firmly anti-Trinitarian. In 1898 Ellen White published The Desire of Ages in which she stated of Jesus: “In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived,” (p. 530). This statement is often credited with beginning the decisive shift away from seeing Christ through Arian eyes to the lofty pedestal we now accord him. But, as late as the 1941 edition of Uriah Smith’s venerable book Daniel and Revelation, the opposite view is found: “The Son came into existence in a different manner, as he is called the only begotten of the father. It would seem wholly inappropriate to apply this expression to any being created in the ordinary sense of that term.” (p. 400). Finally, in the 1944 edition, this statement would be excised. So, within their lifetimes, our pioneers went from believing that Jesus was a created being subordinate to the father, to proclaiming him “eternal and self-existent.”
The second example I offer is on policy. Until 1982 it was the official church position to pay women less than men for the same work classification, based on the concept that men are, or should be, the heads of households. It is unclear when this policy first became operative, but our leaders, including then General Conference (GC) president Robert Pearson, and Neil Wilson, who succeeded him, felt strongly enough about this policy to defend it in court.
The case started in 1973 when 26-year-old Merikay Silver sued the Pacific Press Publishing Association over the church’s household compensation policy. It ended with the church being sued by, and in 1982 losing to, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in appeals court. In court the church argued on religious liberty grounds, asserting that Adventism was not subject to the Title VII provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The essential argument was that the church pay structure fell outside governmental regulations precisely because of the US constitution’s church and state separation clause. The church further contended that all affiliated institutions are ministries, and disputes like Merikay’s suit should be considered a denominational “schism” and should be resolved as such – within in the church.
So the church lost and opted not to appeal to the Supreme Court. And, with this ruling, women church employees won the right to be paid the same as their male counterparts, for the same work. Thirty-five years after this milestone we have become accustomed to the idea that, when we work for the church, our pay should be determined by ability not gender. The fairness inherent in this position is now so entrenched that we might forget it was literally forced on us by the government.
It can be argued that, in these two examples, our current positions are improvements over earlier ones. But, even if not, the fact is that we changed, and this suggests precedent for revisiting and making future changes whenever warranted.
The point here is that we should honor a commitment to questioning; indeed we have a responsibility to do so. How else can we prove all things to hold on to what we believe? Certainty, the viewpoint that assumes there are no more legitimate questions about our beliefs, is an ignorant person’s refuge. And willful ignorance ultimately is the parent of fear. We should all have the humility to recognize, or at least consider, that some aspects of our beliefs might need modification or even elimination, as our history has amply demonstrated. And because this is our church, it is incumbent on all of us to work together to make what we stand for as fully and accurately Christian we can.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/authors/matthew-quartey.
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