There are a bunch of stories and novels that many people were first introduced to in their middle school or high school reading lists: The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, Lord of the Flies. One such novel that is emblazoned in my adolescent memory is Animal Farm by George Orwell.
For those who need a refresher, in this dystopian tale, the animals are subjected to unjust treatment by the human farmer, Mr. Jones. Empowered by the teachings of one of the older boars, Old Major, the animals stage a successful revolt. Although Old Major has passed away, his legacy of liberation ideology propels the animals forward to create a more equitable society. Two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, become the farm leaders and seek to teach the rest of the animals principles that made up the fundamental ideals of their new community. However, slowly but surely, over time the principles get a bit muddled. Things get added, subtracted, and modified on the list. Snowball, when seeking to introduce reforms to improve farm life, is run off as an enemy. Napoleon, once a leader concerned with upholding ideals for the entire community, soon becomes more and more like the humans he led the reformation against. Obsessed with power, he changes the principles dramatically, reinterpreting the fundamentals and taking advantage of the fact that not all of the animals recognized or remembered the inception of the movement. In one of the most profound alterations, the foundational principle that proclaimed that “all animals are equal” was changed to read “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”. At the end of the novel, Napoleon has become so much like the ones he had originally organized against that the book states that the animals “looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
It is fascinating to talk to those who were Adventist before the codification of the Fundamental Beliefs. Those of us who are younger and/or joined the church later in life may be inclined to believe that these principles were around since time immemorial. But church history informs us otherwise.
Of course, our church history did not just begin in 1844. Although many people commemorate the Great Disappointment at the end of October, that is not the only prominent day in our ecclesial datebook. We are Protestants. October 31st marks the day almost 500 years ago when Martin Luther catalyzed the beginning of the Reformation. Outlining 95 areas where the Catholic Church was errant, his list, nailed to the Wittenburg Church doors, ignited a wildfire of ecclesiastical change. His actions propelled Christianity forward as the “Protestants” became liberated from Catholic ideology. The way we teach it, the Spirit of God has been continually leading in more truth, ending of course with Adventism, when we finally got everything all right! Obviously, I jest (although some may actually believe this). However, our denomination's establishment was indeed distinguished by the eschewing of various ubiquitous Christian practices that we felt were not supported by the Bible such as observing Sunday as the Sabbath, infant baptism, and the distinction between clergy and laity. It did not matter to Adventists what traditions said—we were adherents to the Bible: our one and only creed.
When it was suggested that Adventists ought to codify their beliefs, it was a cause of great discord. J.N. Loughborough wisely cautioned against it. In an 1861 Review and Herald article, he was quoted saying, “The first step of apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And fifth, to commence persecution against such." Yet here we are, on the brink of adding #29. How subtly those changes happened over the years! Meanwhile, like Snowball, those who seek to help continue positive reformation in our community are run off as enemies! And although we supposedly champion equality in Fundamental Belief #14, we have found “some are more equal than others” becoming a more widespread sentiment. All the while, the Catholic Church we protested against seems to be more of our example: looking from our Adventist structure to that of the papal hierarchy, it's becoming harder to distinguish between which is which!
So is this inevitable? Can we take Animal Farm as a cautionary tale instead of a prophecy? I'm not certain if we have reached the point of no return—is a split inevitable since the bright red line has been drawn and the ultimatum has been given? I should hope that we could somehow step back and take lessons from another Good Book. In it, I find very simple beliefs: Micah 6:8, James 1:27; Matthew 22:37-38…these are the real fundamentals. How about we start true “revival and reformation” by “holding each other accountable” to these principles instead.
Courtney Ray is an ordained pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
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